Robert A. Heinlein, in his book Time Enough for Love, famously said (via his character, Lazarus Long) “A competent and self-confident person is incapable of jealousy in anything. Jealousy is invariably a symptom of neurotic insecurity.”
If he was right, that would make narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) an interesting case when it comes to jealousy. Narcissists are often competent in many areas of life, often doing well in the dog-eat-dog capitalist world. And they often appear to be extremely self-confident.
On the other hand, the self-confidence, the arrogance, the self-assuredness, often mask very fragile self-esteem. The confidence is a front – it’s intended to cover up exactly the kind of neurotic insecurity that Heinlein is talking about here.
So would NPD make people more likely to become jealous, or less? And if it did make people feel more jealous, what would trigger it? Let’s explore why do narcissists get jealous?
Do Narcissists “Feel” jealous?
Before we go on, it’s important to point out the difference between jealousy and envy. Although these are similar emotions, they’re not the same:
Envy is an unpleasant feeling we experience when someone else has something we want. So maybe you see someone with a nicer car than you or a better relationship. They remind you of what you don’t have – something you crave. So you begin to feel a little negatively towards that person. That’s envy.
Jealousy is the emotional response to losing, or feeling we might lose, something we already have. For example, if you see your partner dancing with someone else, you might feel jealous of that person because they are taking your partner’s attention away from you. Maybe you worry they’ll steal your partner from you completely. That’s jealousy.
Now, it has long been thought that there’s a connection between narcissism and envy. In fact, Mayoclinic even lists a symptom of NPD as being “envious of others and believing others envy them.” But what about jealousy?
If you ever find yourself wondering if narcissists feel or experience any particular thing, the answer is almost always “yes.”
Narcissists think and act in ways that are counter-intuitive, so it can be tempting to see them as inhuman. However, they are human. They experience the same range of emotions as non-narcissists (except in rare cases, and this would usually be in combination with other psychological disorders).
It’s just that in narcissists, emotions are triggered by different things, and they may be stronger or weaker than you’d normally expect someone to experience in a given situation.
What Makes a Narcissist Jealous?
A study in 2016 investigated the triggers behind jealousy in narcissists. They were specifically looking into romantic relationships, and found two key reasons – entitlement, and self-esteem.
The interesting thing here is that they found a reverse relationship. In other words, the lower the self-esteem and sense of entitlement of the narcissist, the higher the degree of jealousy.
If you think about it, there’s some logic there. For one thing, it backs up what Heinlein was proposing earlier – that insecurity is a breeding ground for jealousy. But entitlement makes sense too – if you live in a fantasy world where you’re entitled to have anything you want – including other people – why would you have any fear of losing them?
Do Narcissists Get Jealous Easily?
If this study is right, the tendency for narcissists to experience jealousy may depend greatly on their emotional state. Unfortunately, as you may have experienced, the narcissist’s emotional state is a volatile thing.
People with Narcissistic Personality Disorder can lash out at things that were not in any way intended to cause injury – typically when the gap between the front they put on and their true self underneath is exposed. This is called a narcissistic injury, and it’s likely to leave the narcissist in a low self-esteem state. So after a narcissistic injury, we might expect narcissists to be more prone to jealousy.
However, another factor here might be the type of narcissist you’re dealing with. Narcissism isn’t a single disorder, and psychologists sometimes break it down into two types:
- Grandiose narcissism: this is the “classic” narcissist, who fits the stereotype of the disorder – socially fearless, confident, self-aggrandizing, etc. This is the most likely type to actually seem “like a narcissist”.
- Vulnerable narcissism: Vulnerable Narcissism is similar on the inside to the grandiose narcissist – they still think they are special, and better than other people. However, their “true” low self-esteem self tends to shine through more. They may appear shy and reserved at first, but their narcissism will become apparent after you spend some time with them.
A study in 2020 also investigated the impact of these two forms of narcissism on the tendency to experience jealousy – and they also looked at how this tied into psychological abuse.
Their results showed that grandiose narcissists experienced less jealousy than the vulnerable narcissists – although both types had a tendency towards psychologically abusing their romantic partners. If you’ve ever been in a relationship with a narcissist, this latter point will not come as much surprise.
However, they found that for vulnerable narcissists, jealousy was a major risk factor in them carrying out the abuse.
So according to this study, the motivation behind the abuse is a little different. Grandiose narcissists abuse for the standard reasons – to gain control, to maintain dominance, or to boost their own self-esteem. They may experience jealousy, but it’s not a major occurrence for them, at least when they’re in a good mood.
But vulnerable narcissists are a little different. They are highly sensitive to threats to the relationship, and because of this they do get jealous easily. And unfortunately, when they do, they are liable to lash out at their partner. This is not the only reason they might become abusive, but it is a trigger.
Are Narcissists Jealous of Their Victims?
A common question people have is whether narcissists are jealous of their victims – the idea here is that the jealousy towards a person might lead them to be abusive towards them.
The first point is to remember the distinction between jealousy and envy. In this case, it’s not really jealousy we’re talking about. We’re asking: do narcissists envy their victims?
This is indeed possible. Envy of other people’s successes can trigger a narcissistic injury:
- The narcissistic mother, watching her daughter go through the youthful stage of life that she’s long since left behind
- The narcissistic husband, after his wife succeeds in achieving a promotion
- The narcissistic manager, whose team member received recognition and praise from the CEO
It’s not just the event itself (e.g., the promotion) that can trigger envy in the narcissist – although that’s likely part of it – but the fact that it takes the attention away from them. This is compounded by the fact that some narcissists lack empathy, which makes it difficult for them to feel and share in the joy their victims experience.
Some common signs that a narcissist is envious of their victim include:
- They praise your for your success initially, but are unable to keep up the act for long and soon lose interest in talking about it
- They try to out-do or one-up your achievements or accomplishments
- They downplay your achievements and positive traits, especially if they are things that the narcissists wants themselves. They may say you were luck to get the promotion, or that the new role isn’t that great anyway
- In severe cases, they may attempt subterfuge – to subtly undermine your efforts at success (for example, putting you down on the day of an interview)
Do Narcissists Get Jealous When You Move On?
A relationship with a narcissist can be a bumpy ride. And leaving one can be just as difficult. Remember, narcissists, need a supply of attention and admiration to maintain their self-esteem. They also often see relationships in a transactional way – that is, in terms of what they can get out of them. So if they are in a relationship with you, it is likely that this is because they are still getting their narcissistic supply from you. If you leave them, you are cutting off that supply.
This is not the same thing as jealousy, but if you were leaving to be with another person, that could quite possibly trigger jealousy, just as it would in any other person.
Whether the narcissist gets jealous when you move on or not, the response may be very similar in any case. As Dr. Judith Orloff of the University of California told The Independent, if you do decide to move on, expect pleading, manipulation, and promises to change (all likely to be tricks, Dr. Orloff says). They may even become abusive.
Can you make a narcissist jealous?
You may be thinking here, why not deliberately take steps to trigger jealousy in a narcissist? Perhaps you think this could be payback for the way they have treated you. As we’ve seen, if you want to know how to make a narcissist jealous, you need look no further than things that make non-narcissists jealous. Generally speaking, that means to trigger a fear of losing something that they have, particularly when their self-esteem is down. A few points here.
Firstly, be wary of dropping yourself to the level of your abuser, and becoming one yourself. As difficult as it can be to deal with a narcissist, NPD is a mental illness. However tempting or justifiable it may seem at the time, you may finding yourself regretting these actions in the future.
Secondly, it’s not a wise course of action. Many narcissists live their whole lives acting out cycles of manipulation and abuse. You won’t be able to beat them at their own game, and if they realise that you are deliberately playing games, you might accidentally provide them with their narcissistic supply (they’ll think it shows you care).
Thirdly, as we’ve seen, vulnerable narcissists may respond to jealousy with abuse. Narcissists suffer from a mental disorder, which means they often action in an emotional and reactive way. It’s best not to play with fire.
Why is the Narcissist Making Me Jealous?
A large number of studies have shown that if you’re asking this question about a relationship partner, you’re not alone. Researchers even have a name for it: relationship-threatening behavior. In the case of narcissists, this type of behavior is usually designed to make you think they are interested in someone else.
For example, a narcissist may flirt or dance with a relationship rival. They may strike up a platonic friendship with someone, perhaps someone very attractive, or who has some other appealing quality. They’ll spend time with their new friend – with or without you present – and speak about them often – in warm, glowing terms.
While psychologists have known for some time that narcissists do this, the reasons they do it are less clear. However, a study at the University of Alabama in 2017 tried to figure this out.
They gave nearly 300 participants a series of questionnaires. One measured their level of two forms of narcissism – grandiose narcissism and vulnerable narcissism, which we discussed earlier. They gave follow up questionnaires to measure how often people used relationship-threatening behaviours, and importantly, why.
The results showed a difference between the two varieties of narcissists. Grandiose narcissists make their partners feel jealous to gain more power and control over them. Vulnerable narcissists were a little less focused in their motivations – they do it to gain power and control too, but they also have other motives:
- Revenge: if you have done something to upset them (which can be easy to do), they may try to make you feel jealous as a form of revenge.
- Self-esteem: if you feel jealous of them, they must be important to you in some way. So your jealousy gives them a little boost to their low self-esteem.
- Testing the relationship: as narcissists often lack empathy, it’s difficult for them to know how you feel. To get this understanding, they may have to trigger a more obvious reaction from you.
- Security: they may also be seeking reassurance that you have a strong relationship. This is a bit like driving into a wall just to see how safe your car is. But narcissists’ actions are often emotional rather than calmly reasoned out.
Why do Narcissists try to make you Jealous on Social Media?
Of all the tools that narcissists might employ in their relationship-threatening behaviour, social media is a favourite. For example, they might post public messages that compliment or flatter someone that they think you’re jealous of, or post photos of themselves spending time with relationship rivals.
The reason narcissists love these methods isn’t completely clear, but it probably just boils down to the fact that they love social media in general. This is well-known to psychologists – over 57 studies found that narcissists tend to use social media more than non-narcissists. Dr Gwendolyn Seidman, a psychologist who researches narcissism, points out the (perhaps obvious) reason for this – it gives them a way to show off!
So narcissists probably try to make you jealous on social media simply because they use social media a lot anyway, and because it’s easy way to get an audience.
Have you ever had an experience with a narcissist who became jealous, or who tried to make you feel jealous? Let me know in the comments below!