This article originally appeared on Broadly.
It's easy to point fingers at other self-absorbed assholes and call them narcissistic. A lot of our readers related to a study that I reported on last year, which found that both narcissists and psychopaths love to stay friends with their exes. The brave scientists behind that research helped people like you to better understand why your ex keeps calling—but what if other people aren't the problem?
What if the narcissist is you?
We at Broadly don't tend to blame ourselves for stupid things like self-absorption—we are all too traumatized by the daily reminder that we live in an evil world run by a seemingly maniacal… narcissist. But yesterday, I was triggered by something. It was a quote by Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs, and it made me question myself. Starling's words randomly entered my mind as I inhaled a tub of nacho slop, and they stuck with me as I pulled the crust of a jalapeño popper from my teeth.
"You see a lot, doctor," Starling says to the caged cannibal Hannibal Lecter. "But can you point that high-powered perception at yourself? What about it? Why don't you—why don't you look at yourself and write down what you see? Or maybe you're afraid to…"
It seemed obvious that I needed to follow the guidance of a 90s serial killer classic, so I pushed the slop aside and wrote to my old contact Dr. Tony Ferretti, the narcissism expert I interviewed last year. I had already asked him about other people being narcissists—but what about yourself? Is it possible that you could be a narcissist and not even know?
"Researchers found that they could reliably identify narcissistic people by simply asking if they see themselves as a narcissist," Ferretti wrote in response to my email. "Ironically, narcissists are almost proud of this trait and don't perceive it as a negative quality."
"However," Ferretti continued, "many narcissists are so self-absorbed that they have very little insight into their own problems." "Based on my experience," he said, "others typically point out narcissism before the person identifies it in themselves."
There's a difference between a true, pathological narcissist and someone who just has narcissistic qualities to their personality. "Currently only about two percent of the population struggle with pathological narcissism," Ferretti explained, offering an optimistic view. "In moderation some narcissistic traits can be helpful at work." Basically, narcissism can be fine when it is "adaptive," according to Ferretti. For instance, confidence, extroversion, and the ability to deal with life's daily demands are all positive attributes—and they're also narcissistic traits.
Narcissists can change to some extent, but it will require significant effort, desire, and commitment.
"When the characteristics become an enduring pattern that leads to impairment in occupational or interpersonal functioning—and thoughts, emotions, and behaviors are impacting one's ability to function effectively—a disorder is assigned," he told me. According to Ferretti, narcissism is becoming more common in the United States. "Based on my clinical experience, I believe that the level of narcissism in today's society has grown."
If you're too self-absorbed to notice you're self-absorbed, how the hell are you supposed to figure it out? I asked Dr. Ferretti and he told me some obvious things, like the fact narcissists have "very little empathy, emotional intelligence, and awareness of other's needs," adding that true narcissists "seek excessive admiration and feel entitled to special treatment."
Narcissism today is informed by the context of our society, Ferretti says. He explained a few ways to tell if you're a narcissist: "If you post something on social media and obsessively check it to see who responded or how many likes you received or are consumed with selfies and posting every aspect about your life, you may have some narcissistic tendencies."
But it's not just about whether or not you post on social media. Ferretti says that self-centeredness can be gauged by determining "if your mood or attitude is negatively impacted by a lack of social media responsiveness and praise." In addition, Ferretti says that if you're a narcissist, you probably expect your friends to essentially be mindless drones who do whatever you want without complaining. Do you feel insulted when a friend has a different plan? Narcissist.
Finally, Ferretti took things back to the basics, saying that if you spend "an inordinate amount of time in the mirror," or are "focused on your physical appearance and expect others to shower you with praise," then you might be a narcissist. But beyond that, Ferretti says that some of the most tell-tale symptoms of narcissism are: a lack of awareness of others needs, taking advantage of the kindness of others, and an obsession with power. You might also be a narcissist if you have an "unlimited" view on success and tend to "exaggerate" your accomplishments.
If you're a narcissist, you're probably an asshole. But what can someone do if they realize that they are a narcissist and they don't want to be one anymore? Are narcissists doomed to love only themselves and be shitty friends obsessed with their exes forever? Ferretti says that "narcissists can change to some extent, but it will require significant effort, desire, and commitment."
For starters, if you're a narcissist but don't want to be, try to "talk less and listen more," which is just generally good advice for all men. If you're a narcissist, you might need to find someone who isn't blinded by self-obsession and a lack empathy—someone to partner with to act as a kind of moral guide back toward humanity.
"Find an accountability person with integrity and high moral standards who also values relationships over success," Ferretti said. "This needs to be someone who will call you out and you respect their advice." You can also seek out counseling, or join a support group. "Narcissists can become less self-absorbed when they give back with their time, talents, and treasures," Ferretti said. "They will benefit from learning humility, compassion, and empathy. One way to achieve that is through volunteerism and moving from self-serving to serving others."
For the contemporary narcissist who loves to enshrine their persona online, it may be necessary to "to limit the number of posts, selfies, and overall online activity," to curb the disorder. "Stop posting everything that you do and limit your social media presence," Ferretti said. He suggests that people "view and post on social media for one hour per day." And when narcissists do use social media, Ferretti suggests they "try posting things that make others the hero instead of focusing only on yourself." This requires you to "stop using social media to brag on yourself."
Instead of pouting on Instagram, Ferretti suggests you "focus your attention on others and make a phone call to find out how a friend/family member is feeling."
Dr. Ferretti's insights may sound deeply disturbing to people who never considered themselves narcissists until reading this article—but that's OK. At least it is possible for you to change "to some extent." If you're still at a loss for how to become a normal person who isn't totally obsessed with yourself, Ferretti suggests that you simply "ask people you care about what you can do to help them, instead of being so self-absorbed."