How Narcissists Protect Themselves from Feeling Like Losers


New research shows the ways that narcissists bounce back from failure.

🖊️Susan Krauss Whitbourne Ph.D./Psychology Today 📸 WordPress

The experience of failure is one that most people find unpleasant. When your worst fears come true, and you've lost an important test or competition, the blow to your self-esteem can be painful indeed. Research on reactions to the experience of failure in the workplace shows that the very fear of losing can cause leaders to grab onto as much power and influence as they can for as long as they can.

However, as you can imagine, even those in control can vary in the extent to which they’re affected by loss. A leader who’s genuinely concerned for others and the welfare of the group will feel saddened by failure but not necessarily devastated. Conversely, people who are only out for themselves, i.e. are high in narcissism, should potentially feel ruined by a loss that reveals them to be inadequate. Could their grandiose sense of self and entitlement become a mechanism to maintain their sense of superiority?

In a 2015 study, Ulrich Orth and Eva C. Luciano, of the University of Bern examined the relationship between narcissism and the experience of stressful life events, including failure, on one's sense of self-esteem. Rather than seeing this process as a one-way trajectory, with stressful life events potentially changing people's self-esteem, the Swiss authors maintained that people high in narcissism could cause their own experiences of loss and failure by the very nature of their self-aggrandizing tendencies. This so-called “selection” process would mean that narcissistic individuals, by virtue of their negative effect on other people, would be more likely to have negative outcomes occur over the course of their lives. Conversely, if the “socialization” process were more likely, stressful life events would be detrimental to the narcissist's self-esteem. Losing would, according to this model, take the narcissistic person down a notch or two.

Orth and Luciano studied a variety of stressful life events including rejection by a romantic partner, serious relationship problems and separation or divorce, being a victim of a disaster or violence, experiencing the illness or death of a person close to you, being arrested or accused of a crime, and suffering failure at work or education. Also included in the stressful life events were unemployment and serious financial problems. Among the 328 young adults and 371 adults who participated in the study, the findings supported the selection interpretation, meaning that people high in narcissism did have more stressful events. Amazingly, having experienced these events, people high in narcissism showed no negative effects on their levels of narcissism.

The Swiss studies would suggest that people high in narcissism are more likely to fail, but that failure doesn’t seem to penetrate to the core of their sense of self. Taking the approach that narcissism is a stable trait, the Orth and Luciano more or less ruled out the possibility that there could be fluctuations in narcissism that take place on a day-to-day level. Their approach didn’t make possible, then, a test of whether people high in narcissism showed a dip in this trait immediately after a failure until they were able to dig down into their self-aggrandizing resources. These resources could include blaming someone else for failure, minimizing the failure’s importance, and taking a derogatory approach to the winner.

Instead of examining narcissism as a trait-like quality only, researchers in personality and its potential for change over time have moved increasingly to studying the momentary vacillations that can occur in personality on a daily basis. Such work would make it possible to untangle the life-events personality relationship in real time.

In the newest study on narcissism to take this approach, University of Pittsburgh’s Elizabeth Edershile and Aiden Wright (2020) note that “prominent theories of narcissism would suggest that narcissistic individuals are not always consistent in their presentation of narcissistic features” (p. 2). Thus, their levels of narcissism’s two components, grandiosity and vulnerability, fluctuate over time, driving their “observed dysfunction.” Indeed, authors cite clinical evidence supporting this pattern, in that patients may show up one day in the therapist’s office as being highly grandiose, only to reveal more vulnerability as the weeks go by.

Using two college student samples and one community adult sample totaling nearly 900 participants, Edershile and Wright collected multiple assessments each day for 10 days, 90 minutes apart, via smartphone-based questionnaires. These measures assessed “state level” (feelings at the moment) grandiosity, vulnerability, and self-esteem. Items tapping into grandiosity included ratings on the adjectives “glorious,” “prestigious,” “brilliant,” and “powerful.” Adjectives used to measure vulnerability were “underappreciated,” “misunderstood,” “ignored,” and “resentful.” The self-esteem measure asked participants to rate themselves on items such as “Right now, I feel that I have a number of good qualities.” Prior to these daily assessments, participants had also completed measures of “trait” narcissism that capture their overall levels of grandiosity and vulnerability.

Armed with complex and sophisticated time-based statistical analysis programs, the authors plugged these momentary assessments into a model that led them to make three main conclusions. First, people dispositionally high in grandiose narcissism show both grandiosity and occasional bouts of vulnerability, but their levels of these qualities vary on a daily basis. Second, people dispositionally high in vulnerable narcissism maintain high levels of vulnerability and low levels of grandiosity over time, rarely experiencing even temporarily high grandiosity. Finally, high levels of trait narcissistic entitlement became a key predictive factor as well, “anchoring” daily variations in grandiosity and vulnerability. The authors believe that this finding supports looking at narcissism from a 3-pronged approach that includes an entitlement dimension as well as those ordinarily examined in terms of grandiosity and vulnerability.

Edershile and Wright believe that their momentary assessment approach provides a clearer picture of the life of a person high in narcissism. Those high in grandiosity tend to find ways to maintain their grandiosity despite some swings in vulnerability, but those high in vulnerability show few signs of experiencing grandiosity.

What the U. of Pittsburgh findings leaves unanswered is the source of the daily variations experienced, specifically, by the grandiose narcissists. As Orth and Luciano observed, people high in narcissism create their own failures which, in turn don’t really change their narcissism on an overall level. Perhaps it is these downturns in their prospects that, at any given moment, lead grandiose narcissists to experience some pangs of vulnerability before grandiosity takes over once again.

As you can see, then, personality psychology is moving away from examining the trait of narcissism as a totally fixed entity. When eventually such momentary assessments can be tracked to specific events, researchers will know more about the inner dynamics of the quality of narcissism as it evolves over time.

How can you use these findings in your own life? In the first place, you can see now that the people you know who are high in grandiose narcissism have a tendency to create their own messes. Yet, given their typically higher grandiosity scores on a daily basis, these messes don’t seem to penetrate their inflated sense of self-worth. However, because there are those tiny pings of vulnerability picked up by Edershile and Wright, perhaps there is room for you to help your narcissistic friends or relationship partners learn from the experience. Their failures would be less frequent if they could figure out ways to keep their narcissism in check.

To sum up, it’s great to be able to bounce back from a loss. However, for narcissists, such losses may not only come more frequently, but be less likely to have beneficial effects on their ability to grow over time.