The Little Shaman is a spiritual coach & specialist in cluster B personality disorders, with a popular YouTube show and clients worldwide.
When we talk about narcissists, we are talking about people who are pathologically narcissistic. Pathological narcissism is a long-term pattern of toxic narcissism that shows up in various ways, most of which affect a person's life and relationships significantly. People often ask, "Is this narcissistic behavior, or is that narcissistic behavior," but the truth is that pathological narcissism is about more than behavior. When we are trying to distinguish narcissism from other reasons for behavior, we have to look at patterns and motivations in someone's life.
For example, we often hear that smear campaigns are narcissistic behavior. For those who don't know, a smear campaign is where someone tells others negative, often untrue things about someone else. But behavior needs context. You can't just look at behavior in a vacum and say someone is or is not a narcissist if they do it. A person who goes through a really bad break up and runs around telling others how awful their ex is does not have to be a narcissist to do that. Narcissistic behavior is ego defensive and can show up in anybody if they feel attacked, defensive or hurt enough. It's still toxic behavior for sure, but not everyone who displays narcissistic behavior is a narcissist. Pathological narcissism is about patterns, motives, mindsets and thought processes, not just behavior.
Ghosting is another thing we often hear is a narcissistic behavior. Ghosting is when someone disappears out of your life, never to be heard from again. Maybe they stop returning phone calls, or block you on social media or maybe they move away and never tell you where they went. Once again, though, a person does not need to be a narcissist to do this. For example, someone may be really uncomfortable with confrontation and because of that, they never confront someone about a problem they have with that person. They just stop talking to them. This is not necessarily healthy and many consider it unfair, but someone doesn't have to be a narcissist to behave this way.
This is why it can be hard to say if someone is a narcissist just based on things they do. Behavior needs context. Because pathological narcissism affects a person's entire personality, the whole picture has to be examined. We can't just say, "This person ghosted someone else, or this person talked bad about their ex or this person cheated. That means they are a narcissist." We can - and should - think twice about whether we want to engage in a relationship of any kind with a person who does things like that, but we can't just assume they are disordered because of a behavior.
Pathological narcissism is about patterns. Using our earlier example, if someone goes through a bad breakup and says negative things about their ex, they are not necessarily a narcissist. They are obviously hurting and it's probably not a good idea to get involved with them at this moment, but doing this kind of thing in one situation does not a pattern make. However, if they do this every time a relationship ends, then it's time to look at it a little more seriously. That suggests a pattern, and not a very nice one.
You will usually find themes in a pathologically narcissistic person's life. They often have the same kinds of problems over and over again, and they attempt to resolve them the same way over and over again. Every ex is crazy, or abusive, or a cheater; every coworker is jealous, or every boss is a tyrant. They were always the victim, or the hero, or the smartest or the most creative. Always. The scenery changes, but the storyline rarely does. Their motives are always the same, the motives they pin on others are always the same and the pattern is always the same. The behavior can be different, though, even when the motivation or goal is the same. This is another reason it's important to look at patterns and motives in conjunction with behavior.
For example, someone who pulls out your spark plugs or physically attacks you to keep you from leaving the house has very different behavior than someone who threatens suicide or suddenly has a crisis in order to keep you there but their motivation is the same: both people are trying to control you and stop you from leaving. Another example is a hero narcissist and an overt, bullying narcissist. Their behavior usually seems pretty different most of the time but their motives are not different at all. The same person can even engage in what seem like different behaviors during different situations or with different people. This apparent change in behavior doesn't really mean anything, though, because the motivation is still the same. Someone could be very passive-aggressive at work, but very overtly aggressive at home. The motivation behind the seemingly different behavior is still the same: to punish others.
When someone is displaying narcissistic behavior, it's usually because they are hurt or feeling defensive. Narcissists feel this way all the time, which is why they chronically display narcissistic behavior. The behavior may look offensive, because they are in survival mode and their perception is often very skewed. When someone is not a narcissist, meaning they are not pathologically narcissistic, they will display the behavior as long as the feelings last or until they learn a healthier way to deal with things and then they will go back to "normal." For instance, a person may behave out of character after a divorce, or when a loved one dies.
The good news is, you don't need to be able to distinguish between these things with pinpoint accuracy to know that someone is toxic. Information and understanding are great to have, but it's not your job to fix someone else or figure out why they are doing something. It's your job to create and enforce boundaries to protect your energy, yourself and your space so that you can keep that toxicity out of your life.