In 2014, Style.com asked US rocker Courtney Love about her body image. Love – singer and founding member of the rock band Hole – had recently taken part in a photoshoot for Italian Vogue, and learned that the magazine had digitally slimmed her waistline.
“I don’t have body dysmorphia at all.” Love said, “I’m actually a narcissist about my body to an extreme degree… I didn’t even realize how fat I was.”
It’s hard to say whether Love is truly a narcissist. Although narcissism is common among rock singers, drawn to the attention, applause, and adoration of the fans, we should be careful about assigning the term to people who haven’t been properly diagnosed (that said, a year later Love released a single, “Miss Narcissist,” and drew the cover art herself – a drawing of a topless woman resembling herself, looking into a mirror).
If Love is a narcissist, her comment suggests that she is indeed aware of that fact – and not ashamed of it. But it also suggests she’s a little blind to the impact of her narcissism. She knows she has a highly positive, perhaps unrealistic opinion of herself – but knowing this didn’t help her create a more objective outlook on herself.
Is this a common trait among narcissists? Do narcissists know they are narcissists? Let’s explore…
Are Narcissists Self-Aware?
In 2011, psychologist Erika Carlson and her team at the University of Washington looked into this question.
Narcissism exists on a spectrum – we all have some narcissistic tendencies, in some areas, at some times. So first, Carlson measured the narcissism of a group of people using well-validated questionnaires, to find people on the high end of the scale.
Once she’d identified them, she asked the narcissists to rate themselves in different areas – how intelligent, attractive, likeable, and funny they were – things like that. But she didn’t stop at positive traits. She asked about negative characteristics too – how arrogant are you? Are you power-oriented? Do you exaggerate your abilities? And so on.
Now, we know that narcissists think they are special. They have an enormous sense of their own abilities and value. So it’s no surprise that they rated themselves highly on the positive traits. But what is surprising, is that they rated themselves highly on the negative traits, too.
They must have some level of self-awareness to do that. So, according to this research, yes – narcissists do know they are narcissists – although they may not use that exact word.
But here’s where it gets really interesting. Carlson and her researchers didn’t just interview the narcissists – they also interviewed people they knew. Friends, family, peers, and colleagues were asked to rate the narcissists on those same positive and negative traits – and the narcs were asked how they thought people would reply.
As you may expect, the peers didn’t have the same glowing reviews that the narcissists had of themselves. But as you may not expect, the narcissists knew that. They knew how they were perceived – at least to some degree.
Do narcissists care they are narcissists?
Carlson’s research does raise a few questions. How can narcissists hold such a high opinion of themselves, when they know that other people hold some negative views towards them? Do narcissists care they are narcs? Is this something they would change, if they could?
One possibility, is that they simply don’t see these negative traits as bad things. A strong possibility is that narcissists see narcissistic traits as good things. Another study at the University of Alabama in 2014 found that narcissists see traits like arrogance, rudeness, and self-centredness much more positively than non-narcissists.
Arrogant? So would you be if you had everything I have. Power-hungry? Of course! I’m ambitious, and I deserve power. Exaggerating my achievements? After everything I’ve achieved, it probably seems like that to other people!
In other words, what most people see as negative traits, narcissists may see as compliments. These are things that can get results, especially in the modern, dog-eat-dog corporate world. As the famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright once said, ““Early in life I had to choose between honest arrogance and hypocritical humility. I chose honest arrogance and have seen no occasion to change.”
It’s also indeed possible that they just don’t care how people see them. Research has shows that narcissists care more about what psychologists call agentic traits like being dominant, productive, and assertive, than they do about communal traits – like being honest, or nice to people.
There’s a scene in the movie “Steve Jobs” starring Michael Fassbender that sums this up.
Jobs, the Apple co-founder, had publicly displayed narcissistic traits on many occasions, and was known for abusive outbursts towards people who didn’t meet his standards. In the scene, he was asked by one of his engineers: “Why do you want people to dislike you?”
“I don’t want people to dislike me,” Jobs replied. “I’m indifferent to whether they like me.”
This is a scripted scene from a work of drama, but it sums up many narcissists’ attitudes. Although deep down narcissisms stems from a very fragile sense of self-worth, they don’t care if they are liked, exactly. They care about admiration, adoration, and respect – getting this from other people is what feeds their self-esteem. How other people feel about them is far less important than how they behave towards them.
For people who live with narcissists, and have to deal with the difficult and abusive behaviours they often show, this all leads us to another question – do narcissists know they are hurting you? If narcissists – or some of them, at least – are aware of how they act, and how others perceive them, how can they continue to behave the way they do?
Do narcissists know they are emotionally abusing people?
The short answer is, it varies.
As I mentioned earlier, narcissism isn’t a binary thing, that you either are or you aren’t. It’s a spectrum – someone might show very little or moderate levels of narcissism, within the normal range of healthy human functioning. Others, however, might display very high levels of narcissism, which we classify as narcissistic personality disorder, or NPD.
On top of that, there are also different types of NPD.
The most severe type is “malignant narcissism.” The trait of this type can overlap with those of psychopaths or sociopaths, often making these people malicious and cruel. While some narcissists can possess (or at least display) empathy, malignant narcissists are the least likely to.
“Fragile narcissists” flip between the classic grandiose narcissism, and feelings of hopelessness and inadequacy – often accompanied by anger.
“High-functioning narcissists” are often articulate, charming, and ambitious. They tend to be sexually provocative and have a higher level of interpersonal skills.
As you can probably guess, malignant narcissists may be more calculating than other narcissists. They may plan out ways to cause pain – both emotional or physical – because they enjoy it. In these situations, yes, the narcissist absolutely knows that they are hurting people – that is why they behave the way they do.
Fragile and high-functioning narcissists may also cause harm deliberately. However in the majority of cases, this would be payback, for perceived harm that someone else has done to them.
We call this type of harm narcissistic injury. Narcissists are often low in self-esteem and have high standards for the people in their life. They believe they are the best and deserve the best – whether that idea has any basis in reality or not is irrelevant.
Think of self-esteem as like a bucket of water. You have high self-esteem when the bucket is full, and low self-esteem when it is empty. Most people have a normal-sized bucket, and they can fill it up themselves. If you have a bad day at work, you can say, “OK, so I messed up at work today, but I’ll learn from my mistake, and come out stronger for it.” And you’ll feel a little better.
Narcissists can’t do that. They find it very difficult to fill up their own bucket. So they have to rely on flattery and praise from other people, and they have no problems lying, cheating, or manipulating to get it. On top of all that, they have a much bigger bucket than most people!
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This combination of high standards and low self-esteem means a narcissistic injury can be triggered very easily. Maybe you didn’t meet their unrealistic standards. Maybe they received a relatively minor criticism at work. Maybe you were complimentary towards them today, but not complimentary enough to fill up that oversized self-esteem bucket.
A narcissistic injury can then trigger narcissistic rage. This is a state of anger, which typically leads to retaliation of some kind. If the anger isn’t too strong, this might simply be sulking, or subtle displays of displeasure.
But if they are very angry, they may resort to emotional abuse, physical abuse, or passive aggressive behaviour. Narcissistic rage can even take the form of self-harm. But while in this angered state, do narcissists know they are hurting you?
On one hand, yes, they know. If they are criticising you, shouting at you, or hitting you, they know that they are doing it. They understand that they are causing harm to you. They may also understand that what they are doing is not acceptable in the eyes of other people, or the law.
But this does not necessarily mean that they think it is “wrong.” They may believe their behaviour is completely justified. After all, from their perspective, they were attacked first. They are merely responding to that.
Also, depending on the degree of empathy that they are capable of, they may not understand the harm they cause on an emotional level. That is, they don’t understand what it feels like to be on the receiving end of the abuse that they are dealing out to you.
Even though they have been hurt by criticism from other people, and they are now dishing out criticism to you, they may struggle to connect the dots and feel how you feel.
They may even ask if they have hurt or upset you. This might be partly because knowing that they are able to hurt you means that they matter to you in some way. Getting a reaction from you, even if negative, means they must be important. Otherwise why would you care?
On the more malignant end of the NPD scale, this line of questioning might also be to help identify your soft spots, so they know how to hurt you more easily in the future.
There are also cases where narcissists’ behaviour causes harm – and might even be classified as abuse – but is not intentional.
For example, a married narcissist may have an affair with another woman. In this, he would only be thinking about himself – what he wants, what he deserves, what he is entitled to. It may not even cross his mind that another party could be harmed by his actions.
So while he is having an affair intentionally, the following heartbreak that this may cause is, in a sense, unintentional. They are not trying to harm you, in this scenario. They may not even be thinking about you at all.
Some narcissists, especially those lacking in empathy, may cause harm due to their indifference and lack of interest towards you. This is more common later in relationships, when they have switched off the charm they needed to seduce you in the first place.
For example, if you are upset and crying after a bad day at work, they may not register this or respond in an appropriate or comforting way. They may switch the subject back to themselves, or to things that they want to talk about.
In such situations, they are not intentionally harming you with coldness. They may not even know that their indifference is having a negative effect on you.
Do narcissists recognise other narcissists?
If narcissists have at least some awareness of their own tendencies, and how they impact other people, would they recognise other people who display these same characteristics?
Well, there is some evidence that not only do narcissists recognise other narcissists, but they tend to attract each other.
In 2016, psychologists at the Humboldt University of Berlin conducted a study of 300 pairs of best friends. They gave each pair a personality assessment, which measured narcissism as well as some darker traits such as psychopathy and Machiavellianism. The results showed that people who are friends with narcissists tend to be narcissists themselves.
Why could this be?
A strong possibility is that narcissists see narcissistic traits as good things. Another study at the University of Alabama in 2014 found that narcissists see traits like arrogance, rudeness, and self-centredness much more positively than non-narcissists. Indeed, Steve Jobs is known to have liked and respected people who could stand up to him and give as good as they got.
It’s also possible that narcissists understand each other better. Because they see other people as extensions of themselves, they often treat them the way they would want to be treated. This is perhaps why Donald Trump always tries to butter up other world leaders with flattery and praise – because this is what would work on him, so he assumes it will work on others.
So it’s not so much that narcissists think “Oh hey, a fellow narcissist, I’d better go over and make friends!” It’s more that they are more tolerate of each others’ difficult sides, and because they may help boost each others’ ego.
So, do they know?
We started out with a simple question – do narcissists know they are narcissists? Do narcissists know what they are doing?
The answer is… it depends.
Most narcissists are not pure creatures of instinct – they know what they are doing, and they may know that they possess the traits of a narcissist – even if they’ve never heard the term “Narcissistic Personality Disorder” in their lives.
But like everything else, this knowledge is filtered through their own system of self-aggrandising beliefs and justifications. Knowing that they are a narcissist is not a moment of revelation that inspires change, in the way that admitting an addiction to a substance of abuse might be.
In fact, many not only are aware of their narcissistic tendencies – they are proud of them. As social psychologist Brad Bushman said, after a study looking into self-awareness in narcissists, “Narcissists aren’t afraid to tell you they’re narcissists. They’re not embarrassed about it at all.”
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