What Is Vindictive Narcissism And How Can You Cope?

What Is Vindictive Narcissism And How Can You Cope?

The vindictive character. The revenge plan. The lack of remorse and empathy. This is how narcissistic personality disorder is often and inaccurately portrayed in pop culture.

A highly stigmatized and misunderstood condition, narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is never a personal choice.

Instead, it’s a complex mental health condition that goes beyond a few stereotypical behaviors or attitudes.

Can a person with NPD be vindictive? Yes. However, vindictiveness isn’t an official symptom of the disorder, nor is it exclusive of people living with mental health conditions.

Only a mental health professional can accurately diagnose narcissistic personality.

NPD affects around 5.3% percent of the U.S. population. It’s more common in males.

A grandiose sense of self, an intense craving for admiration and recognition, and fantasies of unlimited success are just three of nine narcissistic traits.

As with many other mental health conditions, not everyone experiences the same symptoms of NPD or with the same intensity. In this sense, narcissistic personality can be thought of as a spectrum.

In fact, everyone can act out grandiosity and other aspects of narcissism in certain situations. This doesn’t mean they live with the disorder.

The difference between narcissism as a personality trait and NPD as a mental health condition is how persistently it shows over time and across all situations.

“We all have exaggerated when telling a story out of excitement,” explains Nicholas Hardy, a psychotherapist in Texas. “But someone who is narcissistic constantly exaggerates their stories and discusses their achievements with an aura of overinflated importance — to the point that they may become defensive when questioned or when someone challenges their idea of superiority.”

In some cases, someone may present with more symptoms of narcissistic personality or experience them in a more intense way.

When this is the case, some experts call it “extreme narcissism.”

NPD is not a personal decision. Most people with the condition aren’t even aware of their symptoms and how they may affect their relationships. They may, however, experience these symptoms intensely and pervasively.

Many experts refer to extreme narcissism as when NPD symptoms become so persistent and intense that they may begin to have an even greater impact on the self and relationships.

“There are always varying levels of a disorder,” Hardy says. While there may not be a clinical distinction, Hardy explains everyone experiences narcissistic personality differently.

“In many ways, they are incapable of seeing outside their own false beliefs and have an ‘at all costs’ mentality,” Hardy adds. “Even when it’s not about them, they often create scenarios that redirect others’ attention.”

There’s also a difference between overt and covert narcissism: Some people with NPD might act very dominantly and with a sense of superiority (overt narcissism), while others may have the same inner beliefs but act these out in more subtle ways (covert narcissism).

In general, someone who is vindictive might tend to hold grudges and “get back at you” when they feel you’ve wronged them in some way.

Everyone can act in vindictive ways in some situations, and not everyone who does lives with a personality disorder. In the same way, not everyone with narcissistic personality acts vindictively.

Vindictive narcissism isn’t a formal diagnosis. “Vindictive” refers more to how someone with NPD may act in some situations.

A vindictive behavior in someone with NPD might be an extreme manifestation of their symptoms. It’s usually a result of what some experts call narcissistic rage.

“Often, this individual will personalize any experience that brings into question their own false beliefs,” Hardy explains. “They view differences as personal attacks and respond in ways that attempt to terrorize whoever is responsible.”

In other words, someone with vindictive narcissism may tend to feel extremely and permanently hurt by someone else’s rejection, boundaries, or contradictory behavior. In turn, they may react intensely and with a need to counteract this perceived opponent.

“That opponent is rarely a [true] opponent, but instead how the narcissist has configured them in their minds,” Hardy says.

Vindictive behavior might look different in every case. Sometimes, it might be about sabotaging another person. In other instances, it might be saying something hurtful or using something they know against the person.

The trigger for this vindictive behavior might also be different in every scenario.

Someone with NPD might react with rage after someone doesn’t give them the attention they seek, if another person gets the promotion they think they deserve, or when someone contradicts them in something they’re saying.

Or, says Hardy, “If any argument starts, they may bring up past secrets and use them against you in ways that are hurtful.”

Is everyone who does you wrong or says hurtful things during an argument a “narcissist”? Absolutely not.

As with other mental health conditions, there’s a lot more involved. Only a mental health professional can make an accurate diagnosis.

The causes of NPD, in general, aren’t well understood or established.

Researchers think several factors could play a role, including:

  • traumatic events
  • abandonment
  • excessive criticism from a loved one
  • abuse
  • discrimination
  • excessive pampering
  • a family history of NPD or other personality disorders
  • growing up in an individualistic culture

“Some consider narcissism to be a pathological state, along with other personality disorders, such as antisocial personality disorder and borderline psychopathy,” explains Chivonne Henry, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Miami Gardens, Florida.

In other words, Henry says, they may have low empathy for others. As a result, they can’t understand or relate to other people’s pain or how they cause it.

When someone doesn’t see a direct link between their behaviors and how other people feel, or don’t gauge those behaviors’ repercussions, they might tend to act in more vindictive ways when they feel hurt.

NPD is a mental health condition with complex cognitive and behavioral processes. It affects how you see yourself, others, and the world in general.

Someone with NPD might interpret situations in a different way and perceive them as challenging or threatening to their integrity, even when they’re not.

Underneath an apparent sense of superiority, there might also be an exaggerated need to feel approved and loved, and a vulnerable self-esteem.

In this sense, some people with NPD might experience any hint of rejection as a trigger for vindictive behavior.

These triggers could be:

  • being critiqued at work, even if constructively
  • having their opinion or experiences challenged
  • someone else getting all the attention in a given situation
  • not getting a promotion, even if they just started working at the place
  • someone not following their advice or instructions
  • a loved one developing another important relationship
  • having their boss praise someone else’s work

These actions might not be directed at the person with NPD. For example, a boss praising a co-worker doesn’t imply they think anyone else’s work is not as good.

But for someone with the disorder, this instance can be perceived as a direct threat or challenge to their own worth. This might lead them to feel the need to sabotage that co-worker who’s getting attention, for example.

Being in a relationship with someone with NPD can be challenging. It might be particularly difficult if they act in a vindictive way.

Whether they’re a friend, a co-worker, a family member, or a significant other, you might want to do a few things to protect yourself emotionally — and, occasionally, physically.

Set boundaries

“The most important way to protect yourself while in a relationship with someone who is narcissistic is to establish firm boundaries,” Hardy says. “In establishing these boundaries, it is important to firmly establish your ‘why’ and ground yourself in what you know to be true based on your values and beliefs.”

Someone with the disorder may try to challenge these boundaries or try to convince you to adjust them. Stand firm.

Any compromise you make will most likely benefit them, and that, according to Hardy, is an unhealthy compromise.

Also, consider keeping those boundaries, even when they’re “family.”

Admittedly, it can be really challenging for some people to set these kinds of boundaries, especially if the person with NPD is a close family member.

“When the vindictive narcissist is a family member, we often feel an inherent obligation to remain committed to the relationship based on pre-established norms,” Hardy explains. “I often hear comments such as ‘But that’s my mom’ or ‘We always go over there during Thanksgiving.’”

But it doesn’t matter if that relationship is predetermined by genetics.

“When unsafe, these customary norms lead to further damage and perpetuate unhealthy cycles,” Hardy says.

That’s why it’s even more important that you set the terms of engagement with this person based on your own needs and safety.

Vocalize your terms or boundaries

When you set your own terms, the person with NPD has a chance to understand them and either accept them or walk away.

This is a way of playing fair and letting them know what you will or will not tolerate.

If they can’t accept your boundaries — or repeatedly challenge or combat them, especially in vindictive ways — then you can take steps to further protect yourself.

“Stand up for yourself and be assertive,” Henry says. “Do not let their disrespect of you go unchallenged. If they say hateful and disrespectful things to you, and then you do not have anything to say… you are validating their position.”

Hardy agrees: “I would recommend moving towards accepting what the relationship is not, and exploring other avenues to get similar needs met.”

And sometimes, that might mean walking away from the relationship, especially if they’re constantly acting in a way that hurts or harms you.

Don’t second-guess yourself

In some relationships with people with NPD, you might second-guess or overly question yourself. This may be because some people with narcissistic personalities may use manipulation tactics and games.

“When this occurs, there is also a tendency to lose your ‘voice’ in the relationship and always rely on their ‘better’ judgment,” Hardy says. “This has devastating repercussions on one’s confidence and self-esteem.”

Try not to internalize

When a person is acting vindictively, they might say things that seek to define you in a certain way. “You’re so weak” or “You’re always imagining stuff,” for example.

Consider reminding yourself that they’re hurt and perhaps trying to hurt you, too, due to how they inaccurately perceive a situation as threatening.

It’s important that you don’t internalize these hurtful comments or assume responsibility for their behavior.

How they act is never your fault — no matter what they might say to shift the blame.

Remember, they have a condition that might distort the way they interpret your behavior or any given situation.

Shelter from their anger

This one can be quite challenging, especially if they say something hurtful toward you. But it’s important.

“Limit attempts to ‘prove them wrong’ during fits of anger,” Hardy says.

You might feel what they’re saying is incorrect. It might be so. But someone with NPD may not ever admit to it. Trying to convince them could simply result in an escalation of the conflict.

In addition, your own anger won’t serve any useful purpose.

If they say something hurtful or mean to you, don’t respond with an insult or hurtful statement back at them, Henry says.

“Sometimes the only appropriate response is to quietly remove yourself from the situation and not engage in a response,” she adds.

Develop a safety plan

As in any situation where violence may arise, having a safety plan in place is highly advisable.

“A vindictive narcissist is not always physically violent,” Hardy says. “Although they may have exploitative behavior or extreme responses to certain experiences, this does not always mean they will physically assault you.”

However, if they do harm you — or threaten to — it might be a good idea to develop a plan to leave the relationship safely.

“None of us has the right to carry out violence or be violent with someone else,” Hardy says.

If you’re unsure of how to leave your relationship, reach out to the National Domestic Violence Hotline by calling 800-799-SAFE, or chat with them online.

Consider asking for help

It’s natural to feel confused about leaving a relationship with what some people might call “a vindictive narcissist.” For you, they’re a friend or a loved one.

It’s OK, however, to seek help and emotional support to cope with what is going on in your relationships.

Consider talking with other friends and family members about what you’re going through.

You might also want to consider seeking the support of a mental health professional yourself.

“Being in a relationship with someone who is narcissistic can be extremely challenging and difficult,” Hardy says. “Without clear and consistent boundaries, the psychological impact can be detrimental to your long-term social and emotional health.”

A counselor, therapist, or other mental healthcare professional can help you develop practical tips to cope with your emotions and the relationship.

“Even after a relationship ends, the residual effects can have long-standing ramifications,” Hardy says.

This is why you might also want to seek support after and if you decide to leave.

Suggest they seek help

Therapy does have the potential to help someone with NPD change how they relate to others and themselves.

It can also help lessen their chances of developing other mental health conditions, including:

  • anxiety disorder
  • depression
  • substance use disorder

Be prepared to accept if they don’t follow your suggestion, though.

Research indicates that people with NPD might have a difficult time becoming aware of their behaviors or seeking help. Some don’t stay in therapy long enough to lead to long-term changes, too.

This is why it’s a good idea to focus on supporting your own mental health.

Being in a relationship with someone with NPD can be challenging. It can be even more difficult if they have an extreme — or vindictive — tendency.

Even when this is the case, though, it’s never a personal choice they make. They live with a mental health condition that may distort the way they interpret the world and themselves.

This doesn’t mean you have to accept behaviors that may hurt or harm you. Setting firm boundaries, avoiding escalation, and walking away from the relationship might be steps to consider.

What happens when a narcissist loses? Expect "rage" and "terror," psychologists warn

By Matthew Rozsa
Published October 28, 2020 7:00PM (EDT)

President Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)


There is agreement among psychologists — and, for that matter, anyone who has been abused by narcissistic personalities — that President Donald Trump fits the psychological profile of a narcissist. What does that mean for the upcoming election, particularly if Trump loses, as polls suggest? Psychologists tell Salon that pathological narcissists who do not get their way tend to react abusively — which could lead to one of several devastating political scenarios for the nation in the election's aftermath.

"One does not have to diagnose to recognize pathological or toxic narcissism," Dr. Bandy X. Lee, a psychiatrist who has taught at Yale and authored the new book "Profile of a Nation: Trump's Mind, America's Soul," told Salon by email. "This is behavior, not a diagnosis — and the media need not fixate so much on 'the Goldwater rule,' which applies to only 6% of practicing mental health professionals (that is, members of the American Psychiatric Association, the only association in the world with this rule)."

The so-called Goldwater Rule holds that "it is unethical for a psychiatrist to offer a professional opinion unless he or she has conducted an examination and has been granted proper authorization for such a statement." However, the rule does not apply to describing obvious narcissistic behavior in a public figure, any more than it would disqualify someone from describing celebrities who spend most of their days drinking liquor as having an alcohol problem.

"Those with pathological narcissism are abusive and dangerous because of their catastrophic neediness," Lee explained. "Think of a drowning person gasping for air: a survival instinct just may push you down in order to save one's own life. In the manner that the body needs oxygen, the soul needs love, and self-love is what a toxic narcissist is desperately lacking. This is why he must overcompensate, creating for himself a self-image where he is the best at everything, never wrong, better than all the experts, and a 'stable genius.'"

Dr. Ramani Durvasula, a licensed clinical psychologist and professor of psychology who is noted as an expert on narcissistic personality disorder and narcissistic abuse, agrees that Trump is narcissistic and believes this makes him very dangerous.

As Durvasula explained, many of Trump's seemingly inexplicable actions as president make sense when viewed through the lens of a "narcissistic or antagonist personality style." These include "validation and admiration seeking," as manifested by his "endless campaign rallies despite the associated danger, needing to be taken on a ride around the hospital when he had COVID-19 so people could wave to him, repeatedly requiring validation on the number of people present at his inauguration." Trump also displays denial, as seen by his response to the pandemic, and vindictiveness, as demonstrated by his obsession with reversing Barack Obama's legacy "seemingly just to punish him" as well as by his threat to "withhold federal funds from California for wildfire destruction because he perceives the state is against him."

In addition, Durvasula pointed out that Trump shows extreme sensitivity to criticism through the erratic and malicious content he frequently posts on Twitter, but at the same time reveals a lack of empathy through "his discourse about the diverse citizenry of this country – racial and ethnic minorities, specific religious groups (e.g. Muslims), women, and separating families at the border." Trump, Durvasula said, is also manipulative, as he panders to a constituency that he appears to "have contempt for." Durvasula cited his gaslighting, too— meaning trying to alter or deny memories of basic facts — is revealed in how "he has often been caught by fact-checkers in his lies, and denies things he actually said."

Perhaps the most ominous of the symptoms that Durvasula identified, though, is "triangulation." As she explained, "this is the infliction of chaos created by turning groups against each other. Doing this centralizes the power in the narcissist and creates a blind alliance between some of the polarized groups and him the country is terribly polarized on numerous dimensions, to the point where families are bearing a toll of divisiveness based on the antagonistic rhetoric."

Now, experts and pollsters seem to agree that Trump is likely to lose this election. So what happens when a narcissist doesn't get their way?

Lee explained that narcissists who cannot get the love they crave will frequently seek adulation as a substitute. Because no amount of adulation will ever satisfy them, though, "the usual course of an unconstrained pathological narcissist is to seek positions of ever greater power and celebrity." Yet, as Lee explains, because "reality never matches one's fantasy, dissatisfaction grows at greater pace."

Therefore, if Trump loses to Biden, as seems likely, the outcome could be be "frightening."

"Just as one once settled for adulation in lieu of love, one may settle for fear when adulation no longer seems attainable," Dr. Lee told Salon. "Rage attacks are common, for people are bound to fall short of expectation for such a needy personality—and eventually everyone falls into this category. But when there is an all-encompassing loss, such as the loss of an election, it can trigger a rampage of destruction and reign of terror in revenge against an entire nation that has failed him."

She added, "It is far easier for the pathological narcissist to consider destroying oneself and the world, especially its 'laughing eyes,' than to retreat into becoming a 'loser' and a 'sucker' — which to someone suffering from this condition will feel like psychic death."

In a sense, the best analogy is that of a narcissistic family member abusing other family members. Metaphorically, Trump has already abused America. "This personality pattern has taken a toll on this country, and been quite abusive," Durvasula says. "It has eroded trust, left a nation confused and unsupported, and deeply divided and insecure. These same adjectives can be used to describe a marriage or a family which is suffering the challenges of a difficult narcissistic personality in its midst."

If Trump loses, Durvasula says it will be like watching a three-year-old refuse to go to bed.

"They will just stand there, poignantly in their Superman pajamas and say NO, I am NOT going to bed, and drop to the ground and scream," she explained. "Plan on an adult version of that. As is often the case when a difficult personality style like this faces disappointment we tend to see a cascade of reactions – oppositionality, denial, rage, despair, paranoia, more rage, entitlement, victimhood, and vindictiveness."

The next question, then, is what Trump could actually do in his vindictive rage to punish an America which he may believe has consigned him to "loser" status. (Indeed, one-term presidents are usually regarded as failures — and Trump would be the first one-termer in 28 years). As political activist and former Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader wrote in August, Trump could pressure the Justice Department to issue bogus subpoenas in order to punish his critics and opponents, pull out of contracts with businesses and individuals who he feels wronged him, refuse to work with Biden's transition team in handing over power and (of course) "intensify the use of the Justice Department and his personal lawyers to challenge in every frivolous, obstructive way the results of the election in selected states, no matter what the margin of his defeat."

Trump could also pick winners and losers in terms of who receives federal help during the pandemic and recession, helping those who sided with him and exacting vengeance against those who did not. He could egg on his supporters into committing acts of violence or, at the very least, do everything in his power to make sure they do not accept the legitimacy of a Biden presidency. He could pressure the Federal Reserve to try to drive up interest rates and stop supporting the stock and corporate bond markets, actions that would tank the American economy (and which Trump would most likely attempt to blame on Biden).

Most ominous of all, a narcissist like Trump could simply refuse to leave office when his term ends on January 20, 2021. America has never had an incumbent president flat-out defy the results of an election — John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren, Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, William Taft, Herbert Hoover, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush all overcame their disappointment and accepted that they had lost.

If Trump refuses to leave because of his narcissism, it will be unprecedented. It will be abnormal. And it will all have been very, very predictable.

Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer for Salon. He holds an MA in History from Rutgers University-Newark and is ABD in his PhD program in History at Lehigh University. His work has appeared in Mic, Quartz and MSNBC.

The Psychology of Dictators: Power, Fear, and Anxiety

Mao Zedong addresses a group of workers. He survived assassination attempts which may have given rise to anxiety and paranoia.

Adolf Hitler, Mao Zedong (or Tse-tung), Josef Stalin, Pol Pot &ndash names such as these haunt our cultural imaginations. These men were, by all available accounts, totalitarian dictators, who sought to maintain complete control over their respective governments and populations through radical methods, including the systematic murder and imprisonment of all who stood against them 1-4 . In some cases, the terror they wielded helped them maintain power for years and emblazoned their names into our history books forever. Each of the names listed above is responsible for more than a million deaths, and even those citizens who were fortunate to have survived their reign lived in persistent fear of death, forced labor, or torture.

Dictatorial leaders such as these represent the extreme potential of the human capacity for evil, and yet, despite their apparent omnipotence within their individual spheres of power, these individuals also tended to suffer from excessive anxiety &ndash mostly regarding paranoid fears of citizen uprising and/or assassination. For example:

    • Saddam Hussein displayed a level of paranoia so great that he had multiple meals prepared for him across the Iraqi land each day to ensure that no one knew where he was eating. He even went as far as to employ surgically altered body doubles 5 .
    • Kim Jong-il, the former leader of North Korea and the father of current leader Kim Jong-un, exhibited such an excessive fear of assassination while flying that he exclusively traveled via an armor-plated train 6 , including when he traveled as far as Moscow 7 .
    • Than Shwe, a Burmese dictator, was so concerned about the tenuous nature of his rule that he once moved the capital of Burma to a remote location in the jungle without running water or electricity an extreme tactic that was spurred on by the advice of his personal astrologer 8 .

    Power and Fear

    In each of these dictatorial examples, men who sought to rule with an iron fist appeared to also behave in a manner driven by a hidden, extreme, and sometimes irrational fear of what fate might befall them.

    This behavior does not seem to align with what we know of dictators. Not only do such individuals wield far-reaching, real-world power, a large number of these individuals also maintained a cultural and political environment that fed grand delusions regarding their self-importance. For instance, Saddam Hussein thought of himself as the savior of the Iraqi people 5 . Muammar Gaddafi once had himself crowned the "King of Kings" of Africa 9 , and the North Korean Kim line of succession proclaimed themselves to be almost god-like 10 . Why would individuals who are so confident in their power have such severe anxiety?

    One explanation is that many of these individuals were actually under constant threat of assassination. For instance, a former bodyguard to Fidel Castro said that he was aware of 638 separate attempts made on the leader's life, some of which were orchestrated by the CIA 8 . Mao Zedong survived an assassination attempt, plotted by high ranking officers within his own military 11 , and Saddam Hussein's own sons-in-law once attempted to kill his eldest son 5 . With such real and present threats, even from trusted allies, some sense of paranoia might be warranted.

    Given the extremity of many dictators' fears, though, further explanation is warranted. An additional explanation of their behavioral patterns might be rooted in their individual personalities. Colloquially speaking, people often use "personality" as a synonym of how interesting a person appears to be in the eyes of onlookers, both within and from outside their respective sphere of influence. For instance, we might say that a loud comedian has "a lot of personality," whereas we might describe someone we view as boring and quiet as "lacking personality 12 ." In the psychological literature, though, personality is defined as the "enduring patterns of thinking and behavior that define the person and distinguish him or her from other people 13 ." In other words, your personality is what makes you distinct from those around you. In studying personality, psychologists can examine common traits across people and note how these traits may interact to predict behavior. In so doing, researchers can develop a better understanding of why people behave the way they do over the course of many years.

    Narcissism Is A Consistent Trait

    With regard to dictators, one particular trait that consistently stands out as relevant is narcissism. Narcissistic individuals have a "greatly exaggerated sense of their own importance" and are "preoccupied with their own achievements and abilities 13 ." They see themselves as "very special" people, deserving of admiration and, consequently, have difficulty empathizing with the feelings and needs of others.

    When narcissism becomes extreme to the point that it:

      • interferes with daily life
      • appears to be unusual as compared to others within a society, or
      • permeates multiple areas of an individual's life &hellip

      &hellip that individual may be diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder, which is defined by a:

        • "pervasive pattern of grandiosity"
        • "need for admiration" and
        • "lack of empathy 14 ."

        These individuals are "preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success" and "power." They believe they are unique and can only be associated with others of equally high status. Furthermore, they require excessive admiration to remain happy, possess an extreme sense of entitlement, exploit others, and are often envious of others.

        Vindictiveness Is Common

        Descriptions of narcissistic personality disorder seem reminiscent of what we know of dictators. Not only do dictators commonly show a "pervasive pattern of grandiosity," they also tend to behave with a vindictiveness often observed in narcissistic personality disorder. For instance, in now famous psychological experiments, researchers found that highly narcissistic individuals were more likely to try to punish those individuals who negatively evaluated their work, even when the narcissistic person believed they were administering painful electric shocks 15-16 . More recent work shows that, after a negative evaluation, narcissistic people will demonstrate greater aggression even to individuals unrelated to the feedback 17 . Such experiments can help us understand the aggressive behavior of dictators, who are known to lash out against negative evaluations 18 .

        Surprisingly, narcissism could also help explain the anxious behavior displayed by dictators. Researchers have identified two forms of narcissism: grandiose narcissism and vulnerable narcissism 19 . Though grandiose narcissism is associated with all that you might expect from a narcissist (e.g., grandiosity and aggression), vulnerable narcissism is associated with an "insecure grandiosity," which seems to produce intense defensiveness and feelings of inadequacy 20 . Such individuals are often described as being "worrying, emotional, defensive, anxious, bitter, tense, and complaining 19 ".

        These components can be so extreme that narcissistic personality disorder can be misdiagnosed as borderline personality disorder, which is associated with high levels of anxiety 14 . The intensity of the emotional experiences produced by narcissism in combination with actual dangers could produce remarkable levels of anxiety, worry, and uncertainty &ndash to the point that one might actually consider moving their entire capital to the middle of a jungle based on the advice of an astrologer 8 .

        Predicting Future Dictators

        Given that the majority of dictators seem to be incredibly narcissistic, could we possibly use that fact to predict individuals who are likely to become dictators? That is, if we know the prominent people in an unstable country, could we predict which of those people are likely to try force their way into power and try to stop them? This question is difficult to answer. First, not all dictators come to power in a similar manner or under similar circumstances. For example, Hitler came to power after an intense propaganda campaign and copious amounts of intimidation and violence on the part of the Nazi Party 21 . Mao Zedong became dictator after serving as a successful military leader throughout a long civil war 22 . Saddam Hussein climbed his way through the Iraqi political system for years until he was able to strong arm his way into power 23 . Finally, Kim Jong-un, who by available accounts, was raised in an extremely privileged, "Western" childhood 24 also went on to exhibit the traits of a dictator.

        Moreover, researchers remain uncertain as to why narcissistic personality disorder and narcissistic behaviors emerge. We know that the majority of individuals diagnosed with the disorder are male 14 , and researchers speculate that certain genetic factors and parenting styles may increase the chance that someone develops the disorder. However, further research is necessary to understand whether these factors cause narcissistic personality disorder.

        Combined, these factors make it incredibly difficult to predict which leaders will embody dictatorial tendencies. We simply do not fully understand the contributions of cultural, environmental, or political influences that facilitate the rise of a dictator. However, that does not mean that research into these issues is a fruitless endeavor. By better understanding the sociopolitical contexts that allow dictators to attain and maintain power and further investigating the role of personality, we may one day be able to proactively identify and attenuate dictatorial leadership prior to the emergence of their often horrific actions. In so doing, there would be the potential to save countless lives and stem the tide of years of oppression in many countries.

        What the new science of narcissism says about narcissists

        is professor of behavioural and brain sciences at the University of Georgia. His books include The Narcissism Epidemic (2009) and Personality Psychology: Understanding Yourself and Others (2016), both co-authored with Jean Twenge When You Love a Man Who Loves Himself (2005) and The New Science of Narcissism (2020), co-authored with Carolyn Crist.

        is an independent journalist and part-time journalism professor at the University of Georgia. Her work appears in Reuters, WebMD and Psychology Today, among others, and she is the co-author of The New Science of Narcissism (2020) with W Keith Campbell.

        The term ‘narcissism’ has become a household word. We’ve seen this ‘me first’ mentality evolve on social media, and we use the word to describe celebrities, politicians and even some of our coworkers and friends. We commonly say that someone is ‘narcissistic’ to mean they’re selfish, manipulative or driven by ego.

        But there’s a difference between everyday selfishness and real narcissism – and there’s a distinction between a normal personality trait and the harmful, rare personality disorder. As the research around narcissism has evolved in recent years, psychologists and psychiatrists have learned more about these differences. For instance, we tend to think of narcissists as brash, flashy people who take over a conversation, but new studies have shown that insecure narcissists exist as well. They’re still self-involved and self-focused but are more hidden from public view.

        To avoid confusion, researchers now define narcissism in three different ways: narcissistic personality disorder a grandiose personality trait and a vulnerable personality trait. All three represent important aspects of narcissism, and the key is to understand how they’re different.

        Let’s start with the most common understanding and move through the latest updates.

        Narcissistic personality disorder

        When people talk about narcissism in a formal sense, they tend to think about the diagnosable personality disorder – narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) – that indicates someone engages in severe, negative behaviours that affect their own and others’ lives. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders ( DSM -5), which psychologists and psychiatrists use to delineate between extreme personality disorders, narcissists express a pervasive pattern of self-importance. They have a preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success or power, a need for admiration, a sense of entitlement, and a lack of empathy, which often results in exploitative behaviour. Someone must meet the majority of the criteria to be diagnosed with the disorder and, in reality, few people have an extreme personality that can be considered ‘impairing’.

        We’re not either Mother Teresa or someone with NPD. Most of us fall on a curve in between the two

        The tricky part of the DSM -5 and personality disorders, of course, is that people don’t exist in two separate camps of normal or distinctly abnormal personality. Instead, people exhibit a range of personality traits, and certain levels can be classified as higher than average. Once narcissistic tendencies are both elevated and diagnosed as an impairment to life, then they can be included as an aspect of disordered behaviour.

        Essentially, we’re not either Mother Teresa or someone with NPD. Most of us fall on a curve in between the two, exhibiting personalities that either have more narcissistic elements or fewer. For most people, narcissistic qualities aren’t considered damaging enough to be diagnosable. In fact, some narcissistic traits might even have positive aspects. With personality, there’s always a trade-off.

        Today, researchers divide these personality traits into two major types – grandiose or vulnerable.

        Grandiose narcissism

        This is the type of narcissism that you usually think of first because it’s the type that psychologists studied first and is most commonly associated with the idea of narcissism. These are the charismatic people you’ve encountered while dating or electing politicians. They make interesting characters and have more friends on social media. You notice them more often because they want to be noticed.

        Grandiose narcissists tend to exhibit big personalities that make them loud and proud. They’re bold, assertive and have high self-esteem. They dominate relationships with others, overestimate their abilities, and think highly of their appearance. To some extent, this isn’t always a bad thing – they’re confident, focused on achievement, and make strong leaders.

        Of course, problems occur when their personality traits negatively affect others, and it’s often magnified when they have power and a megaphone. When grandiose narcissists feel empowered to achieve their goals with no impediment, they might do this at the expense of others. Simply put, they seek status, sex and ‘stuff’ – or leadership roles with lofty titles, trophy spouses and brand-name bling. They love themselves, and they want others to see how great they are, too. Everything and everyone around them serves as an ego boost.

        In reality, small traces of grandiose traits can be positive, and our society backs this up. We praise self-esteem, confidence and outgoing personalities. We operate organisations and our political system in a way that encourages leaders to step up, rewarding attractive, articulate speakers with followers and influence. This isn’t necessarily a problem, but it does magnify the value of these personality traits among us.

        Think of Tony Stark as Iron Man in the Marvel universe. He’s brilliant, rich, attractive and powerful. He creates innovative products and helps society. At the same time, he’s stubborn, thinks highly of himself and hates to compromise. There are trade-offs with grandiose narcissism.

        Vulnerable narcissism

        On the other hand, vulnerable narcissism includes those with more fragile egos. Instead of trying to project it, they want to protect it. These are the hypersensitive people you’ve encountered at work or in social settings who are defensive, vindictive and avoidant when interacting with others. We don’t think of them as often when discussing narcissism because they’re more hidden or ‘covert’.

        Vulnerable narcissists tend to be emotionally susceptible, which comes out more often in therapy than the grandiose traits. They’re easily hurt and more likely to be passive aggressive about concerns than their grandiose counterparts. This is the subtle side of narcissism that psychologists and psychiatrists have come to understand more in research studies in recent years. They’ve found that vulnerable narcissists tend to show more neuroticism in their motives and behaviours.

        Think about Woody Allen’s characters. They often carry insecurity, self-doubt and deep pain. They’re reserved but also fragile and thin-skinned

        The issue with this type of narcissism is that people often keep their ego threats, or perceived slights from others, to themselves. They might marinate on interactions with others in their mind and build up resentment about how they’ve been unfairly treated or taken for granted, but they don’t confront it. Ultimately, vulnerable narcissism is painful for the individual but not as damaging to society.

        Unfortunately, unchecked vulnerable traits can hurt loved ones, too. This type of narcissism can cause neediness and emotionally draining relationships. Unlike grandiose narcissism, which seems exciting and interesting at first and fades over time, vulnerable narcissism is unappealing from the start and creates strained, exhausting interactions with others.

        Think about many of Woody Allen’s characters. They often carry insecurity, self-doubt and deep pain. They’re reserved but also fragile and thin-skinned. Although it’s normal – and necessary – to acknowledge wounding and setbacks in life, it’s equally important that these moments don’t define a self-focused ego. Again, trade-offs abound.

        So what does all this mean? Psychologists and psychiatrists have put effort into researching and understanding these different aspects of narcissism for the past decade, but why does it matter, and what do we do about it? In a clinical setting, of course, professionals focus on the distinctions to figure out better ways to target therapy and treatment.

        At the same time, we can use this new understanding of narcissism to respond to these personality traits in others – and in ourselves. We’re a society obsessed with ‘becoming a better person’, and this gives us a lens to better understand our behaviours and how we can change them, if we wish.

        Those who notice grandiose tendencies in their own personality could focus on reducing their antagonistic, selfish and callous behaviours. Empathy and gratitude can go a long way in helping grandiose narcissists use their charming personalities and motivation towards status, sex and ‘stuff’ to help others and benefit society. On the other hand, those who recognise more vulnerable tendencies in themselves could focus on reducing their anxiety and neurotic behaviours. Clear communication and boundaries can help vulnerable narcissists to speak up and express their concerns in a confident, measured way.

        To be clear, the purpose isn’t to fix people or force them to fit a certain mould. The value comes in recognising the different ways that narcissistic traits manifest and the trade-offs that can occur on a spectrum of personality. No matter where we fall, we can recognise these characteristics in ourselves, highlighting the benefits and working on the negative aspects that harm our relationships and society.

        Researchers are diving deeper right now. The COVID-19 pandemic, which has shifted the way we interact with others, will likely enhance our understanding of how narcissistic motives operate in remote work situations and distanced relationships. Psychologists are developing new models for the light and dark aspects of ego and how narcissism operates in leadership roles, new social media platforms such as TikTok and in alternative reality settings such as video games, roleplaying groups and virtual reality. In the next decade, we’ll know even more about the nuances of narcissism – and how to avoid its darts while gaining from its strengths.