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Common Myths About Narcissistic Personality Disorder

9 min read

By Katherine George

  • NPD is an illness that causes an inflated sense of self, desire for attention and admiration, and lack of empathy for others.
  • Because so many areas of NPD are still unknown even by experts, it’s often misunderstood by the general public.
  • Some of the most common myths are that narcissists have high self-esteem and confidence, and that they are overly outgoing.
  • The truth is they are often deeply unhappy, insecure, and struggle with low self-esteem, as well as depression and anxiety.

We’ve all referred to someone as a “narcissist” for acting self-centered, self-righteous, or any other self-indulging personality trait. While there’s a possibility it might have been true, the reality is that most people do not have narcissistic personality disorder (NDP). But, many people can exhibit forms of narcissism from time to time.

The difference between narcissism and NDP is that NDP involves a long-term pattern of behaviors and thoughts that affect a person’s life in many different ways, explains VeryWell Mind. It often affects their work, family, and friendships. Despite NDP being a recognized illness for 50 years, it’s still largely misunderstood. Here’s a look into the most common myths about narcissists…

What is Narcissistic Personality Disorder?

Narcissistic personality disorder is one of many different types of personality disorders. The Mayo Clinic describes it as a mental condition that causes people to have “an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, troubled relationships, and a lack of empathy for others.”

This condition impacts many areas of life, from relationships, to work, school, and even financial affairs. While they might seem confident and sure of themselves, people with NDP are usually extremely unhappy. They struggle with disappointment when they aren’t awarded the special privileges or admiration they think they deserve.

Myth: Narcissists are Outgoing

Most of us have this notion that all narcissists are outgoing, boisterous people. We assume we’d immediately know if we ever met one. Thanks to TV shows and movies, we often picture them as really successful people in positions of power, such as politicians, celebrities, and reality stars. While narcissism does run rampant in these groups, these are also stereotypes.

An article on Huffington Post written by Dr. Craig Malkin, Clinical Psychologist and lecturer at Harvard Medical School points out that some narcissists couldn’t care less about fame or money. “A great deal of narcissism has nothing to do with confidence or extroversion,” writes Dr. Malkin. “And many introverted narcissists might even be anxious, depressed, and self-doubting.”

Myth: Narcissists are Charming

Another common stereotype is that people with NPD are very charming and will sweep others off their feet. While being superficially charming is certainly a common trait of NPD, many of them are also quite boring and annoying, according to Psychology Today. The charming ones are merely storytellers who try to make their lives sound more interesting.

The source points out that people with NPD are constantly working to impress others or make a good first impression. For those who stick around long enough, the charm quickly wears off. You’ll likely hear them tell the same stories over and over again. Also, they usually aren’t trying to charm one specific person. They’ll use the same techniques on anyone who will listen.

Myth: Narcissists Have Confidence and High Self-Esteem

Narcissists often has this very grandiose personality and exude a lot of self-confidence, but this is just a facade. They portray this to impress others and make themselves seem superior. The root of this behavior is a lack of confidence and low self-esteem. Psychology Today explains this is a way for them to “manage their self-doubt, and stave off feelings of shame and self-hatred.”

The Mayo Clinic also states that the exaggerated self-confidence in NDP is actually a way of overcompensating for their very low self-esteem. “An inflated sense of self…is actually a protection people with NDP use to cover up extreme hurt they are embarrassed or feel guilty about,” explains psychiatrist Laura Dabney, M.D. when talking to Self.

Myth: They Intend to Hurt People

While people with narcissistic personality disorder do tend to hurt people close to them, it’s not necessarily done on purpose. In fact, Psychology Today argues the opposite is true. They’re so wrapped up in themselves and their own emotional and practical needs, they’re often oblivious to the ramifications of their actions.

A lot of the damage is collateral and not intentional. This isn’t to say it’s any less devastating, but there is a distinction in the intent. “Their goal is getting narcissistic supplies or defending themselves from what they perceive as devastating attacks on their self-esteem and sense of importance,” writes the source.

Myth: NPD is Common

The DSM-5 estimates anywhere from 0 to 6.2-percent of the population has NPD. This number came from a 2010 review of studies in Comprehensive Psychiatry that looked at seven different studies published between 1980 and 2008. Together these studies examined nearly 50,000 adults and found NPD was prevalent at a rate of 1.06-percent. The 0 to 6.2-percent range comes from two particular studies that had large representative samples, but found different results.

A 2007 study published in Biological Psychiatry conducted face-to-face interviews with over 9,000 adults and found 0-percent of them met the criteria for NDP. However, a 2008 study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry which interviewed nearly 35,000 adults found that 6.2-percent of the participants met the criteria for a diagnosis. The truth is, NPD isn’t necessarily common and we don’t know how common or uncommon it is. More research is needed on the topic.

Myth: They are Master Manipulators

There is this notion that people with NPD are extremely smart and manipulative. They have this cunning ability to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes and manipulate them to get what they want. While this is true for some, it’s not the case for all. Psychology Today writes that narcissists are often more similar to children who learn by trial and error to get what they want.

“They take advantage of the other person’s willingness to give in to them,” writes the source. The best way to combat this is to set firm boundaries. “Pay attention to what is actually going on, and don’t doubt your own judgement; you are likely to see right through most narcissists’ attempts to manipulate you.”

Myth: All Narcissist are Dangerous and Evil

Another stereotype perpetuated by the media is that all narcissists are dangerous and evil. The truth is, they are people, just like us. No two are the same, so we can’t make sweeping assumptions about them. Narcissists often behave in ways that are hurtful, but this doesn’t mean they are inherently evil.

NPD causes people to be insensitive, lack empathy, and be very self-cenetered, warns Psychology Today. They also require validation from others to maintain their self-worth. This means “some narcissists can be dangerous and controlling, while many are not. […] narcissists can feel insecure quickly about many things, such as when a partner wants to meet friends or even when they just have a differing opinion,” explains Peter Klein, Counselling Directory member and counsellor to Happiful.

Myth: Narcissists Can’t Form Close Relationships

While it’s harder for people with NPD to form close relationships and even fall in love, it’s not impossible. “More extreme narcissism or those with NPD may find it harder to be able to connect, and therefore fall in love. Connection is hindered by their problematic tendencies such as pushing people away in order to keep them down,” says Klein to Happiful.

Also their desire for external admiration and recognition from others can wear on people, making it harder for deep connections to survive. According to an article on The Recovery Village, most relationships involving a person with NDP require a lot of work, introspection, and understanding of the challenges that influence this condition.

However, “people with NDP can have successful, close relationships with others by examining the pattern of behavior that sometimes causes their relationships to falter,” writes the source. They have the same range of emotions as people without this disorder, but are hypersensitive to criticism from others. To counteract this there needs to be healthy communication and an awareness of their triggers.

Myth: You Can Change a Narcissist

Anytime a loved one exhibits a major flaw, particularly in relationships, their loved ones convince themselves they can change them. Unfortunately with narcissistic personality disorder, this is not the case. This diagnosis is a personality disorder that runs deep and cannot be cured.

What they need is therapy and support from family and friends who set healthy boundaries. Unfortunately, there are no FDA-approved medications for treating personality disorders like NDP, explains the Mayo Clinic. This is because experts still don’t fully understand it. However, people with this personality disorder can take medication for anxiety and depression. A better form of treatment is therapy, but it’s hard to get someone with NDP to admit to their issues.

The best outcome from therapy is “when a person can understand that they have strengths and weaknesses, as do other people,” says Anthony DeMaria, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and assistant professor of psychiatry at Mount Sinai Hospital to Self. They need to learn healthier forms of interaction with other people. Also, reframe how they view themselves and others in order to live a more balanced life.

Myth: Social Media Causes NPD

People tend to throw the word “narcissist” around a lot. They often use it to describe someone who is acting spoiled, entitled, or just self absorbed. For example, the millennial generation (anyone born after 1980) has been branded as the “most narcissistic generation ever,” writes Dr. Malkin for Huffington Post thanks to things like social media. But the truth is social media, taking selfies, and counting likes is more about personality traits than personality disorders.

Regardless, the overuse and misuse of the label “narcissist” still persists today. “Narcissistic personality disorder is a serious diagnostic label,” warns Alice Frye, Ph.D.. a licensed clinical psychologist and associate teaching professor at UMass Lowell when talking to Self. “It should be used very cautiously and only by a professional.”

Myth: Narcissism and NPD are the Same

People often use these two terms interchangeably, but they are quite different. First off, narcissism is not an official mental health disorder, explains Dr. Malkin, whereas narcissistic personality disorder is. “Narcissist isn’t a recognized diagnostic discriptor either; it’s shorthand for someone who scores higher than the average on narcissism measures and may or may not be disordered,” writes the source.

According to Dr. Malkin, many narcissists never reach the criteria for NDP. Interchanging these two terms is actually mixing two completely different groups of people. Klein further explains to Happiful that NPD is a far more serious problem than the act of narcissism. The emotions associated with NDP are darker and long-term. It fuels such a sense of emptiness that it can lead to anxiety and depression.

“Many of those with NPD are unable to connect with others on a deeper level which means that their relationships are more superficial,” says Klein. “Someone with NPD will often not be able to experience empathy, and therefore is more likely to exploit others for their own means.”

Senior Managing Editor

Katherine is the Senior Managing Editor of ActiveBeat and Childhood. She is constantly striving to live a more active and healthy life, from eating healthy, exercising, and just spending more time outdoors. She enjoys cooking (with wine), walking her dog, reading, and recently joined a yoga studio!

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