A hallmark of narcissism is overconfidence. But there's one thing that narcissists can legitimately be confident about: Not all that we assume about narcissism is true. Research psychologist Jean Twenge laid out these seven myths about narcissism, which she and her coauthor identify in their new book, The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement. Edited excerpts from her conversation with U.S. News:
1. Narcissism is really high self-esteem. No, it's not. Someone 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. They want to know what other people can do for them, but in terms of having close emotional relationships, they don't care.
2. Deep down, narcissists are insecure and have low self-esteem. People assume that narcissists must be concealing some deep insecurity or they actually hate themselves. But the data don't back it up. Even if you measure self-esteem in a subtle, unconscious way, deep down inside, narcissists think they're awesome. 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.
3. Maybe narcissists have a reason for being narcissistic. This comes up a lot. People think, "Well, maybe narcissists have a reason for being this way." That's not true. When you look at objective measures of intelligence and beauty, narcissists are just like everybody else. They just think they're great. They're legends in their own minds. There are lots of studies on this. My favorite one came out a couple months ago. It was titled "Narcissistic Men and Women Think They Are So Hot, but They Are Not." If you ask narcissists how attractive they think they are or how smart they think they are, they rate themselves high. But when you look at an actual IQ test, or someone else rating their photograph, they're average.
4. A little narcissism is healthy. You have to ask, "Healthy for whom?" Narcissism is basically never healthy for other people. 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.
5. Narcissism is just physical vanity. Physical vanity is a correlate of narcissism, but there are plenty of other [aspects of narcissism], including materialism, entitlement, antisocial behavior, and problems in relationships.
6. You have to be narcissistic to be successful. Narcissism isn't linked to success. Self-esteem isn't even 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. But there are plenty of people who are successful in those fields who we haven't heard of because they don't have their own TV show with "Money, Money, Money" playing in the theme song. They're just as successful; they're just not on TV.
7. You have to love yourself to love someone else. The reality is that if you love yourself too much, you won't have any left over for anyone else. Again, keep in mind that if you hate yourself and you're really depressed, you're probably not going to be a great relationship partner either. 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.
For more on narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder, check out Narcissism Epidemic: Why There Are So Many Narcissists Now.