Are they a narcissist or just self-confident? How to tell the difference

We are going through an epidemic of narcissism.

If you take selfies, you must be a narcissist.

Social media has created a generation of narcissists.

If you’re millennial, take selfies, and post on social media— you might wonder if you’re a narcissist. Or if that confident person in your life actually has Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

But what if I told you that the person who isn’t braggadociously thumping their metaphorical chests, and is instead exhausting you with their never-ending stories of victimhood, might also be another breed of narcissist? They are the covert narcissist who one-ups you with how miserable they are as though it’s a competition.

And in a world where narcissists can cleverly wield spirituality as a weapon, or learn the rules of empathy to trick you, it begs the question. Who really is a narcissist, and who is simply confident?

Dr Craig Malkin, expert on narcissism and author of Rethinking Narcissism states that we all have some degree of narcissism; the scales tip when unhealthy narcissism is an addiction to feeling special, that one has no qualms lying, cheating or stealing in order to procure that high.

Enter echoism

But before you think that the opposite of wanting to be special makes someone confident, think again.

Many of us know the tale of Narcissus— the nymph who fell in love with his reflection, obsessing over it to the point that he neglected food and rest, and died. But few of us know Echo’s tragic tale. She was condemned to repeat the last words anyone uttered to her, and when she fell in love with Narcissus, she could sadly only echo him. Rejected, she grieved and died.

Malkin writes about the Echoism personality type. Central to this is a fear of seeming narcissistic and a burden to others. Individuals like that tend to be warm-hearted, to the point of overgiving and under-receiving. That is not confidence.

Confidence vs narcissism

Now that we’ve separated confidence from a deep-seated aversion to be even remotely perceived as narcissistic, here’s some points to consider when you’re wondering if someone is confident or narcissistic.

How do they respond to others’ success?

Naturally, we’re all prone to a little envy at times, especially if the person we’re comparing ourselves to comes from similar backgrounds, rather than to be envious of Bill Gates. That aside, the difference between confidence and narcissism is whether we tear someone down.

Narcissists demands the spotlight to be thrust upon them all the time. So, even if they publicly declare they are happy for someone (or you), watch what they really say behind closed doors.

Many narcissists have a profound disdain for the world, if it doesn’t serve them.

They might say things like “Oh, they’re just lucky, they came from a good background”, “They’re rich wankers”, or decry the “evil capitalist system”, just to put down someone else’s successes.

A confident person knows that dimming someone else’s light does not make their own shine brighter. Yes, a confident person may at times feel envious; but they won’t be bitterly attacking someone’s background or character without grounds.

Do they truly promote others’ growth?

A confident person can promote others’ growth— from simple things like giving others space to talk and shine. A narcissist, on the other hand, may appear to let you speak, but they’ll wrench the spotlight back in an obsessive manner. I’ve spoken to many-a-narcissist who told me their tactics for dominating their conversation, down to a step-by-step manual. Try bringing up an obscure irrelevant topic, and watch the narcissist make it all about them. Or, in an irate fashion, steer the topic away.

Narcissists are known to set traps and dig graves for others— dark personality types in leadership positions leave a trail of destruction for others to clean— all because they believe they need to grab as much as they can for themselves lest they lose out. Any interest in advancing your work or cause, may simply be because it’s a proxy that serves that or to hog credit, until it doesn’t.

Someone confident, on the other hand, truly looks out for your wellbeing and interests, allowing you to shine independently of them.

Do they truly have empathy and compassion?

Having empathy for someone goes beyond practised responses like “That must feel like crap” to demonstrate that you may care about how someone feels. Many successful narcissists learn early on the scripts on what to say, without meaning a thing— essentially the difference between cognitive and affective empathy.

A sign of no genuine empathy is when someone responds with a generic platitude and then goes on to make it all about them— whether their suffering was bigger than yours, or whether they are more resilient.

Another sign is when they start comparing their responses to yours, a telling phrase being “How come I am not like that?” or “How come I didn’t do that?”. Otherwise, they’ll force some solutions and help down your throat, insisting they know better, and will always hold you hostage to the time they did you that favour.

A person with genuine empathy and compassion is able to listen, wish you well, and perhaps offer a helping hand if it’s within their means and you are open to it. They ask for permission.

Are they open to others having different opinions, and for their own opinion to change?

I get it that there are some opinions we hold near and dear, and hearing others’ opinions may threaten the very foundations of how we live our lives. As author Paulo Coelho writes, we sometimes believe that one more person sharing the same belief makes ours more right.

Nevertheless, there is a difference to forcing one’s opinion down someone else’s throat, or incessantly revisiting that point until you force someone else into a corner.

A narcissist will do that to you, even if it’s around the most mundane topics.

Otherwise, such conversations revolve around superior morality or lifestyle choices, such as shaming someone for not practising certain dietary choices.

A confident person is able to agree to disagree. Even if some topics may provoke discomfort, they respect other opinions and lifestyle choices.

The bottomline is, they don’t need to be right all the time. Nor do they need to convince you of why they believe the things they do. Consequently, they are able to allow their opinions to change with time, and have the humility to acknowledge that they were wrong or that a certain belief system no longer aligns with them.

Are they able to acknowledge how luck and privilege have factored in their lives?

The truth is, privilege compounds. And sometimes, we don’t want to think about it, because we can feel bad about how these have paved our ways in life. Or, we’re shamed for this.

A narcissist likes to play up how luck and privilege have resulted in opportunities for others, and are often bitter about it. However, they underplay or dismiss how luck and privilege have paved their own way, essentially demonstrating double standards.

Do they have a transactional mindset?

Confident people are able to reflect that sometimes, we need to play metaphorical chess in the social jungle. It’s part of human nature, and it’s Pollyanna-ish to fully give of ourselves and trust everyone at first sight. The ability to acknowledge the dark and light sides of life and ourselves, is being authentic. It allows us to give to the relationships that nourish us, and to the people who are important to us.

Narcissists see the world as a hostile place, where everyone is a pawn on a chessboard. Relationships are essentially transactional.

You can hear it in things they say like “We have to tip the waiter here so they’ll treat us better next time”, or how they seek praise or shame you for something good they’ve done (“See how generous I am to give to the homeless man”, “You skinflint, you didn’t give a cent to the busker.”). Like a broken record, they love to point out explicitly how everybody loves them. But often, if you scratch superficially beyond the surface, you’ll see it’s because they’ve bought others— over-extravagant spending and presents, paying for rounds of drinks for strangers, excessive tipping, etcetera.

A confident person, on the other hand, knows that they don’t have to buy people.

Are they able to respect boundaries?

The narcissist thrives on wrecking boundaries. It’s part of hurting others, and it’s also part of how they feel superior, knowing they’ve pushed someone way beyond their limits.

I’ve watched in horror at how narcissists pushed substances on people who were recovering from addiction, or shamed others into tipping over the edge, all with a cruel glee.

In other words, if your ‘no’ doesn’t align with their interests, you ‘do not know how to have fun’ or ‘you’re so ungrateful, I’m just trying to help you’.

That isn’t to say that a confident person may not nudge you out of your comfort zone at times. Perhaps, it’s to try something new, or to challenge oneself in personal or professional growth. Except that that’s always around something healthy, they will seek feedback to adjust the parameters of your interaction, and they will not shame you.

In essence, the confident can accept no for an answer.

Are they okay with their vulnerabilities?

A narcissist has to shine brighter than you— they’re even superior in their sufferings. It essentially becomes a race to the bottom, where everything is a competition.

We have our dark periods in life. The difference between a confident person and a covert narcissist is that the confident person shares their experiences during the dark times. But the covert narcissist’s life is centred around that, and their life is often a deteriorating trainwreck.

Sophisticated grandiose narcissists have also learned to admit some vulnerabilities, because being human is what connects us. Here’s where it’s imperative to note— are they using this as a way of getting attention, or merely ticking some box where they speak superficially about it, because they are uncomfortable about it or it’s made up.

Essentially, confidence is the ability to admit that we are indeed deficient in some ways. And perhaps have a laugh about it. Rather than let that define us or get obsessed with it. That even if life has its inevitable dark chapters, they can revel in hope and continue to live a purposeful life.

Of course if you would like further information about how to cultivate confidence please get in touch.