Narcissism - How to recognize



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Can you recognize a narcissist?

It is difficult to recognize a narcissist because he (or she) spends all of his time acting, protecting his ego by presenting to the world a mask, a false image of himself. As a result he becomes a master of deceit. But it is extremely important to be able to recognize people whose behavior can damage you, your family, or damage an organization's performance.

Narcissists are not capable of putting business needs before their own ego needs.1

Researchers have found that a narcissist reacts much more emotionally than a non-narcissist, sometimes with narcissistic rage when his (or her) ego is threatened.2 Social comparison information is especially salient as the narcissist processes social information in terms of its relevance to the self, that is, he reacts to negative feedback with more anger and aggression and lower self-esteem than a non-narcissist. In fact his mood and self-esteem fluctuations can usually be attributed to social comparison information.

"Overall, individuals high in narcissism displayed amplified responses to social comparison information, experiencing greater positive affect from downward comparisons and greater hostile affect from upward comparisons."3

For example, it has been recognized for some time that narcissists prize intellectual performance above almost everything else,4 so a better qualified work colleague would likely evoke a hostile affect through upward comparison.

A narcissist wants you to feel like you are losing your mind, keep you guessing and doubting yourself. Then you become dependent on him and he is in control. Only if you can see him for what he really is will you be able to break free!

Because of a propensity to internalize failure, the narcissist's emotional response to failure is to feel shame, as opposed to guilt felt by people without the disorder. So in order to avoid shame, which the narcissist feels must be avoided at all costs, he externalizes blame for negative events.5 As he feels someone must be guilty, he almost always attributes blame to others. Only when his self-esteem is particularly high, perhaps through some positive feedback he has engineered, does he accept blame, and only then if it can be seen as a magnanimous gesture.

A narcissist is someone who is overtly or subtly arrogant, exhibitionistic, vain, manipulative, and greedy for admiration.6 Narcissistic rage, character assassination and projection are some of the overt ways in which the narcissist expresses himself. For example, she may envy a work colleague's beauty, and project her feelings into her colleague by accusing her of being envious. Projection in teams is particularly prevalent.

The denial of remorse and gratitude by the narcissist are two of the more subtle ways used to protect an internal sense of grandiosity.7 An example of a narcissist's ability to be subtle might be when he arrives late for a meeting. Rather than offer a sincere apology, he may blame someone else for keeping him talking, thus externalizing the fault ("It's not my fault") and maintaining his sense of grandiosity.

Despite tending to be exhibitionistic, it is very rare to hear a narcissist brag or boast. Instead, he (or she) tends to 'drop' information in the form of an ostensibly ordinary matter-of-fact report, which appears to be intended to elicit admiration without asking for it. For example, rather than say, "I was so please to meet our CEO, Peter Smith", he will casually allude to "...lunch with Peter", in a way that induces a sense of distance and inferiority in the recipient of the information; again maintaining his sense of grandiosity.8

A distinction must be made between 'normal' or 'healthy' narcissism on the one hand and 'pathological' narcissism on the other. We all have some degree and variety of narcissistic delusion which, if it is not too great, is normal and healthy. Dr Craig Malkin wrote, "...some narcissism is good - even vital - for us to lead happy, fulfilled, and productive lives." 9 But the pathological narcissist has a level of delusion that is divorced from reality.10

Kernberg used a theoretical frame to differentiate between 'normal' and 'pathological' narcissism, combining ego psychology and object relations theory. Normal narcissism refers to well integrated representations of the self and others, whilst pathological narcissism relates to an impaired intrapsychic structure with grandiose self-representation and a severe pathology in object relations.11 Lubit compared 'healthy' and 'destructive' narcissism in relation to their long-term impact on organizations. The following is an extract from his comparison table.12

Characteristic Healthy Narcissism Destructive Narcissism
Self-confident High outward self-confidence in line with reality Grandiose
Desire for power, wealth and admiration May enjoy power Pursues power at all costs, lacks normal inhibitions in its pursuit
Relationships Real concern for others and their ideas; does not exploit or devalue others Concerns limited to expressing socially appropriate response when convenient; devalues and exploits others without remorse
Ability to follow a consistent path Has values; follows through on plans Lacks values; easily bored; often changes course
Foundation Healthy childhood with support for self-esteem and appropriate limits on behaviour towards others Traumatic childhood undercutting true sense of self-esteem and/or learning that he/she doesn't need to be considerate of others

It is rare for a narcissistic individual to be diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder because those who really should be don't seek help and so don't get clinically assessed; it is usually members of their family or work colleagues who seek help to cope with them.

Here are a few pointers that may help you identify one:
  • Their lack of empathy colors everything they do. They may say, "How are you?" when you meet, but they are working from memory. They are not interested in how you are.
  • Virtually all of their ideas or ways of behaving in a given situation are taken from others, people they know and perhaps think of as an authority (mirroring).
  • Their sense of self-importance and lack of empathy means that they will often interrupt the conversations of others.
  • They expect others to do the day-to-day chores as they feel too important to waste their time on common things.
  • Listen for the constant use of "I", "me" and "my" when they talk.
  • They very rarely talk about their inner life, for example their memories and dreams.
  • They feel that the rules at work don't apply to them.
  • They will always cheat whenever they think they can get away with it.
  • If you share workload with them expect to do the lion's share yourself.
  • They love to delegate work or projects, then interfere by micro-managing it. If it goes well, they take the credit, if it goes badly they blame the person they delegated it to.
  • There tends to be higher levels of stress with people who work with or interact with a narcissist, which in turn increases absenteeism and staff turnover.
  • They get impatient and restless when the topic of discussion is about someone else, and not about them.

Another frustrating aspect of the narcissist's behavior is how he (or she) will cause an argument just to protect himself from a perceived ego threat. Behind the Narcissist's Mask is an extract from the book Narcissism: Behind the Mask13. It is an argument between a typical narcissist and his wife. The narcissist had forgotten to pick up milk from the shop whilst his wife was at work, as agreed that morning between the two of them. It then goes on to explain the real meaning behind what the narcissist says. The behavior of the narcissist is typical of how a narcissist will create and distort an argument solely to protect his self-esteem. Click here to read the argument.

To understand in more detail about how to recognize a narcissist, and how to understand what is going on in the narcissist's mind, read Narcissism: Behind the Mask.

1 Downs, A. (1997), Beyond the Looking Glass: Overcoming the Seductive Culture of Corporate Narcissism, AMACOM, New York"
2 E.g. Kernberg, O. (1992), Borderline Conditions and Pathological Narcissism, Jason Aronson, New York."
3 Bogart, L.M., Benotsh, E.G. and Pavlovic, J.D. (2004), Feeling Superior but Threatened: The Relation of Narcissism to Social Comparison, Basic and Applied Social Psychology, Vol. 26, Iss. 1, pp. 35-44.
4 E.g. Campbell, W.K., Goodie, A.S. and Foster, J.D. (2004), Narcissism, Confidence, and Risk Attitude, Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, Vol. 17, pp. 297-311.
5 Campbell, W.K., Foster, J.D. and Brunell, A.B. (2004), Running From Shame or Reveling in Pride? Narcissism and Regulation of Self-Conscious Emotions, Psychological Inquiry, Vol. 15, Iss. 2, pp. 150-153".
6 Reich, A. (1933), Character-Analysis, Noonday Press, New York".
7, 8 McWilliams, N. and Lependorf, S. (1990), Narcissistic Pathology of Everyday Life: The Denial of Remorse and Gratitude, Contempory Psychoanalysis, Vol. 26, No. 3, pp. 430-451.
9 Malkin, C. (2015), The Narcissist Test, How to Spot Outsized Egos... and the Surprising Things We Can Learn from Them, Thorsons, London, p. xii.
10 Brown, A. D. (1997), Narcissism, identity, and legitimacy, Academy of Management Review, Vol. 22, No. 3, pp. 643-686.
11 Kernberg, O. (1992), Borderline Conditions and Pathological Narcissism, Jason Aronson, New York.
12 Lubit, R (2002), The long-term organizational impact of destructively marcissistic managers, Academy of Management Executive, Vol. 16, No. 1, pp. 127-138.
13 Thomas, David (2012), Narcissism: Behind the Mask, Bookguild, East Sussex, UK.