They are a decidedly mixed bag; therein lays one of the many paradoxes of narcissism and the primary reason narcissists are so difficult to identify and understand. If narcissists were just jerks, they would be easy to avoid. The fact that they are entertaining and exciting as well as aggressive and manipulative makes them compelling in the real world and as subjects of psychological scrutiny.
A cross section of the narcissist’s ego will reveal high levels of self-esteem, grandiosity, self-focus, and self-importance. They think they are more physically attractive and intelligent than just about everyone, and would rather be admired than liked. They are enraged when told they aren’t beautiful or brilliant but aren’t affected much if told they are jerks.
Odious as these qualities may be, we’ve all got a narcissistic streak within. Narcissism is a stable trait that varies in degree from person to person. Some aspects, including confidence and self-sufficiency, are healthy and adaptive. It is only at the extreme end of the spectrum that narcissism becomes a disorder, often because toxic levels of vanity, entitlement, and exploitativeness are on display. The idea that narcissism is a constellation of traits that exists on a continuum, rather than a single, dichotomous label (you are or are not narcissistic), is reflected in plans to jettison the diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder in the forthcoming DSM-V, the diagnostic manual for clinicians.
Narcissists thrive in big, anonymous cities, entertainment-related fields, and leadership situations where they can dazzle and dominate others without having to cooperate or suffer the consequences of a bad reputation. Narcissism tends to peak in adolescence and decline with age. Men are more narcissistic than women across the lifespan. Male and female narcissists both share a marked need for attention, the propensity to manipulate, and a keen interest in charming the other sex. Narcissism may have evolved as a strategy to secure sexual partners in the short-term. The ways in which narcissists of both genders pursue their quarry reinforces this possibility.
Women who score high on tests of narcissism consistently dress more provocatively than their more modest counterparts; male narcissists resort to displays of wit and braggadocio —in other words, both narcissistic men and women engage in time-tested sexual strategies. They also report more short-term hook-ups and a greater desire for this type of union. This relentless short-term focus is a key to both their dark charm and to the predictable downward trajectory of their relationships.
Narcissists will be thrilled to hear that as a group they are rated as more attractive and likable than everyone else at first appearance. Narcissists have a distinct physical signature. They’re considered more stylishly clad, cheerful, and physically appealing at first sight than are those who score lower in narcissism. The narcissistic women are impeccably groomed and the men were more chiseled than their non-preening peers. There is a robust link between narcissism and physical attractiveness, and narcissists’ tactics for standing out are well-documented, often by themselves. While narcissists often love the sound of their own voice, they don’t always sound pretty to others. Narcissism engaged in more disagreeable verbal behaviors, arguing and cursing more and using more sexual language than their more modest counterparts. Narcissists’ language and demeanor is often geared toward one objective: to maintain power in an interaction. The tactics in the narcissists’ toolbox include bragging, refocusing the topic of conversation, making exaggerated hand movements, talking loudly, and showing disinterest by "glazing over" when others speak. In the sexual realm, promiscuity is a key strategy that allows narcissists to maintain control. Promiscuity is a key behavioral ingredient also, because narcissists are always searching for a better deal. When narcissists think their partner is committed, they are even more willing to cheat, presumably because they feel that they are more likely to get away with it. The narcissists get a rush out of convincing partners to do things or engage in sexual acts that they would normally eschew.
Control is very important to narcissists. They can abruptly lose their charm if destabilized or threatened. This two-faced behavior is often the first clue to their true character. They get angry when rejected, overreacting to small slights and punishing those who do not support their grandiose image of themselves. Narcissists get away with these unsavory antics because, at least initially, they are so charming. The charismatic air that many narcissists exude is attractiveness, competence, interpersonal warmth, and humor. Those reporting higher levels of entitlement tended to be the most popular students in the class. While students expected charming individuals to like others more, people with self-centered values actually dislike others more. Clearly, narcissists are easily misread. The picture is further complicated by the fact that both extraverts and narcissists have an interpersonal style that endears them to others. So to conclude that a person may be narcissistic based on energetic and self-assured body movements, friendly facial expressions, and original introductions would be to dismiss many non-narcissists.
Narcissists’ manipulative bent can be a lever for social influence as much as for exploitation. This is why narcissism and leadership often go hand in hand. The fun-loving narcissist may enjoy widespread networking and dominating a social group not because they want to exploit every person in their path, but simply because they desire the positive reinforcement of others. More intentionally exploitative behavior is considered Machiavellian and, at the extreme, psychopathic. Together with narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy form a cluster of distinct but related traits known as the "Dark Triad." In this disagreeable constellation, narcissism is the gentlest star. Narcissism is linked much more tightly to extraversion than are the other two, suggesting that narcissism may be the most positive, social, and outgoing component of this triad. When narcissists do behave negatively and aggressively, they tend to do so in response to social exclusion. Machiavellian and psychopathic types are more hostile to physical provocation.
In 1984, psychologist Robert Emmons posed the original narcissistic paradox: He noted that narcissists simultaneously devalue others even as they need others’ admiration. It appears that narcissists seek out people who maintain their high positive self-image, at the same time intentionally avoiding and putting down people who may give them a harsh dose of realism. Seeking admiration is like a drug for narcissists. In the long run it becomes difficult because others won’t applaud them, so they always have to search for new acquaintances from whom they get the next fix. This could explain why narcissists so frequently change their social contexts and maintain only weak ties to others.
Another long-standing mystery concerns the developmental pathway to narcissism. Is narcissism the result of indiscriminate parental praise, or of coldness and rejection? Freud believed narcissism resulted from some combination of the two. The whiplash combination of parental coldness and excessive parental admiration is more strongly related to maladaptive narcissism than is either attitude alone. This combination of childhood experiences may help to explain the paradoxical combination of grandiosity and fragility that is so characteristic of adult narcissists. The narcissist who receives indiscriminate praise from his or her caregiver as well as signals of coldness and rejection may come to distrust the praise and exist in a perpetual state of insecurity. Peers also contribute to this dynamic. Narcissists are popular so they get positive feedback, but are then devalued in the long term when people learn their true colors.
Inconsistent feedback can breed a deep craving for admiration in a person with narcissistic tendencies; hence the quest for fleeting ego boosts. In the sexual realm, a narcissist may be satisfied just knowing a person finds him or her attractive.
Even the narcissist’s awareness that they are narcissistic is paradoxical. Narcissists rate themselves more intelligent, physically attractive, likable, and funny than others, as well as more power-oriented, impulsive, arrogant, and prone to exaggerate their abilities. In other words, they know exactly how others view them. Narcissists are even aware that their reputations worsened over time and they just didn’t care. How can narcissists maintain their inflated self-image even though they know how they are perceived by others? Such people might think arrogance is a positive trait, like extraversion. Narcissists may also have unique coping mechanisms that allow them to reframe negative reactions. They know that in certain situations such as on first meeting they are better than others and they use this positive information to generally reinterpret other experiences. Narcissists may conclude that others are just haters, or just not smart enough to realize how awesome they really are.
The narcissistic blend of flash and callousness, light and dark coupled with a relentless focus on short-term objectives, ensures no shortage of sexual and romantic partners at the outset, many of whom will leave the relationship hurt and baffled. Once again, first impressions quickly go sour. People who date narcissists are highly satisfied for about four months, at which point they report a rapid decline in relations. Ironically, the four-month mark is when people start to reach peak satisfaction when dating non-narcissists. Yet the initial excitement and charm offered by the narcissist is hard to resist. "When I eat chocolate cake, 20 minutes later I’m under my desk wanting to die." "When I eat broccoli, in 20 minutes I feel good. But given the choice I always eat the cake."
In the long term, both men and women get frustrated with narcissistic partners, but since more men are interested in short-term flings, narcissistic women don’t tend to bother men as much as narcissistic men frustrate women. Narcissistic men tend to attract women who crave drama. Empathic women who are "caretakers" may also be drawn to narcissistic men, thinking erroneously that they will be able to alter negative traits. Women’s attraction to narcissistic traits may also depend, in part, on where she is in her ovulatory cycle. On days when women is at high fertility, they are much more attracted to displays of social presence like composure, eye contact and competitiveness symbolizing derogation of competitors, both of which signal the confidence that is the narcissist’s hallmark.
Men with narcissistic tendencies place much more emphasis on physical appearance than on an empathic partner, and not merely for the arm-candy factor one might expect. Narcissists are interested in gorgeous women in part because they believe such women may be most susceptible to their manipulative tactics. The interest of a great-looking woman is annoyed by playful yet ambiguous comments because such a woman is so used to being approached through flattery and to being in control of an interaction. "Not so fast! It’s too early in the relationship for you to touch me like that," or "You have interesting eyes" are two such lines. An ambiguous comment is not an insult, just a judgment call on narcissist’s part. The better-looking the girl, the more aggressive narcissistic men will be.
In the realm of friendship, narcissistic women seek out higher-status opposite-sex friends whereas narcissistic men tend to have other male friends, sometimes called "wingmen," who also have a short-term mating strategy and can help each other exploit women. Women are looking to get something from the guys, and guys are looking for a teammate to take advantage of the world. The greatest paradox of all is that narcissism is neither absolutely good nor bad. Narcissism can be adaptive or maladaptive, appealing or appalling, depending on how charm and cunning are deployed. Anyone can mix and match narcissistic traits including confidence, self-sufficiency, and assertiveness with more communal traits such as cooperation and empathy, to be effective in any situation. Still, you may be wondering whether you are a full-fledged card-carrying narcissist. You could always go online and take the Narcissistic Personality Inventory to find out if this is the case. But if you truly are a narcissist, you probably already know it and you don’t care.
Signs of a stealth narcissist are flashy clothing and sky-high confidence public face of narcissism. Here are a few additional cues, some contradictory, in keeping with the narcissist’s paradoxical nature. Bragging about one’s perfect family (no one’s family is perfect). Hyper-generosity in public to demonstrate that one has power, but coldness once the camera is off. They are hypersensitive and insecure. This includes imagining criticism where it doesn’t exist and getting depressed by perceived criticism. Vulnerable narcissists are self-centered and overly defensive. Narcissists are prone to a vast array of negative emotions including depression, anxiety, self-consciousness, and shame owing to not being given their "due." Such feelings can be an indication of egocentricity and self-absorption. They repeatedly put down other people, especially inferiors and strangers. Loves to talk about him or herself and mentions others mainly to name-drop.
If you find yourself repeatedly pursuing people who need to be the center of attention, consider how to de-narcissify your encounters:
•Slow down. Don’t put so much stock in your initial attraction. Be open-minded to non-flashy people.
•Observe a variety of settings. Extraverts can be very hard to distinguish from narcissists. Assess a person in multiple contexts before getting in too deep, and solicit honest input from friends.
•Consider the venue. If you frequent bars and clubs, you are more likely to encounter narcissists on the prowl.
•Examine why you may be attracted to narcissists. If you are searching for an ambitious person who is not "too nice," you are likely drawn to narcissists. What needs of yours do narcissists exploit?
•Get out as soon as you can. Don’t try to change him or her. Remember, this person enjoys being a narcissist. The more emotionally attached you get; the easier it will be for the narcissist to manipulate you.
•Take control of the situation. The situation you are in does not necessarily reflect your personality when you love a man who loves himself. Responsibility is the ability to respond.