Compensatory Narcissism Is a Natural Life Stage

How to get that chip off your shoulder.

Posted Apr 12, 2019

If you're not born with a chip on your shoulder, you're rare, and anyway, you're likely to get one in your early years. After all, you’re pint-sized in a world of towering adults and tactless peers who can run circles around you.

And who are you anyway? You don’t know. It’s not like you came with a packing slip that inventories your assets, and even if you did, you’re a work in progress, a moving target. You aren’t yet what you could be, and for all you know, you may never be what you hope you’ll be.

As a child, you're under extraordinary pressure to conform, get grades, and meet standards on many fronts, standards not your own but imposed by a society you’re only beginning to understand.

Your parents are often harried, impatient, barely concealing disappointment that can bleed over or be directed at you. Your sibs are your allies, but also your competitors. Your older sibs already beat you to the low-hanging fruit. You’re left to scramble for merit, and again they’ll beat you to it often, feeling justified because your birth stole their thunder.

By our teens, most of us still have that chip, which has likely grown. We’re obsessed with our status and how to improve it with sex, romance, popularity, coolness. Nothing matters more, even to those teens lucky enough to succeed in the cutthroat competition. We are compensatory narcissists, with that chip burning a hole in our shoulders. We live to appear bigger ASAP.  

We may not show it. Some of us respond to the standard-issue compensatory narcissism of childhood with shyness, depression, or low self-esteem, but that doesn’t mean we’re humble. It means we’re hungry, starved for approval we’re not getting.

We're so obsessed with proving worthy that we have little attention left to focus on developing our worth. We care more about appearance than action: for example, more about appearing clever than being clever. We are, as sociologist Christopher Lasch put it, other-directed rather than inner-directed. We’re guided by what others value rather than by what we value.

It makes sense that we would be. Few of us know what we value when we’re young, so of course we look to social cues to guide us. Still, to remain so completely other-directed all our life long is stunted growth. A life well lived is more concerned with being clever than appearing clever, being smart than appearing smart, being happy than appearing happy.

Some say the way to avoid such stunted growth is to renounce status: Keep your own counsel, never caring what others think. Be a rugged individualist; get over the world. But some of the most stunted, compensatory narcissists are pathological individualists. Though they may pretend they care about other people’s opinions, they only care about forcing other people to praise them to soothe their burning shoulders. They’ll gaslight freely to keep people in line, devoted to satiating their insatiable compensatory-narcissism appetite for adulation.

Some say the way to avoid such stunted growth is to have a happy childhood with adulating helicopter parents who treat you like royalty. But that often stokes the expectation of adulation, spoiled brats unprepared for a world indifferent to their status.

Affirmation abstinence can leave you hungry for what you’ve missed. Affirmation opulence can make you hungry for the adulation to which you are accustomed.

Is there an alternative?

There is: Taking a fancy to something more interesting than how you rank. To be eaten up by curiosity to engage in some pursuit, a vocation or avocation, a hobby, a project, a caper—some life-sized venture that takes on a life of its own, interesting enough to take your mind off your status. People often come to their pursuits for the status, but stay for the sheer joy of it. They come to appear improved, but stay for the self-improvement.

And then some never quite make the maturing transition out of compensatory narcissism. They do pursue mastery, but only in the cleverness by which to appear ever more clever. These are the adult narcissists, the chip still burning a hole in their shoulder, an open wound that they try to salve with ever more attention and adulation.

Maturation is a transition from anxious, fierce self-romancing to calm, confident self-love, the kind where you’re pretty much over the question of how you’re doing, thereby freeing yourself to do your best.

This is lost on adult narcissists, who continue to think that power, notoriety, or money can buy them the self-love they never found for lack of anything more consuming to think about than how they’re doing.

When we talk about someone acting childish, we could mean many things. Perhaps one is never having matured beyond compensatory narcissism, a natural life stage to grow out of, or you will have missed the boat of life by concentrating so desperately on keeping your sinking boat afloat.