Narcissists and psychopaths present us with some of the most challenging behaviour
we might experience.
There are all kinds of reasons why someone might display challenging behaviour; they
might not necessarily be a narcissist or psychopath. Somebody might be overly concerned
with their own needs because their own needs are great and pressing; they may be
damaged, wounded, seeking to replay a story so that it finally turns out right. They
might just be a spoilt brat, or have poor social skills. Fear or threat can lead
to long term anger, a state of high arousal and vigilance, and a high sensitivity
to perceived threat.
Not all narcissists are unpleasant, and there are many psychopaths who never show
Narcissists and psychopaths – a genetic hypothesis
Competition and cooperation
Observe this diagram, which shows the two dimensions of social life: competition
and cooperation. All social species are both competitive and cooperative, but humans
depend upon cooperation much more heavily than any other species except for the social
insects (e.g. bees, ants, termites).
Evolution and genes
One of the central proposals in this philosophy is that the native abilities of humans
in cooperation, and the native human morality based on cooperation, are a result
of evolution (i.e. random genetic mutation, and natural selection, over generations).
From this, it follows that humans have extra genes for cooperation that other animals
do not have. Genes are transmitted from parents to offspring.
The current hypothesis is that narcissists and psychopaths are essentially lacking
in the genes for cooperation that most people have. Crudely speaking, this means
that social life for narcissists and psychopaths is competitive rather than cooperative.
Narcissists – competitive but social
The littleresearch that exists on the subject seems to indicate that narcissism
is at least partly inherited. There is anecdotal evidence to suggest that it can
be completely inherited, with no apparent environmental influence.
It is observed that there are full-blown, typical, text-book adult narcissists walking
around who did not have especially difficult childhoods, where there is nothing in
their history to explain such an extreme difference in personality.
These narcissists can have brothers and sisters who grew up in the same circumstances
yet are “normal”.
Narcissism can be seen to occur over and over again within a family tree.
Whenever the difficult early life experiences of narcissists are revealed, we can
see that these are a result of having narcissistic parents. We may assume that early
mistreatment of a narcissistic child at the hands of one or more narcissistic parents
will increase that child's lifelong tendencies towards competitive ego defenses:
in other words, could make the child into a more “extreme” narcissist. We may imagine
that such a child may also develop elements of either schizoid or borderline personality
Distinctive behaviour of narcissists
Narcissists, like everyone else, come in all shapes and sizes, yet “narcissism” stands
out as a distinct pattern of behaviour within all this variation. What are the classic
signs that make us identify someone as having this “profound” condition?
1) They have to be Number 1
This is perhaps the clearest and most pervasive indication that someone is a narcissist.
We can see that most of the time, this is someone’s primary objective during any
social encounter: they have to be on top, they have to be admired, they have to be
agreed with, they have to be in charge, they can’t tolerate competition, they have
great difficulty being Number 2. Typically, a narcissist finds it genuinely upsetting
to have to be Number 2 instead of Number 1. It’s a tragedy, all is lost. If life
is about winning or losing, then being Number 2 means losing.
2) They can’t take criticism or being disagreed with
If you are required to criticise the behaviour of a narcissist, then their normal
response is to ignore the criticism entirely, and to attack you instead, “by any
means necessary”. Victim-blaming, shutting you down, deflecting the conversation,
denial, talking rubbish to confuse you, and “what about [me!!! or, alternatively,
you!!!]” are routine ways to avoid addressing the issue. There is a word for all
this, and it refers to something that comes out of the back end of a bull.
Because life is a war, for a narcissist, then disagreement is typically felt as a
personal betrayal of allegiance.
3) “Jaw-dropping selfishness”; a lack of empathy and other moral emotions
More precisely, what narcissists lack is empathic concern: they are simply blind
to, and do not care about, other people’s needs. These are mostly invisible to them.
When they do appear to care about others, it’s typically strategic to their own
interests. Narcissists are famous for coldly abandoning people once they have served
their usefulness. They often seem to see others as cardboard cut-outs: disposable
objects just there to be used. There is a marked lack of long-term loyalty.
Less obviously, typically, they also lack accountability, fairness, impartiality,
sympathetic joy, and treating people on equal terms with themselves. They often
show a “take it or leave it” attitude towards genuine morality; or else it is misused
to bully and belittle people through self-righteous judging; or to put on the sham
of being a specially good person through “virtue signalling”: conspicuous displays
Yet we can see that narcissists in general know how to collaborate with others to
get things done. Joint thinking, and joint action, require highly developed skills
that are specific to humans.
We can conclude that narcissists possess all the sophisticated human cognitive skills
of cooperation, without the corresponding emotional adaptations. In other words,
they lack the moral emotions. These are basically defined as the other-regarding
emotions of concern, fairness and impartiality: the building blocks of the normal
human sense of right and wrong, which are necessary in order for warm, human, emotional
cooperation to function properly.
To a narcissist, morality is there to serve them and no-one else. So “fairness”
becomes “I want it all for myself”; “concern for others” is replaced almost entirely
by “concern for myself”; “impartiality” means “I get special treatment, and others
don’t matter”. People around them are held to impossibly strict standards of behaviour,
and any slight lapse of consideration towards them can make them distressed and angry.
However, they are apparently free to treat other people like dirt, and it’s magically
OK. Typically, hypocrisy and double standards are the order of the day, although
they often show a surprisingly strong sense of duty, in the sense of being perfectionist
about what they do.
4) They like to control and manipulate others
The majority of people achieve things by working with others: through cooperation
and friendship among equals. Narcissists tend to get what they want through control
and manipulation, often by playing “games”. A famous one is “triangulation” – getting
two people to compete for their affection, and then playing them off against each
other. Another is playing the victim. Typically, they enjoy controlling and manipulating
others for its own sake – as a way to feel powerful, to “win”. True to form, this
means that the other person “loses”. A narcissist could suck the life out of Tigger.
If you have genuinely the best will in the world, yet you are forced to walk on eggshells,
or change your behaviour, just to avoid upsetting someone for ridiculous reasons
– whether this is spoken or unspoken – this is a sign of possible controlling behaviour.
5) They need a punch bag
To a narcissist, suffering means losing; it is simply unfair, so somebody has to
pay. In order to even things out, they will intentionally make somebody else suffer.
To this end, normally, somebody in their life is nominated as a habitual “punch
bag”. This is often a child or spouse. This way, human beings are deliberately
damaged; decades may be lost; lives ruined. This bullying behaviour is a normal
defense mechanism of narcissists, and so it tends to be manifested most when they
are suffering or feeling stressed.
6) Underachievement and fear of failure
Not all, by any means, but a significant subset of narcissists can be seen to be
underachievers, to fail to live up to their talents. This may be for several reasons:
To a narcissist, a failure is seen as a humiliating defeat in the war of life, so
many will refuse to embark on anything at which they might not succeed. This can
lead to a negative attitude to life and a cynicism towards ambition.
Many narcissists cannot stand for somebody around them to succeed, especially when
they themselves are an underachiever, and consequently, they are willing to sabotage
the efforts of others, even when it hurts the narcissist’s own interests. Typically,
others might wonder if the narcissist is insane, when it becomes clear that they
do not care if they bring the roof down on everyone’s head.
Lack of a support system, through driving away allies, because of a competitive attitude,
can lead narcissists to underachieve in life.
7) Black and white: if you’re not with me, you’re against me
Everything that is not me is dirt.
Patient of Karl Abraham
It is usual for narcissists to take an extreme “them and us” attitude: anyone different
from them can be seen as worthless, defective or evil. This makes sense if we refer
to the war metaphor. It’s a bleak, unhappy view of the world.
Competition, cooperative identity, and shame
Shame is a moral emotion, but it is self-centred rather than other-centred. It is
part of having a “cooperative identity”. A cooperative identity has both a public
and a personal aspect. Publicly, it is defined as how cooperative you are evaluated
to be by the people who know you: your public reputation as a cooperative team player.
As well as a public, we also have a personal cooperative identity, which can be seen
as an internalised version of the public one. This is a standard which we feel we
must live up to, a judgement of our self-worth. If we fail to be cooperative with
others, we feel shame.
Narcissists are notoriously prone to shame and shame-based depression, and their
self-esteem is known to be fragile and dependent on the admiration of others. The
current hypothesis accounts for this situation through the idea of the cooperative
identity. Somebody whose approach to life is essentially competitive, yet who cares
what others think of them, must inevitably experience shame through feeling that
their internal cooperative identity is poor. For someone in this situation, their
self-esteem is unstable and fragile, and must depend instead on external validation.
Narcissists are also prone to 1) feelings of humiliation; 2) feeling that others
are attacking them. This is natural if one lives in a state of low-level war with
the world: everyone is a potential enemy. A personal slight, or even a failure to
be acknowledged, etc., is a victory by the enemy, and is naturally felt much more
keenly by a narcissist than by a cooperative person with healthy self-esteem who
tends to see others as a peaceful, helpful source of mutual support.
Not only do narcissists suffer from fundamentally low self-worth, through being social
but competitive in a cooperative world, but they are additionally vulnerable because
they cut themselves off from the support system that humans have evolved: each other.
A social being who lacks cooperative and moral feelings will naturally find life
harder than the rest of us.
Three types of narcissist
Each narcissist is different, just like everyone else, but we can observe various
distinct qualities which can vary according to the person: for example, how deceptive
someone is; how status-obsessed; how brittle; how paranoid; aggressive; malevolent;
able to laugh at oneself; empathic; charming; self-aware.
It has been proposed that there are three main categories of narcissists, which differ
according to the strategy they use to “win”.
Exhibitionist narcissists are often flashy, materialistic, and obsessed with status:
their own and others’. They are often great snobs. They also can be fun, gregarious
and engaging, like glamorous movie stars.
Covert narcissists are afraid to step into the limelight, perhaps because they have
been heavily repressed and bullied by a narcissistic parent. They “win” by attaching
themselves to some great person (often an exhibitionist narcissist) or a great cause
or organisation that they idealise as perfect, the best in the world etc., and will
draw their feeling of specialness from supporting and being associated with this
great idol. They can often be passive-aggressive and enablers of bad behaviour in
Toxic narcissists are the villains of the piece: destructive, anti-social bullies
whose main defense is attacking, criticising, belittling, controlling. They typically
lure people in through charm, which disappears within a few months, to be replaced
by a nightmare.
We also see that these various behaviours may be present in most narcissists, depending
on the situation they find themselves in, but, perhaps, one or other may predominate.
In general, there is a lot of less-than-straightforward behaviour displayed, in
that a narcissist may claim or appear to be doing one thing, but is actually doing
How to get the best out of a narcissist
Don’t play their games. Don’t jump through hoops to prove yourself. Narcissists
are, in general, like Gary Kasparov, the Grand Chess Master of the World, when it
comes to playing games. Every time, it’s checkmate for you: you lose every time.
So do not play. As soon as you engage with the drama, you’ve lost. Instead, keep
cool; play the adult; rise above it; be tactical; get yourself out of that situation
without falling into the “trap” that has been set. Narcissists don’t necessarily
care about consequences: all they care about is feeling like they are No. 1. The
intended object is to make you feel upset, frustrated, angry, small, and undermined;
to work you like their puppet: this is not what you want: refuse to let them make
you feel bad. These games can often be very hidden and subtle, masquerading as something
else that looks reasonable to a reasonable person; and so, not easy to spot.
Those emotional reactions are your puppet strings. Cut the strings.
Call a truce. If life is a war, for a narcissist, then it follows that they will
respond best to empathy, understanding, support, and patience. Use techniques from
Unconditional Love, such as helping, educating, and the compassionate outcome. However,
be aware that you’re dealing with a crocodile who will likely try to bite off your
hand if you let them, so maintain your boundaries and self-protection.
Benefits of narcissism
Narcissists can often be the best fun in the world, and can be driven, through their
need for self-esteem, or their grandiosity and entitlement, to achieve ambitiously
great things that everyone benefits from.
Hare describes people he calls psychopaths as “intraspecies predators who use charm,
manipulation, intimidation, sex and violence to control others and to satisfy their
own selfish needs. Lacking in conscience and empathy, they take what they want and
do as they please, violating social norms and expectations without guilt or remorse”.
“What is missing, in other words, are the very qualities that allow a human being
to live in social harmony.”
“Among the Hoods – my years with a teenage gang” – Harriet Sergeant
Compared with a narcissist, a psychopath potentially represents a new level of horror.
The current hypothesis is that two of the essential differences between a psychopath
and a narcissist are:
a narcissist cares about what others think of them, and is exquisitely sensitive
to the opinions of others; while a psychopath does not care about this;
a psychopath is extremely unemotional.
It has been found that psychopaths show abnormally low levels of fear or stress,
and have no conscience. They can, however, be motivated by reward, since they are
capable of feeling pleasure. Typically they enjoy dangerous life-threatening thrills
and other extreme forms of pleasure. They often enjoy cruelty for its own sake,
and these people would laugh while you die in flames.
To others, it can appear that a psychopath is not human: that the human parts of
them are missing, often because of extreme, pointless cruelty. However, they are
human beings, and decorum dictates that they are treated as such, for the sake of
the overall moral atmosphere of society. We do not wish to live in a society where
anyone is denied their human rights.
This check list is for information only, and any diagnosis should be carried out
by a professional clinician.
The dark triad is a subject in psychology that focuses on three personality traits:
narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy. Use of the term “dark” implies that
people possessing these traits have malevolent qualities.
Research on the dark triad is used in applied psychology, especially within the fields
of law enforcement, clinical psychology and business management. People scoring
high on these traits are more likely to commit crimes, cause social distress and
create severe problems for an organization (especially if they are in a leadership
position, see psychopathy in the workplace for more information).
All three dark triad traits are conceptually distinct although empirical evidence
shows them to be overlapping. They are associated with a callous-manipulative interpersonal
Narcissism is characterized by grandiosity, pride, egotism, and a lack of empathy.
Machiavellianism is characterized by manipulation and exploitation of others, a cynical
disregard for morality, and a focus on self-interest and deception.
Psychopathy is characterized by enduring antisocial behavior, impulsivity, selfishness,
callousness, and remorselessness.
Passive aggression is generally unconscious aggression, and being unconscious, the
person who does it is probably not aware of it.
From this, it follows that an effective remedy could be to bring the behaviour to
their attention. This can be difficult, precisely because the sly and nebulous nature
of the behaviour makes it difficult for a straightforward person to navigate, and
because it has a way of cleverly kicking your legs out from under you when you are
not expecting it, taking you by surprise.
However, if you can just calmly speak up, and draw attention to it, on multiple occasions,
this may reduce the behaviour over time. For example, you can calmly say, directly,
like an adult: “Hold up right there. Run that one by me again. You said – [x,
y ridiculousness]. What did you mean by that?” and don't let go until you achieve
some kind of result.
One of the commonest forms of passive aggression is, very quietly
and secretly, to push someone’s buttons and enrage them. The benefit of this is
that the victim looks like a terrible person for seemingly getting angry over nothing.
Alternatively, the victim is just hot and bothered, and this counts as a passive
If you find that you are the one being passively aggressive, then the eventual solution
must be to examine your emotions and bring the subconscious anger or aggression into
Passive aggression can be seen as an immature (i.e. unconscious, maladaptive) ego
defense, and when these are brought into consciousness, then their effectiveness,
and necessity, can be reduced or eliminated.
A passive aggressive person may well have been “kept down” and prevented from expressing
their real self, through being abused or controlled by the people around them; or
there may be some other reason, for example: religious, cultural, or political norms,
why they are not allowed to be themselves. They may have been taught to get what
they want through bullying and manipulation, while not being allowed to express themselves
openly. They may be left with a lot of anger while feeling prevented from either
seeing it or expressing it. Since they do not know about it consciously, it controls
their behaviour without their understanding.
It may sometimes be linked to “learned helplessness”, where a person learns over
time that no matter what they do, it has no effect, and so, they are not able to
exercise legitimate power through legitimate means.
A close relative of passive aggression is passive controlling; watch out for this
too. Both are a stock in trade of narcissists.
Straightforward and polite
The opposite of behaving passive-aggressively is to be straightforward and polite.
– in a personal context (i.e. outside of an official legal framework).
Controlling – forcing or manipulating someone in a certain direction, whether obviously
or not – would seem to go together with “competition”, if only because it is a way
of getting them to do something that does not involve straightforward cooperation
as equals. It is also dominant: a competitive way to feel powerful; a way to tip
the relative balance of natural selection in the controller's favour, just for the
sake of it. Very often it is also destructive, combining to make destructive power
This also comes under the category of “destructive power and control”.
The normal pattern seems to be:
maximum havoc and destruction, with
It is very much like the pleasure a child will get when they stir up an ants’ nest
with a stick, and then enjoy watching the ants all scurrying around in anxiety and
confusion, desperately trying to fix the situation.
This trouble-causing is generally done in secret, or it may be done under the guise
of something else which is made to look “reasonable” by a malicious, manipulative
charmer or authority figure.
If someone is just hanging on by their fingertips, there are plenty of people, in
all walks of life, who will deliberately come along and stamp on those fingers. Don't
think they wouldn't. These finger-stampers could easily be among your family or