At some point, you’ve probably been forced to confront someone you would call a narcissist. But the term means more than just having a big ego. Actual narcissism is a real personality disorder in which people feel overly important, require admiration, and lack empathy for others. It’s not that uncommon — about 6 percent of Americans show signs of the disorder.
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!
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.
A lot of narcissists have low self-esteem.
According to the new research, people who are narcissistic are likely to tell psychologists that they feel good about themselves. But when the psychologists trick these narcissists into thinking they’re hooked up to a working lie-detector test, the truth comes out and the narcissists admit to lower self-esteem.
“This suggests that individuals with high levels of narcissism may be inflating their self-esteem,” study researcher Erin Myers, a psychologist at Western Carolina University, told LiveScience. “In other words, narcissistic individuals may not really believe they are as great as they claim to be.”
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.”
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.”
There’s a big difference between a narcissistic personality and narcissistic personality disorder.
There is a large difference between the two. Let’s explore those differences:
Narcissistic Personality Disorder: According to the Mayo Clinic “Narcissistic personality disorder is a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance and a deep need for admiration. Those with narcissistic personality disorder believe that they’re superior to others and have little regard for other people’s feelings. But behind this mask of ultra-confidence lies a fragile self-esteem, vulnerable to the slightest criticism.”
Narcissism: There are people who are narcissistic but who do not have a mental illness. These people are experienced as obnoxious because they feel superior to others and see nothing wrong with that. They have little or no empathy with the feelings, conditions, situations or plight of others. These are people who feel entitled to the best of everything while looking down on those who show admiration for them. They also have no difficult exploiting others in order to get what they want. It’s important to understand that they have no awareness and no insight into what they do. As a result, they feel no shame or remorse.
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 people who identify as narcissists.