March 31, 2010

Narcissistic Traits and the NPI

Narcissus by J.W. Waterhouse, 1912

That’s me on a good-hair day: picking my bouquet of narcissus flowers, the ones that belong to me. Narcissus flowers otherwise known as "unhealthy traits and immature behaviors" require my dutiful scrutiny since I don’t like hurting other people, leaving a mess because I refuse to apologize or change my ways. As uncomfortable as it is to apologize for being self-centered, it’s even more uncomfortable not to. Not being able to make amends leaves me feeling, well---miserable. Like spending the night in a motel and not making my bed before leaving.

Leaving a mess for someone else to clean up is a decent metaphor describing what happens when the narcissist refuses to pick up his or her responsibility expecting you to do it yourself because you are the real mess-maker and therefore, deserve to be the cleaner-upper. Now, you aren’t sure who left dishes on the counter and might make the mistake of blaming yourself for a mess you didn’t create by yourself. It’s hard to know whose dirty plate is whose when only one person does the dishes. Before very long, you just DO the dishes without worrying about whose plate belongs to whom. Is this a housewife’s explanation of narcissistic plates, I mean 'traits'? Haha! Give me a break here, I’m doin’ the best I can.

When we’re taking a look at what psychologists define as ‘narcissistic traits’, we might over-examine our flaws and minimize the narcissist’s flaws. That’s been my experience, anyway. I minimized pathological traits because of my false assumption that everyone wanted to CHANGE their behavior if they hurt other people. That everyone harmed each other occasionally, but it wasn't intentional because as soon as we realized what we’d done, we'd stew in self-pity for a few days and eventually apologize. We woke up to our wicked ways and cleaned up the mess we left behind.

They do their dishes. We do ours. Everybody’s happy again. No hard feelings. Life’s a banquet.

Just take my word for it: I am not perfect and I make lots of mistakes and I’m one helluva dishwasher as a consequence. If you invite me to visit your home, I’ll do my own dishes, thank you very much! I may even make my bed before leaving, after washing and ironing the pillowcases so you won’t have to. My idealistic goal is to make sure I leave no messes behind when I pass through the pearly gates.

St. Peter will ask, “Did you make someone else scrub your bean pot or did you do it yourself?” And I can stare him right in the eye and say, “My bean pot was not only clean, dear sir, my daughter displays it on her counter!”

Narcissistic traits

When I first took the NPI (Narcissistic Personality Inventory), it seemed fairly frivolous. After all, who would be arrogant enough to select B: If I ruled the world it would be a better place.

The longer I’ve thought about this test, the more useful it becomes for self-examination, though it’s probably a fruitless measure of pathological narcissism. A covert narcissist would never pick “B” because it would be too honest. It would pinpoint their disguised grandiosity. Not just because they need to convince other people they aren’t narcissists but because first-and-foremost, they must convince themselves. Any attribute threatening their self-image is automatically denied by their psychic overlord. The overlord with big teeth who protects widdle narcissists from knowing the truth about themselves.

“They can’t handle the truth,” as Jack Nicholson said in A Few Good Men. And the more you insist they recognize the truth about themselves, the more they defend their pretenses! You end up being the persecutor because nobody can rescue the narcissist from his favorite position on the Drama Triangle: the Victim.

I know it’s never ever easy to hear the truth about yourself when it’s contrary to the person you believe yourself to be. “What? You mean I hurt you when I didn’t call you back on the phone?” So you take that thought and you sit with it and you justify not calling that person back because one day, back in 1973 on a hot August night, she said something you didn’t like and so, she doesn't deserve a reply in 2010! Who does she think she is anyway?!! She hurt you FIRST so she DESERVES your silence!”

Then you catch yourself in the ‘self-justification campaign’ and you admit to being insensitive so you call her on the phone, sufficiently humbled to apologize for ignoring her. That’s my life. Make a mess. Clean it up. Make a mess. Clean it up. I’ll be doing dishes on my deathbed. I will not be doing my X-husbaNd’s dishes, though. B: I take my satisfactions as they come and B: I hope I am going to be successful because B: I try to accept the consequences of my behavior and B: I like to do things for other people. Like keeping my dirty dishes out of their sinks and not cleaning up messes that don't belong to me.

Still, B: Sometimes usually I am not sure of what I am doing, which means B: There is a lot that I can learn from other people.

But here’s the mistake many of us make: We recognize our self-centeredness and identify with the narcissist’s struggles to work through narcissistic traits; we relate to the challenge of balance, being too much or too little either direction of the continuum. We understand unhealthy narcissism because we can tolerate the truth about ourselves.

The seven traits measured on the NPI are:

1) Authority
2) Self-Sufficiency
3) Superiority
4) Exhibitionism
5) Exploitativeness
6) Vanity
7) Entitlement

Take 3) superiority and; 4) exhibitionism, for example. Is it narcissistic to blog about our personal lives as if we’re such interesting and special individuals that other people should care? Or are we writing about our lives to figure out who we are, creating an honest, integrated relationship with our selves sans pretenses? I think the average person has numerous thoughts like this on an ordinary day, especially when you're learning about narcissism.

Self-examination is rarely pleasant. If it is, you're probably one. Narcissist, I mean.

ANYWAY, back to my point: The false assumption we make about pathological narcissism however is this: Narcissistic traits without ‘empathy’ are the foundation to objectification and therefore: exploitation. Empathy for others and communal values hold us steady, reigning us back to normal if we go too far either direction. Empathy is the glue to healthy relationships---with other people and with yourself. If you don't have glue running through your veins, there's a high probability you'll hurt the very people who care about you the most. That's a fact.

So what happens in the narcissistic relationship is that we see very clearly that the narcissist has issues, but assume their issues are no different than our issues. We assume all human beings want to love and be loved; maybe needing reassurance that they’re lovable until they feel secure enough to love us back. We assume everyone empathizes and would never be so callous as to ‘exploit’ people’s trust or devalue-and-discard them without chagrin. The idea that someone would manipulate other people and take advantage of them is so foreign we assume it only happens to people who aren't like ourselves. Certainly not to people we know. Like husbands and parents and wives and co-workers and children. Because once you’re ‘connected to someone empathically, the relationship becomes personal. You could not walk away from a mess and still think of yourself as a good person if you did.

You make the big fat mistake assuming that everyone else is like yourself.

The only way to leave a mess behind and justify it is to see people as serviceable objects, not human beings. To feel entitled to treat people the way they did not teach you to treat them, but because you’re so special, you're above the rules of common decency.

So you can take a list of narcissistic traits and for enlightenment purposes, view those traits through the eyes of empathy. Then take off your empathy glasses and examine those traits through the eyes of Prince Machiavelli. That might help you understand the distinction between narcissistic traits we all share---and pathology.



Narcissistic Continuum: Rescue yourself from the DRAMA


  1. Once again you are spot on!

    Everytime I read what you wrote, you touch on something that I went through in the N relationship. A person truly can't understand unless they have been there.

    My ex-husband and I were on opposite ends of the empathy scale. I had and have tons, he did not have any. When I would feel sorry for someone, he would say it was their own darn fault.

    I think in some ways they despise goodness.

    I'm glad I can read this and go peacefully to sleep. For months upon months, I did not have have that luxery.

    Sweet dreams,

  2. I love this post! You have nailed it. Our idea that everyone thinks as we do is the reason we get and stay hooked. We can't believe that someone can actually be completely devoid of all human emotions until we're well past the point of sanity ourselves.

  3. Its' true that my Mom would never say on the NPI that she wants to rule the world--or likes being the centre of attention--or many of the questions, actually.

    And it's also true that she doesn't understand how hurtful her behaviour is, and how self-centred she is, and continually rewrites her memory to make herself sound better than she was.

    So you're right. Again.

    So does the NPI only identify overt narcissists?

  4. Sweet dreams, indeed! Thank you, anon for the good wishes. The older we get, the more precious a good night's sleep becomes.

    You wrote: "in some ways, they despise goodness."

    You are so right and that comment deserves a whole post rather than a short reply.

    Just briefly, let me say that our definition of ENVY is also very different from Pathological Envy. I was confused on that point too (amongst a billion other things!)

    I saw envy as something more akin to 'jealousy'---you WISH you had what the other person HAS but you don't wish them any harm.

    Pathological Envy is the conscious or unconscious drive to destroy that which the narcissist envies. If the object is gone, there's nothing to envy.

    I didn't want to steal my neighbor's Mercedes convertible but once in a while, I kinda hoped they'd get a speeding ticket. Or they'd run out of gas on the freeway.

    The pathological narcissist will hate them for making him or her feel 'inferior'. They might even hope those ARROGANT folks have a fatal injury.


    Pathological envy is like schadenfreude on steriods. ha!


  5. Hi Cyndi!

    Unquestioned beliefs and assumptions can trap us a relationship with someone who does not share the same beliefs as ourselves. Most people have a hard time accepting that. We assume everyone places the same value on 'relationship.'

    I have this lovely quote by my computer so I can read it everyday. It's taken awhile to find solace in the words, however.

    "Giving someone all your love is never an assurance that they will love you back. Don't expect love in return; just wait for it to grow in their heart. But if it does not, be content it grew in yours."


  6. Hi Maeve!

    The NPI is a set of forced questions. There are no right nor wrong answers because there's value in either answer. Thinking you can run the world isn't necessarily a 'bad thing'. You may be right. haha!

    It's the overall score that measures narcissism as a dimensional trait of personality. The NPI does not measure 'clinical narcissism' which is based on DSM-IV criteria for NPD. You either meet the criteria or you don't and if you don't, you are not classified as a person with a Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

    It's my understanding that researchers using this test did NOT inform subjects that they were testing for narcissism. Once you know this is test is measuring narcissism, the answers become more obvious.

    Still, if someone has a high score on the NPI (in comparison to the 'average'), it's fair to say they have a narcissistic personality.

    Having a 'narcissistic personality' may lead to relational problems, struggles at work, depression, or other problems managing their lives.

    I also think (not sure about this but it appears to be true), most studies on narcissistic personalities have been based on current criteria in the DSM. The DSM defines OVERT narcissistic behavior. Researchers are now expanding their understanding of narcissism to include COVERT narcissism (much more difficult to spot and in my experience, more destructive to other people!)

    I say that because of cognitive dissonance. If you 'see' a humble, supposedly shy person hiding their arrogance from everyone, including themselves, your brain cannot process information that deviates from your perceptions. This increases self-doubt and even obsessive thinking.

    When someone is obviously arrogant, it's no shock to find out they're self-centered.


  7. Oh, this one's a gem! I loved it all the way through, and I'll be rereading it several times over.

  8. I wasn't specific enough before, so I'll try to do better.

    Many years ago I wrote:

    Beware of fanatics. Don't think you can outwit them; you can't even think like them. Learn to spot them - and then run.

    Same with NPIs.

    I'm still a learner.

    Thanks again for this. It shows so well the mind games we play on ourselves. A delight to read, however painful!

  9. "The mind games we play on ourselves"...your comment certainly resonates with my experience, Ninente.

    When narcissism was first introduced to the general population (people like myself), the most vitriolic of narcissists led the way. Pretty soon, being called a narcissist was equated to be a psychopath. That made it even more difficult for people to examine their own unhealthy was black and white back in 2002. Either you were or you weren't a narcissist and the answer to that question rested in the hands of a psychologist who might indeed, be more narcissistic than the clients he's serving.


    I think we're getting away from the outdated and ineffective perception of narcissism as a pathological disorder and examining narcissism as 'dimensional'...meaning: everyone has it so your task is recognizing when it is hurtful to others and taking responsibility for yourself.

    Thanks for reading and thank you so much for commenting!


  10. I have recently read about "covert narcissism" and I am starting to wonder if I could be one of those. However, I am pretty sure I have avoidant personality disorder and I am also starting to wonder if I have mild aspergers, so it could be just overlapping traits. But the reason I am starting to wonder if I am a narcissist is that it doesn't seem so clear to me what a "narcissist" is anymore. Before, I thought I probably wasn't one because I tend to see myself as flawed and inferior as opposed to inferior and I tend to empathize with people a lot. But recently, I have read that both of these can be true of a narcissist. The main narcissistic trait I identify with is being really harsh on myself for not meeting external standards I've set and being really sensitive to criticism. Basically, I obsess over my attractiveness to women I like, and when I feel unattractive, I get angry and depressed. Part of me is starting to wonder if a narcissist is really just anyone who wants more than they have been given...

    1. Hi Anon!

      It is confusing figuring out what's "normal" narcissism and what might be a "narcissistic disorder". And if this makes you feel any better, most people are confused, including professionals. Research continues to study the distinctions between narcissism as a personality TRAIT and narcissism as a pathological DISORDER. I am posting a new article on the Narcissistic Continuum this coming week which might clear up some of the confusion. It will at least, define my understanding when writing about traits versus a disorder.

      People who grew up in critical or abusive homes, will be more sensitive to criticism. They might also be excessively self-berating for not living up to parental expectations that were UNREASONABLE. Most of our dysfunctional behaviors are resolved over a lifetime of "reality checks" without resorting to therapeutic intervention but sometimes we need therapy to direct our focus. to help us 'see' what we can't see on our own...and now that "pathology" is in the news, therapy could reassure us that what we're experiencing is NOT a personality disorder.

      The people I have known who had bona fide personality disorders, were NOT questioning themselves. They could not see themselves in a realistic light and blamed everyone else for whatever problems they encountered.

      Two things are significant indicators of pathology: 1) the inability to keep commitments; 2) extreme reactions to criticism and failure. By extreme reaction, they aren't talking about crying in your bedroom for three days. They are talking about hostile, aggressive reactions towards the "object" of criticism. And nothing, not even an apology, will assuage their fury or change their perceptions. The predator-prey mentality predominates and about the only thing satisfying their need for justice is complete obliteration of that person/object. The need for revenge is swift and furious. I think that's a good distinction between dysfunctional and pathological reactions.

      Please read my upcoming post about The Narcissistic Continuum and if you have other questions, don't hesitate asking.


  11. Hi, that was an enjoyable article, thank you... actually on my way to do the dishes now, appropriate!

    Like the previous commenter, i suspect that i may be a covert narcissist. I completed a questionnaire today and got full marks (the one instance when you don't want to score high!)

    Most noticeably, the presence of a woman i consider to be more attractive than myself, or especially seeing sex scenes in films (involuntarily), fill me with envy and rage. At first i didn't understand what i was feeling because i am simply too moral and righteous to feel such crippling envy; and i couldn't comprehend why i would feel angry. I now think it's due to a sense of entitlement, other women are not allowed to high-jack my (secret, long-denied) spotlight.

    I take everything personally, i'm constantly wrapped up in my own thoughts, and i'm paranoid that nobody likes me. I thought i was highly empathetic but i can feel selfish concerns cutting off my empathy for others. I think i often feel ignored/abused... i did not realise until recently that it could be tied up to an expectation of being treated as if i'm special.

    If anyone has advice on potentially useful forms of therapy, that would be appreciated. I had some CBT for low self esteem prior; the only problem is that this requires a lot of ongoing hard work! I guess that is something to make peace with... now for the dishes.

    1. Hi anonymous! You can check out one of my sidelinks "Resources for People with a Narcissistic Personality." I have listed several types of therapy reporting reasonable success rates. CBT might only 'scratch the surface'. I've heard good things about schema therapy so check into that. Long-term psychoanalysis is a good option. Check out Frank Yeomans and Otto Kernberg's TFP (Transference Focused Psychotherapy) which is a much bigger commitment than fifteen sessions of cognitive therapy. I've listened to several lectures by Yeomans and Kernberg and believe their approach is one of the best.

      You may be dealing with covert narcissism (a form of narcissism that's still being researched and defined). Nobody wants to have a narcissistic personality. Grandiosity is not high self-esteem or self-confidence. Grandiosity means continual disappointment in one's normal-and-natural imperfection. Grandiosity prevents people from experiencing a fully authentic life, free of the drive to be perfect, the need to be superior and the emotional pain of envy when they aren't.

      Most people who are able to recognize their strong emotions and feelings (such as your envy) and are willing to admit they are unhealthily competitive and entitled, are not intractable narcissists! People with pathological narcissism lack insight into the problems you've written about.

      If you think covert narcissism is limiting your life, then talk to a therapist who can help you discern a narcissistic disorder from other behaviors that 'mimic' narcissism. We can't diagnose ourselves. I think most of us identify with narcissistic traits and behaviors but that doesn't mean we're "pathological" or that we have a narcissistic "disorder".

      I will be posting a long entry on the degrees of the Narcissistic Continuum. It should be published sometime this coming week since the graph is finished and all that's left is formatting the text. So be sure to come back and check out the article.

      Thanks for reading, for writing, and especially: for doing your own dishes. ;-P


    2. This is the link to my "Narcissism Key". I added a link at the top of my right sidebar:

  12. wondering if this test, if one scores very low, far below average, if that couldn't also expose a false self projection, and actually indicate narcissism. I would think extremes on either end of the test would indicate pathology - not healthy vs. unhealthy. Being super low, ie 'too good to be true' may indicate someone lying to themselves, or over correcting - revealing a false sense of self.

    1. I have the same concerns as yourself, anonymous. Perhaps someone with more access to psych literature can clarify your point. Pathological narcissists lack self-awareness. I have witnessed this in my personal relationships with narcissistic people. For example: the Meyers-Briggs test. The answers they ticked aligned with the person they believed themselves to be (or pretended to be). Anyone who knew them well, was surprised by the answers on their test!

      Self-report is suspect for all of us (ha!) but especially for those with narcissistic disorders. (as you mentioned: the false self). I have also noticed that people who've been in abusive relationships tend to be on the extreme "low" end of the NPI. That could reflect their "temporary" loss of power, sense of self, and self-esteem. Once they've stabilized themselves and restored their self-respect and dignity, they'll get more accurate results on the NPI. This is something I experienced myself and witnessed with many of my readers; however, I don't have any studies to offer you. IF you find any information on low NPI scores, please come back and post me a link! I'd LOVE to read them!


    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  13. I feel always down and out and so helpless when something I said or have done is exactly that of a narcissist. I have all kinds of traits relevant to that of a full-blown narcissist and love to play the pathetic victim role. My kids are so sick of me doing that. My ex-wife had already alienated my kids from the toxicity of their father long ago, which was a smart choice. I just want to be freed from myself and engage in loving relationship and just be happy.

    1. I can really relate to what you've written about being so "Hard on Yourself" when you do something that's selfish, or self-centered or even thoughtless. We all have moments when we ignore or hurt someone's feelings because we were preoccupied with whatever we were doing. We might fall into the "dumps" or even have "pity party" for a while but the key to setting our life in proper order is not giving in to the seductive voice of blame.

      Getting stuck in the victim role and liking it so much that you encourage other folks to keep you there, is a sure-fire way to be miserable, a sure-fire way to hurt other people. When you feel yourself falling in to this trap, look at the situation and say, "I take full responsibility for ___________" and then refuse to look for excuses or people to blame.

      The minute your head starts setting up a target whom you can blame for your feelings, say "I take full responsibility for the way I am feeling" and then let the feeling sit there without taking action or looking for a reason for those feelings to exist. We need to be intimately familiar with our emotions and reflect on our feelings as guides to self-awareness. But when we are beginning this work, we are often wrong about "why" we feel the way we do and "who" is to blame for those feelings. That's why it's important to sit with feelings without taking action in the beginning.

      I'm sorry to read that you've been cut out of your children's lives. It makes me sad to read that, sad for everyone involved. There is more hope for working through narcissistic traits than many people realize so talk with a therapist who has training for "narcissistic disorders" and never give up. Never give up on yourself...

      You can't go back and change the past but you can change your future---one day at a time.


  14. I just took it. the A or B approach is silly. so is calling it the NPI. Any Narcissist with an IQ over 12 can beat it if they so desire - which they do because god forbid they have to own their illness and be responsible for it. A better approach would be covert testing for other illnesses. Covert narcissism is the real danger. We can all identify overtly meglomaniacal narcissism. and who says narcissists have to have a grandiose sense of self? At times my narc identified she could be pm or be a cirque du soleil clown or write a novel that would change the world or an Olympic figure skater or whatever flavour of the day allowed her to feel unique and special and unequivocally talented. at times she was somatic other times she was the physical look at me look at me im so awesome worship me type. She displayed all nuances of every type at different times. But out of social necessity (I believe) she learnt to demonstrate humility... She was not grandiose very often but when the mask slipped the truth was obvious. but that is besides the point. - the point is she was incapable of admitting to her narcissism. And attempted to hide or make excuses for it at every turn. I provided proof to projection and gaslighting, selfishness, cruelty,. I called her on everything for 2 years. the rages were unbearable. I thought eventually she could concede the point and that I'd get through to her. Eventually I did - like a Cpl times and then she regressed quickly back into her pathology and would again a Cpl days later start denying it again. We have separated even though I gave everything for her to recognize it, address it, own it and heal it. It ruined my life in many ways. and hers :(

    So the NPI is worthless. She could fool any psychologist if she only had to answer a questionnaire and see him an hour a month. Narcissists are known to fool very intelligent people for much of their relationships until their masks slip. She fooled me. Psychologist depending on the NPI are ill equipped to diagnose as my exs history shows. she was diagnosed as ADHD and possibly Reactive Attachment Disorder/borderline sociopath. She had teams of psychologists as a child. Even her own school classroom. (State sponsored study stuff that probably contributed to her belief she was special and different, inferior etc).

    More people need to expose the worthless NPI. Overt Narcs are not the danger. Covert ones are.


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