How Narcissism Can Make COVID-19 Worse
An interview with Dr. Sulamunn Coleman on narcissism and social distancing.
Posted Aug 04, 2020
Narcissistic people can be difficult to interact with, especially if you are close to them during social distancing. However, many do not have the ability to remove themselves from situations or places where narcissistic people are. Here are some insights into how narcissism can impact COVID-19 and what to do about it.
Dr. Sulamunn (Sully) Coleman received his Ph.D. in biobehavioral health from Pennsylvania State University. He is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Vermont Center on Behavior and Health. His research focuses on examining individual differences in health risk and resilience, developing strategies to promote health behavior change. Last year he received the Early Career Research Award from the Cardiovascular Research Institute of Vermont to investigate the use of financial incentives to help cardiac patients quit smoking.
Jamie Aten: How would you personally define narcissism?
Sulamunn Coleman: Narcissism is a complex aspect of personality that encompasses several traits. Most importantly, narcissistic people see themselves as better than others (or at least more important), and they need constant feedback to confirm how they see themselves. They have trouble controlling their emotions and behaviors when people threaten their beliefs or deprive them of the feedback they think they’re entitled to.
JA: What are some ways understanding narcissism can help us live more resiliently during COVID-19?
SC: Understanding narcissism can help us identify it. And, being able to identify narcissism can potentially help us disengage from narcissistic people we encounter in our daily lives. By not engaging very narcissistic people we may be able to lower our stress levels. In general, finding healthy ways to cope with stress is a great strategy to live more resiliently during global crises.
For example, if you see someone on social media sharing an article or meme that promotes misinformation about the pandemic, recognize that those actions may represent an effort to gain attention, provoke others, and/or validate their beliefs. Confronting them publicly may lead to an argument, which will stress you out, increase their visibility, and potentially stress out other people in your social network. By leaving them alone, you can potentially avoid all of that.
JA: What are some ways people can cultivate resilience amidst this pandemic?
SC: There are many healthy ways to cope with stress that are supported by science. In addition to distancing yourself from narcissistic people, exercising for at least 30 minutes a day—meditate, use expressive writing, quit smoking and illicit drug use, limit or quit alcohol use, eat more vegetables, avoid homeopathic remedies not approved by your primary care provider, limit screen time (especially before bed), and get adequate sleep. All of these are behaviors that can ultimately lower stress, enhance resistance to disease, and improve mental health and well-being.
These behaviors can be difficult to adopt and maintain, so if you’re having trouble, you can reach out to health professionals, counselors, service providers, and other members of your local community to support you in your efforts. For example, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) can directly help you with many of these efforts or point you to more appropriate resources.
JA: Any advice for how we might use what you have learned to support a friend or loved one struggling with a difficult life situation?
SC: If you or someone you know is in a relationship with a very narcissistic person, putting distance between yourself and that person can be extremely difficult and complicated during the COVID-19 pandemic. I would encourage friends struggling with this type of situation to seek professional help, especially if there is any evidence of domestic abuse. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is an example of a resource I would share with loved ones in relationships with abusive partners.
JA: What are you currently working on that you might like to share about?
SC: I currently supervise clinical trials investigating the use of financial incentives to promote smoking cessation in three vulnerable populations: pregnant women, socioeconomically disadvantaged mothers of young children, and cardiac patients. Additionally, I am working on a study examining the relationship between narcissism and stress responses to social exclusion, and another study examining associations between narcissism and preferences for immediate versus delayed gratification.
Coleman, S. R. M. (2020). A commentary on potential associations between narcissism and trauma-related outcomes during the coronavirus pandemic. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 12(S1), S41-S42.