Celebrities, important political figures, and the glamorous people who garner the most social attention may seem to possess many features of the narcissist. Convinced of their own importance, either by themselves or by those who serve them, they enter the narcissistic bubble in which their every whim is gratified and they’re protected from the exigencies of daily life that the rest of us must endure. No need to make their own dental appointments, cook their meals, or even comb their own hair. There’s always someone around to do it for them. If you’re a fan of the HBO series, Veep, you know how ridiculous these situations can become. The fictional U.S. Vice President, brilliantly portrayed by Julia Louis-Drefus, is literally surrounded by a team of lackeys who fan her when she’s warm, touch up her lipstick when it’s smudged, carry her purse if it gets too heavy, and tell her she’s great even when a speech she gives flops miserably.
We might all like to imagine such a sheltered life and, indeed, the popularity of tell-all celebrity reality shows suggests that we not only imagine, but aspire to such a pampered existence. Among the people in our own social circles, who probably don’t include those on the world’s A-list, we also may find ourselves drawn to people brimming with self-confidence, sense of flair, and charisma. These individuals may or may not be narcissists, but their high sense of drama and charm may, at least, temporarily lure us into their spell.
Psychologists who study narcissism know that beneath that outer shell of social ease and high self-esteem may lie deep-seated insecurities. Theories of narcissism propose that there’s a subtype known as “vulnerable” narcissists whose egocentrism and apparent self-assurance mask inner feelings of inadequacy. Vulnerable narcissists want nothing more than to be liked and accepted, and they become preoccupied with the possibility of rejection.
The “grandiose” narcissists have a much higher opinion of themselves, believing that they are really and truly great. However, their high self-esteem comes at a cost. To maintain this illusion of greatness, they have to deny the possibility that there could be something wrong with them. They may be rejected by every romantic partner they ever have, but instead of acknowledging their contribution to their failed relationships, they become outraged at the failings of those who spurned them.
Whether grandiose or vulnerable, true narcissists lack empathy. As a result, their interpersonal relationships are destined to suffer. Because they can never see the world from the eyes of someone else, including their closest romantic partners, they’ll lack the ability to connect emotionally. This lack of empathy almost ensures, then, that they won’t get the social support. Narcissists push people away by being unable to see the world as others do. With each relationship that comes to a crashing halt, they’re forced to work harder and harder to maintain their inflated views of their personal greatness.
The paradoxical needs of the narcissist involve on the one hand, the desire to be loved, admired, or at least to have the support of others. Opposing this set of needs are the equally strong set of desires to see the world from their own point of view. Whether they’re incapable of empathy, or would simply prefer not to concern themselves with other people’s feelings, the result is still the same. The narcissists push away at the same time as they seek the recognition and support of those in their social network.
In addition to lack of empathy, people high in narcissism also have a tendency to be antagonistic. Studies of the personality traits associated with narcissism show that the most narcissistic among us are suspicious, manipulative, and aggressive in addition to lacking humility. These qualities only compound their inability to understand the emotional states of the people closest to them.
In an April 2014 study, University of Georgia psychologist Joanna Lamkin and associates asked college student participants to rate themselves on the qualities of grandiose and vulnerable narcissism and also asked them to provide ratings of how much they liked the people in their social networks. As expected, the people high in narcissism regarded those in their networks (called their “alters”) with disdain. For example, they regarded their alters as low in kindness, likeability, and agreeableness. Lamkin and her colleagues regarded this finding to reflect a form of projection. We tend to rate others in ways similar to the ways we rate ourselves. If you think you’re agreeable, you’ll see others in your world as agreeable also.
For people high in narcissism, though, it’s precisely because they antagonize others that they’re likely to be poorly treated. Thinking back to the “Veep” character (even if you’ve never seen the show), here is a woman who is constantly demeaning the people who work for her and even the people who she wants to have vote for her. In real life, their constant demanding of attention and care cause narcissists to test the love of even their most patient and devoted friends.
Returning to the Lamkin et al. study, there were some differences between vulnerable and grandiose narcissists. People high in grandiose narcissism, unlike their less narcissistic peers, were equally critical of the people close to them in their social network as to their more distant friends and relations. It didn’t matter whether they were rating their best friends or their most distant acquaintances. In contrast, people low in the grandiose form of narcissism were kinder to those close to them than to those further away. The arrogance of grandiose narcissists makes it impossible for them to see anyone as having positive qualities, even those they should care about the most.
If you know someone who you would consider to be truly narcissistic, especially of the grandiose variety, the take-home message is that if this is a person you plan to spend time with, you’ll need to shore up your own defenses. It would be easy to get taken down a notch or two (or more) by the constant comparisons this person makes between your inferior nature and his or her “stellar” qualities. Because narcissists see the world through the very distorted lens of viewing others to be narcissists as well, it’s likely these people will make you feel as though you’re the one who’s selfish and egotistical.
On the other hand, if you’re the one at the root of someone else’s misery, it might be hard for you to spot the narcissist in yourself. It takes a great deal of self-insight to be able to come up with the honest assessment that your own self-centeredness is causing your relationships to end. The defenses that protect your weak self-esteem are there for a reason. A combination of increasing experience in relationships and a willingness to turn the critical mirror on yourself -at least once in a while -may go a long way to overcoming the paradox created by your own narcissistic needs.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2014
Lamkin, J., Clifton, A., Campbell, W., & Miller, J. D. (2014). An examination of the perceptions of social network characteristics associated with grandiose and vulnerable narcissism. Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, And Treatment, 5(2), 137-145. doi:10.1037/per0000024