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Cognitive Techniques for your... Narcissistic Client's Need for Power & Control
6 CEUs Cognitive Techniques for your... Narcissistic Client's Need for Power & Control

Section 13
Understanding the Juxtaposition of Grandiosity
and Vulnerability in Narcissism

Question 13 | CE Test | Table of Contents | Narcissism CEU Courses
Psychologist CEs, Counselor CEUs, Social Worker CEUs, MFT CEUs

The "self-regulatory processing model of narcissism" described in the target article conceptualizes narcissism as a set of intra- and interpersonal processes employed in the service of motivated self-construction. In response to the insightful and constructive commentaries, this article theoretically expands this model to elaborate more fully the paradoxical coexistence of grandiosity and vulnerability in narcissists. Toward this goal, we consider the characteristics of the processing system and cognitive-affective dynamics that might underlie narcissistic grandiosity-vulnerability, as well as possible developmental antecedents. We discuss the possible concurrent operations of two systems--one implicit, hot, impulsive, and affect driven, the other explicit, rational, or cool. This analysis allowed the model to be extended in ways that further illuminates some of narcissists' paradoxical elements and enables specific predictions about the situational features likely to activate and maintain the narcissistic pattern. It is our hope that the model will stimulate additional research and theorizing about narcissism and serve more generally as a framework for the study of other personality types.

Understanding the Juxtaposition of Grandiosity and Vulnerability in Narcissism
A central characteristic of the distinctive narcissistic processing system that we tried to account for in our model is the seemingly paradoxical juxtaposition of grandiosity and vulnerability. The grandiose features are widely recognized and have received ample empirical documentation. Grandiosity is enacted interpersonally when narcissists engage in self-aggrandizing behaviors in situations that call for modesty, self-handicap prior to performance, or derogate others who outperform them. It also is present in their intrapersonal strategies: They view (or at least report) themselves and their accomplishments as superior to others, find ways of discounting negative and augmenting positive feedback, and even reconstruct their past experience to be more favorable. These strategies are thought to reflect grandiosity rather than just everyday self-enhancement, because narcissists employ them to a much greater degree than is typical and to an inflated degree compared to objective standards (Gabriel, Critelli, & Ee, 1994; John & Robins, 1994; Rhodewalt & Eddings, 2001). However, although there is wide agreement among the authors in this issue regarding the likely coexistence of grandiosity and vulnerability in narcissism, how vulnerability and grandiosity coexist within the selves of narcissists has thus far has eluded clear or conclusive empirical substantiation. This is probably because vulnerabilities are likely to be hidden from others as well as from the self, thus much less easy to measure (particularly with the simple direct assessments favored so far), than the grand side of the portrait that the narcissist is so eager to reveal and broadcast. Given the current database, therefore, it is understandable that Campbell suggests that narcissism, at least in its "normal" form, rather than being maladaptive, may define a positive and healthy strategy for dealing with the modern world.

Understanding the Processes Involved in Narcissistic Vulnerability
The distinction between implicit and explicit systems is likely a fruitful avenue to pursue to help us conceptualize the type of processing system(s) that can account for narcissistic vulnerability and its interaction with grandiosity. The basic argument is that narcissists are high in explicit but low in implicit self-esteem. Robins, Tracy, and Shaver, for example, use this distinction to make sense of Kernberg's (1975) classic clinical account of the "splitting" of positive and negative self-evaluations. Self-enhancement, then, is not just a way to reinforce high explicit (or conscious) self-esteem and feelings of superiority, but also an attempt to counteract an underlying and only partially conscious sense of inadequacy and vulnerability.

Evidence consistent with this hypothesis is offered by Brown and Bosson who found that people with high explicit and low implicit self-esteem scored higher on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI; Raskin & Terry, 1988) and were more self-aggrandizing compared to people who were high in both types of self-esteem. Complimenting these data with regard to the narcissistic dynamic is evidence showing that having concurrent but discrepant explicit/implicit self-esteem increases self-serving responding (Abend, Kernis, & Hampton, 2001). Of course, in addition to resulting from narcissists' negative underlying self-evaluations, it is also possible for these effects to result from a more general problem in self-regulation in terms of a lack of frustration tolerance, as suggested by Arkin and Lakin. Furthermore, caution is in order when interpreting these findings because the meaning and self-regulatory implications of explicit/implicit self-esteem discrepancies for people in general have not been fully examined. Nonetheless, as the preliminary evidence cited earlier in this response article suggests, the incorporation of the notion of explicit versus implicit self-processes and the methodologies for their assessment may permit a framework for understanding the grandiosity-vulnerability paradox, as well as addressing alternative hypotheses such as those posed by Arkin and Lakin.

Importing contemporary conceptual frameworks and methodologies on implicit and explicit systems provides an opportunity to reexamine classic clinical notions about narcissism, such as the concepts of "splitting" and the implication that it involves a repression mechanism which disconnects the implicit (or unconscious) and the explicit more directly accessible systems. In contrast, like Brown and Bosson we think it more likely that the narcissistic self-concept contains simultaneously two conflicting self-assessments: self-love and self-loathing. The sense in which the vulnerability aspect is "underlying" is that grandiosity is directly and readily expressed (both verbally and behaviorally), whereas fragility is revealed only more indirectly and is less accessible--indeed it may often be disguised or hidden, certainly from others, but perhaps even from the self. In our view, however, these two contradictory sets of knowledge structures probably coexist, each with its own cognitive-affective consequences. They are also likely both readily activated, even if sometimes (or often) outside of awareness. Thus, within our framework (consistent with other contemporary processing models, see later) this coexistence is understandable without invoking unconscious repression or disassociation.

As noted by Brown and Bosson, and Kernis, it would be interesting to examine whether narcissist's implicit self-evaluatory system operates similar to Epstein's (1994) experiential system, while their explicit system functions similar to his rational system. Epstein's theory suggests that narcissist's negative and implicit self-views would be more affect based and thus more automatic and faster to respond, whereas the positive, explicit self-esteem would be based more on logic and reason, thus involving slower, more effortful processing. This conceptualization also has similarity with Metcalfe and Mischel's (1999) hot/cool framework that postulates two interacting processing systems: a cool cognitive "know" system, and a hot emotional "go" system, each with distinctive but interacting underlying brain systems. The cool system is cognitive, contemplative, emotionally neutral, flexible, integrated, coherent, spaciotemporal, slow, episodic, strategic and the seat of self-regulation and control, and physiologically based in the hippocampus and frontal lobes. The hot system is posited as the primary basis of emotionality, fears as well as passions; it is impulsive, reflexive, and initially controlled by innate releasing stimuli, fundamental for conditioning, and physiologically, amygdala based.

Thus, if narcissists' positive self-views are governed primarily by explicit or cool principles and operations, while their negative self-views are run by implicit or hot mechanisms, many of their seemingly contradictory dynamics become less paradoxical. For example, if being outperformed by another person, triggers hot activation of "I am a worthless person," and simultaneously explicitly elicits "Unless I can show that I am better than he is--which of course I can, because I am superior," it is not surprising that narcissists then engage in other-derogation to make the self superior. Part of this dynamic is illustrated in Figure 1.

A similar dual-system view using slightly different language was also put forward by Elliot and Thrash in discussing narcissistic motives. These authors suggest that much of the paradoxical nature of narcissism may be attributable to narcissists being energized by both appetitive (approach) and aversive (avoidance) motivations simultaneously, even if at the behavioral level they exhibit nearly exclusively approach forms of regulation. Drawing on the distinction between self-attributed (more conscious, cognitively elaborated values) and implicit motives (more nonconscious, affectively based dispositions) they further speculated that narcissists evidence concordance on these with regard to approach motives, but discordance with regard to avoidance motives. That is, narcissists are expected to be low on fear of failure or rejection on self-attributed motives, yet high on the corresponding implicit motive. This type of framework was also suggested in the Sedikides and Gregg and Kernis articles.

In short, whether discussing narcissistic self-views or motives, there seems to be agreement that the joint operation of grandiosity and vulnerability is likely key to understanding the narcissistic paradox. Therefore, it is critical in future research to assess both systems. This is a challenging task indeed, if vulnerability operates at an implicit and automatic level that is less subject to awareness. Furthermore, it is likely, that even when vulnerability is displayed or experienced, it does not remain observable very long, because narcissists are quick to actively counteract it by any means possible (including not reporting it). Thus, to assess vulnerability, implicit measures, or self-report measures that are less subject to self-presentational concerns are likely to be needed. Through a combination of such implicit and more direct methods it should become possible to chart narcissists' mental and emotional representations and to fill in these as of yet unelaborated components of the model.
- Morf, Carolyn C., Rhodewalt, Frederick; Expanding the Dynamic Self-Regulatory Processing Model of Narcissism: Research Directions for the Future;Psychological Inquiry; 2001; Vol. 12, Issue 4.

Personal Reflection Exercise #6
The preceding section contained information about the further goals of narcissism models. Write three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section in your practice.

What two operations are key in understanding the narcissistic paradox? Record the letter of the correct answer the CE Test.

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