Are They A Narcissist or Just A Jerk? How To Tell And Why It Matters

“Not everyone who is self-centered, self- absorbed or exhibits low empathy is a narcissist. Some people are, in fact, just jerks.” -FB User

I came across this statement on my FB feed and it made me stop scrolling through the endless pics of my friend’s children (He’s pooping in the potty!? How exciting!) and really start thinking. How would I help someone decide if they were dealing with a narcissist or just a jerk? Is there a way I could clear the confusion in twenty words or less? The person who wrote the FB post went on to give stats about how only 1% of the population has full blown narcissistic personality disorder, despite our #Selfie fascination, and pointed out the term “narcissist” has become a buzzword for far too many of us to label the most frustrating people in our lives.

Is it true? Have we become a society obsessed with narcissism in the same way narcissists obsess about themselves? When you Google narcissism, 78,500,000 results appear in less than a second. Articles such as “11 Ways to Know Your Boss is a Narcissist” or “What It’s Like To Be Raised Be A Narcissist” are clearly popular with readers as people try to make sense of their own pain and confusion. Anyone who has graduated from Living With A Nightmare 101 knows that suspected narcissists do NOT respond well to criticism, don’t think the rules apply to them, make everything your fault and are experts at getting you to do the work of the relationship while they reap the benefits of your efforts. Usually people turn to researching narcissism because they are exhausted from walking on eggshells and never being enough for their partner, parent, or coworker. The following explanation from Mayo Clinic helps us understand how someone with narcissistic tendencies can be so stressful to the people around them. 1

Mayo Clinic states that narcissists

  • Become impatient or angry when they don’t receive special treatment
  • Have significant interpersonal problems and easily feel slighted
  • React with rage or contempt and try to belittle the other person to make themselves appear superior
  • Have difficulty regulating emotions and behavior
  • Experience major problems dealing with stress and adapting to change
  • Feel depressed and moody because they fall short of perfection
  • Have secret feelings of insecurity, shame, vulnerability and humiliation

But…we all have bad days. How do we know if someone is a narcissist, a jerk, or just a human trying to navigate their own pain? Who hasn’t had an impatient boss? Who hasn’t watched their parents act imperfectly as they attempt to deal with stress and change? Who hasn’t been frustrated when they fell short of perfection? Plus, look no further than the extremely popular work of Brené Brown to realize that most of us struggle with shame and vulnerability. Obviously we aren’t all narcissists. So how do you figure out if someone is a narcissist or just a jerk?

You don’t.

You figure out how to protect yourself from the person treating you badly. Narcissist, jerk, or bonafide, Grade A sociopath. It. Does. Not. Matter!

Imagine I drop you in a river with a crocodile. That croc is rolling and snapping in all its glory. It’s ready to chomp off you arm faster than you can say “G-day Mate!” You shiver in terror as you watch the saliva drip from his teeth. Mr. Crocodile stares at you in glee and imagines how good you are about to taste. His hands are very short, but if he could rub them together in delight you are pretty sure he would. And, instead of getting away, you choose to diagnose: “Is this a Siamese croc or an Orinoco breed? Is that 15 ft or is it closer to 17? Nile crocs can live up to 100 years. I wonder how old this guy is? Maybe I can guess his age from his scale formation if I get a closer look.”

Chomp. Lights out.

If you are in the water with a 2,000 pound croc and you decide to diagnose the crocodile rather than get away from the crocodile, then let’s stop talking narcissism and start talking mental institutions. Because diagnosing a crocodile when you are in danger is CRAZY, right? (My apologies to all Steve Irwin enthusiasts…no crocodiles were harmed in the making of this article).

Me with a crocodile who didn’t bite.

If your boss, your ex, your mother-in-law, or your roommate is making you feel miserable, twisting your mind with manipulation, leaving you feeling confused, taking and taking without ever giving, then it isn’t the time for a diagnosis- it’s time for a plan. If you feel like you are constantly walking on eggshells, find yourself making excuses like “I’m strong enough to take it” then it is time to do something differently. You can say “It’s not that bad” all day long, but no one believes you when your arm is hanging from the stump all broken and bloody and covered in crocodile spit.

“With crocodiles, prevention is always better than cure”- Chris Packham, Wildlife presenter

Great advice for dealing with a crocodile and great advice when you are dealing with a narcissist or a jackass. If you are constantly trying to please someone who never seems to be pleased then don’t diagnose, prevent. Prevent yourself from being alone with them, prevent them from having access to your emotional hot spots and triggers, prevent yourself from going crazy thinking everything is your fault!

Because the thing is you are the main event of your own life. You. Not them. And narcissist or not, if someone else’s opinion is overpowering your ability to make choices then things are not okay. If you are constantly upset and trying to change who you are to avoid their wrath then you are in an unhealthy situation. If the analyzation of someone else’s bad behavior is causing you chronic anxiety then you have a serious problem. You are swimming with a crocodile. And it doesn’t matter what breed.

They all snap.

Are we a society obsessed with narcissism? Maybe. Or could we be a human race who is maybe, just maybe lucky enough to live in the information age? At a time that allows us to connect the dots of human behavior in a way that remained hidden to previous members of history? Maybe now we’ll unravel the mysteries of manipulation as we connect with people all over the world to say “Oh my gosh! That happened to me too!”

Have we all become amateur psychologists? Or have we stumbled on a problem that is bigger than we could have ever imagined? Maybe society’s acceptance of “Spill your guts on Facebook! There is no better place to air your dirty laundry than where it can be captured in a screenshot and used against you forevermore!” actually has some benefits. Maybe there are more narcissists out there than we could have ever imagined. Or maybe we are all surrounded by jerks. Either way the power is in your plan to protect yourself, not in diagnosing the person who hurt you.

Psst…by the way: Never have I ever (and I mean ever) heard someone go to someone and say “Hey! I just came across this article on the internet and I think you might be a narcissist.” and had the person reply back with “Great! I’ve been wondering what’s wrong with me all these years! Eureka! You’ve found it! How about I go to therapy and pop a few meds so I can stop being such a selfish conniving blowhard and we can move forward in peace and harmony?” Dream on brother. It ain’t happening.

And, while I’m delivering the good news I might as well let you in on this hint, too. If psychologists are saying the rate of diagnosed narcissistic personality is as low as less than 1% of the population then we are looking at the distinct possibility that people just acting like jerks because they want to. They aren’t that way because of their brain structure. We obviously haven’t figured this out yet. Regardless, there is great strength in trying. In connecting the dots. In sharing our stories and seeing where they align.

Because whether a narcissist, sociopath or jerk, we obviously still have problems recognizing healthy people and surrounding ourselves with positive relationships. As recently as 1994 the US groverment relized the need to pass the Violence Against Women Act. 2137 women were killed by a partner in 2017. 3 The Harvard Business Review recognizes that while we say we value humble CEOs, we often hire narcissistic ones. 4Four out of every ten Americans have seen a therapist at some point in their lives 5and we don’t have to be a fly on the wall of these appointments to know that most people are discussing negative, or even toxic interactions with others during these hours. Despite many upgrades to the human condition we obviously need to continue to evolve in our cultural understanding of manipulation, power, control, gaslighting, and our susceptibility to it.

If you have a friend or co-worker who seems obsessed with narcissism, then consider giving them a break! They may have stumbled on an article that finally explained the mind games someone has been playing with them for years. They may have read a book that revealed the person they thought they loved and respected was actually doing this on purpose. They may finally be able to forgive themselves because they now realize the toxic person’s behavior was strategically designed to get them to do all the work of the relationship. The may have just discovered their relationship didn’t have a communication problem, but a control problem. To this person, the article on narcissism gave them the missing piece of the puzzle they’ve called life. To the person who can finally start healing does it really matter if the title of the article called their boss/parent/spouse a narcissist rather than a jerk? Probably not. They are just happy to finally have the answers they have been looking for. And if Google’s search trends on narcissism keep building then our obsession with narcissism is likely to have just begun.

So, how long will our societies love/hate relationship with studying narcissism last? And, what will the next phase of humanity look like when we get tired of diagnosing and start planning our escape routes and protection plans? I don’t know. But, I do hope. I hope that we enter a post-narcissism age. Where people embrace their power and their dreams. Where people stop studying the people who hurt them and start studying themselves. Where people plan their futures with all the time and energy and verge they currently spend dissecting their pasts. Where we shorten our time spent processing and start progressing.

My dream is that we know in our souls that just because someone made us feel like we were worthless doesn’t mean we ARE worthless. A future where generous, hard working, and kind people can forgive themselves for being naive and go forth into their futures with the ability to be sweet and savvy. And may we all realize that the key to surviving a toxic relationship is to build an amazing life outside of the toxic relationship. To believe in yourself again. To trust yourself again.

So if you have worked with a narcissist then I am so sorry. If you have lived with a jerk then I am so sorry. If you have wrestled with a crocodile then I am so, so sorry. I’m sure you have the scars to remember. Use the strength you have left to get stronger. To build your life.

Forget the narcissist. Remember you.

1″Narcissistic personality disorder — Symptoms and causes ….” 18 Nov. 2017, Accessed 9 Dec. 2019.

2"Why Would Anyone Oppose the Violence Against Women Act ….” 12 Feb. 2013, Accessed 9 Dec. 2019.

3"U.N. finds the deadliest place for women is their home.” 26 Nov. 2018, Accessed 9 Dec. 2019.

4"Why We Keep Hiring Narcissistic CEOs — Harvard Business ….” 29 Nov. 2016, Accessed 9 Dec. 2019.
5"Americans Feel Good About Counseling — Barna Group.” 27 Feb. 2018, Accessed 9 Dec. 2019.

Originally published at on December 16, 2019.

Toxic Relationship Specialist who helps individuals and businesses navigate high conflict personalities and avoid burnout.

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