Narcissism and Successful People

Reader’s Question

Hi, Thanks for taking my questions. I was curious about personality disorders (PD) and have a query. It seems PDs have a personality which is dyfunctional to themselves and others, and this personality should have developed by adolescence. We know that people with Narcissistic personalities exist in medical and science fields. How come these people have come to these levels of achievement when their personality is maladaptive? My second question: When adults have Narcissistic traits but not to a extreme degree (i.e., no PD), is it possible for them to develop a PD later in life?


Psychologist’s Reply

Great question! Narcissistic Personality often develops in young adulthood or late teens and becomes a life-long problem, impacting their vocational success, family, relationships, and behavior. A key ingredient in Narcissistic Personality is that the grandiosity and inflated self-esteem are present without any socially or personally-recognized reason to have that level of narcissism. I’ve worked with many criminals who are incredibly narcissistic yet have no recognized accomplishments, no money, are incarcerated, have been rejected by their family, etc. Those who develop narcissism early don’t typically have successful careers or relationships — but they feel so important and great they usually don’t care. I was informed by a 16-year-old adolescent criminal a few weeks ago “I’m too good for a place like this (juvenile prison). I don’t need to talk to anyone who has an hourly wage…I demand a consultant!” His crime — riding in a stolen car…but wait, it was a BMW!

We do find narcissistic traits in people who are successful. Psychologist Belisa Vranich describes this as “acquired narcissism”. While physicians, entertainers, sports/music/political celebrities, and wealthy folks often work hard over many years to obtain their success, that same success often produces a personality pattern of “acquired narcissism”. After years of struggling — these folks are now famous, highly recognized, have lots of money/fame, don’t wait in line at restaurants, have limo service, are asked for autographs, etc. They begin to feel narcissistic and above the common person. It then becomes tabloid interest as they develop their narcissism and become demanding, feel they are above the law, become exhibitionistic, and gradually have social and emotional meltdowns (shaving their head, attempting suicide, alcohol and drug abuse, etc.). In these cases, the narcissistic traits developed as a result of their extreme success. In this situation, the narcissism becomes maladaptive after they have already achieved their success (Britney Spears, etc.). Such folks are considered emotionally incapable of handling their success.

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Regarding your second question, moderate narcissistic traits are unlikely to amplify and become Narcissistic Personality Disorder unless accompanied by social/personal success. Again, a classic Narcissistic Personality has inflated self-esteem and grandiosity without tangible reasons for such high self-opinion. They have a tremendous sense of entitlement without a tangible reason to be entitled.

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