Is My Ex a Narcissist?

Apr 24, 2023

It starts in the usual way:

One day (and it typically happens in one day), you are swept off your feet. You are living the usual clichés: your body becomes an ecosystem of butterflies and candy hearts, your words rendered useless by the fever melting through your bones. Like a child plucking the petals from a flower, you part with your every inhibition. You sever all ties to reason. You succumb to rapture and prostrate yourself before the enchanting creature. You open the door. You let it in.

Maybe you know this story.

In all likelihood, you were told some version of it as a child—tales of women who surrender their limbs, their voices, their autonomy in the name of love; men who, under the influence of Aphrodite, traverse nations and battle demons to bring home the beloved. Wars fought over a face. 

You come to know the story well—to like it, even. And then, one day, you become its protagonist. What a coincidence! Suddenly, you find yourself in a fairytale: a world that, for very good reasons, appears incompatible with the one in which you were once at home. 

There are many beginnings to every love story, but this is the one we remember. Even after you are left with nothing but ruins, artifacts of a life that no longer seems yours, this is the beginning you remember. And so the end, naturally, is a bitter one.

Nowadays, it seems like everyone is living out a different version of the same story. Every day, we scroll past thousands of first dates, proposals, grossly opulent weddings. Every day, we witness hundreds of expressions of pain, of loss, of regret. People meet, date, and break up on social media. They live their love out in photographs. And we are all witnesses to one another’s brightest and darkest moments both.

It should come as no surprise, then, that we also talk about our relationships online. We process our feelings, solicit answers, join support groups, pose dilemmas, and comb through social data seeking answers to our most aching questions.

A breakup is primarily experienced as a series of questions—the sort of futile questions we ask ourselves when facing the inevitable end.

Who am I without this person?

What could have been?

Will I die alone?

Where are they now?

Did they ever love me?




This last question seems of particular interest to the heartbroken. Why didn’t it work out? What exactly happened? We demand to know—or perhaps we do know,  in which case we ask ourselves how we could have been so naive, how we could possibly have fallen for the whole scheme.

In all likelihood, there were abusive behaviors. Studies suggest that well over 33% of all relationships feature some form of abuse, and emotional abuse, while poorly documented, probably occurs far more often than we think. Yelling is emotional abuse. Avoidance is emotional abuse. Manipulation of any kind is emotional abuse. That is not to say that we are all abusive, but relationships often seem to summon cruelty.

So we seek an explanation. 

How could this person have hurt me as they did?

And the answer reverberates across Tik-Tok and Instagram, across reality TV and daytime talk shows: because my ex is a narcissist.

In the last year, diagnoses—accusations—of narcissism have taken the intellectually barren landscape of social media by storm. There are over a million Instagram posts under the hashtag “narcissist.” Every day, 37 people accuse someone—typically someone they know—of being a narcissist. Publicly. Together, these post garner over 4 billion views across social media platforms. 

Sometimes this discourse occurs within dedicated communities—Reddit’s r/raisedbynarcissists forum, for example, where people share their horror stories of being raised by the self-absorbed. Survivors certainly benefit from guided discourse in curated environments—but this is a Reddit forum. There are no therapists, no counselors—only Helena, the group’s moderator—a young woman from Illinois—who, unsurprisingly, reports feeling overwhelmed.

What happens in a space where those victimized come to vent with little professional recourse? 

Such an environment tends to exacerbate rage rather than quell it, to stoke resentment rather than provide respite. On Reddit, people mostly swap war stories and call for vengeance. In the r/raisedbynarcissists forum, laments Helena, “they start talking about eugenics. They talk about how these people shouldn’t be allowed to be born. They think they should be murdered.”

A frightening proposition, given that few of those in question have ever received an official diagnosis. And even if they had, it should by now be in rather poor taste to call for the mass extermination of an entire community.

But these are the victims, and for the first time in history, survivors have the resources to assume agency over their own stories.

This is, overall, a welcome development, although history testifies to the tendency of revolutions to veer into hysteria.

The result is that the internet has become a hotbed for speculative diagnoses. It’s not just narcissism but also autism, bipolar disorder, and borderline personality—the web, in more ways than one, is a petri dish for collective neuroses. Whether it is one suburban mom’s post about disabling poisons hidden in vaccines or a well-researched medical paper on the deleterious effects of neglect, every post receives the same attention. Because we crave meaning in all that we perceive—the brain is a pattern-making machine—we listen, affirm, and appropriate. The appeal of an explanation overrides the demand for meticulous research.

But narcissism, unlike other psychiatric conditions receiving their fifteen minutes of fame, is awarded neither empathy nor advocacy. If most of us cringe at the “r” word or balk at a man calling a woman crazy, why are so many all too willing to call for the mass extermination of narcissists? If your partner demands you wear something different—he must be a narcissist. If your mother slapped you, she must be a narcissist. And your ex, of course, is almost always a narcissist—there is always evidence to support that one. 

But what we fail to recognize in reducing all abuse to narcissism is that one is a condition while the other is a choice.

According to the psychiatric Bible, NPD is defined by “a preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, a belief that he or she is unique and special,” “a need for excess admiration,” and “a lack of empathy—” among other things.

This last is unfortunate, given that empathy, thanks to Brené Brown and other pop-culture psychologists, is the converse cultural fixation of our time. So we have the empaths, the narcissists, and the apparent war between the two. 

Except “empath” is not a medical diagnosis, and NPD very much is, and this conflation of terms decidedly does not lend itself to coherent discourse. 

Semantics are never just about semantics.

Despite their representation in social media flatland, Narcissists are human beings: complex, nuanced, interested in leading satisfactory lives and nurturing meaningful relationships. They are parents, friends, employees, and revered members of their communities. They are good, and they are evil, and they are everything in between. Narcissists are not, contrary to popular belief, incapable of empathy. They are not sadistic—nor necessarily cruel. They lie perhaps as much as they tell the truth, which isn’t so far from the average ratio. Sometimes they become abusers. More often than not, they abuse themselves. And many of them recover.

So imagine, if you are willing, what it might be like to receive an NPD diagnosis today. If you haven’t already read about it, take a gander online. Check out r/raisedbynarcissists. How do you feel? What might you be thinking about yourself and your ability to share this distressing and vulnerable experience with others? 

Again, words mater.

The way we talk about people in this age of limitless technology and global interconnection determines the quality of their lives. We think some forfeit the right to their narrative when they transgress social boundaries—and maybe they do. But maybe they don’t. 

Even if they did, should we get to decide who is sick and who is criminal? If the distinction is ambiguous (at best) in a court of law, how did we get the idea that we are equipped to make it?

It is no longer socially acceptable to refer to someone pejoratively as “retarded.” It is no longer acceptable to call those who suffer from depression “lazy.” And it is certainly not popular to call for the extermination of those with intellectual exceptionalities. So why are we all too happy to wield our pitchforks and head to the nearest narcissist’s Facebook profile?

The answer is embedded deeply within a burgeoning culture of accountability. Gone are the days of victims deteriorating in the darkness. No more protecting the rich, the powerful, from the consequences of their actions. Our newfound conception of justice is one that encompasses every individual as a source of ultimate authority. If you say you have been hurt, you have been hurt. If you perceive racism, there is racism. If you experience abuse, someone has abused you.

This phenomenon is essentially a response to a catastrophic history of leniency toward abusers and oppressors of all kinds. #Believethevictim is a noble cause, and like all noble causes, it risks devouring itself. 

The narcissist is the secular devil, the adult version of the monster under the bed, the serial killer of the 70s, the bloodthirsty satanist of the 80s, the corporate greed of the 90s, the politician that lies and steals with impunity, the terrorist in our midst. The narcissist is the one to blame for the inexplicable demons that haunt a world that we believe, by now, should be heaven on earth. In other words, the narcissist is a scapegoat.

That is not to say that there aren’t narcissists and that they do not sometimes become abusers. There are, and they do. But narcissism is not de facto abuse. 

Narcissists, like other disordered personalities, exercise maladaptive mechanisms as a result, most often, of adverse childhood experiences. The eponymous story of Narcissus features a young man who falls pitifully in love with his reflection and drowns in a river. Narcissus hurts no one but himself. Self-obsession is a survival mechanism—and a painful one at that.

As with their namesake, narcissists are chiefly concerned with themselves. Though they may lack empathy, they are not foreign to it entirely. Only psychopaths are excluded from the minds of others , and they comprise less than 1% of the world’s population. You wouldn’t know this, however, from social media, where the telltale harbinger of narcissism seems to be what the unqualified refer to as a lack of empathy, but which is far more likely to be mere self-obsession. There is an important distinction here, one that so often goes unmentioned. Narcissists are very well capable of nurturing fruitful relationships—what occasionally prevents them from doing so is their fractured relationships with themselves.

Lee Hammock is a narcissist.

Like any narcissist presumably would, he documents his life on TikTok. His account, @mentalhealness, is a brave testament to the legitimacy of his diagnosis. He has millions of followers, all of whom flock to his profile every day for what appears to be a daily dose of vindication.

One would expect Mr. Hammock to touch upon the nuance of the issue. One would expect him, as an alleged narcissist with a stake in the politicization of the term,  to dispel the prevailing stereotypes about narcissists—namely that they are malevolent creatures intent upon victimizing the vulnerable. As an (allegedly) recovered narcissist himself, one would hope that Mr. Hammock has a degree of sympathy for the suffering—since the idea behind recovery is that it is best nurtured when given away.

Maybe this was once his intention, though his reels tell a rather different story.

Hammock positions himself not as an advocate for the ill, but as a whistle-blowing, Janus-faced enemy of the evil. His content consists of a series of self-denigrating, somewhat pity-inducing skits in which he “calls out” his own formerly abusive behavior. His videos are not about how well he is doing now but how bad he was then. He is giving the people what they want, which is the chance to demonize narcissists without insulting him. And one cannot help but wonder if he is in recovery after all, given his apparent taste for visibility and acclaim. 

He is the whistle-blower, the narcissist to end all narcissists. He is akin to the serial killer who redeems himself by killing others like him. And can we blame him? There seems to be little recourse for narcissists, apparently exempted from any presumption of innocence. One cannot help but think that this—the truckling, fawning dance of the unctuous fool—is a narcissist’s only choice in today’s world.

Although Hammock is one of few admitted narcissists on social media, there are plenty of accounts dedicated to those who hate them. Some are survivors of abuse, speaking bravely on their experiences, while others seem to share our collective taste for a good old fashioned witch hunt. If the millions of influencers posting under the hashtag are to be believed, the world is crawling with narcissists. So where exactly are they hiding?

The American Psychological Association estimates that less than 5% of people have Narcissistic Personality Disorder. That is not to say that many of us do not display narcissistic traits. By its very definition, pathology is not a condition apart but the disproportionate inflation of a fundamental human trait. Most of us are emotional; those with bipolar disorder are too emotional. Most of us are habitual and ritualistic creatures; those with OCD have lost all agency to habit and ritual. Most of us are captivated by our image—Narcissists cannot see the water for the brilliance of the face reflected therein.

But NPD is a serious disorder: one that reveals itself over the years. According to the National Center for Biotechnology, an NPD diagnosis requires a professional evaluation of “long-term patterns of functioning.” A Facebook post doesn’t—and shouldn’t—make the cut.

Abuse, on the other hand, is relatively straightforward. The American Psychological Association defines abuse as “deliberate and repetitive mistreatment” of another person. What many are calling narcissism is really abuse. And statistics confirm the prevalence of abusive relationships—nearly 40% of women (and 25% of men) will suffer from abuse at some point in their lives. 

So why are so many only too willing to cry narcissists when abuse is the glove that fits?

There is little discourse on the subject, but I suspect that, for several reasons, it feels better to accuse someone of pathology than of misbehavior. No one likes to think that another person is voluntarily hurting them—particularly if it’s someone they love (or have loved). Additionally, abuse carries an unfortunate (and wildly inaccurate) connotation of mutual participation. The world—and the internet and the law and pretty much everyone who hasn’t experienced mistreatment at the hands of another—is unkind to survivors. People find it difficult to believe that ordinary human beings manipulate one another.

So we accuse our abusers of being narcissists—because it shifts the blame, because it makes more sense, because it legitimizes our victimhood, because it accounts for senseless cruelty in a way we can understand. But suffering should need no justification. We would do well to validate the emotions and experiences of others—and accept that sadism and manipulation are more common than we would like to think.

Gratuitous accusations of narcissism are counter-productive. They eclipse the truth, which is that abuse can and does occur in the absence of pathology.

An accusation of narcissism is irrefutable. 

There is no point in the narcissist protesting since that is what a narcissist would do. Furthermore, accusation, in today’s egalitarian socio-political discourse, is essentially conviction. There is no due process. Narcissists, we concur, are undeserving of a just evaluation. A charge driven by revenge is less a charge and more an agenda. Juries are meant to be objective for a reason.

The chief distinction between a criminal charge and an accusation of narcissism is that one is a legal and universally accessible term referring to collectively condemned behavior while the other is...not. By slapping medical diagnoses on those who have slighted us, we threaten both the integrity of the diagnosis and the substance of the claim. We prevent the sick from seeking help. We prevent ourselves from taking accountability. And we obstruct the truth.


So to answer your question, chances are slim.

Your ex may very well have been abusive. They may have cheated or lied, dominated or fled. They may have hurt you in the very worst of ways, or violated something sacred, or simply been insensitive. They may have disappointed you. 

Or, they may have been a narcissist—but again, changes are slim: 5% probability, to be exact. 

In the end, it doesn’t matter.

Your ex, sick or well, cruel or misguided, presumably no longer has access to you. Your ex is a figment of the distant past. Your ex, whether or not a narcissist, has an edgeless horizon of growth ahead of them—and so do you. And healing emerges not from diagnosis but from reflection. The label is immaterial. Your decision is not in what you choose to call others, but in what you choose to call yourself.



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