Narcissism: Where It Comes From and How to Deal With It

Mark Manson

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Ah, narcissists. Checking themselves out in every reflective surface they walk by. Yammering on about that one time they won the third-grade spelling bee. Thinking they’re God’s gift to the universe — after all, why else would He have put them right in the middle of it?

But here’s the thing: Narcissism is way more complex and, quite frankly, way more annoying than that.

Yes, it’s an inflated sense of self-importance and a hankering for constant admiration, combined with a devastating lack of empathy for others. It’s the “Me, Myself and I” syndrome, where the world must revolve around a single person, and everyone else is just an extra in the movie of their life.

But before you start pointing fingers at your ex or that obnoxious coworker, remember: We’ve all got a smidgeon of narcissism in us. It’s just that some people got an extra dollop. Or five.

So let’s dive headfirst into this bottomless pit of ego and self-absorption, cutting through the BS, and maybe, just maybe, we’ll come out on the other side understanding what makes these narcissists tick.

And who knows, we might even figure out how to deal with them without losing our sanity.

Let’s unpack this sweaty bag of asses together.

WHAT IS NARCISSISM?

First, let’s clarify what narcissism actually is.

Simply put, narcissism is a chronic state of entitlement.

A narcissist might believe they are exceptionally extraordinary or exceptionally deprived. In either case, the rules that apply to everyone else don’t apply to them. The narcissist owes the world nothing, while the world owes them everything.

As with most things in life, narcissism comes in varying degrees. No one is 0% or 100% narcissistic. Everyone falls along a spectrum. We all exhibit a few narcissistic traits — that is, a certain amount of entitlement — on our worst days.

But, at the extreme end, a person might be suffering from a full-blown personality disorder.¹ And even those who are clinically diagnosed will fall along a spectrum from high-functioning individuals to complete neurotic messes.²

We all engage in at least some narcissistic behaviors at some point or another. The problem arises when narcissism becomes our default mode and we don’t realize we’re behaving like a narcissist.

THE TWO TYPES OF NARCISSISM

In my book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, I talk about two types of entitlement, which are really two types of narcissism.

Let’s pick apart each one.

THE GRANDIOSE NARCISSIST

The “grandiose narcissist” is the type we mostly think of when we say that someone is a narcissist. They’re the thin-skinned, attention-seeking, arrogant asshats who are oblivious to the needs of others and will exploit anything and anyone.³

Now, we all know someone who thinks a little too highly of themselves, craves attention and admiration a little too much. They can’t take criticism, they blame everyone else when things go wrong, and they expect to get extra special treatment because they’re above the plebes and schlubs and “normal people” who cower beneath them.

But these kinds of narcissists also often have a charm about them, at least at first. Their outward self-confidence can be refreshing to be around, especially if you aren’t a person who feels a ton of self-confidence. But their bullshit quickly sours.

The blaming, the gaslighting, the manipulation, the way they constantly turn everything back onto themselves.

It gets exhausting.

Some Tell-Tale Signs of a Grandiose Narcissist

  • Being arrogant, braggy, and showing off
  • Exaggerating accomplishments and/or talents
  • Requiring constant admiration and praise
  • Believing others are envious and jealous of them
  • Having a preoccupation with success, power, brilliance, beauty, and/or the ideal mate
  • Taking advantage of and exploiting others for personal gain
  • Lacking empathy
  • Having a sense of specialness/uniqueness that only other special/unique people can understand
  • Having unreasonable expectations of special treatment

THE VULNERABLE NARCISSIST

Let me paint a picture of someone else we all know too.

This is the person who’s much more reserved and doesn’t really seek out attention in all those loud and obnoxious ways. They can be shy at times, and they might even put themselves down a little too much.

Like a grandiose narcissist, they are hyper-sensitive and need constant reassurance. But unlike a grandiose narcissist, they don’t believe they are better than everyone else. In fact, they believe the opposite — they believe they are uniquely victimized or oppressed by everyone else.

Vulnerable narcissism is a more subtle form of narcissism. But it’s still narcissism. The difference is that a grandiose narcissist thinks they’re uniquely superior, while the vulnerable narcissist thinks they’re uniquely inferior.

A grandiose narcissist believes they are uniquely privileged while a vulnerable narcissist believes they are uniquely under-privileged. A grandiose narcissist takes pride in taking advantage of others while a vulnerable narcissist takes pride in being taken advantage of by others.

Like the grandiose narcissist, the vulnerable narcissist thinks they deserve special treatment because of their uniqueness.

These are the self-labeled, perpetual victims. They may be shy and outwardly self-effacing. But underneath that cowering exterior is a sense of grandiosity.⁴ They’ll get offended by the smallest slights and anything and everything distresses them.

Some Signs of a Vulnerable Narcissist

  • Appearing submissive
  • Putting themselves down
  • Feeling under-recognized and under-appreciated
  • Being easily offended
  • Being envious and jealous of others
  • Getting easily distressed
  • Not taking good care of themselves like in grooming or health
  • Having a sense of specialness/uniqueness that only other special/unique people can understand
  • Having unreasonable expectations of special treatment

Though grandiose and vulnerable narcissists are different in important ways, both are extraordinarily self-absorbed⁵ and have a fragile sense of self they have to maintain by viewing themselves as exceptional — again, either exceptionally extraordinary or exceptionally deficient.

They deny any realities that do not support their grandiose self-perception and as a result tend to engage only in superficial relationships or withdraw from social situations altogether.⁶

At the heart of it, both kinds of narcissists are overly self-entitled individuals who believe they’re special and that different rules in life apply to them.

WHERE DOES NARCISSISM COME FROM?

Narcissism is a pretty complex personality trait, and psychologists haven’t completely untangled how it comes about, but they have found some clues.

For one, certain approaches to parenting appear to influence the development of narcissism.

There is some evidence to suggest that children are at a higher risk of developing narcissistic qualities if they grow up with parents who are authoritarian, highly indulgent, or overly neglectful of their children’s emotions.

Let’s take these one at a time:

1. AUTHORITARIAN PARENTING

These parents try to control their children’s behavior to an unhealthy degree. They demand strict obedience to rules, while providing little in the way of warmth, support, or open communication.

Authoritarian parents may base their child’s worth on accomplishments and conformity to rules, which can lead children to develop an inflated sense of self-importance to cope with this pressure. They may also develop a deep-seated sense of entitlement as a defense mechanism against feeling unloved or not good enough.

2. INDULGENT PARENTING

On the opposite end of the spectrum, children who are overly validated by gushing parents also tend to end up as narcissists.⁷

Not surprisingly, if a child constantly hears how “special” and “wonderful” and “beautiful” they are (spoiler: you’re not special), they end up internalizing their parents’ inflated views of them and grow up to believe they’re entitled to extra privileges in life.

3. NEGLECTFUL PARENTING

Also known as uninvolved parenting, this style is characterized by low levels of both warmth and control.

Neglectful parents may be unresponsive to their children’s needs and may not provide necessary guidance or feedback. They often fail to validate their children’s emotions or thoughts.

In response, children may develop narcissistic traits as a coping mechanism, using an inflated sense of self-importance to compensate for feelings of neglect and unworthiness.⁸

On the surface, these parenting styles seem wildly different, so how could they all contribute to developing narcissism?

Well, the one thing they all have in common is that they don’t help the child to fully express a realistic, independent identity.

Authoritarian parents are overly controlling and therefore don’t let their children find their own way in life. This makes them seek more and more outside validation in order to feel good about themselves, which could turn into narcissism.

Indulgent parents, on the other hand, provide too few boundaries for their children, and instead contribute to an inflated sense of self that isn’t grounded in reality.

And neglectful parents provide little to no validation for their children’s emotional needs, so they might grow up narcissistic to overcompensate for feelings of shame and inadequacy. Shame, in fact, plays a crucial role in people who develop vulnerable narcissism.

IT’S NOT ALL YOUR PARENTS’ FAULT

Now, before you go off and start hating your parents (or hating them more than you already do…), it’s important to understand that parenting is just one factor that might contribute to narcissism.

Research into the origins of narcissism is still in its early stages. We don’t really know how genetics, peer groups, trauma, and many, many other factors might contribute.

And so, while I think parenting is important, I’m not one to blame parents for too much.

In fact, a balance between each of the above parenting styles appears to be the antidote to raising narcissistic kids. Namely, children with parents who encourage their kids, show warmth towards them, set strong boundaries, and also have high standards for them tend to turn out pretty well adjusted.

So it seems that our parents just did the best they could, but they might have focused a little too much on one style over others.

My point is: don’t blame parents for everything. Most are just doing the best they can.

THE PROBLEM WITH NARCISSISM

The past decade or two has seen a very public debate about the possibility of a narcissism “epidemic” in our current culture, especially among young people.⁹

The reality is that every culture in recorded history has had to deal with narcissism and the myriad problems associated with it. At the extreme end, narcissism has been linked to substance abuse¹⁰ and a wide range of personality disorders, from bipolar to borderline and passive-aggressive disorders.¹¹

Grandiose narcissism tends to co-occur with antisocial traits and paranoia, while vulnerable narcissism tends to be accompanied by depression, anxiety, and suicidal tendencies.¹²

People with grandiose narcissistic traits tend to crave power¹³ and those who emerge as leaders can create a pretty toxic environment for the poor souls they reign over.¹⁴

And though it’s often grandiose narcissists who we see as exploitative, vulnerable narcissists are also not very good at empathizing with others and can be equally dickish.¹⁵ Worse, narcissism has been consistently linked with violence.¹⁶

Researchers bicker over whether narcissism is increasing in prevalence,¹⁷ but I’d argue this is merely semantics. Narcissism — both as a personality trait and a mental disorder — is as serious a problem today as it was in 1978 or ancient Greece, for that matter.

HOW TO DEAL WITH NARCISSISTIC PEOPLE

The first rule of dealing with narcissistic people is: don’t.

If you can avoid having to interact with a narcissist, then don’t interact with them. Don’t try to convince them, persuade them, change them, fix them, or change their mind. It’s probably impossible and even if it’s not, it’s definitely not worth it.

That being said, sometimes you have to deal with a narcissistic person and if you’re going to have to deal with them, then it’s important to understand how to go about it.

Obviously, how you deal with narcissists will vary depending on the context in which you interact with them; e.g., how you handle a narcissistic boss will be different from how you handle your narcissistic boyfriend and parents. Even in the same context, each individual is different, so obviously, the approach here varies.

But basically, the key to handling narcissistic people is boundaries.

Decide how much exposure you are willing to have to them, and decide to what extent you’re willing to interact with them. Decide beforehand what you’re willing to do and not do with them, what you’re willing and not willing to talk about with them, and what you’re willing and not willing to share with them. Then stick to it.

Narcissists have got nothing on you if you have and enforce boundaries in your life, be it with your colleagues, your friends, your partner, or even your family.

Unfortunately, most of us are pretty bad at maintaining healthy boundaries and as a result get embroiled in drama and end up doing things we don’t really want to do.

Having healthy boundaries means taking responsibility for your own actions and emotions — and NOT taking responsibility for the actions or emotions of others.

It’s when your narcissistic colleague tries to take credit for your work and you refuse and proudly stake your claim.

It’s when your narcissistic uncle asks to borrow money because something bad always happens to him and oh he’s so unlucky and you tell him a firm “no.”

It’s when your narcissistic partner tries to bully you into feeling guilty that you stayed late at work that one time and you call them out on their bullshit.

If you can’t avoid having narcissists in your life, surround yourself with boundaries. Draw lines in the sand and enforce them. If you want to deep dive into how, I’ve got just the article for you.

Read: The Guide to Strong Relationship Boundaries

HOW TO DEAL WITH YOUR OWN NARCISSISM

Plot twist: but what if you’re the narcissist? Not sure? Ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Do you feel that people often don’t (or can’t) understand you or your problems?
  2. Do you feel that there are many barriers in your life which you have no control over?
  3. Do you often ask for help from others and/or feel like few people are willing to help you?
  4. Do you feel like you often don’t receive the attention or appreciation that you deserve?
  5. Do people often complain that you don’t listen to them, when in fact, you feel like they don’t listen to you?
  6. Do you feel like most other people have lives that are much easier than yours?
  7. Do you fight with close friends and loved ones often?
  8. If so, is it usually their fault?
  9. Do people suddenly drop contact with you with no explanation and refuse to communicate with you again?
  10. Do you often feel helpless, like you have little opportunity to improve your life?

If you answered “yes” to most of the above, then you might actually be the problem.

If you recognize and accept you have narcissistic traits, congratulations: you’ve made it further than most narcissistic people ever will.

Clinical narcissism is notoriously difficult to treat. There is no one proven therapy, and the many recommended therapies commonly practiced all require long-term effort and engagement.¹⁸ In short: seek professional help and buckle down for the long haul.

If you’re simply exhibiting traits of narcissism some of the time, I’ve got some tips—or rather, some life-altering truths—to help reduce your narcissistic tendencies.

Narcissism boils down to believing you’re special and entitled to be treated differently than others. The antidote—and this is easier said than done—is simply to accept that you’re not special.

In fact, you’re average at almost everything, most of the time. And that’s okay. You don’t need to be special or great at something to be a worthy person or live a meaningful life.

Instead of weaving elaborate narratives to convince yourself of your specialness, you’ll be much better off avoiding labeling yourself anything and just living.

You don’t know if you’re great or not, and that’s fine. You’ll do your best anyway. You don’t know if you’re a victim or not. That’s fine. You’ll get better and feel healthy again anyway. You don’t know if you deserve good or bad treatment and that’s fine. You’ll take responsibility for your life anyway.

Find satisfaction in the simple, everyday pleasures of life.

Every day when you wake up, rejoice that you’re still alive. Marvel at the wonders of toothpaste when you brush your teeth every morning. See beauty in how the light reflects off the surface of passing cars. Be curious about other people.

You’re not “destined” for greatness. You’re not destined for anything.

Stop trying so hard to prove you’re better than everyone else. Stop whining about how unfair the world has been to you.

Take a deep breath and get on with your day.

Just like everybody else.

NEED HELP FIGURING OUT WHAT TO GIVE A FUCK ABOUT?

I wrote a 50-page guide on personal values to help you do just that. Check it out.

Footnotes

  1. This is called the Narcissistic Personality Disorder, or NPD. And prevalence stats for this mental condition range from 1% to 17% in clinical samples, and from 0% to 6.2% in non-clinical samples.
  2. See: Caligor, E., Levy, K. N., & Yeomans, F. E. (2015). Narcissistic Personality Disorder: Diagnostic and Clinical Challenges. American Journal of Psychiatry, 172(5), 415–422.
  3. See: Caligor, E., Levy, K. N., & Yeomans, F. E. (2015). Narcissistic Personality Disorder: Diagnostic and Clinical Challenges. American Journal of Psychiatry, 172(5), 415–422.
  4. See: Caligor, E., Levy, K. N., & Yeomans, F. E. (2015). Narcissistic Personality Disorder: Diagnostic and Clinical Challenges. American Journal of Psychiatry, 172(5), 415–422.
  5. See: Levy, K. N. (2012). Subtypes, Dimensions, Levels, and Mental States in Narcissism and Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 68(8), 886–897.
  6. See: Caligor, E., Levy, K. N., & Yeomans, F. E. (2015). Narcissistic Personality Disorder: Diagnostic and Clinical Challenges. American Journal of Psychiatry, 172(5), 415–422.
  7. Brummelman, E., Thomaes, S., Nelemans, S. A., Orobio de Castro, B., Overbeek, G., & Bushman, B. J. (2015). Origins of narcissism in children. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112(12), 3659–3662.
  8. Huxley, E., & Bizumic, B. (2016). Parental Invalidation and the Development of Narcissism. The Journal of Psychology.
  9. The charge against young people is brought forth mainly by Twenge et al. who claim college students have become more narcissistic over time. There are methodological problems with their argument, but let’s not get into that here.
  10. See: Zimmerman, M., Rothschild, L., & Chelminski, I. (2005). The Prevalence of DSM-IV Personality Disorders in Psychiatric Outpatients. American Journal of Psychiatry, 162(10), 1911–1918.
  11. See: Levy, K. N., Chauhan, P., Clarkin, J. F., Wasserman, R. H., & Reynoso, J. S. (2009). Narcissistic Pathology: Empirical Approaches. Psychiatric Annals, 39(4).
  12. See: Russ, E., Shedler, J., Bradley, R., & Westen, D. (2008). Refining the Construct of Narcissistic Personality Disorder: Diagnostic Criteria and Subtypes. American Journal of Psychiatry, 165(11), 1473–1481.
  13. See: Carroll, L. (1987). A Study of Narcissism, Affiliation, Intimacy, and Power Motives among Students in Business Administration. Psychological Reports, 61(2), 355–358.
  14. Research shows narcissistic leaders appear to lack moral sensibility and eschew ethics for personal benefits. In the corporate context, they can be overbearing, abusive micro-managers.
  15. See: Luchner, A. F., & Tantleff-Dunn, S. (2016). Dysfunctional empathy in vulnerable narcissism. North American Journal of Psychology, 18(3), 597–610.
  16. See: Lambe, S., Hamilton-Giachritsis, C., Garner, E., & Walker, J. (2018). The Role of Narcissism in Aggression and Violence: A Systematic Review. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 19(2), 209–230.
  17. See: Trzesniewski, K. H., Donnellan, M. B., & Robins, R. W. (2008). Is “Generation Me” really more narcissistic than previous generations? Journal of Personality, 76(4), 903–918.
  18. Treatments for Narcissistic Personality Disorder are mostly symptom-driven. Recommended therapies include mentalization-based therapy, transference-focused psychotherapy, schema-focused psychotherapy, and dialectical behavioral therapy. See this review for details.

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Mark Manson

Author of #1 NYTimes Bestseller ‘The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck’. OG Blogger. Psychology Nerd. I enjoy cats and whiskey. But not at the same time.