Narcissism seems to get a lot of attention these days. Many authors, including the present one, have written about the negative characteristics of narcissism, and the harm they often bring upon others. At the same time, some scholars and writers have identified certain aspects of narcissistic behavior that are, at least in the short-term and in limited ways, beneficial. Below are five potentially positive characteristics of narcissistic behavior, along with their inevitable downfalls, with references from my books: How to Successfully Handle Narcissists and A Practical Guide for Narcissists to Change Towards the Higher Self.
1. Charm and Charisma
Most narcissists can be charming when they choose. Since narcissists desire attention and adulation, they often devote significant time and energy to honing the art of charisma, so they can seduce you into giving them what they want (especially at the beginning of a relationship). Narcissist charm may manifest itself as the romantic enticer, the savvy office networker, the highly polished salesperson, or the social-butterfly acquaintance. Inherently, there’s nothing wrong with being charming in and of itself. Many charming individuals (who are not narcissistic) experience success in life. It can be a delightful trait.
The Downside: To be a charmer without substance is to be a superficial, hollow faker. After the initial positive impression fades, the true face of the narcissist often emerges: the romantic enticer manipulates, the savvy workplace networker backstabs, the highly polished salesperson exploits, and the social butterfly acquaintance abandons. Superficial narcissistic charm inevitably results in others feeling disappointed, deceived, and betrayed. Pathological narcissists do not relate, they use. Their false charm betrays an inability (or unwillingness) to connect with people genuinely as human beings.
Combined with charm, many narcissists also have a way with words. They are often adept at convincing others to do things their way, or give them the resources they need. Higher functioning narcissists, in particular, may advance to certain positions in life because of their ability to influence. As with charm and charisma, there’s nothing inherently wrong with being a persuasive individual, as long as it’s done in a positive, constructive, and conscientious manner. Persuasion is social influencing, which most people engage in.
The Downside: Persuasion without regard for others’ thoughts, feelings, and priorities becomes manipulation, exploitation and coercion. Examples of narcissistic manipulation include (and are not limited to) insincere flattery, appeal to vanity and ego, lying, exaggeration, false promises, excuse-making, blame, guilt-tripping, mixed messages, peer pressure, social exclusion, silent treatment, withholding intimacy, and victimhood. For narcissists, the highly destructive consequence of negative manipulation is that, over time, they leave behind many burned bridges and broken relationships, resulting in a loss of trust and respect. The narcissist becomes a pariah in the eyes of many, and is toxic and discredited.
3. Rule Breaking
“Rules are meant to be broken—that’s how you WIN.”
“Rules are meant to be broken” is a mantra for many narcissists, who are fond of testing and breaking boundaries almost wherever they go. There are times when rule-breaking is actually a positive, especially in scenarios where old practices are no longer effective, or hold back progress. In this way, rule-breaking in certain situations may encourage new and better ways of doing things, and provide a fresh perspective.
The Downside: Unfortunately, narcissistic rule-breaking is often not for the improvement of a situation, or betterment of a cause, but rather the purely selfish gains of the perpetrator. Examples of narcissist rule-breaking include cutting in line, chronic under-tipping, personal space intrusion, borrowing items without returning, using other’s properties without asking, stealing office supplies, disobeying traffic laws, breaking multiple appointments, and negating important promises. Such boundary violations presume a twisted sense of entitlement and privilege, with a narrow, egocentric orientation that disregards and marginalizes others. Often, the negative consequence of serial rule-breaking eventually catches up with the narcissist, and lands him or her in hot water. In severe cases, pathological rule breaking may result in serious domestic, financial, professional, and/or legal trouble.
“My accomplishments are everything.”
“My husband always wants people to see him as successful, powerful, and envy-worthy, no matter how shaky his real life actually is.”
—Anonymous partner of narcissist
Some narcissists have much to prove (to themselves and others), and may go out of their way to overachieve. They gravitate toward careers and endeavors which provide a sense of power, prestige, recognition, and/or material success. While non-narcissistic achievers typically accomplish through talent, skill, and hard work, and are driven by a standard of substantive excellence, narcissistic overachievers are driven by the desire to be “superior,” “one of a kind,” and “admirable.” They desperately want to feel a sense of self-importance, so they can be “above others.” Arguably, perhaps the best thing about narcissistic overachieving is that it’s better than underachieving, at least in certain situations. Some higher functioning narcissists do produce results and “climb to the top,” though often in a conceited and haughty manner, and at the expense of using others.
The Downside: Narcissistic overachieving elicits some of the worst traits of narcissism, including grandiosity, egocentricity, conceit, false superiority, condescension, snobbishness, and contempt. By applying the schema of “achievements” as an exterior to escape one’s internal inadequacy, overachieving narcissists use titles, status, wealth, material possessions, enviable lifestyle, and/or exclusive memberships to represent who they are. The narcissists’ identity becomes infused with, and inseparable from the superficial outer-ego, at the significant expense of neglecting their psychologically injured inner-self. Many narcissists believe that if they’re not “special,” they’re nobodies (unlovable). They’re incapable of being “simply human.”
5. Avoidance of Painful Inadequacy
This final “positive” trait is crucial in understanding why narcissists do what they do. Psychologist Stephen Johnson writes that the narcissist is someone who has “buried his true self-expression in response to early injuries and replaced it with a highly developed, compensatory false self.” Many narcissists behave as they do because, deep down, they feel like the “ugly duckling.” Their false facades, be it the charmer, the manipulator, the rule-breaker, the overachiever, or any of the many other manifestations of narcissism, are essentially a coping mechanism to avoid feeling (and being seen as) the disenfranchised real self. By enacting a false self, no matter how superficial, the narcissist hopes to avoid experiencing the pain and hurt of early psychological injuries (narcissistic wound), when the real self was disenfranchised. The narcissistic persona, at least outwardly and temporarily, provides the illusion that one has left his or her inadequacy behind. This self-deception distracts the narcissist from having to confront painful feelings of inferiority, insecurity, shame, anxiety, depression, trauma, loneliness, emptiness, or other types of difficult emotions.
“I try to hide my provincial upbringing by getting rid of my accent, and enacting sophisticated mannerisms. But deep down, I’m always afraid that people are going see right through me.”
“I never want to be looked down as poor. My fiancé and I each drive a Mercedes. The best man at our upcoming wedding also drives a Mercedes!”
The Downside: The major problem with living as a false self is that one can never be truly happy and at peace with one’s genuine (rejected) self. For many narcissists with the superficial facade, any success or recognition achieved are often transient and illusory, lacking meaningful substance and genuine human connectedness. On the inside, most narcissists are hounded by an ever-lurking sense of insecurity, with the hidden anxiety that one day they’re going to be “found out” and “exposed” for the truth of who they really are—that they’re not who they make themselves to be. Fearful of being “ugly” again, many narcissists live an inner life of what H. D. Thoreau calls “quiet desperation.”
Can a narcissist change for the better? Perhaps. But only if he or she is highly aware, and willing to go through the courageous process of self-discovery. For narcissists no longer willing to play the charade at the cost of genuine relationships and credibility, there are ways to liberate from falsehood, and progressively move toward one’s Higher Self. For those who live or work with narcissists, perceptive awareness and assertive communication are musts to establishing healthy and mutually-respectful relationships. See references below.
© 2017 by Preston C. Ni. All rights reserved worldwide. Copyright violation may subject the violator to legal prosecution.
Ni, Preston. How to Successfully Handle Narcissists. PNCC. (2014)
Ni, Preston. A Practical Guide for Narcissists to Change Towards the Higher Self. PNCC. (2015)
Ni, Preston. Understanding Narcissism’s Destructive Impact on Relationships — An Indispensable Reader. PNCC. (2018)
Carlson, E; Vazire, S; and Oltmanns, T. You Probably Think this Paper’s About You: Narcissists’ Perceptions of their Personality and Reputation. J Pers Soc Psychol. (2011)
Dvorsky, G. Why Narcissism Is a Profoundly Misunderstood Psychological Disorder. Gizmodo. (2014)
Maccoby, M. Narcissistic Leaders. Harvard Business School Press (2007)
Johnson, S. Character Styles. W. W. Norton & Company. (1994)