Talking About Yourself Doesn’t Make You a Narcissist—it’s Just Conversation

In the complex world of interpersonal communication, people can be too quick to attribute personality disorders to others.

Published: Apr 27, 2023  |  

Actor-writer-producer and author


“I think she’s a narcissist,” said the man seated next to me on the ski lift. 

“I’m right here!” I joked, to no response. Chastened, I listened to the rest of the conversation.

“Whenever we’re talking, she turns the conversation around to herself,” he concluded. 

This sent me into a maelstrom of reflection. I’ve noted, with great interest, two contrasting memes lately. One says: 

“Normalize not bringing up a relatable story about yourself when someone is telling you something about themselves, and just listen please.” 

The other: 

“Normalize the knowledge that bringing up a relatable story about yourself, when someone is telling you about themselves, is a way that neurodivergent people connect with others and show that they care.”

It’s enough to make your head explode. We’re all trying to navigate the occasionally complex world of interpersonal communication and all these damn rules—especially in opposition to each other—don’t make it any easier. So, I’m going to ask for something that may make you spit: sympathy for the “narcissist.” 

Why? Because I think most of us have some strain of narcissism running within us. Especially in a culture that fosters rampant individualism, it’s hard to avoid being somewhat self-inured. Also, I know that I have had narcissistic traits—I am an actress, after all—and I know that, at its worst expression, it came from pain.

A depressed person, for example, has trouble seeing beyond the walls of their own experience. I felt so “other” that I would listen to people talk, and hearing them talk about themselves, I thought it was okay and did the same. My words would land with a thunk. 

It took a lot of work and therapy before I could build myself back up to the place where I could have a normal (even delightful!) human interaction. Did it involve asking questions, listening more and talking less? Yes. But I balk at the idea that discourse should be a monologue on one party’s personal experience.

In fact, I think the person who demands the floor with no consideration of someone else’s input is far more likely to be the actual narcissist. They are so annoyed to be sharing experiences that they must diagnose their scene partner. Projection, perhaps? 

With my best friends, conversations are a volley of personal stories and ideas. There are agreements and commiserations. There is flow. But it’s possible we’re all neurodivergent. I’m not certain, though, what kind of relationship is engendered by the first meme. “I shall hold forth as long as I see fit and you can speak when I allow it and not before”? Sounds like a blast.

Of course, there are ways one can go conversationally overboard. If you’re one-upping the speaker, that’s never a good look. And if you’re not really listening but only waiting for “your turn” to talk, you won’t make any friends either. But, to my thinking, there’s a way to balance the give-and-take that is healthy, natural and more fun. 

Consider, if you will, this conversation between two new dog owners:

“I just got a puppy!”

“Oh my gosh, me too! What kind? What’s its name?” etc.

Look, you’re both excited about the puppy. The second party should not be expected to thwart their glee at both their puppy and this delightful coincidence. They should, however, immediately throw the attention back to the first speaker. What if the second speaker allowed the first to hold forth on their puppy, knowing all the while that they, too, had a new pal? It seems unnatural to me and lacking in the intimacy of which a human bond is capable. An actual narcissist is not capable of this bond. Should the second speaker be labeled a narcissist because they brought up their pup?

We need to be gentler with each other and go easy on the application of varied diagnoses. Are there actual narcissists? Sure. But someone only caring about themselves—not simply talking about themselves—is the indicator. Realize the next time someone annoys you by trying to relate to you, are you just upset they stole your thunder? We are all having individual experiences and we are our only frames of reference. Forgive those who try to share theirs with you.

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