Narcissism is the talk of the town these days, but misconceptions about it abound. Here are some facts about narcissists that may surprise you.

1.  Narcissists Are Highly Sensitive

Some of the nastiest people on Earth are narcissists, capable of sadistic manipulation and systematic cruelty. And the people they hurt the most are those who love them—their family. Although their abusive behavior and lack of empathy make them appear to be grossly insensitive, narcissists are actually unusually sensitive. The narcissist’s sensitivity as a child is thought to make him especially vulnerable to “narcissistic injury”—a formative emotional wounding that occurs very early in life and leads the narcissist to compensate by wearing a mask of superior entitlement. The narcissist’s sensitivity also gives him an exceptional ability to perceive and exploit the vulnerabilities of others. In this sense, the narcissist is an anti-empath, using his power of perception to harm rather than show compassion.

The narcissist’s sense of shame and inferiority—the dark underbelly of his grandiose arrogance—is exacerbated by his sensitive nature. He is hypersensitive to any potential threat, and he uses his perceptive nature to shield himself against his worst fear—further narcissist injury. The narcissist is nearly always a few steps ahead, preparing a preemptive strike.

2.  Narcissists Can Be Introverted

The stereotype of the narcissist is the larger-than-life personality who works to attract (if not demand) attention and admiration. She dominates conversations and turns everything back to her, constantly finding ways to “hook” others but also ultimately assert her superiority over them. This describes the extroverted narcissist.

But, like all of us, narcissists exist on a continuum of extroversion and introversion. Like overt narcissists, introverted, or covert, narcissists suffer from narcissistic injury and have an inflated sense of self-importance. But covert narcissists differ from outgoing ones in terms of their tactics. Instead of aggression, they use passive-aggression to get attention and assert their needs over those of others.

Here are some classic covert narcissist behaviors:

  1. withholds attention and affection as a means of control,
  2. seeks out caretaker personality types to exploit,
  3. dwells on others people’s problems and tragedies,
  4. gains attention through self-pitying performances and staged crises,
  5. has delusions of victimization and persecution, and
  6. exaggerates suffering and sickness to garner sympathy.

3.  Narcissists Are Hypervigilant

Those familiar with the traumatic effects of narcissistic abuse know that hyperviligance is at the top of the list, often with severe physiological consequences such as complex PTSD. Children and spouses of narcissists become hypervigilant to the narcissist’s moods and rages, which can turn on a dime and feel like cataclysmic detonations.

Ironically, the narcissist himself is perhaps the most vigilant, continually surveying every situation on guard for even the slightest hint of embarrassment, humiliation, or rejection. The narcissist’s overwhelming motivation in life is to avoid further unbearable narcissist injury. (Feeling sorry for the narcissist? Read thisAnd this.)

4.  Narcissists Can Be Nice

it's nice to be nice, try it--NarcissistsOne of the most disorienting things about narcissists is that they can be nice. If they are feeling adequately attended to and admired (supplied) and are not feeling threatened, they can be downright charming—engaged, insightful, funny (or at least that is how they see it). Under the right circumstances, the narcissist may even be affectionate and generous, particularly if it reinforces a belief about herself she feels good about. The difference, however, between narcissist “nice” and real kindness is that narcissists usually give only when it is convenient and/or validating for them—not unconditionally because they have someone else’s best interests at heart. (Read more about the narcissist’s genuine vs. false kindness.)

5.  Narcissists Can Come from Overindulgent Homes

A common belief about narcissists is that they come out of traumatically abusive and/or neglectful home environments. But narcissism also can result from overindulgence and/or overpraising. Whether abused or overindulged, children in such circumstances are not given healthy boundaries. Abused kids are devalued, while overpraised kids are overvalued. In the case of overvalued children, they carry an unearned sense of superiority that can feel empty and fraudulent as they progress into adulthood. In both cases, the children lack a realistic sense of self-worth in relation to others and do not have a trustworthy connection with their parents, whose job it is to help nurture in them resilience to handle life’s physical, emotional, and moral challenges.

Julie L. Hall’s articles on narcissism regularly appear in The Huffington Post. She is the author of the forthcoming memoir, Carry You, about life, and a few near deaths, in a narcissistic family (read excerpts). 

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Photos courtesy of Pixabay and PRObettyx1138.