What Is Narcissistic Supply? A Therapist Explains the Toxic, Attention-Seeking Behavior

The term “narcissist” gets tossed around pretty loosely, but if you have a true narcissist in your life, you know how much havoc they can wreak. You’re also likely familiar with their endless, insatiable desire for attention, admiration and validation, or narcissistic supply. We checked in with Field Trip Health psychotherapist Dr. Mike Dow Ph.D., Psy.D. for the 4-1-1 on narcissistic supply—and how to cope with this type of person.

Meet the Expert

Dr. Mike Dow Ph.D., Psy.D., is a psychotherapist at Field Trip Health, a company with locations across the U.S. and Canada that specializes in psychedelic-enhanced mental health treatments. A brain health, mental illness, relationship, addiction and nutrition expert, Dow is a New York Times bestselling author who has hosted shows on TLC, VH1, E!, Investigation Discovery, and Logo.

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narcissistic supply
Lions Gate Films

1. What Is Narcissistic Supply?

Dow tells us, “Narcissistic supply refers to the endless supply of attention, admiration and validation that narcissists require from others.” He points out that one of the traits of a narcissist is a lack of self-worth. Because of this, “The feedback they manipulate or demand from others is required to feel good and to protect their fragile ego.” He explains that the term narcissistic supply originates in psychoanalytic theory, wherein there are different types of narcissistic supply. (He adds, “Narcissistic supply is also sometimes categorized into primary and secondary. Primary is the one that's easier to spot: types that are acquired in more public ways versus secondary that are acquired via relationships.”) Narcissistic supply, according to Dow, can look like:

  • A boss who inflicts emotional pain on you and knows you will play into this and grovel. The boss's ego is satisfied because it can feel superior by inflicting pain.
  • A friend who boasts about everything like they feel good about themselves but then coerce you into long dinners where everything is about them—which demonstrates the fact that they actually have low self-worth.

2. Are There Any Red Flags to Look Out for in a Person You Suspect Is a Narcissist? 

According to the DSM-5, Dow tells us, narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) requires five or more of the following to meet diagnostic criteria:

  1. Grandiose sense of self-importance
  2. Preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success/power/brilliance/beauty/ideal love
  3. The belief they are special/unique
  4. Requiring excessive admiration
  5. Having a sense of entitlement
  6. Being interpersonally exploitative
  7. Lacking empathy
  8. Often being envious of others or believing others are envious of them
  9. Showing arrogant/haughty behaviors or attitudes.

While it doesn’t hurt to be aware of these potential warning signs, Dow points out that narcissistic personality disorder is one of the least understood personality disorders, so it’s not as easy as checking boxes of criteria. On top of that, he tells us, “This diagnostic criteria corresponds most closely with what is typically called the grandiose or overt subtype of NPD with the hallmark grandiosity (e.g., that boastful boss). There is also another type of NPD that's referred to as vulnerable or covert, which doesn't correspond well with the current DSM-5 diagnostic criteria. These can be tougher to spot. These types can appear shy, fragile, vulnerable and more visibly anxious.” Still, he explains that both harbor grandiosity and both will coerce people into giving them the attention they require. 

3. When It Comes to Narcissistic Supply, Is It Easier to Just Give the Person the Attention They Crave Rather Than Trying to Change Them? 

Dow’s answer to this one is pretty straightforward: “Usually.” He adds that if a narcissist is ever going to admit their issues and try to change, said change is probably going to have to be their idea. As such, he says that you may want to consider if you are able to give this person the attention they need by asking yourself these three questions:

  1. Can I get my needs met elsewhere?
  2. Is this person far enough away or can I create boundaries enough to protect myself from abuse?
  3. Can I be in a relationship with this person while still my own needs for mental health, well-being and self-worth met?

“If you answer yes to all three of these questions,” Dow tells us, “then you may be able to be in some sort of relationship with this person without jeopardizing your own needs. In these cases, you may need to practice radical acceptance and know it is likely they will never change.”

4. In General, How Can You Cope with a Narcissist in Your Life? 

Dow admits that this depends on who the person is to you (meaning your situation is very different if the narcissist in your life is your boss versus your mother). Regardless, “The best advice I have is don't expect that person to change and use boundaries. Don't confront them, because that will usually backfire.” Here’s his quick advice for different types of relationships:

  • If the narcissist is your boss…use rigid boundaries, and if they continue to be abusive, then consider leaving your position.
  • If the narcissist is a family member…use boundaries.
  • If the narcissist is a friend…keep the friend at arm's length and get your needs from someone else.
  • If the narcissist is a new romantic partner… consider the fact that they may never be able to give you what you need. In that case, you may want to consider leaving the relationship.

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sarah stiefvater

Wellness Director

Sarah Stiefvater is PureWow's Wellness Director. She's been at PureWow for ten years, and in that time has written and edited stories across all categories, but currently focuses...