I’m going to break one of my rules, and discuss a study before I actually read it myself. I printed out this study and will get to it this weekend, but Jan over at Planetjan.com, along with her commenters, have been having such an interesting discussion about a study aimed at figuring out just how self-aware, adding their own observations, that I wanted to respond to and expand on that discussion. You can click here to read it. Here’s an excerpt:
“Lack of insight is believed to be a hallmark of narcissism…” begins the paper. When it comes to Narcissists’ self-insight, there are two competing views.
The Narcissist Ignorance view argues that narcissists, ” lack insight into their personality and reputation and overestimate how positively others see them.” This is akin to “ignorance is bliss.”
The Narcissistic Awareness view, however, finds that narcissists do have insight into their personality and reputation. The researchers predicted that ultimately the Narcissistic Awareness view is correct. (Bold type is mine.) Narcissists tend to recognize some of their own narcissistic traits but are more likely to see these negative qualities in a positive light. They’re masters of spin.
The Narcissistic Awareness model finds that although narcissists are likely to make a positive first impression, even the narcissist realizes that over time others do not view their performance as positive as their own self-perception.
This provides one reason why Narcissists continually seek out new people to impress. They know from experience that as people get to know them, their impression of the N will not be as positive.
“Narcissists’ failure to pursue long-term relationships and friendships may reflect their awareness that only new acquaintances see them in a positive light.”
Ultimately, “Narcissists understand that others do not see them as positively as they see themselves. Second, they understand that their reputation is more positive in a first impression context than among people who know them well. Third, narcissists describe themselves and their reputation as narcissistic.” (But they don’t necessarily view this as a bad thing.)
Narcissists have a degree of self-awareness. It’s just that they don’t/won’t change.
I’m not really contradicting anything Jan and her readers are saying, and in many places I’m going to just end up repeating their observations, but I just wanted to add my own interpretation to this question.
I think the self-awareness issue is so tricky, because it depends on how you define “aware.” The key word I think is something called “pseudoinsight:” a delusion or mistaken belief masquerading as an insight.
For example, many narcissists seem to be proud of being called narcissists, and like one commenter at Jan’s blog said, they will even say things like “You call me a narcissist like that’s a bad thing.” However if you ask them to define what they think a narcissist is, you may be surprised.
For example, if you call one of them a narcissist, they may say “Hell yes, I’m a narcissist, and proud.” But if you were to say, “You are conniving and manipulative, a pathological liar, someone who bullies to make up for their intense self-loathing and feelings of inferiority, a user and discarder, a person so damaged and dysfunctional they ruin every relationship they’re in, a person’s who’s high confidence is phony, shaky, unstable, and incredibly out of touch with their actual talent level, a phony who has to build up a false self because they hate their real self so much, delusionally entitled to things they don’t deserve or earn” or anything along those lines, they would probably vehemently deny it. They would probably say those descriptions don’t match them at all.
So it raises the question, when a narcissist consciously acknowledges that he or she is a narcissist, what definition of narcissism is he or she using? Are they taking narcissist to mean “high self-confidence, doesn’t take crap from people, go getter, a fighter, a survivor who is tired of putting themselves last, someone who enforces boundaries and demands self-respect, has high standards,” and other ego-flattering interpretations?
I find that many people who act like they know they are narcissists only do so after doing the cognitive gymnastics and distortions necessary to redefine narcissism in a flattering way, rather than in the unflattering way we know it to be defined as.
Another factor is whether knowing one’s usual relationship outcomes is the same as knowing that one is the person responsible for those relationship outcomes. I think like the study says they realize that people get tired of them and that people no longer are as impressed with them and their performance over time. They realize they have to keep searching out new people because the honeymoon phases of their friendships and romances are the only enjoyable relationship stages they can partake in. I still don’t think that’s the same as recognizing their own role in those repeating patterns. I think they just think that they keep finding the wrong people, people who are clearly too defective to recognize the N’s superiority. It’s just more evidence that they’re too much for the world to handle.
That’s why the idealization and devaluation cycle happens. When they first meet someone, that person is incredibly wowed by them. The fact this person is wowed by them actually elevates the person in the N’s mind. Idealization. In the N’s twisted view, they think “Finally, I found an audience that can truly appreciate my greatness fully. I’ve finally found a mirror that reflected my beauty back at me properly.”
When the person eventually starts to get sick of them and the bloom is off the rose, the N realizes that this predictable pattern is repeating itself yet again. But rather than think, “wow something must be wrong with me,” they think “wow, can you believe it? I found yet another defective mirror. I guess I’m so great and beautiful the type of mirror needed to properly reflect me is even rarer than I thought, if it exists at all.” So then comes the devaluation cycle: “I guess I got fooled by yet another defective mirror. It’s not accurate at all, it’s just another funhouse mirror after all.”
So they’re aware of their repeated relationship failures, they’re aware that they make good strong first impressions that always seem to peter out, they’re aware of the fact they need to keep seeking out new people and keeping relationships new and that they’re incapable of having longtime friends without alienating them (unless the longterm friend is exceptionally codependent or lives far away and only sees the N occasionally). The problem is, they view these outcomes as a result of their excessive greatness and as evidence of a defect in everyone else’s ability to appreciate them. They think “Wow, I bought yet another defective mirror! Or maybe it’s good enough for the average person but it’s obviously not equipped to handle and reflect my level of greatness.”
They not only never grasp that their deficiencies are causing these predictable, repetitive outcomes, not only have they convinced themselves that it’s everyone else’s deficiences that are actually the problem, they’ve taken it an even crazier extreme and convinced themselves that these repeated relationship failures are actually evidence of their off-the-charts awesomness! That they somehow overload average mortals with their excess superiority and there must be some ideal lover out there who can handle the awesome task of reflecting their false self (which of course the N doesn’t realize is false) back at them.
This pervasive ability to constantly reframe all negative evidence into a positive, self-serving evidence of superiority is what makes many professionals view narcissism as incurable. It is incredibly adaptive and mutates constantly in response to all attempts to kill it, a dynamic I thought on in the ego trap.