9 Subtle Differences Between Being A Narcissist Vs. Just Being Self-Centered

by Carina Wolff
BDG Media, Inc.

Most people throw around the word narcissist loosely, using it to describe someone who is seemingly obsessed with themselves. But Narcissistic Personality Disorder has a distinct set of traits that differ from just being self absorbed. There are a number of subtle differences between being a narcissist and being just self-centered, and recognizing the difference between an actual personality disorder and simply just being vain can better help you navigate your relationship with those who seem self-involved.

"The term narcissist is used often to describe a wide variety of people that we find difficult or offensive, but like other mental health concepts that make their way into the language of popular culture, it is widely and frequently misused and/or misunderstood," Dr. Lindsay Henderson, PsyD, a psychologist who treats patients virtually via telehealth app LiveHealth Online tells Bustle. "True pathological narcissism is quite rare, affects less than 1 percent of the population, and can only be diagnosed by a qualified clinician."

According to Henderson, some experts think that narcissism exists on a spectrum, and it is a trait that many of us exhibit to some degree. On the healthy end of the spectrum, narcissism can be thought of as the ability to see ourselves as a bit special, and this type of confidence and assertiveness allows us to take risks and put ourselves out there to accept challenges. Being self-centered can fall somewhere within this spectrum as well. On the more problematic and pathological end of the spectrum is when arrogance, grandiosity, and entitlement interfere with daily functioning and the ability to maintain relationships.

That being said, not everyone who is self-centered is necessarily a narcissist. Here are nine subtle differences between being a narcissist and just being self-centered.


A Narcissist's Moods Depend On Others

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A narcissist’s mood states are highly tied to who they are around. "They require regulation from others to maintain their framework of ‘the self,’" neuropsychologist Dr. Rhonda Freeman tells Bustle. "A person who is merely self-centered will not have this debilitating set of conflicting symptoms (e.g., extreme dependency on others, while simultaneously feeling superior and/or disdainful.)"


Narcissists Lack Empathy

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Someone who is self-centered is much more likely to have have an understanding about other people's feelings. Research shows that those with narcissistic personality disorder have abnormalities associated with the brain systems that allow us to feel empathy for others. "People who have close relationships with them have been hurt repeatedly by this particular trait," says Freeman. "Their lack of ability to feel for others can have devastating impact. We would not see this pattern for someone who is solely self-centered."


Narcissists Think They're Better Than Others

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Narcissists believe that they are smarter, more important, or better than others. "Someone who is self-centered may crave attention and find ways to bring the focus of others to themselves, but they are also capable of listening to others," says Henderson. "A self-centered person may want to be noticed, but a narcissist wants to be noticed and make clear the ways in which [they are] superior to others."


Narcissists Are More Entitled

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Narcissists can be entitled and believe they deserve special treatment that others do not deserve. Self-centered people have clearer moral values that can align with that of society and are guided by empathy and genuine care for others. "A narcissistic person ... may feel that rules do not apply to them, and even blame others for their actions and behavior," says Henderson.


Narcissists Are Less Self-Aware

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"People who are self-centered can have self-awareness," says Henderson. "If given the right feedback or opportunity for reflection, they are able to recognize the ways in which being self-centered could be problematic and actively work to make changes, where narcissists are not capable of this insight." Although NPD can be managed with the help of a therapist, those who are self-centered may have an easier time being aware of how they impact others.


Narcissists' Relationships Are More Transactional

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Narcissists’ relationships are purely transactional, while self-centered people still tend to have reciprocal relationships. "The narcissist tends to seek out partners and friends for their high status in some area that is important to the narcissist, such as being especially beautiful, accomplished, socially prominent, well-to- do, or well-connected," Traci Stein, PhD, MPH tells Bustle.


Narcissists Don't Feel Guilty When They Wrong Others

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Unlike people who are just self-centered (and still have empathy), true narcissists don’t feel guilty or remorseful when they do something wrong. "Remember, in their minds they are never wrong," says Stein. "So don’t expect a genuine apology. In the unlikely even a narcissist apologizes to you, don’t be surprised if it feels hollow and transactional."


Narcissists Are More Likely To Feign Interest

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Both narcissists and self-absorbed people can glaze over when you try to talk about anything other than them, but a self-centered person is more likely to actually show an interest in what you're saying. "The difference is that the self-absorbed friend may genuinely want to be interested in what you’re saying but will have a hard time sustaining that interest," says Stein. "Whether the narcissist feigns interest or switches topics depends on what they hope to gain from listening to you and whether that seems worth the pain of momentarily stepping out of the spotlight."


Narcissists Tend To Overreact

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"Narcissists are rageful and vengeful whenever their perceived superior status feels threatened," says Stein. "Their resultant rage may make you feel like you are dealing with Jekyll and Hyde. Also, the punishment narcissists mete out will often be way out of proportion to the perceived offense." Self-centered people might get bothered, but their reactions are not likely to be as extreme.

It can be hard to decipher between a self-centered person and a true narcissist, but these subtle differences can help shed light on where they diverge.