Being with someone you can’t be sure whether they’re a narcissist or not can be quite confusing. Though you can find yourself feeling just as confused once you find out they were indeed a narcissist (or when you start suspecting they might be a narcissist). Perhaps you’ve come across some sources about narcissistic personality disorder while trying to figure out the problems in your relationship. Perhaps somebody you’ve confided in about your relationship problems warned you about narcissistic abuse. Or perhaps the person you’re with has been directly diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder. No matter how the term narcissistic personality disorder entered your life, you’ll realize how similar all narcissists can be as well as how similar the experiences of other narcissistic abuse victims are to yours. Even if that was the case, you can still be asking dozens of questions to yourself:
“What if they’re not a narcissist?”
“What if I’m wrong?”
“Should I give them another chance?”
“Should I stay, or should I leave?”
“Am I overreacting?”
“How can I be sure?”
Alright, but why do we still have so many question marks in our heads despite the fact things were finally starting to make sense?
The answer to this question can be different for everyone. I tried to explain the 8 reasons why we might be doubting ourselves when it comes to branding someone as a narcissist.
1. The different categories of narcissism and exceptional situations
Back when I first started doing researches about narcissism, I saw the same comment on many blogs and videos I came across; “did all the narcissists go to the same school?”
Indeed; the word choices, the promises they give and the general attitude of the narcissists can be so similar that you might find yourself feeling like you’re listening to your own story while talking to a fellow narcissistic relationship victim. At first it really feels like they all went to the same school, took the same courses, passed the same exams. But at the same time, as the stories get deeper the differences become more prominent. In that case, you can’t help but get hopeful: “Maybe they’re not a narcissist!”
The basic reason of that is the fact like many other mental disorders, narcissism also has certain sub-branches. Like exhibitionist narcissist, covert narcissist, devaluing narcissist, malignant narcissist, communal narcissist etc.
Basically, they’re all patronizing, manipulative and they lack empathy but apart from all that, there can be prominent differences in attitudes too. Therefore, while listening to the experiences of someone who suffered at the hands of an exhibitionist narcissist, you may find it hard to see the covert narcissist you’re dealing with. Besides, even if they all fall under the same category, each person and relationship is different.
We should also remember that we still know very little about personality disorders. New researches are being conducted each other, contradicting the old results.
So the person you’re dealing with not fitting in every single description doesn’t mean they can’t be a narcissist as well. DSM-V* states that there are nine symptoms for narcissistic personality disorder, and at least five of them are required in order to diagnose someone. So, we shouldn’t expect someone to show all the signs of narcissistic personality disorder to be able to determine whether they’re pathologically a narcissist or not.
*DSM-V: The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
2. Dual Diagnosis and Simultaneous Disorders
In some cases, a person can have more than one personality disorder. This doesn’t apply only to narcissistic personality disorder. Personality disorders were categorized with the consideration of certain criteria and sometimes a person can have more than one disorder from the same cluster. For instance, Cluster B, which is one of these clusters includes; narcissistic personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, histrionic personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder (also known as psychopathy or sociopathy). Therefore, some people can have narcissism and borderline or narcissism and sociopathy (narcopathy). In fact, they can even have disorders from different clusters at the same time even though that’s quite rare.
Besides, narcissists can get depressed and experience anxiety like everybody else. These simultaneous mental disorders can show themselves with different symptoms in addition to the personality disorder. Moreover, some narcissists can be addicts as well. The narcissist can be addicted to alcohol, gambling, shopping or drugs. In that case, the addiction may look like the actual problem which can cause the narcissism to be ignored.
As a result, this type of dual diagnosis and/or simultaneous disorders will be naturally challenging for someone who’s trying to decipher the personality of the person they’re with, because our hypothesis on narcissism will never be completed.
3. Manipulations (Especially Gaslighting)
One of the first things that come to mind while describing a narcissist is the fact they’re very manipulative in bilateral relationships and that they won’t shy away from using people. Although that’s correct, an already manipulated and gaslighted person is very likely to deny these accusations at first. You can’t expect someone who’s been manipulated to start seeing the truth clearly all of a sudden. The fact they can’t look at things through the eyes of an outsider can be the most prominent reason why the narcissism victims cannot see the true colors of the person they’re with.
Besides, people who had relationships with narcissists are very inclined to blame themselves. Additionally, years-long emotional abuse and manipulations as well as the narcissist’s attempts at dumping their own problems on you can lead you to doubt yourself, in fact; you may even find yourself feeling like you are the real narcissist in this relationship.
The invisibility of emotional abuse is an obstacle both for the victim and for the people around the victim because it makes the abuse harder to comprehend and acknowledge.
4. The Good Sides of the Narcissist
A lot of people find it hard to call the person they’re with a downright narcissist (even if it’s quite obvious) because upon hearing a word, one thinks of a patronizing, manipulative and arrogant person who lacks empathy. And even though it is correct, as narcissist victims may know; the narcissists also have a “good side”, or at least a side that appears to be good. These “good traits” of the narcissist can make it harder to see them for what they truly are.
(If you’d like to learn more about this, you can read my article titled “The Two Faces of a Narcissist.)
5. Cognitive Dissonance or Denial
Accepting the fact they’re with a pathological narcissist can be hard for everyone. This situation means everything you knew about that person was a lie and it isn’t something that’s easy to accept. Whether you call it cognitive dissonance or denial; it’s one of the most prominent conditions that can make you ask the question “what if they’re not a narcissist?”
(If you’d like to learn more about this, you can read my article titled “Cognitive Dissonance in Narcissistic Relationships.)
To give an example from my own experiences, I was lucky in a way. Because narcissists don’t think there’s anything wrong with them, they seldom seek professional mental help. Therefore, most pathological narcissists continue living their lives amongst us without even knowing what they are. But the person I was with was diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder even though he went to see a psychotherapist for an entirely different reason. Although he was diagnosed by an experienced professional, I too found it hard to accept and often tried to deny it. I kept asking myself the same question: “What if he is not a narcissist?”
6. Toxic Hope
Sometimes, the vain hope for our partner’s recovery is what makes us ask that question. Because pathologically narcissistic people don’t accept the fact there’s something wrong with them, they hesitate in taking psychological help, and even if they agree getting help they almost always quit it half-ways or don’t find it helpful. Therefore, hoping that the pathological narcissist will change and get better can be quite toxic. That’s why a lot of people find it hard to accept that they’re with a narcissist. But the actual problem is; resisting change isn’t something only those who suffer from narcissistic personality disorder do. People can change, but most of the time; they don’t change. It’s important to be realistic about this. Whether the person you’re with is a narcissist or not, loving them only for the possibility of them getting better is wrong and controlling. If you feel an uncontrollable urge to change and fix other people, try to focus on yourself instead of others.
Therefore, be honest with yourself: Do you ask “what if they’re not a narcissist?” to yourself only because you want to change them?
7. Hesitating to Follow the No Contact Rule
If you were systematically abused by a narcissist, the best thing you can do for yourself is to cut the narcissist out of your life and following the no contact rule.
But doing that to a narcissist can be quite challenging. Narcissists can be extremely sensitive, aggressive and dangerous when their prides are wounded because of your attempt at getting away from them. Even if that isn’t the case, your past attachment traumas, fear of loneliness etc. can make it harder for you to follow the no contact rule. Accepting the fact you’re with a narcissist means it’s time to take responsibility about it for your own sake. And handling that responsibility isn’t always as easy as it seems.
8. Narcissistic Traits
Perhaps you’re with someone who isn’t a narcissist but shows some signs of narcissism. We need to look at narcissism as a spectrum. Even though narcissistic personality disorder is at the very end of the spectrum, a lot of people can show certain signs of it. Especially people under extreme stress can appear as a narcissist. On the other hand, a pathological narcissist doesn’t act that way only occasionally; narcissism is a part of who they are.
As a result; one of the things that makes you ask that first question can be the fact they really aren’t a narcissist. A lot of people can brand everyone who treats them unkindly as a narcissist, until they meet a real narcissist…
So let’s say you’re with someone who isn’t a pathological narcissist. They don’t abuse you physically or sexually, they don’t insult you, they don’t deceive you, they don’t get angry at you or gaslight you… But they’re so full of themselves that you often feel invisible and unimportant, and you feel like they don’t understand you at all. This person either doesn’t have the same moral codes as you or they’re simply not mature enough. Or perhaps you two simply can’t communicate correctly and that you feel like they aren’t the right person for you. Should you still get away from them? My answer to that question would be “yes”.
If you’re asking yourself questions like “what if they’re a narcissist?” or “what if they aren’t a narcissist?” then there definitely is a problem. Don’t try to rationalize other people’s bad behaviors, don’t make up excuses to justify them. This benefits neither you nor the world you live in. You do deserve better. You don’t have to be with someone with whom you feel miserable. Determine your own value judgements and raise your standards.
To label or not to label?
You don’t need to label someone (a friend, family member etc.) you don’t want in your life in order to set a boundary between them and yourself. Try to focus on the behaviors of the person you’re dealing with and your own feelings about them. If they’re looking down you and treating you poorly, if your relationship is full of fear and shame instead of love, then you’re in a very unhealthy relationship. Whether the person who’s abusing you emotionally a narcissist or not, abuse is abuse.
What I’m trying to highlight here is not the unimportance of diagnosis and labels. Labeling them will give you a word to research. It helps you get rid of the suspense. The person I was with being diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder was the first step for me to start getting to know and understand myself. But not everyone can be as lucky as I was. The person you’re with may rebuff the idea of seeing a therapist and even if they do see one, the therapist may fail to diagnose them correctly. Even if they do diagnose them correctly, the narcissist can keep it a secret. Long story short, there can be countless reasons why you can’t be one hundred percent sure you’re dealing with a narcissist. Then, are you willing to spend the rest of your life with them just because you can’t be sure?
You can also find the articles on https://medium.com/@narsistsiz:
Kim Saeed. “How Can I Be Sure He’s a Narcissist?”. Access 23 October, 2014. https://kimsaeed.com/2014/10/23/how-can-i-be-sure-hes-a-narcissist/.
First Wives World. “Is He Really a Narcissist? What If I Am Wrong?”. Access 22 August, 2014. https://www.firstwivesworld.com/index.php/my-narcissistic-ex-husband/item/8657-is-he-really-a-narcissist.
You can also check out my other articles on the subject: