Why do narcissists keep changing their minds

Free University of Berlin

From the outside, everything is going very well at Tom: He makes progress on the job, can inspire others for his ideas and has enough assertiveness to implement them. He is pleased to lead a small team and enjoys teaching his co-workers how to do things the right way. Mainly because he thinks that many colleagues do less and only he understands what really matters. However, love relationships usually only last a short time, in the getting-to-know phase he is very charming, but he is hardly interested in the everyday problems of his girlfriends, just as little as in those of his employees. Because Tom is a narcissist - and could be one of those people with whom the psychologist Aline Vater is working as part of her doctoral thesis at the Cluster of Excellence “Languages ​​of Emotion” at Freie Universität.

Narcissism is a personality trait that can be more or less pronounced. Psychologists and organizational researchers have often found high levels of characteristics in people in management positions. “Narcissism is linked to qualities like assertiveness or a high self-esteem, both traits that help to be successful,” explains Aline Vater. “Narcissists often appear charismatic at first glance and can be very interesting and convincing.” But there are also negative aspects such as low empathy and high expectations that make dealing with these employees difficult.

Aline Vater wants to find out up to which point a high level of narcissistic personality traits is promising - and from when onwards problematic. Because while some narcissists get along well at work and in relationships and the success even further strengthens their high self-esteem, others suffer from the negative aspects. In internet forums such as Narzissmus.net, those affected complain about their own “coldness”, a feeling of emptiness and their own lack of understanding of the emotionality of others. The lack of reference to the feelings of others, one believes the descriptions, breaks relationships and friendships.

Aline Vater is writing her dissertation with Stefan Röpke, psychiatrist at the clinic and university outpatient department for psychiatry and psychotherapy at the Charité, Benjamin Franklin campus. Röpke heads a working group that deals with the changed emotional experience of narcissists. Above all, people who have been diagnosed with a narcissistic personality disorder are examined here; the transition between "healthy" narcissism and pathological expression is fluid: "There are people who are professionally successful precisely because of their narcissism". They get along well in many areas throughout their lives, it is only in relationships that the partners often feel devalued and made small, ”says Röpke. It is only after a narcissistic insult, separation or job loss that the level of suffering increases, and one speaks of a mental illness.

A study by the working group on empathy has shown that narcissists recognize feelings in others, but cannot sympathize with them. The emotions of others often leave them untouched. The impression of a general feeling of coldness is only partially correct. Narcissists have extremely strong emotions. However, according to Stefan Röpke, these feelings often do not correspond to the current situation. These feelings could even become overwhelming. If they were hurt, many narcissists would no longer have a grip on themselves, and they would often react inappropriately and irrationally.

Narcissists overestimate themselves and they underestimate risk. Despite their high self-esteem, they have little self-esteem, i.e. no realistic assessment of their strengths and weaknesses. That is why they are very sensitive and can sense precisely when others are not convinced of their extraordinary nature. Narcissists think they are great - this is what the technical jargon means “experiencing grandiosity”. They devalue others in order to be able to shine themselves, they do not allow others their success. “You are always dependent on external confirmation. You need success - failure can then lead to identity crises, ”explains Stefan Röpke.

Few of those affected realize that they suffer from a narcissistic personality disorder. They see a doctor or therapist because they have relationship or job problems, drink too much alcohol, take drugs, suffer from a stomach ulcer or indefinable heart pain. The accurate diagnosis is still rare, despite the popular media term “narcissism”. Aline Vater reports that the clinical aspects in particular have hardly been researched scientifically. So there is still a lot to be done.

Anyone who would like to find out more about the current studies on narcissism can contact the psychologists at Freie Universität by phone or email. For investigations into emotion processing, subjects with low or high levels of narcissistic traits are currently being sought. There is the possibility of confidential feedback in a personal conversation. When participating in studies, the data collected is treated anonymously and rewarded with an expense allowance.