Psychologists who study narcissism often describe two different types: grandiose and vulnerable. All narcissists are grandiose, in that they feel superior to other people. Yet some narcissists seem secure in their grandiosity, while others seem vulnerable. Some psychologists feel that these are actually two separate subtypes of narcissism. Some psychologists believe that the vulnerable narcissists are secretly suffering from low self-esteem, deep down. I disagree. It makes no sense to claim that a narcissist of any kind is suffering from low self-esteem, any more than you can say that someone with a fever is secretly suffering from low body temperature. Narcissism and low self-esteem are mutually contradictory concepts. By definition, you cannot have both problems at the same time. Also, I think that the difference between the narcissists that are perceived as grandiose and those that are perceived as vulnerable is largely their social context, or sometimes their level of social skills. Grandiose narcissists can go from grandiose to vulnerable to downright malignant in a heartbeat, if they feel that they are being challenged for dominance. Vulnerable narcissists do seem insecure, but the problem is not low self-esteem—it is low social rank. They are struggling for a feeling of social dominance that seems to elude them.
Who Was Narcissus?
Narcissism was named after the Greek mythological character Narcissus, who developed a fatal attraction to his own reflection on the surface of a pond. In other words, narcissists love themselves too much and others too little. Thus, they are perceived as being arrogant and lacking empathy. If this excessive self-love is bad enough, the person might qualify for a diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder.
Vulnerability to Dominance Challenges
Grandiose narcissists are grandiose because they feel secure in their social position. They may have this feeling of security for either (or both) of two reasons. Either they are so rich and powerful and widely admired that nobody poses any real challenge to their social dominance, or they are so bad at perceiving feedback from other people that they do not notice when they are being disrespected. In contrast, vulnerable narcissists feel that they do not have a firm grasp on their desired rung on the social ladder. As a result, they can become resentful or aggressive toward anyone they perceive as posing a challenge to their dominance. Vulnerable narcissists can be overly sensitive to threats for either (or both) of two reasons. Either they are facing real challenges to their social dominance, or they are perceiving challenges where none exist. Thus, people with a severe case of vulnerable narcissism might qualify for the diagnoses of two different personality disorders at the same time: narcissistic and paranoid.
Why Narcissists Are Arrogant
The connection between narcissism and arrogance is easy to explain if you have a dictionary handy. Narcissists seem arrogant because they are arrogant, by definition. Narcissism is just another word for the same problem: an inflated sense of one’s importance or abilities. (However, the question of why the person is arrogant may be difficult to explain.) The narcissist’s lack of empathy is also easy to explain. Insensitivity toward the feelings of lower-ranking individuals is a natural result of feeling that one has a secure grasp on a high social rank. It is perfectly natural for social animals to engage in struggles for social rank. In such struggles, an individual would naturally be concerned about the people who matter: those above them on the social ladder and those who pose a serious challenge to their own standing.
Narcissists and the Org Chart
By definition, a narcissist is someone who wants to hold an unrealistically high position within his or her social group. However, the narcissist may (or may not) be vying for the very top spot. What matters is that they are trying to occupy a higher rank than they deserve. Narcissists may show fawning submission to the people who are above them in an organization. For this reason, upper management may have an unrealistically rosy view of the narcissist. This can become a serious problem in companies where a narcissistic middle manager controls the upward flow of information. So upper management would have no way of knowing that a narcissistic middle manager is driving qualified employees out of the company and generally sacrificing the company on the altar of his or her own bloated ego.
Social Rank and Lack of Empathy
The people on the bottom of the social ladder pose no significant threat, one can safely ignore their feelings. For example, a senator in ancient Rome might have been acutely aware of the feelings of his emperor and fellow senators. He may have had at least some concern about the feelings of his wife. However, he is unlikely to have had any concern whatsoever for the feelings of his household slaves or the slaves being sacrificed in the gladiatorial arena. Such callousness would be considered shocking by modern standards. However, it was the rule rather than the exception, so it would not constitute evidence of a mental disorder, according to the modern DSM definitions.
Narcissism Means a Disagreement About Social Rank
Narcissism is a problem that reflects disagreement over an individual’s social rank. Narcissists feel that they deserve a high position within the social hierarchy. Thus, they expect to be given the power, property, and prestige (Weber’s 3P’s) that go along with having a high social rank. Yet narcissists lack the skills to achieve or maintain the social rank to which they aspire. This is why others perceive them as grandiose. In other words, grandiosity is a social judgment. It implies that there is a mismatch between the person’s self-assessments and the assessments that other people make of that person. It also implies that the other people are basically correct in their low assessment of the person.
Narcissistic or Truly Great?
Aristotle drew a distinction between a megalopsychos (i.e., a great soul) and an unworthy man (micropsychos) who merely imagines himself to be great. Although it is easy to get people to agree that there is a distinction between these two categories of people with high self-regard, it can be very difficult to get people to agree on which person belongs in which category. That is a major reason why political campaigns get so ugly. Likewise, it would be practically impossible to use paper-and-pencil tests such as a narcissistic personality inventory to decide whether a person is a megalopsychos or a narcissist. Megalopsychoi would exhibit some of the same traits as a narcissistic person, such as high ambition and high self-regard. Aristotle argued that to achieve his potential, the megalopsychos had to embrace his greatness. This has led psychologists to posit a condition that they call healthy narcissism. Yet not all self-assured ambitious people are narcissists. If you think you are the greatest, then you are probably a narcissist—unless you are Muhammad Ali, in which case you are a megalopsychos. Ali earned prestige and property through his athletic prowess and his charisma. He earned even more esteem later on in his political activism. So to decide whether someone who has high self-esteem is a megalopsychos, as opposed to being a narcissist, you would have to find some way to compare their self-concept with some gold standard.
Narcissism and Dominance Aggression
I believe that the difference between grandiose and vulnerable narcissism is not necessarily in the person in question but often in their situation. Narcissists have an unhealthy desire to occupy an unrealistically high social rank. Thus, they will seem grandiose when they do not perceive any challengers. But as soon as they spot someone who poses some sort of threat to their social dominance, they can go from grandiose to vulnerable to malignant in a heartbeat. For example, Snow White’s stepmother seemed harmless when she was just gazing at herself in the mirror. But as soon as the mirror told her that Snow White was now the fairest in the land, the stepmother took steps to neutralize the threat to her social dominance. The resulting attack can be vicious and totally unexpected, like dominance aggression in dogs. Many people are surprised when a seemingly friendly dog suddenly becomes vicious; typically, the warning signs were there and would have been obvious to a more-observant, dog-savvy person.
Grandiosity or Vulnerability?
Grandiose narcissists are people who should not but do hold a high social rank. Since other people defer to them, they seldom bare their fangs. Vulnerable narcissists, in contrast, are people who cannot (and should not) hold the exalted rank that they feel is their due. As a result, they feel continually beset by challengers, and they react neurotically or even aggressively. In contrast, a megalopsychos is someone who has or aspires to the sort of leadership role that he or she truly deserves. Malvolio in Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night said, “In my stars I am above thee; but be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em.” We should reserve the term narcissism for people who merely think that they are great.
Unskilled and Narcissistic
This Aristotelian model of narcissism suggests that the underlying cause of narcissism is some combination of temperament and lack of skill. Narcissists want to be “large and in charge.” However, they lack the skills or other attributes that would enable them to occupy that social rank legitimately. Thus, narcissism may result partly from the Dunning-Kruger effect: unskilled people overestimate their level of skill because their skills are so poor that they cannot judge their own performance. This would explain why narcissism is more common among younger people. Narcissism could be viewed as a form of arrested emotional development. Like toddlers, narcissists overestimate their own importance and abilities, and they tend to throw tantrums when they don’t get their way. People who cannot judge their own performance must rely on feedback from others, which requires a great deal of empathy and perceptiveness, which narcissist lack. So the underlying cause of the narcissism could be some combination of miseducation and a poor aptitude for social learning.
Narcissists Are Shallow
Many psychologists believe that vulnerable narcissists secretly have low self-esteem, “deep down.” This makes no sense. By definition, narcissists have high self-esteem. And from what I have seen, they tend to lack intellectual and emotional depth. They are so focused on themselves that they lack any broader or deeper concerns. All you have to do is scratch their surface, and you scrape the bottom. I think that we should reserve the word narcissism to describe unrealistically high self-esteem. Vulnerable narcissists have an insecurity, but their insecurity involves their grasp on their social rank, not on their self-esteem. Their insecurity over social rank explains much of their aberrant behavior.
Narcissistic Goods, Narcissistic Supply, Narcissistic Rage
Narcissists seek narcissistic goods or narcissistic supply—often in the form of meaningless praise. The praise may be totally undeserved or even nonsensical, yet even nonsensical praise has meaning to the narcissist. The praise is an act of submission that reassures the narcissist that the worshipper poses no threat to the narcissist’s social dominance. In contrast, narcissistic injury is any perceived threat (real or imagined) to their social dominance. Narcissistic rage is simply dominance aggression to correct what the narcissist perceives an inappropriate challenge.
The Oblivious Grandiose Narcissist
The so-called grandiose and vulnerable narcissists may differ in terms of the relative security of their social position but also in how aware they are of negative feedback from others. Some grandiose narcissists may seem grandiose because they are blind and deaf to this feedback. They cannot react with narcissistic rage to a slight if they do not perceive the slight. In a radio interview, Saturday Night Live star Pete Davidson mentioned that Donald Trump, who hosted the show in 2004 and again in 2015, couldn’t tell the difference between people “laughing with” versus “laughing at” him. In an interview with Variety, Davidson describes Trump’s social tone-deafness: “It wasn’t the most fun week ever,” Davidson says. “He doesn’t get jokes. He doesn’t get tone. He doesn’t get punch lines. He’ll say words differently. He’s just a dweeb.”
The Secure Grandiose Narcissist
Some people have been treated as royalty for so long that they expect to be treated as royalty. Actual royalty and many A‑list celebrities would fall into this category. Yet how many of them really deserve this treatment? What have they really done for the rest of us that we should grant them so much power, property, and prestige? (In his book A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Mark Twain pointed out how foolish it is to worship royalty.) Of course, some A‑list celebrities have managed to remain humble, despite their success. (I once overheard a Broadway musician talking about how Glenn Close, star of stage and screen, was one of the nicest people he had ever met.)
Life on the D‑List
The A‑list celebrities may be accustomed to getting the royal treatment, but the less-celebrated celebrities can only aspire to such treatment. In her show Life on the D‑List, Kathy Griffin mined comedy gold by emphasizing her own low rank within the show business hierarchy, while also poking fun at the foibles of A‑listers. The show often dealt with the schemes that Griffin and her staff dreamed up to get publicity for Griffin. Meanwhile, the A‑list celebrities often get far more attention than they want. Griffin is continually amazed that the A‑listers do not seem to mind when she mocks them in public. Either they are somehow unaware of what Griffin says about them, or they simply don’t mind. Such unconcern could have either of two causes. One is that the butts of Griffin’s jokes are so high-ranking that even criticism from a low-ranking person does not sting. Another is that some celebrities are so histrionic that they crave any form of attention for its own sake. Or they may be so businesslike about their careers that they realize that even Griffin’s mockery is good for their brand. They would rather be mocked than ignored, because even bad publicity can be good publicity.
At present, psychiatrists and psychologists have little to offer narcissists. Narcissists rarely seek treatment for their narcissism, although they occasionally seek help for solving some of the problems their narcissism causes. Also, traditional psychotherapy was not invented for narcissists. It is actually tailor-made for the dependent sort of people who tend to develop an unhealthy co-dependency with a narcissist. Traditional psychotherapy is based on the idea that the patient has some flaw that needs to be corrected, and the psychotherapist has the wisdom to help the patient do that. But narcissists think that they are already perfect, and they would likely feel superior to any psychotherapist. So if psychotherapists want to help narcissists, they will have take a completely different approach, one based on an understanding of the nature of the underlying problem.
Narcissists Want to Win Friends and Influence People
Narcissists want to be large and in charge. The problem is that they lack the skills to get, keep, and function in the social position that they desperately desire. Narcissists want to win friends and influence people. So the best thing you can do for them is teach them how to do that. Dale Carnegie provided the basic model in his How to Win Friends and Influence People. Narcissists are likely to be interested in programs that promise to help them succeed. To succeed, they may need to learn some of the social skills that they currently lack. Narcissists may also need help in finding some calling that can give their lives meaning. Narcissists focus all of their efforts on self-aggrandizement. As a result, their victories are seldom meaningful and satisfying, even to them. If you can help them find some larger purpose, you can help them direct their energy in ways that could help them become the great person that they currently just imagine themselves to be.