Is everyone’s ex actually a narcissist?

An interesting thing happened on my social media feed in the wake of separating from my now ex-husband. If I really think hard, it might have even been in the months before our actual separation, in that window of wondering which path led me to a more satisfied future. 

My feed started being populated by more content from divorce coaches and relationship experts, expectable in the context of the Google searches I was doing. But what fascinated me was how much of the content I was being delivered was not just your vanilla Attachment Style 101 or self-care guides for the newly single. Instead, I was scrolling by post after post lovingly, but firmly encouraging me to set hard boundaries with my narcissistic ex. 

But, you see, I didn’t have a narcissistic ex. He had his issues, of course – most of which I could give a TED talk on even if given only 20 minutes to prepare. But narcissism, thankfully, wasn’t one of them. 

I was no stranger to narcissism, certainly, having seen traits of it show up in my family and having worked clinically with people diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder at various points in my career. I didn’t consider myself an expert on this specific personality constellation, but I knew enough and trusted myself to detect it if I spent enough time with someone. 

And yet, as the content filled my feeds on various platforms, I could see my own wheels turning.  Creators outlined the often-unrecognized traits of a covert narcissist, the sneaky ways narcissists try to get under your skin, how to set communication limits with a narcissistic co-parent. I generally didn’t watch the videos for too long or click on the content, and yet it kept coming. 

It reminded me of how my feed was also filled with ADHD and autism content, post after post detailing how to detect and diagnose one’s self based on neurodivergent traits that we too often overlook. Before that, it had been trauma, with seemingly everyone talking about what tendencies that we’d historically attributed to quirkiness or laziness or the notorious chemical imbalance were actually signs of childhood trauma. And before that, it had been anxiety (“Maybe you’re not actually as happy as you think,” I recall one post offering in a dire tone. “Maybe you just have high-functioning anxiety.”) 

The narcissism talk felt similar, but I noticed it also felt different, and for a long time I couldn’t tell why. Therapy-talk had long become a core facet of the online world. That wasn’t new. And the self-diagnosis movement was well underway. It was a movement that I in many ways felt excited and inspired by, given the ways women, in particular, had historically been overlooked for certain conditions. 

But the partner or ex-partner as narcissist content was striking me differently, giving me that uneasy feeling in my gut. Was it that I had actually been married to someone with Narcissistic Personality Disorder myself for all these years? No, that wasn’t it. Then what was it? 


Narcissism is one of those terms that’s tricky because we could be using it to refer casually to a self-centered thing our best friend did last week or we could be using it to describe a pretty serious mental health diagnosis. Most of us think we have a decent idea of what it is, but at the same time aren’t totally sure. Maybe this murk is part of why we’re seeing so many people on the internet trying to explain it. 

On the more serious side of that equation, and what most of the online chatter is referring to, is the condition that psychologists call Narcissistic Personality Disorder.  The history of that diagnosis is like the history of many of our psychiatric diagnoses – it’s wildly evolved since its inception and it continues to carry some of the remnants of early roots. In fact, when narcissism was initially discussed in psychology, it focused primarily on “self-love” in a sexual sense, essentially referring to masturbation. Given that masturbation at the time – this was the late 1800s – was considered a “perversion,” narcissists were people psychiatrists worried were so caught up in getting themselves off that they couldn’t engage in a relational sexual experience. 

Now, I definitely know people who would say that even this older definition of narcissism applies to their modern-day partners or exes, but in general that’s not how we think about narcissism anymore. By the mid-20th century, narcissism had evolved to be more focused on someone’s ability – or inability – to maintain a sense of self while also empathizing and connecting with others. In many ways characterizes the core challenge for people with high levels of narcissism. 

Freud had suggested that we only have a certain amount of libido (not just in the purely sexual sense, but in the interest and affection sense) and that people with high narcissism were hoarding all of theirs for themselves. 

Despite the term being used for literally thousands of years, the disorder of Narcissistic Personality wasn’t in our diagnostic manuals until 1980. NPD as a diagnosis was an attempt to categorize this constellation of behaviors that included a really exaggerated sense of one’s own greatness, a continual need for praise, and an apparent lack of empathy for others. The DSM didn’t offer how or why this condition develops, just as it doesn’t for most of our diagnoses. It simply describes a set of behaviors and, sometimes, internal experiences. 

Different theories exist, of course, to try to make sense of how someone develops NPD. Most at the very least acknowledge the role of early experiences, as we don’t believe people are born with NPD and there is no definitive genetic link. We believe that narcissism develops as a defense when people grow up in situations in which they might get way too much or too little admiration – essentially, when their external feedback doesn’t match their internal sense of themselves or their behaviors. We can imagine a child who is trying to build an internal ego or sense of self and the inputs are so distorted that it leaves them with a disconnect between what’s outside and what’s inside. 

While people with NPD can present with this very grandiose-seeming sense of themselves, most of us recognize that their actual internal sense of self is incredibly fragile. It’s why they crave so much external validation, seeming to need it to prop themselves up so they don’t crumble like a house of cards. And crumble they sometimes do, which is when we might see really problematic and hurtful behaviors. People I’ve seen over the years with this personality profile have had problems ranging from infidelity, substance abuse, interpersonal rages, and major parenting challenges. 

If we accept the general psychiatric community’s perspectives of NPD – and to be crystal clear, no one says we have to, as there’s certainly much to be desired – but if we did, we would expect that anywhere from one in every 200 to one in every 20 people has NPD. To give some context on those numbers, about one in every three people in the U.S. have been diagnosed with anxiety and/or depression. So what’s notable about those numbers is that the range of actual incidence is wide for NPD (we clearly need better data), and that relative to a mental health condition like a mood disorder, it’s fairly rare. 

Here’s the other thing that’s always important to pay attention to when we’re talking about diagnoses and prevalence rates. The rates of NPD diagnosis tend to be higher among certain racial and ethnic groups, such as Black men and Latina women. When I hear things like this, I get very curious about how cultural bias and stereotyping is playing into diagnosis. How might, for example, white projections of Black men influence how we interpret the behavior as narcissistic, behavior that if engaged in by someone from a different racial identity be interpreted differently? When it comes to diagnosis, and especially personality disorders, it’s important to maintain a curious and critical eye. 


What makes personality disorders particularly fraught is that we’re often diagnosing them in others, without their participation in the label. I think that was the first thing I realized made me feel off when scrolling through all the NPD content. Unlike autism or ADHD or  trauma, the narcissism content wasn’t about understanding one’s own internal world better; it was about conceiving of a diagnosis for someone else. And while we can know someone like the back of our hand, it’s nearly impossible to be certain about how they internally experience the world. 

To state what may feel obvious: people who feel great about themselves – at least at the outer edges of their consciousness – are not often the ones knocking down therapists’ doors. That doesn’t mean that these folks don’t end up in therapy. When they do, often it’s a function of being brought into couple’s work by an unhappy partner or being given an ultimatum or even legal mandate because of a substance use issue or other behavior that’s causing problems. 

When people with NPD do end up in therapy, particularly if not willingly or of their own accord, the results can often be… lacking. Part of this is related to the lack of insight and defenses that characterize the disorder itself. Part might be because of the internal resistance to doing something that they didn’t brilliantly conceive on their own. But regardless of the reason, the limited or slow-moving progress that’s traditionally been seen in patients with NPD has resulted in many therapists essentially writing these folks off. They call them untreatable and unchangeable and often end up focusing on supporting partners who may be in treatment with them to deal with them or leave them. Not to mention, a lot of therapists just don’t like these folks very much. They get under their skin. They make them feel ineffective. 

As the narrative of NPD as difficult to treat has grown, it’s translated to the general culture as narcissism being a core and fixed feature, something that doesn’t change. People have it or they don’t, we’re led to believe. If they do, they are unhelpable. Oh, and they are very, very bad. Or so it goes. 

Now, a narcissistic person with very low insight and very little interest in the possibility of change can in fact be a very, very bad partner. They can be dangerous – incredibly so – for the mental and emotional well-being of the people in their lives. The therapists who are counseling loved ones out of relationships with a narcissistic person may in many cases be doing the best, most protective thing. No one deserves to be in a situation in which they are suffering narcissistic abuse. 

And, like most things that start off as nuanced and get distilled down into 30-second Reels or a few lines of text overlaid on a TikTok video, it’s possible we’ve also lost a lot of the additional truths. We’ve short-changed our way of thinking about something that’s incredibly complex. 

For one, narcissism is a trait – like extraversion or agreeableness. It can be useful to think of not as a discrete or tangible feature – like whether we have a particular gene sequence (there’s no gene for narcissism that’s been found, by the way) – but rather as a quality that exists on a spectrum for human beings. From this starting point, we can see that we all exist somewhere on the narcissism spectrum. Sure, some of us are on the very far end, a place where it seems narcissism is absent because we are so deeply empathic and other-oriented. I might suggest, however, that those of us at that very far end may actually have more in common with narcissists, rather than less, if we consider how a lack of stability in a sense of self underlies both extremes. 

It’s uncomfortable for most of us to think that we could have any degree of narcissism. Most of us want to see ourselves as good people, people who are attuned to the needs of others and have a humble sense of ourselves. Well, most of us who have been socialized as women at least. This is certainly the version of self that’s been held up in our society as acceptable for females. As a result, any sense of grandiosity or lack of interest in others is pretty severely punished in women. So, we work to dispel or downplay these aspects of ourselves, at least outwardly. This may be why diagnosed rates of narcissism are much lower in women than men. 

If we can think of narcissism as something that we are not, not even a little bit, then it lets us feel good and righteous and safe. And it lets us believe that those who do have these traits are a whole other breed. 


As I thought about this binary that was being represented online, I started to understand my reaction to all these creators warning me about my apparently narcissistic ex. It wasn’t that narcissism didn’t exist. And it wasn’t even that narcissism in a partner or ex-partner wasn’t something to be alerted to.

In fact, there was a part of me that knew there were so many women who needed to understand these dynamics and just how damaging their partner’s narcissism was on their psyche. It was the part of me who has always been a fierce advocate for keeping women safe and protected, who wants nothing more than women to know their own worth and deservedness for a healthy relationship. 

But what I was seeing was a groundswell of creators churning out NPD content that both over-represented the frequency and represented it in such a way that it completely othered and rejected the people it was describing. When I say rejected, I don’t mean encouraging viewers to remove the person with NPD from their lives (as a decision about removing someone may be quite appropriate and healthy), but rather rejecting as humans through, in some cases, the same behaviors attributed to narcissist – things like name-calling, encouraging snarky or aggressive behaviors, and stereotyping. 

I thought about why these creators were exploding, why women all over the world were so hungry for this information and framing. On the one hand, I considered, maybe this was the moment. This was the time that finally women had access to a way of understanding what’s been happening in their relationships that feels empowering. Maybe NPD had been so much more rampant than we’d ever recognized before, and this was the democratization of being able to identify it. 

On a related hand, I wondered if the reason that this content was constantly viral was because women had been dealt such shitty behavior for so long that finally having a name – a diagnosis, no less – felt reassuring and validating. 

I thought about how many people I knew who had gotten out of heartbreaking relationships recently and described their ex as a narcissist. I realized that in most of those interactions, I hadn’t been inclined to question whether the ex had met the diagnostic criteria. I had simply known what the person meant. And, importantly, it had engendered in me a sense of relief and pride in them for breaking free from a toxic pattern. 

But here’s the thing. And I say this with all of the nuance and love and respect that I can possibly muster: I would be proud and relieved for them even if the ex wasn’t a narcissist, at least not technically speaking. Even if they were just a jerk or not right for them or lacking in empathy or simply not who they needed on the next leg of their life journey. 

Because here’s what I’m suspecting, and what I want us to consider: Is it possible that we have gravitated to the diagnosis of narcissism so strongly as a society because as women we feel we need more justification to set boundaries or leave? That we are still facing such scrutiny and still so punished by society for daring to have self-trust that it is a welcome relief to have something our culture has already defined as concrete and bad to point to? 

A crucial caveat is in order. The last thing that I want anyone reading this to walk away thinking is that I doubt your experience. NPD is a diagnosis. It exists in the world and people have it and then get married and treat people they are with like garbage. It hurts souls. It is painful and real. 

No one – no one – has lived inside your relationship except you and your partner. It’s likely you know your partner or ex better than anyone else does. And you know what you have experienced. So I am not suggesting it’s not NPD. And I’m certainly not suggesting you made the wrong call to leave, if that’s what you did. 

And yet. What I do want to offer is that ascribing diagnostic terms to someone else who isn’t part of that diagnostic process can end up being dehumanizing. It can, depending on how we get there and how we use the terms, end up reducing their personhood. And at the end of the day, anytime we reduce someone’s personhood, we end up reducing our own. 

I’m imagining someone who has been through some real shit reading this. I’m picturing her, this woman who mustered up the insight and courage to leave that guy who was dehumanizing her, and maybe feeling frustrated that I seem to be putting the responsibility back on her to not call a spade a spade. Or perhaps getting the idea that I think she should have put up with his treatment. (Goodness, no!)

To that woman – and to all of us – I want to say that maybe he was a narcissist – I can’t tell you for sure (and probably neither can the relationship coach online). And I want reinforce that the whole reason that I think this topic is worthy of so much discussion is actually because I want us all to know that we can and should decide how we want to be treated regardless of if the other person has a clinical diagnosis attached to them or not. Maybe they do; maybe they don’t. The tricky reality is that most of us may never know for sure — and that’s okay because we still don’t have to allow that behavior in our lives. 

Whether one’s ex is a narcissist, an asshole, or something else entirely maybe isn’t even the point, at least when it comes to deciding what we deserve. If using NPD as a framework is helpful to get out of a bad situation, then I have absolutely nothing against it. But I also hope that as society, we are reinforcing the idea that we can set the boundaries we deserve regardless of whether our Instagram feed diagnose them.

Dr. Ashley Solomon is the founder of Galia Collaborative, an organization dedicated to helping women heal, thrive, and lead. She works with individuals, teams, and companies to empower women with modern mental healthcare and the tools they need to amplify their impact in a messy world.

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