Narcissism is term you have probably heard used often in psychological contexts, but I want to stress here that when I talk about narcissism on this website I am actually using a lot of my own ideas. My definition of narcissism stretches across multiple diagnoses in the current DSM including: Narcissist Personality Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, Oppositional Defiant Disorder and others. The reason why I am doing this is because the modern psychological profession has a serious problem: defining mental illness beyond describing its symptoms. In this article I am going to define narcissism and mental health in ways many professionals in the mental health industry would shy away from because talking about feelings is considered a scientific taboo. I am doing this because the mental health problems we face today are too serious now to play “wait-and-see” we need to take bold action to define them, test our hypotheses and to heal them. Just as a society of cripples can not thrive, a society of narcissists can never hope to prosper nor endure.
Narcissism is the polar opposite of self-esteem. In the diagram above I have drawn up a spectrum of mental health from narcissism on the left to self-esteem on the right. The bell curve above it is a purely for illustrative purposes concerning the distribution of people across the spectrum. I suspect for the younger population it is skewed more to the left and for the older generation it is skewed more to the right. People tend to move towards the right as they get older naturally. If you care about your personal happiness, you will want to be as far right on this graph as you can humanly reach.
A mentally healthy person is someone who is fully aware and appreciative of their entire spectrum of emotions, while a narcissist is someone completely unaware or dismissive of their emotions. Most people have a complex mixture of these two extremes with an internal list in their minds of “safe” emotions and “unsafe” emotions to express and acknowledge. This article is an overview of the critical aspects of narcissism and exists in contrast to the articles on self-esteem.
It is all about self-worth, and having absolutely none
At the heart of narcissism is an inability to see one’s personal feelings, thoughts and desires as having any intrinsic value. If you are from a mainstream branch of psychology, you might think that I have that the wrong way around as the DSM definition of narcissism typically emphasises that they have no empathy or compassion for other people. I am going to have to be bold here and say that mainstream psychology is wrong on this point. Narcissists do have empathy and the capacity to care about other people and especially animals deeply, what they lack is a complete inability to relate to themselves as having any intrinsic worth. What is important to realise is that narcissists’ do not lack awareness of the feelings of other people, they just do not see other people’s feeling as being of any value. In exactly the same way, narcissists do not view their own feelings as having any value.
To understand how narcissists’ treat themselves just as callously and ruthlessly as they treat other people consider the diagram above. The brain is a complex organ, but for simplicity, consider that our emotions exist as a kind of sixth sense (just like seeing and hearing) but they tell us information about what we value. So when we look at ice-cream, money or a friend our “value/feeling complex” tells us we value them, likewise when we look at other people or ourselves, the same “value/feeling complex” is at work in both cases. When a narcissist looks at other people they see them only for their physical or material value, they can not see their intrinsic or spiritual value. When they look at themselves in a mirror, they only see their physical value, not their own intrinsic or spiritual value. Thus, even if they are physically attractive and know it, a narcissist still sees their emotional/spiritual self as completely worthless, just like other people appear to the narcissist.
It is commonly said that narcissists see other people merely as objects on the landscape, this is true, but they also see themselves as mere objects and it hurts them more than they might hurt other people, you can not see their hurt simply because they do not know how to express or deal with their own hurt. Merely cover it up, or to fake hurt to claim victimhood.
From the narcissists’ perspective, everything they do is for other people, this is because they are completely out of touch with their feelings. They act how other people expect them to act, they talk how other people expect them to talk, they adjust their interests and life goals to suit their family’s, friends’ and lover’s expectations. Although they are ambitious, ruthless and often draw lots of attention to themselves, they do not do these things for themselves, they do them to meet the expectations that they perceive other people to have of them. Thus from the narcissist’s perspective they are devoting their entire lives to other people and they find it puzzling and hurtful why other people abuse and reject them. As ‘selfish’ as you might think a narcissist is, calling them this would genuinely bewilder them if they were able to express bewilderment.
The narcissist’s problems stem from the fact that although they might not value their own emotions, this does not mean they do not have any emotions. Under the calm and calculating exterior of the narcissist is the full spectrum of emotions that any other person has, they just ignore them as best as they can, simply because they see their emotions as not worth paying attention to. Now, because narcissists are ignoring their own emotional needs, and pursuing the fulfillment of the needs and desires of other people instead, internally they are usually a hurricane of anger, frustrations, resentments, loathing and fears. Different kinds of narcissists use different strategies to deal with concealing or rationalising these emotional torments. However, they are all deeply confused and chaotic people inside.
Once a narcissist starts to take their feelings seriously and starts responding to their emotional needs by being responsible to their emotions by taking care of the factors causing their pain, the narcissism completely disappears and they become mentally healthy. This process is simple in theory, but long, confusing and painful in practice. Namely because a narcissist will not want to pay attention to their emotions because the first feelings they will experience will be intense pain and it is completely natural to desire avoiding pain. Having a strong connection with someone they trust will greatly benefit a narcissist, unfortunately this is very difficult, especially if the narcissist has been quite badly abused.
Love? No, relationships are about power…
Even though a narcissist ignores their own feelings, they nonetheless need love, understanding and companionship, and above all else someone to pay attention to them to compensate for the fact that they are ignoring themselves. As human beings we will die without these things as they supply to us a sense of worth and without a sense of worth life is completely meaningless and miserable. So narcissists will continue to seek out a relationship. Being out of touch with their feelings, however, means they will not choose a partner who suits them, but who will impress other people: physically attractive, rich, popular, talented, intelligent, etc… whatever qualities they consider their friends and family to esteem the most. Again, they are choosing friends and lovers to impress other people, not to meet their own personal desires.
However, love is built on intimacy and intimacy is built on being able to openly share emotions with someone. To share, be heard and to listen to another person sharing: these actions build trust, intimacy and a strong relationship. How does a person who is out of touch with their feelings build and maintain an intimate relationship? The short answer is that they can not. Instead narcissists will fake relationships, the more intelligent ones will be more charming and will even act out and simulate false emotions to trick another person into falling in love with them or being (physically/emotionally) intimate with them. However, because the relationship is typically unsuitable and/or the narcissist is completely dishonest, there can be no trust coming from the narcissist. They know the relationship is fake, they know they are fake, they know if their partner ever finds out the truth the relationship is over, so they do not trust the people they are intimate with. One can not trust a person they are lying to, if they trusted them, they would not be lying to them.
However, without a feeling of mutual trust, there can be no love: only a power struggle. Because narcissists want to have an intimate relationship the other person has something the narcissist desperately needs: a sense of worth. This dependency on another person to supply them with the very elixir of life when they could just as easily walk away, makes narcissists’ feel powerless at the beginning of the relationship. Thus a narcissist will want to accelerate the relationship as quickly as possible to feel secure with their partner’s interest in the narcissist: often with freely giving sex, money and terms of endearment to stimulate the other person’s attachment quickly. This is in addition to adjusting their values and desires to suit their lover’s.
Narcissists are empathic and kind in the early stages of any relationship (friendship or romantic), this is because when a person feels powerless they tend to be more sensitive to other people’s emotions. However, as the narcissist gains confidence that the other person has taken them into their confidence or is/has grown dependent on them (narcissists are attracted to other narcissists), then the narcissist’s sensitivity and compassion disappear. The narcissist’s compassion is relative to how powerful they feel in the relationship, so people tend to figure this out and start lashing out at the narcissist in a relationship driven by operant conditioning. Thus the narcissist’s relationships turn into perpetual power struggles as each side tries to overpower the other to gain the empathy they crave so badly from a powerless friend/spouse. Having the empathy of another person is essentially having the same as having the adoration of another person which makes a narcissist feel worthwhile. Thus a narcissist will gut a person of their sense of self-worth to make them submissive to them, and feel hurt and abandoned if the other person has the self-respect to leave or to resist being gutted like this.
For this reason, a close relationship with a narcissist will always turn into an abusive relationship. It might even become physically violent and threatening. If you are in a relationship with a narcissist the only safe option is to stay away from them. If you attempt to deal with them by not responding to their provocations they will either beat you down into submission, escalate their abuse or give up and leave. You can not reason with a total narcissist, because in order to reason with someone that person has to be able to value your opinions and desires. If they are only partially narcissistic, then there might be some room for maneuverer by praising them for their moments of clarity, honesty and fairness, but keep in mind they can be extremely manipulative if severely narcissistic.
Remember, your safety is most important, narcissists are experts at hurting other people while at the same time manipulating perceptions to make themselves look like the victim, in fact they probably genuinely feel like the victim underneath it all. They have been known to provoke people into hitting them and then use this victim credibility to utterly destroy their “attacker”. You will never win a power struggle with a narcissist without becoming a worst narcissist yourself. It is not worth it, walk away from the relationship to protect yourself.
Spotting a narcissist
Since narcissists are out of touch with their feelings and do not value their personal opinions and desires, they can very easily be discovered by probing them about their thoughts, feelings and desires. Narcissists will typically have a cover story for these questions that makes it appear as though they own their own feelings, opinions and desires. They gain this from experience, and a lot of the time narcissists will fake getting better by becoming better liars. However, if you are perceptive and persistent with your probing of their feelings, you will reach a point were they snap at you and withdraw as though they are having an anxiety attack. This is because they are having an anxiety attack (explaining how this works requires an entire article by itself).
Another way to spot a narcissist is their use of manipulation and guilt trips. Because narcissists lack their own internal values, they are perfect moral relativists and as such have a double standard for every situation they are in. A double standard that always ends with them winning and you losing. Indeed in the narcissist’s world there is no such thing as win-win, everything is a case of win-lose. In order to be able to comprehend a win-win solution a narcissist needs to be able to appreciate their own feelings enough to have personal values and integrity. They might talk of having high moral standards, but this is all talk and no substance: when a person violates their own moral code, intense inner pain always results (except in cases of sociopathy, but that is caused by a series of very rare brain defects) so a person with high self-esteem will take his pain seriously and do something about making reparations, however, a narcissist will not take his inner pain seriously and feel no compulsion whatsoever to respond to it.
Other than that, narcissists are typically attractive, wealthy and/or charming people, this is simply because if they are not attractive and charming then people are less patient with their manipulations and guilt trips. When manipulation and deception no longer work for a narcissist they typically either start making an effort to fix their problems, get help or commit suicide. Since attractive, wealthy and charming people will always have a steady supply of people willing to be overly friendly to them, these people are the most at risk of maintaining severe narcissism well into adulthood. This is also why such narcissists are so hard to treat. Narcissists often recover once their physical beauty fades, they run out of money or they run out of people willing to put up with their lies and double standards.
Some Final Thoughts
As parents, narcissists will severely abuse and neglect their children. They will see their children as property to be exploited and manipulated to serve their interests. This abuse at the hands of a narcissist parent means their children will also be narcissists and might pass on the family tradition unless there is someone in the child’s life who can model for them healthy self-esteem. Remember, if you are in a relationship with a narcissist it is most likely because your behaviour is enabling them, you may not be fully narcissistic yourself, but you most certainly have some narcissistic traits that need attending. Starving a narcissist of attention and resources until they have made a decision for themselves to get better is most often the only real solution and sadly, very often all you can do is avoid them yourself and warn other people of their behaviour. Teenage girls with narcissism will often prostitute their bodies to get attention and resources off other people and they can do this simply because they do not care at all about how badly it makes them feel and because there is no shortage of people willing to enable this form of behaviour from them.
Ultimately, narcissism, especially in its most severe forms, is the most destructive mental illness a human being can be afflicted with. They are self-destructive, irresponsible, vicious and even murderous when provoked. They provoke conflicts and tensions in the workplace, avoid responsibility, seek power and leave a trail of destruction in their wake. While all the time somehow managing to appear like the victim. Treating narcissism in adults is extremely difficult, as adults are free to walk away from therapy and taking a narcissist to therapy by force will only traumatise them more. The best protection against narcissism is to nip it in the bud by modeling healthy and self-loving behaviours to them when they are young. Though modeling such good behaviours to them at any age will be healing for them vicariously. Even if a child’s parents are both narcissists, teachers and relatives with high self-esteem can give them a second chance by reducing the severity so they are more likely to learn how to heal themselves as adults. Remember, one does not teach self-esteem, one lives it and inspires others to follow the example.
- Book: Will I Ever Be Good Enough? (fourbirdseducation.com)
- What Goes on Behind the Narcissist’s Mask (psychologytoday.com)
- Narcissism- Is your partner selfish, dominant and arrogant? (creativebeautyhealth.com)
- The Narcissistic Self (hannahhickman.wordpress.com)
- Charisma and Politics: Is it Enough to be Charming? (prweb.com)
- A Word About Narcissism (200poundstolose.wordpress.com)
- Introducing Self-Esteem (fourbirdseducation.com)