Why We All Love a Narcissist . . . Until We Don’t

Most people – even the narcissists among us – claim that being around a narcissistic brings little joy. We are aggravated by their preening, their conceit, their false assumptions about their level of achievement, and their need to be the center of attention. It can be draining and unsatisfying to spend time with someone who is much more interested in herself than authentic engagement and mutuality in a relationship.

What are the Most Irritating Traits of a Narcissist?

  • Unrealistically High Self-Perception and Self-Assessment
  • Obsession with Themselves above All Others
  • Expectations of Others shaped by Unsupported Feelings of Entitlement
  • Disregard for Others’ Needs, Interests, Preferences

What Draws Us to Narcissists in the First Place?

Regardless of how poor a candidate for a long-term friendship a narcissist makes, there are studies that prove that narcissists have the power to draw people into their magical circles of one-sided relationships. How do they succeed?

Looking Good and They Know it

Recent data released by the American Society of Plastic Surgeon indicate that there has been a 115% increase in the number of “cosmetic procedures” since 2000! Once upon a time, facelifts were the plastic surgery of choice for those relatively few women who were able to afford cosmetic procedures. Today, the most popular surgeries still include facelifts, breast lifts, butt-lifts, lower body lifts, and upper arm lifts have increased exponentially. Breast augmentation, liposuction, and tummy tucks are also right up there in appeal. Men, too, are increasingly undergoing surgery to enhance their physical appeal to others – and themselves. Males made up 8% of cosmetic procedures in 2015.

In many bird and animal species, it is the male, not female, that sports the most vivid appearance. The human narcissist works hard to stand out and dedicates time to honing attractiveness to others. Research has shown that most of us are attracted to the handsome and the beautiful, so it’s only natural that we are drawn to narcissists at the outset. Further, because narcissists care deeply about the admiration of others, they typically find ways to make us feel good about being around them at the outset. It’s only as a relationship timeline lengthens that the charade of mutual, communal caring evaporates.

One of the qualities that narcissists typically have in abundance is extroversion and something called “social boldness.” These qualities are driven by the need to be admired and esteemed, so narcissists are able to create a cloud of charisma around themselves. They draw us into their influence and we all find satisfaction in being around people who show confidence in themselves – whether friend or romantic partner. Whereas friendships with narcissists seldom make it very far, romantic relationships can be maintained as far as the wedding altar or the U-Haul and beyond . . . until the veil slips and the narcissist’s egocentric self-interest overtakes any superficial attempts at communal and mutual concern and relating.

When Do We Learn?

If you do a “search” for narcissism in academic databases or just Google, it is amazing how many hits you will get. Psychologists and the rest of us all want to understand this phenomenon better – as if we believe that understanding it will dismantle it or inoculate us from being hoodwinked by it. Both outcomes are highly unlikely in this day and age, it would seem.

Sadly, research suggests that the level and incidence of narcissism is on the rise in Western countries today. It’s ridiculously easy to fascinate oneself with the creation of an “altered ego” through the variety of social platforms available to us. A couple of decades ago, we were creating “profiles” for personal ads in hard copy, video, and online. People tried to project the image of the perfect partner for an unidentified romantic partner that we hoped would be attracted to a glamour shot and carefully crafted personal statement. Today, people create profiles in social media realities and through moment-by-moment updates of their mundane lives that are made more engaging and exciting by the virtual blow-by-blow sharing through the likes of Instagrams, Snapchats, and Twitter feeds. It’s amazing how pleased a person can feel just by seeing an image of themselves broadcast across an anonymous screen! The original narcissist, Narcissus, only had a pond available to reflect his image – today, we have Smartphone screens, monitors, and huge home theater projection screens at hand. It’s no wonder that the highly developmentally appropriate adolescent obsession with appearance can so easily morph into full-blown narcissism in early adulthood. In addition, neuroscience research shows that feelings of exclusion create an exaggerated feeling of social pain for individuals with high levels of narcissistic traits. Adolescents are especially sensitive to conformity and social acceptance – by focusing on the self as a love object, the risk of exclusion is eliminated.

An interesting news article just noted that today’s teenagers are changing their ways from years past – they are drinking less, drugging less, and having less sex. One headline about the article stated, “Teens Having Much Less Sex: Tech Could be to Blame.” In terms of sexual engagement, there may be more sexting going on, more use of online pornography, and more time alone for potentially more . . . ummm, self-gratification. Coupled with the rise in narcissism, it makes sense that teens are spending more time online and on their own. If you are at the center of your own universe and the object of your most passionate affection, expectations regarding mutuality and communal engagement just get in the way of the intimate self-courtship.

Capitalizing on Narcissism for the Greater Good?

If the base level of narcissism is increasing over time, it is likely that their appeal will only grow, although the long-term outcome for any kind of satisfying long-term relationship with a narcissist will remain poor. One new way of trying to capitalize on the narcissistic culture is to play on the good feelings and esteem that making “green choices” or socially responsible decisions can generate. Perhaps if the pendulum should swing and make lasting relationships – not the number of hook-ups in a lifetime – a point of pride and high esteem, individuals with narcissistic traits might re-prioritize their relational behaviors.

Until those types of cultural shifts take place, however, buyer beware. Not every pretty shiny thing is worth the effort to keep polished – especially when there is no return on your investment of time, energy, and resources. Admire the narcissist’s confidence and beauty from afar, but don’t get caught up in the mystical magical mystery tour of the dark side of their outward appeal.

In a culture of narcissists, remember that an “altered ego” cannot offer long-term stability or mutuality in the way that a healthy long-term relationship requires.


Research Study: How are your adult sibling relationships working out?

Be a part of a new research study exploring adult sibling relationships. Some of us learn about friendships through our early relationships with siblings. If you are still working through sibling drama or enjoying sibling harmony, please share your stories here: http://ift.tt/1UaqoDc


Cascio, C. N., Konrath, S. H., & Falk, E. B. (2015). Narcissists’ social pain seen only in the brain. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 11, 335-341.

Dufner, M., Rauthmann, J. F., Czarna, A. Z., & Denissen, J. J. A. (2013). Are narcissists sexy? Zeroing in on the effect of narcissism on short-term mate appeal. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39, 870-882.

Naderi, I., & Strutton, D. (2015). I support sustainability but only when doing so reflects fabulously on me: Can green narcissists be cultivated? Journal of Macromarketing, 35, 70-83.

“Teens having much less sex; tech could be to blame.” KCBS Local News. June 9, 2016.


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