Narcissism can be contagious — and the repercussions extend beyond relationships

Narcissists can "infect" those they are close to — with devastating results for relationships as well as politics

By Matthew Rozsa
March 6, 2021 7:00PM (UTC)
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Pink symmetrical image of portrait sculpture of Giuliano de' Medici created by Michelangelo Buonarroti in 16 century (Getty Images)

Dr. Jessica January Behr, a licensed psychologist who practices in New York City, recalled why one of her patients sought treatment with her. The former client, "a woman in her late 20's," had been raised by parents who used her and her siblings to validate their own egos. They would set up competitions between them, rewarding whichever sibling "won" by giving them money and verbal praise and admonishing the children who "lost."

"As she matured into her adolescence, her mother would make comments about her weight, stating, 'What will people think of me if I have a fat daughter,'" Behr told Salon by email. "Every decision my client had made had to be in line with her parents' wishes to appear successful, wealthy and elite. This was the only form of love my client ever knew." The consequence was such that, as an adult, "she only sought out transactional relationships in which she could gain monetary reward as compensation for body and beauty. She viewed most interactions as competitions and transactions, there could only be winners and losers. In this way, she continued her parents legacy, as a 'flying monkey' of their cause."

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There is a reason why Behr used the term "flying monkey." It is a reference not only to the flying monkeys from the classic 1939 film "The Wizard of Oz," but also to a condition known as narcissism by proxy. As Behr explains, the phenomenon of narcissism by proxy occurs "when people act on a narcissist's behalf, to contribute to their goals and gains, despite not necessarily being narcissists themselves." Narcissists will cycle through idealizing their victims and denigrating them in order to condition people to internalize their will and become extensions of themselves. 

"Because a victim can then mimic the narcissists behavior, any ability to question or condemn the behavior ceases," Behr explained, adding that victims will fear both "the fall from grace or severe devaluation they will receive" and the fact that "if they condemn the narcissist they will also have to face their own demons."

Recently, the idea of narcissism by proxy has tiptoed into mainstream pop psychology discussions, for reasons that are clearly political. Last month, a Medium.com blog post written by a therapist on the topic went semi-viral. And the thesis that our culture has become more narcissistic generally — and the cultural conversation around that proposition — extends back decades before Donald Trump or the rise of social media (to name two recent narcissistic touchstones.) 

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Dr. Ramani Durvasula, a licensed clinical psychologist and professor of psychology who is noted as an expert on narcissistic personality disorder and narcissistic abuse, elaborated to Salon on the exact nature of narcissism by proxy.

"Narcissism by proxy is not an 'official term' and is also variously called contagious narcissism, infectious narcissism," Durvasula told Salon by email. "It can mean taking on the mantle of grandiosity and entitlement and contempt of someone else who holds more power (such as a parent or a leader) — and almost mirroring that behavior. It can also mean that the 'proxy' almost gets more 'grandiose' as their 'narcissistic inspiration' has or gets more power."

Durvasula added that the dynamic created through narcissism by proxy relationships leads to not only grandiose behavior, but also a sense of victimhood.

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"The 'lead narcissist' uses their bully pulpit to foster a sense of victimization in the followers (the proxies) who are then emboldened to fight even harder for the cause of the 'lead narcissist' in the name of vindicating their victimization," Durvasula explained. "So a leader could mobilize followers to attack a group who has been painted as the 'bad people' and with the followers as the victims of the 'bad people' - this is a way for the 'lead narcissist' to centralize power and create an unseeing devotion in the proxies." This can also create a feeling of "shared omnipotence," or the idea that someone with whom you identify and has presumed power winds up giving the proxy more power by default.

"As that leader has power, exerts power, gains power, those sharing in the power may now attempt to flex more muscle in all areas of their lives — with families, partners, colleagues, strangers, on social media — because of the emboldened quality of the shared omnipotence." If the narcissistic leader loses power for any reason, "there can be tremendous persecutory ideation (e.g. people are out to get me, there is a fiendish plot)."

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This dynamic can manifest itself in a wide range of relationships. Elizabeth Kriesten, director of an organized called Bridges Across the Divide that focuses on helping individuals deal with others in their lives who are hooked in by misinformation, wrote to Salon about a new-age cult whose leader is a narcissist and sociopath.

"I could flesh this example out with individual stories, such as a woman who left behind her husband/children to follow this leader and years later ended up broke and devastated about how she had treated her family," Kriesten wrote. She also mentioned "a married couple that divorced because after following this doctrine they learned to hate each other" and "a teenager raised in this cult that went on to sexually abuse children — his parents defended him saying that he was only being honest about his true nature when other people are just as horrible but are deceptive about it."

As Kriesten explained, "The cult leader/follower relationship is based on psychological manipulation. The followers do not know what they are signing up for when they 'attach' to a leader, in the same way that people (usually women) don't date and marry an abuser — the person they are dating and marrying is a devoted partner. Only later is it evident that the whole relationship is based on deception and coercion."

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Speaking of romantic relationships: Yes, unsurprisingly, they are also ripe grounds for narcissism by proxy. Behr recalled a client who in her mid-twenties began dating a man that idealized her until she began disagreeing with him on religion, politics and relationships.

"This is when idealization turned to devaluation," Behr explained. "She was scolded, reprimanded and told she didn't know what she was talking about. Because she had already idealized him so strongly, these messages became internalized." During the two years that they were in a relationship, the woman began to outwardly change her views to mirror those of her partner, even though she might still disagree with him privately.

"This led to a loss of friendships, difficulty in the workplace and general isolation," Behr explained. "It was only after the volatile relationship had ended that my client realized that her outward beliefs were no longer her own and that she had been under some sort of 'spell' where she acted on her partner's behalf, espousing his beliefs despite not actually agreeing with them at all. This 'spell' is the effects of narcissistic abuse — the system of idealization and devaluation that shapes a proxy into an appendage of the narcissist."

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Mary J. Gibson, relationship and lifestyle expert at dating trend site DatingXP, explained to Salon that people in relationships with narcissists can "catch" narcissism because "coercion leads to emulation."

"Let's break it down," Gibson wrote to Salon. "The change from a disconnected, performative and traumatized state to emulating authenticity is not uncommon. However, in some cases, there are victims of narcissistic abuse that transform into a copy of their narcissistic abuser. These victims who copy the malicious machinations of destructive narcissism are narcissists by proxy."

One reason is Stockholm Syndrome, a condition in which people identify with their aggressors as "a type of defense" in which "a bond is created where the victim is offered a locus of control." Victims may also abuse others because "the victim internalizes the hostility in an effort to psychologically deny their own victimization. Therefore, through emulation, the victim alleviates the reality of helplessness and terror while maintaining the illusory bond of shared love and protection."

Those who are researching narcissism by proxy online will quickly stumble across links that reference former President Donald Trump. After all, here is a political leader who has inspired literal cult-like movements such as QAnon, spent years conditioning his supporters to believe that it is impossible for him to legitimately lose an election and then became the first president to try to cling to power despite losing his reelection campaign. The end result is that thousands of his supporters rioted in the Capitol to try to overturn a legitimate election result.

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"Narcissists rely on people who help to enable their behavior," Dr. Deborah J. Cohan, associate professor of sociology at the University of South Carolina-Beaufort and the author of "Welcome to "Wherever We Are: A Memoir of Family, Caregiving and Redemption," told Salon by email. After noting that this dynamic plays out in parent-child and romantic relationships, she noted that "we have seen this with Trump and his supporters, many of whom may come to appear even more narcissistic than he does. Narcissists seduce others into patterns of domination that become so entangled that they are hard to escape. We see this especially in terms of truth claims that are a distortion of reality." This can account for everything from refusing to accept the results of the 2020 election, even though they were unanimously upheld by dozens of courts, to embracing Trump's pseudoscientific ideas about the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Abusers are experts at distorting reality and claiming the truth while denying others' experiences and feelings," Cohan explained. "Narcissists by proxy are often in the position of covering for the narcissist, lying, and apologizing for him or her to help save face. They also might start to blame others to keep from blaming the narcissist. In turn, this person may wind up becoming hard to deal with."

Dr. Bandy X. Lee, a psychiatrist who has taught at Yale and authored the new book "Profile of a Nation: Trump's Mind, America's Soul," expressed a similar view to Salon. In the case of Republicans, she emphasized that it is crucial to distinguish between people who are merely ideologically conservative and those who have developed a cult-like adoration for the president.

"This is different from a normal political movement," Lee told Salon. She notes that it is different from situations in which otherwise normal individuals might develop mistaken notions simply based on misinformation. Ordinary people whose views might be inaccurate do not double down, irrationally cling to their beliefs and turn violent when challenged as do Trump's extreme supporters.

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"So we know that it's tapping into a pathological process," Lee explained. She postulated that the Republican Party is making this worse, however, because "the entire political party seems increasingly to exist simply to buttress the grandiose self-concept of one person." Although it is normal for people to have a "level of identity tied in with their position affiliation or their support of a candidate, it is not normal or healthy for vast segments of the population to relinquish their personalities, independence of thought and even self-interest as measured in multiple ways, including their livelihoods, their health and even their survival."

In the case of Trump supporters, Lee highlighted two main characteristics: narcissistic symbiosis and shared psychosis.

"The narcissistic symbiosis refers to narcissistically wounded individuals in the population being drawn to one another as leader and followers," Lee observed. "The person in the position of leader uses that position to garner the adulation of crowds that he craves in order to compensate for an intolerable inner sense of inferiority, worthlessness and lack of capacity. The followers, who are also narcissistically wounded, are magnetically attracted to this leader, who projects this grandiose omnipotence in order to attract a following." Even though outsiders may view the leader's behavior as "cartoonish," the projection of omnipotence and infallibility is "the essence of narcissism."

She added, "They find irresistible this projection of a leader figure who is perfect and undefeatable, but it never satisfies. A leader would destroy a country to keep getting it, and followers would seek him to their destruction or the break of the spell, whichever comes first."


Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer for Salon. He holds an MA in History from Rutgers University-Newark and is ABD in his PhD program in History at Lehigh University. His work has appeared in Mic, Quartz and MSNBC.

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Abuse Bandy X. Lee Donald Trump Narcissism Narcissism By Proxy Relationships Reporting