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This Is What Narcissists Thrive On

New research shows why narcissists cultivate chaos and frenzy.

Bernd Leitner Fotodesign/Shutterstock
Source: Bernd Leitner Fotodesign/Shutterstock

If you’ve ever had a boss or supervisor who seems to exist in a swirl of unending work that needs to be done (right away!), you know how frustrating it is to feel that you’re never on very firm ground. You bump into her in the hallway and say, “How are you?” Instead of responding with a pleasant greeting in return, she rushes by and says, “Frenzied!” Perhaps you have a relative who delays making any commitments to family gatherings, because his life is just “too hectic.” You never know until the last minute whether he’ll show up, and when he does, he’s hopelessly late. These people seem to create chaos, and having done so, appear to relish the opportunity to wreak havoc in everyone else’s life as well.

It might strike you that people who insist on coming across as unbelievably busy and harried might actually enjoy this constant state of confused over-commitment. Sure, you think, they may have important jobs or roles in life, but there must be a way they could be better organized and calmer. As it turns out, their continually chaotic lives may be a function of a high degree of narcissism. They may not actually enjoy the state of frenzy, but instead are driven to give off this impression to cover up feelings of despair and lack of importance. According to Pennsylvania State University’s Sindes Dawood and Aaron Pincus, people high in the pathological type of narcissism are likely to experience the extreme high of feeling that they rule the world, but when things don’t turn out as planned, can become despondent and out of control. The disruption they cause in everyone else’s lives, according to this view, is part of the pattern of needing to fuel their sense of self-importance.

The average person high in the trait of narcissism, Dawood and Pincus argue, isn’t particularly likely to become depressed, but should depressive feelings set in, they would be experienced as plain sadness. The person high in pathological narcissism, by contrast, should be subject to feelings of a particular kind of depression “characterized by anhedonia [feeling empty and useless], feelings of worthlessness, nihilism, and boredom with life." The Penn State researchers believed that those high in pathological narcissism, with its dependence on feeling important, would show variations in mood corresponding to their perceptions of whether other people were recognizing and applauding them. These variations should occur on a bigger scale than the normal variations in mood most people feel. Those high in pathological narcissism should also show greater emotional lability, or more frequent variations in positive and negative moods.

To test the proposal that people high in pathological narcissism would be more likely to experience mood variability, Dawood and Pincus conducted an eight-week study in which 293 undergraduate participants completed weekly assessments of their experience of depressive symptoms. This method allowed the researchers to track the weekly variability of moods which, according to their predictions, should be more extreme in people with higher levels of pathological narcissism. Prior to embarking on the weekly assessments, the participants completed the 52-item Pathological Narcissism Inventory (PNI), which captured the three facets of narcissistic grandiosity — exploitativeness, self-sacrificing self-enhancement, and grandiose fantasy; and four facets of narcissistic vulnerability — contingent self-esteem, hiding the self, entitlement rage, and devaluing.

Self-sacrificing self-enhancement would be tapped by asking individuals to state whether they cover up their grandiosity by appearing to be making sacrifices. This might be the facet of pathological narcissism that comes closest to the idea of trying to seem important by creating a sense of chaos. After all, if you’re working so hard on behalf of others, how could you be accused of trying to make yourself seem important? All of that hard work, according to this view, necessarily means you have to be in a hurried rush and can’t bother to pause.

The narcissistic trait of contingent self-esteem means that you need others to admire you in order to feel good about yourself, and entitlement rage means that you become furious when you don’t get it. Hiding the self and devaluing others, as forms of vulnerable narcissism, further reinforce your tendency to protect yourself from being seen for who you are or seen as worse than other people.

Both at the outset of the study and over the course of its eight weeks, participants rated their depressive symptoms on scales that would be sensitive to weekly variations in their thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and physical symptoms. They also rated their levels of anhedonia and feelings of boredom and sadness.

As you can see, then, the Dawood and Pincus study took a comprehensive approach to ascertaining both levels of pathological narcissism and weekly fluctuations in mood. It would have been interesting to have participants also provide data on the experiences they had over the course of the week that might have contributed to their mood variations, but this was not a focus of the present study. We can assume, though, that an eight-week period was long enough to include events that would serve either to reinforce or detract from the self-esteem of the college student participants. One bad test score or one refused date could send a pathological narcissist into a tailspin whose effects might persist for days. Because this study followed a longitudinal design, the authors were able to draw broader conclusions than could be obtained from the typical one-shot design even without this direct measure of good and bad events.

At the beginning of the eight-week period, students higher in pathological narcissism were more likely to endorse symptoms of depression. Over the course of the eight weeks, though, the students higher in PNI scores became more unstable in their moods, and their ability to feel engaged in their experiences (anhedonia) took a steady downward course. Contingent self-esteem, that need to be seen positively by others, was the strongest predictor of depressive severity and loss of interest over time. It’s possible, as the authors suggested, that their pathological narcissism, particularly their feelings of vulnerability, leads these individuals to avoid seeing themselves in anything but the most favorable light. When things don’t go their way (such as the rebuffed relationship), they can’t see their own contribution, but instead blame everyone else.

Returning now to the question of how to confront that chaotic person in your life, the Dawood and Pincus findings suggest that you might need to attend to the feelings of inferiority that power all that frenetic energy. Depending on your relationship with the person (i.e., your boss or someone in your family), it might mean feeding their sense of self, at least for the moment. The findings further suggest that the chaos these individuals create may also be a way to protect themselves against failure. If you are constantly putting up barriers to the successful completion of projects by being “too busy” to give any of them the attention they deserve, you can easily deflect failure onto all those impossible demands on your time.

In sum, the fulfillment of your goals and aims takes organization and planning. If it’s you who’s putting yourself in the midst of your own chaos, it might be a good time to get back to at least some of that goal-oriented planning. The results can provide you with that all-important authentic validation of your sense of self, as you find yourself making accomplishments for which you can feel genuinely proud.


Dawood, S., & Pincus, A. L. (2018). Pathological narcissism and the severity, variability, and instability of depressive symptoms. Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment, 9(2), 144-154. doi:10.1037/per0000239

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