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Are There Really So Many Narcissists?

The term "narcissist" has entered common vernacular, but is likely overused.

Key points

  • There are many social media sites dedicated to having "survived narcissism."
  • Humans are inherently selfish, at least as much as they are inherently cooperative.
  • Selfishness is often easily seen in others, but not in oneself.
  • Though two types of narcissism had been identified (grandiose and vulnerable) recent research suggests only the vulnerable type is narcissism.
Artwork by Alexi Berry. Used with permission.
Source: Artwork by Alexi Berry. Used with permission.

Psychological terms have always found their way into mainstream verbiage. However, in common vernacular, they are often misused. When you call someone “psycho,” you generally do not mean that they are a diagnosable psychopath. People are often asked if they are bipolar because one minute they are OK and the next upset. However, being reactive is not a reliable indicator of having bipolar disorder, any more than feeling down for a day or two is indicative of depression.

One psychology term that I have noticed being misused lately is “narcissistic.” On social media, I have seen posts by “My Narcissistic Ex,” and when searching it found many others ("Narcissistic Abuse Recovery," "Narcissistic Mothers," "Raised by Narcissistic Parents," and the list goes on). It seems nearly everyone has been affected by a narcissist close to them. Except statistically, that is unlikely.

Though many consider narcissism to be on the rise (see The Narcissism Epidemic by Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell) and this is often blamed on the millennial generation, the prevalence of narcissistic personality disorder remains pretty stable at around “0 to 6.2 percent in community studies,” according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (APA, 2015).

As I stated above, it seems likely that the general public is overestimating its prevalence, and labeling people who may show characteristics of narcissism, or the trait of narcissism (as opposed to the disorder) as narcissistic. In fact, when researchers say narcissism is on the rise, they are talking exclusively about the trait, not the disorder.

Humans are selfish. As I wrote in, “You’re So Selfish,” studies have found humans to be at least as selfish as they are cooperative (Robinson, 2014). If you adhere to evolutionary theory, our basic goals are survival and procreation. If most of what we do boils down to these two drives, then is it not easy to assert we have evolved to be selfish? Even cooperation has been linked theoretically to evolution. After all, if one were selfish all of the time they would eventually be ostracized from the group. Historically (though not as true today) this would have led to less chance of survival.

Despite humans being selfish, one rarely sees oneself as selfish. This is due to cognitive biases that protect the ego. As such, one is much more likely to see selfishness in others, but have reasons and justifications as to why his behavior is not selfish.

Studies indicate empathy is declining and the trait of narcissism is on the rise. People are becoming more selfish, and seeing less benefit in being empathic (see, “Entitled? Lack Empathy? Research Shows There are Benefits”). Perhaps this is the logical brain overrunning the evolutionary one. One does not need to be as accepted by a single group today as was the case historically. There are so many people that new groups can be found.

Perhaps there are other explanations, besides the "ruining" of the world by younger generations. In fact, perhaps that is just what is always blamed. I have often referred to this quote I read long ago: “The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority… Children now are tyrants… and tyrannize their teachers.” The author of the quote is no contemporary. It was Socrates (470–399 BC).

Before I leave the topic of narcissistic personality disorder, I want to share some recent research. There have been two types of narcissism identified, grandiose and vulnerable narcissism. Recent research, however, has challenged that typing, and suggested that the only true narcissism is vulnerable (Kowalchyk, Et. al., 2021). They purport that grandiose narcissism is actually a type of psychopathy. What this means in general terms is that true narcissists are so because they have used this strategy to cope with insecurities.

So what does one do if they have been hurt by a selfish other? First, one must recognize and acknowledge her pain. In a recent podcast on mercy and forgiveness, psychologist Charlotte Witvliet discusses viewing forgiveness as a process, and how it is necessary to honor the pain, not force forgiveness, and recognize one’s power in forgiveness. Additionally, there is a focus on the benefits of genuine forgiveness (as a moral response to a perceived relationship betrayal, rather than for the physical and psychological benefits). In her research, she found that empathy, especially understanding the other as human and flawed, is beneficial to forgiveness (Vedantam, 2021). However, it is also understood that empathy and forgiveness should not be forced, and again that forgiveness is a process.

I am unsure if all the social media accounts dedicated to victims of one type of narcissism or another assist with this process. At best they provide a community of people who have in common being hurt by a selfish individual. This may lead to the process of working through the pain, and perhaps eventually beginning the process of forgiveness. At worst though, they keep rehashing hurt and feeding it, focusing on victimization, and, likely, falsely labeling a selfish person as a narcissist.

Copyright William Berry, 2021


American Psychiatric Association. 2015. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Kowalchyk, M., Palmieri, H., Conte, E., Wallisch, P. 2021. Narcissism through the lens of performative self-elevation. Personality and Individual Differences, Volume 177, July 2021, 110780.…

Robison, M., 2014. Are People Naturally Inclined to Cooperate or Be Selfish?. Scientific American.…

S.M., Ruan, W.J., Pulay, A.J., Saha, T.D., Pickering, R.P., Grant, B.F. 2008. Prevalence, correlates, disability, and comorbidity of DSM-IV narcissistic personality disorder: results from the wave 2 national epidemiologic survey on alcohol and related conditions. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 2008 Jul;69(7):1033-45. doi: 10.4088/jcp.v69n0701.

Vedantam, S., 2021. The Power of Mercy? From the podcast Hidden Brain.

More from William Berry, LMHC., CAP.
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