1. Selfie-taking on its own.
Researchers discovered something interesting about selfie-taking: while it was significantly associated with narcissism scores in men, it was generally not associated with narcissism scores in women contrary to what might be normally assumed. While excessive selfie-taking has been shown to be an indicator of more grandiose narcissistic traits and can point to the “vanity” aspect of narcissism, on its own it is not a concrete measure of narcissism since other studies have found that people who score low on narcissism can also take many selfies. Therefore, selfie-taking behaviors must be considered along with the presence or absence of other more harmful narcissistic behaviors in order to determine whether someone is truly narcissistic. Ironically, someone who takes a selfie can be less narcissistic than the person judging them viciously and contemptuously putting them down or spreading rumors as a result. That’s because harmful traits and behaviors that far surpass vanity such as malicious envy, relational aggression, a lack of empathy toward others, and exploitativeness are associated with narcissism according to research.
It is also important to take into account the contexts of these behaviors when considering whether they truly stem from narcissism. With the rise of social media, taking selfies has become a normalized part of our culture. People may take selfies to capture happy moments, celebrate a glow-up, connect with others, and rebuild their self-concept around their appearance, especially if they’ve been nitpicked or hypercriticized by narcissistic and envious bullies. Being bullied or abused by a narcissistic partner can contribute to body dysmorphia. Victims of narcissistic partners may develop a preoccupation with their appearance as a result of this bullying, and selfie-taking may be one of the potential ways they restore a sense of self-confidence or represent an empowering milestone in their road back to self-confidence. Yet the myth that selfie-taking is automatically narcissistic can ironically cause these victims to be unfairly labeled or stigmatized, especially on their healing journey.
2. Standing up to abuse or defending yourself against abuse.
Society is prone to mischaracterizing the reactions of victims to oppression and abuse and labeling these reactions “abuse.” This mischaracterization is especially common when victims of abuse begin reacting to more subtle signs of the prolonged abuse they’ve endured. For example, a victim who has been constantly ridiculed behind closed doors may appear to “overreact” to a more covert put-down from their abuser in public. However, while their reaction may appear disproportionate to outsiders, it is usually a legitimate response to being chronically poked, prodded, and provoked to react. Narcissists also use certain phrases or coded dog-whistles that only the victim understands as abuse to degrade the victim in public without facing consequences from onlookers. This does not make the victim narcissistic: it makes the victim human – someone who has been grappling with the severe trauma and emotional rollercoaster of an abusive relationship.
3. Exhibiting Healthy Pride.
Narcissists can be grandiose, cocky, and overly confident, exaggerating their accomplishments and demanding special treatment and praise from others even if they’ve climbed the corporate ladder using manipulation or leeched off the work of others to get ahead. However, this is drastically different from exhibiting healthy pride in accomplishments that you have earned or speaking matter-of-factly about your experiences, credentials, skill set, inner and outer positive qualities, and traits. It is important not to assume that someone is narcissistic just because they forego false humility and acknowledge their strengths. In fact, false humility may be weaponized by true narcissists to appear innocent and generous to the people they are manipulating. It should also be noted that women and marginalized populations can suffer from Imposter Syndrome and undervalue what they’ve actually accomplished and contributed to the world – so it is not necessary to downplay these achievements, especially if they’ve had to overcome a great deal of adversity to get to where they are now. Paradoxically, even though narcissists can possess grandiose fantasies of extreme power and fame, they will often lash out at those who are achieving more than they are due to their pathological envy. If you are being asked to “humble” yourself when you exhibit healthy pride in your hard-earned achievements or natural talents by an arrogant person who skated by on their privilege or manipulation, chances are you are not the narcissistic person in this scenario.
4. Distrusting untrustworthy people and asking for proof.
Narcissistic and psychopathic individuals can certainly engage in possessive, mistrustful and controlling behaviors. However, because research shows that they also engage in jealousy induction – deliberately provoking jealousy in others for power and control – it is important not to label distrusting behavior as narcissism, especially without considering the context. Victims of narcissistic partners often find themselves feeling chronically insecure, off-kilter, and suspicious throughout a toxic relationship with a narcissist who has tried to purposely drive them over the edge with cruel comments, comparisons, manufactured love triangles, or betrayals. They may feel compelled to ask for extra reassurance, evidence, or proof of claims from their narcissistic partner throughout the relationship and develop hypervigilance as a result. This is not an organically “controlling” behavior from the victim but rather stems from insecurities that are instigated and instilled by the narcissist. Victims often find that when they feel much more secure, assured, and act in healthy ways outside of the toxic relationship.
5. Legitimate anger in response to being violated.
It’s true that narcissistic rage is a key component of what makes a relationship with a narcissist so destructive. Narcissistic rage is exhibited when the narcissist’s ego or excessive sense of entitlement is threatened or when the narcissist lashes out at perceived slights. Narcissists also deliberately weaponize their rage against others to control, intimidate, and overpower others. However, anger on its own from someone who is not a narcissist is simply a signal. Anger in response to being violated is a valid response, and one that should be honored and processed in healthy ways – this processing of anger, rather than avoidance, can help prevent prolonged post-traumatic stress symptoms. When victims of abuse feel angry in response to being continually violated, this is also their natural defense system alerting them that there is danger ahead. They can then choose to fight and defend themselves, flee, detach and protect themselves, freeze to escape the detection of the predator (pretending they know less about the narcissist’s true nature than they really do so they can plan a safe exit from the narcissist), or fawn and comply to the predator’s demands to keep themselves safe.
The option they choose depends on the unique circumstances and how they decide to use their anger to navigate the relationship and its dangers – yet it is clear anger serves a vital survival purpose. Anger can also help you detach from toxic relationships and break the trauma bond. Being angry in response to abuse does not make you a narcissist – often, it allows you to survive the unimaginable.
Identifying what narcissism is and what isn’t is key to better understanding our relationships, ourselves, and others. If you are in a relationship with a narcissist or being abused, it’s important to seek help and support. You may want to process your traumas with a validating mental health professional as you begin the journey of healing.