Functional Narcissism?

It’s Narcissist Friday!


I was recently challenged about something the commenter believed was a generalization.  I have to admit that this kind of writing makes generalizations easy.  A “hasty generalization” is a logical fallacy in which the presenter makes a statement about all members of a group based on observations of some members of the group.  Usually it is the result of insufficient evidence, but sometimes generalizations are made purposely to strengthen an argument.  It can be used to support a stereotype and can be demeaning to someone in the group who does not have the characteristic.

It would be easy for me to fall into this trap as I write about narcissism, especially since few narcissists will come to set the record straight.  It is easy for any of us to assume that all narcissists exhibit the particular characteristics we experienced from the ones in our lives.  But the truth is that narcissists, like their victims, can exhibit a variety of characteristics.  We have talked about overt and covert narcissists, for example.  Their techniques are different, even if their goals are ultimately the same.  And we have talked about varying levels of narcissism in different people.

I generally write, on Narcissist Fridays, about “destructive narcissists,” those who hurt their victims, usually through emotional manipulation and abuse.  They often share a set of characteristics and it is helpful to talk about these characteristics.  But please don’t assume that all narcissists are the same.  Nor will any certain narcissist treat all people the same.

In fact, I suspect there are more “functional narcissists” around us than we realize.  There may be many people who are unable to see others as real people, but have learned to live peaceably in society.  For them, the reality of family and friends and others is accepted via a “because I said so” authority.  What they learned is that trying to live among people while treating them as things is less than successful or productive.  Society pushes these “narcissists” into compliance.

They still lack empathy, but cover that with a sincere desire to “do what’s right.”  They can be kind or sympathetic or loyal, when those qualities are expected.  Basically, they have learned how to function well in relationships.

Functional narcissists can give themselves away.  Sometimes you will notice a person exhibit inappropriate emotion in a certain situation and then abruptly change the emotion to fit.  This can be a simple deception, of course, but it can also be a functional narcissism.  We accept this in young people as they learn how to interact with others.

We should not consider this insincere.  In fact, this may be the direction to take a narcissist in a non-clinical counseling relationship.  The literature is less than optimistic about changing a narcissist into a caring person, but he can learn to do the things caring people do.  If he cannot feel what others feel through empathy, he can at least accept that they are feeling something and seek to affirm them in their feelings.

Someone might suggest that this describes all of us, that we must learn to accept and respect the feelings of others.  That is a valid point. However, most of us have learned that through empathy, a type of bonding that enables us to connect with others.  I am describing someone who does not have that ability, but still seeks to accept and respect the feelings of others.  Perhaps it doesn’t matter why someone does the right thing.

I suspect that there are people who search for an answer to the strange behavior of a spouse or friend or parent and find that narcissism almost explains it.  But not quite.  The cruelty may be missing.  The person might honestly not be aware of how manipulative she is.  And, when confronted, might be genuinely upset and regretful.  Functional narcissism could be an answer.

I do not like the idea of “healthy narcissism.”  It sounds too much like saying that a little cruelty is a good thing.  I don’t know of any narcissistic characteristics I would value enough to emulate willingly.  So I am not saying that a person could keep the “good parts” of narcissism and avoid the bad.  Instead, I am suggesting that a person could learn to compensate for his or her lack of empathy and the ease of depersonalizing others.  The ability to function in relationship without empathy could have been learned while very young.

I have come to believe that narcissism is a learned behavior, a way of coping adopted in very difficult circumstances and reinforced by years of fear.  If that is true, then the narcissist can learn ways of interacting with people that are acceptable and are ultimately beneficial to him.  Counselors and others who may not have the opportunity for the in-depth therapy narcissism requires could help the narcissist learn to function as a caring person.  Those who love the narcissist and wish to continue the relationship without the pain may be very grateful.

What do you think?


Filed under Narcissism

20 responses to “Functional Narcissism?

  1. I’m torn with this idea. First, we must assume the narcissist is willing to admit to his fears and failings in order to learn to adapt. Second, we assume the love we feel for a narcissist was built on something real in the first place. Unfortunately, it’s all an illusion. How much pain is one willing to endure for a person who refuses to be accountable for his bad behavior or even consider his behavior bad in the first place. True narcissists believe their behavior is evolved and the way everyone should see the world. They think being judgmental is synonymous with being honest. They are twisted in their core. Not worthy of love, in my opinion. 🙂

    • Paula,

      So I am thinking that a narcissist would not have to admit to his fears, only to the fact that his methods hurt others and hurting others is unacceptable. His purpose in changing his behavior would still be for his own sake, to avoid the loss or whatever. Nor would this “fix” him in any way. It would just make him a lot easier to live with.

      I am glad that your comment is first here because you have made a very important point. It is still “an illusion.” And, I think, it will still be ultimately unsatisfying in a relationship. Who would want to live in a relationship where the other person simply doesn’t care about you? And who would want to take the time to “train” a partner in being kind, when kindness just isn’t in his nature? Life seems too short for that.

      But there are some who truly want to stay in the relationship. I know because I get emails from them all the time. Perhaps some of my motivation here is to find a way to reduce that pain for them. If they know what reality is and what they will never really have, maybe they can, at least, find less bad behavior.

      Do I think there would ever be a narcissist who would consent to this kind of training? Yes, I do. It would be self-serving, of course. But I think there are N’s who would say, “I don’t want to lose my family. Help me learn how to treat them better.”

      Even as I write that, I think of the narcissists I know personally and I find the whole thing hard to believe. Not one of them would be interested because, as you say, they are doing nothing wrong. But some of the emails I get from narcissists make it seem like they would be open. I will keep exploring this.

      Thanks for being honest and forthright!

    • Penny

      I agree with you, Paula. ‘Functional narcissist’ sounds like an oxymoron, b/c narcissism by definition lacks empathy, and perhaps more importantly, lacks remorse & regret. Thus, they are never motivated to change or even ‘function’ more appropriately b/c they are not the problem, YOU are. I think I understand where Dave is going with this, and I do know ‘survivors’ of narcissism who behave this way, but if they are willing to change they are not truly narcissists. They are impaired, but not classic.

      • Penny,
        You are right, of course. But I was not suggesting that these N’s have changed. They have simply adapted. We know that N’s are able to hold back parts of their narcissistic behavior when they want to. Otherwise, no one would marry them or partner with them. They are chameleons and liars. They adapt for a purpose, always to get something they want. My thinking here is that some have adapted to the point where no one suspects what really lies beneath the surface. Then, when it does come out, the spouse/boss/friend is shocked. It would be an extreme covert style of narcissism, I suppose.

  2. As a stepmom to two children who have a mother who displays narcissistic tendencies, I could not agree more. What saddens me is watching them learn her patterning, and thinking its “normal”.

    • Part of the separation and boundaries that are important is to label certain behavior as “abnormal.” You must show what normal and good are in their lives (a somewhat daunting task!) You don’t have to say that “mom” is evil or broken or sick, but you are free to say that she is being “mom.” In other words, that is her, not normal. Normal is what they see in you and in other normal people.

      Actually, I suspect that the children will not see her behavior as normal simply because it isn’t. It won’t line up with what they see in the rest of the world. My concern would be that they would see her behavior as useful or effective. You may have to make a distinction between what she can get away with and what they can get away with.

      You are in a tough position! Don’t be afraid to find support in others, particularly in the Lord who loves you.

      • Wonderful!! Thank you for this wonderful, apt distinction between “normal” and what is perhaps really happening- the children see some of their Mother’s behaviors as useful and effective. They try to emulate these behaviors as a means of getting what they want. I had not considered it in that manner before. Thank you for opening my eyes!

  3. noel6119

    My ex husband was a covert functional narcissist. He did perform almost religiously the tasks of being a husband and father. However, if there was something that he desired which didn’t fit into those roles, he did what he wanted to do, such as having affairs. His desires won out over any one else’s.

    If he was caught doing something strange, and it was explained to him, he would then over compensate for it. I don’t think he really understood the reasoning though.

    • And this is the rub! Just because the narcissist is functional or may even actually feel bad for his actions, doesn’t mean that he is no longer a narcissist. He will still be prone to doing whatever seems useful or desirable to him – and he will have no concerns for others as he does it. He will not have the same ideas of action/consequence as normal people. If he can reason that he isn’t hurting anyone (so they will be upset and rattle his world) then he is free to do what he wants.

      So I suppose it would be most helpful to make the bad behavior the cause of severe consequences. For example, if the first affair had you packed and gone with threat of divorce, would he have been so willing to have another? I don’t know your situation, of course, so I am asking that rhetorically. Just like a little child, the fact that he doesn’t understand the reasoning should not be the allowance for him to repeat the behavior.

      Boundaries with strong lines and as much authority as possible to support them, that will still be the most practical help in dealing with a narcissist.

      • noel6119

        Actually, he had an affair 20 years into our marriage that he told me about after much prodding. He had also had other affairs. Another 25 years later he told me he had kept in touch with her every couple weeks. I had his promises in his hand writing that he would not have any more contact with her after counseling with a minister. Consequently, I divorced him after 45 years of marriage. They got married 6 mo. after the divorce was final. He is what he is. I wouldn’t care if I ever saw or heard from him again. However, we have 3 married daughters and 5 grandchildren together. There will be occasions where I will have to see him.

  4. Jane

    I was married to a narcissist for 13 years before I realized what narcissism really is. Through the years especially the first 4-5 years he was a functional narcissist but what I found was that a little at a time his needs became more important than the rest of the family especially when our 2 daughters started to grow up and didn’t need me as much. He then started to need my time more and more for whatever he felt was important. After 3 years of negotiating and torture we finally have a settlement of divorce. He no longer shows myself or our children any empathy or compassion. He has always been the victim even though he was the one who walked out of our home and wanted a divorce. Though he wanted to reconcile, I didn’t want him back. After studying narcissism I didn’t see any point in trying to work at a relationship with him. I have chosen to work on my relationship with God, it is much more rewarding and peaceful.
    My problem now is how do I help my 2 teenage daughters 15 and 13 years old deal with their narcissistic father. They see him with other women now and they say he acts like a puppy dog (functional narcissist) but when he is with them and his parents he is selfish and demanding all in a calm and victim like way. I try not to communicate with him but there are issues we should discuss like our daughter turning 16 and wants to have a party. He claims he is broke and has no money though he is a successful doctor. He spends on himself and the girls extravagantly when it is something he wants. I enjoy your blog and look forward to narcissim Friday every week. Thank you for addressing this issue.

    • Frankly, it sounds like your husband was a plain vanilla narcissist from the beginning. Five years seems long for the trouble to start, but I would guess that’s more of when you began to admit it to yourself. Certainly today he is acting out of his nature.

      Your daughters see the truth. They may play games to see what will work for them, but they feel the rejection. His kindness with other women is part of his game, his method as a predator. Perhaps they need to understand this so they can avoid it in their own relationships. You will have to tread a little carefully, I suppose. You can’t say, “He’s bad, just like your dad!” But you can sit them down now and talk them through the ways young men manipulate the emotions of young ladies. They will probably see it in him.

      Kids make parents vulnerable. You have strong boundaries for yourself, but you soften when you think of them or watch them getting hurt. So now you have talked with him about the party, in spite of your decision to stay away from him. And he still jabs you. You can have a nice party without his money (and there isn’t anything wrong with gently telling your daughter that you tried), but expect that she will cry to him and he will be the hero or that he will bring the expensive gift that will overshadow your party. It is maddening, but this is how these guys play.

      Love – love – love! Remember it’s the one thing he cannot give them. He can shower them with praises and gifts and attention (for a while), but he cannot love them. He doesn’t know how. So you can give them the most important thing in their lives and he can’t. They will understand that eventually.

  5. These are such helpful comments! I will try to address each, but I want to say that my thought here was not to excuse the bad actions of the narcissist, but to hold him accountable in a different way. Basically, I think everyone can learn to be kind and can treat others as real people. Just because the N doesn’t feel empathy doesn’t excuse his mean behavior. In fact, N’s should be responsible to live decently among us. If they don’t feel it, they can still do it.

    Now, we might not like to enter into or to continue relationships with people who feel nothing for us. It would certainly be hard to trust them. But there might be a way, for those who want to keep a relationship going, to train the N to be more reasonable. The obvious challenge that goes through my mind is that the N already knows some things are wrong, but does them anyway. He simply doesn’t care. But the fact that he doesn’t care means that he sees no reason not to be cruel. I think he can learn reasons not to be cruel. In fact, I think some narcissists did learn those reasons and, without feelings, have learned how to be kind and responsive to others.

    I am also not thinking of someone who is just a more accomplished narcissist, someone who has learned to play the game better than others. I think there are people who actually function, rather than masquerade, as regular people do.

    I am sure this sounds bizarre in some ways. And, again, I don’t think this is something particularly good and certainly not desirable. But I think it explains some of what we see in people and it offers a very practical help in a marriage or other situation where the N wants to avoid losing the relationship.

    I truly appreciate your willingness to help me sort this out. Keep talking!

  6. Cali

    I was reading M. Scott Peck’s book, People Of The Lie, again and intend to read the whole thing through again. One thing he said that really stood out for me, was that to him a hallmark of evil in dealing with some of his clients was there need to confuse and toy with others. It was always hard to tell, but I often felt like the N’s in my life purposely were trying to keep me confused and off-balance in certain ways. I don’t think any reasonable person would have acted so tactless and manipulative by accident.

    I am quite certain the two N’s I dated who I am sure were N’s would rather do something cold and underhanded to keep in control than to show any vulnerable feelings. Maybe there is so much terror there. On some level they don’t seem to care how they capriciously hurt others and on the other hand, I’ve felt intuitively that they know they do these things but can’t help it in some way as it is a defense mechanism about a self that they feel was rejected a long time ago possibly. I don’t know…Just a hunch I’ve had after so many years of trying to figure these dynamics out.

    • Cali,

      I think this is a good point. Narcissists act out of the established system of their life. They have done these things so long that they no longer think about them. They lie quickly and easily. They attack out of their fear and almost instinctual need to subdue and control. They hurt others simply as a consequence of what goes on in their heads. Hurting others often doesn’t even register with them. It isn’t accidental, but it barely causes them notice.

      Some, of course, are very purposeful and malicious in their relationships. They know full well what they are doing. The others just don’t care.

  7. John

    I have known one true narcissist in my lifetime. She was my wife for six years. Most of her actions I did not understand through the marriage but came to understand later. First, narcissists do not change because a) they think they are perfect and b) if you incontrovertably show them not to be perfect they run like hell. My wife ended our relationship in the fall by cheating with another man while out of town. When she came back in town she cruelly told me she did not love me or my kids and kicked us out on the street. She also accused me of having an affair (which I did not nor was I even close to having one) She denied having an affair herself. After terrorizing me every time I tried to come and get our possessions, I finally was away from her and determined to go no contact and proceed with the divorce. Within a month, she was calling me 20 times an hour desperately saying she wanted me back and that we needed to talk. When I gave in she admitted sleeping with someone and promised to go to counseling. Seven weeks later, after not attending a single appointment, and once again treating me like I did not matter, I started an argument out of frustration and ended up telling her all the lies I had uncovered about her when we were broken up. She then said she wanted nothing to do with me because she was getting use to sleeping alone. This was New Years. Within one week, she flew out of town with a second man from her work, who it turned out she was seeing all along (even before the first affair I found out about). The lies and deception are so outrageous that the average person cannot comprehend another person (let alone a spouse) could do this, which is why it is so devastating. I was actually the second husband she had done this to, bringing us back after an emotional breakup, knowing full well she was leaving with someone else. Again, when you know the level of deception and the havoc they wreak, you know them and they run like hell. This type of behavior has no real connection to normal people’s run of the mill narcissism. I can tell you one year later, that I am still struggling with making sense of what happened and feel I may always be. That is why normal narcissistic tendencies and destructive narcissism should always be considered two different things.

    • Amazing! Even though I hear these stories so often, I still shudder at the pain some people are put through. I hope you have been able to move beyond her, but I know the pain lies close to the surface for a long time.

      In general, I don’t believe that narcissism is normal in any way. We do have tendencies to withdraw or lie or lash out to protect ourselves, but the difference between normal protectionist behavior and narcissism is so strong, as you say, that I really do find it more helpful to keep them separate. I do that by keeping narcissistic behavior in the negative. There is nothing normal or healthy about it, in my mind.

      I would say that a functional narcissist is fully capable of destructive actions, but has simply been able to live without using them. Cross him or threaten him and you will find that his true colors will jump out. The reason he is so able to hurt others is still because he doesn’t care. The narcissist has no regard for, no connection with, the feelings of others. She didn’t care whether you were hurt or not and your pain meant nothing to her. That is actually part of the hurt, isn’t it?

      Thanks for the comment!

  8. Nwarped

    Really, really great stuff!! Is this blog still active?

  9. ati

    Three comments:
    1. If there is indeed a continuum of narcissism, then there must also be some people with narcissistic traits that actually have some real ability to empathize.
    2. I believe many people on the narcissism spectrum do feel genuine love for others. Feeling love and being able to offer love are two different things, however.
    3. While it is beneficial in certain circumstances for a person to learn to affect social skills such as empathy, this still does not take the place of the real thing. If a person in relationship with the individual wants real love/ empathy, this ultimately won’t work. If the person does not care weather they are receiving real love and empathy, that is another thing.

    • Noel

      Fake empathy and love do not work. I was in a marriage for 45 years like that. I always thought something was wrong with me. I read countless books and tried countless things to make it change. It did not. And then I found out about narcissism. I will not put any effort forth for a relationship like that again.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s