What Makes a Narcissist Tick?
Traditional therapy, in most cases, has little success with the Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), it can only mitigate and ameliorate the condition by modifying some of the narcissist’s behaviors.
Only narcissists, who go through a severe life crisis, tend to consider the possibility of therapy at all. When they attend the therapeutic sessions, they, usually, bring all their rigid defense mechanisms to the fore. The therapy quickly becomes a tedious – and useless – affair for both therapist and patient.
However, there is promise in a spiritually based process. Many have gained insight and tools that lead them to a more productive life through the “Intensive Life Training” and the on-going group sessions.
Most cerebral narcissists are very intelligent. They base their grandiose fantasies on this natural advantage. When faced with a reasoned analysis, which shows that they suffer from “NPD” – most of them accept and acknowledge the new information. But first they have to face it – and this is the difficult part: they all are deniers of reality.
Moreover, cognitively assimilating the information is a mere process of labeling. It has no psycho-dynamic effect. It does not affect the narcissist’s behavior patterns and interactions with his human environment. These are the products of well-entrenched and rigid mental mechanisms.
Narcissists are pathological liars. This means that they are either unaware of their lies – or feel completely justified and at ease when lying to others. Often, they believe their own confabulations and attribute to them “retroactive veracity.” The very essence of the narcissist is a huge, contrived, lie: his False-Self, his grandiose fantasies, and his idealized objects.
Personality disorders are adaptative. This means that they help to resolve mental conflicts and the anxiety, which, normally, accompanies them. Narcissists sometimes contemplate suicide (suicidal ideation) when they go through a crisis – but they are not very likely to follow through.
Narcissists are, in a way, sadists. They are likely to use verbal and psychological abuse and violence against their closest, nearest and “dearest.”
The “NPD” is a newcomer to the zoo of mental disorders. It was not fully defined until the late 1980s. The discussion, analysis and study of narcissism is as old as psychology – but there is a great difference between being a “mere” narcissist and having a “NPD.” So, no one has a clue as to how widespread this particular personality disorder is – or, even, how widespread personality disorders are (estimates range between 3 and 15% of the population. I feel it is much higher than this from my experience. It could be as high as 90%. In the last ten years I have seen a dramatic increase in “NPD” in my clients. This increase is directly related to the media bombarding each generation with more and more intensely abusive and violent images, directing self-worth and happiness towards the materialistic and outer experience and away from true happiness derived from a relationship with the inner-self.
Can a narcissist ever get better and, if not, how should his partner end a relationship with him? A Narcissistic Personality Disorder is a systemic, all-pervasive condition, very much like pregnancy: either you have it or you don’t. Once you have it, you have it day and night, it is an inseparable part of the personality, a recurrent set of behavior patterns.
There are narcissistic touches in every personality and in this sense, all of us are narcissists to some extent. But this is a far cry from the “NPD” pathology.
One bit of good news: no one knows why, but, in certain cases, though rarely, with age (in one’s forties), the disorder seems to decay and, finally, stay on in the form of a subdued mutation of itself. This does not universally occur, though.
Should a partner stay on with a narcissist in the hope that his disorder will be ameliorated by ripe age? This is a matter of value judgment, preferences, priorities, background, emotions and a host of other “non-scientific” matters. There could be no one “right” answer. It would seem that the only valid criterion is the partner’s well-being. If he or she feels bad in a relationship (and no amount of self-help or of professional help changes that) – then looking for the exit door sounds like a viable and healthy strategy.
This raises the second part of the question: a relationship with a narcissist is of dependence, even symbiosis. Moreover, the narcissist is a superb emotional manipulator and extortionist. In some cases, there is real threat to his mental stability. Even “demonstrative” (failed) suicide cannot be ruled out in the repertory of narcissistic reactions to abandonment. And even a modest amount of residual love harbored by the narcissist’s partner makes the separation very difficult for him or her.
But there is a magic formula. A narcissist is with his partner because he regards “IT” as a Source of Narcissistic-Supply. He values the partner as such a source. Put differently: the minute that the partner ceases to supply him with what he needs – he loses all interest in “IT.” (I use “IT” judiciously – the narcissist objectifies his partners, treats them as he would inanimate objects.)
The transition from over-valuation (bestowed upon Sources of Narcissistic Supply) to devaluation (reserved for other mortals) is so swift that it is likely to inflict pain upon the narcissist’s partner, even if he previously prayed for the narcissist to depart and leave him alone. The partner is the narcissist’s pusher and the drug that he is proffering is stronger than any other drug because it sustains the narcissist’s very essence (his False-Self).
Without Narcissistic-Supply the narcissist disintegrates, crumbles and shrivels – very much as vampires do in horror movies when exposed to sunlight.
Here lies the partner’s salvation. An advice to you: if you wish to sever your relationship with the narcissist, stop providing him with what he needs. Do not adore, admire, approve, applaud, or confirm anything that he does or says. Disagree with his views, belittle him (or put him in perspective and proportion), compare him to others, tell him that he is not unique, criticize him, make suggestions, offer help. In short, deprive him of that illusion which holds his personality together.
The narcissist is a delicately attuned piece of equipment. At the first sign of danger to his inflated, fantastic and grandiose self – he will disappear on you.
What happens to a narcissist who lacks even the basic potential and skills to realize some of his grandiose fantasies?
Such a narcissist resorts to deferred Narcissistic-Supply which generates an effect of deferred grandiosity. He forgoes his grandiose schemes and gives up on the present. He defers the fulfillment of his fantasies – which support his inflated Ego – to the (indefinite) future.
Such narcissists engage in activities (or in daydreaming), which they fervently believe, will make them famous, powerful, influential, or superior in some unspecified future time. They keep their minds occupied and off their failures.
Such frustrated and bitter narcissist’s hold themselves answerable only to History, God, Eternity, Future Generations, Art, science, the Church, the Country, the Nation and so on. They entertain notions of grandeur which are dependent upon the judgment or assessment of a fuzzily defined collective in an ambiguous time frame. Thus, these narcissists find solace in the embrace of Chronos.
Deferred grandiosity is an adaptive mechanism which ameliorates dysphoria and grandiosity gaps. It is healthy to daydream and fantasize. It is the antechamber of life and often anticipates its circumstances. It is a process of preparing for eventualities. But healthy daydreaming is different from grandiosity.
Grandiosity has four components:
The narcissist believes in his omnipotence. “Believe” in this context is a weak word. He knows. It is a cellular certainty, almost biological, it flows in his blood and permeates every niche of his being. The narcissist “knows” that he can do anything he chooses to do and excel in it. What the narcissist does, what he excels at, what he achieves, depends only on his volition. To his mind, there is no other determinant.
Hence his rage when confronted with disagreement or opposition – not only because of the audacity of his, evidently inferior, adversaries. But because it threatens his world view, it endangers his feeling of omnipotence. The narcissist is often fatuously daring, adventurous, experimental and curious precisely due to this hidden assumption of “can-do.” He is genuinely surprised and devastated when he fails, when the “universe” does not arrange itself, magically, to accommodate his unbounded fantasies, when it (and people in it) does not comply with his whims and wishes.
He often denies away such discrepancies, deletes them from his memory. As a result, he remembers his life as a patchy quilt of unrelated events and people.
The narcissist often pretends to know everything, in every field of human knowledge and endeavor. He lies and prevaricates to avoid the exposure of his ignorance. He resorts to numerous subterfuges to support his God-like omniscience.
Where his knowledge fails him – he feigns authority, fakes superiority, quotes from non-existent sources, embeds threads of truth in a canvass of falsehoods. He transforms himself into an artist of intellectual prestidigitation. As he gets older, this invidious quality may recede, or, rather, metamorphose. He may now claim more confined expertise.
He may no longer be ashamed to admit his ignorance and his need to learn things outside the fields of his real or self-proclaimed expertise. But this “improvement” is merely optical. Within his “territory,” the narcissist is still as fiercely defensive and possessive as ever.
Many narcissists are avowed autodidacts, unwilling to subject their knowledge and insights to peer scrutiny, or, for that matter, to any scrutiny. The narcissist keeps re-inventing himself, adding new fields of knowledge as he goes. This creeping intellectual annexation is a round about way of reverting to his erstwhile image as the erudite “Renaissance man”.
Even the narcissist cannot pretend to actually be everywhere at once in the physical sense. Instead, he feels that he is the center and the axis of his “universe,” that all things and happenstance revolve around him and that cosmic disintegration would ensue if he were to disappear or to lose interest in someone or in something.
He is convinced, for instance, that he is the main, if not the only, topic of discussion in his absence. He is often surprised and offended to learn that he was not even mentioned. When invited to a meeting with many participants, he assumes the position of the sage, the guru, or the teacher/guide whose words carry a special weight. His creations (books, articles, works of art) are extensions of his presence and, in this restricted sense, he does seem to exist everywhere. In other words, he “stamps” his environment. He “leaves his mark” upon it. He “stigmatizes” it.
Narcissist the Omnivore (Perfectionism and Completeness)
There is another “omni” component in grandiosity. The narcissist is an omnivore. He devours and digests experiences and people, sights and smells, bodies and words, books and films, sounds and achievements, his work and his leisure, his pleasure and his possessions. The narcissist is incapable of enjoying anything because he is in constant pursuit of perfection and completeness.
Classic narcissists interact with the world as predators do with their prey. They want to own it all, be everywhere, experience everything. They cannot delay gratification. They do not take “no” for an answer. And they settle for nothing less than the ideal, the sublime, the perfect, the all-inclusive, the all-encompassing, the engulfing, the all-pervasive, the most beautiful, the cleverest, the richest, and the most brilliant.
The narcissist is shattered when he discovers that a collection he possesses is incomplete, that his colleague’s wife is more glamorous, that his son is better than he is in math, that his neighbor has a new, flashy car, that his roommate got promoted, that the “love of his life” signed a recording contract. It is not plain old jealousy, not even pathological envy (though it is definitely a part of the psychological make-up of the narcissist). It is the discovery that the narcissist is not perfect, or ideal, or complete that does him in.
Ask anyone who shared a life with a narcissist, or knew one and they are likely to sigh: “What a waste”. Waste of potential, waste of opportunities, waste of emotions, a wasteland of arid addiction and futile pursuit.
Narcissists are as gifted as they come. The problem is to disentangle their tales of fantastic grandiosity from the reality of their talents and skills. They always either over-estimate or devalue their potency. They often emphasize the wrong traits and invest in their mediocre or less than average capacities at the expense of their true and promising potential. Thus, they squander their advantages and under-rate their natural gifts.
The narcissist decides which aspects of his self to nurture and which to neglect. He gravitates towards activities commensurate with his pompous auto-portrait. He suppresses these tendencies and aptitudes in him which don’t conform to his inflated view of his uniqueness, brilliance, might, sexual prowess, or standing in society. He cultivates these flairs and predilections which he regards as befitting his overweening self-image and ultimate grandeur.
But, the narcissist, no matter how self-aware and well-meaning, is accursed. His grandiosity, his fantasies, the compelling, overriding urge to feel unique, invested with some cosmic significance, unprecedentedly bestowed – these thwart his best intentions. These structures of obsession and compulsion, these deposits of insecurity and pain, the stalactites and stalagmites of years of abuse and then abandonment – they all conspire to frustrate the gratification, however circumspect, of the narcissist’s true nature.
An utter lack of self-awareness is typical of the narcissist. He is intimate only with his False- Self, constructed meticulously from years of lying and deceit. The narcissist’s True-Self is stashed, dilapidated and dysfunctional, in the furthest recesses of his mind. The False-Self is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, creative, ingenious, irresistible, and glowing. The narcissist often isn’t.
Add combustible paranoia to the narcissist’s divorce from himself – and his constant and recurrent failure to assess reality fairly is more understandable. The narcissist overpowering sense of entitlement is rarely commensurate with his accomplishments in his real life or with his traits. When the world fails to comply with his demands and to support his grandiose fantasies, the narcissist suspects a plot against him by his inferiors.
The narcissist rarely admits to a weakness, ignorance, or deficiency. He filters out information to the contrary – a cognitive impairment with serious consequences. Narcissists are likely to unflinchingly make inflated and inane claims about their sexual prowess, wealth, connections, history, or achievements.
All this is mighty embarrassing to the narcissist’s nearest, dearest, colleagues, friends, neighbors, or even mere on-lookers. The narcissist’s tales are so patently absurd that he often catches people off-guard. Behind his back, the narcissist is derided and mockingly imitated. He fast makes a nuisance and an imposition of himself in every company.
But the narcissist’s failure of the reality test can have more serious and irreversible consequences. Narcissists, unqualified to make life-and-death decisions often insist on rendering them. Narcissists pretend to be economists, engineers, or medical doctors – when they are not. But they are not con-artists in the classic, premeditated sense. They firmly believe that, though self-taught at best, they are more qualified than even the properly accredited sort. Narcissists believe in magic and in fantasy. They are no longer with us.