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Why Narcissists Make Life So Exhausting for Everyone Else

New research suggests why you're so dragged down by the narcissist.

Key points

  • People high in narcissism have a tendency to manipulate you to achieve their goals, no matter how unreasonable.
  • New research suggests the deficits in recognizing how others feel as part of the core of narcissism.
  • Putting your own social skills to use can help you extricate yourself from the manipulative tendencies of the narcissist whether partner or boss.

Narcissism’s main features include a combination of lack of empathy and a need to feel superior to others. As someone in a relationship with a narcissist, these qualities can have a severe impact on your daily life and well-being.

Consider, for example, what happens when a narcissistic person decides to embark with no holds barred on a new and “important” project. It’s Saturday morning, and the winter clothes closet needs to be cleaned out --- now! Your partner got this idea and expects you to jump right in, dropping your own weekend plans. Two days later, your partner gets a completely different inspiration. Again, forgetting what your priorities are, your partner insists on changing your internet provider, requiring a complete overhaul of your passwords. Although maybe both of these time-draining projects might be worthwhile in and of their own right, but why can’t your partner come up with a more reasonable way to include you in the planning?

You might even have a narcissistic boss who throws new projects your way on an incessant basis, always citing the need to complete these as being highly urgent. You’ve become worn down by the need to switch gears from the one arduous task barely begun to this next one just added to your plate. At night, you spend an entire dinner unloading to your partner or roommates just how unfair it all is. However, your boss seems oblivious to the impact all of these demands for immediate attention are making on your mental, and potentially, physical well-being.

What’s Underneath the Narcissist’s Tendency to Exploit You?

According to new research by University of Birmingham’s Claire Eddy (2021), there’s a reason that people high in narcissism are likely to take their toll on the people around them. In her words, their “high self-efficacy combined with a competitive nature yield professional and personal achievements,” but those “successes may arise through successful manipulation of others to gain opportunity and status” (p. 2). What’s worse, those high in the “dark” form of narcissism tend to treat other people as objects, derogate them, and have zero insight into how their targets feel about having their sense of agency taken away from them.

As the British psychologist suggests, people whose narcissism leads them to manipulate and exploit others may have difficulties in distinguishing themselves from others. They see your goals as the same as theirs, so why wouldn’t you want to throw your personal interests by the wayside to satisfy theirs? Aren’t you willing to be that tool they need to succeed? In summarizing previous research, she notes that “individuals with narcissism may struggle to define others without referring to their own character during that process,” meaning that they blur the kind of self-other distinctions that form the basis for ordinary interpersonal relationships.

If the problem with narcissism stems from this failure in social cognition, Eddy reasoned, then there should be a relationship between measures of this personality trait and the ability to read the emotions of others. To test this proposal, the British author examined the findings available in the published literature using the method known as meta-analysis. In this procedure, the findings from a set of studies are all run through the same statistical program in order to discern patterns of relationships rather than simply relying on one sample’s data.

The studies in this analysis employed one of several possible measures of social cognition falling into the following 4 categories of abilities. See which ones you think are most related to those of your narcissistic exploiter:

Theory of Mind: understanding other people’s mental states such as beliefs, desires and intentions.

Basic emotion recognition: identifying accurately another person’s emotional state

Empathy: relating to another person’s emotional state

Emotional intelligence: effectively understanding and responding to the emotional states of others and of oneself

There were 62 previously published studies investigating these qualities in participants ranging from the general population to clinical groups of individuals diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder. All of these used one of several well-established narcissism scales, and most of the samples would be considered to have milder versions of this trait.

Narcissists Can Exhaust You Because they Don’t See that You’re Tired

From analyses the studies covering this range of social cognitive abilities, Eddy indeed was able to establish a strong link between narcissistic personality trait scores and the above four components of interpersonal sensitivity. However, the findings varied according to a number of critical features, such as whether interpersonal skills were experimentally tapped or were based on the individual’s self-report. Obviously, people high in narcissism will have an upwardly biased view of how interpersonally astute they are. Your overly demanding narcissistic partner may therefore see you as perfectly happy with the constant barrage of new household tasks, even though you don’t go to great lengths to hide your displeasure.

Several of the key results that support the overall predicted narcissism-social cognition relationship are worthy of mention. First, people high in narcissism tended to be low in the measures of empathy reported in these studies, and although this is not a generally socially desirable quality, caring about the feelings of others can be seen to them as a sign of weakness or vulnerability. In other words, if narcissists show they care about how others feel, it could mean that are afraid of learning the answers. This pattern was more true of people high in the vulnerable form of narcissism, whose main quality is that of feeling inadequate.

When it comes to emotional intelligence, theory of mind, and emotion recognition, Eddy reported that people high in the grandiose form of narcissism score in ways that indicate they see themselves as superior to others. There was weaker evidence for theory of mind than for other social cognitive measures, including emotional intelligence. given that there were fewer studies in this area than with the other 3 emotion-reading measures. However, the evidence that Eddy evaluated led her to suggest that people high in narcissism don’t spend much effort in discerning the specific emotions of others. Instead they put their efforts to figuring out what others are thinking as a way to manipulate them. In her words: “Such tendencies could also help to explain the narcissistic romantic love style which apparently seeks to control the partner’s mind, rather than their heart” (p. 13).

Indeed that tendency to go for the mind rather than the heart could help explain why you become so exhausted when your narcissistic partner or boss continues to exploit you. These individuals may know very well that you’re unhappy about these demands, but simply not care. They instead put their cognitive theory of mind skills to use to their own advantage.

How to Escape the Narcissist’s Constant Demands.

If narcissists lack empathy but are astute in detecting how to bend you to their will, the escape path for you may be to resist those “theory of mind” manipulations they perform on you. They may or may not be aware of your emotions, but their cognitive adroitness with manipulation will pursue undaunted if they actually end up succeeding in getting you to follow whatever their whims seem to be at the moment.

The people who get away with these behaviors, as Eddy suggests, have essentially become reinforced by their success in bending you to their will. They may even derive “reinforcement value” in their “problematic interpersonal behaviors” (p. 13).

When it comes to a boss, the simplest way out of your bind is to reduce some of that reinforcement value. Try a gentle refusal with an acknowledgment of the importance of the task. Provide a timeline that you think is reasonable and one that you believe will satisfy your boss’s need for instant gratification. Showing a bit of a backbone while also supporting the overall value of the project may also teach your boss something about just how far you can in fact be manipulated.

With your romantic partner, you could try what Eddy suggests may be a more challenging task, which is to work on the affective empathy part of the equation in a narcissist’s social cognitive skills. If these demands are coming from a place of narcissistic vulnerability, let your partner know how these requests make you feel. Support your partner’s sense of inferiority by acknowledging the requests have worth. Showing that your refusal isn’t intended as a sign of rejection can help you and your partner work toward more emotionally rewarding compromises.

To sum up, people high in narcissism can wear you out with their constant demands for your acquiescence. Learning how to extricate yourself from their manipulation can help you and the other individual renegotiate more reasonable terms to meet the goals you both will find fulfilling.

Facebook image: Kate Kultsevych/Shutterstock


Eddy, C. M. (2021). Self-serving social strategies: A systematic review of social cognition in narcissism. Current Psychology: A Journal for Diverse Perspectives on Diverse Psychological Issues. doi: 10.1007/s12144-021-01661-3

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