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Are you a narcissist or just self-involved? A narcissism expert explains the difference

I used to laugh off my constant self-doubting and self-obsessing with, “Well, you know me, I’m a narcissist.” I said it lightheartedly yet matter-of-factly, as if to communicate something factual and completely devoid of controversy, like “I’m a journalist,” or “I’m a Taurus,” or “I’m more of a rosé girl.” That’s because as a millennial, narcissism just seemed to be part of the package for me. But as time passed and I remained very self-absorbed, I became self-conscious and eventually began to worry that I’m a full-blown toxic narcissist who everybody hates. My existential worry about whether I am a narcissist or not led me to take a psychologist-vetted quiz, to ask the opinion of my co-workers (and essentially anyone else who would listen), and to do endless amounts of internet research. Finally, over some Thai food, my friend Tiffany offered her opinion:

“You’re not a narcissist, you just have anxiety.”

…Oh.

I already knew the second part but never thought to relate the two conditions, let alone consider the situation of accidentally confusing the two. But then I introspected: I write for a living, and often about myself. I don’t have problems sharing details about my life, choices, and opinions, but—OMG, am I overdoing it? Is this current piece boring? Because why would you care about what’s going on in my specific head? Are you sick of me? Should I shut up?

See, clearly I deal with anxiety, but the root of my worries often go back to the question of am I a narcissist or not. Because I worry a lot, but I most often worry about myself and how I’m perceived, and that, to me, has always felt narcissistic-leaning. So finally, I did what I should have done from square one and consulted a mental health professional.

“An anxious person—even if they are ‘self-involved’ from trying to manage their own negative emotions—still lacks some of the patterns of narcissism. Being self-involved is only one aspect of narcissism.” says Ramani Durvasula, PhD, licensed clinical psychologist and author of “Don’t You Know Who I Am?”: How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. “When a person is experiencing significant levels of anxiety or depression, they may become a little self-involved because they are often really hampered by their negative thoughts, and may be seeking reassurance, or just a way to feel better. But without all the other qualities [of narcissism present], it is very different.”

Basically there are many traits that make up a narcissist beyond merely talking about yourself and your experiences. The qualities to look for? True narcissism involves grandiosity, entitlement, superficiality, arrogance, poor frustration tolerance, a lack of empathy, and validation seeking.

“Narcissism is invalidating, dehumanizing, and abusive. While it may be unsatisfying to be around an anxious person who can’t get out of her own head, it’s not dehumanizing.” —narcissism expert Ramani Durvasula, PhD

A note on the validation seeking I’m obviously guilty of doubling down on: Dr. Durvasula says when you experience significant levels of anxiety or depression, it’s easy to grow self-involved because you’re truly hampered by your negative thoughts and might seek reassurance in the quest to feel better (or even normal). Without all those other qualities, though, narcissism likely isn’t what’s happening. “Narcissism is invalidating, dehumanizing, and abusive to the other people around it,” Dr. Durvasula. “While it may be unsatisfying to be around an anxious person who can’t get out of her own head, it is certainly not dehumanizing.”

Many of us are at least a little guilty of occasionally being inwardly focused for a period of time. But most of us are also capable being empathic, considering the viewpoints of others, and at least trying to balance our needs and the needs of others. We’re not perfect, though; we’re all just trying to do our best, anxious or not.

Since this is not meant to be an armchair diagnosis one way or the other, please do seek the advice of a mental health professional for landing on a conclusion of what’s going on specifically with you. In general, though, if you struggle with anxiety and find yourself running your mouth about your issues from time to time, be kinder to yourself. “Anxious and toxic are not the same thing,” says Dr. Durvasula. “Not even close.”

While we’re going down this path, this three-step guide can help determine if you’re a narcissist or just feeling yourself. And this conversation formula can help you stop a narcissist mid-sentence.