|If you persistently fear that you could be a narcissist, you likely experience unwanted and intrusive thoughts or worries about behaving selfishly or having personality traits associated with narcissism, or Narcissistic Personality Disorder. You may fear that they are secretly “bad” or manipulative towards others, even without any reason to believe so. |
People with these fears may worry that they are self-centered or lack empathy, fearing that they truly think they are better than everyone else or that they are somehow superior to others, and worrying that they could do terrible things as a result. They may be hyper-focused on their personality traits and emotions and what these things mean about them. They may also experience obsessive thoughts about how they are perceived by others, wondering: “Do other people think I’m actually a narcissist?”
As a licensed therapist who specializes in treating obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), I’ve treated many patients with fears just like yours—and I know that you can learn to overcome them. Let’s learn more about the connection between these worries and OCD, and what you can do to get better.
How can OCD involve a fear of being a narcissist?
|In OCD, unwanted and intrusive thoughts, images, or urges about being a narcissist are called obsessions, and they can cause a great deal of anxiety, shame, and distress. In an effort to rid themselves of these uncomfortable feelings, people with OCD will perform rituals or compulsions, which are mental or physical actions that serve to neutralize uncertainty or worry or prevent a feared outcome. |
People who experience fears about being a narcissist in OCD do not consider themselves selfish or narcissistic; rather, they fear that they could be. They do not want to be seen as self-centered, arrogant, or manipulative. Narcissism is often characterized negatively by most, so people with these fears may have underlying fears about whether people think they are a “bad” person. They may be afraid that they will act in a manner consistent with a narcissistic personality disorder and harm others as a result. They are highly unlikely to actually exhibit narcissistic traits; narcissists generally do not have a consistent insight into their behaviors, nor do they experience high levels of concern about whether they lack empathy or manipulate others.
People with this form of OCD may frequently research online psychology topics, particularly traits of narcissism. They may seek out reassurance from other people in their lives, asking whether they are being selfish or if others feel that they are being manipulated. They may confess details of their thoughts and behaviors, looking for reassurance that they acted appropriately.
Common obsessions related to a fear of narcissism:
- Am I secretly manipulating people?
- Am I being selfish?
- Do I think I am superior to others?
- Do I think about myself too much?
- Do I treat others disrespectfully or minimize their feelings?
- Do I want all of the attention on me?
- Do I think I should be given special privileges?
- Do I have a sense of entitlement?
- Do I care enough?
- Do I lack empathy?
- Do other people think I am self-centered?
- Do other people think I am manipulative?
- Do other people think I am a narcissist?
People with a fear of being a narcissist may be triggered by situations involving interactions with others, or by discussions involving psychology or personality characteristics. They may be triggered by watching psychological documentaries or thrillers. They may avoid conflict for fear of being manipulative or acting in a self-centered manner, or even avoid romantic partnerships for fear of being manipulative or controlling. People with OCD tend to avoid situations in which they feel obsessions are triggered or may be triggered.
For example, consider these possible scenarios in which someone with OCD involving a fear of becoming a narcissist may be triggered:
- Greta is being assertive to her boss who tells her that she is being “unreasonable.” Instantly she is flooded with fears that she is self-centered and egotistical, so she must be a narcissist.
- Jon is online when he comes across an article about narcissistic parents. He immediately thinks of his relationship with his own children. Am I engaging in any of these behaviors? Am I a narcissistic parent?
- In the midst of a heated argument, Marcia tells her boyfriend that he is selfish. He counters back that she is manipulative. Marcia spends the next week ruminating on whether she was being manipulative or not. She can never feel certain enough for her worries to go away.
How can I tell if I’m experiencing OCD focused on a fear of being a narcissist, and not real signs that I am a narcissist?
This is an excellent question. To know if you may be suffering from OCD, you need to learn to recognize the OCD cycle.
The OCD cycle is composed of: 1) intrusive thoughts, feelings, images, or urges; 2) anxiety or distress that comes as a result; 3) compulsions performed to relieve the distress and anxiety brought on by the intrusive thoughts, images or urges. Understanding this cycle can help you distinguish OCD from other concerns. Something to keep in mind is that if you are feeling an intense urgency to know immediately and with certainty if you are a narcissist or if your actions are narcissistic, that is a red flag that OCD may be at work.
Intrusive thoughts and nagging worries about one’s own behavior and personality are experienced by everyone. Most people who do not have OCD are able to brush these thoughts off rather easily, or feel generally confident in their own knowledge about themselves. However, people with OCD struggle to do this. They often believe that if they think something, it must mean something.
This is where OCD holds its power: its ability to make a person question who they are and what they are capable of. Intrusive thoughts about being a narcissist are ego-dystonic, meaning that they go against one’s values, intents, or beliefs, and as such, it can be difficult to accept uncertainty about them.
When people with fears about being a narcissist have intrusive thoughts that cause distress, they may engage in compulsions, which are mental or physical behaviors done to feel reassured about one’s fears of being a narcissist, to prevent potentially manipulating others, or to prevent being or acting like a narcissist in the future. Compulsions may provide temporary relief, but do nothing to prevent the obsessions from returning. Performing compulsions actually inadvertently strengthens obsessions and fears, as they reinforce the idea that obsessions had significance or posed an actual threat or danger.
Here are some examples of common compulsions done by people with OCD fears about being or becoming a narcissist:
- Repeatedly asking others for reassurance: “Am I being selfish? Am I being unreasonable? Do you think I am a narcissist?”
- Reassuring oneself: “I am an empathetic person, I would never act like a narcissist.”
- Googling/researching personality characteristics of narcissism
- Comparing one’s personality to narcissistic personality traits
- Avoiding conflict
- Avoiding being the center of attention
- Being overly passive or not setting boundaries
- Ruminating (analyzing thoughts and behaviors to figure out if one could be a narcissist)
How your fear of being a narcissist can be treated
OCD focused on fears about being a narcissist can make a severe impact on one’s life, but all forms of OCD are highly treatable. By doing exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy with an OCD specialist, you can find freedom from the OCD cycle.
ERP is the gold standard treatment for OCD and many other anxiety disorders, and is backed by decades of clinical research proving its effectiveness. By doing ERP, you will be able to teach your brain that your intrusive thoughts don’t have any bearing on your personality, values, or intentions, and that you are able to tolerate uncertainty and anxiety related to your personality and actions.
In ERP, you’re gradually and safely exposed to the thoughts and situations that are likely to trigger anxiety and uncertainty related to narcissism. With your therapist’s guidance and support, you will learn how to resist the urge to respond to these feelings with compulsions like avoidance or reassurance-seeking. By doing this over time, you learn that you are able to tolerate anxiety and you will feel more confident in your ability to sit with uncertainty and discomfort.
Examples of possible therapy exercises done to treat a fear of being a narcissist may include:
- Reading about narcissism
- Watching videos on narcissism or people who have narcissistic tendencies
- Purposefully engaging in assertive or less accommodating behaviors
- Purposefully doing something that you perceive as “selfish”
- Creating a script or a loop tape about what the very worst-case scenario would be if you are a narcissist
When you do these exercises with the help of a trained OCD specialist, the goal is to resist the urge to respond with compulsions. This might look like not researching online forums for traits of narcissism, not asking your partner if you sound selfish, or keeping yourself from mentally reviewing times in the past when you behaved kindly toward others. In time, steering clear of these behaviors allows you to become more comfortable with the sense of uncertainty that is a part of all social interactions, rather than getting “stuck” on doubts about how others see you.
Start getting better today
Your doubts and worries may sometimes feel like they’re “just a part of who you are,” or are actually helping you be an empathetic person, but from my personal experience as an OCD therapist, I know how these fears and doubts can grow greater over time, getting in the way of genuine social relationships for years and years.
It’s important to know that you can feel more comfortable with uncertainty about how people perceive you while also caring deeply about the kind of person you are. It might just take a helping hand from a trained mental health professional to get there.