Updated date:

Narcissism and Reality Testing

The Little Shaman is a spiritual coach & specialist in cluster B personality disorders, with a popular YouTube show and clients worldwide.


What is reality testing? Reality testing is, to put it very simply, the way that we discern between fact and fiction. We all have thoughts and feelings that are illogical or not based in reality from time to time. We all have thinking errors and cognitive missteps. For example, someone might believe a person dislikes them because the person did not return their friendly wave. In reality, maybe the person didn't see them or wasn't paying attention. Someone might think they smell bad because a fellow passenger on the bus switched seats, when in reality it could be that the seat they were in was uncomfortable. Reality testing is the process through which you look at a situation and decide whether your thoughts and feelings about it are realistic and logical.

There are two different worlds that each of us is perceiving all the time: the internal world and the external world. There is what's going on in our heads and what is actually happening. When someone cannot tell the difference between these things - when reality testing fails, in other words - there is dysfunction, sometimes serious dysfunction. For example, paranoid delusions are an example of reality testing failure. Reality does not support what this person believes but for some reason, that is not affecting their belief. Usually it's because they are unable to see it. Their perceptions are coloring reality in such a way that to them, it looks like reality does support what they believe. That's why they are experiencing delusions.

For example, if your partner is out late, you might get the idea that they are cheating on you. You know you have no reason to think that and you understand that feelings are not facts, so you can examine the situation and realize that those thoughts and feelings are not really logical. As another example, you may get really angry about something, but then look back on it and realize you overreacted. These are examples of using reality testing to examine the relationship between your internal world and the external one. You are able to examine your thinking, realize that you had a thinking error and correct it.

Pathologically narcissistic people do not seem able to make a distinction between their internal and external experiences. To them, feelings are facts. Feelings are evidence. Therefore, there is no difference between the internal world they experience and the external one. If something is real in the internal world, it is real in the external one and they then interpret all the data in a situation to reflect that. That's why if you get the idea a partner is cheating but have no real reason to think that, you can understand this is just fear, not reality; you may examine the reality and search for facts and evidence, but you do not take your feelings as facts and evidence. When a narcissist gets this idea, it becomes a fact regardless of what is actually happening. Facts and evidence do not sway them because they are interpreting everything so that it reflects what is happening in their internal landscape.

The core of narcissism is the failure to distinguish the self from external objects. "Distinguishing the self from external objects" means that the person understands that they are a complete, individual, independent and separate person who exists apart from other people, someone with their own identity who experiences the world through their own perception and acts autonomously. Very young children cannot create or sustain their own identity or self-worth because they have no real sense of self yet; it's still developing. This is why when you put a baby in front a mirror, they don't realize yet that it's themselves they are looking at. They experience the world - and themselves - through their caregivers. The separation of these things is crucial to healthy development of identity, ego and many other things. That is something that is supposed to happen very early in a child's development but does not happen correctly or completely for pathologically narcissistic people. Because of that, they seem to be stuck forever in the phase of development where their self-worth relies completely on the participation of other people and their ability to test reality is minimal to non-existant, as it is for a very small child. If you ask a narcissist how they engage in reality testing or what reality testing looks like for them, you are likely to get a blank stare. Why would they need to test reality? It feels real, therefore it is real.

In order to be a cohesive, integrated personality, someone must be able to engage in reality testing. Otherwise, there can be no distinction made between what goes on in a person's head and what is actually happening. If someone simply accepts that their thoughts and feelings are facts regardless of what is going on in reality, they will generally behave in ways that create problems for themselves and others because they are doing or saying things that do not make sense in the context of the situation. This is what you see with pathologically narcissistic people. Their behavior often makes no sense and that is because they are not reacting to the external reality. They are reacting to their internal one.

This is the reason that, of the very few therapeutic methods that work with narcissistic people who are not pathological, one of the modalities that shows even a little bit of effectiveness is cognitive behavioral therapy. It is designed to help people test reality against their thoughts and feelings so they can make corrections in thinking errors that they are having. This in turn helps them to understand that what they are perceiving is not necessarily reality and adjust their behavior accordingly. This method of treatment still does not work for pathologically narcissistic people though, because they are either unwilling or unable to follow a new line of thinking, accept new information or create new beliefs. They are unwilling or unable to accept and understand that their feelings are not facts, and they cannot create enough distance between themselves and their feelings or their ego to examine them. Most importantly, their perception is so affected by their pathology that they cannot see the problem when it is happening anyway, even if they actually could do all of these other things.

If you are dealing with a pathologically narcissistic person, it's important to remember that this is not just a behavioral problem, or even an emotional one. It's much more than that, and it's something that colors everything they think, feel, say and do. That is the reality of the situation.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.