Narcissistic Traits: A Primer

There are three basic types of narcissistic personality traits and each of these traits has a different effect on the individual. Ackerman et al. (2011) developed a scale to measure traits of narcissism and found that the traits fell along three separate factors: Maladaptive traits, Adaptive traits, and Grandiose/Exhibitionistic traits that aren’t categorically positive or negative on their own.

Maladaptive Traits

The maladaptive traits are considered those socially toxic traits that are related to a sense of entitlement and unearned privilege. They are also the traits that are predictive of the individual’s tendency to exploit other people to one’s own advantage. In one recent study (Brewer et al., 2018), it was found that women have little attraction to men whose faces suggest that the negative narcissistic traits are present in his personality and would pass over them as either short- or long-term romantic relationship possibilities.

The individuals high in these traits are the ones that utilize whatever charisma they have and any social skills they can develop to draw in others to their web of influence and power. These are the traits that we associate with sociopathic narcissists who leave a trail of damage and destruction in their wake as they force their way through life. Unfortunately, individuals with high levels of maladaptive narcissism tend to have the need for higher levels of external ego-stroking to maintain their functioning. They are basically emotional vampires who must court others in order to feed on their initial adulation. They build up their social networks in order to siphon off any of the positive esteem they can harvest from other people.

Adaptive Traits

These traits are related to leadership skills and a sense of authority; they tend to help a narcissist succeed in social and professional realms.  The key difference in the positive or negative effect of these narcissistic traits is believed to be the line between behaviors that occur at the expense of other people. These narcissists have the ability to win over people in multiple settings and use their own positive self-image to bolster others’ beliefs in their capabilities and worth. Strong leaders who have higher than average adaptive traits of narcissism can still be a positive influence in the work world. Their own belief in themselves and their mission can attract the admiration and loyalty of their employees. In one study (Von Kanel et al., 2017), it was found that individuals high in adaptive narcissism were actually less susceptible to work burnout. Their ability to see themselves in a highly positive light was suggested as the reason that they could successfully maintain a higher level of functioning as compared to those with higher levels of maladaptive narcissism.


The traits of grandiosity and exhibitionism are the ones that we typically ascribe to people we consider “stuck on themselves” or “full of themselves.” These can be relatively benign traits although they can be annoying to those individuals who spend a lot of time in the company of this type of narcissist. In combination with the more maladaptive traits, these behaviors can be ruinous to any healthy relationship. These individuals like to tell stories that build up their role in an interaction or event. They believe themselves to be “all that and more.” While these traits don’t typically lead people into deviant or destructive behavior, if these individuals are unable to maintain their sense of “specialness” around others, they will ditch their current social circle and seek out new people who will support their inflated view of themselves. Similarly to individuals with negative traits of narcissism, these individuals are likely to have fragile self-esteem that requires the constant praise of others along with self-praising behaviors to maintain their egos.

I Rock, You Roll?

The problem with narcissists is that their psychological make-up doesn’t allow room for other people’s feelings in a relationship or any interactions. There is no empathy or sympathy for what others are experiencing and this one-sided relationship will feel pretty lopsided as soon as the typical non-narcissist has a moment to pause and reflect on what she’s getting from the relationship.

Narcissists can be fun to be around, in the beginning, as they can be too attractive for others’ own good – whether it is their looks or attitude, accomplished narcissists make you feel like just being near them is a serious coup! Not only does the narcissist rock, everyone around them rocks, too!

Unfortunately, when your own needs start to bubble up or your feelings are nicked by a narcissist, the accomplished narcissist is going to “roll” right over you and not take a moment to attend to the damage they caused. Sympathy for others and empathy with their feelings are skills that either are “learned” in order to take advantage of another or simply absent.

Why do Narcissists TRY to invoke Jealousy?

Finally, when it comes down to romantic relationships, narcissists may be experts at reeling in partners, but they fail miserably at maintaining healthy relationships – or semblances thereof – for the long haul. They view partners as trophies of their power over others and may expect sycophantic behavior throughout the relationship. Narcissists will even create situations that generate jealousy in their partners to acquire power and control in the relationship and those narcissists with the most fragile egos also induce jealousy to take revenge on partners, test the relationship, prove relationship security, and build up their own self-esteem.

For narcissists of any type, relationships are simply vehicles that must be constructed in order for them to aid in their attempt to acquire the status and veneration – no matter how transitory or insincere – they need to maintain their fragile sense of self.


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