24/07/2017 08:05 BST | Updated 24/07/2017 08:06 BST

Why Are We So In Love With Calling People Narcissists?

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Why does it seem that millennials are constantly labeling people narcissists? originally appeared on Quora - the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.

Answer by Karen Arluck, Clinical Psychotherapist in private practice:

There is a quote that an old boss of mine used to say:

"When what you've got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail"

In this case I use the term "the hammer" to refer to someone's knowledge about the term "narcissist" or "narcissistic personality disorder". The nail becomes everyone else around them. I believe that as a particular topic like NPD (narcissistic personality disorder), gains public interest by people who are not in the mental health field, it gains popularity, interest, and increased curiosity as well. For many people this means that they begin to chew on this idea, and look at the people in their life, in the media, or elsewhere and begin to wonder if they are narcissists.

One of my ongoing motivations to write extensively on the topic of personality disorders, is to help clear up much of the misinformation that is currently being spread about this complicated diagnosis, and to help people have a clearer understanding of situations in their lives. I find that as people understand a topic better, they are more careful about where and when they apply these labels in their lives.

Painful relationships leave people with questions:

There have always been relationships where people got emotionally hurt, ended badly, or otherwise were left with bad feelings. This leads people with many question marks in their mind like:

  • Was it all me?
  • Was it them?
  • If it wasn't me, what's wrong with them?
  • Why did they do this?
  • Why is this person this way in the first place?

People often seek explanations for painful life situations:

As humans we struggle with emotional areas in our lives that we do not have all the answers for, and we naturally tend to fill in those areas with what we imagine to be the answers. There is something soothing to most people about having an explanation for the question marks in their mind about their various life struggles that they are dealing with. As the term "narcissist" recently gained popularity in the media, some people quickly generalised this term to explain many of the unpleasant interactions (romantic relationships, family relationships, colleagues, friends, etc), they may have had to deal with.

Many people are incorrectly labeled as narcissists:

Without a thorough understanding of the disorder and the underlying motivations, I believe that this has contributed to many people being incorrectly labeled as being narcissists or as having NPD. This does not mean that people are not legitimately in emotional pain due to traumatic relationships, but this does not necessarily mean that the person who hurt them is a narcissist. Based on what I have read, it seems that in many of the cases, the person in question treated them terribly for many other self-centered reasons besides fitting the clinical definition of NPD. There are of course cases where people may be correctly assessing that the person is likely to have NPD, but this seems to be a much smaller fraction of the situations.

However, based on the many posts about narcissists, it might confuse someone into thinking that suddenly everyone was a narcissist! Let's not forget that it wasn't that long ago that the same type of people were referred to as being: "Bipolar", "Schizo", "multiple personality", or "psychopaths". This is certainly not the first time that a diagnosis has gained popularity, and gotten applied in many more cases than it was actually appropriate.

The point is...

While I do not have statistical evidence on the current prevalence of NPD in the world, (as this would be nearly impossible to quantify), my hunch is that the disorder itself is probably about as common as it has been before. However, people have simply become more aware of it due to it's current popularity in the media, and this may lead them to be quick to apply it to other people who may not actually be narcissists. When this is combined with the current general fascination about the topic it might mistakenly appear that everyone was suddenly a narcissist.