What Makes a Narcissist Tick?

Understanding how a narcissist works is the key to living or working with one. If you can understand his or her behavior, you may be able to accept it as you realize their behavior is NOT a result of anything you did or said despite them emphatically blaming you. If you can accept their behavior and not take the abuse and other actions personally, you can then emotionally distance yourself from the narcissist. If you can emotionally distance yourself, you can either cope with the narcissist or garner the strength to leave. So what makes a narcissist tick? Why do they do what they do? It would take an entire book to answer those questions in a comprehensive way, but here are some basics to get you started.

Narcissistic Traits versus NPD

Narcissism is a term popularly used to describe people who seem overly self-centered and haughty. It is important to distinguish between those who have narcissistic personality traits and those suffering from Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). Those with narcissistic personality traits are often seen as arrogant, overly confident, and self-centered, but they do not have the tell tale lack of empathy that characterizes NPD. For the remainder of this article, we will be referring to individuals with NPD as “narcissists” and to “him” as there is a higher percentage of male narcissists than female narcissists, although both are equally destructive.

In the Beginning

While the exact cause is unknown, many researchers and mental health professionals believe it results from a combination of factors including biological vulnerability, social interactions with early caregivers, and psychological factors that involve temperament and the ability to manage stress. Some researchers suggest that NPD is more likely to develop when children experience care giving that is excessively pampering and overindulgent, or when parents have a strong need for their children to be talented or special in order to boost their own self-esteem. Still other researchers speculate that NPD develops as the result of neglect or abuse/ trauma inflicted by parents during childhood. Other studies suggest that NPD is due, at least partially, to genetics. The general theme seems to be that the transition into the adult world fails in some way, leaving the person stuck in the very early, self-focused stage of development.

Characteristic Behavior

Individuals with NPD are most commonly described as arrogant, conceited, and self-centered. They believe themselves superior to others and insist on having “the best” of everything so as to outwardly appear superior and highly successful, whether or not they can afford it. Despite this embellished image, they are completely reliant on others’ praise and attention to reinforce their self-esteem. Attention and admiration is sought constantly, like a “fix” is to an addict.

It would seem that they would be easy to spot with those boastful and egocentric characteristics, but they most often are not. If they were just obnoxious braggers and show-offs, it would be easy. But most of the time they initially come across as charming, drawing people to them like magnets. They can be exciting and entertaining, attractive and sexy. Unless you look for the characteristic signs, you might easily mistake him for an extrovert, someone who is the “life of the party”.

Here are some behaviors that are typical of narcissists (the first 9 are from DSM-IV):

  • An exaggerated sense of one’s own abilities and achievements.
  • A constant need for attention, affirmation and praise.
  • A belief that he or she is unique or “special” and should only associate with other people of such high status. They have an unshakeable belief that they are smarter, better, or more talented than other people
  • Persistent fantasies about attaining success and power. (They have fantasies of doing something great or being famous-and expect to be treated as if the fantasies had come true)
  • Exploiting other people for personal gain. (They take advantage of other people to achieve their goals-they will exploit others without remorse)
  •  Regards others as having no value at all if they are not doing something for him.
  • He constantly devalues and makes derogatory remarks about others in order to make himself appear superior.
  • They like to create drama.
  • They tend not to be faithful in mind or body.
  • They “love the sound of their own voice” but they don’t always sound pleasing (more arguing and cursing, more sexual language, bragging, talking loudly, and showing disinterest by “glazing over” when other people speak).
    • They will not apologize…ever. Even when it is obvious that they misbehaved or caused a problem or how much hurt they caused.
    •  Flashy and confident. They dress flashy with expensive clothes. They are usually impeccably groomed, hang out at the trendiest bars and clubs, name-drop and flash cash to appear powerful and superior..
    • Their conversation will show disrespect and callous disregard for others yet they will be overly sensitive and overly defensive if someone even mildly criticizes them.
    • Narcissists love competition but are very poor losers.
    •  A narcissist is a poor listener.
    • If others are speaking, he tries to bring the conversation back to himself or his topic of choice.
    • They have very little interest in what other people are thinking or feeling
    • It is a priority for them to live in the right place and associate with the right people
    • They feel “put upon” when asked to take care of their responsibilities to their family, friends, or work group.
    • They disregard rules or expect an exception for them because they are ‘special’
    • They become aggravated when others don’t immediately comply with their demands
    • They think that criticism directed at them is because others are jealous of them
    • They blame others for their own actions or consequences; they never accept responsibility
  • A sense of entitlement and expectation of special treatment.
  • A preoccupation with power or success.
  • Feeling envious of others, or believing that others are envious of him or her.
  • A lack of empathy for others.
  • Constantly seeking compliments.

The Cycle of Abuse

The narcissistic cycle is a hallmark of NPD. Initially, the victim is put on a pedestal- they are a goddess that can do no wrong (called “over-valuing). Within a relatively short time the victim starts being criticized, demeaned with constant put-downs (called de-valuing) and the cause of all his trouble. Then he inexplicably leaves the victim. Most often he returns sometime later to beguile and charm them once more to win them back. The cycle repeats itself over and over for as long as the victim allows it. The narcissistic cycle consists of the narcissist “over-valuing” his partner, unfailingly followed by a period of “de-valuing” his partner.

Why do they DO this? It’s all about “Narcissistic Supply”.  Narcissistic Supply, as defined by Wikipedia, “is a type of admiration, interpersonal support or sustenance drawn by an individual from his or her environment. The term is typically used in a negative sense, describing a pathological or excessive need for attention or admiration that does not take into account the feelings, opinions or preferences of other people.” Narcissists are akin to addicts and they require their “fix” of Narcissistic Supply and will engage in both positive and negative behaviors with their “sources” to obtain it.


  1. http://psychology.about.com/od/personalitydisorders/a/narcissisticpd.htm
  2. http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/narcissistic-personality-disorder/DS00652/DSECTION=causes
  3. http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/201106/how-spot-narcissist

Written by Alexander Burgemeester on

Alexander Burgemeester has a Master in Neuropsychology. He studied at the University of Amsterdam and has a bachelor's in Clinical Psychology. He devotes himself to writing important information about certain mental health topics like Narcissism and Relationship problems. He is the main author of all content on Thenarcissisticlife.com Want to know more? Read by author bio page.

17 thoughts on “What Makes a Narcissist Tick?”

  1. Once again great info and Just in time. My brother has become my narcissistic mother’s new favorite and he has been attacking me relentlessly. My brother has every single behavior listed here. My brother suffered abuse the same as me- but he seems to still worship our N.mother. my mother abused my child and I am filing felony child abuse charges on her. No reaction from her…except thru him.I am going to let the law deal with her,as she is probably the most ruthless person I have ever known. A mother full of slander and lies..I want her held responsible. I know the war this has set off…my brother has texted or called me daily to tell me how I’m going to hell…I am no longer under her spell and I’ve been sick&she threw me away when I was diagnosed with cancer.I have collected a lot of evidence& good witnessess. I am not afraid of the battle. I am just being a mirror to the whole sick family…. its really sad to be born to a narcissist…how can a small child ever defend themselves against that? I married someone just like her…my ex. Damn its easy to see it all now! This site is helping me heal&be strong. Thank you!

  2. I just wanted to say good luck with what you are dealing with and that I send my loving thoughts and prayers to you. God bless and hope you find the strength to pull through this ordeal. Here’s to healing and moving on in your life with happiness and love x

  3. Yes!!! The troubles you are experiencing, they make you stronger. You are dealing with issues that are beyond anything so many others need to deal with!

  4. This info in these articles is just amazing. 25 years married to a “complete Narcissist” has left me emotionally, financially, and physically damaged. My two son’s have suffered as well. Making a move to get out but need soooo much support. Living in fear is overwhelming but realizing it is not my fault keeps me moving.

    • Good luck Nancy. You can do it! You have a lot of years left to find happiness. You won’t find it with a Narc. I wish you peace and love..

  5. Thank you for this site and these articles. I’ve spent the last 5 years in a business battle with my SO/biz partner. Having been very successful in other biz ventures I was stunned when I found, far from making money, I was LOSING it – to the tune of nearly $500K! I had no idea how this could happen – how on earth could someone deliberately want to tank a business that was a) their idea and b) able to make them a lot of money. It wasn’t until I read your post The Narcissist and Money that it all began to make sense.

    Thanks to this article I am beginning to ‘get’ him. And thanks to the Money article I am better able to manage his trait-generated actions and not let them get in the way of business. With the help of this site I can now maximize his considerable strengths and manage/dilute his weaknesses (Narc traits).

    Thanks again for your hard work here – you are helping so many!

  6. My husband of 25 years has almost every single NPD trait. He is cruel, selfish, and has caused immeasurable pain to me and our 21-year-old daughter. She doesn’t want anything to do with him anymore, and guess who he blames? ME.

    I used to pray that his goodness would come to light- there were glimmers that I had hoped would grow with the love of a wife and daughter, but he chose differently. And that is an important point to make: they CHOOSE to remain this way. He has been to counseling and been told that he could be healed if he could admit that he needs help, but the security and happiness of his family were not enough of a lure for him to do the work.

    He truly cares for no one (in any kind of normal way), and will always choose #1- himself over anyone else- even in a crisis.

    I have been told that they grow worse with the years: their looks fade and they are less able to “impress” and attract an audience as they feel their years upon them. I also think that the deep emptiness they try to deny starts to catch up with them. My husband is always busy, but when he allows himself to be still, that is when he thinks about the impact of his choices. And, because he, like every other NPD, cannot accept any real responsibility for his choices, quickly gets busy again so he doesn’t have to face the “real” reality instead of the one he chooses to concoct in his head.

    The worst part of all this is that it is all so unnecessary. They can choose to heal and lead normal lives, but they refuse to do the work. They want others to bend and revolve around their twisted reality instead of becoming truly worthy of their families and people around them.

    I personally will not be able to forgive my husband for the damage he has willfully inflicted on myself and our daughter. I will NEVER be able to make it up to her, and neither will he.

  7. This explains my in laws a lit especially my mother in law. She has lied to people to make herself look good she has constantly attacked me when my wife isn’t around. Then when I get upset and tell my wife what my mother in law said my wife goes back to her mother and her mother then plays the victim. Then when my wife has been in the hospital her mother makes it out to be about how it is effecting her and what it is doing to her. My mother in law has come between my wife and I many times and damn near brought us to divorce. She dresses flashy talks flashy talks down me. Has got to have complete control over everything and does not respect me as her daughter’s husband. I have bit my tongue lately and remained quiet because almost a year ago my mother in law figured out how to pick it me enought to use my PTSD against and got me to blow up on her (not physically) I threw her out of my house over christmas. She did it with the help of my wife’s grandfather. Please what do I do. I have bit my tongue and I am being nice as possible,.. She makes me feel completely uncomfortable. She even threatend to take custody of my kids because she believes she could do a better job than me… but yet when my kids have stayed at her house they have been injured and got staples in my son’s head. She stole percocet from my Wife after my wife’s surgery. again please help me!!!!!

  8. I feel for everyone going through this. I had to seek out these sites to make sure I wasn’t crazy.
    I’m going through a divorce with mine. We filed on our own and waiting period has passed… Just waiting on him to go to the court. I just started a new job and will not take off for 90 days. He has held the “I’m gonna divorce you” over my head to get me to comply with his ways. Now that I am OVER it he is coming back and bring home gifts and being so sweet and kind. I know better now and I am just being agreeable until the divorce is final. He is not sure how to handle it cause I used to try to discuss it with him and make it work. Now I see that no matter what I say it’s wrong or stupid or silly. Why bother? So I quit!
    In the past when we have been in our bathroom with a big mirror and talking, I would notice that when he was talking to me that instead of looking at mien the mirror he would look. At himself when he talked. Weird.

  9. I’ve known a narcissist for nine and a half years now. He’s done some [i]odd[/i] things over the past six years.

    Just like the article says, he’s been over valuing for the first 3 or so years, then one day right out of the blue he has what I would call an invisible meltdown, one where he’s the only one that knows what’s going on. I’ve witnessed no less than three of these sort of episodes within the course of 6 years.

    As of late his tactics have turned sinister or sadistic, and he’s even made a threat against my life. I now have a protective order against him, and plan to distance myself from him and his family asap.

    Sometimes I think the best thing to do when he pulls one of his little stunts would be to beat him with cable for about five minutes or so. It might not cure him of his illness, but I would sure enjoy the five minutes.

  10. I’ve researched NPD for years, beginning by googling “why mother doesn’t love me.” Ugh. After my latest breakup, I did even more research- it was the only thing that kept me sane. I knew what I was in for, but it just felt SO GOOD. I told myself I could walk away anytime. And I did, many times. But I kept returning. I was the one who hoovered! In fact, I may be a covert narcissist, but I think more research should be done into that specific label. Other labels: inverted narcissist, codependent, selfless woman (she has no self, it was squelched by her parents). So, I’m aware that my ex was just using me to punish his ex for moving far away and making it more difficult for him to receive narcissistic supply. Everything worked according to plan, they’re back together, she lives closer now, and all their friends and family are ecstatic. His fake-angry message telling me they’re back together and blaming me for it was classic. The strange part is that I still haven’t let him know that I’m aware of anything. It’s sort of manipulative. Why would I leave a window of opportunity open for when he tires of her? Honestly, I know if he’s truly angry he’ll spread rumors and do hurtful things, but as long as he thinks he can use me he’ll hold back. And why would I want that pain again? I finally became physically ill and bedridden while we were still dating, and even though I was in the process of moving, never received any help. The thing is, he’s working on a PhD in Physics. He’s a musician, gorgeous, weird, popular, and highly intelligent. I guess I want a lot of those qualities for myself. I can feel my awareness growing daily through research, but little things bring the chest pain/fatigue and general hopelessness back in an instant. I write letters to myself constantly, and sometimes to him. I don’t give them to him, because I know better. Now he believes that I’m pretty much over him, totally ignorant. Ha! He’s the ignorant one. Some say covert narcissists differ from classic narcissists in that they are able to change. I guess I’ll find out if that’s true. Thank you for allowing me to share.

  11. I’m not convinced that classic narcissists choose to be that way. I don’t think they choose it, or that they can change. Their souls were shriveled and hardened during childhood, and cannot be healed. But, we can avoid them!! Are they evil? That question appears in a lot of literature regarding narcissists, so I believe the answer is yes. They’re evil. They can’t help being evil. Just stay away from them. Easier said than done!

  12. Why would the man I loved treat me so horribly? Am I so worthless ? What is wrong with this man that he feels the need to love, hurt and toss me aside all in the space of a month.The worst part is I keep on letting him do this to me by taking him back every time. This time he is not coming back I deserve better. He is mentally ill I realise that now. So go ahead and have as many affairs as you want because this little worm has decided to turn. I read all the comments on these sites and they make me strong when I feel weak for him. Best wishes to all xxxx

  13. Is there anyway pls that I can email.you. I am in desperation from what my ex has done to me. I can accept it. I am in wrenching pain. I need help and support to understand. Pls.

    • hope you are OK Julia. I realised my ex was a narcissist and have really found watching youtube videos from women on the topic have helped me. there is one woman called Angie (maybe Angie Stone) who is particularly good and has a site called queenbeeing. I found that I had blanked out memories – particularly the warning signs and things he did in our relationship – because I was so blinkered (cognitive dissonance). However, the more I watch them, the more I remember and it makes me realise what a terrible person he was and how lucky I am to have escaped him after a year of living with him. it also helps to understand their behaviour is not personal to you. They would treat anyone the same way and don’t hang your self esteem on their despicable treatment of you. They chose you because of your good qualities – caring, empathic, trusting, accepting, forgiving. Keep those wonderful qualities but never let these monsters back in your lives!


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