Narcissism is one of the single most important concepts we think about in trying to understand ourselves and others.
As they ask in the computer world, is it a feature or a bug? In fact, it’s both! Most of us are somewhere in between feature and bug, which usually works well enough to get us through the day, balancing our own needs with those of others without splitting into all-good or all-bad (what psychoanalysts call “part-object” relationships, rather than whole, full ones).
Feature: Healthy narcissism is the idealized holy grail of emotional health in many ways–representing security, compassion for oneself and others, and a great lifelong relationship with oneself. Narcissism is a core component of the human operating system, one of the building blocks of who we are, comprising “sense of self”–the apparatus which keeps us afloat in the social and physical world.
We are born narcissists, and especially as children live in a myopic world in which we are the center of reality. How we get through childhood into adulthood significantly shapes the form narcissism takes.
Bug: On the other hand, extreme pathological narcissism represents a terrible miscarriage of personality, a person who requires so much admiration, who is either grandiose or vulnerable at the core, who often treats others without a shred of respect or decency–and yet someone who others are often drawn to due, perhaps, the sense of security narcissists often emanate, whether or not it overlies a deep sense of shame and insecurity.
Traumatic experience can leave a strong mark, as well as dysfunctional caregiver relations and genetic factors, leaving us in a stage of problematic selfhood–the case with vulnerable narcissists. Grandiose narcissists, on the other hand, appear to be more intrinsically narcissistic and authentic.
There’s no shortage of research on narcissism, how it tracks with other “dark” traits including Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and sadism, and the negative impact on work and relationships. Narcissism can interfere with sense of self and disrupt the well-being of those around us.
In spite of the fragile shell of positivity narcissists secrete around them, there is a backwash of negativity that can be both obvious (often in retrospect, unfortunately) and easy to ignore and excuse away. It’s important to have compassion for those who have experienced trauma, and strive for the healing of all; it’s also important to have guard rails around what’s acceptable in relationships. Two recent papers in the Journal of Personality Research point out important factors contributing to narcissistic negativism.
1. Narcissism and How We View the Past
Zajenkowski and colleagues (2021) looked at how narcissism shapes emotional interpretation of the past. Several hundred participants across seven studies completed surveys looking at how personality and views of the past were related. Domains measured included vulnerable narcissism, negative views of the past, grandiose narcissism, the Big Five personality traits (openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, neuroticism), approach/avoidance motivation (related to reactions to criticism and opportunity), life satisfaction, emotional state (affect), self-esteem, anger, hostility, early life trauma, and memory bias (participants were asked to write a story about a recent trip and then the degree of negativity or positivity was rated by reviewers).
Vulnerable narcissism was significantly correlated with seeing the past in a negative light. Neurotic personality enhanced having negative views of the past, while extraversion, conscientiousness and agreeableness were associated with more positive perspectives. There was an association between vulnerable narcissism and agreeableness, and with past-oriented negativism and conscientiousness.
Negativity about the past and vulnerable narcissism were associated with decreased well-being and self-esteem, as well as with greater hostility toward others. Vulnerable narcissism was higher for those who remembered more trauma and had more negative feelings in the present. Negative bias about the past largely accounted for the impact of traumatic experience, more so than vulnerable narcissism. Early trauma was associated with later vulnerable narcissism and negative views of the past.
2. Narcissism and Image-Enhancement
Czarna and colleagues (2022) studied a different aspect of narcissism–“enhancement”, the extent to which one tends to build oneself up (self-enhancement) or to try to make others look good (partner-enhancement).
Partner-enhancement is generally a constructive thing to do in relationships—when it is mutual, consistent, and appropriate (i.e. credible). Making one another “look good” is good for the individual and the team, improving performance through increased sense of self-efficacy and increasing satisfaction in romantic relationships.
What happens to partner-enhancement in relationships with narcissists? Does gender matter? Across three studies, researchers looked at key factors. In the first two studies, they focused on establishing basic findings, measuring relationship duration, self-esteem, partner-enhancement and narcissism.
While length of relationship did not correlate with partner-enhancement, narcissism had an effect. People with lower but significant narcissism were more positive about their partners early on; that petered out over time. People high in narcissism did not enhance their partners at any stage of the relationship, not even at the beginning (red flag).
In the third study, bearing in mind that narcissists tend to have relationships with other narcissists1, researchers looked at couples and gender effects. More narcissistic people felt superior to their partners and did not enhance them.
For men only, there was less partner-enhancement in longer versus shorter relationships. There were other differences between men and women: Less-narcissistic women partner-enhanced more throughout relationships, with a smaller drop-off in the long run, and those higher in narcissism self-enhanced short- and long-term.
Men had a steeper drop-off in partner enhancement with time, and self-enhanced throughout. For women more than men, they viewed their partners more positively than did the partners themselves.
These studies highlight two major ways pathological narcissism sours relationships. The first study shows the pervasive negativity of vulnerable narcissism but not the grandiose type. Unfortunately, this stems at least partly from developmental trauma, which deserves compassion for both partners… but not to the extent of unhealthy self-sacrifice (irrelationship). Narcissism itself then becomes a risk factor for future post-traumatic stress reactions (Bachar et al., 2005).
Be careful with people who are self-enhancing but don’t support your own sense of self-esteem. People are often attracted to those who appear confident in themselves, making the other’s self-enhancement potentially attractive. Keep an eye out for partner-enhancement dropping off…2
Narcissistic negativity can shore up a weak sense of self via neurotic coping mechanisms characterized by over-worry, hostility and expecting the worst. Initial agreeableness may seem enticing and conscientiousness the hallmark of a strong partner, but they may cover up deeper problems. Making sure trauma-related issues are addressed properly is important for health, satisfying relationships; if trauma is present, as it so often is, make sure both parties are addressing it, individually and as a couple.
Especially if we keep getting into unsatisfying, negative relationships with narcissistic people who worsen our own less useful narcissistic traits, taking a break from serious relationships and working on oneself is the most likely action to have a long-term positive impact.
Through understanding the patterns highlighted in research like this, we can recognize problems earlier on and take appropriate steps to limit future regret and secure greater satisfaction.
Originally published in Psychology Today on March 11, 2022
1. This “birds of a feather flock together” feature of narcissism and relationships is also an opportunity to step back and wonder about the nature of one’s own narcissism. Pathological narcissism is much easier to see in others than in the mirror… until you realize that others often are the mirror i.e. projection is a powerful defense.
2. The origins of these gender differences are unclear (i.e. to what extent socialized versus biological) but they fit the common conception that narcissistic men are not as nice to women, whereas narcissistic women tended to have more positive views of their partners than did the men themselves, building them up. Both men and women relied heavily on self-enhancement, in the absence of consistent, healthy supportive attachment. Negative views of the past dovetail directly into the lack of partner-enhancement, and excessive self-enhancement. Expect to feel chronically underappreciated – while early on, partners may be complimentary, soon enough the blush will be off the rose as long term both weaker and stronger narcissism were both associated with limited partner-enhancement, which is in turn connected with decreased satisfaction and well-being.
Early partner-enhancement may serve as a kind of lure to get relationships going, as those with less narcissism may be better at playing the role of being loving early-on. When enhancement is lopsided (or feels rote and transactional), when we need to build ourselves up at the risk of compounding our own narcissistic traits because the other person isn’t giving healthy support, it’s time to slow down and ask the hard questions. Interestingly, agreeableness was associated with vulnerability, which may be a more adaptive way to make relationships work by buffering antagonistic tendencies. Negativity overall makes it hard to have a positive approach to others, and narcissism enhances negativity.
Marcin Zajenkowski, Radosław Rogoza, Oliwia Maciantowicz, Joanna Witowska, Peter K. Jonason, Narcissus locked in the past: Vulnerable narcissism and the negative views of the past, Journal of Research in Personality, Volume 93, 2021, 104123, ISSN 0092-6566, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jrp.2021.104123.
Anna Z. Czarna, Magdalena Śmieja, Maria Wider, Michael Dufner, Constantine Sedikides, Narcissism and partner-enhancement at different relationship stages, Journal of Research in Personality, Volume 98, 2022, 104212, ISSN 0092-6566, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jrp.2022.104212.
Bachar E, Hadar H, Shalev AY. Narcissistic vulnerability and the development of PTSD: a prospective study. J Nerv Ment Dis. 2005 Nov;193(11):762-5. doi: 10.1097/01.nmd.0000185874.31672.a5. PMID: 16260935.
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Grant H. Brenner, MD
Grant Hilary Brenner, M.D., a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, helps adults with mood and anxiety conditions, and works on many levels to help unleash their full capacities and live and love well.