Why Do Narcissists Get So Defensive?

Some people think very highly of themselves.

They are “the best.”

They always win.

They’re Narcissists.


With all that confidence, a person can seem completely shameless.

You would think that they could face any challenge or criticism.


So why do some Narcissists seem so overly sensitive, so fragile, so defensive? A new series of studies provides us with some useful insights.



Social comparison

People compare themselves to other people all the time.

It’s almost automatic. Whenever you think about another person, it’s difficult not to compare yourself to them in some way.

If a person is more successful, more popular, or more competent than you are, comparing yourself to them can stir up a range of emotions.


If we really want to simplify, there are 2 basic possibilities:

  • Admiration. A more successful, popular, or competent person can inspire you. This might make you feel motivated to work hard, or even feel proud of them.
  • “Sour grapes.” A more successful, popular, or competent person can make you feel worse about yourself. This might make you feel jealous, angry, or even threatened.


Unfortunately, the “sour grapes” reaction is fairly common, and it tends to have consequences.

Even when people are trying to be a positive influence, it can backfire.

For example, research has found that doctors who try to “lead by example” by emphasizing their own physical fitness are often seen as threatening—and overweight patients are especially likely to avoid them as a result.

Seeing other people show great competence can even cause a state of biological “threat” in the body.

And that feeling of threat is especially amplified if the person holds beliefs that you disagree with or if they don’t fit with common social stereotypes (e.g., if they are a member of a racial minority who is wealthy, or they are a “foreign-looking” person who speaks with a local regional accent).


The motivations behind Narcissism

There are 2 basic things that motivate Narcissism.

And they are similar to the 2 different reactions we discussed above:

  • Admiration-seeking. Wanting approval, praise, and respect from other people.
  • Rivalry. Wanting to insult, harm, or defeat perceived enemies.


A Narcissist motivated to seek admiration would be especially likely to agree with statements such as:

I am great.


“I enjoy my successes very much.”


A Narcissist motivated by rivalry would be especially likely to agree with statements such as:

“Most people are losers somehow.”


“I enjoy it when another person is inferior to me.”


These are 2 very different aspects of Narcissism, and recent research shows that they have very different implications.

Narcissists that seek admiration just tend to have high self-esteem. 

And their level of self-esteem is relatively stable across time. They really like themselves, and it stays that way.


Narcissists that are more focused on rivalry also tend to have very fragile self-esteem.

When things don’t go their way, their self-esteem drops.

Rejection, criticism, or exclusion actually do make them feel much worse about themselves…

…at least temporarily.



Image credits: Leonardo Rizzi, Dr. Hans-Günter Wagner

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