A researcher specializing in narcissism shares why narcissism isn’t as rare as we think and why we still need to take the term seriously.
We have gotten used to regurgitating a certain myth: true narcissism is rare. People have not 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 is based on the clinical population which is unlikely to represent the true general population since most narcissists will never seek help. The few estimates we do have for general population for NPD ranges up to 6.2% for lifetime prevalence for a 2008 study of 34,653 adults. There are also estimates of up to even 14.73% based on various community samples from older studies, according to Associate Clinical Professor of Harvard Medical School, Dr. Elsa Ronningstam. For the clinical population, there is also a wide range of 1.3%– 17% prevalence rates when we consider different studies. And it’s not just Narcissistic Personality Disorder as a full-fledged disorder we have to consider: we have to think about the traits of narcissism that may not necessarily meet the full criteria of the disorder too yet still leave an impact. According to a 2021 meta-analysis of 437 studies, the traits of narcissism are associated with multiple forms of aggression, so they can cause harm even when they’re not diagnosed as a disorder. We don’t have an estimate for how many people have only the subclinical traits of narcissism versus the full-fledged disorder.
Narcissism May Actually Be Rising in the Population, Researchers Say
Researchers also note that narcissism may be rising in the population. W. Keith Campbell, head of the University of Georgia’s psychology department, notes, “You can look at individual scores of narcissism, you can look at data on lifetime prevalence of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, you can look at related cultural trends, and they all point to one 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 among college students that was higher than previous generations. Another study found that 9.4% of Americans in their 20s had experienced Narcissistic Personality Disorder throughout their life, which was a higher percentage than older generations. However, it’s possible that older generations may be biased in self-reporting.
Another major issue with claiming that narcissism is definitively rare is the fact that many of the narcissistic individuals who attend therapy are either high-functioning or court-ordered to do so. We may be underestimating how many narcissists there are in the general population who never seek help, mask their traits, and only initiate aggression behind closed doors. Due to the nature of this disorder or even just its traits, people with narcissistic tendencies know how to act completely different around the general public and reveal their true self behind closed doors. So why is it that people and even some professionals so confidently pretend that they know exactly how many narcissists there are in our society, when the very nature of this disorder is that it is “concealed” from the very people who might present narcissists with accountability?
What About Psychopathy?
When it comes to psychopathy, the percentage is indeed rarer, ranging from 4.5% down to to 1.2% in the general population when the gold standard Hare Psychopathy Checklist (PCL-R) is used as a measure. Yet surprisingly, 30% of the general population is estimated to have some degree of psychopathic traits (not full-fledged psychopathy) as estimated by psychopathy researchers such as Dr. Abigail Marsh. Harvard psychologist Dr. Martha Stout also estimates that 1 in 25 people have no conscience in the United States. Again, we do not know the actual percentage of people with NPD or even just narcissistic and/or psychopathic traits in general. We can only make educated guesses based on the research we do have available. Yet considering the millions of accounts from survivors who have been entangled with toxic relationships with narcissistic partners, friends, or family members, and the fact that narcissists victimize many targets throughout their lifetime, it’s likely that we aren’t actually overusing the term “narcissism” (which can refer to the traits on a spectrum) – we may actually 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 idea that people are “overusing” the term is highly problematic. Research shows that the “informant” ratings of narcissism of an individual from loved ones tend to be just as accurate as expert ratings of the same individual, and more accurate than self-reports from the narcissistic individuals themselves. This is certainly no surprise to anyone who is 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 privy to the manipulative traits and behaviors they are capable of. In addition, when we think about the term “narcissistic” itself, we tend to police it.
Narcissistic is a descriptive term that can refer to 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 are in fact using the term “narcissistic” correctly. This is a descriptive term and is not a diagnosis, nor should it be considered one. As a researcher who has spoken to thousands of survivors who have had narcissistic and psychopathic partners, it is very rare for me to encounter a survivor who “overuses” the word. In fact, they tend to come to this conclusion after a great deal of introspection and a struggle with self-blame after enduring much gaslighting. They often share excruciating horror stories that display the lack of empathy they suffered at the hands of their partners and family members, yet feel mired in self-doubt. People who police other survivors in how they choose to describe their perpetrators can come across as victim-blaming and shaming. If you have not lived through their experiences, you cannot 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 a problem that is different from their actual core problem altogether, such as depression (in the case of a narcissistic individual being depressed, they may be depressed about the loss of narcissistic supply rather than the usual 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 continue their gaslighting and normally do not drop the “false mask” around a therapist which is part of what makes narcissistic personality disorder have such a challenging prognosis. Contrary to popular opinion, therapists can indeed be fooled just like anyone else. The narcissist is prone to using the therapist for triangulation, pitting them against the abused partner to make themselves look innocent. If the therapist is not trauma-informed or well-versed on their manipulation tactics (and I have heard from thousands of survivors that some therapists do in fact fit this category), they can be prone to invalidating the survivor. While there are certainly good and ethical therapists out there who do advocate for survivors, we cannot ignore that there are also harmful therapists in the field. In the most extreme scenario, I have heard stories of unethical therapists even having affairs with the narcissistic partners of their clients.
We must recognize that the reason we even know about the tactics of narcissistic manipulators is because of the voices of survivors who have experienced them and the advocates and researchers who have brought these dynamics to light. These survivors have historically been invalidated by therapists and clinicians for decades, some of whom now position themselves as experts when they were invalidating victims not too long ago. They were gaslit for a long time until articles regarding narcissism went viral and it became more of a “trending” topic people finally wanted to talk about. One of my own books in 2016 was among the first to collect stories from hundreds of survivors, something that had not happened before – nor had therapists or researchers in the field surveyed large samples of survivors during that time. My recent research study was the first to empirically establish the link between narcissistic partner traits and PTSD, a topic that was not as explored in research studies long ago (as a note, research endures a great deal of rigorous scrutiny before being published, and my study took into account the multiple factors that could be affecting PTSD in the individual).
This tells you that the topic of narcissism wasn’t something that appeared out of nowhere – it took lots of 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, just because speaking about narcissism is now seen as a “trend” does not make it any less valid. Only eight years ago, we were struggling to even bring it to the spotlight. Narcissistic abuse is real and it is impactful. We re-traumatize survivors when 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 fact that millions of survivors who have had these experiences can resonate with the tactics and traits described. While we can certainly invite nuance to the conversation, it is important we do not gaslight survivors like we were doing ten years ago.