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Narcissism

Destructive Decision-Making in the Grandiose Narcissist

How overconfidence and lack of anxiety can cause poor judgment.

Key points

  • Grandiose narcissists' need to seem superior can cause them to cover up their knowledge gaps with false confidence and charm.
  • This can sometimes cause them to make dangerous decisions for themselves and anyone following them.
  • It's important to resist the natural charisma of the grandiose narcissist in order to set healthy boundaries.
Image by Chloe Barron, used with permission
Source: Image by Chloe Barron, used with permission

Researchers have elucidated that leaders with grandiose narcissism are prone to making poor decisions. Overconfidence, lack of healthy anxiety, and a superficial grasp of the situation can cause faulty judgment. Such individuals may ignore potential pitfalls to avoid feeling anxiety or uncertainty, but in the end, this can cause greater pain.

The need to feel superior can lead these individuals to reject advice from true experts. Their Herculean veneer may hide a fear of incompetence, learning, and exposure. One can feel ashamed of not knowing something already. Adequate learning reveals and addresses areas of weakness that these individuals may find intolerably humiliating. They have to feel excellent across the board, or they feel they are nothing.

People with grandiose narcissism cannot bear the idea of having limitations.

However, sometimes they project a pseudo-humility. It functions as a source of "narcissistic supply" or a way to garner admiration. In that sense, it is more about secondary gain or what's-in-it-for-me rather than true unselfishness. Performative altruism and humility, fashioned for gaining personal reinforcement, are also a form of grandiosity and succor, even if it does involve a contribution. One can be in love with and energized by one's own virtuous image, especially when an influx of reinforcements keeps it pumped.

Some experts assert that grandiose narcissism is a form of delusion and think of it as close to, but not quite, a psychotic (not in touch with reality) disorder. The capacity to lie to the self and maintain an inner persona of personal magnificence creates harmony, hope, and guiltlessness in the internal world. This has a persuasive impact on others.

While we cannot diagnose from afar, one wonders about immensely talented public figures such as the lawyer Michael Avenatti and the entrepreneur Elizabeth Holmes, who started with a vision and ended up in prison. An amorality takes hold, perhaps unconsciously, when the drive to succeed or to bolster the ego leads to rationalizations of unethical actions. One can pretend to the self, as well as others, when one is in-deep, deeply petrified of failure, or has something to prove.

The need to maintain a grandiose version of the self, to one's self and to others, can arise from a core or past experience of humiliation. This can be in the form of accumulated insults or repeated shaming. It may not be a conscious memory, but it can still direct one's actions and decisions in an unconscious way.

What underlies this condition?

Recent research indicates that the core of the grandiose narcissistic person is brittle. The bluster may cover up insecurity, low self-esteem, the inability to manage affects or feelings, a pervading sense of emptiness, or a fragile, disorganized identity. The self-generated surety and magnetism is a mask that compensates for these inner vulnerabilities. Catastrophic downfalls from bad, consequential decisions can cause the veneer to shatter and the fragilities to surface.

The grandiose narcissist is terrified and intolerant of these fragilities. Grandiosity is a protection, a defense, that holds the person together, yet apart from fear-producing flaws. Denial and compartmentalization may have conjured a sense of safety once but backfired. The treatment takes a long time and involves skillful psychotherapy and the capacity to embrace one's own lesser-than qualities and still feel worthy and able.

Then again, there may just be a constitutional absence of the capacity for empathy, ethical conduct, and remorse. Some people with grandiose narcissism also have sociopathic traits, such as parasitic tendencies, a visceral exploitation habit, and a sense of entitlement. (This may not be treatable.) The capacity to delude themselves makes it easier to delude others, partially because of the inner energized feeling. Instead of the awkward wincing and hesitation that might accompany a calculated, deliberate lie, there is sincere excitement in the projected delusion and pumped-up self-image. It comes out with verve, imagination, and gusto.

As far as followers go, one can be swept up. Abandonment of critical thought can be a casualty of mesmerization. A strange and subtle infantilization can occur in the face of a larger-than-life personality. After all, personal responsibility carries some stress and anxiety. It may be tempting to fall under the spell of a person who appears to have answers and projects absolute clarity and confidence. Almost like an idealized parental figure that we may wish for in our unconscious mind. As if by falling in with them, we are taken care of, and all will be well.

Abandoning one's own mind has risks. "Never completely hand your mind over to someone else." That is something my father once said.

In stressful situations, such as cognitive overload, disorder, exhaustion from work or home life, fear of independence, a fragmented society, a confusing situation, or a surfeit of choices, it can feel like a relief to adopt the vision of a powerful personality. One can avoid the anxiety of thinking or making the wrong decision. One can eschew uncertainty. The grandiose narcissist's steadfast investment in the self, combined with charisma and persuasiveness, elicits blind trust in others to their own detriment and psychological dismantling.

While such individuals can be intoxicating in their charm, they can be errant in their judgment. For those in their path, insight, self-awareness, reflection, and critical thought (not necessarily expressed or verbalized) in their presence, in the moment, can be protective. The skill is in maintaining a little suspicion, holding the feeling, and heeding the niggling discomfort. Eventually, it will make sense and be a form of guidance. This form of self-possession can help one back off, back out, and find a way to manage or create a psychological boundary as needed.

References

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7427600/

Caligor E, Levy KN, Yeomans FE. Narcissistic personality disorder: diagnostic and clinical challenges. Am J Psychiatry. 2015 May;172(5):415-22. doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2014.14060723. PMID: 25930131.

https://cmr.berkeley.edu/2020/05/62-3-oreilly/

https://journals.aom.org/doi/10.5465/amd.2019.0163

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