It is very common for people to latch onto specific labels and diagnosis and attempt to determine what is “wrong” with someone in their life. Narcissism is one such label and diagnosis that is used by people to describe people who may show signs of being selfish, uncaring, or lacking in empathy, compassion, and understanding of others.

Around the world, the number of individuals with true narcissism, or more correctly those with narcissistic personality disorder, is less than one percent of the population. The chances of most people interacting with a true narcissist are very low, and everyone’s ex-spouse is certainly not a narcissist.

However, many mental health experts propose that there is a spectrum or a range of behaviors or traits individuals may use throughout their life that are associated with narcissism. How frequently these traits crop up, when they occur, and if the individual continues to use the behavior is critical in making a diagnosis.

The Narcissist in Us All 

Most adults have had some situations in their childhood where they were criticized by a parent. This may be a significant event if the child hears it from parents, grandparents, teachers, and others in positions of trust.

This early criticism can create an inner monologue that we are not good enough, and we cannot earn the respect and love of those important in our young lives. It creates a need for external approval or evaluations to validate we are good enough. This, in turn, creates a sense of emotional abandonment for the child, even if the parents are there physically and there is an otherwise healthy household.

We constantly strive as children to make up for these perceived shortcomings and to get the approval we desperately need. At the same time, we may learn ways to get this approval that includes putting others down, making ourselves the center of attention, and making decisions based solely on our needs. In other words, we are looking for a way to heal the abandonment wound, even at a young age.

The best defense to avoid being hurt is to shut down emotionally. Shame and guilt are deflected, feelings are repressed or minimized, and children learn that to display any of these issues is to be seen as vulnerable.

As adults, we may not be narcissists, but we have common experiences that may trigger these feelings of self-doubt developed in childhood. When we feel threatened, try to manipulate a person or a situation to our goals, or when we suddenly become verbally combative with a clerk, a spouse, or a colleague, we are using narcissistic behavior to get our way. We are making ourselves the center to deflect our feelings of being inadequate, unworthy, or unimportant.

The good news is that people who recognize these behaviors as inappropriate and feel embarrassed by their actions after they have demonstrated narcissistic traits are not narcissists. True narcissists see their behavior as necessary and a result of the other individual or the situation, they do not see their own personal responsibility in the scenario.

Having narcissistic traits crop up when stressed, threatened, or in a situation that challenges our sense of self is human. In recognizing the issue, we can all learn to control our narcissistic traits and show more empathy, compassion, and understanding of those around us.

Sherry Gaba, LCSW and Transformation Coach
Author of Love Smacked: How to Stop the Cycle of Relationship Addiction and Codependency to find Everlasting Love
And Wake Up Recovery for Toxic Relationships, Codependency and Love Addiction