State of Mind

What Is a Narcissist?

TikTok presents tidy lists of traits. The answer is a little more complicated.

A phone displaying the TikTok logo is wearing a crown against a princess-pink background.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

Welcome to State of Mind, a new section from Slate and Arizona State University dedicated to exploring mental health. Follow us on Twitter.

Narcissism is absolutely everywhere, according to TikTok. Your boss—a narcissist. My ex? Definitely a narcissist. Me? Videos with narcissist coaches present a compelling case that I’m a “covert narcissist.” If you’ve ever been passive-aggressive toward a friend, or humble-bragged about your achievements, you may also have a personality disorder, according to the app. Sorry!

Advertisement

On “NarcTok”—videos on the app dedicated to educating the world about narcissistic behavior—“self-aware narcissists” (both formally diagnosed and not) share insights into how they think. Victims of narcissistic abuse offer educational-style videos like “How to Spot a Narcissist.” A coach shares “5 Ways to Mess With a Narcissist’s Head,” and a neuroscientist offers narcissist protection hacks. Videos in the narcissism genre routinely hit millions of views; the phrase “NarcTok” itself had 3.9 billion TikTok views as of November.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

You can be more than a viewer on NarcTok. The scene is home to a cottage industry of self-styled experts claiming to offer victims of narcissistic abuse emotional support, and even help with plotting escape plans, at rates from $35 to $100 per hour. There’s also merch: In addition to one-on-one classes, one coach who goes by the name “coach_mike01” has offered T-shirts, mugs, and notebooks with slogans like “Healing, Not Dealing” and “Looking through your bullshit.”

Advertisement
Advertisement

Coaches on the platform say that they are helping people. But the vision of narcissism offered by NarcTok is drastically oversimplified.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-5. People who put themselves first, even outright assholes—they are not all narcissists. Symptoms of actual NPD include “the unending, unrelenting motivation to enhance oneself and feel superior, and an inability to regulate one’s emotions, or one’s behavior if the world doesn’t cooperate with that need to be the superior,” says Aaron Pincus, a professor of psychology at the Pennsylvania State University who studies narcissism. Survey evidence shows that up to 6.2% of the population has NPD, but the real figure is likely more, says Pincus, as diagnosis is complex—and naturally many narcissists don’t want to be diagnosed.

Advertisement
Advertisement

So, yes, there are a lot of narcissists out there. But people “are throwing the term narcissist, and narcissism, around a little too loosely and pretty much labeling lots of bad behavior as narcissism,” says Pincus.

As for the difference between someone with NPD and someone who is simply kind of selfish, intention is key, says Pincus. Someone with NPD will showcase a lack of empathy, along with interpersonal entitlement, exploitativeness, arrogance, and envy—all of which is specifically driven by a desire to uphold their sense of self. Narcissism really has to do with the person’s intentions and how they view the world. Many people act entitled and arrogant here and there just because they’re having a bad day; that’s different. Like many personality disorders, NPD exists on a spectrum, and the further along someone is, the less in touch with reality they are, psychotherapist and trauma specialist Kim Harries tells me.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

You’ve probably guessed that it’s impossible to diagnose someone with the disorder from watching a few TikToks. In one video titled “5 Signs You Have a Narcissist Co-Worker,” a mental health “coach” looks directly into the camera and claims that the following are clues that your colleague is a narcissist: being lazy, taking credit for your work, demanding attention, loving gossip—and being well-liked, in spite of these tendencies. First, who hasn’t been lazy at work for one stretch of time or another, especially with the pandemic upending our lives? Who hasn’t actively enjoyed office gossip? Further, a TikTok video can tell you a few traits that may or may not be a sign of NPD, but it can’t allow you to know what’s motivating the behavior.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

NarcTok goes beyond just boiling down complex ideas into oversimplified sound bites. Gaslighting, for example, is a common theme. The term—which has been generally overused and misconstrued by everyone from women’s magazines to people on Twitter—refers to the experience of manipulating someone to make them question their own reality. NarcTokers often explain that gaslighting is one of the key traits of a narcissist.

So I checked in with Pincus about gaslighting. The reality is that he hasn’t seen any high-quality research on the concept of gaslighting, or how it relates to narcissism as a clinical diagnosis.

If interactions with your co-worker or partner make you extremely confused and frustrated, you may need help and perspective—just not from a NarcTok coach. It could be that your partner is genuinely manipulative, or it could be that you’re having a misunderstanding that could be worked through. Either way, those feelings are the kind of thing a trained therapist might help with over the course of a few sessions.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Someone claiming to be a “coach” is not necessarily a reliable source of expertise. While therapists undertake an accredited training program at the university level and have supervised clinical experience before getting their licenses, a life-coaching certificate can be obtained online and in a matter of weeks. Coaching is a nebulous industry, with no oversight boards and no industry-standard codes of ethics. According to an International Coaching Federation study, 74 percent of all coaching practitioners reported that they had a credential or certification from a professional coaching organization in 2019. Further, many NarcTok coaches don’t even say they’re certified by any particular organization. Rather, the fact that they’ve been abused is their expertise.

Advertisement

Sarah Robles (@le_disco_mama) is a TikTok narcissist coach with 120,000 followers (she does have a coaching certification). She works full time in the medical industry and coaches in her spare time, alongside being a single parent.

Advertisement

Like many “narc coaches,” Robles was a victim of narcissistic abuse. She discovered NarcTok as she rebuilt her life after leaving her romantic relationship. She posted TikToks on her experiences last year, and was surprised to see many regularly hit tens of thousands of views immediately. Users soon began asking her for advice and coaching, she says. It seemed like a great fit: “I always knew that I wanted to do something on this planet that mattered.”

Robles qualified as a life coach in March of 2022 after taking the International Association of Professions Career College’s six-week life-coaching course. Robles has since taken on 50 clients and charges $75 per hour. The life-coaching qualification includes modules such as “How to Coach Individuals” and “Life Coaching Tools.” Also, students can specialize in life-coaching topics such as relationship, retirement, or spiritual coaching. There is no specific course on narcissism.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

“I would say the bulk of my work is more so on the validation side, really giving survivors an understanding of what they’re going through, giving them a space for someone to listen and provide insight on my experiences,” Robles explains.

Advertisement
Advertisement

When asked how she sees her services in relation to counseling, Robles said: “It’s not therapy—therapy is when you’re doing a deep dive on your psyche of what happened in your childhood and how to heal those things. Coaching is really developing a plan of action to get you, first of all, away from the abuser and into a space of rebuilding your life.”

Even on TikTok, narc abuse coaches face criticism. “There’s a misconception by other creators who say narc abuse coaches are exploiting victims of abuse to make money,” says Robles. She added that no one is forcing people to turn to narc coaches for help.

Advertisement

Harries, the psychotherapist and trauma specialist (who is not part of NarcTok), treats both victims of narcissism and narcissists themselves. The first thing she does for victims of this type of abuse is psychoeducation, she explains. “I would have a conversation where we establish: This is what we’re dealing with. We’re dealing with a fragmented ego who is overcompensating for feeling less than.” Then, she listens to the person work through their story.

“Then my work with trauma starts coming in,” says Harries. “The person is probably having anxiety, panic attacks, depression, and there’ll be their defense mechanisms, which are the normal defense mechanisms of when you’re under threat.” She works to understand whether a person’s family of origin contributed to why they related with the abuse. She may use techniques like Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy to tackle beliefs victims may have, such as “The abuse was my fault” or “I’m insignificant.”

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Like narcissism itself, Pincus says the impacts of TikTok coaches are nuanced. In one sense, people who are actually struggling with narcissism or a narcissistic partner could feel misunderstood by the videos on NarcTok, or even be taken advantage of by coaches. But on the other hand, even if someone isn’t experiencing medically defined narcissistic abuse, they may still learn coping skills from some of the videos.

When I gaze into NarcTok now, I see a community of hurt people helping others the best they can. But I also see a cycle of confirmation bias: people learning about symptoms and then going out into the world and identifying “narcissists”—and then validating others who do the same—which ultimately obscures the truth: Sometimes people aren’t narcissists. They’re just jerks.

State of Mind is a partnership of Slate and Arizona State University that offers a practical look at our mental health system—and how to make it better.

Advertisement