People with narcissism instinctively and purposefully construct a persona designed to present an aura of certainty, superiority, attractiveness, and strength to the world.
But the more you get to know a narcissist, the more you may discover that something doesn’t quite add up.
For example, if they are so confident, why do narcissists have such difficulty admitting fault or apologizing for their missteps?
If they are so superior, why do they need to put others down so often?
If they are so attractive, why do they need repeated reassurance of their beauty or worth?
If they are so strong, why do they become easily unhinged by small slights?
Dealing with narcissists can be mystifying and exhausting. Knowing what is behind narcissists’ shiny facade can allow you greater perspective and compassion in dealing with people suffering from Narcissistic Personality Disorder or a destructive narcissistic personality style. Seeing behind the curtain can also allow you to set healthier boundaries with narcissists.
Here are seven key assumptions many people make about narcissists, along with the more likely truth behind these mistaken assumptions:
1. Narcissists are supremely confident.
Narcissists often seem sure of themselves, as though what they say and believe at the moment is the absolute, unquestionable truth.
Yet NPD develops to defend against insecurities underneath: a deep fear of humiliation; a tireless need for attention; and a profound aversion to appearing weak, flawed, or as a loser. These insecurities drive narcissists to cultivate an image of supreme confidence to distract others from seeing the deeper fears and weaknesses.
2. Narcissists don’t need anybody.
Many narcissists have an air of superiority and independence that makes it appear like they are completely self-reliant. Narcissists can possess an ability to turn on anyone they feel no longer serves them or that has betrayed them.
Many an ex-spouse or partner of a narcissistic person can recall how their ex moved on from a breakup to find a replacement partner, often in days. It can leave former partners feeling inadequate and discarded.
But in truth, narcissists lack the ability to provide a sense of worth and self-esteem from within. Because of this, they are driven to seek it externally in the form of attention, dominance, wealth, power, or perceived desirability. Like a parasite, people with destructive narcissism are completely dependent on others for their psychic lifeblood.
3. Narcissists feel in control.
They may look like they are on top of the world, living without a care. But because appearances are crucial to narcissists, anything that threatens to tarnish their image is experienced as an existential threat.
Lacking a sense of trust in the world and in their own inherent worth, many narcissists live on constant alert, scanning for real or perceived threats to their carefully constructed disguise. When they sense a threat, they launch a full-out response, often in extreme fashion. Many narcissists also seek to feel in control by making others feel out of control through deception, gaslighting, and put-downs.
4. Narcissists are happy.
Many narcissists can seem like they have it all and are enjoying their lives. Yet in many cases, this is simply another way to act better than others by seeming happier, more put-together, and to be living a more remarkable life. If you look closely, you may see happiness without real substance.
Beneath a smug exterior often lies the despair of having to prove their worth every day through external means. Many narcissists may not be directly in touch with this despair, but it drives their sense of entitlement and need for narcissistic supply in the form of attention, triumph, power, and material goods.
5. Narcissists are secure.
Many narcissists seem strong and completely self-satisfied. But their sense of security is an illusion.
Sam Vaknin, a self-acknowledged narcissist who writes about the disorder , said that when he or other narcissists feel slighted or ignored, it is like “watching oneself die” or “disintegrating into molecules.”
Narcissists have an underlying fragility. They cannot stand to feel illegitimate or inferior in any form. That is why their narcissistic rage can be so great and so easily triggered, even by small events or interactions.
6. Narcissists are not afraid.
Many narcissistic people posture as tough and cocksure, boasting that they aren’t afraid of anybody or anything. They may sport an “I’m the biggest son-of-a-b*tch in the jungle” attitude. Or they may act as though they don’t need to boast of their courage, because it should simply be assumed by others.
Beneath the braggadocio lies the deepest fear for many narcissists: that they are ordinary. Feeling special is central to so many of narcissists’ actions. The lack of feeling special is wounding to narcissists because it exposes the insecurities which their facades are designed to disguise. The fear of being common (let alone inferior) must be defended against 24/7.
7. Narcissists understand why they act as they do.
Narcissists can seem all-knowing. They seek to be above reproach.
But in truth, NPD is a formidable force. Few narcissists spend much time in introspection. Glimpses of the insecurities beneath their facade are rare and fleeting. The defenses inherent in a personality disorder like narcissism can seem miles thick and respond like lightning when a narcissist feels threatened.
We can certainly have compassion for the wounds many narcissists suffered early on that may have led to such a personality disorder or style. We can have compassion for the pain and emptiness of the always-at-war stance many narcissists seem to endure, even cultivate.
Yet we must also give ourselves full permission to protect ourselves from the hurtful, intimidating, and manipulative actions narcissists do to hide or offload their pain and fear. No one has the right to degrade another.
Recognizing the psychic shell game they play can allow us to take their actions less personally. Knowing their true motivations may allow us to respond more authentically, sidestepping their antics while holding on to and expressing our power and sense of self.
© Copyright 2019 Dan Neuharth, Ph.D., MFT