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Beware the Narcissistic Bubble

Don't let your narcissism get out of control

In their everyday lives, people high in the personality trait of narcissism engage in a number of undesirable behaviors that can get them in trouble. They become enraged, shirk their duties, and use sexual language, particularly if they are of the "entitled" type of narcissist. Many social critics wonder whether our society is becoming increasingly narcissistic, thus fostering these kinds of counterproductive and exploitative behaviors. Whether or not this is true, there certainly are many recent cases of people whose tendencies to aggrandize themselves and their own importance may have led them to implode on a huge public scale.

Public figures seem particularly vulnerable to developing a narcissistic mindset. As they do, they enter what some call the "narcissistic bubble," meaning that they lose their sense of accountability for their behavior. When you think about it, this makes sense.

First, to become a public figure means that you are already seeking some type of attention, even if it is framed within the context of public service. Ironically, once you become a public figure, you acquire an entourage that protects you from the public. This is the second reason that people enter the narcissistic bubble. They don't have to encounter the strains and struggles of everyday life. Someone else is always there to do it for them. The third contributor to the narcissistic bubble is media attention. If your every move is being followed, no matter how insignificant, you can readily start to believe that everything you do is important and interesting. Fourth, public figures are constantly fawned on by admirers and "yes men" (and women). With the constant temptation that often goes with the adulation, public figures can be readily drawn into unfortunate sexual escapades. Fifth, successful celebrities, athletes, and politicians stand to make a great deal of money. They can buy whatever they want whenever they want it. This ability to indulge their slightest fantasies fosters impulsive and often reckless behavior which, in turn, can lead to fiscal ruin if it goes on unchecked.

One type of victim of the narcissistic bubble is the celebrity or politician on a meteoric rise to the top who doesn't have the time or perhaps the emotional maturity (in the case of a young teen) to integrate these heady new experiences into his or her sense of identity. The second type of victim enters the narcissistic bubble more slowly. Over the years, this person's fame and reputation reinforce the feeling of invulnerability and importance. These individuals come to expect special treatment which they invariably get.

Shakespeare, who can always be counted on for wise insights, actually coined the phrase "the bubble reputation" in the famous "Seven Ages of Man" speech given by the moody character Jacques in "As You Like It," Shakespeare uses the character Malvolio in "Twelfth Night" to characterize its dangers. It's Malvolio who states that "some are born great, some become great, and some have greatness thrust upon them." Malvolio, himself the ultimate narcissist, mistakenly believes that this phrase is secretly meant to apply to him. As a result, he puts himself in a position that causes him to be ridiculed by everyone in his social circle. His comedown is cruel and absolute. If you seek the bubble reputation, then, you start to believe in your own greatness, and this becomes your ultimate undoing.

Ironically, even psychologists are not impervious to the narcissistic bubble. For example, in 2008 Dr. Phil McGraw seemed to put himself in this plight when he publicly diagnosed Britney Spears. His feeling of invulnerability led someone who should have known better to engage in a behavior that clearly led to a violation of confidentiality.

Researchers who study narcissism recognize that it has two subtypes: grandiose and vulnerable. Grandiose narcissists have a truly inflated sense of self. Vulnerable narcissists are highly sensitive to rejection, more likely to feel a sense of shame, and don't engage in grandiose fantasizing. Israeli psychologists Avi Besser and Beatriz Priel asked their sample of adults recruited from the community to imagine one of two types of threats: those that involved their work achievement and those that involved their relationships. For example, participants asked to imagine a threat to their job achievement read the following scenario:

"Recently, an opportunity for a promotion has opened up for one exceptional employee only; you are competing for this opportunity and want it very much.You have been invited to a meeting with X, the executive manager. You approach X's office earlier than expected. As you walk up to the office, you hear laughter coming from inside. It seems they are celebrating-they probably already know who has won the promotion. As you get closer, you see that the door is cracked open. Youopen the door, to find X making a toast with your opponent to celebrate his promotion. You hear X saying to this person, "Of all of the candidates for this promotion, you are the best."

The findings showed clearly that participants high in grandiose narcissism were most vulnerable to the threats to their achievement and those high in vulnerable narcissism to threats involving interpersonal relations. In other words, if you want to hurt grandiose narcissists, target their feelings of job accomplishment. If you want to hurt vulnerable narcissists, get them to question the security of their relationships. The results also suggest that when the narcissistic bubble bursts, it bursts differently for the two types of narcissists.

How can you avoid the dangers of being trapped by the narcissistic bubble? Here are five steps you can take to keep your own grandiosity in check:

1. Recognize when you're heading into the narcissistic bubble. Making excuses for your own inexcusable behavior, failing to reciprocate to others who help you, and taking advantage of people who express admiration for you can be signs that you're on your way into danger.

2. Stay mentally grounded. Whether it's becoming the league's bowling champ or the winner of a national election, it's important to stay in touch with your original goals.

3. Continue to challenge your beliefs. Even run-of-the-mill narcissists come to think that the world revolves around them. Ask yourself, or have someone else ask you, whether you are really as exceptional as you believe you are.

4. Find solid ways to boost your self-esteem. People high on vulnerable narcissism react poorly when their personal relationships don't go well. By bolstering your inner self-confidence, you can buffer yourself against the harm that such ruined relationships can cause. Boosting your self-esteem will also make you less likely to experience the vulnerable form of narcissism.

5. Turn a burst bubble into an opportunity for self-improvement. We've all seen the politician or celebrity "apologies" that don't ring true. Whether it's your fellow office workers, family members, or nation of followers to whom you must apologize, take the experience to heart and use it to turn your life around. There are also ways to benefit from adaptive narcissism which can further improve your ability to succeed.

When your narcissistic bubble bursts, no matter how famous or popular you are, it hurts. Learn to avoid the pain of the downfall by avoiding traps that lead you there in the first place.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging and please check out my website, where you can read this week's Weekly Focus to get additional information on personality, self-tests, and psychology-related links.

Copyright 2011 Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D.


Besser, A., & Priel, B. (2010). Grandiose narcissism versus vulnerable narcissism in threatening situations: Emotional reactions to achievement failure and interpersonal rejection. Journal Of Social And Clinical Psychology, 29(8), 874-902. doi:10.1521/jscp.2010.29.8.874

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