The following is partially excerpted with the permission of HarperCollins from Rethinking Narcissism.
We all need some entitlement now and then, just like we need to feel special now and then. On birthdays, we feel entitled to a little extra consideration or attention. When we're sick, likewise, we might feel entitled to more help. Healthy entitlement might even help us say "no" to unreasonable demands and assert ourselves when we're feeling mistreated. But entitlement at its most extreme is an unremitting attitude that the world and everyone around us should support our exalted status. It's this kind of entitlement that gives away subtle narcissists.
Entitlement solves a unique problem for the narcissist. Convincing ourselves we're better than others requires the presence of other people, and they have a free will of their own. The only way to support a relentless need to tower above other human beings is to bend them to our will -- to demand recognition, like a king forcing his subjects to their knees. Extreme entitlement turns everyday interactions into a drug, another chance for a narcissistic high. And the more dependent someone is on feeling special (the narcissist's drug of choice), the more their entitlement grows to help them meet their need. Only later for example, when Kevin, bucking for a major promotion at his law firm, needed more support than he ever had before, did his problems become apparent. His girlfriend Sherry had to be his rock. Need had become expectation. Kevin felt entitled.
Subtle narcissism is marked by an entitlement surge -- those moments when a normally understanding friend or partner or coworker angrily behaves as if the world owes them. It's usually triggered by a sudden fear that their special status has been threatened in some way. Until this point, their need for the world to revolve around them is mostly under wraps, because it hasn't been called into question. Kevin didn't ask for Sherry's support or even try to understand how hard her year after her mother's death had been. In his mind, he deserved her full understanding because he felt so close to his dream of a becoming a law partner.
The entitlement surge of subtle narcissism is a bit like the normally happy drunk suddenly becoming surly and going on a bender, cleaning out the liquor cabinets and storming off to buy more booze. Your usually affable boss suddenly tears into you, worried that the latest project (his idea) is failing. Unbeknownst to you, he's secretly had plans to become the CEO ever since he arrived. Your partner begins complaining about the messy house after your pregnancy, feeling he works hard enough that he deserves to come home to a clean house. Your relentlessly supportive friend, who secretly feels no one's as good at helping people as her, becomes cold and bristly after finding out you confided in someone else about your breakup. You always feel a pull from subtle narcissists -- a mild sense that you need to support their ego. But after they have an entitlement surge, you feel like all you're doing is boosting them.
For many subtle narcissists, once the crisis has passed, they slide back down the spectrum to less self-involved territory. But the more their fear of depending on people begins to build -- if they have repeated breakups, for example -- they begin slipping from habit to addiction, convinced that their special status is the only thing in the world that they can truly rely on.
To read more about subtle (and dangerous) narcissism, including specific, research-backed strategies to protect yourself from it, order Rethinking Narcissism today.
Where do you fall in the narcissism spectrum? Take the narcissism test and find out.
This article previously appeared in psychology today