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Personal Growth
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Are They A Narcissist Or Just Self-Confident? Here's The Difference

Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy
Doctor of Clinical Psychology
By Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy
Doctor of Clinical Psychology
Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy, is a psychologist and executive coach who received her clinical psychology doctorate from University College London. She has been featured in Elle, Forbes, Business Insider, and elsewhere.
Inspired Confident Woman
Image by Manu Prats / Stocksy

If you’re a millennial, take selfies, and post on social media, you might wonder if you’re a narcissist. Or if that confident person in your life actually has narcissistic personality disorder. 

But what if I told you that the person who isn’t bragging and thumping their metaphorical chests but is instead exhausting you with their never-ending stories of victimhood might be the real narcissist in your life? There are many types of narcissists, including the more covert narcissists; for example, they might one-up you with how miserable they are as though it’s a competition. Narcissists can even cleverly wield spirituality as a weapon or learn the rules of empathy to trick you.

It begs the question: Who really is a narcissist, and who is simply confident?

Confidence vs. narcissism.

Confidence is about knowing and appreciating your own qualities and worth, and that’s a good thing. Narcissism involves an exaggeration of and obsession with one’s qualities and worth. Craig Malkin, Ph.D., expert on narcissist psychology and author of Rethinking Narcissism, states that we all have some degree of narcissism; the scales tip when unhealthy narcissism is an addiction to feeling special, that one has no qualms lying, cheating, or stealing in order to procure that high. 

Here are some points to consider when you’re wondering if someone is confident or narcissistic.  

1. How do they respond to others’ success?

Naturally, we’re all prone to a little envy at times, especially if the person we’re comparing ourselves to comes from similar backgrounds, which is very different than being envious of Bill Gates. The difference between confidence and narcissism is whether we tear someone down. Narcissists demand the spotlight to be thrust upon them all the time. So, even if they publicly declare they are happy for someone (or you), watch what they really say behind closed doors. They might say things like, “Oh, they’re just lucky” or anything else to try to put down someone else’s successes. 

A confident person knows that dimming someone else’s light does not make their own shine brighter. Yes, a confident person may at times feel envious, but they won’t be bitterly attacking someone’s abilities or character without grounds. 

2. Do they truly promote others’ growth?

A confident person can promote others’ growth, including simple things like giving others space to talk and shine. A narcissist, on the other hand, may appear to let you speak, but they’ll wrench the spotlight back in an obsessive manner. I’ve spoken to many narcissists who told me their tactics for dominating their conversation, down to a step-by-step manual. Try bringing up an obscure irrelevant topic, and watch the narcissist make it all about them. Or, in an irate fashion, steer the topic away.

Narcissists are known to set traps and dig graves for others (for example, dark personality types in leadership positions leave a trail of destruction for others to clean), all because they believe they need to grab as much as they can for themselves lest they lose out. Any interest in advancing your work or cause may simply be because it’s a proxy that serves them or to hog credit. Someone confident, on the other hand, truly looks out for your well-being and interests, allowing you to shine independently of them.

3. Do they truly have empathy and compassion?

Having empathy for someone goes beyond practiced responses like, “That must feel like crap,” to demonstrate that you may care about how someone feels. Many successful narcissists learn early the scripts on what to say without meaning a thing—essentially the difference between cognitive and affective empathy. 

A sign of disingenuous empathy is when someone responds with a generic platitude and then goes on to make it all about them, such as how their suffering was bigger than yours or how they are more resilient. Another sign is when they start comparing their responses to yours, a telling phrase being “How come I'm not like that?” or “How come I didn’t do that?” Otherwise, they’ll force some solutions and help down your throat, insisting they know better.

A person with genuine empathy and compassion is able to listen, wish you well, and perhaps offer a helping hand if it’s within their means and you're open to it. They ask for permission.

4. Are they open to others having different opinions, and for their own opinion to change?

I get that there are some opinions we hold near and dear, and hearing others’ opinions may threaten the very foundations of how we live our lives. But there’s a difference between standing with your values and forcing your opinion on someone. A narcissist will do the latter to you, even if it’s around the most mundane topics. 

A confident person doesn’t need to be right all the time. Even if some topics may provoke discomfort, they respect other opinions and lifestyle choices. Consequently, they are able to allow their opinions to change with time and have the humility to acknowledge that they were wrong or that a certain belief system no longer aligns with them.

5. Are they able to acknowledge how luck and privilege have factored in their lives?

The truth is, privilege compounds. And sometimes, we don’t want to think about it because we can feel bad about how these have paved our ways in life. A narcissist likes to play up how luck and privilege have resulted in opportunities for others and are often bitter about it. However, they underplay or dismiss how luck and privilege have paved their own way, essentially demonstrating double standards. 

6. Are they able to respect boundaries?

The narcissist thrives on wrecking boundaries. It’s part of hurting others, and it’s also part of how they feel superior, knowing they’ve pushed someone way beyond their limits. If your “no” doesn’t align with their interests, you “do not know how to have fun.” Or it’s, “You’re so ungrateful. I’m just trying to help you.”

That isn’t to say that a confident person may not nudge you out of your comfort zone at times. Perhaps it’s to try something new or to challenge oneself in personal or professional growth. But that’s always around something healthy, they will seek feedback to adjust the parameters of your interaction, and they will not shame you.

In essence, a confident person can accept no for an answer. 

7. Are they okay with their vulnerabilities?

Confident people can acknowledge the dark and the light sides of their life and of themselves; this is authenticity. Narcissists often can’t admit their flaws or their insecurities, though some may learn that they’re “supposed to” do this and play along.

Another way narcissists may deal with their vulnerabilities is by making everything a competition, essentially creating a race to the bottom. A narcissist has to shine brighter than you—and they’re even superior in their sufferings. We all have our dark periods in life. The difference between a confident person and a narcissist is that the confident person shares their experiences during the dark times. But the covert narcissist’s life is centered around that, and their life is often a deteriorating train wreck. 

Essentially, confidence is the ability to admit that we are indeed deficient in some ways—and perhaps have a laugh about it, rather than letting that define us or getting obsessed with it. It's knowing that even though life has its inevitable dark chapters, they can revel in hope and continue to live a purposeful life.

Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy author page.
Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy
Doctor of Clinical Psychology

Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy, is a psychologist and executive coach currently living in Singapore. She received her doctorate in clinical psychology from University College London and her master's in philosophy from University of Cambridge. Her first book This Is What Matters was published by Simon & Schuster in May 2022, which guides you to transform crisis to strength, or design an #EverydayAmazing life.

She has been featured in Elle, Forbes, and Business Insider and has previously worked with Olympians, business professionals, and individuals seeking to master their psychological capital. She works globally in English and Mandarin-Chinese via Skype and Facetime, blending cutting-edge neuroscience, psychology, and ancient wisdom.