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Beware of Narcissists Giving Gifts: Strings Are Attached

Their apparent generosity may stem from a desire to maintain control.

Syda Productions/Shutterstock
Source: Syda Productions/Shutterstock

Narcissists can be intriguing acquaintances. They are able to draw attention to themselves while trying to convince everyone in their orbit that their brilliance is as blinding as they themselves believe it to be. They turn on the charisma and charm and do all that they can to keep people's focus on their façade of perfection.

The true narcissist is much different than a typical individual with high self-esteem. Having a high sense of self-esteem doesn’t typically reflect a need to control others, but rather a satisfaction with one’s self, while narcissists may use a heavy hand to control a person’s response to them. And a recent study has exposed another striking difference between narcissism and healthy self-esteem.

What Narcissists Give vs. What They Take

When people spend time with a narcissist, they often leave feeling exhausted, in some cases, or a little bit violated in others. Narcissists tend to encroach on your emotional and mental space and to suck up the energy in the room. They have a hard time engaging in normal conversational give-and-take because their efforts to maintain attention and control turn them into energy vampires. They often intensely dislike themselves, and the effort to keep up their charade can leave you feeling drained of your own stores of energy.

As researchers have revealed, all of us need a bit of “healthy narcissism” to ensure that we seek out the respect we deserve from others. Our self-esteem levels need to be maintained, as well, so we believe in ourselves and treat ourselves well. Not surprisingly, being around people with high levels of earned self-esteem doesn’t take a toll on us. In fact, research shows that we actually prefer friends who have strong self-esteem and high levels of self-confidence: They're much more pleasant to be around.

A Narcissist's Gift to You is Really a Gift to Herself

Giving back to others is not something that narcissists do for the intrinsic pleasure of being altruistic, or from simple kindness. Recently published findings indicate that narcissists give “gifts” that represent an investment in their own desires—not from the desire to please others. When Hyun, Park, and Park (2016) measured the gift-giving motivations of individuals with high self-esteem compared to those with high levels of narcissism, they found that narcissists give gifts that ideally keep the recipient’s devotion or allegiance to them going strong. Specifically, narcissists give gifts with an eye to maintaining a relationship with the giver and to maintaining control in that relationship.

You don’t get expensive gifts from a narcissist because they think you are awesome; you get valuable gifts because they want you to continue to think that they are awesome.

It’s normal to want to show affection for significant others with nice gifts, or to splurge on holidays or nice meals, but we don’t offer these gifts to engender obligation or foster obedience from our partners. But narcissists give out of fear and out of their need to continue the game.

Philanthropists are encouraged to “give until it hurts,” but narcissists give because it hurts. The potential pain of losing their audience drives them to do what they feel will keep the admiration flowing.


Hyun, N. K., Park, Y., & Park, S. W. (2016). Narcissism and gift-giving: Not every gift is for others. Personality and Individual Differences, 96, 47-51.

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