The Narcissistic Supply and the Narcissistic Worker

We need oxygen to survive and we notice it most after being in a hot stuffy place. Getting outside into the fresh air becomes almost like an obsession and when we do get out, taking a great lungful gives us a satisfaction which is hard to imagine. A narcissist, together with all the usual necessities of life which we all take for granted, needs attention in bucket loads and what would be for normal people a smothering load of attention.

Narcissistic Supply

Taken together these are known as “The Narcissistic Supply”. If this is denied to them, then they will behave as any normal person would denied one of life’s essentials – overwhelmed by a sense of panic and should the lack continue, their whole being will become directed toward getting what they need. The term was coined by Otto Fenichel in 1938 to describe the excessive need for feedback and admiration required for normal functioning.

It may seem incomprehensible to a person without such needs but it is real, becomes first psychologically and then physiologically uncomfortable and in the end intolerable and the narcissist can’t bear it. Even though those of us who don’t suffer narcissism see them as self-loving attention seekers the opposite is true. A narcissist has no internalised sense of self and can be consumed by a mixture of insecurity and self-loathing. Without attention, they have no reference point.


It is almost as if they don’t know who they are unless it is in relation to external feedback. It is suggested that this may have something to do with early childhood where they may have been excessively praised or punished for behaviours which deserved neither extreme. This apparently “messes” with the child’s sense of reward. As an example, a friend of mine with NPD told me one of the few memories of his childhood was when he disappointed his father:

“My dad had bought a lovely pen for my aunt and had left it one the dining room table. When he showed it to me I loved it? The lid was golden and shiny, the barrel the deepest black and the nib was an elegant point like a supersonic jet. When no one was looking, I picked it up and took it to school. I even bought cartridges and wrote with it, lying to my teacher that it was mine. When my dad found out I was sent to bed and the silent treatment combined with recriminations went on for a very long time. That event taught me to lie and when confronted I still do so every day. I have worked hard to get any sort of positive attention I can to fill this hole because I could never succeed well enough to win back my dad’s approbation. In fact it wasn’t until I got to college and then into work that I got the attention I needed. I worked hard and I satisfied people around me. This got me loads of attention and worked.”

So how do they get their Narcissistic supply in a workplace environment? It may seem self-evident, but Narcissists get better supply in some jobs rather than others and understanding this strange kind of “demand and supply” relationship may provide some understanding.

Narcissists never make good teachers

Einstein was believed to have said that he envied people who chopped wood because they could see the results. He on the other hand toiled away for years without either an answer to his ultimate questions or any kind of public recognition, at least at first. Teacher’s similarly, invest in the future of others guiding them and celebrating their achievements knowing that without their help they may not have done so well.

Their reward is the inner glow of the success of others and often the sacrifice of time and self-needed. This ability to be comfortable in their own skin and to be in the background when awards are being handed out, would deprive a narcissist of the very oxygen of their life – praise and public recognition. My advice for a narcissist who finds themselves in the role of teacher? Become a principal and then you can go to conferences and tell people how you made your college successful and get loads of attention and adoration!

What do narcissist do in the work place?

Basically, anything they can which will get them positive attention! Here are a few only mildly exaggerated examples to convey the general idea:


A narcissist will have a radar for the people who give rewards or patronage and who have the power to do so. They will unashamedly introduce themselves to the chief executive and make sure that they know her priorities. Thereafter every effort they make will be to meet those objectives in an ostentatious a manner as possible. Soon they will get noticed. As in the Simpsons, they will be Smithers to her Mr Burns!

Work Commitment

Their commitment to work will literally be second to none. They will gladly interrupt their child’s Bar mitzvah if they are “needed” to rush to solve a crisis that no one else can. And although they may not tell everyone about their sacrifice themselves, miraculously the word will get out and dedication to duty will be talked about. They will be seen as legendary, especially in a leadership role where they will characteristically lead from the front, Captain America-like on s******s.

‘The’ Man

They will be the name, the front man, the public face of the team they work in and although they may “talk the talk” about their team and heap praises on them they will not “walk the walk” let someone else take credit for their contribution. They will even take the blame when minor things go wrong (as long as things are not so bad a scapegoat is needed) because even negative attention is attention. They will dress it up as taking responsibility for the team. A key element to spot are phrases which begin “me” “mine” or “my”. A narcissist in the workplace almost never says “we”.

How To Work With A Narcissist?

How can you work with someone like this? They say Recognition is the first step to managing difficult situations. If you too have a need to shine then, someone must move. If however, you don’t mind grandstanding by a team member and understand what is going on, then you can use your knowledge and skill to make things better in the comfort that you know your contribution without having to state it to the world. You at least have a choice of how to behave, it is the narcissist who doesn’t.

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