Rethinking Narcissism: The Bad – and Surprising Good – About Feeling Special

Craig Malkin writes:

* narcissism is a learned response, that is, a habit and, like any habit, it gets stronger or weaker depending on circumstances.
Narcissists bury normal emotions like fear, sadness, loneliness, and shame because they’re afraid they’ll be rejected for having them; the greater their fear, the more they shield themselves with the belief that they’re special. Unhealthy narcissism isn’t an easy habit to break, but people can become healthier by learning to accept and share the emotions they usually hide. And their loved ones can help them shift to the healthy center of the spectrum by opening up in the exact same way.

* At the heart of narcissism lies an ancient conundrum: how much should we love ourselves and how much should we love others? The Judaic sage and scholar Hillel the Elder summarized the dilemma this way: “If I am not for myself, who am I? And if I am only for myself, then what am I?”

* [Heinz] Kohut believed that children gradually learn that nothing—and no one—can be perfect and so their need for self-perfection eventually gives way to a more level-headed self-image. As they witness the ways healthy adults handle their own flaws and limitations, they begin coping more pragmatically, without the constant need for fantasies of greatness or perfection. At the end of their journey, they acquire healthy narcissism: genuine pride, self-worth, the capacity to dream, empathize, admire and be admired. This, Kohut said, is how any of us develops a sturdy sense of self.

But when children face abuse, neglect, and other traumas that leave them feeling small, insignificant, and unimportant, they spend all their time looking for admiration or finding people to look up to. In short, Kohut concluded, they be- come narcissists—vulnerable, fragile, and empty on the inside; arrogant, pompous, and hostile on the outside, to compensate for just how worthless they feel. People, in their eyes, become jesters or servants in their court, useful only for the ability to confirm the narcissist’s importance.

* Narcissism only becomes dangerous, taking us over and tipping into megalomania, when we cling to feeling special like a talisman instead of playing with it from time to time. It all depends on how completely we allow grandiosity and perfectionism to take us over.

* Otto Kernberg agreed with Kohut that healthy narcissism provides us with self-esteem, pride, ambition, creativity, and resilience. But he diverged sharply with Kohut’s theory when it came to unhealthy narcissism. Whereas Kohut viewed even grandiose narcissism in a somewhat benevolent light, Kernberg saw it as inherently dangerous and harmful. Likely due to his exposure at an impressionable age to Nazism and Hitler (one of the most dangerous megalomaniacs who ever lived), Kernberg believed in the presence of evil in the world. His experience during psychoanalytic training reinforced his dark views of human nature—Kernberg cut his teeth professionally working in hospitals and clinics with severely mentally ill patients prone to aggression and psychosis, while Kohut arrived at his theories treating privileged patients in his luxurious private offices. In Kernberg’s view, narcissists, at their most destructive, are masses of seething resentment—Frankenstein’s monsters, crudely patched together from misshapen pieces of personality. They’d been failed so horrifically as children, through neglect or abuse, that their primary goal is to avoid ever feeling dependent again. By adopting the delusion that they’re perfect, self-contained human beings (and that others are beneath them), they never have to fear feeling unsafe and unimportant again.

Kohut’s and Kernberg’s competing theories were battled over through conferences and papers, with neither side gaining ascendancy. But after Kohut succumbed to cancer in 1981, Kernberg was left alone in the spotlight and his views, particularly of malignant narcissism, spread widely. They were helped into public consciousness by historian and social critic Christopher Lasch’s popular 1979 book, The Culture of Narcissism, which drew heavily on Kernberg’s frightening image of destructive narcissism. In most people’s minds, narcissism became synonymous with malignant narcissism.

* The NPI, on which Twenge draws so heavily, is a deeply flawed measure. Under its design, agreeing with statements that reflect even admirable traits can inch people higher up the narcissism scale. For example, picking “I am assertive” and “I would prefer to be a leader” counts as unhealthy even though these qualities have been linked repeatedly in decades of research to high self-
esteem and happy relationships. People who simply enjoy speaking their mind or being in charge are clearly different from narcissists who enjoy manipulation and lies. But the NPI makes no distinction. More people checking these salutary state-
ments could easily account for millennials’ rising NPI scores through the years, and that’s what some studies indicate has happened.

Second, numerous large-scale studies, including one of nearly half a million high school students conducted between 1976 and 2006, have found little or no psychological difference between millennials and previous generations (apart from a rise in self-confidence). In fact, one study of thousands of students suggests that millennials express greater altruism and concern about the world as a whole than do previous generations, prompting psychologist Jeffrey Arnett, of Clark University to call them “GenerationWe.” The results of a 2010 Pew Research Report, surveying a nationally representative sample of several thousand millennials, also stands in stark contrast to Twenge’s findings. Millennials, the Pew authors concluded, get along well with their parents, respect their elders, value marriage and family far over career and success, and are “confident, self-expressive, and open to change”—hardly the portrait of entitled brats.

But there’s another far more troubling problem with using the NPI to declare an epidemic: we have no way of knowing whether or not people scored as “narcissists” remain so over time. No study has followed up on these thousands of college students after they graduated. Furthermore, just about every theory of adolescence and early adulthood presumes that the young are only temporarily a self- absorbed bunch, and research seems to support that view. We used to think that was a good thing: the bright-faced idealism of youth. The young believe themselves capable of anything; they’re ready to take over the world and make it a better place. Most of us, in our less cynical moments, appreciate their ostentatious energy. But just as with other temporary bouts of narcissism brought on by specific life stages, such enthusiasm eventually fades. As we approach our thirties, most of us come back down to earth, and our self-importance, and yes—self-absorption—give way to the realities of life.

* Most models of human behavior consider flexibility to be the hallmark of mental health. We adapt our feelings and behavior to fit the circumstance. When it comes to narcissism, similarly, only the most extreme echoist or narcissist becomes fixed at one end of the scale. Healthy people generally remain within a certain range on the spectrum, moving up or down a few points throughout their lives. Nevertheless, we’re all prone to climbing even higher on the scale if something provides a big enough push.

Narcissism spikes dramatically, for example, when we feel shaky about ourselves: lonely, sad, confused, vulnerable. In adults, major life events like getting divorced or becoming sick in old age often trigger a large surge of self-centeredness as we struggle to hold on to our self-worth. In younger people, narcissism tends to peak during the teen years. Adolescents often betray a staggering sense of omnipotence, as if they’re somehow above natural and man-made laws (fatal accidents might happen to others who drive drunk, for instance, but certainly never to them). Teens are well known for elevating even the act of suffering to great heights— prone to fits of despair, convinced no one can fathom the pain of their unrequited crush, or the searing humiliation of not owning the next cool smartphone. Nothing else—and often no one else—matters more than the anguish they feel.

* Societies that prize individualism and fame, such as the United States and the United Kingdom, are apt to produce uber-extroverted narcissists who raise navel-gazing to a high art. In contrast, cultures that prize altruism and group harmony, such as Japan and many other Asian nations, tend to create communal narcissists who pride themselves on being the most patient, loyal, and polite people on the planet.

* Chad had become so uncomfortable sharing normal worries or fears or sadness that he’d largely given up trying, turning instead to the high that comes from feeling special—that is, smarter, more talented, and sexier than others. He saw, in glimpses, that he’d made mistakes in his relationships or that his anger had become a problem. But instead of seeking comfort or help from others, he soothed himself with fantasies of being a great lawyer or an amazing lover. Chad rarely felt good about himself without puffing himself up. Seeking help became difficult for him because the impulse to depend on anyone made him uncomfortable. Any time he looked to someone for real support, he ended up feeling alone and invisible. His father couldn’t see Chad at all unless he saw him as his amazing son. So that’s the only way Chad could see himself.

* Subtle echoists like Mary reflexively focus on other people’s needs. It’s an unconscious strategy to keep people from rejecting them; in their minds, the less “room” they take up with their own demands and worries, the more likable or lovable they become. People in this range aren’t allergic to all attention. Being noticed is fine, as long as they’re noticed for what they do for others—being a supportive partner, a productive worker, or an attentive listener. And people like Mary can have wonderful, loving relationships.

* Unhealthy narcissism on the right isn’t always obnoxiously arrogant or openly condescending. Instead, subtle narcissists are often merely bad listeners, endlessly preoccupied with how they measure up to everyone less. Since winning is an easy way to feel special, they obsess over their numbers at work or compare themselves to anyone who exceeds them in looks or talent or achievement. They’re constantly consulting some imaginary scoreboard in their head.

* If [entitlement] surges don’t bring in the needed emotional reinforcement, they can become so frequent that entitlement tips into exploitation. It’s the hallmark of the move from dependence to addiction. Escalating entitlement turns out to be one of the key indicators in the difference between healthy and extreme narcissism. In fact, as entitlement peaks and becomes more relentless, people enter the territory of illness, near 9 on the spectrum.

* Exploitation is a pattern of doing anything necessary to get ahead or stand out, including hurting other people. Extreme narcissists may suffer incredible withdrawal—periods of anger, sadness, fear, and shame—until they can sneak, demand, borrow, or steal their next dose of attention. If feeling special means taking the credit for someone else’s work, so be it. If they have to criticize others mercilessly to feel superior, even if it means throwing their partner’s self-esteem under the bus, they will.

Exploitation and entitlement are closely linked. If I truly believe I deserve to be treated as the smartest or most beautiful or most caring person in the room, then I’ll make it happen. I won’t wait for good fortune or goodwill on the part of others to give me what I want; I’ll simply take it.

* the toxic blend of entitlement and exploitation (called EE, in the research) leaves people at 9 or 10 so blind to the needs and feeling of others that empathy begins to vanish. Among the “narcissists” on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI), the people high in EE cause the most damage. Here’s where esteem begins to crumble whenever grandiosity fails, where rates of depression and anxiety and even suicidal ideation begin to rise. These are the narcissists who tend to show up in therapy, often vacillating rapidly between nearly delusional fantasies of greatness and devastating episodes of shame. No matter how puffed up they might be at times, their fragility has begun to show. Their puffery feels like the frantic efforts of the Wizard of Oz: vulnerable, frail human beings, hiding behind a bombastic empty show, all in an attempt to distract us from just how small and
powerless they feel.

* You should think of NPD exactly the way you would any full-blown addiction; recovery’s a tough road, but it’s impossible when the person denies the problem and refuses help…people with NPD, like Roger, have a strong need, in every area of their life, to be treated as if they’re special. They’re also driven to act special. They’re entitled, exploitative, and unempathetic. They tend to be extremely arrogant and condescending, but they can also be shy and full of shame. More often than not, they vacillate between the two stances—feeling special one day and worthless the next.

Either way they demand attention, admiration, and approval or special consideration because they have little sense of who they are apart from how they’re viewed by others. And they fight tooth and nail to ensure the impression they make is a “good” one. For the person with NPD, people are simply mirrors, useful only insofar as they reflect back the special view of themselves they so desperately long to see. If that means making other people look bad by comparison—say, by ruining their project at work—so be it. Because life is a constant competition, they’re also usually riddled with envy over what other people seem to have. And they’ll let you know it.

* Extreme narcissistic entitlement, not surprisingly, eventually crowds out not only empathy, but ethics and morals as well; the most coldly unemotional narcissists may also be psychopaths. (Note: not all narcissists are psychopaths, though all psychopaths are narcissists.) Psychopaths have a much lower level of fear or concern or regret than most people; at their most extreme, they seem totally devoid of sadness, anxiety, guilt, or remorse.

Psychopaths’ capacity to treat people like means to an end far surpasses that of narcissists’ ordinary entitlement. A boastful narcissist might lie, claiming to be a graduate of Harvard when he’s really a high school dropout, but it wouldn’t dawn
on him to steal. A psychopathic narcissist, however, embezzles funds without giving it a second thought if it helps him advance in any way.

* Are there signs that can alert you early on that you’re keeping company with a narcissist?

Yes. One crucial sign: narcissists dodge normal feelings of vulnerability, including sadness, fear, loneliness, and worry. In any relationship, we’re bound to make mistakes and hurt others. On a bad day, when our patience is exhausted by problems at work or squabbles with our kids, it’s easy to lash out over an innocent question from our spouse like, “Did you pick up the milk?” Or, lost in our own worries, we may neglect to greet our loved ones with a kiss or even say hello. Minor slights like these can be easily repaired if we say we’re sorry and acknowledge the hurt we’ve caused—accidental or intentional—and most people can do so after they calm down. But narcissists often seem incapable of showing contrition or remorse because, as with any kind of vulnerability, connecting with loved ones in this way demands sharing all the feelings that unhealthy narcissism is meant to
conceal. And that’s precisely what gives narcissists away: they resort to a number of predictable psychological strategies to hide normal human frailties.


Human interaction poses a scary problem for narcissists who are, deep down, extraordinarily insecure people. One of their favorite methods of shoring up their self-confidence is to imagine themselves as perfectly self-sufficient and impervious to other people’s behavior and feelings. As a result, they don’t let on when they feel shaky, or hurt by something you’ve done or said. Instead, they lash out in anger, which is something we all do when we’re upset enough. But narcissists combine it with a show of superiority. They become condescending. They might even point out all the ways you’re lacking. Their main goal, in all the bluster, is to hide that you’ve affected how they feel. Some narcissists won’t even admit to their anger, claiming, “I’m not yelling,” while they’re in the midst of a terrifying tirade. That’s how far they’ll go to avoid acknowledging emotion.

* Whereas emotion phobia signals a deep discomfort with feelings, emotional hot potato is a way of getting rid of those emotions. It’s a more insidious form of projection, in which people deny their own feelings by claiming they belong to someone else. A friend, for example, might wander up to you, after days of not returning your calls, and ask “Are you upset at me about something?” Given her refusal to respond to your messages, odds are good she’s the one who’s angry. But instead of recognizing the feelings as her own, she accuses you of harboring a grudge.

In emotional hot potato, however, people don’t simply confuse their own feelings with someone else’s. They actually coerce you into experiencing the emotions they’re trying to ignore in the first place. In this case, a spouse might launch into a rant, laying into you for “being so angry all the time.”


Another warning sign is the constant need to remain in charge. Narcissists generally feel uneasy asking for help or making their needs known directly. It confronts them with the reality that they depend on people. For that reason, they often arrange events to get what they want. It’s a handy way of never having to ask for anything.


Mia displayed another common habit of unhealthy narcissism—she placed Mark on a pedestal. And in fact, Mark hadn’t been the first to enjoy her panegyric, nor would he be the last. Two months into his therapy with me, Mark learned that Mia had been seeing another man—and he, too, seemed to meet her every requirement for the perfect guy.

Why should this be a warning sign of narcissism? For one thing, when people compulsively place their friends, lovers, and bosses on pedestals, it’s just another way of feeling special. The logic goes like this: If someone this special wants me, then
I must be pretty special, too.


It’s fun feeling like you’ve found a soul mate, with all the same passions, fears, ideas, and interests. It’s a bit like looking in the mirror. Having a twin provides us with a constant source of validation. With a twin at my side, I can tell myself my
ideas make sense, my desires are important, and my needs matter. I don’t even need unique talents or beauty to stand out. I can distinguish myself from the masses with a uniquely wonderful relationship. The twin fantasy doesn’t demand an illusion of perfection either. We can wallow in—even celebrate—our failings and flaws and still feel great about ourselves.

Narcissists often pair up and wreak havoc under the intoxicating glow of twinship. It’s mutually beneficial; even the faintest stars seem to light up the sky when they come in pairs. Perhaps this is why adolescents, struggling with their sense of
importance in the world, often buddy up or form groups of nearly identical friends. It helps them feel important in the midst of an adult world that makes them feel in- significant. In a similar manner, young lovers often gaze into each other’s eyes,
amazed that they’ve found someone who sees the world just as they do.

Twinning dodges feelings of vulnerability in two ways. First, if you and I are perfectly alike—if we’re one mind in two bodies—all fear disappears. No difference, no disappointment. We want the same things. We love, and long to be loved, in exactly the same way. Second, the twin fantasy effectively sidesteps any risk associated with being dependent on someone: since you and I see eye to eye on everything, I never have to worry about you refusing to meet my needs.

As thrilling as it is, the twin effect can’t last. No two people, even identical twins, are ever exactly alike. After a time, when differences become apparent, reality sets in.

* be very careful if you’re in your thirties and you feel pressure to be just like your friend. Twinship creates a powerful emotional bond, just short of romantic love—and subtle narcissists often thrive on just that kind of intensity. It’s more common in women than men, but male narcissists “twin up” from time to time, too.

Twinship, though rarer on the job, isn’t unheard of. Sometimes, supervisors find a sycophantic assistant willing to dress and act like them. Or you might catch a coworker “kissing up” to the boss, placing him on a pedestal. But the most com-
mon tactic at work, by far, is hot potato.

Our bosses and coworkers are often looking for ways to feel more competent. What better way to accomplish that than by questioning your every move? Work is all about performance, which provides plenty of opportunity to undermine people’s ideas and feelings of competence. Your boss or colleague might ask incessant questions about everything you produce. Or they might suggest an ill-conceived course of action, then blame you when it fails. None of this requires getting to know you, and that makes it even easier to pull off. Like snipers, extreme narcissists often prefer to keep a distance from their target. You’ll rarely get close enough
to witness their allergy to feelings or hear about their perfect childhood. More often than not, you’ll just feel their potshots. But that’s also what gives their position away.

* Recent studies indicate that the bleak “once a narcissist always a narcissist” view doesn’t necessarily hold true. If narcissists are approached in a gentler way, many seem to soften emotionally. When they feel secure love, they become more loving and more committed in return.

* Always remember that unhealthy narcissism is an attempt to conceal normal human vulnerability, especially painful feelings of insecurity, sadness, fear, loneliness, and shame. If your partner can tolerate sharing and feeling some of these emotions, then there’s still hope. But you can only nudge narcissists out of hiding if you’re willing to share your own feelings of fragility. As simple as that sounds, it isn’t easy. We’re all a bit squeamish about revealing our softer side, especially when we feel threatened.

You’ll have to dig deep into yourself first. Our most obvious emotions—the surface ones—are rarely the most important. The frustration or anger (or numbness) we feel in the face of a narcissist’s arrogance and insensitivity protect us; just below these feelings, however, are the far more potent ones we’re usually reluctant to share. We’re sad that someone we love has become so hurtful. We’re terrified they might leave or betray us. We’re ashamed that they’ve found us lacking (or claim they have). But instead of showing this, we throw on our protective armor. Tears stream down our cheeks, but our voice is full of rage. Or we apologize incessantly, hiding our pain beneath mea culpas, even though, secretly, we feel profoundly hurt. We need to remove this protective armor to give people a chance to understand—and respond—to how we truly feel. It’s by doing this that we help narcissists emerge from their emotional bunker and reach for deeper intimacy.

* Make a list of the strategies you use to get your special high. Are they arrogance, boasting, or put-downs? How about brooding or rage when you feel “misunderstood”? In the subtler range, do you rely on idol worship or emotional hot potato? These are your protections—each and every one is a vulnerability dodge. If you notice yourself using them, that’s your clue: you’re feeling insecure in some way.

Ask yourself: What’s the source of the insecurity? Sadness that your partner doesn’t seem to think you’re good enough? Fear that your friends might look down on you? The most likely suspects are fear and shame of being unworthy in some way, and sadness and loneliness over being rejected. Whether you realize it or not, the feelings are there; all evidence suggests they’re part of being human (barring severe neurological deficits). So as soon as you catch yourself falling back on old narcissistic habits, take a moment to look for the fear, sadness, or shame lurking underneath. Then take a breath and share these feelings.

Remember: anger and frustration are a cover. If you have even a hint of these feelings when you’re speaking to someone who cares about you, you’re not taking the risks you need to. The goal here is to test your own capacity to depend on people you care about, to move to a place where mutual support and understanding become a way of life. That’s what replaces the chronic need to feel special with genuine caring and closeness. You can keep the big dreams or self-assured attitude; just add a healthy dose of empathy and aspire to life at the center of the spectrum. It’s the space where you’ll not only feel genuinely great about yourself, but also proud of how you treat others.

* You have two choices with a friend: you either accept the relationship for what it is, limitations and all, or you end it. The first option means lowering your expectations. You’ve accepted that you can’t truly count on your friend—he or she’s a workout buddy or someone you share a drink with. These kinds of friendships can be fun in a limited way, but you have to ask yourself what they add to your life. And be honest. If you have to find other people to turn to in times of need because they’re more reliable or understanding than your friend, who are you staying for — you or your friend?

* Confrontation doesn’t seem to improve these situations either. Criticizing an extreme narcissist’s manner (“Stop interrupting people!”) or pointing out their mistakes (“That slide’s completely wrong”) usually makes things worse. They can’t absorb honest, accurate feedback; instead they become more angry and aggressive, and the already mistreated worker is bound to face a verbal lashing. Besides, where power differences exist, as they did between Jane and Drew, such frank feedback might not even be possible. Few people feel comfortable correcting their boss, let alone an insufferably conceited supervisor or CEO.

* According to research by psychologists Gary and Ruth Namie, of the Workplace Bullying Institute, the most common bullying behaviors are:

•Blaming mistakes on other people
•Making unreasonable job demands
•Criticizing a worker’s ability
•Inconsistently applying company rules, especially punitive measures
•Implying a worker’s job is on the line or making outright threats to fire
•Hurling insults and put-downs
•Discounting or denying a worker’s accomplishments
•Excluding or “icing out” a worker
•Yelling, screaming
•Stealing credit for ideas or work


Document Everything

Remain Focused on the Task

Instead of challenging the bad behavior directly, question its relevance to success-
fully completing the task.

Block the Pass

If you’re feeling helpless or overwhelmed after an interaction with anyone at work, you’re likely at the end of an attempted hot-potato pass. You’ll need to block it. In this approach, you encourage the narcissist to speak directly about the insecurities
they’re trying to get rid of, but again, in a collaborative tone.

* Nudging narcissists to center means focusing on moments when they show some capacity for collaboration, interest in other people, or concern for the happiness of those around them—in short, whenever they behave more communally.

* What changes are you hoping for in your workplace? Make a list. Successful
outcomes might include:

•You’re no longer afraid to go to work
•You’re sick less frequently
•You feel more creative
•You feel more valued
•You can stand up for yourself
•You feel emotionally safe (less likely to be unfairly criticized or insulted)

Alternatively, your measure might be more specific: having your work recognized, experiencing more reasonable job demands, or getting more consistent and fair compensation. Many people just want to be free from put-downs and yelling.

* If you’ve tried interventions at every level and the supervisor or system is unresponsive to your needs, you’ve truly done all you can, and you’re in much the same position as the partner or friend of a narcissist who can’t break their addiction. Your needs aren’t likely to be met. The system, itself, may be stuck in an addictive cycle, which means the narcissist is merely a symptom of a larger problem. Leaving a job can be as painful as leaving a relationship. And in troubled economic times, it can feel impossible. But if you’ve tried to make things better and still feel miserable, choosing to stay likely means continued misery. That’s because your happiness isn’t in your hands anymore, but the company or employer you work for. That’s when it’s time to take control—and leave.

* Based on what we know about human behavior offline, anything that takes us further away from authentic relationships is more likely to feed narcissistic addiction. That holds true in the digital world as well. It’s all too easy to hide our vulnerabilities and trade empty show for true sharing—and that pushes people toward both ends of the narcissism spectrum.

* When people feel important enough to pay special attention to their deepest desires and needs—and honestly share them—those who care about them learn something new. They finally get to meet the person they love, a truly thrilling moment for all involved. It’s a privilege that even narcissists and echoists can enjoy once they move closer to the center of the spectrum.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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