Back in the day my daughter and I loved The Emperor’s New Clothes, and I read it to her innumerable times, with knowing amusement shared between us.

The Hans Christian Andersen tale, dating back nearly 200 years to 1837, has powerful truths to tell about narcissism and its societal grip. Although by then I had come to recognize my own father’s narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), I read the story to my daughter without consciously analyzing its theme of narcissism.

Recently thinking back to the story I realized its powerful psychological lessons.

The Narcissist as Naked Emperor 

The protagonist and literal naked butt of the story is the pompous emperor, who falls prey to con artist self-proclaimed weavers of magical cloth. Promising they will sew the emperor a suit of clothes so fine it will be invisible to those who are “unfit for their positions, stupid, or incompetent,” they exploit the emperor’s narcissistic vanity, exaggerated entitlement, and desire for worshipful adoration. But most tellingly, they exploit his fear that he is a fraud: that he is in fact unfit, stupid, and incompetent. These are the narcissist’s deepest self-beliefs, which he attempts to hide from himself and others at virtually any cost.

When the scammers present their “garment” to the emperor it is nothing at all, literally thin air. They flatter and fawn over him as they pretend to fit him with his glorious new clothes, while he looks in the mirror and pretends to see what is not there.

The Emperor’s Enablers

The emperor’s advisors and servants play along out of self-doubt and fear of reprisal from their deluded ruler. When the emperor parades before the townspeople, they pretend as well. It is a child in the audience who finally declares the bald truth: “But he isn’t wearing anything at all!”

The brilliance of the story, which has been translated into over 100 languages, is the child’s moment of revelation. Everyone sees the truth plain as day, but the child’s innocence and purity of vision compels him to declare it aloud for all to hear, breaking the spell of complicity among the adults.

The Child’s Sacrilege of Honesty

As in the story, it is often children who question real-life narcissists. Confused by the dissonance between what they see and what they are told by their narcissistic and/or enabling parents, children naturally question the lies and denial that characterize life in a narcissistic home.

Tragically, such children quickly learn that their honesty is considered sacrilege within their family and grounds for swift punishment. They are bullied and scapegoated into stuffing the truth and playing along with the narcissist’s false alternate reality—one in which he is figuratively wearing magical clothes that make him superior, omnipotent, entitled, and deserving of adoration regardless of whether he does anything to deserve it.

The Complicity of Narcissist Enablers

Like the emperor’s lackeys, enabling spouses and other family members are often manipulated and cowed into submission by the narcissist tyrant. Riddled with self-doubt and/or afraid of losing what power they have, they become complicit in upholding the narcissist’s rule. Though they may agree with the child’s uncorrupted awareness and sympathize with the child’s position, they are too invested in the system to confront or leave the narcissist’s reign.

Unlike the child in the story, who is embraced by the town for speaking the truth, the truth-telling child in the narcissistic family is more often isolated, punished, or even banished from the kingdom.

Julie L. Hall writes about narcissism for HuffPost and PsychCentral. She is the author of two forthcoming books: a memoir (read excerpts) and a book on the narcissistic family.

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