If you’re looking for insight into what makes narcissists tick, searching for some way of understanding their behavior, start with how they view themselves in relation to others.
There’s been a great deal of interest in narcissism and especially in Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), and quite a bit of information is available, including my own articles:
Perhaps there’s been so much interest in these topics because the sociocultural climate of our time has fostered so much of this particular brand of character disturbance. Perhaps it’s also due to the fact that anyone who’s had to deal with a narcissist knows all too well the kinds of problems these egotistic individuals can bring into relationships. So folks everywhere are looking for answers to the questions of just what makes these types of characters tick, what made them the way they are, and how a person can deal with them (short of merely steering clear of them, which is sometimes simply not possible) in a way that minimizes one’s inevitable exasperation and provides a reasonable degree of protection against victimization.
Whether they be of the “vulnerable” or “grandiose” type (see “Two Types of Narcissism and How to Tell the Difference”), how narcissistic individuals regard themselves is a big problem. Seeing themselves as “special,” vulnerable narcissists frequently seek or demand attention and adulation. Vulnerable narcissists want to be idolized and fawned over as a way to assuage any insecurities they have. On the other hand, grandiose narcissists are already convinced of their own greatness. So they don’t particularly care what anyone else thinks about them, and they neither need nor solicit anyone else’s approval or validation to feel good about themselves. They’re also fairly immune to criticism and rarely admit mistakes even when they know they’re in the wrong. In their minds, they believe they know better simply because they are better. But while the inflated manner in which narcissists regard themselves is problem enough, it’s how they tend to regard other people that causes the bigger difficulties when it comes to interpersonal relations.
Narcissists don’t just hold themselves in pathologically high regard. They tend to hold others in relative disdain. Their egotism goes far beyond really liking who they are and extends to regarding themselves and their ways of seeing and doing things as clearly “superior” to others. While they’re very aware of differences in people and are aware of attributes like conscientiousness, empathy and compassion, they hold folks who possess these traits in low regard. They see such qualities as signs of weakness and, consequently, of inferiority. Regarding themselves “above” common folks, it’s not uncommon for narcissists to exempt themselves from the rules by which most of us feel obliged to play. This causes big problems in relationships to be sure. But it’s what naturally flows from their sense of superiority that causes the biggest problems — namely, a sense of entitlement.
In Character Disturbance and In Sheep’s Clothing, I make an analogy to the real estate industry axiom that only three things really matter: location, location, and location. When it comes to narcissistic characters (including the aggressive variants of these characters), only three things ever matter to them: position, position, and position. The inferior position is never an option. And equality of position holds no interest for them. Only the superior position will do. And unlike their aggressive counterparts who are willing to do whatever it takes to assert that position, narcissists already believe themselves superior, so they also feel entitled to take advantage of those whom they regard as inherently beneath them. The more malignant and empathy-devoid narcissists — some of whom have been commonly called sociopathic or psychopathic — have such disdain for others, often holding those they see as inferior in utter contempt, that they feel entitled to prey on them. Such malignant narcissists use and abuse people with no compunction or remorse. Most of us have stepped on an ant, and some of us are so sensitive that we even regret the act. But most of us don’t loose sleep over such an action because, after all, there are millions of ants, and it’s not particularly pathological to regard them not only as a lower life form but also as often little more than a nuisance. Sometimes we douse them and their homes with sprays and powders without giving our actions a second thought. And that’s the way it is with some narcissists and their dealings with people they regard as inferior and hold in disdain. If they can manipulate, take advantage of, or otherwise victimize someone they see as too trusting, too held back by their own scruples, too sensitive, or too weak in character to go toe-to-toe with them, then it’s simply a matter of them stepping on the inferior and once again affirming their own superiority in the process.
Narcissists with some empathy capacity generally have such shallow emotions that most of the time they simply can’t identify with or hold in any positive regard those who feel deeply. They might play nice when it serves them well to do so, but it’s hard for them to truly care. The most malignantly narcissistic individuals have such huge empathy deficits that they’re capable of the most heinous predatory behavior. Narcissists are capable of feigning all kinds of concern they don’t really have to create a favorable albeit false impression of themselves. Because they’re acutely aware of the various needs and vulnerabilities of others, by tending to those things in a calculated way, they’re able to seduce those whom they want to exploit in some way. This disturbing knack some narcissists have for seduction as a predatory tactic will be the subject of a follow-up article.
All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .on and was last reviewed or updated by