Hard Truth Time: Your Ex Is Probably Not a Narcissist

Welcome to Better Sex With Dr. Lexx, a monthly column where sex therapist, educator and consultant Dr. Lexx Brown-James shares expertise, advice and wisdom about sex, relationships and more. Approaching education about sex as a life-long endeavor — “from womb to tomb” — Dr. Lexx (AKA The #CouplesClinician) is your guide to the shame-free, medically accurate, inclusive and comprehensive conversations for you, your partner and your whole family. 

Your ex is not a narcissist.

Your ex is not a narcissist.

Your ex is not a narcissist!

The term narcissist, typically short for Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is rampant all over the internet. It might even be in your social circles. As a therapist, I have heard the term used to describe ex best friends, parents, church members, preachers, pastors, doctors, and basically anyone who didn’t agree with them or that hurt them. And simply, it’s not true.

From the research that we have, it is apparent that the prevalence of NPD is 6-7 percent in men and 3-4 percent in women. It affects about 0.5 percent of the U.S. population with 20 percent being found in the military, and 17 percent of first year medical students. So about 1 in 200 people suffer from NPD. And yes, suffer is the word, 16 percent of people seek treatment for NPD as it is still a mental health disorder. What people typically leave out or don’t know is that those with NPD will often have mood disorders, specifically that of depression. That depression can manifest in anger, mood swings, and other clinically diagnosable symptoms. Further, anxiety can also take place over a situation where the NPD sufferer has experienced loss, rejection, or a setback. Although people with NPD often do not seek mental health treatment, they are still suffering with an illness where support could be helpful overall. Contrary to the popular idea that in NPD sufferers solely have no empathy; the diagnosis is not marked with just a lack of empathy.

  • Diagnosable narcissistic personality disorder actually requires:
  • Having a grandiose sense of self
  • Being preoccupied with fantasies of success brilliance or perfect love
  • Believing that they can only be understood by special people
  • Requiring excessive admiration
  • Has a sense of entitlement or even unrealistic expectations a favorable treatment
  • Is exploitative
  • Shows arrogant behaviors and attitudes,
  • Often envious of others and believes that they are envious of them.

So, although most people believe that a lack of empathy is all that a narcissist possesses, it’s actually a clustering of behaviors that are persistent overtime and throughout the life of a person. Further, people who have NPD do not worry about others, do not worry about what others think of them, and surely are unable to assign meaning and understanding to the feelings of others. This means that they would struggle to interpret others’ gestures and expressions of emotion. They may even only be able to assign their own emotions to others as they feel them.

With that being explained, your ex-whatever, may not be a narcissist. But they may be mean, self-serving, petty, vindictive, abusive, or self-righteous. Or all the above.

People can be mean, self-centered, controlling, manipulative, petty, vindictive, and a whole host of unfavorable characteristics without being narcissistic. And often when we are hurt, we are not the ones able to give an unbiased assessment of a person’s behaviors. Now, we need to name the unsavory characteristics and how they affect others around them.

A key identifier about narcissists is that they are not only narcissists in their romantic relationships, but they are also narcissists in all aspects of their lives. They are narcissistic at work, in their family of origin, in friendships-if any, in social clubs and often will have setbacks in various realms. When these setbacks happen those with NPD can easily fall into depressive moods and utilize extreme coping mechanisms like drugs, alcohol, sexual attention, etc. to cope. With narcissists however, it is not uncommon for them to resume typical behavior after the hurt or hard moment is soothed. So, when people have undesirable behaviors and harm us, we need to call attention to that behavior and that person’s character before slapping a mental health diagnosis onto them. Because, more than likely, that label means nothing at best and at least it is harming a group of people by stigmatizing poor behaviors under a diagnosis the person probably doesn’t even have, but affects those who do have the diagnosis.

Now, I know most of you who are reading are saying, “Dr. Lexx, they had all these attributes, THEY’RE A NARCISSIST!” And that very well could be true, there could be an under diagnosis of NPD in the world, undoubtedly.

What I also know and would encourage is that your own healing takes precedence over everything else. Dealing with a person who has NPD can be hard and healing can be even harder. I would even argue that all people involved with a person who has NPD need to have some sort of mental health support — including the narcissist themself.

Before you go, check out our favorite most affordable mental health apps: 

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