The Communal Narcissist: Another Wolf Wearing a Sheep Outfit

One reason there's often in-fighting when you're working for a cause.

Posted May 24, 2016

In his book Rethinking Narcissism, Dr. Craig Malkin distinguishes between three types of narcissists—the extrovert, the introvert, and the communal.

The extrovert is the easy-to-spot kind whose grandiosity is presented in Technicolor, the preener and the manipulator we’re most familiar with. The introvert (also called the “covert” narcissist) is somewhat more confounding because he or she lacks outward braggadocio and may have a self-effacing or vulnerable manner which belies the way he or she feels superior to everyone. But the communal narcissist is entirely something else. I hadn’t heard of this category until I read Malkin’s descriptions, and perhaps you haven’t, either. This third type of narcissist is a relative newcomer to the party; the designation is only a bit over a decade old.

Minerva Studio/Shutterstock
Source: Minerva Studio/Shutterstock

Surprisingly, while this narcissist shares characteristics with the other two—these are all people who continuously seek to validate their self-perceived grandiosity, esteem, entitlement, and power—this type focuses on promoting him or herself through commitment to others, communal goals, and the supposed ability to listen and connect. Yes, this is very counterintuitive (aren’t narcissists supposed to be out for themselves?), but a strong case has been made for these supposed do-gooder types. Here is how Malkin explains them in his book:

"[T]hey regard themselves as especially nurturing, understanding, and empathic. They proudly announce how much they give to charity or how little they spend on themselves. They trap you in a corner at a party and whisper excitedly about how thoughtful they’ve been to their grieving next-door neighbor. That’s me—I’m a born listener! They believe themselves better than the rest of humanity, but cherish their status as givers, not takers."

Does this sound familiar?

I’ve known people like this. They’re people who talk about having a “mission” or are “committed to a cause,” and they make it clear that while your life and concerns are petty and shallow, theirs are possessed of deep meaning and intent. You may have run into them on the PTA or at a charity event, booster club, or fundraiser. You may have been surprised when one showed his or her true colors by becoming hugely territorial and much more concerned with personal aggrandizement and appreciation than the communal goal you thought you were all working toward. And then there’s some terrible politicized brouhaha: Bingo!

Researchers have developed a Communal Narcissism Inventory, which asks participants to signify their agreement or disagreement with the following statements about themselves on a scale of 1 to 7, with 1 for strongly disagree and 7 for strongly agree:

  • I am the most helpful person I know.
  • I am going to bring peace and justice to the world.
  • I am the best friend someone can have.
  • I will be well known for the good deeds I will have done.
  • I am (going to be) the best parent on this planet.
  • I am the most caring person in my social surrounding.
  • In the future, I will be well known for solving the world’s problems.
  • I greatly enrich others’ lives.
  • I will bring freedom to the people.
  • I am an amazing listener.
  • I will be able to solve world poverty.
  • I have a very positive influence on others.
  • I am generally the most understanding person.
  • I’ll make the world a much more beautiful place.
  • I am extraordinarily trustworthy.
  • I will be famous for increasing people’s well-being.

Some of these sound pretty grandiose (solving the world’s problems or global poverty) until you realize that anyone running for any office—it could be President, but it could be the election for head of the PTA, too—makes lots of statements that sound just like these; he or she promises to fix whatever no one else has been able to. And the other self-flattering statements are doubtless catnip to this particular narcissistic type’s ego and really don't sound that far out. After all, don't we all think we are trustworthy and a good listener?

Keep in mind that this is how the narcissist likes to think of him or herself. The reality is that he or she lacks the ability to empathize, is still a game-player, and carries all the other traits generally associated with narcissism. He or she is involved in community only as a validation of self.

Understanding communal narcissism explains why sometimes women and men who are largely viewed as “pillars of the community” and known for their devotion to charities and other causes can be highly destructive and unloving in their personal roles as friends, husbands, wives, fathers, and mothers. The friends, spouses and children of the communal narcissist find themselves in a particular bind because who would ever believe them?

That’s precisely what one daughter confided:

“My mother was the perfect hostess, a consummate housekeeper, sang in the church choir, and ran every fundraiser conducted in our town. She was highly sought after, although there was always a lot of drama in her wake. She was also cold and manipulative and unloving to me but I didn’t tell anyone until I reached adulthood. By then, she’d become so territorial that the invites to chair this or that dropped away and even family members were finally able to hear my side of the story. But, of course, my mother never acknowledged her behavior. She believed her own hype."

In their article on communal narcissism, Jochen Gebauer and his colleagues note that just as an agentic narcissist (the one who defines himself through actions that show him to be superior) will be liked and even admired until people catch on, the communal narcissist also enjoys initial admiration but will fall out of favor even more drastically because of the hypocritical nature of his or her motives.

None of that seems to matter, though, because as a recent paper asserted, narcissists of every stripe report high levels of Subjective Well-Being (SWB)—what you and I might call happiness. So in the end, it’s just the rest of us chickens who are unlucky enough to find one kind of narcissist or another in our lives who actually experience a distinct loss of SWB.

Hardly seems fair, does it?

Still, especially in an important election year, recognizing communal narcissism has value, don't you think?

Copyright 2016 by Peg Streep. Visit me on Facebook

Craig Malkin’s Rethinking Narcissism.

Gebauer, Jochen, Constantine Sedikides, Bas Verplanken, and Gregory Maio, “Communal Narcissism,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2012), vol. 103, no.5, 854-878.

Żemojtel-Piotrowska, Magdalena, Amanda Clinton, Jarosław Piotrowski,  “Agentic and communal narcissism and subjective well-being: Are narcissistic individuals unhappy? A research report” Current issues in Personality Psychology, vol.2 (1), 2014.doi: 10.5114/cipp.2014.43097