By Chris Seiter and Jennifer Seiter

Published on June 20th, 2023

One of the big questions that we get asked about exes and narcissism from our clients has to do with them wondering if their ex is actually a narcissist or just completely selfish.

Now, we’ve all heard of the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) traits.

You know, those special 9 traits that narcissists are likely to exhibit.

  1. Grandiose sense of self-importance
  2. Preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success
  3. Need for excessive admiration
  4. Sense of entitlement
  5. Interpersonal exploitative behavior
  6. Lack of empathy
  7. Envious of others or believes others are envious of them
  8. Arrogant and haughty behaviors or attitudes
  9. Believing that they are unique or special

Of which if you exhibit five or more you can be diagnosed as a narcissist.

But I actually want to go deeper.

Because the truth is that everyone has narcissistic traits but not everyone is a narcissist and then when you consider the fact that most human beings are completely selfish when it comes to their relationship choices it can be hard to untangle which is which.

So, before I say this next bit I do want to say that all of these are our opinions and you should seek medical professionals to actual diagnose. 

With that out of the way I think one of the best ways to untangle the selfish vs narcissist debate is to look at these eight traits,

  1. They are micromanagers
  2. They treat people below them a certain way
  3. They constantly play the victim
  4. The uncanny valley
  5. They lack compassionate empathy
  6. The narcissist turns every conversation about dominating others
  7. The narcissist has a different moral compass than someone who is selfish
  8. They care about what they will lose from you

My wife and I have spent a lot of time cultivating this list and it’s tailored specifically for the selfishness vs. narcissist debate.

Let’s dive in!

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Trait #1: They Are Micromanagers

One of the telltale signs that you’re dealing with a narcissist is that they are typically extremely controlling, often micromanagers.

I’m going to use an example from a very famous individual, Jewel, to illustrate this point.

Jewel’s story is particularly intriguing. She left home at 15, and despite the odds stacked against her, she succeeded and became a multi-million dollar record seller.

However, one of the reasons that she left home was to escape her parents, specifically her mother, who is believed to be a narcissist. After Jewel strikes it big she manipulates her into allowing her to manage her career.

(Spoiler Alert)

It’s very reminiscent of that scene from million dollar baby when Hilary Swank’s mother comes when she’s paralyzed to try to take all of the money she earned:

Anyways, as Jewel’s success soared, her mother never allowed her to make decisions independently.

In fact, she ended up stealing $100 million from her.

Yes, you read that right.

When Jewel confronted her about the theft, her mother simply said:

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When can talk when you’re ready to apologize to me.

This incident led to a significant falling out between the two (obviously.) But I want you to take special note of the selfishness and gaslighting at play here.

While I acknowledge that a selfish person could potentially steal from you, what I find particularly intriguing here is the cold empathy exhibited by Jewel’s mother.

It’s likely that Jewel desired a good relationship with her mother, but instead, she was tricked into making her mother her manager, who then micromanaged every aspect of her life.

The level of control here is excessive, with the theft being a direct result of this controlling behavior.

The ongoing debate around selfishness versus narcissism, I believe, exists because so many narcissistic traits appear selfish.

However, it’s crucial to identify the root cause of the narcissism. Narcissists typically view their victims as objects or opportunities to replenish “their supply.”

In Jewel’s case, her mother clearly saw her as a supply of money, which she ultimately obtained.

Trait#2: Pay Attention To How They Treat People “Below Them.”

Another significant red flag to watch for is how they treat people they perceive as inferior to them.

For instance, let’s imagine that you’re out at a restaurant, enjoying a good time, and your ex makes a snide remark about the waitress who is taking your order even though the waitress didn’t do anything wrong.

Not good…

But let’s make it worse.

As an example, my wife shares a story about one of her exes who thought it was humorous to stiff a waitress by signing ‘Mickey Mouse’ on the check and then calling the restaurant the next day to mock the situation.

If you notice frequent instances where this person is treating those they perceive as lower in status with disrespect then your ex might go beyond just being “selfish.”

Trait#3: They Constantly Play The Victim

This is a pattern we often observe at Ex-Boyfriend Recovery, and it can be challenging to untangle in the debate of selfishness versus narcissism.

If your ex is always playing the victim, blaming others for their mistakes and failures, it’s definitely something to keep in mind.

But how would a narcissist blaming others actually manifest?

Let’s consider someone who grew up with a father who continually blamed others or circumstances for his lack of success or wealth. Or consider this very same person who blames a divorce for their failure to invest in a stock that could have made them a millionaire.

These are common mindset traits that a person with a narcissistic personality tends to exhibit.

I believe there’s an inherent coping mechanism at play here. It’s so much easier to blame someone else for your problems instead of taking ownership of them.

The fact that blaming others can make a person feel good is perhaps strange, but if someone else is the cause of your failure, you have a convenient scapegoat.

This blame game can bring a sense of satisfaction.

And what can I say, narcissists love scapegoats.

Trait #4: The Uncanny Valley

The concept of the ‘uncanny valley’ is often overlooked in the breakup industry.

So, what the heck is it?

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This concept of the ‘uncanny valley’ was first proposed by Masahiro Mori, a professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, back in the 1970s.

He used this term to explain that as robots become increasingly human-like in their appearance and intellect, they actually become more appealing. However, there is a specific threshold at which they begin to appear eerie or unsettling.

So, if you ever have “that feeling” that surfaces when you’re in a relationship with someone, and you persistently sense that something is off. It’s as if you’re dealing with a person that resembles a human being, but there’s still something crucial missing beneath the surface.

This unsettling feeling is often attributed to relationships with narcissists due to their demonstration of ‘cold empathy,’ which makes them seem robotic.

So, as corny as this is going to sound I feel like it’s super important that you learn to trust your gut.

If something isn’t quite right with the way your ex has treated you.

They say all the right things and maybe “at first” do all the right things but you just sense something is off. You may be sensing that uncanny valley.

Trait #5: They Lack Compassionate Empathy

It’s important to understand that people can be genuinely selfish without necessarily being narcissistic.

The difference lies in the fact that selfish people can exhibit compassionate empathy, narcissists can’t. However, distinguishing between someone with compassionate empathy and someone with cognitive empathy can be tricky, as narcissists are adept at simulating genuine empathy.

A potential indicator to help you discern the difference is if your ex-partner offers comfort but then expects something in return—be it sex, rides to and from work, material possessions, or assistance with work or homework—in exchange for their consolation.

If you start to notice this pattern, which might initially feel off or inappropriate, it’s likely a red flag.

This behavior tends to indicate more than mere selfishness.

It can often seem as if you’re dealing with someone who operates on a quid pro quo basis—willing to show a bit of affection, but only if they receive something in return. Usually, this ‘something’ is what they’re lacking in their supply.

Trait #6: The Narcissist Turns Every Conversation Into Them Dominating Someone Else

While selfish or self-centered individuals may seek attention and try to control a conversation, narcissists do so in a distinctive way.

The difference lies in how the conversation is dominated.

A selfish person might start and dominate a conversation, primarily focusing on themselves. In contrast, a narcissist seizes every opportunity to steer the conversation towards proving their superiority over others.

This distinction might not always be apparent but is crucial to identify.

If your partner is merely selfish, they might monopolize the conversation, talk extensively about themselves, and possibly even brag a bit.

However, when you’re dealing with a narcissist, they don’t just control the conversation but continuously stress how much better they are than everyone else, how much more money they earn, or how superior they are in other aspects.

They might not explicitly state, ‘I am better than this person,’ but the underlying tone of superiority is a constant.

Trait #7: The Moral Compass Debate

The next aspect to talk about is the ‘moral compass’.

This is a factor that often doesn’t receive much attention, but it varies significantly between a simply selfish person and a narcissist.

Narcissists typically excel in one area of their life but the rest of their life outside of that one area is complete chaos.

For instance, they may be exceptionally loyal partners, not cheating on you, or they may be extraordinarily good at their jobs or with children. However, they usually excel in just that one area, with the rest of their life often in chaos.

Narcissists also commonly blame others when things go wrong, unlike selfish people who are capable of apologizing.

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The Jewel example I gave above perfectly illustrates this.

Trait #8: They Care What They Will Lose From You

A selfish person will care if they lose you, but a narcissist will care more about losing the benefits they derive from you.

This brings us back to the concept of ‘supply’.

For a narcissist, supply can take various forms

  • Admiration
  • Money
  • Sex
  • Praise
  • Reputation
  • Fame
  • Winning

Think of it as their lifeblood; they constantly need it to maintain their sense of self-worth.

If a narcissist seems more upset about losing the ‘thing’ they get from you during a breakup, rather than losing you, it’s a dire sign.

Let’s take an example of a selfish ex straight from our community:

In this case, the ex wants his ex-partner to wait around for him while he dates other women.

Is he selfish?


Is he an jerk?


But is he a narcissist?


Here’s how a narcissist would handle this situation:

A narcissist in this situation would cheat and, if caught, blame you for driving them to cheat.

This difference in behavior is perhaps the most significant distinction between someone who is merely selfish versus someone who is narcissistic.

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