The Key to Understanding Bad Boys: They’re Narcissists

Bad boys — and bad girls — are sexy, alluring, intense, and challenging. They draw you in, and then inevitably push you away. Trying to earn their love and approval can become addictive. But it’s a losing game. Because, according to Dr. Craig Malkin, they’re often unhealthy narcissists who, by definition, can’t — or at least won’t — ever take the focus off themselves.

rethinkingnarcissism_coverIn his new book “Rethinking Narcissism: The Bad — and Surprisingly Good — About Feeling Special,” the Harvard Medical School psychologist and Huffington Post blogger outlines the wide spectrum of narcissism and how to deal with it in yourself and in those you love. According to Malkin, too little narcissism leads to unhealthy selflessness, just the right amount creates a strong sense of self, and too much results in the kind of bad boys (and girls) who’ll ruthlessly break you’re heart. 

Below is a fascinating excerpt from “Rethinking Narcissism” offering practical tips to help you escape the excitement trap of narcissists and create your own secure passion within a stable romantic relationship:  

Escaping the Excitement Trap

from the “Dealing with Lovers” chapter of the book “Rethinking Narcissism” by Dr. Craig Malkin

Months later, Anna ran into another problem people often face when they end a relationship with a narcissist: boredom.

“I’m enjoying  my time with my new boyfriend,” she explained, wincing, “Tod’s sweet, and charming—a cute guy. But he doesn’t stir me up the way Neil did.”

“How do you mean?” I asked.

“Neil seemed so self-assured, especially in bed. Sex always felt like fireworks.” She smiled, lost in the memory. “Don’t get me wrong.  I’d never  go back  now.  But  I keep  hoping  I find someone  with  the same chemistry we had. Can’t  I get excited with guys who aren’t bad boys?”

The answer  is yes. But first, Anna  has to understand what made her so excited with the wrong  guys.

Faced with Anna’s situation, many  people  simply  conclude that  they’re   mysteriously  and  uncontrollably  drawn   to  the wrong  people.  There  are nice guys, on the one hand, like Tod, who  offer  security  and stability  and the hope  of lasting  love, and bad boys, on the other,  who offer so much excitement and intensity that  it’s almost  worth putting up  with  them.  Many of these bad boys,  like Neil, live on the far right  of the spectrum. And it’s not just women  who struggle with this dilemma. Though it gets far less attention, men have their own version— the “bad girl” phenomenon. One of my clients, Jeff, once complained  to me, “Why  are all the crazy  women  so sexy?” It’s a puzzle  that  makes  a lot more  sense once  you  realize  that  our feelings of attraction and excitement often intensify  when love feels the least certain.

Romantic uncertainty often  turns  us  on.  It  stirs  up  feelings like fear, anger, and jealousy,  all of which  enhance  attraction  through something psychologists call arousal. This  isn’t the same thing  as sexual arousal.  Think  of it more  like a jolt of energy that accompanies any intense feeling and courses through your  nervous  system.  A  big  dose  of  arousal  ramps up  our  feelings  of attraction. Anxiety  excites.  Anger  entices. Terror titillates.  Unfortunately, as far as our  bodies  are concerned, uncertainty is as good as source of passion as any other feeling. That leaves us at the mercy of narcissists like Neil, who are all too  happy  to bring  us excitement in the form  of a constant roller coaster ride of will-he-call-or-won’t-he?

To make matters  worse,  we’re often  our  own  worst  enemy when it comes to finding safer excitement with more loving partners. We make secure relationships boring.

Freud,   true  to  fashion,  didn’t  miss  the  pervasiveness   of this problem: “Where  such men love, they have no desire, and where  they  desire,  they  cannot   love,”  he  wrote,   describing male patients  who played out their deepest desires with women they  felt the  least  commitment to.  Their  most  intense  fantasies flourished in the  emptiest  relationships, with  prostitutes or mistresses.  Will our partners still accept us if we reveal our hidden  and wildest  desires?  Or do we have to present  a sanitized version of ourselves—safe,  reliable, willing to rein in selfish lust?  It’s a conflict  that  wreaks  havoc  with  our  love lives, forcing people to find the most intense passion, not in loving relationships, but  in affairs and pornography. We can’t escape the excitement trap of bad boys and girls until we start taking more risks with the people we love. That starts by putting ourselves in charge of our own excitement. There are a number of ways to do this:

  Open up.  Be  more  direct  about   your   needs  and  feelings. Use  empathy prompts. Not only  is this crucial  in developing secure  intimacy,  it also ramps  up  the  excitement when you’re  dating.  Nothing’s  more  arousing  than  sharing  all of who  you  are and feeling accepted.  Being honest  about  what we want  and  need  always  entails  risk  and,  because  uncertainty is inherently arousing,  it builds the excitement. It’s not the passive, panicky  brand  we feel with people  like Neil. It’s something far more powerful: secure passion.

  Own your desires. Sex isn’t about  purity. It’s about  imagination and freedom.  It’s about  acting on desire as it emerges—a truth bad boys and girls seem to get. In contrast, many of us become so concerned about the feelings of the people we love that we tie our desire in a knot.

Before Neil, Anna’s sex life had been relatively reserved. She enjoyed  sex, but she never felt free. In contrast, Neil, like many outgoing narcissists, didn’t worry about  what Anna thought of him. If something turned him on, he’d try it. He never coerced her,  but  he did  lead her  on  some  amazing  sexual adventures. His narcissism,  expressed  in the confidence of his moves, gave Anna  permission to act in ways she’d never dreamed  of in her marriage.  But like anyone  who fears untamed sexuality  has no place with  someone  they  love, Anna  relied on Neil to bring  it out.  The  allure  of bad  boys  and  girls lies partly  in the  room they provide  us to be dirty  while still believing we’re pure.

It’s not me, we can tell ourselves secretly. I can’t help myself. He’s  wild.  She’s trouble.  I’m  never like this. I never do this. And  yet,  here  we are, doing  it. We chase after  bad  boys  and girls, in the end, to reclaim our own abandoned desires.

I encouraged Anna  to  experiment with  Tod.  A few  days later, she sent her own sexy text messages (something she hadn’t done  with  anyone  but Neil). She also initiated  sex more  often. And slowly, as she created her own sense of risk and adventure, she reclaimed  her previously disowned desires. To her delight, Tod opened up more, too, and she found herself more happily looking  forward to seeing him.

Ask yourself,  What  did I do with  my ex that I’m not doing now? Are there experiences  you had while pursuing someone, like  being  seductive  or  flirting  more,  that  you’re  not  doing when  there’s less need to chase? Did your  ex introduce you to fantasies or sexual experiences  that you enjoyed  but feel reluctant to enact? Write them down.  Enjoy  them. Recognize them as your  desires, too.

  Experiment with  arousal. Remember that any intense feeling can enhance  attraction. Novelty—when we expose ourselves to  new  experiences—is  a proven  aphrodisiac. New experiences trigger  the  release of dopamine, a brain  chemical  associated with excitement and reward.  Dopamine keeps us coming  back  for  more,  whether the  excitement we crave is a person  or a drug.  Our partner becomes  exciting  by association. Narcissists often drag people into adventures (and drama) that get the dopamine flowing (remember Mia?); learn to generate  some of your  own. Challenge yourself  to try out that new restaurant with your  dates or bring them along for dance lessons. Bring a little adventure to your  dates with the nice guy or gal. It’s an easy way to create secure passion.

From the new book, “Rethinking Narcissism” by Dr. Craig Malkin


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  1. Having finally figured out I have a totally narcissistic mother and wanting to prepare for an upcoming visit, I just happened to read this very book last week! It’s pretty eye-opening. I wish there was a little more practical info about how to deal with narcissistic parents specifically (there’s more on lovers and bosses) but the personality test you can take yourself, or on behalf of the narcissists in your life, is totally worth it — not only can you assess how far gone they are, but it can tell you where YOU fall on the spectrum. I’m not a women’s mag quiz taker, but this was pretty cool.

  2. This is a great counter to my contention that people who like bad boys/girls aren’t ready for commitment. Instead, they could just have overly-sanitized ideas about commitment.

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