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The Daily Highs and Lows of Narcissistic People

Understanding their vulnerabilities could help avoid toxicity.

Key points

  • Narcissism is typically regarded as an all-or-nothing trait that remains consistent over a person’s lifetime.
  • New research tests a three-part model to understand narcissism as a vacillating quality with daily variations.
  • Knowing what provokes the most toxic type of narcissism, you may be able to help set their life on course.

When you think about someone who is highly narcissistic, chances are you imagine them as being consistently self-aggrandizing and egotistic. Preferring to see themselves as the center of attention, they come to expect that they will be idolized by all who cross their paths.

Perhaps you have an acquaintance or coworker who demands to be flattered and acquiesced to. Once in a while, though, you detect a crack in their armor. Instead of trying to occupy the position of queen bee, they seem clingy and desperate for attention. What causes these vacillations?

The State of Narcissism

According to the University of Lleida’s Radoslaw Rogoza and colleagues (2024), when researchers treat narcissism as a stable entity, or trait, they mistakenly view it as an either/or between its grandiose form (entitlement and self-importance) and its vulnerable variety (insecurity and fear of judgment). However, theories of narcissism take a more nuanced approach. Just as is true for the person described above, the highly narcissistic can fall down the hillside of grandiosity and land in the depths of self-doubt.

The U. Lleida research team designed a set of studies to test whether they could discover patterns in these daily vacillations and, further, what these would look like in comparison to the more traditional trait-based investigations. Their underlying framework proposes that there is a “default mode” in which the highly narcissistic person fulfills the need to receive admiration. This continues until something happens that threatens the individual’s sense of grandiosity.

Then, the person switches into “antagonistic mode” in which they try to protect themselves. In this phase, the individual tries to regain a sense of self-importance by derogating other people, becoming arrogant, or even becoming aggressive. If this fails, then a third mode becomes active, the “neurotic narcissism” mode, which leads to yet another form of self-protection involving self-devaluation.

Supporting this position is clinical evidence showing, in the words of the authors, that “vulnerable states in seemingly grandiose presentations (but not vice versa) are one of the defining features of pathological narcissism.” With their focus on trait measures, researchers have missed the opportunity to probe this dynamic view of the narcissist’s daily life.

Tracking Narcissism’s Variations

With well-established measures of narcissistic personality traits abounding in the literature, Rogaza et al. note that these may not necessarily apply to the study of the cyclical nature of this quality. Furthermore, measures that do exist only separate narcissism into the two components of grandiose and vulnerable. This approach misses the “facets,” or sub-components that would include the antagonistic and neurotic qualities, in addition to “agentic” or grandiose.

Among the several aims of the study, the authors hoped to establish links between trait-like levels of antagonistic and agentic narcissism and the state levels of the three facets. The three samples of adult participants provided daily ratings through a smartphone app of the facet measures. For example, some of the items they completed include:


  • I don’t worry about other people’s needs.
  • When someone does something nice for me, I wonder what they want from me.


  • I hate being criticized so much that I can’t control my temper when it happens.
  • I feel ashamed when people judge me.


  • I love to entertain people.
  • I aspire to greatness.

The findings showed that of the three facets of narcissism, it was the antagonistic component that showed the strongest variability across participants in daily ratings. As the authors concluded, “antagonistic narcissism… could be considered a driver of grandiose narcissism and its constituents.”

Applications to Your Daily Life With a Narcissist

In examining the clinical implications of their findings, the U. Lleida authors suggest that by poking into the antagonistic shell the grandiose narcissist presents, it can be possible to tap into their vulnerable core. Furthermore, the findings point to the importance of distinguishing the “agentic” or perhaps social side of the narcissist from the angry and demanding one.

Thinking about people you know who seem to fit a narcissistic profile, what differences do you detect in those who are attractive and charming, drawing you into their circle (the agentic) from those who aggressively fight to rise above everyone else?

Furthermore, as the findings showed, it is the antagonistic narcissists who show greater vacillations in their scores on all three facets. It’s not that they’re always antagonistic, but instead, consistent with the model forming the basis of the study, they are easily provoked into huge swings in their levels of anger, self-doubt, and desire for acclaim.

You may have little interest in helping the narcissists you know, whatever state they happen to be in at the moment, but especially when they’re in ultra-antagonistic mode. They might become angry when you don't appease them, cause you to question your own self-worth, and do everything they can to push you away.

However, they may be more in need of help than you realize. As the authors state, when narcissists are in vulnerable states, their “discomforting feelings and subjective psychological distress” may make them paradoxically more open to finding a way out of their default mode.

To sum up, it’s never pleasant to be at the receiving end of a narcissist’s wrath when they feel they’re not getting what they deserve. However, by looking at narcissism as a state and not a trait, it may be possible to help these individuals find a more stable pathway to fulfillment.

Facebook image: Photoroyalty/Shutterstock


Rogoza, R., Krammer, G., Jauk, E., Flakus, M., Baran, L., Di Sarno, M., Di Pierro, R., Zajenkowski, M., Dufner, M., & Fatfouta, R. (2024). The peaks and valleys of narcissism: The factor structure of narcissistic states and their relations to trait measures. Psychological Assessment, 36(2), 147-161.

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