A narcissist can be recognised as someone who only cares about themselves and will
attempt to put others down. They tend to relate to others in a competitive way of
destructive power and control rather than cooperation and tolerance.
Competition and cooperation
Observe this diagram, which shows the two dimensions of social life: competition
and cooperation, and some of the ways in which these play out for human beings. 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). See also: narcissism and the moral compass
Narcissists prefer fairness, because it involves “me first” as well as “you first”
and at least equates self and other. For narcissists, “me second” is unlikely unless
for strategic purposes.
It is common for narcissists to blame others instead of taking responsibility for
their actions, and to lie.
Lack of conscience:
If, psychologically, the you-concerns and we-concerns are missing, then it follows
that there is no sense of responsibility to behave kindly and cooperatively, and
hence, no guilt at unkindness and non-cooperation.
“we > me” includes moral self-governance on behalf of the group. If “we > me” is
reduced or missing then moral self-governance is lacking.
Fairness and helping in response to need. Helping requires self-sacrifice and putting
“we > me” includes honesty, accountability and commitment.
Those emotional reactions are your puppet strings. Cut the strings.
Call a truce. Step outside their paradigm of “everything’s a fight”. If you try
to “defeat” them on their own terms, you can never “win”, since this is their domain
and home territory, it’s all they know, and they are the experts here. Instead,
just don’t fight: try something else. If life is a war, for a narcissist, then it
follows that they can respond well to empathy (understanding of needs and emotions),
support, and patience. Use techniques from Unconditional Love, such as helping,
educating, and the compassionate outcome. The ideal is, perhaps, to compassionately
take control of the situation, especially when it appears that one is dealing with
an overgrown child. However, be aware that many narcissists are a crocodile who
will likely try to bite off your hand if you let them, so maintain your boundaries
Benefits of narcissism
Narcissists can often be the best fun in the world, adding colour and excitement
to a scene.
They can be driven to achieve ambitiously great things that everyone benefits from,
through their grandiosity and entitlement, or their need for self-esteem.
M E Thomas – “Confessions of a Sociopath” – quite possibly one of the best philosophy
books ever written: a good-natured and affectionate hymn to the competitive side
of human nature that all of us have.
Dr Elinor Greenberg – “Borderline, Narcissistic, and Schizoid Adaptations – the pursuit
of love, admiration, and safety” – quite possibly one of the best books of everyday
psychology ever written, easily understandable by lay people.
Genetic and pseudo-narcissists – a hypothesis
Quite possibly, some narcissists are born, some are made, and some are both.
It is easy to see how a non-genetically-narcissistic child can be brought up to copy
and react to the ways of an egotistical parent who does not care about their needs;
how such a person may become bold, daring, and devil-may-care (through having to
rely on themselves in uncertain circumstances); like a covert narcissist, relegated
to the shadows while they adore some shining light, while lashing out passive-aggressively;
or like a malevolent narcissist, full of spite and anger and with controlling ways.
The way to tell the difference is in the genetically moral aspects of someone’s personality,
i.e. in an adapted narcissist, the “jaw-dropping selfishness” is absent, and the
person generally cares about people’s needs when it is normally appropriate.
Some genetic narcissists may have the co-adaptation of schizoid (may employ distancing
techniques as an ego defense) or borderline (may seek love and affection as an ego
A spectrum with dimensions
It may well be that narcissism exists on a spectrum from mild to severe, and in addition,
there are various qualities in narcissism that may be turned up or down according
to the individual. These could include: callousness, cruelty in response to need,
controlling behaviour, passive aggression, “superstar personality”, status anxiety,
lack or otherwise of a moral compass, lack of a conscience, lack of caring, etc.
Narcissism and the moral compass / ethics
Consider the diagram at the top of this page, showing the two dimensions of social
life: competition/power and cooperation/affiliation. Together, the four quadrants
may be said to make up the “moral compass”. The two quadrants on the right – fairness,
helping and responsibility to others – may be said to constitute ethics.
Narcissists are generally unwilling to put others before themselves, and therefore
they tend to lack the motivation for helping in response to need.
[Joel Bakan, author of The Corporation: the Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power]
posits that corporations behave with all the classic signs of sociopathy: They are
inherently amoral, they elevate their own interests above all others’, and they disregard
moral and sometimes legal limits on their behavior in pursuit of their own advancement.
Organizations of this type would thrive under the leadership of people who have
the same traits: sociopaths.
ME Thomas – “Confessions of a Sociopath”
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.
Narcissism – a hypothesis
The current hypothesis is that narcissists are essentially lacking in the genes for
cooperation that most people have. Crudely speaking, this means that social life
for narcissists is competitive and self-interested rather than cooperative. Narcissists
appear to lack empathic concern for others’ needs; other-benefiting morality; and
a conscience towards the individuals they hurt. This might sound like the description
of someone terrible, but a narcissist is still a flesh and blood person like you
or me, and he or she will bleed if you prick them, so they have to be managed with
the maximum benefit and least harm available to them. A narcissist will likely feel
a warm positive regard towards you if you help them.
Evidence for heritability of narcissism
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 other classical personality adaptations such as
borderline (clingy) or schizoid. (overly independent).
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 do not care about
other people’s needs. These seem to be invisible to narcissists, except when they
want to prey on someone’s weakness. 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.
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”. For many narcissists, ethics means simply “anything against me is
bad”, “anything for me is good”. 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.
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 to them personally,
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.
It is common for a narcissistic parent to withhold food, affection, or other necessaries
from his or her child, as a form of destructive power and control.
6) Provoking and ‘gaslighting’
It is a normal narcissistic mode of operation to intentionally, continually provoke
someone until the narcissist gets a reaction (also can be called ‘gaslighting’) which
is then used as further ammunition against the victim.
7) 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:
They fear losing. To a narcissist, 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.
8) 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, where my enemy is my rubbish. It’s a bleak, unhappy view of
It is common for certain narcissists to use and abuse tit-for-tat reciprocity to
control the situation to their destructive advantage: you did “this” therefore you’ve
got do to “that” or you’re now not allowed to do “this”; I have to suffer “this”
therefore I’ve earned the right always to do “that”. This appeals, falsely, to humans’
natural sense that reciprocity is good (“fairness in exchanges”).
Children of narcissistic parents therefore often believe, markedly, that goodwill
has to be earned, and that bad events are probably deserved.
From a narcissist, it tends to be that love is conditional and has to be earned.
If you are dependent on a narcissist in your life, then you may well find that life
is bleak and depressing.
Insecurity, depression, mood swings
controlling others is how I validate my own sense of self-worth.
ME Thomas – “Confessions of a Sociopath”
Some narcissists are prone to mood swings and feelings of insecurity and depression,
and their self-esteem is fragile and dependent on the admiration of others.
The current hypothesis is that narcissists are somewhat lacking in a conscience,
along with lacking in the genes for cooperation. This has two consequences: 1) the
conscience is not available as a source of self-esteem; 2) some narcissists are therefore
entirely dependent on external validation for their self-esteem.
Narcissists are also prone to feelings of humiliation and 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, especially those one has wronged. 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 innately healthy
self-esteem who tends to see others as a peaceful source of mutual support.
Narcissists are additionally vulnerable because through their competitive attitude,
they cut themselves off from the normal support system that humans have evolved:
allies; friends; each other. A social being who lacks cooperative and moral feelings
will naturally find life harder than the rest of us, because they may have a hard
time getting on well with people in the long term. In the world of the narcissist,
negative consequences lurk around every corner, and we assume that this is not a
nice place to be.
If it is true that narcissism is genetically acquired, then often, a narcissist will
have one or more narcissist parents, and the family environment may have been negatively
affected by narcissistic abuse. This may be a further cause of the shame in some
The fact that narcissists are famous for attempting to bolster their self-esteem
by trying to foster a great public image fits with the hypothesis of a defective
cooperative identity. It is also an example of the manipulativeness that narcissists
are famous for.
This external reputation comes under the general category of ego attachments: external
features of our lives which we use to make ourselves feel bigger and more powerful
Three types of narcissist
Each narcissist is different, just like everyone else, but we can observe various
distinct qualities that 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; charming; self-aware; empathically concerned about the
needs of others.
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 could summarise their interpersonal skills towards those others
who depend on them as “I’m in charge, there’s nothing you can do about it, and I’m
going to make your life hell.” Apparently, there are some toxic narcissists who
possess, biologically, zero empathy (concern for others), which causes them to be
mistaken for psychopaths.
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. The only rule of the
game is that you lose. 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; don’t give
away your power; 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.
Grey rock: try to let go of the negative emotional response that a narcissist will
often try and provoke in you. See also: ego defenses