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Narcissism and narcissistic behaviours: an overview
Narcissistic behaviour checklist
Narcissism is a popular topic because narcissistic personalities intrigue us all. The most popular content about narcissism focus on pathologizing people by labelling them or their personalities as narcissists. The less popular content takes a step back and acknowledges that all humans have narcissistic traits that are expressed along a behaviour spectrum ranging from grandiose and overt to subtle and covert behaviours. These behaviours become dark tetrad traits when they are expressed with the intent to cause another to experience pain or harm.
There’s more to narcissism than vanity, entitlement and an endless need for recognition at another’s expense. As humans are social beings in relationship with each other, narcissism is ultimately about gaining and maintaining power and control - controlling one's own experience by controlling other people's emotional states, experiences, narratives and behaviours in order to protect one's constructed view of reality.
Control is about maintaining order, predictability and comfort. Needing to be in control appears as dominating or diminishing behaviour, exploitation, silencing and other behaviour that capitalises on an imbalance of power that causes one person in any relationship to sacrifice their needs to serve those of the one with greater actual or perceived power.
A narcissistic person feels entitled to comfort and having their way at all times, regardless of what it asks of the other person/people. This means that the person has a fixed set of rules of how the world operates and how others should perceive and act toward them with immunity to other people's rules or expectations of conduct.
From a trauma aware perspective, narcissistic behaviours are survival adaptations to earlier life adversity, relational trauma and emotional wounding. These can be seen as self-protective behaviours when a person is feeling unsafe or threatened, is emotionally dysregulated and react as if they need to defend their honour, protect their constructed view of reality or their existence by controlling others and/or their environment.
Narcissistic behaviours are attempts to restore control and stability in relational contexts that threaten safety, security and power that involve:
An (entitled) need for recognition, to feel important or significant, powerful and to be perceived that way by others.
Constructed idealized self and preservation of self-perception
Imbalance of power
Submission and self-sacrifice to serve the one with greater actual or perceived power.
Low to no ability to consider the needs, feelings or differing perspectives of others (compromised empathy)
These behaviours are also attempt to soothe feelings of powerlessness, inferiority, and shame that arise during instances that disrupt comfort to intolerable levels.
Given that we react to protect and defend ourselves against real and perceived threats to safety and comfort, these behaviours are habitual, automatic, unintended and involuntary, and therefore difficult to change, despite the negative impact these behaviours can have on others. Someone in a reactive state when feeling challenged, discomfort, uncertainty and insecurity can use the suite of narcissistic behaviours to manipulate others to restore their own need for comfort, validation and superiority in ways that range from being annoying to harmful. Those who are on the receiving end of these behaviours often refer to their perpetrators as narcissists.
These are traits that many people with charisma and magnetism possess. People with these traits can carry an air of superiority and act overly confident or arrogant due to an overestimation of their competence and talent. Since they are so important (in their eyes), they tend to dominate conversations and lack regard for others’ perspectives that disagree with their own. Competitiveness is central and they don’t hesitate to gloat about a win or laugh at a competitor’s loss or misfortune. The person can also consider themselves to be unstoppable, untouchable, more important than others and destined for greatness. Having an inflated sense of importance and competence makes it difficult to accept and acknowledge their own limitations. Many public figures exude these traits and are rewarded for them with power, status, protection, recognition and support by the institution they represent.
Communal narcissism, a subtype of overt narcissism, is associated with people who believe they are fair, just, compassionate, generous and concerned for the wellbeing of others but are unable to put those behaviours into practice to have the intended impact. These behaviours are present in humanitarians, activists, white saviours, spiritual/religious community leaders and social justice warriors who do harm when intending to fulfil their mission of saving the world/chosen group in need. They believe they are benefiting a target group who is more vulnerable/disadvantaged to them while using their activities to elevate themselves in their institution/community. The focus is on convincing others of their benevolence in a number of ways such as:
public exclamations of moral outrage to condemn unjust or unfair treatment of their chosen population
description of the impact this has on their emotional state and performative empathy
recommitment to their cause or mission
proclamations of how they will personally act to solve the problem
call to action for more champions.
While these sound like beneficial actions, these leaders are more interested in the attention they receive and focus attention on gaining popularity using the cause as their attention supply without genuine accountability to the group they have chosen to advocate for or represent.
In an institutional environment, they are the ‘culture change from within‘ actors and are anointed or self-appointed to initiate activities to buffer against the harshness of their institution or system. Their performative empathy used to recruit champions for their cause is compounded by grand gestures of help giving that does more to bolster the reputation of the institution and the promotion/protection of the leader supporting ‘innovation’ than disrupt status quo to create the change they’re championing. One of the features of this leadership style is crowdsourcing ideas and personal narratives that they will internalize and absorb into their own personal narratives to them pass them off as their own own ideas, only citing influential people rather than the unknown champions who were duped to provide their ideas to this leader.
Covert or vulnerable narcissism
People with this behaviour are much more sensitive and tend to see themselves as empaths or another label that idealises their sensitivity to another’s emotional states. While overt narcissism is associated with an inflated sense of self and superiority, covert narcissism capitalizes on their inferiority or perceived inferiority by others who seem more stable and secure. The traits involve being passive and use of victimhood to demand attention of those who perceive them as fragile and harmless. Their perceived vulnerability and deprecating manner taps into people’s generosity and desire to rescue, help, heal them or fix their problems.
People who habitually centre their victimhood or capitalize on their perceived inferiority ensure that their suffering will always be worse than yours, thereby demanding an endless emotional supply from you while excusing them from considering your needs, taking responsibility for the (negative) impact of their actions and providing you with their attention unless there's something for them to gain.
Any of us can put ourselves into a position of victim automatically when feeling threatened by our circumstances, even when our life isn't under threat. This is a natural survival instinct for self-preservation and defence against uncertainty and anything perceived as a threat to safety. This automatic response to perceived threat becomes narcissistic when you live in victimhood and centre your victimhood to demand or invite attention or sympathy from others, blame others and circumstances for victimizing them, and refuse personal responsibility and regard for the needs of others.
One feature of covert narcissism is knowledge vampirism. Knowledge Vampires are also naturally drawn to people who are generous and willing teachers by giving the person access to information that can help them make sense of a conflict, solve problems or resolve a longstanding issue. Those with the knowledge are drawn to Knowledge Vampires because they express willingness to learn, show vulnerability and are seemingly grateful recipients of their wisdom that bond both parties in a covert narcissistic dynamic.
Collective narcissism, or group narcissism, is when a group of people hold a collective belief that their group, community, organisation or institution is superior to others and entitlement for their greatness to be acknowledged and recognised by outsiders.
Members of the in-group feel a sense of pride and satisfaction within the group, seek validation, are quick to defend against threats or challenges to the group identity of greatness, including justifying attacks against members of other groups who are perceived as threats to the collective.
Some groups use noble ideologies to signal benevolence which confuses outsiders when members of the group use smear campaigns and scapegoating to silence their critics. Extreme forms of collective narcissism are radicalisation and nationalism, where groups use force and violence as their means to subdue or eliminate other groups they view inferior or threatening to their power, status, fame and wealth.
Narcissistic behaviours, that is, the habit of centring one's comfort and emotional needs using controlling and dominating tactics on others, are hard to spot because these behaviours are mostly subtle, unintentional and unconscious.
The other aspect that seems to be missing from conversations about narcissism is the role the environment, context and relational culture play in the prevalence of narcissistic behaviours. In environments that are psychologically safe, it is easier to be yourself, admit to mistakes, give and receive feedback and learn. Environments or cultures that are competitive, have oppressive hierarchies fuelling pressure to conform, have favouritism and protect incompetent leaders, can bring out narcissistic behaviours in order to survive and attempt to succeed in such a culture. Toxic workplace cultures is an example of a setting where everyone is in survival mode and will be engaging in narcissistic traits that provide the greatest advantage to success. Context influences our behaviours regardless of how awakened you are.
Here is a closer look at what narcissistic behaviours looks like in an interaction within personal and professional relationships.
Narcissistic Behaviour Checklist
Power differential. It doesn’t matter if you’re older, have a more senior role or more qualifications. Anyone who has the power to diminish, invalidate or devalue you is using their perceived superiority to put your down.
Parent-child dynamic. Also known as infantilisation. This applies in families, friend groups and professional relationships. You and the other are re-enacting core wounds from your upbringing to claim control and safety. This can also appear as sibling-sibling or master-servant dynamics too. Be aware of the parent you’ve had greater issues with for clues about the role this person is playing in your story.
Blaming and shaming language ie. “You made me angry.” “I’m disappointed in you.” “I’m sorry you feel that way.” especially when you say something that contradicts their ideas or takes attention away from them. This is how they assume a critical parent role even if they’re not your parent.
Superiority. They critique, devalue, diminish, demonize or harshly judge another person so they feel morally, intellectually or socially superior when others don’t live up to their expectations or rules of conduct. Or, they anoint themselves as the righteous authority figure in the dynamic with the you, regardless of their age or status.
Black and white thinking. They have fixed rules about how the world works and how others should behave while never needing to hold themselves to account when they fail to walk their talk.
Self-centred. They centre their thoughts, feelings, opinions, experiences over yours and others.
Defensiveness. They get defensive if your thoughts, feelings or even experiences are different to theirs or they perceive that they’re being judged.
Gaslighting. They invalidate your experience by projecting their preferred version of your perceptions or events that occurred in your life. They might even pull a DARVO to guarantee that you don’t try to accuse then of anything ever again.
Unsolicited ‘helpful’ feedback or advice. They suggest ways of doing/saying things to accommodate them, cloaked as helpfulness, without you asking for it.
Victim shaming. They blame you for other people’s shitty behaviour toward you or worse, accuse you for ‘attracting’ it. (I’m serious…some people do that).
Always right. They need to be right and seen in a specific way that affirms that they are a good person and take great offence to ANY opinion or inquiring feedback that suggests otherwise.
Perpetual attention. They must always be in the spotlight either through their greatness or victimhood.
Self-importance. They show entitlement to attention, recognition, approval or priority.
Conversation control. They move conversations away from a confronting topic to their feelings about you, challenge your perspectives and probe for personal info to find ammunition that they will weaponise against you later.
Interrupting. They cut into what you are saying, preventing you from being able to finish your thought. This is similar to the conversation dominance tactic.
Centering feelings and needs. Theirs seem to matter more than yours as they overpower you and the conversation with intense emotions and volume of their voice, until you are forced to acquiesce so that they can calm down. They’re also the first to end the conversation with “don’t worry about me, I’ll be fine.”
Centring their victimhood. When you tell the person about your feelings or observations about their behaviour toward you, their response is about how hard things have been for then and that they don’t need this right now. This ensures that you don’t get to voice your needs and they thank them for understanding, aborting the conversation.
No or delayed apology. They only take responsibility for their contribution to a conflict if you do it first. They also don’t admit wrongdoing and use statements such as “I’m sorry you feel that way.” “It wasn’t my intention.” “You misunderstood me.” “I don’t remember that happening.” punctuated by justifications like “yes I did that because you made me.”
Twisting words and tone policing. They focus the discussion on correcting your grammar and word use, explaining back to you what you meant to say and accusing you of using the wrong tone with them. They threaten to end the conversation unless you use appropriate words and tone with them and follow the threat with a statement about honouring their boundaries.
What’s missing from this list? Comment below!
What narcissism is not
Feeling confident to express oneself without needing or seeking validation, recognition and sympathy from others.
Tolerance to discomfort
Emotional maturity and regulation
How do I overcome, hack or tame these narcissistic traits?
If narcissism is about control, power and domination, an antidote to narcissism is surrendering the need for control. This involves developing tolerance and emotional regulation in response to feelings of powerlessness, inferiority, inadequacy that accompany paradigm shifts, change, unfamiliar situations, uncertainty and encountering the unknown.
One of the biggest issues is empathy loss or compromised empathy resulting from breaches of trust and betrayals in relationships from childhood onward. Compromised empathy coupled with self-centred entitlement prevents the self-awareness required to demonstrate consideration of others, take responsibility for the consequences of our actions or receive feedback about the impact of our actions to facilitate behaviour change and secure relationships.
To heal from the impact of cumulative unresolved betrayals that compromise our ability to consider the needs of others alongside our own, we need to cultivate safe and trusting relationships. These relationships provide the contexts in which we can safely enter into states of uncertainty and discomfort that occur when our thinking is challenged, we’re learning new skills or concepts, or have to take risks to accomplish a task.
Taking risks to overcome those challenges can restore trust in ourselves, in the world and others around us and is part of the process of repairing the betrayals of trust that we experienced developmentally.
It also helps to acknowledge that you contribute to the success and conflict of any relationship, as does the other person. Only you can control what you put in and take responsibility for the thoughts, feelings, expectations and rules that guide your responses to the other person’s behaviour.
Finally - and this is the most valuable tip I can give - is to have a rigorous critical self-examination practice. This involves seeking to learn from your experiences by analysing the results of your actions with curiosity, including receiving feedback from others about the impact your actions have on them. Critical reflection on how you relate with others for the purpose of learning about yourself and how others experience you gives you insight into the behaviours that are working well and those that need to change if your aim is to have fulfilling and satisfying relationships with others.
Thanks for reading, supporting, subscribing and sharing,
Nathalie Martinek, PhD
The Narcissism Hacker
Hack narcissism and support my work
I believe that a common threat to our individual and collective thriving is an addiction to power and control. This addiction fuels and is fuelled by greed - the desire to accumulate and control resources in social, information (and attention), economic, ecological, geographical and political systems.
While activists focus on fighting macro issues, I believe that activism also needs to focus on the micro issues - the narcissistic traits that pollute relationships between you and I, and between each other, without contributing to existing injustice. It’s not as exciting as fighting the Big Baddies yet hacking, resisting and overriding our tendencies to control others that also manifest as our macro issues is my full-time job.
I’m dedicated to helping people understand all the ways narcissistic traits infiltrate and taint our interpersonal, professional, organisational and political relationships, and provide strategies for narcissism hackers to fight back and find peace.
Here’s how you can help.
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