Curiously, it’s not always straightforward knowing whether you are the narcissist or the victim.
However, if you are contemplating this question, chances are you do not have high levels of grandiose narcissism because you are willing and able to reflect on your beliefs, traits, and behaviors.
There are several reasons why the line between the two is often not that clear.
Narcissists Project Their Narcissism Onto Other People
A plausible explanation for your question is that the narcissist in your life has convinced you that you are the problem.
Narcissists tend to project undesirable traits and beliefs onto other people. They may call you entitled, arrogant, manipulative, or narcissistic – even though it’s them who possess these traits.
Through skillful manipulation, they convince you that they are the victim of your abusive behavior and make you question yourself and your sense of reality (known as gaslighting).
It’s also possible that you have picked up some of the narcissist’s narcissistic behaviors. Research shows that relationships and close others can influence and change our personality and behavior.
They may have normalized this type of conduct, and you may not know any different if it is/was your first relationship, for example.
Or it could be that they have brought out some toxic or abusive behaviors in you – unfortunately, some people bring out the worst in others.
Narcissism Is Not Categorical
Part of the reason why you may not be sure whether you are narcissistic or the victim is because narcissism is on a scale. Although it’s unlikely that you have NPD, you might have some narcissistic traits.
Narcissism is a personality style that incorporates several traits. It lies on a scale from healthy to unhealthy and destructive. Importantly, narcissism does not equal narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).
To be diagnosed with NPD, the pattern of your behavior must be persistent (it’s present from an early age and persists into adulthood), problematic (it causes significant difficulties in your life), and pervasive (it affects your functioning in all areas of your life).
NPD is rare but some of your behaviors or traits might fall under the umbrella of narcissism.
Think of each trait associated with narcissism on a scale: arrogance, entitlement, antagonism, empathy, envy, etc. For example, empathy can range from high levels of empathy to complete callousness. No personality trait is categorical, and therefore, neither is narcissism.
Healthy levels of narcissism can mean you are very confident and aspire to be successful and accomplished, but you have empathy and are not exploitative.
However, many of us do have some narcissistic traits that are unhelpful and even destructive. For example, you might find it difficult to accept blame and apologize when you have done something wrong, which may cause problems in your relationships and life.
Similarly, your behavior can be state-dependent, meaning, in some situations, you may act entitled or arrogant but in other situations, you are humble and modest.
So when you hear or read about narcissism, you might think “Oh, I do that sometimes” and start believing you are narcissistic but in reality, you just have one or two narcissistic traits – and that does not necessarily mean you are a narcissist.
Being Raised By Narcissists
In some cases, children of narcissistic parents can become narcissists themselves or they may at least adopt some of their traits. Children learn about the world, relationships, and what is acceptable and unacceptable from their early environments, especially their caregivers.
If your family constantly screamed at each other even over small inconveniences, you may come to believe this is normal conduct. If giving the silent treatment was something your father did regularly, you might think that’s a normal way to react to being criticized.
If social dominance and entitlement were reinforced in your household, you may come to desire and seek that.
Therefore, you may think that certain behaviors associated with narcissism are normal until someone, like a partner, points them out to you.
This may make you question whether you are narcissistic. And while this might be the case, it’s also possible that you have learned certain narcissistic behaviors, but you are not maliciously trying to manipulate or abuse people.
Even if it’s unconscious or unintentional, it’s nonetheless important to acknowledge and address unhelpful and damaging beliefs and behaviors.
Maybe It’s Vulnerable Narcissism
When we think of narcissists, we tend to think of the grandiose type: overtly arrogant and entitled, extroverted, and dominant. That’s in part because the DSM-5 criteria for NPD is more aligned with the grandiose type and also because the associated traits are more obvious and therefore easier to identify.
However, there is another common type of narcissism called vulnerable or covert narcissism.
They are more emotionally unstable, anxious, self-conscious, shy, and constrained, but they share the grandiose narcissist’s antagonistic core. They quietly believe in their superiority and grandiosity and their aggressive, entitled, manipulative, and callous behaviors are more subtle.
Vulnerable narcissists are more fragile and experience more shame and symptoms of poor mental health (e.g., depression) than grandiose narcissists.
They tend to experience conflict around their entitled needs and expectations. That means, they might know that some of their behaviors and beliefs are unacceptable but they “can’t help” the way they feel and act i.e., they feel entitled to their feelings and behaviors.
Vulnerable narcissists often feel like the victim because, like their grandiose counterparts, they cannot accept blame and find it difficult to take responsibility.
Narcissism often develops due to being neglected or otherwise abused in childhood so, in that sense, they can be perceived as victims. However, past trauma cannot be used as an excuse to abuse, manipulate, and exploit others.
Knowing whether you are a vulnerable narcissist takes honest self-reflection as well as a diagnosis from a qualified health professional. Self-diagnosis is biased and potentially damaging so avoid doing this.
As mentioned, having a few narcissistic traits does not mean you are a full-scale narcissist. The important thing is to identify and address unhealthy, toxic, and destructive behaviors.
It Could Be Codependency
A codependent individual is excessively focused on the needs of others, suppresses their own needs and feelings, and has a strong desire to feel needed.
They rely excessively on significant others to feel worthy, safe, and have a sense of purpose. They often end up in a relationship with someone who gladly exploits their nature, like a narcissistic person.
Thus, there is a strong pull between narcissists and codependents because they fulfill each other’s maladaptive needs. That could explain how a narcissist may convince you that you are the problem.
However, there are also some underlying similarities between the two, which could explain why you are asking yourself whether you are the narcissist or the victim.
Some examples of their similarity include:
Control and Entitlement
Narcissism is characterized by an excessive need for control, specifically, a need to control other people. Although codependents want to help people, their motivation is often to create a dependency (so as not to be abandoned), which is controlling behavior.
They are helpful, self-sacrificing, and caring and expect in return that the other person complies with their advice and guidance, which suggests a sense of entitlement.
Both codependents and narcissists tend to blame the problems in their lives and their relationships on the other person.
Narcissists and codependents both tend to believe they are superior and special. Narcissists believe they are better than others and are preoccupied with fantasies of success, power, and brilliance.
Codependents tend to believe they are morally superior and exceptionally empathetic and insightful. They often feel they are the only person who can understand and help others.
Narcissists and codependents both engage in manipulative behaviors to feel in control and boost their self-esteem. Codependents people-please, self-sacrifice, and guilt-trip, whereas narcissists gaslight, love bomb, deceive, and verbally or physically attack.
So given that there are some similarities, you may have noticed some of these behaviors in yourself and wondered whether it’s narcissism but it may actually be codependency.
Codependency is generally more damaging to the person with this condition, whereas narcissism is more damaging to others.
Narcissism Is on the Rise
Two professors of psychology, Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell, wrote a book titled “The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement”. They argue that narcissism is on the rise with catastrophic consequences for society.
Individualism, social media, cancel culture, and the obsession with perfection (perfect body, skin, routine, house, etc.) do seem to have an air of narcissism. They certainly promote and normalize selfish, grandiose, self-promoting, aggressive, and entitled behavior.
Therefore, it’s possible that many of us have fallen victim to the narcissism epidemic. According to this book and other research, there are higher levels of narcissism in the general population compared to previous generations.
It might be because we are becoming more narcissistic as a society or because having narcissistic traits is seen as more acceptable now (e.g., self-promotion via social media).
To conclude, asking yourself whether you are narcissistic is a good sign because it means you have the capacity for self-reflection.
People can be victims and still behave in toxic ways. Of course, it’s also entirely possible for two narcissistic people to be in a relationship, there’s not always one victim and one perpetrator.
If you have noticed narcissistic, unhealthy, or toxic behaviors in yourself, that’s okay as long as you acknowledge them and work hard to change them.
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