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The narcissism of losing

From 1949 to 1990, the democratic, free-market West Germany and the socialist, planned-economy East Germany competed to prove who had the better political and economic system. The results were the most evident in the cars both countries produced. While West Germany produced VWs, Porsches, Audis, BMWs, and Mercedes’, cars that were the envy of the world, East Germany’s car of the people was the Trabant. Having its last major update in 1964, the Trabant spotted a 23 horsepower, 0.6 liter, two-stroke engine, but failed to provide any of the amenities and security features its western counterparts had to offer. It had no air condition, no airbags, no ABS, no power steering, and its body was made of plastic – but the delivery of a Trabant took 15 years.

With such a lopsided result, it is not hard to understand why the East German public dreamed about driving a western car. The socialist leaders, however, considered the Trabant to be the proof of their superiority. Western cars, so their logic, are decadent and narcissistic. As a country that isn’t built on narcissism, East Germans did not need the western decadence and were perfectly content driving a Trabant. Weirdly enough, the East German leaders believed that having the worse product would prove their superiority.

This way of thinking is what I call the narcissism of losing. Sometimes we all think that we are better because we are worse, which can cause us to make bad decisions. Let’s take a closer look at what can trick us into falling for the narcissism of losing and at how we can avoid such a biased thinking.

What is the narcissism of losing?

To justify the belief in their own superiority, the East German leaders claimed that the West German cars were narcissistic. With that line of reasoning, the East German leaders appealed to the wide-spread image of narcissists as insatiable achievers that try to silence their insecurities with achievements and possessions. While this image certainly isn’t wrong, it only covers part of the picture. In psychological terms, narcissism has a broader meaning.

In his book Narcissism: Denial of the True Self, psychologist Alexander Lowen defines narcissism as the tendency to neglect one’s feelings in favor of an image one is trying to convey. Desperately successful people fit that description – they neglect what they consider to be weak feelings and desires in favor of what could help them to create a more successful facade. There are, however, endless other possibilities.

Ironically, the desire to convey a non-narcissistic image can be narcissistic, too. The East German government acted narcissistic when it expected their people to neglect their desire for a decent car in favor of conveying a non-decadent image. Their logical error was to state:

  1. It does not matter which kind of car we drive, and
  2. East Germans proof their superiority by driving a certain car.

That is nonsense. While the first argument is perfectly true, the second argument is a contradiction of the first. Whether we are good people or not is defined by what we do, not by whether we have to wait 15 years for an outdated car or not. As long as we try to lead good lives, to treat others right, and to contribute to society, we might as well enjoy a comfortable car. If having a good product can’t prove our superiority, logic dictates that having a worse product doesn’t prove anything either. The product is irrelevant.

The narcissism of losing in our daily lives

The same narcissism of losing can also creep into our daily lives. We all have self-serving biases and generally believe that we are better than average. When we lack the achievements to justify our better-than-average self-image, our mind needs a way to keep our glorified self alive despite the absence of confirming evidence. In this case, we can fall for the narcissism of losing – we victimize ourselves or we start to believe in a hidden form of greatness that has been stopped from developing by outer circumstances.

This bias is probably the most common when it comes to relationships. Most of us believe that they are generally good-hearted and loveable, but due to the self-serving bias we tend to see ourselves a little too optimistic – we think that we would be better than average partners. When another relationship does not work out, we need to justify why we are unable to maintain a steady, happy relationship. Rather than admit that we are just as neurotic and difficult than everybody else, we tend to victimize ourselves (we claim that all men or women are immoral idiots) and believe in our hidden greatness (we think that others can’t see the goodness inside us, that we are only too shy, etc.) – we believe that we are better because we are worse.

This narcissism of losing can cause us to make bad decisions. To keep our self-image alive, we might buy into the nonsense women’s magazines and TV shows such as Sex and the City propagate, or we start to follow the advice of pick-up experts. In either case, we neglect a part of our feelings to convey a certain image – we increase our narcissistic tendencies, thereby making our life emptier and unhappier.

Similarly, losing a game, the competition for a promotion, or someone’s love also questions our narcissistic tendencies. To feel good about ourselves in a situation where we think that we either can’t win or where we have already lost, we often try to make losing seem more desirable than winning.

  • We try to convince ourselves and others that we are not so insecure that we need to win in order to feel good about ourselves.
  • We think that losing proves our moral superiority, because we weren’t willing to do what the “evil” winners did.
  • We think that losing makes us more loveable.

With all of these behaviors, we do exactly what the East German government did with the Trabant. We try to frame the winners as narcissist and claim that our losing proves that we are better. We ignore that, while winning does not prove anybody’s narcissism, we define ourselves by the outcome of the event. We do the same thing as insatiable narcissists, and therefore we act exactly as narcissistic.

How not to be a narcissist

To understand how not to be a narcissist, let’s look at a simple example: the spreading tendency to not keep score at a game. This, too, is a narcissism of losing. When we stop keeping score to convey the image that winning is not important to us, we are just as focused on conveying a certain image as someone who desperately needs to win to keep his self-image alive.

Every game has a purpose. Playing charades is supposed to teach us effective communication, playing football is supposed to teach us team work, and playing chess is supposed to teach us logical thinking. While these games are also supposed to be fun, of the millions of things that are fun, why do we choose playing chess over playing darts? The implied teaching aspects always play a role in this decision. When we’d rather want to use our mental skills than or our motor skills, we choose chess over darts. When our preferences are reversed, we prefer darts over chess.

In this sense, keeping score at a game means to measure how well we can fulfill its purpose. The better communicator wins at charades, the better logical thinker wins at chess, and the better team wins at football. The score is an important indicator of the areas we need to improve and helps us to make the necessary changes to fulfill the game’s purpose better the next time we play it.

When we stop keeping score we destroy the purpose of the game and we destroy its soul. There is no good reason to do that. If we do not like the purpose of a game, we should not play it in the first place. If we do not like a game’s purpose, the only reason to play it is to achieve something else. We might try to impress somebody, we might try to do fit some convention, or we might try to please someone, but we don’t like the game by itself. In other words: We suppress our feelings to convey a certain image – we act narcissistic. (Of course, there are some games that never serve a purpose, whether we keep score or not, for example drinking games. Playing these games is always an expression of a narcissistic tendency.)

The important lesson is this: When we do the opposite of what we expect narcissists to do because it is the opposite of what we expect narcissists to do, our behavior is just as determined by narcissism as theirs.

Do not swim against the current, get out of the water. ~Discordianism

This quote conveys the broader implications of the narcissism in our daily lives. It is a reply to the famous saying that only dead fish swim with the current, and it wants to alert us to the fact that, regardless of whether we swim with or against the current, our decision is determined by the current. The only way to reach an independent standpoint is to get out of the water and to stop the current from influencing what we do.

The same mechanism applies to winning, professional success, possessions, relationships, and many more aspects of our daily lives:

  • The quality of our performance at any game is not determined by whether we win or lose, it’s determined by whether we have done everything we can to fulfill the purpose of the game. Simply put, it’s not whether we win or lose, it’s whether we have done everything to win (while following the rules).
  • Neither climbing the corporate ladder nor staying one of the “simple guys” proves our superiority. The quality of our career depends on whether have a job we love to do and that we are good at. Our title does not matter.
  • Success neither means amassing endless riches nor abandoning worldly possessions. Success means to create the lifestyle we want to live. Having to maintain possessions that don’t contribute to our happiness reduces our quality of life just as much as having less.
  • Thinking that we are better because we are beautiful is just as narcissistic as thinking that our lack o beauty gives us an moral advantage. The only way to not be narcissistic is to not define ourselves by how we look.
  • While it is narcissistic to try to prove our superior desirability by sexual conquest, it is just as narcissistic to think that we prove our superiority by being abstinent. The only way out of the water is creating the relationships we want without trying to convey a certain image with it.
  • It is true that people who have thousands of friends on social media and post selfies every day are acting on narcissistic tendencies. It is, however, just as narcissistic to think that staying absent from social media proves our superiority. We stop acting narcissistic when we stop using social media to convey a certain image and use it to share the things we care about with our friends.

In all of these examples, it is just as narcissistic to swim against the current as it is to swim with it. The key to a good, happy life, and the key to not allowing our narcissistic tendencies to reduce our quality of life is finding an independent standpoint, determining what we want, and overcoming (not simply reversing) the desire to convey a certain image.

Since nobody is a 100% or 0% narcissist and we are all somewhere in the middle, it is important to understand the nuance of narcissism and learn to evaluate our behavior better. When we have to make an important decision, we might be presented with two alternatives: One that we feel would be better and one that would help us convey a better image. Knowing that valuing image over feelings is a narcissistic tendency can help us to decide in favor of our feelings and create long-term happiness.


  1. Narcissism is defined as the tendency to neglect one’s feeling to convey a certain image.
  2. Trying to convey a non-narcissistic image is narcissistic, too.
  3. We can overcome our narcissistic tendencies by “climbing out of the water” and reaching an independent standpoint, not by swimming against the current and simply reversing narcissistic ways of thinking.

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Published in Psychology