Narcissists: We all know them. Some of us work with them, others are related to them, still others are married to them. But in all cases, where avoidance is not an option, or where we are committed to maintaining the relationship, survival strategies can help us make the best of a challenging situation—and even maintain a rewarding relationship.
What Makes a Narcissist Happy?
Some people feel that narcissists are impossible to please. Not true. Instead, consider that narcissistic traits are often fueled by insecurities, and in many instances, can be tamed by affirmation and assurance.
Research by Marcin Zajenkowski and Anna Z. Czarna (2015) suggests that narcissists must believe they are intelligent to be happy.[i] They also noted that such belief need not be tied to actual intellectual ability. They found the opposite to be true as well, that narcissists who felt they had low self-esteem suffered from a negative mood and dissatisfaction with life.
Other research studying narcissism and self-esteem, consistent with this theme, suggests that keeping a narcissist happy also involves knowing how to avoid making them unhappy.
Self-Esteem as Protection Against Provocation
As many people have found out the hard way, to a narcissist, self-esteem threats are perceived as provocation. William Hart et al. (2019) set out to understand the link between narcissism, self-esteem, and aggression.[ii] Defining terms, the authors used the term “narcissism” to refer to grandiose narcissism, and “self-esteem” to mean “explicit, trait-based, and global feelings of self-adequacy.”
Hart et al. studied the relationship between the concepts in question specifically under conditions of high or low provocation. The results were as they anticipated—participants with high self-esteem were less likely to become aggressive or hostile. The authors further noted that the interaction between self-esteem and narcissism was manifest under conditions of both low provocation and high provocation, but in general, were accentuated under conditions of low-provocation.
Hart et al. noted that the relationship between narcissism and ego threat indicators, such as negative emotion or appraisals that are ego-threatening, were generally, not motivated by self-esteem. Their results were broadly consistent with the notion that self-esteem reduces what they refer to as “narcissistic antagonism.” In their words, “self-esteem reduces tendencies for narcissistic individuals to activate hostile goals when provoked.”
To a Narcissist, Words Are Weapons
So how are narcissists provoked? If you have one in your family or workplace, you probably already know the answer to this. Most of the time, it involves ego-threats.
Hart et al. examined participant behavior in response to verbal provocation, analyzing data from a past study that examined psychological reaction and response to ego-threatening provocations. The vignettes included a same-sex person making either a highly or weakly insulting statement. The statements, made by a trivia contest teammate appears to be visually disappointed when you join the team, stating either “We got stuck with ‘Stupid’” [high provocation] or “Just try your best” [low provocation].
The authors found that self-esteem and narcissism did not simply add up to provoke aggression, they interacted in such a way that the impact of narcissism on aggression was more pronounced in participants with lower self-esteem. In other words, narcissism and low-self-esteem are more likely to produce antagonistic behavior under provocation—such as when an individual is bullied or intimidated, and is more likely to result in aggressive behavior.
In contrast, the impact of narcissism on aggression within individuals with high self-esteem were stronger with conditions of high provocation, but insignificant under conditions of low provocation. In other words, unlike narcissistic people who suffer from low self-esteem, narcissistic individuals with high self-esteem needed a higher degree of provocation to cause them to become aggressive, as opposed to their less narcissistic counterparts. The authors explain that perhaps due to experiencing less antagonism, high-self-esteem narcissistic individuals are likely to resort to aggression to assert status, as opposed to in response to feeling injured or enraged.
All Relationships Thrive With Respect
Certainly, some narcissistic personalities are dangerously toxic and should be avoided at all costs if possible. But if you have to co-exist with a narcissist, either personally or professionally, research suggests that keeping the peace might be easier within a social atmosphere of support and respect.
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[i] Zajenkowski, Marcin, and Anna Z. Czarna. 2015. ”What makes narcissists unhappy? Subjectively assessed intelligence moderates the relationship between narcissism and psychological well-being,” Personality and Individual Differences 77, 50-54.
[ii] Hart, William, Kyle Richardson, and Christopher J. Breeden. 2019. “An Interactive Model of Narcissism, Self-Esteem, and Provocation Extent on Aggression.” Personality and Individual Differences 145, 112–18. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2019.03.032.