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Narcissism

7 Serious Misconceptions About Narcissism

Here's what we're getting wrong about narcissism and why it matters.

Key points

  • Persistent misconceptions about narcissism can enable abusers and perpetuate trauma.
  • Narcissism and its effects are not overblown, not rare, and not obvious to most people.
  • Replacing fallacies about narcissism with awareness strengthens all levels of society.

There is much talk of narcissism these days, and yet there are persistently dangerous misconceptions about what it is, what it looks like, what causes it, and how it affects others. Here are seven fallacies we all need to be aware of about pathological narcissism and its impact on individuals, families, social groups, and societies.

7 Misconceptions About Narcissism

1. Talk of narcissism is sensationalized hype.

False. Narcissism is not new, not a fad, and not empty, exaggerated, or hysterical hype. A person with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) has profound developmental deficits and a reactive, exploitative, and oppositional personality structure. Narcissism and its most extreme form, sociopathy, are characterized by volatility, a lack of emotional empathy and self-reflection, black-and-white thinking, compulsive denial and projection, a desire to control and dominate others, distorted and grandiose self-beliefs, and an ongoing need to bolster the self by degrading others.

2. We don't know what causes narcissism.

False. For sociopolitical reasons, psychology has been slow to acknowledge that the primary cause of NPD and other personality disorders is attachment trauma in early childhood. There are always genetic and epigenetic factors in personality development, but insecure attachment is what gives rise to the unstable self-esteem, emotional alienation, lack of individuation, and grandiose compensations that drive narcissism.

3. Narcissism is uncommon.

False. Narcissism is all around us, and we all know narcissists. They are in our workplaces, our schools, our churches, our health care systems, our government, our communities, and our families. Narcissists are fathers, mothers, siblings, grandparents, friends, neighbors, pastors, doctors, therapists, judges, lawyers, teachers, coaches, entertainers, and politicians. Narcissism crosses all categories of country, culture, class, and creed. It is one of the great themes of art and literature and the main source of conflict in many of our films and television programs.

4. Narcissists aren't in my family.

False. Most families have people who are narcissistic. They may or may not be in your immediate family, but they are most certainly in your extended family and/or ancestry. Whether we call them villains or just plain jerks, they are part of the human condition. They are disturbed, emotionally disconnected human beings and they are hiding in plain sight.

5. Narcissism is easy to spot.

False. Narcissistic behavior is sometimes obvious, particularly in its more flagrantly domineering and attention-seeking form. But most of the time, narcissism is hidden. A defining feature of the narcissistic personality is a well-developed public persona designed to ingratiate, persuade, seduce, influence, win favor, and otherwise pass as normative. Narcissists conceal their selfishness, cruelty, and contempt for others for the simple reason that they would be called out and ostracized if they didn't. Typically it is only those closest to narcissists who see their unmasked rage and antagonism.

6. Narcissists don't intentionally hurt others.

False. Narcissists do intentionally hurt others. They are exactly the type of people who deliberately hurt others or who don't care if they hurt others in the pursuit of what they want. Like the rest of us, narcissists know right from wrong, and they know when they're doing harm. The narcissistic personality is a perfect storm for abuse. Repeat: Narcissists have an ongoing need to bolster the self by degrading others.

7. We're all narcissists.

False. By virtue of having our own brain and body and the need to self-advocate, each of us can be prone to some narcissistic patterns. When under stress we may, for example, lapse into childhood defenses of denial or projection, manipulate to get something we want, or judge someone who appears different from us.

Pathological narcissism, by contrast, involves a lifelong pattern of neglectful and abusive behavior toward others, with a devastating impact on the abused. Driven by a desire to control, outdo, exploit, and humiliate others, narcissists compulsively distort reality, leverage vulnerability, violate boundaries, and blame-shift their own abuse onto those they abuse. They elicit a fear response, ranging from subtle to intense, in those around them, creating ongoing hyperarousal in family members that results in profoundly debilitating complex trauma, often perpetuated across generations. Complex trauma impedes healthy brain development and nervous system functioning, weakens immune response, lowers emotional and physical resilience, and leads to degraded health and lower life expectancy.

Conclusion

These dangerous misconceptions about narcissism lead people to misinterpret or overlook the disorder, to excuse and enable the behaviors that accompany it, and to miss or dismiss its impact. When we fail to recognize the destructive reality of narcissism, our families, institutions, and society at large suffer. We become inured to the patterns of abuse and fail to oppose it or, even worse, we gaslight and abandon the victims.

By recognizing and acknowledging that narcissism is pervasive, even in our own families, that it is intentionally masked, that it stems from insecure attachment, that it induces debilitating trauma in those around it, and that it shows up at all levels of society, we can create interventions to help prevent its emergence, protect and support family members, and safeguard our social groups and institutions.

Facebook image: Anatoliy Karlyuk/Shutterstock

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