How commonly have you wondered: Do narcissists know they are narcissists? And do they understand how inappropriate they are?

Most narcissists consider the word “narcissist” to be a dirty name that is pinned on unlikeable people, so they want nothing to do with that label. And yet, labels aside, at a deeper level of understanding, they know they are inappropriate.

The core ingredients of narcissism include chronic selfishness, entitlement, a controlling nature, manipulative schemes, an unwillingness to empathize, and a need to present as superior. To be narcissistic means that these traits are pervasive and repetitive. But even as they live with those ingredients intact, narcissists have enough self-awareness to know that if they admit to such a pattern, it will not serve them well, so they refuse to acknowledge openly what is obvious.

The greatest indicator, therefore, of their ongoing recognition of impropriety is their extensive use of psychological defenses. You can see their inappropriateness and call them out, but your assertions will be met by a strong wall of self-serving distortions. Narcissists live in chronic cover-up mode, and it is demonstrated by a multitude of predictable responses.

For instance:

  • They immediately protest that you don’t have the right to speak about matters that displease you. If you have an interpretation that puts them in bad light, their instinctive reaction is to invalidate. This buys them time to build their self-serving explanations.
  • They refuse to discuss openly what they have done wrong. Narcissists are known for their unwillingness to be vulnerable. You won’t hear them say: “I know I need to make adjustments, and I could use honest and constructive feedback.” Narcissists are certainly aware of the moments they have erred, but they have concluded that nothing good that will come from disclosing any of it, so they don’t.
  • Lies, secrets, evasiveness, and hidden activities are first nature. The pervasiveness of these traits is direct evidence of their understanding of their inappropriateness. Presuming that shame will accompany admissions of wrong, they have concluded that it is in their vested interest not to cease what is wrong, but to be clever in hiding it.
  • They repeatedly use denial. When you confront narcissists about personal problems, they are quite willing to tell you that you have your facts wrong, that you misremember what happened, or that what you think you know is misinformed. The gist of their message (even as they know better) is: “I’m not what you are suggesting I am.”
  • They will use anger to divert attention away from themselves. Once their imperfections are out in the open, they will use the focus-shifting technique of blowing up in agitation (or going into a deep-freeze form of passive aggressiveness) to take the attention off themselves. By being harsh they hope to get the spotlight off their discretions and onto you.

So, do narcissists know they are inappropriate?

Yes. They put way too much energy into hiding and attempting to divert attention away from truth to suggest that they are blind to their own dysfunctions.

Another identifying feature of narcissism, however, is alternate reality. As part of their need to hide behind a False Self, they make heavy use of rationalizations, concocting stories to make themselves appear better than they really are. They repeatedly and willingly discount the unflattering interpretations others have about them. And as they repeat their versions of alternate reality, they eventually begin to believe their own lies and distortions.

So, on one level they illustrate that they know they are inappropriate, but on another level, they are powerfully self-deluded. In fact, they can convince themselves that they not only are not wrongdoers, but the gold standard.

Prominent in their construction of alternate reality is the use of blame-shifting and projection.

For instance, you might hear comments like:

  • If it seems I was wrong, it was your fault. You set the whole thing up.
  • Ok, so I got ticked off, but it’s only because that other person was sabotaging me.
  • Do you think I have a temper? What about you? Yours is much worse!
  • You’re trying to prosecute me, but you’re one of the most unstable persons I’ve ever known.
  • Don’t take my mistake too seriously, I was just having a couple of drinks with my friends.
  • How am I supposed to react when you are so consistently irresponsible?
  • Your family is so messed up, you have no right even hinting that I have problems.

And on it goes. In their alternate reality, they can actually declare: “This would be a better world if there were more people just like me.”

Try to recall the times you pleaded with a narcissist to admit his/her inappropriateness, and you will remember…it doesn’t work. Maybe (not likely) they will temporarily admit wrong, but ultimately the defensiveness and alternate reality will prompt them to deny what is glaringly obvious to you. A sure way to identify a narcissist is the exaggerated unwillingness to take responsibility for personal problems.

That being the case, pull away.

Your self-respect is hanging in the balance, and the more you try to force narcissists to admit their wrongs, the more they will whittle away at your dignity. Make self-protective adjustments in your dealings with them based upon what you have experienced and what you know to be true. Drop expectations that you can be the one who will set them straight. Refuse to argue or plead your case with them about their distortions. Set relationship boundaries with them and when possible, establish consequences for their mistreatment of you.

Narcissists know they are inappropriate while simultaneously not admitting that they know it. It’s a twisted way of living, yet they have committed themselves to it.

They need their lies, but you don’t.

To watch the video version of this topic, please click here.

~Dr. Les Carter