This is a question that has confounded psychologists and other researchers for decades. It can help to understand the complex emotions a narcissist experiences.
One school of thought proposes that narcissists display an astonishing lack of self-awareness, while a competing theory suggests that they are self-aware, at least to a degree, but cannot link that to better behavior. That is, they’re aware that they are a narcissist, but they do not believe that this is problematic or needs to be changed.
This, perhaps, goes to the heart of the difficulty in treating narcissism. If narcissists are actually aware of their self-centered behavior—and are quite happy with it—then how and why would they want to change? It gives professionals a new take on how to approach narcissistic personality disorder.
Even if narcissists know they have a problem, their weaknesses can overcome any desire to change it.
Read on to discover the narcissist’s complicated relationship with self-awareness.
Hallmarks of Self-Awareness
First, let’s examine what self-awareness actually indicates. As individuals grow and mature, they begin to accept accountability for their actions and try to understand what motivates them to think and behave the way they do. This need for a deeper understanding of the self generates a sense of self-awareness.
Self-aware individuals are introspective, mulling over what motivates them to see things in a particular way. They are interested in interpersonal interactions and what that reveals about themselves. They can be insightful and enjoy engaging with others.
A self-aware person will attend to several psychological factors, such as why their thoughts and behaviors take on particular patterns, how their own emotional reactions affect others, and where their specific belief systems come from.
Someone who is self-aware will also be attentive to how they interact with others in general, as well as how they integrate certain behaviors and attitudes into meaningful, fulfilling relationships.
Self-awareness ultimately leads to wisdom, as we learn from our mistakes and understand how our unique life experiences create our unique personality. Most of us are self- aware; this is where emotions like embarrassment come from, when we do something inappropriate in the public sphere.
Self-awareness also facilitates love and friendship, as we reflect on how our patterns of thinking and acting can form connections with others.
The Narcissist’s Point of View
Narcissists, in contrast, don’t engage in that kind of self-reflection and are largely uninterested in forming meaningful connections with others. Their self-awareness is limited to their own distorted perspective, the bottomless urge to fulfill their own self-centered needs and desires. This, at least, is the conventional thinking on narcissism.
To comprehend the narcissist’s point of view, let’s take a look at some of the traits that distinguish narcissists from the rest of us. First, it’s important to realize that narcissists are full of hate and fear. That’s often the result of years of emotional abuse at the hands of their own parents.
They are often dishonest, both about themselves and about other people. They will exaggerate their potentially positive qualities and downplay anything that might come across as negative. Even when negative behavior leads to unpleasant consequences, the narcissist shows a complete disinterest in wanting to change.
When problems arise in their relationships, narcissists are detached and even repulsed by others’ demands (while being quite capable of making their own unreasonable ultimatums).
They are frequently disappointed by others and will distance themselves from you if you don’t validate their worldview. They will become agitated if you disagree with their pronouncements.
Narcissists aren’t interested in examining what causes friction in interpersonal relationships. They don’t want to investigate why their relationships often fail or why they aren’t liked in certain circumstances. That kind of introspection is uncomfortable. It challenges their belief in their superiority.
The Irony of the Narcissist’s Self-Image
All of this behavior suggests that the narcissist has no real self-awareness, no ability to reflect on their actions and how they affect others.
However, competing analyses of how narcissists think and what they believe challenge the idea that narcissists completely lack self-awareness. Instead, their self-awareness might actually fuel the development of their narcissism.
These studies show, contrary to received wisdom, that narcissists are quite aware of their disordered behavior and of how others perceive them. Regardless of how negative either of those things are, narcissists believe, quite simply, that others are failing to recognize that the narcissist’s way of thinking and acting is better.
Instead of seeing their own impulses as harmful, they believe others to be jealous of their superior way of interacting.
Thus, instead of explaining the narcissist’s arrogance as a protection against their low self-esteem, it might just be that the narcissist believes they are simply not getting their due. They believe that they clearly deserve recognition for their extraordinary actions.
Instead of seeing arrogance as a criticism, the narcissist feels it is a compliment. “Of course I’m arrogant. I’m an exceptional person.”
This has enormous implications for the treatment of narcissism. The narcissist is self-aware, but doesn’t view their narcissism as something that needs to be changed, so intervention doesn’t work.
However, if researchers and psychologists suggest that changing narcissistic behavior will benefit how the narcissist is viewed by others—that altering their behavior will lead to higher status and greater power—then they might have a successful path to treatment.
Narcissism is a complex disorder, just as self-awareness is a complex concept. It may be that most narcissists do lack self-awareness, that they are unable to reflect upon their self-inflated egos and demeaning behaviors.
It may also be the case that some narcissists are self-aware—but that this self-awareness only reinforces their belief that narcissists are superior.
Either way, understanding how narcissists think will give researchers greater tools for how to possibly treat narcissism with better outcomes. Even those of us who do have the capacity for self-awareness could probably reflect more on our own actions and our capacity for compassion. It’s a decidedly harder task for those who suffer from narcissism.
While they may not know they’re narcissists, you can certainly spot the signs. This post can help you spot the signs that you have a vulnerable narcissistic mother.
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