Merry Christmas, to those who celebrate!
I do, and I’ve been spending my Christmas in the normal way: researching Narcissistic Personality Disorder. What I’ve discovered is:
- I probably am not myself a narcissist; but
- A lot of neurodivergent personality traits seem to be typically mischaracterized as narcissism; and
- Neurodivergent people are groomed to think we are being narcissistic if we ever dare insist that our feelings are as valid as anyone else’s.
Now, there are A LOT of blog articles about narcissism, and most of them seem to be written by some schmo who feels victimized by their ex-girlfriend or mom, and so they spend a lot of time detailing how that person’s personality traits are signs of narcissism.
It’s always good when you read something—especially on the internet—to think about who is writing it, what the context is for their opinions, and what their motivations are for writing it. This is vital when you’re reading about neurodivergence and mental illness. Ableism and saneism are real and harmful, and they infect a large percentage of the literature. Even mental health professionals are burdened by their ableism and saneism, as are most of our family members. Internalized and lateral ableism and saneism are also a thing, so even stuff written by neurodivergent people can display it. Be thoughtful when you’re reading anything about neurodivergence.
In that spirit, I’ll start by giving you some context in which to read this post.
I’m not a psychiatric professional. I’m a neurodivergent person—bipolar and autistic with PTSD. I’m an activist, and an author who writes books with neurodivergent characters. My kid, my partner, and many of my family and friends are also neurodivergent. The upshot of all of this is I spend a lot of time studying and thinking about psychiatric conditions and neurodivergence, and the interactions of different sorts of personalities.
I started researching narcissism because I was worried that I was showing traits of it. It’s a long story. Basically, I worried I was a narcissist for thinking my feelings and opinions might be as important as anyone else’s in a situation where someone was hurting me. After researching, I can feel pretty safe in declaring I’m not a narcissist, but I worry that other neurodivergent folks might also be groomed to feel this way—or might actually be told they show signs of narcissism just because they dare think their own neurodivergent feelings have merit in a neurotypical world. So I wrote this article.
Since I’m not a professional, I will give links in this article to back up the stuff I’m saying, help you process what I’m saying, and separate my opinion (and others’ opinions) from accepted science. If I don’t give a link, it’s probably because I don’t think it’s needed–either because I’m speaking from experience or what I’m saying is so well-accepted as to not need a reference. If you need a source, try looking it up yourself (though you can always ask me if you need help).
WHAT IS NARCISSISM?
Narcissistic Personality Disorder, or NPD, is very much in fashion right now as a diagnosis. Part of that is undoubtedly because of all the armchair-diagnosing of Trump. It’s really frustrating for a lot of neurodivergent folks—and a lot of others who are hurt by Trump’s policies—to have his behavior framed in this way, because it’s often accompanied by suggestions that he’s “sick” and “needs help”—i.e., the idea that he’s a narcissist is used to excuse his behavior and suggest that it isn’t his fault.
However, NPD isn’t neurodivergence. In fact, it was proposed to removed from the DSM-5 in 2013, because a lot of research suggests that narcissism is a bunch of personality traits present across many different mental illnesses, and also in people without mental illness. A lot of clinicians were pissed off about that (take away one of their favorite punishment diagnoses?? NEVER!), so it was reintroduced. However, it appears that it might be removed from the DSM-6.
Remember that the DSM isn’t some sort of bible of what a “true disorder” is, anyhow. Psychiatric professionals are often wrong. There are fads and fashions in the mental health industry, just like anywhere else, and science makes loads of mistakes. Homosexuality was listed in the DSM until quite recently, and autism has a layered and complex history in the DSM as well, just as a couple of examples.
When you’re on my side of the mental health industry, you learn that professionals can show the most saneism and ableism of anyone, and that the science behind mental illness itself is driven by saneism and ableism in a lot of ways. So, you learn to take things like the DSM with a grain of salt.
DSM or no, it is truly very clear—narcissism IS NOT NEURODIVERGENCE OR A MENTAL ILLNESS. NARCISSISM IS JUST BEING AN ASSHOLE. It is voluntary and intentional behavior, and never causes distress to the narcissist. Those facts preclude it being a mental illness, by definition (if something doesn’t cause someone distress, it isn’t a mental illness!). Add that to the fact that narcissists are unlikely to seek treatment—narcissists don’t see anything wrong with their behavior, again, by definition—and that there is really no treatment that is shown to work in changing narcissistic behavior (probably mostly because the person doesn’t see it as a problem—you can’t change if you don’t’ want to), and one starts to wonder what the value is in listing narcissism in the DSM. The only value in identifying it is to warn others away from that person or give others information on how to deal with them.
However, this fashion in the psychiatric industry for diagnosing people with NPD—as evidenced by the books and articles coming out about the “epidemic of Narcissism”—will hurt neurodivergent people the worst. A lot of neurodivergent traits can look like narcissism if you’re looking at them through a saneist lens, which is a danger above and beyond the misdiagnosis itself: having a diagnosis of NPD on your record is a surefire way to make sure you’re ignored by medical professionals and treated badly.
Whether it’s listed in the DSM or not, and even though it might be misused as a punishment diagnosis, it’s pretty clear that REAL narcissists do actually exist. So, what does a true narcissist look like?
- They think they’re unique, special, smarter than others, and better than others;
- They expect to be treated better than other people;
- They have obsessive fantasies of power, success, intelligence, attractiveness, etc.;
- They only want to associate with high-status individuals;
- They need continual admiration from others;
- They use and manipulate people to advance their goals, intentionally and without guilt;
- They lack empathy;
- They’re intensely envious of others, and believe others are equally envious of them.
Most psychiatric professionals seem to agree that there are two types of narcissism: grandiose narcissism, and vulnerable narcissism. The grandiose type is “loud and proud” about their selfishness. The vulnerable type tries to hide it, because they don’t want to be judged for it (not because they think it’s wrong, though. A narcissist never thinks that they are wrong.) But both types truly believe they are better and smarter than everyone else, and that they are entitled to better things because of it.
Narcissists know that they are narcissists—in fact, one of the most failsafe tests for identifying a narcissist is to just ask them. They will tell you.
These people don’t hurt others on accident. Their actions aren’t unthinking. They don’t lash out or withdraw because of trauma or unregulated feelings; they purposefully manipulate people into doing what they want, because they think that they’re smarter than other people, and that they deserve to be catered to. They know exactly what they are doing.
What causes narcissism is not known. It has been suggested that there’s a genetic component, but, even if that’s true, there’s definitely also an environmental factor. Whatever the cause, narcissists tend to bear and raise other narcissists. It is generational. But we should spare that tired old chestnut, that someone hurt the narcissist in childhood and they’re acting out trauma. Narcissists do not deserve our pity, because they act intentionally.
NEURODIVERGENT PEOPLE AT HIGHER RISK OF BEING WRONGLY LABELED NARCISSISTS
I’ve seen this accusation leveled unfairly at a lot of neurodivergent people. Neurotypicals seem quick to condemn neurodivergent traits they don’t understand, and which make them uncomfortable, as narcissism. In fact, anytime a neurodivergent person asserts they have a right to express their feelings, it seems that someone will be standing by and accusing them of being a narcissist.
Neurodivergent people often have trouble regulating our feelings and expressing them in socially acceptable ways. Because of this, we’re told that our feelings are wrong. We’re punished—emotionally and physically—for expressing them.
This can cause us to mask (“masking” is a process by which a neurodivergent person tries to hide their true self and act more neurotypical). But masking tends to be a losing game. The stress of it can cause us to burn out, melt down, shut down, get very depressed, and withdraw. We are punished for that behavior, as well.
When we mask, we often feel like an imposter—like we are afraid that others will discover who we truly are, like we don’t belong. Since imposter syndrome is a sign of narcissism, this can cause us to be mislabeled (or for us to mislabel ourselves) as narcissists.
Another of the signs of a narcissist is that they lack empathy. This is something that autistics are also accused of, even though autistic people will tell you it isn’t true, and studies show that we actually have an increased physical reaction to seeing someone in pain, as opposed to an allistic person. We just have difficulty communicating our distress in a way that allistic people understand.
Sometimes neurodivergent traits cause us to hurt others on accident. We can lash out because we’re overstimulated, or because of trauma. We often don’t know the social rules so we miss cues, which can make us seem selfish or self-absorbed. And, since our feelings are more powerful than neurotypicals’, we can be so wrapped up in our own feelings that we can’t see others’ feelings or don’t have enough resources to cater to them.
However, there is a difference between neurodivergent behavior and narcissistic behavior—an important difference. A neurodivergent person, unlike a narcissist, cares how other people feel. We, in fact, put ourselves through a lot of pain and stress in order to make others feel better. We are taught, pretty much from birth, that we are disgusting, broken, and wrong, and the only way to make others comfortable and happy is by hiding who we truly are. This is very traumatic for us, and the trauma can make our behavior even more volatile and difficult. But we put ourselves through it anyway.
We are sacrificing our feelings for others, and sometimes we get called narcissists for it. Since our feelings are just as important as anyone else’s, it seems like the people demanding we do this might be showing more narcissistic tendencies than we are.
So, my fellow neurosiblings. Even if we accidentally hurt others because we miss social cues; are triggered into meltdown or shutdown because of overstimulation or trauma; or have difficulty regulating our feelings because of our neurodivergence: THIS IS NOT NARCISSISM. INTENT DOES MATTER IN THIS CONTEXT.
If you’re not hurting others or manipulating them on purpose, and if you feel awful afterwards for hurting people on accident, you’re not a narcissist.
Even though she’s not that much of a narcissist, Elizabeth Roderick thinks her books are pretty cool and thinks you might like them. They have a lot of interesting neurodivergent characters, gun battles, and romance. Check them out!