Cerebral narcissists are those who have been diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), and whose symptoms present within their intellectual confidence and pretentious attitude. They tend to be egocentric, use their intelligence against others, and downplay others’ intellectual abilities. When dealing with a cerebral narcissist, it’s helpful to set boundaries and remember that their opinion isn’t reality.
What Is a Cerebral Narcissist?
Cerebral narcissists, also known as intellectual narcissists, are individuals who try to fulfill their narcissistic supply through their perceived intelligence. While intellectual narcissists are generally smart, they may present as if they are more educated than they really are. This is often done in an effort to mask underlying insecurities and lack of insight. Cerebral narcissists boast about their knowledge, excessively correct others, and often start sentences with “Actually…” in an effort to undermine others and refocus the attention on themselves.
Cerebral Vs. Covert Narcissism
Whereas cerebral narcissists capitalize on their intellect, covert narcissists tend to be more focused on emotional manipulation. They are more subtle than cerebral narcissists with their narcissistic behaviors, thoughts, and feelings. Furthermore, they may appear highly stressed and worried, yet shy, reserved, and self-deprecating. They frequently compare and judge themselves against what other people have in terms of happiness, possessions, and relationships–unlike cerebral narcissists who think more in terms of intellectual differences.
While covert and cerebral narcissists may experience many of the same thoughts and feelings, covert narcissists will be less obvious with their expression of “uniqueness”. It may take friends and coworkers longer to notice their narcissistic traits.
Cerebral Narcissist Traits
In addition to exhibiting the traits associated with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), cerebral narcissists also possess a desire to receive validation for being smarter than others. They hyperfocus on intellectual topics and go to great lengths to ensure others view them as the “smartest” in the room.
Some defining traits of NPD in general include:1
- Lack of empathy
- Sense of entitlement
- Extreme sensitivity to criticism
- Need for praise and admiration
- Narcissistic projection of anger and blame onto others
- Concern about appearance or reputation
- Transactional relationships based on what others can do for them
5 Signs of a Cerebral Narcissist
Cerebral narcissists tend to be egocentric; use their intelligence against you; surround themselves with intuitive people; lack empathy; and stand their ground when confronted with pushback from others. Most cerebral narcissists are adults with at least a college education; narcissism in general is more common among men than women, as well.2
Here are five signs of a cerebral narcissist:
1. They’re Egocentric
Cerebral narcissists often appear egocentric in that they monopolize conversations to focus on their intellectual achievements. They are typically vocal about their judgments of others’ mental capacities; roll their eyes when others are speaking; cut people off or talk over them; and even make comments such as, “You don’t know what you’re talking about” or “I know better”.
2. They Use Their Intelligence Against You
Particularly in moments when cerebral narcissists feel their intellectual reputation is at risk, they may use words or concepts they are certain you won’t understand, or insult your intelligence (such as nitpicking language you use or criticizing where you went to school). This can be a form of emotional or narcissistic abuse, and is typically done as a means of building narcissistic supply.
3. They Surround Themselves With Intelligent People
While it may seem counterintuitive, cerebral narcissists will often put themselves in the company of other intelligent people. This way, they can boast to others about being included in these environments.
4. They Lack Empathy
Cerebral narcissists struggle to empathize, especially with those they perceive as less intelligent (which, unfortunately, is nearly everyone). They might speed you along if you’re trying to think of the right word to use, criticize your choice to go to an affordable school (instead of a more prestigious one), and make fun of you if your grammar is even slightly incorrect.
5. They Stand Their Ground
Cerebral narcissists don’t like being wrong. When confronted with pushback, or their statements are challenged or fact-checked, they will insist that they are right and you are not. They’ll go to great lengths– possibly in the form of gaslighting. For example, they may try to convince you that their original statement was something different than you know it was.
What Causes Cerebral Narcissism?
While more research is necessary to fully understand the root causes of narcissism (and cerebral narcissism more specifically), the disorder is believed to be related to a number of interactive factors, including genetics, environment, and neurobiology.
Possible causes of cerebral narcissism include:
- Environmental factors: Childhood trauma and parenting styles are two impactful environmental factors in the development of cerebral narcissism. When caregivers offer their child either excessive adoration or criticism, it can lead a child to eventually seek other people and things (such as intellect) to provide for their emotional needs.
- Genetic factors: Research shows that certain NPD traits are somewhat heritable, such as grandiosity and entitlement.(FN3)
- Neurobiological factors: Research shows that those with NPD may have less gray matter in the part of their brains that controls cognitive and emotional regulation–including empathy and compassion, two traits commonly missing in narcissistic personality types.(FN4)
How to Deal With a Cerebral Narcissist
When dealing with a cerebral narcissist, it’s helpful to address the situation and create healthy boundaries accordingly to protect yourself.
Here are some ways that you can deal with a cerebral narcissist:
Avoid Confrontation, When Possible
Narcissists tend to have intense and aggressive reactions to criticism. Picking your battles and avoiding confrontation, when possible, can help reduce your suffering. For example, if a narcissistic boss is putting down your intellectual ability, depending on the situation, it may be more effective to respond with, “I’ll think about that” instead of arguing with them and trying to prove yourself.
Don’t Internalize Their Criticisms
Cerebral narcissists will break down your self-esteem to boost their own. It may be tempting to internalize their criticism, or take it as indication that you should do or be better. However, this may lead to unhealthy self-critical patterns. Remind yourself, when dealing with cerebral narcissists, their opinions are judgments (rather than facts). Try practicing self-soothing to increase a sense of self-compassion.
When dealing with a narcissist, particularly a cerebral narcissist, knowledge is power. Learning about narcissism and its impact can help you understand your experience; provide self-validation; offer support in feeling empowered; and contextualize the narcissist’s behavior.
Let Them Do What They’re Good At
Cerebral narcissists likely do have intellectual strengths; so, one way of keeping them busy and engaged is to offer them opportunities to use these strengths. At work, assign cerebral narcissists tasks that are up to par with how they want to be seen by others. If a narcissistic friend offers to help you do some research, consider letting them if it actually helps you in the end.
Seek Out Others Who Can Validate Your Experience
Involvement with a narcissist can be exhausting, isolating, and traumatic. Surrounding yourself with others who can validate your experience is an important way of obtaining the emotional support you need. Just be mindful of what information you share about the narcissistic behavior to avoid further conflict between you both.
Consider Your Boundaries
Setting healthy boundaries–whether physical or emotional–can help you distance yourself from a cerebral narcissist. Spend some time reflecting on your non-negotiable limits and then express them clearly. You may need to do so repeatedly; but, make sure that whenever you notice them observing these boundaries, you praise, thank, and reinforce their behavior. Ultimately, you may decide to end the relationship altogether, which can be healthy, despite feeling uncomfortable or even painful.
Can Therapy Help?
Seeking therapy is challenging for narcissists, as their gaps in self-awareness don’t often allow them to recognize areas for self-improvement. They often enter therapy for other symptoms, such as anxiety or depression (which then opens the door for narcissistic traits to be treated), or because a partner or loved one has asked them to.
Those interacting with narcissists are more likely to seek treatment for themselves. For these folks, it can be helpful to consider choosing a therapist with experience in treating narcissistic abuse. You can start your search by using an online therapist directory, or by speaking with a primary care doctor or psychiatrist.
Individual therapy is particularly helpful for cerebral narcissists and those interacting with them. This can be done through a number of techniques, including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which helps people adjust thinking patterns and make behavioral changes. Couples counseling or family therapy can be helpful as well, but only if the narcissist is willing to participate and build insight into their disorder.
Dealing with a cerebral narcissist can be difficult; you may feel insecure, burnt out, or even abused. That being said, awareness and strong boundaries, as well as social and therapeutic support can help move forward–no matter what moving forward looks like for you.