Mythbusting Narcissism! 6 Myths About Narcissists
There are quite a few things about pathological narcissism that people might believe which are incorrect and some of them are damaging or cause problems, so we will address them here.
This is a big one. Many people believe that narcissists have no emotions, and if someone displays emotions, they aren't a narcissist. This is just not true. Narcissists definitely have emotions and in fact, they are ruled by them. They may be in denial of these emotions, but they have huge influence over the way narcissists think and behave. That's one of the reasons their behavior is what it is. It's all reactive, and they are reacting to their emotions. Narcissists often have no empathy, but having no empathy doesn't equal having no emotions. It equals having no understanding, and it's more complicated than that.
This is one of the biggest myths or misunderstandings regarding narcissism that exists. Not only is it true that narcissists actually do have emotions, but they operate as if these emotions are facts. That's why you can't talk them out of something they feel is true. If they feel it, it must be real. If they feel you are cheating, if they feel you are lying, if they feel you are tricking them, if they feel you are manipulating them, that you are abusive, that you are fake, that you are hateful, that you are jealous, envious, out to get them... then you are. It doesn't matter what reality actually shows them. Any proof to the contrary doesn't matter either. If they feel it, it must be true.
This is one of the areas where you can tell the pathologically narcissistic from those who just have traits or are just stubborn. A person who is just stubborn can still see reality. They can be swayed by proof. Their opinions, thoughts and behavior can be adapted to fit the truth of the situation. They are able to recognize that they were wrong or mistaken. You don't see that with pathologically narcissistic people. They will continue to insist - and believe - that they are right or correct based on their feelings, even in the face of total failure or overwhelming proof that they are wrong.
This is one of the ways you can tell you might be dealing with a pathologically narcissistic person. Their only proof is "feelings." Now, we all get feelings sometimes that something is wrong or that something has happened. But if we investigate the situation and we find no evidence to support this, we accept that we were mistaken. Pathologically narcissistic people don't do that. For example, let's say that a narcissist believes someone has stolen from them. They have no reason to believe that, just feelings. If they investigate the situation and find absolutely no proof of anything, however, this does not change their mind. They continue to believe it based on their feelings. They will continue to accuse, punish, and attack the person, even though the person has done nothing wrong. As we can see, not only do narcissists have feelings, these feelings are a central part of what makes them the way that they are.
This is one of the more frustrating myths about narcissism. We hear it all the time: "Narcissists will never apologize!" That's incorrect. Many narcissists apologize. It happens all the time, in fact. Belief in this myth can confuse people terribly, because they may believe if someone apologizes, they can't be a narcissist and that's not true. It would be more accurate to say that most narcissists don't know what remorse is. They often confuse it with shame, and when they display shame, many of their victims confuse it with remorse, too. Many people believe that if someone feels shame, they must be sorry. Don't confuse shame for the self with shame for actions, because these are not the same. Narcissistic people often have deep-seated pathological shame about who they are as a person, and it has nothing to do with anything they've done.
A non-narcissistic person who cheats on their spouse may feel shame for being the kind of person who cheats as well as remorse for hurting their spouse with their behavior. A pathologically narcissistic person only feels shame because they have been discovered doing something wrong; remember: to a narcissist, imperfect people are worthless. That includes themselves. This belief triggers pathological feelings of self-hatred and reflexive shame anytime they are caught - or believe they've been caught - doing anything wrong. It has nothing to do with being sorry - at all.
Many times, that self-hatred and reflexive shame are expressed as rage against the person they hurt, because this is the person who has discovered the wrong. It may also come out as gaslighting and other types of overt manipulation in an attempt to deny the wrong and by extension, the shame and self-hatred attached to it. None of this is about the narcissist's perception of their own behavior as wrong.
It is about:
- other people's perception of the behavior ("That's wrong!")
- their resulting perception of the narcissist for engaging in the behavior ("You are wrong for doing that!")
- the narcissist's reliance on other people's perception of them to validate their worth ("I'm worthless because I am not seen as perfect!")
It's also important to remember that many times, the narcissistic person's apology is simply a manipulation. They know what needs to be said to get what they want and they say it. That's why the apology only comes when they want something. Let's say you've been arguing with your narcissistic parent for hours and you finally say, "OK. I've had enough of being blamed for this craziness. I'm leaving." If they don't want you to leave, they may suddenly begin apologizing. Or maybe they don't care that you are gone until your sibling no longer speaks to them either. Then suddenly they want to apologize, simply because there is no other way to get you to do what they want. Narcissists often do apologize, and it's a mischaracterization to say that they don't. Whether they are actually sorry is another story.
3. Narcissists are always or mostly male.
This is a very damaging myth. Historically, statistics have overwhelmingly colored narcissists as male, with some reporting up to 75% of narcissists as male. Should we believe these statistics? It's hard to say. Statistics are not real life. It is perhaps similar to statistics regarding Borderline Personality Disorder. Borderline Personality Disorder is considered to affect females by an overwhelming majority. This is not true. Some theories suggest that part of the reason for this skewing of statistics regarding BPD is the idea that "women with BPD often end up in the doctor's office, whereas men with BPD often end up in prison." Part of this is cultural: if a woman begins screaming and breaking things or assaults her husband, her husband may feel that she needs help because she is having a breakdown or because things are not right and he may push her to seek help. If a man begins screaming and breaking things or assaults his wife, his wife may call the police. Both of these are examples of Borderline rage, but they may be dealt with differently by spouses and family and it may depends on the gender of the person acting out. Fair or unfair, this is the way it is. This is not to say that Borderline men never seek help and Borderline women never go to prison, of course. It's just a general example.
Another part of the problem may be that the way men and women act out can be different. Women with BPD may scream and cry and go into hysterical fits of rage or threaten suicide but never actually physically hurt anyone, whereas men with BPD may react with physical violence. Because this is a "different" behavior, the man is perhaps not recognized as suffering from BPD. It's a multi-faceted situation colored by a lot of things and narcissism statistics are likely the same. Because women don't always behave in the ways that are historically and culturally associated with pathological narcissism in men, it may be that the disorder is not recognized, causing statistics to be skewed.
The most important thing to remember is that narcissism does not play favorites. It doesn't care about gender. It affects people of any and every gender, race, age, ethnicity, sexuality and relationship. Getting hung up on these things here is trivial and distracting. It misses the point completely, and the point is about learning to recognize narcissists. It is about recovering from narcissistic abuse, or surviving it when you are in it.
This is something we hear continuously, but the truth is, not all narcissists are unfaithful in relationships. Many are, but they aren't all. Just like any other type of person, narcissists are individuals and they are different. Some may never be unfaithful and others couldn't be faithful if they tried. Like anyone else, it has to do with what kind of personality they have. There are those narcissistic people who try to use their body or looks to get attention and there are those who try to use victimhood, intelligence, achievement... it's down to the kind of person they are. All narcissists use other people to prop up their own self-worth but they don't all do it the same way. This is important to remember because when assessing someone for narcissistic qualities, the motive is more sometimes important than the behavior. Many people cheat, and they are not all narcissists. Just because someone cheats, that doesn't mean they are narcissistic and more importantly, just because someone doesn't cheat, it doesn't mean they are not a narcissist.
Though it can be hard to remember when you are stuck in a devaluation cycle with a pathologically narcissistic person, narcissistic people are not always mean and horrible. On the contrary, they can be amazing. No one is more compelling than a narcissist who is intent on winning someone over. And though they are mostly focused on getting their own needs met and they view relationships as transactional, they are still human beings and can certainly have "good days" where they are fun to be around, do nice things for others and in general are OK. This is really the most dangerous thing about narcissists: they aren't always mean and because of that, it can be easy to simply push the abusive behavior aside when it's not happening. It's too easy to write that behavior off as abnormal or an aberration of character. In fact, it isn't. It's just the cycle of the situation. Just because someone is nice sometimes, this doesn't mean they aren't abusive or narcissistic. It means they are nice sometimes. Ted Bundy was nice sometimes.
This may be the most dangerous myth about narcissists that there is. It is true that some narcissistic people present themselves this way. However, many do not. There are narcissists that come off as insecure and needy, as helpless victims. There are narcissists that come off as benevolent peaceniks, as generous benefactors, as intellectual superiors. There are narcissists that come off as heroes, as martyrs... They are the farthest thing from the stereotypical idea of a narcissist that it is possible to be, yet they are still narcissists. This is a dangerous myth because it causes people to be unable to recognize narcissists that don't behave the way people believe they are supposed to behave. Covert narcissists are able to do a lot of damage exactly because they don't come across as arrogant or domineering. They often control through neediness and helplessness, or through the use of guilt and favors. There are some that control through intellectual browbeating, couching their domination as benevolently doing "what's best for" the victim, who is portrayed as too stupid or incompetent to take care of themselves.
So there you have it. Some of these things can really result in a lot of confusion for people. They might believe that if every box is not checked, they are aren't dealing with a narcissistic person even though they could be. We have to remember that narcissists are individuals and the expressions of a disordered personality are not like the results of a recipe. If you put the same ingredients into something the same way, you'll always get the same result. It's not like that with people. People have different personalities, experiences, traits. They may have the same core features, but they aren't always going to show these things the same way. Not everyone checks every box. That doesn't mean they aren't a narcissist.