A Field Guide To Narcissism
Narcissists are charming, exasperating, captivating—and sometimes downright ludicrous. The weird world of the megalomaniac, explained.
By Carl Vogel published January 1, 2006 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
There's the groom who wouldn't let his fiancée's overweight friend be a bridesmaid because he didn't want her near him in the wedding pictures. The entrepreneur who launched a meeting for new employees by explaining that nobody ever gets anywhere working for someone else. The woman who had such confidence in her great taste, she routinely redecorated her daughter's home without asking. The guy who found himself so handsome, he took a self-portrait with a Polaroid every night before bed to preserve the moment.
As Ted Turner put it: "If I only had a little humility, I'd be perfect."
But narcissism isn't just a combination of monumental self-esteem and rudeness. As a personality type, it ranges from a tendency to a serious clinical disorder, encompassing unexpected, even counterintuitive behavior. The Greek myth of Narcissus ends with the beautiful young man lost to the world, content to forever gaze at his own reflection in a pool of water. Real-life narcissists, however, desperately need other people to validate their own worth. "It's not so much being liked. It's much more important to be admired. Studies have shown narcissists are willing to sacrifice being liked if they think it's necessary to be admired," says Roy Baumeister, a social psychologist at Florida State University in Tallahassee.
Deep desire to be at the center of things is served by extreme self-confidence, a combination that makes narcissists attractive and even charming. Buoyed by a coterie of admiring friends and associates—protected by the armor of positive self-regard—someone with a mild-to-moderate case of narcissism can float through life feeling pretty good about himself. Since they feel entitled to special treatment, they are easily offended, and readily harbor grudges. Yet narcissists are often very popular—at least in the short term.
The beauty of being a narcissist is that even when disaster stares you in the face, you feel neither doubt nor remorse. In a study, researchers asked a pair of participants to undertake a task that was rigged to fail. Most people tend to protect their partner, sharing either the credit or the blame. "But the narcissists would say, 'It's totally the other person's fault.' They're completely willing to step on someone," says narcissism researcher Keith Campbell, associate professor of social psychology at the University of Georgia.
Intensely narcissistic people often live tumultuous lives, as few people can tolerate them for long. But having a milder version of the personality type comes with many side benefits. Subclinical narcissists are happy. They are less likely to be depressed, sad or anxious, and rate their subjective well-being more highly. They're less reactive to stress, and recover more rapidly from it.
Mild narcissism also seems to help people recover from accidents or other trauma—it gives them an unrealistic sense of their own invulnerability, and they believe that they will be able to handle whatever else life throws at them. As one researcher put it, being somewhat narcissistic is like driving a huge SUV: You're having a great time, even while you hog the road, suck up extra resources and put other drivers at higher risk.
A narcissist can be hard to identify, in part because he is likely to be much more fascinating than you would expect for someone so self-absorbed, and in part because you wouldn't think someone with such self-regard could be so defensive and needy.
The Narcissist in the Conference Room
Some of the country's most successful companies are run by narcissists. It's been said about the founder of Oracle: "The difference between Larry Ellison and God is that God doesn't think he's Larry Ellison." Running on a full tank of confidence and charisma, narcissists often thrive as salesmen, entrepreneurs, surgeons or in other ego-intensive, cut-throat professions.
The downside? Temper tantrums, unreasonable expectations, shocking selfishness and a complete inability to engage in teamwork. "Every once in a while, someone would be in the bathroom in tears after one of her outbursts," Charlotte Tomic says of her former boss's behavior. Tomic, a media relations professional in New York City, says her narcissistic boss subjected her to endless discussions of her wardrobe and travel plans, and managed in total ignorance of either group effort or recognition. Unfortunately, short of quitting, Tomic could do little about it. You can't always escape the egomaniac in the cubicle next door, but a few techniques may help you endure the experience.
1. Butter him up. Novelist Candace Talmadge says her former boss was like a little boy stirring up an anthill with a stick. "His favorite practice was to come into our offices late on a Friday with a task that took up the entire three-day weekend," she says. "Then he wouldn't come in on Tuesday, or he'd just drop the whole thing." If you want to put an end to such wasteful behavior, try flattery, a time-honored way to manipulate a narcissist. Talmadge could have countered, "Can we start next week? Without your guidance, we're lost on tough stuff like this." Of course, you'd have to stomach your own servility.
2. Let her be the center of attention. Narcissists' self-confidence on the job has no basis in reality; in fact, one study shows that coworkers generally rate narcissists as below-average performers. However, they do tend to do well when all eyes are on them, and the opportunity to look like a star is ripe. Their immunity to self-doubt means that unlike most of the rest of us, they aren't afraid to be the center of attention. Stage fright isn't a big issue for these megalomaniacs. "For the average person, pressure gets in the way [of achievement]. But the narcissist is very happy in the moment of glory," says Baumeister. "It has to be glory, though. He's not going to be a team player." If you've got a Barry Bonds on your team, give him the chance to excel—and to be admired—and get out of the way.
3. Be clear on the quid pro quo. When a narcissist is in charge, he'll feel no compunction asking for a lot and providing very little in return. "He's totally focused on his vision for the project; it's all about him. Make clear the rules of the game, because he's not going to play fair," says Michael Maccoby, a psychoanalyst and business consultant who authored The Productive Narcissist: The Promise and Perils of Visionary Leadership. That way, if you work 70 hours a week to hit a deadline, at least you'll be compensated for it.
4. Don't cross him. Entirely dependent on others' opinions, a narcissist can act like a cornered animal if he or she feels threatened. Research shows that narcissists become aggressive when they feel an ego threat—confronted with proof that they aren't special—or feel they aren't getting enough respect. In the lab, they are willing to punish other experimental subjects with a noise blast when they think they've been put down. If you have to tell a narcissist he isn't doing a good job, do it gently—and be prepared.
5. Keep a sense of humor. One upside: Narcissists can be entertaining, if you keep a sense of perspective. Frederick Rhodewalt, a professor of psychology at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, describes one assistant professor who joined the department softball team. Although he had no experience with a ball and bat, his background in tennis gave him enough of an edge that he won the batting title for the league. "And for a few months, every time I saw him in the office, he'd be carrying that trophy," Rhodewalt laughs.
The Narcissist In Love
As bad as narcissistic behavior can be in a coworker, golf buddy or relative, it's worse in a romantic partner. Male or female, narcissists are the quintessential sharks: Self-confidence and charm make them highly appealing in the early stages of attraction. Since narcissists are very concerned about appearance, they're likely to be well-groomed and fashionable. "He was into nice things, the best brand names. Everything was about treating himself well," says Lynn, a 30-year-old consultant in San Diego, about her ex-boyfriend. "And he was totally charismatic. After we were going out for a while, I could see him turn it on and off when he wanted something."
Lynn found out that her boyfriend was what Campbell, author of When You Love a Man Who Loves Himself, calls a "game-playing" lover. Campbell found that narcissists' need for power and autonomy leads them to shun commitment—and to cheat. Romantic relationships become just another way for them to pump up their own self-image. Narcissists look for mates with very high social status (for example, looks or success) which complements an inflated sense of self.
Lynn's narcissistic boyfriend was a poker player, and she s
ays now that the relationship was just like a sport to him. "He would figure out the landscape, and he was never willing to gamble more than he was willing to lose," Lynn says. "He told me I had qualities he was looking for, but also that he needed to see other women."
After nine months, they broke up, also typical for narcissists, whose relationships don't last long. In Campbell's studies, "relationships with narcissists were more satisfying initially, and then dramatically less satisfying at the end," he says. The extreme example might be Scott Peterson, who was charismatic enough to attract a beautiful wife—and coldhearted enough to murder her when he wanted to move on.
Obviously, most narcissists aren't killers, but they do tend to be very unsatisfying mates. If he's had a string of relationships, if he can't stop talking about how much people admire him, if he gets easily riled when he doesn't get what he wants—he may not be just another commitment-phobic man. He's a narcissist.
Unfortunately, anyone can be seduced by a narcissist. One misconception is that only those with low self-esteem date someone who's so self-centered, but people with normal self-respect can also end up involved with a narcissist. They have decisive, take-charge personalities in a society that shuns wishy-washiness.
And after all, they're experts at making people admire them. Best-case scenario: when narcissists date each other. That way, both can have a self-confident, impressive and shallow mate—and leave the rest of us in peace.
The Care and Feeding of a Narcissist
Nobody knows for sure how someone becomes a narcissist. The expert consensus is that genetics plays a huge role. Overly permissive moms and dads who lavish their children with endless praise also seem to contribute.
Some researchers believe more men are narcissistic than women, while others counter that since many key traits—being self-centered, competitive, disinterested in intimacy—are more socially acceptable in men, women may be equally narcissistic but less visible as such. Female narcissists might install themselves at the center of a circle of friends, for example, rather than seize the stage at work. Similarly, some studies show that Westerners are more narcissistic than people from Asian cultures. Others posit that people "self-enhance" in every society—it's just that in a more collectivist culture, such as Japan's, narcissists are subtler, since self-aggrandizing behavior isn't rewarded or respected.
It stands to reason that if narcissism can be fostered, it can be treated as well. For years, personality disorders were thought to be essentially incurable. That thinking is changing, but narcissists may be among the hardest cases to crack. An unhappy narcissist generally believes that his main problem is that other people don't treat him as well as he deserves. When you think you're the greatest—and when other people mostly defer to you—why would you want to change?
"Narcissists are either dragged in by someone who is having trouble with them—a spouse or relative—or they show up because of feelings of emptiness," says Rhodewalt. "Why, they wonder, if they're so accomplished and wonderful, does life seem so empty?" When you've built a life on falsehoods, it's hard to grapple with questions that everyone faces, like the meaning of life. The needle's stuck on "I'm wonderful," and your personality doesn't allow you to grow—to change your behavior or attitudes in response to life's challenges.
Your Inner Narcissist
You're pretty pleased with yourself. And that's a good thing. Studies reveal that most ordinary people secretly think they're better than everyone else: We rate ourselves as more dependable, smarter, friendlier, harder-working, less-prejudiced and even better in the sack than others. "The paradox about narcissism is that we all have this streak of egotism," says Mark Leary, chair of the department of psychology at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. "Eighty percent of people think they're better than average."
Psychologically healthy people generally twist the world to their advantage just a little bit. If we do well on a test, for example, we're likely to congratulate ourselves. If we do poorly, we'll claim the test was badly written, unfair or wrong. It's normal, perhaps even necessary. By telling ourselves that our faults are universal but our strengths are unique, we can get through life's trials without losing faith in our own abilities.
These biases are only faint echoes of the serious distortions that a narcissist creates. A narcissist can't see anything wrong about herself, even when her world is crashing down all around her. "Negative emotions are often functional. They tell you when things need to change about the environment or yourself," Leary says. So the narcissist does, after all, have an Achilles' heel—being blind to her own faults. And that's perhaps the only way to console yourself when you've been subjected to the blunt edge of a narcissistic personality. Rather than admiration or fury, narcissists may in fact deserve our pity. From a very safe distance.
The Hollywood Cure
We love movies in which a raging ego is tempered by challenges. Dropkicking a character out of their grandiosity is a cherished plot twist. All the same, don't expect these tricks to work for the narcissists in your life.
- Relive one day a thousand times. (Groundhog Day) Self-centered, striving weatherman Phil (Bill Murray) finds emotional and spiritual growth after being trapped in a space-time anomaly.
- Get shot in the head. (Regarding Henry) A confrontation at a botched burglary transforms Henry Turner (Harrison Ford) from a lying, cheating, bullying corporate attorney to a charming innocent.
- Bond with your autistic brother. (Rain Man) Greedy go-it-alone Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise) learns that he shouldn't exploit his autistic-savant older brother.
- Undergo hypnosis. (Shallow Hal) Hal (Jack Black) dates a string of beautiful vixens, then falls for an overweight woman while under Tony Robbins' spell.
- Be trapped by a sniper. (Phone Booth) Brash Stu Sheppard (Colin Farrell) is a philandering PR rep who learns what life is really about while in the crosshairs of a killer's rifle.