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What Is Compensatory Narcissism?

Daniel Liden
By Daniel Liden
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Compensatory narcissism is a form of mental illness characterized by narcissistic traits, such as disdain for others and an unjustified feeling of superiority, that mask underlying feelings of inferiority. Narcissists in general tend to see themselves as superior to others and demonstrate disdain for others while trying to elevate themselves in order to assert that superiority. "Classical" narcissists may not do this because of an underlying insecurity or feeling of inferiority, but those with compensatory narcissism act as they do in order to compensate for such feelings. In many cases, in spite of practicing behaviors that alienate others, compensatory narcissists desperately seek the praise and approval of their peers and can become quite upset if they fail to get it.

Individuals with compensatory narcissism tend to display many traits beyond feelings of superiority and disdain for other people. In many cases, such people also have only a limited capacity for empathy and have little concern for or interest in the effects of their actions on other people. Someone suffering from this condition is likely to be highly focused on his own social position as well, and often responds with anger or unreasonable depression to any criticism or insult.

Compensatory narcissists often cycle from phases of depression or emptiness to great excitement and energy based on the approval of others and on other personal factors. This type of narcissist often seeks to win the approval of others by exaggerating his achievements, boasting, and even lying about actions and accomplishments as well as by downplaying the achievements and value of other people.

Underachievement is another common trait of those with this condition. The compensatory narcissist often wants immediate gratification and praise and is, accordingly, unwilling to invest a great deal of time into any given endeavor. As such, he is likely to do generally lackluster work in his career, academics, or other endeavors.

It is important to remember the underlying cause for the behaviors and traits associated with compensatory narcissism is a feeling of inferiority. The behaviors that seem to emphasize the narcissist's own superiority while downplaying the value of others are all artificially employed to compensate for deep-rooted insecurities. These insecurities and feelings of inferiority are often rooted in the way that one was raised as a child. Parents who are abusive or who have unrealistic expectations for their children can contribute to the development of compensatory narcissism. In many cases, an individual with this condition is not even fully aware of the underlying inferiority, and the narcissistic behavior acts as a defense mechanism against feeling inferior.

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Discussion Comments

By anon1001028 — On Feb 19, 2019

@anon990958: Thank you for your input. Unfortunately, I am all but sure that I suffer from compensatory narcissism. I am almost 30, and aside from a two year period, I too still live with my parents. I also can't bear the idea of taking on a dead-end day job or struggling to climb some slimy corporate ladder. I tell myself I could set up a profitable online store or start some well-funded startup. (I have made some efforts, but enthusiasm doesn't last and normal setbacks take major tolls. )

Luckily, I don't have any of the vindictive or vituperative characteristics that are common -- I am a compassionate and empathetic person. Still, I have found this combination of symptoms to be absolutely paralyzing. Unlike most narcissists and many compensatory narcissists, I rarely blame others for my own misfortune. Most of my negative emotions are turned inwards and manifest as guilt or shame rather than jealousy or spite towards others.

I am sorry that you had to go from being with a classic narcissist to someone like me. At least with the classic narcissist, you knew what you were dealing with. I didn't even know myself what I was dealing with until recently. (And that is after going to multiple therapists for help.) I can understand why it would be a difficult disorder to recognize, even for a mental health professional. That makes me curious; how did you ever figure out that the person you were dating was a compensatory narcissist?

- William

By anon997341 — On Dec 19, 2016

@bear78: Narcissism stems from an unshakable belief in your own superiority. Compensatory narcissism stems from an unshakeable belief in your own inferiority, which you compensate for by believing yourself to be superior in some way.

A lot of narcissists will believe they are "better". Compensatory narcissists usually believe they are "different," if that makes sense.

By anon990958 — On May 18, 2015

Hi, can a compensatory narcissist have empathy? I feel like I am one, but I have empathy for people in need and abused children.

By anon974344 — On Oct 17, 2014

@Bear78: (This is from personal experience) I was married to a malignant narcissist. These are the narcissists who get vicious and purposely do cruel and vicious things to you and enjoy it. They will do anything to hurt you, and to make them look better than you and/or anyone else for that matter. He had a great job, was very successful, very wealthy, which went to his head, big time, resulting in him almost acting as he were God. He had grandiose delusions, believing himself to be better than every human on the planet -- a Mr. Know it All.

Then I dated a compensatory narcissist. He lied about everything: his job, his family, where he lived, who he knew, etc. Only after six months of dating him did I find out that he lived at home with his parents. He actually had never left his parents’ home. He was 40 years old, by the way. He didn’t have a job, and had never had a stable job. He did yard work only when he needed money. He would hang out with people who were wealthy and somehow was able to make them pay for everything, even elaborate trips.

He sponged off of me, and gave me many sob stories, so I felt bad for him. He always had a “new venture” that he was about to begin and would “make millions” from it. It never happened. Not once. He still lives at home with his parents, and still has no job. He wasn’t vicious like my ex husband. He just had a huge sense of entitlement, and was very easily hurt by any sort of criticism, or if he wasn’t the center of attention. He was compensating for being a loser, basically.

By SarahGen — On Sep 24, 2013

How many of the characteristics of compensatory narcissism disorder does a person have to fulfill to be diagnosed with it?

Aside from trying to build a great illusion of myself, degrading others and exaggerating, I carry all of the other characteristics.

Does this mean that I'm a compensatory narcissist?

By ysmina — On Sep 23, 2013

@feruze-- A psychologist would probably answer this question best. I think classic narcissists and compensatory narcissists have a lot in common. But I think that compensatory narcissists are more affected by criticism and get depressed more easily than classic narcissists. Lying and boasting also tend to be more dominant characteristics of a compensatory narcissist.

I was married to a compensatory narcissist. I didn't know the truth about his job and his family until after I married him. He boasted of having a great job which didn't turn out to be true. His family was also much different than what he told me. I think that compensatory narcissists are very vulnerable emotionally.

By bear78 — On Sep 22, 2013

I still don't get the difference between regular narcissism and compensatory narcissism. They seem like the same thing to me. Can anyone explain?

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