1. Narcissism is really high self-esteem.
You can have really high self-esteem and not be narcissistic. "The key difference is that people high in self-esteem focus on relationships and narcissists are missing that piece about caring about relationships," explains Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University and co-author of "The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement." "They want to know what other people can do for them, but in terms of having close emotional relationships, they don't care." Narcissists also constantly seek to validate their perceived self-worth; people who simply have high self-esteem don't need to.
2. You can spot narcissists by how happy they are with themselves.
When most people think of narcissists, they picture people who are boastful, proud and gregarious. But that only describes one type of narcissist – those known as grandiose narcissists, says Amy Brunell, an associate professor of psychology at the Ohio State University at Mansfield and an editor of "The Handbook of Trait Narcissism: Key Advances, Research Methods, and Controversies," which is due out in September. Another type is called vulnerable narcissism, which describes people who think they deserve greatness, but are easily angered when they don't get it. "They think the world isn't fair to them," Brunell says, and can appear inhibited and shy.
3. Do-gooders can't be narcissists.
Another type of narcissism is known as "communal narcissism" and refers to folks whose high view of themselves is derived from how much they think they contribute to others. For example, this could apply to the friend who listens to your problems not because he genuinely wants to help, but because he sees his actions as proof that he's such a great friend. "They're so full of themselves because [they think,] 'I'm the most selfless person I know," Brunell explains.
4. Deep down, all narcissists are insecure and have low self-esteem.
While vulnerable narcissists may fit this stereotype, grandiose narcissists are thrilled with themselves on the outside and in. "Even if you measure self-esteem in a subtle, unconscious way, deep down inside, narcissists think they're awesome," Twenge says. "It's important to understand that this is a myth because when people act like jerks and they behave narcissistically, often others will say that the solution is that they really need to boost their self-esteem. Well, that's not going to help. That's exactly their problem."
5. Maybe narcissists have good reason for being narcissistic.
If someone believes she's exceptionally attractive, smart or popular, might she be right? In some cases, sure, but narcissists' opinions of themselves don't match reality, Twenge says. For example, one 2008 study showed that while narcissists rated themselves highly on measures like smarts and beauty, their IQ tests and others' ratings of their appearances were average. "When you look at objective measures of intelligence and beauty, narcissists are just like everybody else," Twenge says. "They just think they're great. They're legends in their own minds."
6. Narcissism can be healthy.
Narcissism as a personality trait – not a clinical diagnosis in the form of narcissistic personality disorder – is a spectrum, so it's true that you may relate to some aspects of it that aren't bad in and of themselves, like believing you're a good leader or seeing yourself as assertive, Brunell says. But the more narcissistic you are, the less healthy the trait is – especially for the people around you, Twenge says.
"It tends to work out OK for the narcissist in the short term, but in the long term, they end up messing up their relationships at work and at home, and they end up depressed later in life." Indeed, Brunell suspects being in a long-term relationship with a grandiose narcissist is "awful," since although they can be charming and make you feel special at first, they always believe they're right and aren't invested in relationships. In fact, her recent study showed that narcissists are more likely to pursue people who are already in relationships than non-narcissists – not because they're especially attracted to people who are "taken," but presumably because they don't see relationship status as a boundary. "They cheat, play games and are always looking for a better deal," Brunell says. "They admit they do this" – and don't care.
7. You have to be narcissistic to be successful.
Neither narcissism nor self-esteem is clearly linked to success. So why do people make this association? "It's partly because we think that self-admiration is always good, and it's partly because highly successful narcissists are highly visible, like Donald Trump and Paris Hilton," Twenge says. "But there are plenty of people who are successful in those fields ... they're just not on TV." On the other hand, there are some characteristics of narcissists that can make them successful in some domains. "If you have a vision and you also have the assertiveness and willingness to take risks to see that come to fruition, that's not necessarily negative," Brunell says. But if those traits are leading to "erratic and volatile decisions," that's another story, she adds.
8. Social media causes narcissism.
While many experts agree that narcissism is more prevalent in younger generations, it's not social media's fault. "I don't think social media causes narcissism – I think it's a platform for narcissism," Brunell says. Rather, most research suggests parenting styles – particularly one that's permissive – most influence who becomes a narcissist, Brunell says.
9. You have to love yourself to love someone else.
If you think narcissists have something going for them because of this myth, you'd be wrong. "If you hate yourself and you're really depressed, you're probably not going to be a great relationship partner," Twenge says. "But people with low self-esteem are perfectly good relationship partners most of the time. They can be insecure, but they do care about their partners, unlike people who are narcissistic."
10. You can change a narcissist.
Unfortunately, people who are narcissists are unlikely to read self-help books or seek therapy to change. "There’s considerable research suggesting that narcissists are aware of their narcissism, so the problem doesn’t necessarily lie in a lack of self-awareness," Brunell explains. "But they have a hard time accepting they have a problem as well – they are more likely to think it’s other people who have the problem." So if you love a narcissist, focus on taking care of yourself – and not expecting that your love can change him or her, Brunell says. While it's feasible that with psychotherapy and a conscious effort to improve their empathy (perhaps framed as ways of becoming even better), narcissists may improve, it won't be quickly. "If nothing else," Brunell adds, "they could channel their narcissism into prosocial behaviors, like community service."
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