While being the target of narcissistic abuse is stressful and hurtful, many narcissists are unaware of how their actions impact others. If they are aware that others feel negatively about them or about their choices, they often lack the ability to take responsibility for their actions or see them as wrong.
What Is Narcissistic Personality Disorder?
Someone with a diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) will have an incredibly fragile self-esteem, which they will attempt to protect with displays of an overinflated ego, a lack of empathy for others, and an intense need for excessive attention and admiration.1 On average, men are more commonly diagnosed with NPD, but it’s possible for people of any gender to develop the condition.2
According to the DSM-5, NPD is characterized by:
- Identity Issues: Those with NPD have no ego-strength. This means they are unable to access knowledge of who they are. Because of this, a narcissist looks to others for a reflection of their identity, and will often work to ensure that this reflection is positive in order to avoid emotional pain.
- Grandiosity behaviors: Grandiosity is the belief that one is better than others. This mindset acts as a protective measure against any negative feedback from others.
- Lack of empathy: A narcissist struggles to recognize and understand others’ feelings and needs. Because of this, people with NPD tend to have surface-level relationships with little intimacy, because relationships mainly serve as a self-esteem regulator.
- Obsessive need for admiration: Because narcissists can’t give themselves reassurance, they will seek it from other people. This can look like maneuvering conversations toward compliments and praise, and keeping themselves at the center of attention.3
Narcissistic Traits vs. NPD
While people may show signs of narcissism, that doesn’t necessarily mean they have this personality disorder. In order for a person to be diagnosed with NPD, symptoms must be present across most areas of their life–this won’t change over time, either. Someone showing narcissistic traits can display negative behaviors sporadically or in certain situations. On the other hand, a person with true NPD will have exploitative relationships across all facets of their life–workplace, romantic, friendly, and familial.4 They won’t be able to take accountability for their actions, whereas someone who is only displaying narcissistic traits is typically able to do so.
Do Narcissists Know They Are Narcissists?
In order to answer this question, it’s important to understand the difference between ego-syntonic and ego-dystonic behaviors. Ego-syntonic behaviors are ones that align with our ego. This means that our thoughts, wishes, feelings, impulses, and behaviors align with who we feel we are as a person and with our core personal values.5 We can act upon and feel these things without our moral compass raising alarm bells. Those with ego-syntonic disorders (such as narcissism) are unaware of and unphased by how others view their desires—they don’t see their symptoms as problematic, because they don’t go against their internal belief system.
Conversely, Ego-dystonic behaviors are when we have experiences that do not align with our internal beliefs. These might include unacceptable thoughts or feelings that may even seem repugnant. An ego-dystonic disorder is one where the person’s symptoms converse with their internal belief system, such as in Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD).
In short, people with NPD truly believe that they are better than other people. Since they lack empathy, they struggle to recognize and understand the issue with treating others poorly, being highly critical of others, or generally treating others like they are “less than.” They truly believe it’s alright for them to use any means necessary to fulfill their needs. Because of this, acting without empathy won’t set off moral alarm bells like it would for someone else. They may recognize that people view them negatively, but won’t be able to take accountability for this. They feel that the other person is unable to understand them, or is unworthy of their time.
Does a Narcissist Know They Are Abusive?
Narcissists will do whatever it takes to get their needs met, which can often result in narcissistic abuse. This can include all forms of abuse–whether it be emotional (such as narcissistic gaslighting or explosions of narcissistic rage), financial, physical, or any other kind. Some narcissists, such as malignant narcissists, actually enjoy abusing others. It’s important to know that NPD occurs on a spectrum, and many narcissists don’t actively seek to abuse and hurt others. Many are entirely unaware that their efforts to meet their own needs are actually harmful to others. Even if it’s done without intention or maliciousness, it’s still important to understand that no abuse is excusable or acceptable.
Does a Narcissist Care That They’re Narcissistic?
Narcissists lack empathy and the core belief that they should care about others. Because a narcissist believes they’re the most important person, they likely see their behaviors as positive qualities, rather than hurtful. People with NPD have an innate low self-esteem and will therefore stray from accepting any feedback as truth (i.e., negative opinions of others being factual).
Can a Narcissist Change?
While it may be difficult for many narcissists, it is not impossible for a narcissist to change. There are some forms of narcissism that make it easier for a person to see the impact of their actions. The biggest thing to look for is a person’s genuine commitment to seeking change through appropriate therapy or behavioral alteration. This would include taking accountability for their actions; listening to feedback; attempting to focus on others’ needs, not just their own; and working on healthier emotional and mental regulation skills, without the need to rely on others for validation. It’s also important that they remain committed to this change over time, and they show this dedication through their actions.
Should I Tell Someone They’re a Narcissist?
Because a narcissistic person believes that their internal beliefs are valid and acceptable, they will not typically take initial feedback well. Remember–you are turning their belief system and life roadmap upside down. This can feel disorienting and scary for them, and they may become defensive or even hostile. While it can be helpful for the person to hear how their actions affect others, it’s also important to consider your own safety and well-being.
If you do not feel comfortable or safe having this conversation, it is always okay to limit your interactions and instead focus on maintaining your own well-being. If you do feel driven to have this discussion, consider how you’ll get your point across efficiently without risking personal emotional or physical harm. You could have this conversation in person or you could write a letter outlining your thoughts. Remember to be flexible, and allow yourself to express yourself clearly and openly.
6 Ways to Respond to & Deal With a Narcissist
It’s likely you have dealt with a narcissist at some point in your life, whether it be a narcissistic family member, friend, spouse, or coworker. While it’s usually best to remove yourself from this relationship or limit interactions, sometimes this isn’t realistic. If you do have to continue a relationship with this person, there are some things you can do to deal with a narcissist.
Here are six ways to deal with a narcissist:
- Always remember that you’re not at fault: A narcissist will blame everyone else when things go wrong, and hearing this constantly can impact your self-esteem. Remind yourself as often as you need to that this is a part of their mental illness, and has nothing to do with you.
- Respond instead of reacting: A narcissist is looking for the engagement of others, so they can get the attention they want. This can mean that they say false, infuriating, and hurtful things in order to get a reaction from you. By keeping yourself calm, it’s likely they will move on to a different target to seek validation.
- Avoid direct confrontation: Narcissists are hyper-sensitive to criticism and will often get defensive or lash out. If you have feedback to give, doing so in a gentle and nonjudgmental way can help to prevent things from escalating.
- Set clear boundaries: Setting healthy boundaries is crucial when dealing with narcissists because they are habitual boundary-crossers who believe rules do not apply to them. Clearly setting and holding your own boundaries is the most important way you can take care of yourself in these situations.
- If you have to be around them, act interested: Sometimes we have relationships that we cannot avoid–one survival technique you can use in these interactions is to act interested in what they’re saying. You don’t have to agree or tell them they’re right (saying, “That’s interesting,” or asking further questions will work).
- Make sure you’re meeting your own needs: Being around a narcissist is draining and challenging. Make sure you’re attending to your own well-being and seeking therapy if you need it. Knowing when to leave the relationship is also important when prioritizing yourself.
Living with a narcissist in your life can be incredibly stressful. Understanding the condition better can help you manage your expectations and give yourself permission to prioritize your needs. While most people with NPD are not aware that they are narcissists, it’s important to remember that no abuse is acceptable or excusable.