If you've spent more than a handful of hours on Reddit, it's likely you’ve come across at least one forum about narcissists. From r/RaisedByNarcissists to r/NarcissisticAbuse, seven subreddits dedicated to navigating relationships with narcissistic people have over 750,000 users combined. There’s an entire sub for people with narcissistic managers, another for those with narcissistic spouses. The top post on r/LifeAfterNarcissism features an inspirational quote scrawled in blue marker on a whiteboard: "Don’t let getting lonely make you reconnect with toxic people. You shouldn’t drink poison just because you’re thirsty."
While these spaces are undoubtedly invaluable for those who have experienced abusive relationships, their existence raises a question: where do the narcissists themselves go?
For the past eight years, a small subreddit (which will remain unnamed and unlinked in this piece, in order to keep it a safe space for its users) has been a gathering spot for the internet’s narcissists. With under 8,000 users – and just 30 to 50 people online at any given time – this forum is a place where narcissists can share their experiences, sometimes via memes. "When you’re trash but you’re still better than everyone else,” reads one picture of a shiny gold trash bag sat atop regular matte black garbage. In another, a user laments the way the word “narcissist” has been used on Reddit to describe everyone from teenagers to toddlers, to people who’ve made lunch for themselves but not for their partner. “As a real-life narcissist, I’d like to lodge a formal complaint at whoever decided the word should be used to describe anything you just don’t like,” they write.
Overwhelmingly, however, the sub is a support group. In one post from a year ago, someone laments that every Google search result for “narcissist” is “about dealing with a narcissist”, and that many webpages say treatment is impossible. “Where are all the resources?” they ask, “I would like to change.” This sentiment is echoed in posts across the sub, from the woman who recently asked for help fixing her relationship after acting abusively towards her partner, to the man who claims to have overcome the disorder and is offering tips.
Bethan is a developer from Europe in her early thirties (her name has been changed and her details kept vague to protect her identity). A couple of years ago, Bethan was diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), and discovered the subreddit around the same time. “It’s nice to read other people having similar struggles to yours and feeling understood, because you won’t find empathy for your condition anywhere else,” she says over Reddit’s messaging service.
But how do you actually define a narcissist, particularly in a world where teenagers / toddlers / people who’ve made lunch for themselves but not for their partner are routinely and incorrectly diagnosed by the internet?
Dr Tennyson Lee is a consultant psychiatrist at DeanCross Personality Disorder Service in Tower Hamlets, and co-director of the Centre for the Understanding of Personality Disorder. Lee explains that the DSM5 requires a person to meet a minimum of five of the following criteria to be diagnosed with NPD: a grandiose sense of self-importance; preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success or ideal love; belief in special status; a need for excessive admiration; a sense of entitlement; interpersonally exploitative behaviour; a lack empathy; frequent envy; arrogance.
Yet Dr Lee notes that these criteria are limited, as "thin-skinned, hypersensitive" narcissists also exist. Contrary to popular belief, narcissists can and do have low self-esteem, despite their sense of entitlement. Bethan, for instance, describes herself as a “vulnerable narcissist” – her sensitivity manifests itself in a belief that others are “cruel” and “vile”. Lee says that while the prevalence rate of NPD is often cited as 0.4 percent of the population, the condition is commonly undiagnosed because of the strict criteria.
Bethan explains that for much of her life she has considered herself to be more intelligent than others, and thus “more aware of the cruelty of reality than other people”. She explains that in the past she used to make excuses for her failures and was blind to her own shortcomings. “People often assume that people with NPD act deliberately, but that’s not my experience,” she explains. “I never felt like a bad person, because I always thought I had pretty good reasons to do everything I did: it was always about getting something I'd earned, protesting about something I deserved and didn’t get, getting back at someone who had wronged me, standing up for myself."
For Bethan, the support subreddit is a place where people can find help on their own terms. “I think people with NPD don’t respond well to the usual wellness advice and support that may work with neurotypicals or people with other pathologies,” she says, explaining how such advice often sounds naïve. “They need advice to be worded in particular ways that appeal to them, and that makes sense in their perception of the world. I think the sub helps with that.”
In one post from a year ago, a user shares their trick for feeling empathy. They advise people with NPD to imagine that an audience is watching their behaviour on TV – that way, they can see their actions from an outside perspective and understand when they’re being the bad guy.
Most of the time, Bethan doesn’t create posts on the sub but simply responds to others. “I guess I like giving my opinion,” she says, “It’s a way to cope with my urge to ramble about myself in a context where it's appropriate.” Bethan also finds others' posts thought-provoking and says the sub raises her self-awareness. But while she finds the sub a valuable space, she warns, “It’s no substitute for proper therapy.”
Dr Lee believes the sub can be supportive for those with NPD, but warns that information shared there could potentially be inaccurate and may prevent individuals from addressing their issues. “A judgement-free space may allow individuals with NPD to view themselves over-sympathetically and thus wriggle out of some difficult things they in reality are responsible for,” he says, but notes he has only briefly looked at the subreddit. As a therapist, Dr Lee stresses that people should seek the professional help they need – which may include psychodynamic therapy or psychoanalytic treatment.
Charlotte, a 25-year-old data analyst from Australia, was diagnosed with NPD six months ago and found the sub last month (her name has also been changed). “I was quite happy to find a community that didn’t treat people with NPD as irredeemable monsters,” she says, also over Reddit’s messaging service. Charlotte now leaves around five comments a week on the sub and says it is “the only place” – online or off – where she knows she won’t face stigma for her diagnosis. “It was very hard for me to imagine recovering in any way, especially when I was being told by online communities and even mental health professionals that I was basically just evil and could never be anything but evil,” she says, noting that the sub has given her hope for her future.
“I am learning to recognise my disordered patterns of thinking and disrupt the behaviours that come with them,” she says. “I’m also training myself to actively consider the perspectives of others before taking action in any situation. I’m trying to break the habits of behaving in egocentric ways.”
The largest subreddit about narcissism, r/RaisedByNarcissists, bans posts and comments written by actual narcissists. Charlotte – who says she suffered 18 years of childhood abuse – is troubled when she’s excluded from support spaces because of her diagnosis. “Another problem in these groups is the reliance on armchair diagnosis,” she says, “Psychological abuse can be perpetrated by anybody, including neurotypical people.”
The small subreddit for narcissists is by no means a perfect space – Bethan says the moderators are fairly absent (they did not respond to an interview request) and notes that occasional posters brag about being narcissistic. Charlotte also says she received abusive messages and death threats after users from elsewhere on Reddit noticed her posts on the sub. Yet overall, the subreddit remains a safe haven on a website – indeed, on an internet – that misdiagnoses and vilifies narcissists, more so than any other personality disorder.
“It’s helped me understand that there is life after diagnosis,” Charlotte says.