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How Narcissists React When Things Don’t Go Their Way

They can be surprisingly flexible, as we all should be.

Key points

  • A study found that the higher people scored on measures of grandiose narcissism, the greater their coping flexibility.
  • This study fits into the pattern of other investigations showing the high ability of grandiose narcissists to manage life's problems.
  • Bolstering one's own confidence in being able to overcome stress can help even non-narcissists cope.
Djordje Djurdjevic/Shutterstock
Source: Djordje Djurdjevic/Shutterstock

It’s all too familiar: You made careful plans to attend a family event or a friend’s milestone birthday, or to take a business trip. But then the hours of planning and preparing that went into minimizing mishaps all seem wasted, as everything that could go wrong does.

Part of dealing with disappointment and frustration involves getting over that sickening feeling in the pit of your stomach that there’s no way out. Consider the case of traveling to a friend’s milestone birthday celebration. When you made your original arrangements, you allotted yourself plenty of time to get there, booking the least expensive flight you could find that would still give you a 3-hour cushion to arrive at the party. Sure, there were other options available, but they were just outside your budget.

Much to your dismay, with no reason for a travel snafu, your flight gets cancelled and you’re stuck in an airport lounge. There are no available seats on any other flight, and it looks like the celebration will go on without you.

One way to respond to broken plans is to rail against the forces of fate that gave you this very bad deal. And yet you can yell all you want at the ticket agents but it will not fix your problem. In fact, they’re only going to get aggravated at you, making it less likely that any of them will go out of their way to assist. On the other hand, if you retreat to the nearest bar to lick your wounds, your problem will go ignored by anyone who could have helped.

Somewhere in between aggressively attacking and retreating behind a wall of inaction is the right approach to handling frustration and disappointment over circumstances beyond your control. Psychologists talk about two coping methods, neither of which is necessarily “better,” but each of which has advantages:

In problem-focused coping, you try to change the situation; in emotion-focused coping, you don’t try to change anything but instead try to make yourself feel better. In this case, after calming yourself down (emotion-focused), you can go online or call the airline to try for a standby seat on the next flight out.

Flexible adaptation to frustration is part of a larger picture of adjusting to life changes in general. In a review of the studies on coping flexibility and adjustment to life changes, University of Hong Kong psychologist Cecelia Cheng and colleagues (2015) note:

“Some people are sensitive to and ready for such changes, and actively try various coping strategies to deal with the changing environment, whereas others feel surprised and uncomfortable when changes occur and resist formulating new strategies to cope with the altered environment.” (p. 1582)

There are ways to measure your ability to adapt to stress using the criteria that Cheng and her colleagues developed from their review of the literature. Each involves combining problem-focused and emotion-focused coping rather than using one to the exclusion of the other. Adapting to stress means that you can choose from a variety of coping methods depending on the situation so you're ultimately able to match your stress-reducing strategy to the nature of the situation.

How Narcissists Deal

We might expect that the reaction narcissists choose when things go wrong is full of vitriol, rather than a conscious and deliberate consideration of alternatives. Part and parcel of narcissism, after all, is the sense that you’re entitled to get your way. When the fates don’t cooperate, you’re enraged and you lash out at anyone and everyone, but especially those you identify as thwarting your goals.

Getting infuriated when your wishes are blocked falls in the category of emotion-focused coping: It doesn’t accomplish anything other than perhaps annoying the people who could help you (and maybe making you feel—temporarily—better). If you're a narcissist, such an explosive reaction actually puts you in a negative light, which is the last way you want to appear to the outside world.

As it turns out, though, there are two types of narcissists, with different levels of psychological well-being:

  • Grandiose narcissists are the ones with an inflated sense of their own importance; their self-esteem tends to be high.
  • Vulnerable narcissists are at the opposite end of the pole; their self-esteem is low and so are their levels of overall adaptation. Their weak sense of self leads them to overcompensate—their narcissism is really just a superficial cover-up for feelings of inferiority.

A research team headed by the University of Hong Kong’s Henry K.S. Ng (2014) examined how the two types of narcissists handle stress and, in turn, how their coping approaches related to their psychological well-being. They knew in advance that vulnerable narcissists would have lower levels of both self-esteem and well-being than grandiose narcissists. The question was whether the two types of narcissists would differ in the flexibility of their coping methods.

[Before jumping into the findings and their implications, it’s important to note that the term “narcissism” is being used somewhat loosely in that these are not clinical populations. Instead, research on narcissism in non-clinical samples uses a questionnaire measure that ranks people along a continuum from low to high in what we might consider the everyday form of self-aggrandizement, entitlement, and inability to have empathy with others.]

Ng and his collaborators administered questionnaires to assess narcissism, self-esteem, degree of stress, and preferred coping methods to reduce stress. They did not actually expose participants to stress or follow them over time. Of course, all measures were self-reported, and those qualifications must be kept in mind.

Using the basic model in which narcissism scores became predictors of life satisfaction and perceived stress via the role of coping flexibility, Ng and his team found that the higher people scored on measures of grandiose narcissism, the greater their coping flexibility—and the higher their self-esteem. Both coping flexibility and high self-esteem, in turn, were related to higher life satisfaction and lower perceived stress levels. The opposite pattern emerged for vulnerable narcissism: These individuals tended to cope less flexibly, have lower self-esteem, and be lower in life satisfaction and higher in perceived stress.

This study fits into the pattern of other investigations showing the surprisingly high ability of people high in the personality trait of narcissism (the grandiose type) to manage life’s problems. Again, this is not true of pathological narcissists who meet the criteria of the psychological disorder. However, it does suggest that the next time you’re feeling overwhelmed you can take a few pages from the healthy narcissist’s playbook:

  1. Bolster your own sense of self-esteem, especially your confidence in being able to overcome stress.
  2. Remind yourself of the times that you’ve managed to get through a problem by keeping your wits about you.
  3. Rather than feel that the world is out to get you, take a more positive view of your situation.
  4. Run through all the coping strategies available to you, especially those you hadn’t initially considered.

Rolling with the punches is not only the method that healthy narcissists use but one that can actually help you resolve the stresses that face you on a daily basis.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2015.

Facebook image: Pixpan_creative/Shutterstock


Cheng, C., Lau, H. B., & Chan, M. S. (2014). Coping flexibility and psychological adjustment to stressful life changes: A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 140(6), 1582-1607. doi:10.1037/a0037913

Ng, H. S., Cheung, R. Y., & Tam, K. (2014). Unraveling the link between narcissism and psychological health: New evidence from coping flexibility. Personality And Individual Differences, 707-10. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2014.06.006

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