The High-Functioning Narcissist

It is relatively easy to recognize a narcissist when he or she displays the “classic” behaviors: staying out all night, drinking and using drugs, having obvious affairs, being highly irresponsible with money, difficulty keeping a job, and engaging in both verbal and physical abuse at home. People with those behaviors might have Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) especially if they take no responsibility for their behavior or how it affects others.

However, it is not so easy to identify a “high functioning” narcissist. He (or she) tends to be responsible, will have a good job, own his own business, be good with managing his money, will have good credit, own his own home, often be highly intelligent and creative, may have a history of a long-term marriage or relationships, will be involved with his children, will take excellent care of himself physically, and may also be a prominent member of society.

It is harder to detect the abuse or dysfunction when you are dealing with a high functioning narcissist. Interestingly, it is often their partners who come to believe they are the problem in the relationship. The intelligent high functioning narcissist outsmarts and even brainwashes his partner which leads the partner to believe his taunt that she is the one with the problem. He is still a narcissist and cannot accept blame of any sort; for example, if he does have an extra-marital affair he will blame his partner, saying her behavior made him do it. Like the classic narcissist, the high functioning narcissist also engages in ‘crazy making’ (projecting, gaslighting, etc) and their partners cannot express their anger without being subject to accusations, reminders of the partner’s many faults, or having the issue completely ignored while the focus is changed to the partner’s reaction to the issue.

A 2008 study by Schedler and Westen et al suggested the official diagnostic criteria for NPD was far too narrow. They theorized that in addition to the traditional arrogant narcissist, there is also a subtype known as the “fragile” narcissist and a third subtype known as the “high functioning/exhibitionistic” subtype. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, NPD is present when at least five of the following criteria are met:

  • has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)
  • is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
  • believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)
  • requires excessive admiration
  • has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations
  • is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends
  • lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others
  • is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her
  • shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes

This study utilized 200 different criteria to identify NPD patterns and found three distinct subtypes defined as follows:

  • Grandiose/malignant narcissism (characterized by anger, manipulativeness, thirst for power, exaggerated self importance)
  • Fragile narcissism (characterized by grandiosity as a defensive function, feelings of inadequacy, anxiety, and loneliness.)
  • High-functioning/exhibitionistic narcissism (characterized by individuals being self-important, articulate, energetic, and outgoing.)

They further described the high-functioning/exhibitionistic subtype as “grandiose, competitive, attention seeking and sexually seductive or provocative. They have an exaggerated sense of self-importance. They tend to be highly articulate, energetic and goal-oriented and also have significant psychological strengths (e.g., being articulate, energetic, interpersonally comfortable, achievement oriented) and use their narcissism as a motivation to succeed.”

The researchers predicted that people with the high-functioning subtype would have the least comorbidity with other disorders and the highest adaptive functioning; those with the fragile subtype would have the most comorbidity with mood and anxiety disorders and with avoidant, borderline, and dependent personality disorders and the lowest adaptive functioning; and those with the grandiose/malignant subtype would have the most comorbidity with substance use disorders as well as paranoid and antisocial personality disorders. Their hypotheses were supported by their data for the most part.

Their validity analyses indicated distinct differences among the subtypes. Fragile narcissists did indeed ‘suffer’ the most: they had the poorest global adaptive functioning and the highest comorbidity with major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. As predicted, grandiose/malignant narcissists had the most problems with substance abuse and the most externalizing behavior (e.g., domestic abuse). High-functioning/exhibitionistic narcissists, on the other hand, displayed relatively good adaptive functioning and less comorbidity with other disorders.

So how can a person tell if they are dealing with a high functioning narcissist? First of all, he or she will have an air of superiority and haughty body posture about them. Secondly, they will never admit fault for anything-as they don’t believe they are to blame for anything. There are other tell tale signs such as eccentricity, a charismatic presence, overly confident appearance, and intense energy. Some high functioning narcissists have a strong need to talk about themselves constantly (like the classic narcissist) yet others appear quiet and introverted.

Generally, society and the mental health community associate, and diagnose, personality disorders and psychiatric conditions with the inability to perform or function normally. The high functioning narcissist has all the appearances of functioning well (outside the home) and may remain undetected or undiagnosed for years, and sometimes their entire lives.