What People Get Wrong About Narcissists

·Senior Editor
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Look into the mind of a narcissist, and you might be pleasantly surprised. … Or horrified. (Photo: Flickr/Matthew Roth)

You’re so vain, you probably think this article is about you. Don’t you? Don’t you?

It’s OK — at least, if you’re a narcissist.

People love to hate on narcissists. And some of that’s fair. By definition, narcissists are self-centered and lack empathy for others — not exactly the most desirable personality traits. But narcissists are also often misunderstood  — and are more common than you might think, experts say.

“Every living person has some narcissism in us. We all fall on a spectrum,” says Fran Walfish, PsyD, a Beverly Hills family and relationship therapist and author of The Self-Aware Parent. “My personal clinical observation is that about one-third of the population among us is narcissistic.”

Here’s a look at some of the main things people get wrong about narcissists, according to psychology experts and the people who know narcissists best: themselves.

Related: Is Your Friend a Narcissist? The Telltale Signs of 6 Personality Types

1. Narcissists are actually pretty good at reading other people.

Narcissists are known for being self-involved. But they can also be very sensitive to how another person is thinking or feeling, which goes against what most people would expect, says Mark Ettensohn, PsyD, a psychologist in Sacramento, California, who specializes in narcissism. 

“Because narcissists spend so much time trying to manage deeply felt insecurities and trying to read other people for whether or not they’re liked, they tend to get pretty good at knowing what’s going on inside of others,” Ettensohn tells Yahoo Health.

Related: 5 Benefits of Narcissism

2. A lot of narcissists have low self-esteem.

“People think that narcissists love themselves too much, when in fact it’s usually the opposite,” Ettensohn says. Many narcissists have such low self-esteem that it actually feeds into their narcissistic behaviors. They’re so hungry for positive feedback, Ettensohn explains, that they exaggerate their achievements to themselves and to others.

3. Narcissists often assume leadership roles (but they’re not necessarily good leaders).

People who have healthy self-esteem and a moderate degree of narcissism tend to be sought after for leadership roles, says Daniel Bober, DO, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Yale University School of Medicine.

“People with moderate degrees of narcissism project self-confidence and draw people in, and people tend to follow them because of that confidence that they have,” Bober tells Yahoo Health.

In fact, a study from Ohio State University confirmed that narcissists tend to be the first to step up and take charge when a group lacks a designated leader. In the study, researchers split undergrads into groups of four and asked them to participate in a mock debate with one another about fictional political candidates.

After the discussion, the study participants assessed the leadership qualities of the other group members. The results, which were published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, found that students with narcissistic traits were more likely to be seen as leaders by the other group members. They were also more likely to volunteer to be leaders, and to say that they led the group.

“It’s not surprising that narcissists become leaders,” study author and narcissism researcher Amy Brunell, PhD, said in a statement. “They like power, they are egotistical, and they are usually charming and extroverted. But the problem is, they don’t necessarily make better leaders.” 

4. There are two different types of narcissists.

Ettensohn makes a distinction between two types of narcissists: the grandiose narcissist and the vulnerable narcissist. Allow a Disney movie to explain. Gaston from Beauty and the Beast is the classic grandiose narcissist: someone who pumps himself up to compensate for low self-esteem. That’s the type most people think of when they hear the term “narcissist.”

The vulnerable narcissist, Ettensohn explains, is like the Beast. He’s trying to get back to his ideal image; he feels worthless, like no one can accept him for who he is.

“The grandiose presentation is the compensating, defensive side of the coin,” Ettensohn says. “Rather than feeling kind of empty and worthless, I’ll just convince myself that I’m amazing, and then I’ll try to get other people to give me that feedback and admiration.”

Vulnerable narcissism occurs when that attempt fails. “Vulnerable narcissists tend to be depressed, have social anxiety, be a little bit more mercurial when it comes to their mood. They tend to assume that they’re not liked or unwelcome somehow,” Ettensohn says. “They really struggle with feeling like they’re good enough, and feeling like anybody could like them.”

Related: There Are 3 Types of Perfectionists — and One May Have Psychopathic Tendencies

5. There’s a big difference between a narcissistic personality and narcissistic personality disorder.

Narcissism occurs on a spectrum, Bober explains. “It can be adaptive and healthy, but in the extreme — like all things — it can be pathological,” he says. “When people talk about narcissists, they are often thinking about narcissistic personality disorder, so these character traits in the extreme. Those are people who lack empathy, people who believe that they’re entitled to special treatment, people who are self-centered and only focused on themselves.”

The line can be murky, but generally, the disorder occurs when narcissism is negatively impacting your life in a significant way.

Another misconception, Ettensohn adds, is that narcissistic personality disorder can’t be treated. Talk therapy can be effective, he says, and involves helping the person realize and accept his or her authentic self.

6. Narcissists know they’re narcissists — and don’t mind admitting it.

Researchers recently discovered a simple, accurate way to determine whether or not a person is a narcissist: Ask them if they’re a narcissist. The study, published in PLOS One, asked subjects, “To what extent do you agree with this statement: I am a narcissist.” The participants also filled out longer questionnaires about a variety of narcissistic traits and behaviors. People were surprisingly good at rating their own level of narcissism, the results showed.

To further understand the most common misperceptions about being narcissistic, we teamed up with Whisper, a free app that allows users to share their secrets anonymously, to gather candid thoughts from 21 people who identify as narcissists.

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For more confessions about identity and personality, check out Whisper.

Read This Next: Are We Born Narcissists — Or Is It Someone Else’s Fault?

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