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Narcissism Isn’t As Rare As People Think – According to Research

A researcher specializing in narcissism shares why narcissism isn’t as rare as we predict and why we still have to take the term seriously.

We have gotten used to regurgitating a certain myth: true narcissism is rare. People haven’t questioned this myth and even some clinicians will spread this myth without looking into the actual research. Where exactly did this definitive idea of rarity come from?  Here are the actual numbers we do have. Any incredibly small “rare” statistic you see estimated for narcissistic personality disorder relies on the clinical population which is unlikely to represent the true general population since most narcissists won’t ever seek help.  The few estimates we do have for general population for NPD ranges as much as 6.2% for lifetime prevalence for a 2008 study of 34,653 adults. There are also estimates of as much as even 14.73% based on various community samples from older studies, in response to Associate Clinical Professor of Harvard Medical School, Dr. Elsa Ronningstam. For the clinical population, there’s also a big selection of 1.3%– 17% prevalence rates once we consider different studies. And it’s not only Narcissistic Personality Disorder as a full-fledged disorder now we have to think about: now we have to think concerning the traits of narcissism that won’t necessarily meet the total criteria of the disorder too yet still leave an impact. According to a 2021 meta-analysis of 437 studies, the traits of narcissism are related to multiple types of aggression, so that they could cause harm even after they’re not diagnosed as a disorder. We don’t have an estimate for the way many individuals have only the subclinical traits of narcissism versus the full-fledged disorder.

Narcissism May Actually Be Rising within the Population, Researchers Say

Researchers also note that narcissism could also be rising within the population. W. Keith Campbell, head of the University of Georgia’s psychology department, notes, “You can have a look at individual scores of narcissism, you may have a look at data on lifetime prevalence of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, you may have a look at related cultural trends, and so they all point to 1 thing…narcissism is on the rise.” Researchers Twenge and Campbell analyzed data of the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI) from 85 studies totaling 16,475 American adults and discovered that there was a 30% increase in narcissism amongst college students that was higher than previous generations. Another study found that 9.4% of Americans of their 20s had experienced Narcissistic Personality Disorder throughout their life, which was the next percentage than older generations. However, it’s possible that older generations could also be biased in self-reporting.

Another major issue with claiming that narcissism is definitively rare is the proven fact that most of the narcissistic individuals who attend therapy are either high-functioning or court-ordered to accomplish that. We could also be underestimating what number of narcissists there are in the final population who never seek help, mask their traits, and only initiate aggression behind closed doors. Due to the character of this disorder and even just its traits, individuals with narcissistic tendencies know the best way to act completely different around most people and reveal their true self behind closed doors. So why is it that individuals and even some professionals so confidently pretend that they know exactly what number of narcissists there are in our society, when the very nature of this disorder is that it’s “concealed” from the very individuals who might present narcissists with accountability?

What About Psychopathy?

When it involves psychopathy, the share is indeed rarer, starting from 4.5% all the way down to to 1.2% in the final population when the gold standard Hare Psychopathy Checklist (PCL-R) is used as a measure. Yet surprisingly, 30% of the final population is estimated to have some extent of psychopathic traits (not full-fledged psychopathy) as estimated by psychopathy researchers similar to Dr. Abigail Marsh. Harvard psychologist Dr. Martha Stout also estimates that 1 in 25 people don’t have any conscience within the United States. Again, we have no idea the actual percentage of individuals with NPD and even just narcissistic and/or psychopathic traits on the whole. We can only make educated guesses based on the research we do have available. Yet considering the hundreds of thousands of accounts from survivors who’ve been entangled with toxic relationships with narcissistic partners, friends, or relations, and the proven fact that narcissists victimize many targets throughout their lifetime, it’s likely that we aren’t actually overusing the term “narcissism” (which may confer with the traits on a spectrum) – we may very well be underestimating its impact as a society.

No, Survivors of Narcissistic Partners Are Not “Making It Up” Or Overusing The Term – And Research Shows This

The myth that gets tossed around is the concept that individuals are “overusing” the term is extremely problematic. Research shows that the “informant” rankings of narcissism of a person from family members are likely to be just as accurate as expert rankings of the identical individual, and more accurate than self-reports from the narcissistic individuals themselves. This is definitely no surprise to anyone who’s well-versed on this topic or has experienced a narcissist who refuses to take accountability. Of course the closest people to the narcissist would know their “true self” and be aware about the manipulative traits and behaviors they’re able to. In addition, when we predict concerning the term “narcissistic” itself, we are likely to police it.

Narcissistic is a descriptive term that may confer with traits like lack of empathy, an excessive sense of entitlement, grandiosity, and callousness. If someone is labeling a partner who possesses those traits and long-standing behaviors of manipulation, they’re in reality using the term “narcissistic” accurately. This is a descriptive term and is just not a diagnosis, nor should or not it’s considered one. As a researcher who has spoken to hundreds of survivors who’ve had narcissistic and psychopathic partners, it is rather rare for me to come across a survivor who “overuses” the word. In fact, they have a tendency to return to this conclusion after an amazing deal of introspection and a struggle with self-blame after enduring much gaslighting. They often share excruciating horror stories that display the shortage of empathy they suffered by the hands of their partners and relations, yet feel mired in self-doubt. People who police other survivors in how they select to explain their perpetrators can come across as victim-blaming and shaming. If you’ve not lived through their experiences, you can not tell them what they experienced wasn’t narcissistic abuse.

Narcissists Don’t Normally Show Up To Therapy – And When They Do, They Gaslight

Some narcissists find themselves in therapy presenting with an issue that’s different from their actual core problem altogether, similar to depression (within the case of a narcissistic individual being depressed, they might be depressed concerning the lack of narcissistic supply quite than the same old reasons for depression), or substance use. Or perhaps they’re dragged to couples therapy by their spouse or partner who wants them desperately to work on their behavior. Either way, they proceed their gaslighting and normally don’t drop the “false mask” around a therapist which is a component of what makes narcissistic personality disorder have such a difficult prognosis. Contrary to popular opinion, therapists can indeed be fooled similar to anyone else. The narcissist is vulnerable to using the therapist for triangulation, pitting them against the abused partner to make themselves look innocent. If the therapist is just not trauma-informed or well-versed on their manipulation tactics (and I even have heard from hundreds of survivors that some therapists do in reality fit this category), they will be vulnerable to invalidating the survivor. While there are definitely good and ethical therapists on the market who do advocate for survivors, we cannot ignore that there are also harmful therapists in the sphere. In essentially the most extreme scenario, I even have heard stories of unethical therapists even having affairs with the narcissistic partners of their clients.

We must recognize that the rationale we even know concerning the tactics of narcissistic manipulators is due to the voices of survivors who’ve experienced them and the advocates and researchers who’ve brought these dynamics to light. These survivors have historically been invalidated by therapists and clinicians for a long time, a few of whom now position themselves as experts after they were invalidating victims not too way back. They were gaslit for a very long time until articles regarding narcissism went viral and it became more of a “trending” topic people finally desired to discuss. One of my very own books in 2016 was among the many first to gather stories from a whole lot of survivors, something that had not happened before – nor had therapists or researchers in the sphere surveyed large samples of survivors during that point. My recent research study was the primary to empirically establish the link between narcissistic partner traits and PTSD, a subject that was not as explored in research studies way back (as a note, research endures an amazing deal of rigorous scrutiny before being published, and my study took into consideration the multiple aspects that might be affecting PTSD in the person).

This tells you that the subject of narcissism wasn’t something that appeared out of nowhere – it took numerous labor on behalf of many to bring it to the forefront. In the past decade, narcissism was not as commonly addressed and it took an immense amount of advocacy from people to create social change. However, simply because speaking about narcissism is now seen as a “trend” doesn’t make it any less valid. Only eight years ago, we were struggling to even bring it to the highlight. Narcissistic abuse is real and it’s impactful. We re-traumatize survivors once we claim that their experiences aren’t valid. Rather than continuing to invalidate survivors by pretending it’s rare, it’s time to acknowledge that the proven fact that hundreds of thousands of survivors who’ve had these experiences can resonate with the tactics and traits described. While we are able to definitely invite nuance to the conversation, it will be important we don’t gaslight survivors like we were doing ten years ago.

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