There’s Confidence . . . . . . . . and then there’s Narcissism: part II | The Edge

We all know people who demonstrate paradoxical narcissistic behaviour: self-aggrandizing and self-absorbed, yet easily threatened and overly sensitive to feedback from others. Emotionally volatile. Extroverted and often the centre of attention. Often outwardly charming and socially facile while simultaneously insensitive to others when there is the need for true empathy and compassion.

Self-confidence is an overriding theme when one looks to determine the personality traits of top sales professionals. However, there’s self-confidence and there’s over-confidence. The key personality traits of top business-to-business salespeople (The Personality Traits of Top Salespeople « The Edge), including achievement orientation combined with a lack of self-consciousness, are considered to play a critical role in determining success. The danger lies in the mis-interpretation of these traits and consequent behaviour. The behaviour associated with over-confidence may be experienced by the client as that associated with narcissism, especially when things are not always going the way of the sales professional. Let’s investigate;

Morf and Rhodewalt (in their Psychological Inquiry article, Unraveling the Paradoxes of Narcissism: A Dynamic Self-Regulatory Processing Model) describe narcissism as a personality process in terms of motivated self-construction; in that the narcissist’s desired self is purposefully built and regulated to be played out in the social arena. They argue that underlying narcissistic self-regulation is a grandiose, yet vulnerable self-concept. This fragility drives narcissists to seek continuous external self-affirmation. Yet, because narcissists are characteristically insensitive to others, and often take an adversarial view of others, their self-construction attempts often don’t achieve the intended result. Thus, although narcissistic strategic efforts generally help maintain self-esteem and affect short-term, they negatively influence their inter-personal relationships, ultimately prevent the positive feedback that they seek and in the long run ironically undermine the self they are trying to build. Narcissists are quick to perceive (or even impose) self-esteem implications in situations that leave room for it and then engage in characteristic self-regulatory strategies to maintain self-worth.

More formally, narcissism is defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (4th ed. [DSM–IV]; American Psychiatric Association, 1994) as a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, self-focus, and self-importance. According to the DSM–IV, narcissists are preoccupied with dreams of success, power, beauty, and brilliance. They live on an interpersonal stage with exhibitionist behaviour and demands for attention and admiration but respond to threats to self-esteem with feelings of rage, defiance, shame, and humiliation. In addition, they display a sense of entitlement and the expectation of special treatment. They are unwilling to reciprocate the favours of others and are un-empathetic and interpersonally exploitative. In addition, they have relationships that oscillate between idealization and devaluation.

Morf and Rhodewaly suggest that ultimately, the grandiose self is an impossible goal, as narcissists encounter the reality of failures and social dis-confirmations from others who do not always share narcissists’ high opinion of themselves, appreciate their lack of tact or empathy, their feelings of entitlement and their exploitative, manipulative and arrogant behaviours. In addition, even when narcissists manage to orchestrate confirmations, this often occurs by their heavy-handed coercion of others to bring about the desired responses, or by distortions of those responses that are not adequately self-aggrandizing.

This may be the ultimate “narcissistic paradox”: as they yearn and reach for self-affirmation, they destroy the very relationships on which they are dependent.

Based on narcissists’ sense of entitlement and lack of concern for others, one would expect that they would engage in efforts to maintain a positive self-image at all cost, even if this came at the expense of the other or the relationship. It has been found that in an effort to restore self-esteem, threatened (relative to non threatened) narcissists re-acted by reporting significantly more negative views of the other’s personality. Importantly, they do this even if they expected to have to provide these evaluations in a face-to-face interaction. This finding is consistent with the notion that narcissists exploit and use others to increase their self-worth, with little regard for others’ feelings or the interpersonal conflict the narcissists may be creating.

Morf and Rhodewalt have investigated other potential interpersonal strategies employed by narcissists in the service of self-esteem maintenance. One line of research explored which self-presentational tactics narcissists would use if the goal was to get someone to like them during a conversation. They found that narcissists had a pervasive preference for self-aggrandizing statements, rather than self-effacement or social approval-seeking. For example, they chose to use statements, such as “people look up to me, because I always know the right thing to do”; rather than, “sometimes I get embarrassed, when I make a mistake.” It appears that when narcissists have to choose between being liked or admired, they go for admiration. The latter point was also clearly captured in a study by showing that narcissism was associated with high power and low intimacy strivings. The content of narcissists’ personal strivings indicated that they were not particularly interested in establishing and maintaining warm interpersonal relations, but that they were interested in having impact on and influence over others.

The puzzling question is that if narcissists seek attention and admiration from others as their central goal as suggested, then one would expect them to present themselves in ways that earn maximal social approval. They should be able to use their social environment more strategically. They should be able to pursue respect in one situation, yet social approval in others, depending on what is most appropriate and what secures them the most benefit. It appears they do not seem to make these distinctions. So when presented with the management of a situation that requires the distinction between approval seeking or strategic impression, which requires modesty, the narcissist present the grandiose self regardless, because they would be more concerned with self-construction than with social approval, particularly when presented with negative feedback.

According to the research by Morf and Rhodewalt, these findings indicate that narcissists are not particularly concerned with social approval but rather are invested in constructing and conveying a grandiose self. They are less sensitive to the requirements of the social situation and probably misunderstand how they are perceived. In a sense, although they appear to need the social environment to acknowledge their self-presentational efforts, their orientation is almost pseudo-social, because there is no genuine concern with what the audience really thinks. This implies that narcissists may engage in social interaction not primarily to manage strategically the impressions they convey to others, but rather to deceive the self into seeing its own grandiosity.

Furthermore, narcissists engage in self-handicapping behaviour; impediments erected by the individual prior to performance, when the individual lacks confidence regarding the likely outcome. These handicaps allow for discounting of subsequent failure and potential augmentation of success. Studies point to the primary motivation for this being to protect one’s public image or to regulate self-esteem.

Reference: Unraveling the Paradoxes of Narcissism: A Dynamic Self-Regulatory Processing Model by Carolyn C. Morf (Behavioral Science Research Branch National Institute of Mental Health) and Frederick Rhodewalt (Department of Psychology University of Utah), Psychological Inquiry 2001, Vol. 12, No. 4, 177–196

4 thoughts on “There’s Confidence . . . . . . . . and then there’s Narcissism: part II | The Edge

  1. I find this very interesting and a little frightening. Having lived with a narcissist for 8 years, without realising that they were a ‘classic’ narcissist, almost destroyed me. Hindsight and all that. Even if one is able to identify another person’s mental disorder, I believe there are many instances where no matter what you understand, the best thing you can do is get away from such people as quickly as possible.


    1. In a professional context, it is very difficult to, as you say, “get away from such people as quickly as possible”. My experience has been to accept people with these tendencies, rather than avoid them. Dropping my own ego before any interaction, not needing to be right, not making them wrong, are techniques that I use to engage and increase my self-awareness without having to “tip-toe” around issues. Any interaction is with a purpose in mind and communicated clearly up front. I have also experienced that coming from genuine curiosity and structuring communication around enquiry promotes favorable outcomes. I ask more questions than offering opinion. This works in a professional context, for me. What is the possibility of your trying this approach should you have to interact with someone with narcissistic tendencies?


  2. Great article. I like the idea of E.A.R. On a whole I think that is a great way to rspnoed in order to de-escalate a situation when someone is angry. Sadly, we often do rspnoed to angry people with more anger. Our society desperately needs to start taking more responsibility in how we treat each other.However, I feel a GREAT NEED to point out the danger in using empathy with a narcissist. Empathizing with a narcissist can easily be misconstrued as taking away their uniqueness or suggesting something is wrong with them. It can be as great a narcissistic injury as blatantly putting them down. To a narcissist their pain is greater than anyone else’s. To suggest that you understand them while they are in distress can be dangerous. It is one thing for them to say they are going through a difficult time, it is something else altogether for someone else to acknowledge this. That would be the double standard often seen in that personality disorder. It is confusing to comprehend how anyone could receive such a supportive gesture and react with outright rage and contempt. But this often happens with abusive personalities. Words of kindness are easily twisted in ways that are virtually incomprehensible to others. It is no surprise that the feeling that one can never do the right thing is a common mantra for individuals of narcissistic abuse. I know this because I have experienced this personality disorder in the clinical setting as a professional therapist as well as personally as a survivor of domestic violence/abuse via a narcissist. Narcissism is no doubt a very difficult disorder to understand as well as to attempt to treat. But there’s a reason they say it’s untreatable. What I mentioned above is part of that reason. However, I applaud your efforts to stop domestic violence and to remind everyone that we all play a role in shaping our culture. If we continue to turn a blind eye to abusive behavior in others we are doing a great injustice to our society. I believe that we are creating the very problems that ail us by not speaking up and by leaving that to the victims who are often too beat down to do anything about it in a safe manner. Thanks for working to make a difference.


    1. Thanks for your comments, Alison. In a personal context you make some very strong points. The awareness of the fickle self esteem associated with narcissism is a good foundation for a created response as opposed to being a victim. In a business context narcissism is often tolerated under the disguise of high achiever performance. The impact on peers is often the same and not discussable. It is the responsibility of business leadership to weigh up the merits of the contribution of the narcissist (which is most often significant) against team collaboration in order to achieve sustainable outcomes. Regards Paul


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