Many of us hate narcissists. They hate themselves, too.

Dr. Brené Brown is a professor and researcher who specializes in shame resilience. Her work became mainstream after a 2010 TEDx talk on vulnerability. She has since written several bestselling books, been featured by personalities like Oprah Winfrey, and done hundreds of interviews and appearances to promote her research.

“I never wanted to be famous,” she said to fellow bestselling author Tim Ferriss for an episode of his podcast, The Tim Ferriss Show. The two-hour episode’s conversation turned to the subject of narcissism at one point, and, in an aside, Dr. Brown dropped a remarkable reframe in just 44 words.

What Is (and Is Not) Narcissism

The word “narcissism” has picked up substantial traction in recent years. An article in Psychology Today by therapist Claire Jack, Ph.D. summed it up nicely: Narcissists “thrive on drama, on playing people off against each other, on keeping dangerous secrets and leaving a trail of upset and powerless people in their wake.”

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), someone has Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) when they exhibit five or more of these nine criteria:

  1. Has a grandiose sense of self-importance.
  2. Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
  3. Believes that they are “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people.
  4. Requires excessive admiration.
  5. Has a sense of entitlement.
  6. Is interpersonally exploitative.
  7. Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.
  8. Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of them.
  9. Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.

Researchers have studied the relationship between narcissism and nurture for a while now. It’s easy to assume younger generations who’ve been reared on social media are the most narcissistic. Science doesn’t back this up. But science does back up how your environment might influence your individuality.

Today’s young people aren’t more narcissistic. They’ve just been taught to look at themselves from an earlier age, and have more agency to do so through tools like smartphones, selfies, and social media feeds, according to research published in Psychological Science, a leading scholarly journal.

Then there’s the culture you grew up in. In a 2018 study recapped in the journal Public Library of Science, scientists examined the differences between residents of former West Germany and former East Germany. Germans who had grown up in the more culturally individualistic West Germany had “a greater desire for grandiosity.” However, they also reported lower self-esteem.

Why is this? Dr. Brown’s insights give us clues.

The Reframe

About thirty minutes into the conversation, Dr. Brown’s passing comment is one of the interview’s best gems.

“Do you know that narcissism is the most shame-based of all the personality disorders?” Dr. Brown asked Ferriss. “Narcissism is not about self love at all. It’s about grandiosity driven by high performance and self-hatred. I define narcissism as the shame-based fear of being ordinary.”

Video embed starts at 32:05, where the conversation moves to narcissism.

At the end of the day, this unprocessed shame is destructive for both narcissists and their peers. Shame is destructive for all of us, really.

These reminders might help.

  • Re-examine your relationship with technology. Social media is not life. It’s a highlight reel. If you can’t put down your phone, it’s time for a detox.
  • Keep an open mind. Confirmation bias — the tendency to seek out information in a way that validates your existing opinion — is poisonous, even when it’s not malicious.
  • Pursue excellence, but be a good sport too. Alyssa Edwards, a famous drag queen, said it best: “Winning isn’t everything, but wanting to is.” Let competitiveness motivate you because it challenges you to be your best self, not just better than everyone else.

Dr. Brown points out that “We lose a lot of people with this [work] because it’s not an efficient process.” It’s true. Personal growth stings at first. It’s messy.

By increasing awareness of ourselves and why we behave the way we do, we check ourselves. We also set better boundaries with peers and loved ones. Master those two things, and you’ll propel yourself toward a happier, more authentic life. ◆

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