The word “narcissist” gets thrown around a lot these days. Whether it’s the mildly irritating person you follow who does those “here’s everything I ate in a day” videos or your mate’s horrible ex who cheated on them, it’s become a catch-all insult for those who seem arrogant, self-absorbed or just a bit of an asshole.
But there’s a difference between the colloquial narcissist and those who actually have Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), a personality disorder recognised by the DSM-5. Symptoms can include having an inflated sense of self-importance, an excessive need for attention, troubled relationships and a lack of empathy towards others. As with many other personality disorders, NPD exists on a spectrum, which can make it difficult for people to receive diagnosis or treatment.
Another thing that complicates matters is that many don’t want to admit that they’re a narcissist – least of all narcissists themselves. Which is why the current movement of self-aware narcissists on TikTok might come as a surprise. The platform hosts a growing number of users who openly call themselves narcissists, offering insights and education about the disorder under the hashtag #NarcTok. Some have received an NPD diagnosis – whereas others just believe they are narcissists and wish to share their insights.
Experts estimate that up to five percent of people have NPD. Lee Hammock, 36, is one of them. “When I first got diagnosed, I felt so alone,” he says. “Who wants to be a narcissist? It's not a term of endearment.”
Lee sought out a diagnosis after his wife called him a narcissist in an argument four years ago. “I Googled ‘Narcissistic Personality Disorder’ and all of the criteria fit me,” he admits. “The only way to help yourself with NPD is going to therapy. It was just an add-on to my personal development which I had already been working on.”
Lee first started posting about narcissism on TikTok in May 2020. In his videos, he describes his journey to self-awareness and dispenses advice on how to navigate or simply avoid narcissists. “The best way to avoid narcissistic people in relationships?” he says in one video. “Raise your standards… I mean emotional availability standards.” Over the past two years, Lee has amassed around 1.3 million followers – a number that brings the recognition and adoration that many narcissists crave.
It’s become cliché to say that social media – and selfies – fuel narcissism. But Lee says therein lies a fundamental misunderstanding. “Does social media make people more narcissistic? No,” he says. “But does it provide a platform for narcissistic people? Yeah, it does. There are a lot of people who are unaware narcissists who build these huge platforms about being fake and not who they really are.”
The reaction to Lee’s account has been largely positive – for the most part. But publicly admitting that you’re a narcissist comes with some baggage. “If I called myself a self-aware healer instead of a self-aware narcissist, I’d get a completely different response,” says Lee. “I get some negative comments from survivors and victims of narcissism. They assume that every narcissistic person on the planet is exactly like the one they dealt with, so they lash out and say things here and there.”
Indeed, most videos under the NarcTok hashtag are from abuse survivors or psychologists who specialise in “narcissistic abuse”. Online, the word “narcissist” has become synonymous with “abuser”, and NarcTok appears to be an extension of that. “There are other self-aware narcissists who think I’m adding to the stigma,” says Lee, whose videos often focus on helping people who have suffered abuse from narcissists. “I get comments and messages from people who have been diagnosed with NPD who say I make narcissists seem like bad people.”
Lumping all narcissists together can be unhelpful and reductive – especially when we remember that NPD is a personality disorder, not just another word for “bad person”. “Victim channels sometimes spread misinformation due to bad relationships with exes,” says Sara Crouson, 48, a self-diagnosed narcissist who makes TikTok videos shedding light on how narcissists think. “We’re demonised. The word is overused for anyone expressing bad behaviour.”
“A lot of people think that you can’t change if you’re a narcissist,” adds Robbie Harvey, 38, another self-diagnosed narcissist who regularly posts on TikTok to his 1.2 million followers. In his videos, he reads out comments left by women about abuse they have suffered from partners they believe to be narcissistic and gives advice to those who wish to change their behaviour. He hopes to help people realise what constitutes a healthy relationship, from both sides.
Robbie decided to change seven years ago after noticing how his “narcissistic behaviours” were affecting his family. “I realised I didn't want my children to be like me,” he says, “and I didn't want my daughter to marry someone like me. Narcissism affected my whole life. It’s hard to change a narcissist, but I think more awareness has brought more attention from the medical community. Research is suggesting that narcissists can change, but it takes a lot of work. It’s very hard.”
Robbie has been working on his behaviour for seven years now and Lee has committed to going to therapy for the rest of his life. They all agree that wanting to change has to come from within. “Narcissistic Personality Disorder can’t be cured, but narcissists can work on monitoring their behaviour,” says Manjit Ruprai, a narcissistic abuse recovery therapist who also makes NarcTok videos and is hosting a webinar with Lee next month.
“On the whole, it depends on the person who gets the diagnosis and how willing they are to make a change. Cognitive behavioural therapy and dialectical behaviour therapy can help people with NPD monitor their behaviour and minimise the damage.”
There are people who believe Lee, Sara and Robbie can’t possibly be narcissists because narcissists would never humble themselves enough to admit to it. Covert narcissists, in particular, are known for mastering the art of hiding their narcissism. They are often well-liked and respected within their communities, but can hurt and manipulate the people closest to them. So how do we know whether to trust any of these NarcTok vids?
The short answer is that we can’t. “Covert narcissists are absolutely wonderful outside, but once the door closes, they're cruel to everyone around them,” says Manjit. “People on NarcTok get a huge following by saying that they are a self-aware narcissist. Some do truly want to change, but there aren’t many that will be like that. Lee and other self-aware narcissists I know do truly want to change and build better relationships.”
NarcTok is a minefield and, like other corners of TikTok, is awash with misinformation. That said, it’s surely positive that many of these posters are hoping to encourage other narcissists to seek therapy, or at the very least curtail their abusive behaviours.
“People automatically see narcissism and think [they are a] bad person, but I've literally helped thousands of people dealing with narcissistic abuse and helped people get into therapy and escape toxic relationships,” says Lee.
“The stigma is well-deserved for a lot of people,” he adds, “but it doesn't have to apply to every single person.”