February 18, 2010

The narcissist's secret to success: self-aggrandizement

Wheel of Fortune by 
Sir Edward Burne-Jones 

The Wheel of Fortune

Short Version: "Good fortune deceives; bad fortune teaches."

Long Version: "Good fortune, when she wears the guise of happiness, and most seems to caress, is always lying; ill Fortune is always truthful, since, in changing, she is showing her inconstancy. The one deceives; the other teaches; the one enchains the minds of those who enjoy her favor by the semblance of delusive good, the other delivers them by the knowledge of the frail nature of happiness." ~Boethius

Custom Version: "Failure unveils the humble character; success unmasks the narcissist."

(I made up that last quote. If you can't find an appropriate quote on Google, write one yourself. Quotation marks and italics lend an air of profundity. You can attribute it to Anonymous because it's probably not wise to quote yourself on a blog about narcissism.)

I'm still thinking about my last couple of posts concerning The Secret. There are lots of reasons why my skin crawled reading Rhonda Byne's book yet I haven't pinpointed all the reasons. When the idea of 'creating your own reality' was picked up by respectable psychologists and millions of websites and spin-off books and programs, I wondered if my disdain for The Secret had more to do with a parochial upbringing than valid arguments.

Maybe. Maybe growing up on a farm teaches us we don't have control over the elements; maybe growing up on a farm keeps human limitations in proper perspective; maybe growing up on a farm encourages self-reliance but values communal-reliance as essential to survival; maybe each of those reasons is why I felt The Secret should be titled Eht Terces because it turned reality backwards putting a human brain in the center of the universe, bestowing more power on ourselves than was mentally healthy. Which might 'feel good' temporarily but not if you think about it for very long.

If I believed my brain was in charge of reality, I’d press heavy-duty tin-foil hats over my cranium to protect other people from losing their free will to mine. I wouldn’t want my brain waves to have that much power and I wouldn't want the universe to manifest my desires and dreams because I watched The Monkey’s Paw and learned my lessons about ‘wishes coming true' from Alfred Hitchcock. Nah, I kinda like learning to roll with reality rather than being responsible for creating it.

Not that I’m suggesting we’re powerless victims who have no control over our lives, but omnipotence isn’t the answer either though a lot of us jump from one extreme to the other. We can influence our reality, we can participate in reality, and it’s important to feel competent and empowered; but assuming we have control over every negative or positive situation is just as false as assuming we have no control at all. On a blog about narcissism though, it’s the EXTREMES of human behavior that defines the pathology and that’s the struggle we have in understanding someone who is ‘either/or’, never ‘both/and.’

If you look at your developing years as a teenager (and even as adults), you can probably relate to narcissistic thinking. Like winning a competition and attributing success to yourself---without recognizing how other people supported your efforts to be successful. You start feeling like you’re on top of the world, that you are all that and a bag of chips, that you and you alone won that blue ribbon because you’re so special until….until you have one of those dreaded ‘reality checks’ that takes a notch out of your narcissism. I’m talking about myself at this point, remembering competitive activities that resulted in trophies, blue ribbons, certificates of achievement, and public recognition. Heady stuff for an uncertain teenager. My self-esteem got a giant boost and my narcissism did, too.

Then, the inevitable failure happens and we suddenly realize our grandiose self-sufficiency was an illusion. Hopefully, restoring balance will be a gentle process that doesn’t exacerbate defenses protecting an inflated ego. The fact is: nobody succeeds alone. This is another myth deserving to be busted even though America loves the idea of the self-made man whose perseverance overcame hardships and limitations. The man or woman who faced their fears and became an icon of success, inspiring the rest of us scaredy-cats to do likewise. Well, success comes to some and failure to others and if we’re lucky, we’ll experience a little of both. But neither success nor failure defines the human being though it’s tempting to label ourselves as winners or losers. Either extreme is deceptive, a sure-fire way to reinforce unhealthy narcissism.

The successful narcissist is likely to devalue, diminish and deny other people's contributions. Narcissists do this in order to maintain the illusion of self-sufficiency; i.e.: they achieved success themselves. Admitting or even ‘seeing’ how other people supported their success is a threat to their egotism. If they can’t deny the support they received from others, they will diminish that support as irrelevant, or even a hindrance. They achieved “in spite of” us. This is how the narcissist turns reality backwards and maintains a grandiose illusion.

Narcissists attribute success to themselves and failure to others (blame).

Which we all do to some degree, though our emotional investment in relationships keeps our narcissism in check. For the narcissist, their ‘lack’ of emotional investment in communal values allows their narcissism to flourish. If you’ve ever supported someone, mentored them, validated and encouraged them and been rudely dismissed as irrelevant when they finally achieved success, then you may be interested in reading the following studies. I suggest this because we are each susceptible to self-enhancement and self-centeredness:
"Narcissists ruthlessly pursue the aggrandizement of the individual self, even at the price of diminishing others and at the risk of sacrificing the interpersonal bond. The narcissistic self relates to the social world in fundamentally different ways than the normal self.” ~ The "Others Exist for Me” Illusion
“Non-narcissists also tend to self-enhance, except when doing so involves giving credit to the self at the expense of another.” ~Narcissism and Comparative Self-Enhancement Strategies
Here are a few things that might illuminate the confusion between those who believe other people exist to be manipulated and exploited and those who value affiliation. Granted, it is tempting to believe a narcissist has The Secret when we’re insecure, powerless, replaceable, and feeling rather ordinary in a culture that values uniqueness. But if you are unwilling to aggrandize your individual self by exploiting, dismissing, or objectifying others, don’t put yourself in the same category as the self-enhancing narcissist.


*are not aware their thought patterns are inappropriate
*think about themselves without taking the perspective of others
*believe they are unique and special (they have something you don’t)
*think of themselves in highly positive ways
*are self-important
*fantasize about power and fame
*feel entitled to have whatever they want
*exploit people's 'weaknesses and vulnerabilities'
*are indifferent to other people’s needs (callous)
*overrate their intelligence (exaggerated belief in self-importance)
*are focused on maintaining power and control
*perceive themselves as superior to others
*manipulate, manipulate, manipulate

All these traits contribute to the narcissist’s illusion that he or she controls reality. That financial success or fame is the result of their extraordinary and superior capabilities. However, the appearance of taking responsibility for their success is countered by attributing failure to others. Narcissists scapegoat people by projecting blame and fault.

If you are so bold as to counter the narcissist’s grandiosity and tell him or her that their brains are not omnipotent, they won’t be gracious about it. Instead of admitting how self-centered they've been, they'll eliminate you as a negative influence, threatening their grandiose perceptions.

When a friend first told me that she ‘thought’ another person into meeting her at the grocery store and that this person had intended to go somewhere else but suddenly ended up buying lettuce, I nearly fell over. I didn’t believe she was serious---she wasn’t the kind of woman who dominated and controlled other people. In fact, she was more likely to be dominated and controlled herself.

My impression was that she was restoring power for herself and the idea that she ‘thought’ someone into making an appearance in the produce aisle, made her feel better. But in my gut, I felt she was empowering herself with a lie and that couldn’t be ‘good’ even if it felt good.

Sometimes we feel good when doing self-destructive things and to me, thinking her thoughts controlled other people’s behavior was ultimately self-destructive, even if it felt good as most lies do.

As with other feel-good-escapes from reality, people eventually wake up but not until they’ve hurt other people and themselves. It’s very important to challenge self-deception as soon as you spot it. Even if it makes you feel lousy admitting you aren’t in charge of the Universe: even lousy feelings are temporary.

Narcissism may not be. Temporary, that is.


The Narcissistic Continuum: Synchronicity or the Law of Attraction?

The Narcissistic Continuum: My big, fat opinion: The Secret

Narcissism and Comparative Self-Enhancement Strategies by Campbell, Reeder, Sedikides, & Elliot

"Others Exist for Me” Illusion by Sedikides, Campbell, Reeder, Elliot, Gregg


  1. I liked your take on The Secret. I grew up on a farm, too, so I understand you there.

    I like this: "I kinda like learning to roll with reality rather than being responsible for creating it."

    We are in charge of so much, but being responsible for reality, as well seems excessive.

  2. I may not be a narcissist but there are definitely people walking around for whom the world has not done much to give them a hand. They might mistrust people since they have so not been there for them. And they might not want to need anybody, its not a big head its just not wanting to get dropped through the cracks.

  3. What a great post CZ. Every paragraph in it has a pearl. Or a pearl onion, which is good too! You've described both my parents perfectly, including my mother's plagiarism, and my father's attitude toward financial success. Both think their consciousness rules the world, and are frankly surprised when the world doesn't respond as they see fit. I love reading back through these posts. Wish I'd known about them back in 2010 when i first discovered the plagiarism. Would've sped me toward the understanding that I now have, which is that there's no reasonable explanation for the behavior and attitudes of these people. The answer is that they are narcissists, through and through. What's theirs is theirs and what's yours is theirs, and the world is theirs, and what they want is theirs. What a simple formula ;-) love CS
    ps I love the image of you wrapping your head in tinfoil to protect the universe from the power of your thoughts. I'll try wax paper.

  4. i dont know....i used to feel the law of attraction is bullshit, but now i think its real...my mom is a narc and through sheer force of her will she gets what she wants, i swear. she FEELS she deserves the best in life and certainly gets it...whereas a person like me feels the opposite and i get shit in life. the law of attraction isnt fair, it about attracting what u feel you deserve in life and u get it, im sure of it. also it not about controlling people either, well maybe for non-narc people. for narcs im sure this is how it is though....

    1. Well, your mother might insist her 'force of will' is behind her gains in life---she'll use whatever reasoning she can to promote herself as the puppetmaster of her fate. The truth of the matter is this (remember this when you're feeling bad about the "shit" you've dealt with in life):

      Narcissists DO things other people wouldn't

      In other words, you make decisions based on how other people would be affected; you make decisions based on an inner sense of right-and-wrong; you are guided by the law of fairness and justice and wouldn't Steal Someone's Bank Account (for example) to enrich yourself.

      Because narcissists lack conscience and consider themselves entitled to benefits-and-rewards (no matter the cost to others), they consider themselves above the law and end up doing things MOST normal people wouldn't do! It's much easier to "win the material game of life" if you aren't hindered by ethics, morals and the law.

      Narcissists manage life with smoke-and-mirrors. They WANT you to believe they are little Gods of the Universe. They want you to believe they control their own fates (easier to believe if you dismiss other people's contributions OR the terrible things you did to get what you want).

      One last thing: with narcissists, the END always justifies the means. Most people don't believe such a thing and would never be able to live with themselves if they stepped on someone else to get what they wanted.



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