9 Myths about Narcissism Almost Everyone Believes

Think there's nothing healthy about narcissism? Think again.

Posted Jan 05, 2016

Dean Drobot/Shutterstock
Source: Dean Drobot/Shutterstock

For reasons that range from personal interest to personality theory, narcissism is one of psychology's hottest topics. It’s possible the reason is that people with narcissistic tendencies like to learn about themselves, but there are also fundamental questions about the nature of personality that could be driving this interest.

There's a lot we can learn by understanding the nature of narcissism. Psychoanalysts perhaps were the first to focus on this condition when they identified common themes among patients seeking help with symptoms that created severe problems in living. Freud may have invented the study of narcissism, but the route to our present understanding comes from Otto Kernberg (1928), who identified the “pathological” form of narcissism in his early writing. Fast forward to Christopher Lasch's 1991 publication of The Culture of Narcissism. This moved narcissism from a somewhat arcane position in psychiatry to front and center of our social woes.

Ironically, Lasch’s work regarded narcissism as a social problem of the 20th century, particularly the 1980s. In his book, he covers narcissism in such wide-ranging fields as politics and sports. The origins of narcissism, he argues, are changes in family dynamics and the “new illiteracy” in the schools.

Traditional psychology has since moved on to embrace narcissism research, particularly within the field of personality. There are now several very good self-report measures of narcissism along with scales that assess narcissism as part of the “Dark Triad” of personality—along with Machiavellianism (the tendency to manipulate people) and psychopathy (the lack of ability to empathize or show remorse). Narcissism is getting a thorough revamping through this empirical treatment.

Yet in popular speech, people’s tendency is to use "narcissism" in ways that go well beyond its initial conceptualization, and conflict with the published research. You may be in a relationship with someone who appears to be self-centered and unable to see your point of view. It’s easy to slap the label of “narcissist” on this partner (especially when you're angry), and if the problems continue, you may become increasingly frustrated and ready to leave. Another common trend is to regard social media as creating a new generation of narcissists, preoccupied with selfies and self-impression management. However, do you ever stop to ask yourself just how accurate these depictions are? Do you use the narcissism label because it’s at the top of psychology’s top 100 conditions?

Let’s now see if your views fit with the evidence. I’ve broken beliefs about narcissism into nine separate categories to examine each one as specifically as possible. (Obviously they also relate to one another, and it's important to keep these connections in mind.)

1. "You’re either a narcissist or you’re not."

By using the term “narcissist,” we equate the person with the condition. However, psychologists who study both personality and psychopathology urge that we not refer to a person by the condition we think that person might have. For example, when you call someone a “schizophrenic,” you’re implying that one label can encompass the entire person, with all of his or her strengths and weaknesses. People can have narcissism in different degrees, and they also can have other personality features that counter their narcissistic tendencies (as you'll see below).

2. "All narcissists are the same."

Kernberg was the first to point out that there can be a pathological form of narcissism which we now call Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Even though people may meet the criteria for this diagnosis, however, they show the symptoms in differing degrees. There was even a movement prior to the publication of psychiatry’s most recent diagnostic system (the DSM-5) to regard all personality disorders as existing on a continuum. This effort was not successful because clinicians preferred to use categories in assigning diagnoses. Even within such categories, though, clinicians recognize that there are important individual variations.

3. "Narcissists believe they are superior to others."

The inflated “ego” (or sense of self) in narcissists comes across to others as extreme grandiosity and self-importance. Mental-health professionals prefer not to diagnose anyone they don’t formally assess, nor should they from an ethical point of view. However, several well-known mental health experts went out on a limb in November 2015 to offer a tentative diagnosis of Donald Trump as having narcissistic personality disorder. Trump indeed would seem to fit the profile of the “grandiose” narcissist because he portrays himself as better than pretty much everyone else; however, according to some views of narcissism, this grandiosity may be covering up a gnawing sense of inferiority for which he overcompensates in the way he speaks and behaves.

4. "Narcissists can’t form close relationships."

Whether vulnerable or grandiose, people high in narcissism may appear to be unable or unwilling to become close enough to others to have true intimacy. If we accept the premise that people high in narcissism have an underlying weak sense of self, then we can see why they may not want to allow others to peek into their psyches and see how weak they feel they are. Grandiose narcissists may seem to be attractive partners at first glance, but over the long haul, they can't sustain a truly close relationship. As Brunnel and Campbell (2011) point out, the “paradox” of narcissism in relationships creates problems for partners—but these are not insurmountable.

5. "Young people are more narcissistic than ever."

We've already seen that the 1980s were the so-called "age of narcissism," which leads to the question of why so many people assume now that the Millennials are unique in being "a generation of narcissists." It seems that if they are, so were their parents. So this myth is already proven, at least in part, to be wrong. There’s even better evidence that current young people aren’t more narcissistic than previous generations: Barry and Lee-Rowland (2015), in a review of nearly 2,700 16-to-19-year-olds spanning 14 different times of testing, showed no time-bound changes in narcissistic personality scores whatsoever. Media hype seems to be over-selling this image of a supposedly entitled younger generation. 

6. "Once a narcissist, always a narcissist."

As I reported in an earlier blog, narcissism can moderate over time, particularly under the right conditions, in which individuals feel supported by the people in their lives. Aging may be tough for people whose narcissism causes them to focus excessively on their appearance and status. Being in a long-term relationship may further help them develop a greater sense of self-acceptance, ultimately reducing their feelings of vulnerability and need to show their superiority over everyone else.

7. "There’s nothing healthy about narcissism."

It’s true that the pathological form of narcissism is, by definition, not healthy. However, if we buy into the theory that this form of narcissism develops out of a sense of inferiority and weakness, it follows that some narcissism might even be healthy. It’s good for your mental health to feel self-confident and effective. We’re all a little egocentric, so being slightly self-centered doesn’t make you a narcissist.

8. "Narcissists got too much attention from their parents."

The psychodynamic theory of pathological narcissism says that parents who give their children too little acknowledgment of self-worth are setting the stage for their offspring to become insecure adults. The key factor in narcissism’s development isn’t the amount of money or attention parents provide (as is often claimed by the Millennial narcissist proponents), but their inability to make their children feel valued for who they are.

9. "Narcissism is actually a 'thing.'”

As you have read, narcissism isn’t something you can truly see in a person—or a generation, for that matter. People vary in narcissism; they can have healthier or unhealthier forms; and their narcissistic tendencies may moderate over time. This is true, perhaps, of all psychological constructs. We talk about them as if they were concrete entities, but until brain scans can identify each and every component of our mental functioning, ideas such as narcissism remain only ways of organizing information about people into conceptually understandable notions.

How many of your own assumptions did you recognize in these myths? Most important, moving forward, the next time you read an article about “narcissists,” just change the “ts” at the end of the word to “sm,” and you’ll be on safe ground.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

References

Barry, C. T., & Lee-Rowland, L. M. (2015). Has there been a recent increase in adolescent narcissism? Evidence from a sample of at-risk adolescents (2005–2014). Personality And Individual Differences, 87153-157. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2015.07.038

Brunell, A. B., & Campbell, W. K. (2011). Narcissism and romantic relationships: Understanding the paradox. In W. K. Campbell, J. D. Miller, W. K. Campbell, J. D. Miller (Eds.) , The handbook of narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder: Theoretical approaches, empirical findings, and treatments (pp. 344-350). Hoboken, NJ, US: John Wiley & Sons Inc.

Edelstein, R. S., Newton, N. J., & Stewart, A. J. (2012). Narcissism in midlife: Longitudinal changes in and correlates of women's narcissistic personality traits. Journal Of Personality, 80(5), 1179-1204. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6494.2011.00755.x

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2016