Are narcissists self-aware?

It’s probably one of the most common questions people ask about narcissists: are they aware of the effect they have on people? 

Remember, narcissists are often self-centered, manipulative, and lacking in empathy. Given these traits, it’s only natural to wonder whether they are self-aware. 

Understanding self-awareness in narcissists can be quite complex, because the level of self-awareness can vary based on the person. Ultimately, narcissists tend to show several traits that can make self-awareness difficult.

Factors affecting self-awareness

There isn’t one straightforward answer to the question of whether narcissists are self-aware. Instead, there are several factors to consider.

Below, we’ll explore ten points related to the nuances of self-awareness in narcissists. 

1. Varied levels of self-awareness

Narcissistic behavior exists on a spectrum, with some people showing more severe traits than others. This means that some narcissists may have a limited understanding of their behavior, while others are more aware of the effect they have on others. 

Even if narcissists have some degree of self-awareness, they will still rationalize and justify their bad behaviors. It’s just important to understand that the degree of self-awareness will vary, based on the severity of narcissistic traits. 

2. The role of grandiosity and delusion 

Narcissists have an inflated self-image, believing themselves to be superior to others. Since they think they’re so special, narcissists can have a distorted sense of self-awareness.

Narcissists’ grandiosity makes it difficult to see their flaws or recognize how their behaviors affect others. Because of their grandiosity, they may have a hard time being self-aware. 

3. Cognitive dissonance 

Narcissists may be aware of their actions but are also prone to cognitive dissonance. This term refers to tension that develops when someone’s behavior conflicts with their self-image.

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For instance, if someone believes themselves to be a good person, and they hurt someone, they may experience cognitive dissonance. Narcissists perceive themselves superior to others, so they experience cognitive dissonance when they realize they’ve made a mistake. 

As soon as they start to become aware of their wrongdoing, cognitive dissonance will cause the narcissist to justify and rationalize their behavior, so they can maintain their sense of superiority.

This can interfere with any self-awareness on the narcissist’s part. 

4. Lack of emotional insight 

Narcissists may be aware, on an intellectual level, that their behavior is wrong. However, they tend to lack emotional insight, which prevents them from being fully self-aware.

Narcissists lack empathy, so they have difficulty relating to others’ emotions. This leads to limited awareness of how their behavior affects those around them. 

5. Use of defense mechanisms

Narcissists are likely to use defense mechanisms to avoid facing their own flaws. Two main defense mechanisms they use are denial and projection. 

Projection allows the narcissist to deny their flaws and place them onto others. For instance, if they are a poor communicator in a relationship, they may accuse you of having awful communication skills.

Narcissists will also deny their bad behavior, to prevent themselves from having to take a look at their own flaws. By denying or projecting onto others, narcissists avoid confronting their own shortcomings; they also avoid the development of self-awareness.

6. Awareness as a form of manipulation 

In some cases, narcissists are self-aware, particularly when it comes to the negative effects they have on others. They will sometimes use their knowledge of their effect on others to manipulate and control situations.

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For instance, if they know that a particular topic or statement is triggering for you, they may purposely say it to upset you and get you to comply with their demands. This calculated awareness is often devoid of any genuine empathy or remorse.

The narcissist is aware that they’re hurting you, but they don’t necessarily view it as wrong. They view it as a way to get what they want from you. 

7. External focus

Narcissists rely upon external validation and admiration to fuel their egos. This external focus tends to limit their self-awareness.

Narcissists prioritize how others perceive them over genuine self-reflection and personal growth. They aren’t likely to spend much time reflecting upon how they affect others. Instead, they are focused on managing their reputations. 

8. Effects of narcissistic injury 

Narcissists are highly sensitive to criticism, and when they feel criticized, they are prone to narcissistic injury. In response to this injury, they tend to act out in fits of rage. 

Because they are so sensitive to criticism, narcissists will avoid self-awareness. Acknowledging their flaws or mistakes would threaten their self-esteem, leading to intense shame and insecurity. 

9. Potential benefits of therapy 

Narcissists may be able to develop greater self-awareness by participating in therapy. This would require enough initial self-awareness to recognize that they have a problem that warrants professional treatment.

Therapy can help narcissists to identify their harmful patterns and work toward addressing narcissistic behaviors. While change is possible, the narcissist must be willing to acknowledge the problem and commit to personal growth.

Since narcissists have a difficult time acknowledging their shortcomings, it is often unlikely that they will seek professional help. 

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10. Different types of narcissism

While we tend to see narcissists as all the same, there are different types of narcissism. When we hear the term “narcissism” we probably imagine the grandiose type. These folks are arrogant, exploitative, and willing to manipulate others for personal gain.

On the other hand, vulnerable narcissists are quieter. They struggle with insecurity and are sensitive to criticism. They tend to be introverted and withdrawn from situations that could threaten their self-esteem.

Vulnerable narcissists may be more self-aware than grandiose narcissists, who are more overtly arrogant and confident. Vulnerable narcissists often struggle with anxiety and insecurity, and they are absorbed in their own emotions. However, they may be more self-aware due to their introverted nature. 

Final thoughts

Whether narcissists are self-aware can be a complex issue. Their level of self-awareness is determined by the type and severity of narcissism, as well as other factors.

The bottom line is that narcissists have several key traits that interfere with their self-awareness. They tend to lack empathy for others, reducing their awareness of the emotional impact they have on other people.

Narcissists also use defense mechanisms like denial and projection to avoid facing their flaws and shortcomings. This can interfere with their self-awareness.

Given their core traits, narcissists are also likely to justify and rationalize their bad behavior, which further impedes self-awareness.

If you’re expecting a narcissist to be fully self-aware, you’re probably setting yourself up for disappointment. They may be able to change with therapy, but getting them to admit that there’s a problem that requires therapy is usually challenging. 

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