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Narcissism and Aggression: What Everyone Should Understand

Engaging can open the door to abuse.

Key points

  • Narcissism and aggression are strongly linked, a major recent meta-analysis reveals.
  • Engagement with narcissists of any type may lead to abusive situations.
  • People should seek professional support if they are challenged by a narcissist in their life.

Many of us are painfully aware of how difficult it can be to interact with narcissists. These individuals who present as full of themselves may expect special consideration as they attempt to maintain their inflated sense of self. And those who have been in any sort of relationship with a narcissist understand the trail of wreckage they can leave behind. Being the child of a narcissist involves representing this parent well while both coddling and admiring this non-empathic person. Having a narcissistic friend is also tremendously difficult: Listening to someone speak endlessly about their greatness is insufferable and tiring. Speak to someone who has dated a narcissist and they are likely to share how quickly they fell off their partner's pedestal after unintentionally letting them down. If you really want to understand narcissism and its cousin aggression, speak to the former partner of a narcissistic individual.

In an attempt to clarify the relationship between narcissism and aggression, Kjaervik and Bushman (2021) reviewed the results of 431 studies of individuals ranging between the ages of 8.3 and 61.7 with the mean age being 20.69. These authors described narcissism as existing on a continuum ranging from low to high levels and described the groups in their meta-analysis as entitled narcissists, vulnerable narcissists, and grandiose narcissists. The individuals labeled as vulnerable were especially sensitive to criticism from others while those in the grandiose group were especially attention-seeking and imposing. These authors set out to describe the different forms of aggression that thin-skinned narcissists display in general, and when feeling provoked. Provoked was characterized in the study as being shamed, criticized, humiliated, or embarrassed.

The results of this meta-analytic review highlighted just how aggressive both provoked and unprovoked narcissists of both genders, across all ages, and entitled, vulnerable, or grandiose can be. Narcissism was found to be related to both aggression and violence in general. This relationship was even stronger when the persons felt provoked. Keep in mind that the study looked at aggression across the board, including direct or indirect aggression, bullying, and physical violence. The authors speculated that these individuals have fragile egos that lead to aggression when feeling criticized or when unprovoked but feeling annoyed, perhaps by seeing others as inferior. While this research is very informative, we should be aware of its limitations: The majority of studies reviewed looked at the relationship between aggression and narcissism in laboratory settings, and the majority of studies included students. Future studies should focus on examining this relationship in student and non-student samples in other settings.

There are several important takeaways from Kjaervik and Bushman's extensive work which may be helpful and enhance understanding for clinicians and others dealing with narcissistic personality disorders—including the friends, partners, work associates, and relatives of narcissists. For the clinician, an important takeaway of the work may be to work with the narcissist on appraising their perception of others in a more appropriate manner that is less likely to lead to fragility and retaliation. This should be deeply integrated into the therapy in an effort to reduce the likelihood of all sorts of aggression, ranging from ruining a reputation to bullying or physical violence. For those dealing with narcissists at work, at home, or in other venues, the lesson is that narcissists have serious issues and relationships with them must be handled gingerly, and often with the help and support of others, including professionals. Narcissism is about a lot more than grandiosity and a bloviating style. It can lead to broken hearts, destroyed reputations, and, tragically, to lost lives.

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Kjaervik,Sophie,L.and Bushman,Brad, J. (2021) The link between narcissism and aggression: A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin.147(5) 477-503.

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