People diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder make up, at most, 6% of the U.S. Population and generally less in other countries (from DSM 5). Yet articles about recognizing and dealing with narcissists are so abundant that an alien reading mental health headlines would be forgiven for assuming that over half the population are people with grandiose visions of themselves, demand admiration and lack empathy.
Even though people get busy and it’s easy to rush by someone in need in most urban settings and sometimes people say really insensitive things, I do think that most people desire real connection with others and are willing to help when the need and the way to help is clear. So then why do articles about narcissists resonate so loudly with readers?
One reason is that they cause so much pain.
Anyone who’s worked with a group of people knows that not everyone is equally demanding of resources. For a variety of reasons, in every classroom, every jail, every doctor’s office, every mental health clinic, there are children or adults who take up extra time in group settings, extra time in supervision, extra time in outside consultations and referrals, extra time in out-of-office communications. It’s just how it is when it comes to dealing with people.
I think narcissists have a similar effect on our collective psyche. They take up more space than their numbers would suggest. This is because narcissists cause more pain, more helplessness than people with a lot of other diagnoses. For example, people who are grieving are surely a much larger group but 1) grieving people are harder to recognize because responses to grief vary. A lot. And 2) grieving is often a solo sport and most manifestations of grief don’t involve antagonizing others.
There is also a seductive aspect to reading about the failings of others. The fact is that I’m not perfect and you’re not perfect and no one is perfect but it’s WAAAAAAAY more fun to read about someone else’s defects than to spend time reflecting on mine. In fact usually it’s uncomfortable to think about having flaws and then exhausting to think about tackling them. Reading about someone who’s got bigger issues than you do can feel a bit validating.
But no individual therapy is successful if you’re only talking about people who aren’t in the room. Even when I worked exclusively with survivors of childhood sexual abuse, we didn’t spend our sessions talking about perpetrators. Actually we spent very little time discussing their possible psychopathies and motivations, and only to affirm that the perpetrator’s actions were not the survivor’s fault (and of course to process the trauma narrative itself).
Instead, the survivor had to talk about the survivor. The survivor had to work on the survivor. We had to address the survivor’s symptoms, safety and coping skills. And while it sounds unfair to be told to work on your own stuff, my clients’ post-treatment evaluations made it clear that being the priority (often for the first time in their lives), focusing on themselves (often for the first time in their lives) and being seen as a human being worthy of understanding and wholeness (also, sadly, often for the first time in their lives) was incredibly affirming and helpful. So instead of reaching for that next article affirming that yes, your ex was definitely an abusive narcissist, what are you going to do to focus on you? Because you deserve to be the main actor in your own mind.