Compartmentalized Narcissism

It’s Narcissist Friday!

The last NF post caused some confusion and consternation, but there were great comments.  I have been thinking about this idea of functional narcissists.  The idea stemmed from the realization that so many are surprised to discover that a spouse or friend is a narcissist.  Something was odd, but they couldn’t quite put a finger on it.  (Others, of course, only needed to learn that there was a personality disorder that described their abuser.  They saw that person as cruel and awful, not just odd.)

So I began to think that there may be narcissists among us who have learned to function in society to the point where their narcissism slips out only occasionally.  This would primarily focus on the narcissistic tendency to depersonalize others.  Under stress, when life isn’t working, their narcissistic characteristics would come out.

It is certainly possible that these people were just covert narcissists, which I have written about here.  That would mean that they were not outgoing and overbearing, but manipulating from behind the scenes.  However, that still isn’t quite what I meant.  In my mind, the functional narcissist would be someone who normally does not exhibit destructive narcissistic characteristics, because he has learned how to function in society.  He would still lack empathy and still find relationships difficult.  (Of course, as I said, this person may exist only in my mind.)

Now, I would like to continue that general thought by suggesting that it may be possible for some people to compartmentalize their narcissism.  That would mean that it would be channeled somehow.  Is it possible that a narcissist could see one person as real and depersonalize others?

These may be people whose narcissism is primarily seen in a certain environment, like work.  For them, narcissistic perspectives on people are useful, especially if their job requires them to see people as assets or burdens.  Military leaders sometimes refer to “casualties” rather than soldiers who have been killed.  Managers speak of “staff” as something that can be cut, rather than co-workers.  Perhaps we could call this phenomenon, “vocational narcissism.”  It would be defined as the inability or unwillingness to see people as persons in the job environment.

Talk about a useful and prevalent trait of upper management today!  Companies seem to want people who can do this.  But are there people who can keep this at work?  I am not asking if all are able, just wondering if there may be some.  Those will be the ones who surprise us.

There is another factor in this, perhaps an outlet for the narcissistic abuse in a controlled context.  We live in an increasingly fictional world.  Television and the internet bring us people who are somehow less than people.  From the starving child we so easily ignore on the commercial during our TV show, to the murderer on the run from the police, we are almost forced to think of television people as fictional.  How is the news murderer different from the TV show murderer?  For some people there is little difference.  (Just recently CNN commentators almost cheered the former police officer who was on the run after killing three people.  One of the commentators compared him to the lead character on Django.)

For years we have known that watching family and marriage conflict on television can make a person feel better about themselves and their situation.  Watching Erica Kane get her twelfth divorce to remarry her fifth husband makes people feel that their life isn’t so crazy after all.  At least they aren’t that bad!  (Don’t ask me how I know that name.)  Narcissism isn’t just about depersonalizing others.  Maybe a narcissist feels better by such a comparison.  Comparisons are a common part of the narcissist lifestyle.

Many people believe that the ability of young people to kill easily and without care in video games moves them to do the same in real life.  The suggestion is that the video games desensitize them to the reality of others and the horror of killing.  But could it also be that narcissists are drawn to these games as an outlet for their anger, an outlet that allows them to hold in their anger at other times?  Narcissists are angry people.  Many young people play these games with no apparent negative social effect.

Part of the motivation for my thinking in these things is that we seem to be seeing more and more narcissism.  Are we cultivating narcissism?  That could be true.  Are normal outlets for those who have narcissistic characteristics breaking down?  That may also be possible.  Is there an increase in competition and stress that can’t be handled by fiction or sports or other indirect means?  Narcissists don’t handle competition well.

As you can tell, this post is more contemplative and philosophical than most of my Narcissist Friday posts.  I would really like to hear some of your thoughts on these things.  I am wide open to your challenges and questions and ideas.


Filed under Narcissism

33 responses to “Compartmentalized Narcissism

  1. Shonda

    I have ended a relationship with a narcissistic man after 8 1/2 years. I am completing my 3rd year of counseling in the process. He is a very wealthy man, self employed and he manipulates the public to see the good side of him and when he was home alone with me it was continuous mental battering. Narcissists are the best decievers when they are in the public eye.

    • Shonda, I am so sorry! You have been through a great deal of pain. I pray that you are able to find yourself again and realize that you are acceptable and loved. There is life after the narcissist. What he did was his fault, not yours.

      And your point is important. If it is possible for the N to appear “normal” in public and be terrible in private, perhaps there are people who do the reverse. At work, perhaps they are ruthless and cruel, and at home they appear gentle and kind. This is certainly different from the experience most of my readers have had, but it seems quite reasonable to me. The cruelty lies just below the surface at home, instead of in public like most narcissists. Always for their own purposes. This is not because they are basically kind and loving people. It is because they have learned to adapt in certain situations.

  2. JJ

    You hit the nail on the head with the video games. Best thing that ever happened to my now 60 year old former Narc bf. He would always “shoot some guys” to relieve work stress before he went to bed. It probably did help him hide the angry he felt at the people he worked with that were so beneath him.

    • If narcissists are addicts, as many therapists suggest, hooked on their supply, then what happens when it is no longer enough to “shoot some guys” on a video game? Could it be that narcissists, rather than regular people, move from these games to destructive behavior in the real world?

      Thanks for the real life illustration!

  3. Onward

    Thank you for your NF post. It is a needed reminder that the narcissist is who he really is. The narcissist is a master at “learned” behavior in the absence of responding from natural feelings in order to be socially appropriate. The performances can be award winning because for some the skill of acting has been honed over a lifetime. The narcissist in my life who will (hopefully) soon be my ex-husband can present a very acceptable social side. I’ve seen this side unravel however when something or someone gets in the way of his desired goal or objective. The outlet for that anger may be unleashed at home thereby preserving the public image and allowing his functionality in the outside world to continue. I spoke with a 20-year veteran high school teacher recently and in response to my question of whether she had seen a change in the general body of students over her career, she responded that in the last 7 years she had observed a growing disconnectedness and sense of entitlement that she attributed to social media (texting, facebook etc). As you mention, I have also heard that narcissism is on the rise in our society. I would speculate that the increase of things that we do behind the various screens in our lives – computers, phones, video games, tvs, bank machines etc – allow for isolation, anonymity, instant gratification, and a depersonalization that feeds narcissitic behavior. We are selfish by nature and I can see how those with the propensity for narcissism can go over the edge with the help of technology.

    • Yes! I will do a post sometime soon on why I think narcissism is a growing phenomenon in our culture. There are so many factors. “a growing disconnectedness and sense of entitlement” – doesn’t that sound like narcissism? If this is true, it reveals a lot about the state of the family. Because narcissistic personality is developed so young, we have to look at the family when we seek causes or significant contributors.

      Thanks for the comment!

  4. Prairiemom

    Hi. I just stumbled across your blog recently (by the grace of God!). I have found it so helpful and refreshing, as I am the main support for a dear Christian sister who is suffering (along with her son) in a marriage to a narcissist. Thank you for all of your wise insight!

    Just had to weigh in on this issue. I DEFINITELY think our society is breeding narcissism, and self-centeredness is even being looked on as a virtue! Who are the heroes in our society? Those self-centered individuals whose names and faces show up on the cover of every tabloid that I am forced to see whenever I check out in the grocery store, those people who are willing to trample on everyone else to find their “happiness.”

    How many times have I heard something to the affect of, “She divorced her husband and essentially hired out the parenting of her children so that she could pursure her dreams? Well, good for her. It’s so important to take care of yourself and pursue what YOU want in life!” ugh. Baby getting in the way of YOUR goals and dreams? Well, we can take care of that with a quick, tax-subsidized procedure. I even hear it sometimes in church, sometimes from women’s ministry: “Honey, you need to find what makes YOU happy. Dont’ let your identity be only a mom and wife. You need time for yourself, you need to take care of YOU and think of YOU first. God wants you to be happy!” As if it is not already hard enough to put away selfishness and serve serve the precious family God has given to me without feelings of entitlement.

    Sorry my first comment on your blog sounds like a rant (insert nervous, embarrassed chuckle here!). I do so appreciate your wisdom. Would it be Ok for me to email you sometime with some specific questions I have about my dear friend? Do you have previous posts about supprting a loved one in a narcissistic relationship? Thankyou!

  5. Carol

    From the many sites on the internet dealing with narcissism that I’ve read, it is very very common for this side of their personality to be seen only by their significant other or family. That’s how they can make the victims seem like the crazy one. Their “public” persona, even with some long-time friends, is very charming or nice — its a show. That’s how they lured us in! How else can they emotionally abuse and confuse us by gaslighting and projection? Although after I broke up with the ex, some people, who were not as close to him, later told me they felt that something is a bit “off” also.

  6. Penny

    Functional…compartmentalized…. Covert…overt…. Sadly, today, all I know is that even for those of us with a “trained eye” can be depersonalized by those we thought we knew well. This happened to me twice this week: once by an adult sibling who I knew is narcissistic, but her actions this week leave me stunned again; the other by a longtime friend but via Facebook, & boy oh boy did I get schooled by the “contradict myself in the same sentence” nonsense that N’s do so well. I think the statement that “a narcissist is a narcissist is a narcissist” is a truism; what we call “reality” is called “stress” by the N, and thoses stressors result in exposing the N for what they really are beneath the veneer & carefully crafted public personas & masks. It is painful b/c so often it is a lose-lose situation, and leaves us defenseless. I am hurting today and all I can say is that N in any form totally sucks. The N is never wrong, the scapegoats are always to blame & Facebook, twitter, email, & texts are used as blackmail. Sorry for the angst but these passive- aggressive assault[s] leaves me weary & grieving and afraid to trust anyone. I am struggling again to find “normal”.

  7. metaphorus

    This post is particularly insightful…

    Best Regards Larissa Sophie

  8. John

    My experience has been that narcissists cannot typically “hide” their true selves for long. Early on in relationships they may treat their “mark” well, especially if they have something to gain. However, their rage and “game-playing” style are never far from the surface. I have even thought that both of these things may go on subconsciously, although that I am not sure of that. They really seem confused when people hate them and seem to only come up with one consistent theory as to why (they must be jealous of me). My narcissistic ex-wife treated people very badly and would act confused when those same people despised her. Her first husband, who she had two young kids with, she left for another man (14 years older, who she later left for me). When I came into the picture, she acted as if she did not understand why her kids’ dad did not like the older boyfriend. DUH?? When you are with them, it really is confusing as to whether they are emotionally retarded or just evil, but when they discard you, the choice is pretty clear. My ex-wife also claimed to not remember any bad things that happened in her life (like arguments). At first it was comforting because I would think I don’t have to worry about the mean things I said in a fight, because she forgot them. I later figured out this was a perfect cover for abuse, because she always started the fights, but could not be held accountable when called on that (because she didn’t remember). Regardless of what they know or don’t know, I believe a relationship with them is like hugging the proverbial cactus, the closer you get to them the more you will get hurt.

    • John, you are so right! As I order my thoughts in my response, I think that your first couple of sentences are very important. Narcissists are accomplished deceivers. In fact, narcissism is a “bait and switch” game. The nice person is put forward to cover the evil and people are sucked in. Most people are surprised when the real colors show because of this purposeful deception.

      Also, whether it comes naturally or is carefully planned doesn’t really make any difference. It is still deception. Still a lie. The love that is promised, the kindness that is offered, the listening ear – all a lie. All of it has the purpose of serving the narcissist. I do think that manipulation and deception become the narcissist’s natural or subconscious response in almost every situation. It is what they have learned or developed all their lives. That doesn’t excuse the behavior or cruelty.

      However, there are some who seem able to keep those cruel behaviors in check for long periods of time. I get letters saying that the marriage was fine for 5, or 15, or 30 years. I can’t define “fine” of course, but a narcissistic surprise shouldn’t happen after that long. That’s part of why I suspect that some are better able to function within society than others.

      One more thing – thanks for speaking up and reminding all of us that women can be narcissists also. I have known women narcissists, but almost all the writing and internet information is about men. I think there are reasons why men have the higher number (75% is the consistent estimate) but women can certainly be narcissists.

      • Penny

        Interesting that the literature says that male/female ratio on N is 75/25%. Most of the Ns in my life have been women. Perhaps because they often play the “sympathy card” so well? Getting sympathy from the adoring public is much easier, at least initially. When that fails, then it becomes a frantic exercise to “throw anything on the wall & see what sticks”, bait & switch, gossip-disguised-as-prayer-requests, punishment, humiliation, shunning and good old-fashioned denial. It’s all a ruse to regain control, and an illusion. Know wonder we are constantly searching for normal…..

      • I have wondered about that statistic. Sometimes a number like that is widely accepted simply because it is widely repeated. No one actually knows, but that was the estimate by one person at one time. My guess, and I think you understand this, is that women are more likely to be covert narcissists. In men, narcissism is almost rewarded in our culture. Men are supposed to be unsympathetic, direct, focused, ruthless – they get ahead by narcissistic characteristics. Women are still more subdued, at least the 40-50 and up crowd. Their narcissism has to be more subtle and often more manipulative. It will be interesting to watch and see if that statistic changes as more young women are rewarded for being strong leaders. I think we can see N characteristics being rewarded in women as leaders in large companies. (Current news tells of the woman CEO of Yahoo and how she seems to have no empathy toward some of the employees.)

    • Shonda

      You are completely correct. A true narcissist does not remember the cruel things they say or do to the one closest to them. They remind you of all of your faults, but they do not have any. It is exactly like putting your arms around a cactus. Mu counselor has helped me get my life back.

  9. Cecilia K

    I actually posited a question on this very subject not too long ago, in one of your older posts. I had wondered if there are possibly narcissists who act narcissistic in one part of their life but not in another. The consensus was probably not, that they are going to be narcissistic in every part of their life, which makes sense to me. Narcissism seems to be something that is deeply ingrained in a person, so it’s not something they can just easily turn off and on. They might find it easier to wear the nice face for a while at say, their work, for example, while they have become weary of wearing it all the time in their private life, so it just comes off completely. But whether they are acting nice or brutal, they are still a narcissist deep inside.

    • UnForsaken

      You bring out a good point about compartmentalized thinking, C. It’s a common way for some to think anyway – esp. men – but it becomes a hazzard and not a help combined with any disorder. Ns fool themselves into thinking they are always being themselves, even when their actions are contradictory, even though they don’t understand themselves or their own feelings. They close it off in their minds and start pretending.

      But dissatisfaction and discontent and being ready to discard someone, can bring the reality out. They do make others feel alive and groom everyone to love them, but they are not capable of actually Living themselves. The act takes over, and they need to take our lives to have any life. Yes, very deeply ingrained and the thinking remains the same even when they have decided to be nice for their own benefit.

      The confusion comes with their being able to turn the “naughty or nice” behaviors off and on. We would like to think it was just a bad day, or that it was their thinking/heart that had changed. But that kind of N simply changed tactics for better results. The results may be: feeling better about something, getting something, slyly showing us we were “wrong”, etc. . Mine makes peace at “any” price because he hates insecurity and discomfort. He has to do it in a way that shows what he Thinks he is/believes/wants to act – to a certain extent – but otherwise anything goes. It’s all about control. But once in a while even the “smart” ones can lose a grip on their goal or what they thought they wanted, one reason they spiral into uncontrolled anger. At that moment they see they cannot control God’s will, or themselves , or us . But the experts don’t necessarily stay there weary, in a permanent spiraling down. They often pick themselves up again to look better than ever. It’s a Huge lie that may fool others for a lifetime.

      • Cecilia K

        Yes, I remained pretty confused a lot during my relationship with my ex. You are right about the off-and-on nice and naughty behaviors. And I was thinking recently how, if we were to share about that with someone who has never experienced narc behavior, they would probably respond like, “Well, don’t we all switch between being nice and naughty from time to time? Why are you making so-and-so out to be such a villain?” And off the top of my head, I would probably not be able to articulate an intelligent response. I would probably feel like saying, “You just have to experience this to know what I’m talking about.”

        And I still have moments where I will again start thinking that maybe I blew the switches out of proportion – after all, I wasn’t always Ms. Nicey Nice either. I start to wonder if I’m being unfair to him. Even now as I write this, I can’t seem to articulate the difference between my changes in behavior and his. All I can point to is how I felt throughout the relationship – on edge, dreading the next incident I would get in trouble for (and since the slightest innocent act can provoke them, you can’t predict when these eruptions will occur), emotionally drained with only short periods of happiness but never feeling fully relaxed, and wishing at times that he would physically hit me and leave a mark so I would have evidence of him being a jerk that others could see.

        And yes, I remember some of those moments when he would get angry that he could not control me – how dare I not agree with him or do what he wanted!

      • UnForsaken

        Cecilia K., you are right on! I did used to try to describe a terrifying N I knew, and the responses were very close to that.

        What you expressed here is near my heart. It has been hard for me to even think of my N as a Narcissist, to not blaim myself . Although at clear moments I think I’m fairly logical, it’s that logic that eventually made me feel crazy (like something was wrong), because the world they have created and try to fool everyone is real, is totally upside down/illogical . I didn’t fit into it and couldn’t manage to be their idea of “better” . Rethinking and asking the right questions has been a challenge, but made me realize that I needed to question their reality, not my logic or intelligence. Yes, I’m flawed and just as capable of being mistaken as the next person, but I needed to give myself as much forgiveness/slack for error as I would for Anyone. Thank God for the creation of logic and His guidance in thinking!

        Thank you for putting your reflections down here. I learn from all of you new ways of describing the impossible, the feelings I have troubles expressing, and the healthy habit of reaching out even with the possibility of being misunderstood. I’m not used to being taken at my word or to being able to make mistakes. Everyone has been so kind here!

  10. Cecilia K

    Interesting that you mention logic here – I mentioned that in my comment in “Why Are They So Mean?” (which might be my new favorite post of all the archives I’ve read so far), about how when you try to use it on a narc, it is basically lost on them. As you say, their minds function so illogically – yet they have this power to make us question our own logic – which is why support systems are so VITAL! They reassure us we are not crazy.

    And to me, that is also the biggest value of this community here – all we victims of narc abuse remind each other that we are not alone, that other people understand what we’re going through, that we are not crazy. We EMPATHIZE with each other – one of the very actions that our abusers could not give us.

    • UnForsaken


    • Tryingtomoveon

      N’s live in their own warped reality. My ex is a prosecutor. At first I thought when he would manipulate conversations and arguments it was because he was “lawyering” me. It turns out he was just a raging narcissist! It was exhausting and demoralizing. Nothing like feeling like you are being cross examined and being put in the hot seat and somehow end up defending yourself for his lies and deceit!! Apparently the legal profession is s great match for them.

      • ms

        Defending oneself for the narc’s behaviors. Like finding teen porn on his electronics and being attacked for “digging through his stuff”? Yup.

  11. Tuki

    Reading all of this has opened my eyes to the person I think I love. I knew something was different about him – compartmentalizing- and his thinking so highly of himself, always in control, plus so much more. The only thing I can add is that he is the kindest man to me, he has even pointed out that he has never treated me poorly, or said a harsh word, but the manipulation and all the other signs are there. He has me wrapped around his finger, and I need to unwind myself from him before it gets worse for me!!! Thank you for all your posts, I have learned so much from them all!

  12. Mary Schneider

    Yes. My first husband of 28 years is precisely this type of narcissist. You are either “in” his circle of approval or “out.” Those who are out are depersonalized and utterly degraded in his view. Children included. He has no problem freezing out close relatives for years…as though they have ceased to exist. No remourse. No self-examination. No regret.

  13. Mary Schneider

    Yes. My first husband of 28 years is precisely this type of narcissist. Very successful at what he deems worthy of his attention. You are either “in” his circle of approval or “out.” Those who are out are depersonalized and utterly degraded in his view. Children included. He has no problem freezing out close relatives for years…as though they have ceased to exist. No remourse. No self-examination. No regret.

  14. Survivor of a Narcissist

    The narcissist that I knew seems like a very nice guy. He’s not loud or outwardly conceited. In his casual work relationships, he blends in. He is a train enthusiast and in his community of casual friends, he is fine at gatherings (model trains, trips to rail fan and take pics).

    It is in his more personal or intimate relationships that he experiences the insecurities that drive his insatiable appetite for narcissistic supply. Operating on that level, I’m sure his narcissism will always be present. He can’t be whole or healthy on that level. He has an endless supply of charm and entirely convincing behavior, but the mask falls off eventually. 😦

  15. Anastasia Sht

    “It is certainly possible that these people were just covert narcissists, which I have written about here. That would mean that they were not outgoing and overbearing, but manipulating from behind the scenes. However, that still isn’t quite what I meant. In my mind, the functional narcissist would be someone who normally does not exhibit destructive narcissistic characteristics, because he has learned how to function in society. He would still lack empathy and still find relationships difficult. (Of course, as I said, this person may exist only in my mind.)
    Now, I would like to continue that general thought by suggesting that it may be possible for some people to compartmentalize their narcissism. That would mean that it would be channeled somehow. Is it possible that a narcissist could see one person as real and depersonalize others?”… that’s my mum minus the job and the video games. She would be horrible to me and my dad behind closed doors with the most cutting remarks but she is exceedingly polite to strangers and friends. Incidentally she does not have many friends. Also the facade of being considerate to strangers and friends cracks if she is under a lot of pressure.

    • Another ACoN

      Anastasia, this is standard narcissistic behavior. Outsiders only get to see a mask, which can slip under stress, as you have noticed. The seemingly kind behavior is nothing but deception.

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