Narcissists do not love themselves, they love other people’s impressions of them.
21, February 21, 2013 - Filed in: General Interest
I have drawn the following article from the Unity Publishing web site. I am not familiar with the site, having only visited it to read this article. It is one of the best pieces I have read on the subject. I believe it is helpful in understanding the narcissist. The author concludes his article by saying: “If you are involved with a Narcissist, run away because if you do not constantly feed his or her ego, he will attack you in any way he can. Truth does not matter to a Narcissist, only revenge for you not feeding his ego. After many years of dealing with these people in a very honest and charitable way, I have concluded that this one type of person cannot be cured. The best cure is for everyone to just stop feeding him false adoration, and he will starve to death.” It is certainly food for thought.
We all love ourselves. That seems to be such an instinctively true statement that we do not bother to examine it more thoroughly. In our daily affairs–in love, in business, in other areas of life–we act on this premise. Yet, upon closer inspection, it looks shakier.
Some people explicitly state that they do not love themselves at all (they are ego-dystonic). Others confine their lack of self-love to certain of their traits, to their personal history, or to some of their behaviour patterns. Yet others feel content with who they are and with what they are doing (ego-syntonic).
But one group of people seems distinct in its mental constitution–narcissists.
According to the legend of Narcissus, this Greek boy fell in love with his own reflection in a pond. In a way, this amply sums up the nature of his namesakes: narcissists. The mythological Narcissus rejected the advances of the nymph Echo and was punished by Nemesis. Consigned to pine away as he fell in love with his own reflection–exactly as Echo had pined away for him. How apt. Narcissists are punished by echoes and reflections of their problematic personalities up to this very day.
Narcissists are said to be in love with themselves.
But this is a fallacy. Narcissus is not in love with himself. He is in love with his reflection. There is a major difference between one’s True Self and reflected-self. Loving your True Self is healthy, adaptive, and functional. Loving a reflection has two major drawbacks:
1. One depends on the existence and availability of the reflection to produce the emotion of self-love.
2. The absence of a “compass,” an “objective and realistic yardstick,” by which to judge the authenticity of the reflection.
In other words, it is impossible to tell whether the reflection is true to reality–and, if so, to what extent.
The popular misconception is that narcissists love themselves. In reality, they direct their love to other people’s impressions of them. He who loves only impressions is incapable of loving people, himself included.
But the narcissist does possess the in-bred desire to love and to be loved. If he cannot love himself–he must love his reflection. But to love his reflection–it must be loveable. Thus, driven by the insatiable urge to love (which we all possess), the narcissist is preoccupied with projecting a loveable image, albeit compatible with his self-image (the way he “sees” himself).
The narcissist maintains this projected image and invests resources and energy in it, sometimes depleting him to the point of rendering him vulnerable to external threats.
But the most important characteristic of the narcissist’s projected image is its lovability.
To a narcissist, love is interchangeable with other emotions, such as awe, respect, admiration, attention, or even being feared (These are the feed of his self love, or the Supply). Thus, to him, a projected image, which provokes these reactions in others, is both “loveable and loved.” It also feels like self-love.
The more successful this projected image (or series of successive images) is in generating Narcissistic Supply (NS)–the more the narcissist becomes divorced from his True Self and married to the image.
I am not saying that the narcissist does not have a central nucleus of a “self.” All I am saying is that he prefers his image–with which he identifies unreservedly–to his True Self. The True Self becomes serf to the Image. The narcissist, therefore, is not selfish–because his True Self is paralyzed and subordinate.
The narcissist is not attuned exclusively to his needs. On the contrary: he ignores them because many of them conflict with his ostensible omnipotence and omniscience. He does not put himself first–he puts his self last. He caters to the needs and wishes of everyone around him–because he craves their love and admiration. It is through their reactions that he acquires a sense of distinct self. In many ways he annuls himself–only to re-invent himself through the look of others. He is the person most insensitive to his true needs.
The narcissist drains himself of mental energy in this process. This is why he has none left to dedicate to others. This fact, as well as his inability to love human beings in their many dimensions and facets, ultimately transform him into a recluse. His soul is fortified and in the solace of this fortification he guards its territory jealously and fiercely. He protects what he perceives to constitute his independence.
Why should people indulge the narcissist? And what is the “evolutionary,” survival value of preferring one kind of love (directed at an image) to another (directed at one’s self)?
These questions torment the narcissist. His convoluted mind comes up with the most elaborate contraptions in lieu of answers.
Why should people indulge the narcissist, divert time and energy, give him attention, love and adulation? The narcissist’s answer is simple: because he is entitled to it. He feels that he deserves whatever he succeeds to extract from others and much more. Actually, he feels betrayed, discriminated against and underprivileged because he believes that he is not being treated fairly, that he should get more than he does.
There is a discrepancy between his infinite certainty that his is a special status which renders him worthy of recurrent praise and adoration, replete with special benefits and prerogatives–and the actual state of his affairs. To the narcissist, this status of uniqueness is bestowed upon him not by virtue of his achievements, but merely because he exists.
The narcissist deems his mere existence as sufficiently unique to warrant the kind of treatment that he expects to get from the world. Herein lies a paradox, which haunts the narcissist: he derives his sense of uniqueness from the very fact that he exists and he derives his sense of existence from his belief that he is unique.
Clinical data show that there is rarely any realistic basis for these grandiose notions of greatness and uniqueness.
Some narcissists are high achievers with proven track records. Some of them are pillars of their communities. Mostly, they are dynamic and successful. Still, they are ridiculously pompous and inflated personalities, bordering on the farcical and provoking resentment.
The narcissist is forced to use other people in order to feel that he exists. It is trough their eyes and through their behaviour that he obtains proof of his uniqueness and grandeur. He is a habitual “people-junkie.” With time, he comes to regard those around him as mere instruments of gratification, as two-dimensional cartoon figures with negligible lines in the script of his magnificent life.
He becomes unscrupulous, never bothered by the constant exploitation of his milieu, indifferent to the consequences of his actions, the damage and the pain that he inflicts on others and even the social condemnation and sanctions that he often has to endure.
When a person persists in a dysfunctional, maladaptive or plain useless behaviour despite grave repercussions to himself and to others, we say that his acts are compulsive. The narcissist is compulsive in his pursuit of Narcissistic Supply. This linkage between narcissism and obsessive-compulsive disorders sheds light on the mechanisms of the narcissistic psyche.
The narcissist does not suffer from a faulty sense of causation. He is not oblivious to the likely outcomes of his actions and to the price he may have to pay. But he doesn’t care.
A personality whose very existence is a derivative of its reflection in other people’s minds is perilously dependent on these people’s perceptions. They are the Source of Narcissistic Supply (NSS). Criticism and disapproval are interpreted as a sadistic withholding of said supply and as a direct threat to the narcissist’s mental house of cards.
The narcissist lives in a world of all or nothing, of a constant “to be or not be.” Every discussion that he holds, every glance of every passer-by reaffirms his existence or casts it in doubt. This is why the reactions of the narcissist seem so disproportionate: he reacts to what he perceives to be a danger to the very cohesion of his self. Thus, every minor disagreement with a Source of Narcissistic Supply–another person–is interpreted as a threat to the narcissist’s very self-worth.
This is such a crucial matter, that the narcissist cannot take chances. He would rather be mistaken then remain without Narcissistic Supply. He would rather discern disapproval and unjustified criticism where there are none then face the consequences of being caught off-guard.
The narcissist has to condition his human environment to refrain from expressing criticism and disapproval of him or of his actions and decisions. He has to teach people around him that these provoke him into frightful fits of temper and rage attacks and turn him into a constantly cantankerous and irascible person. His exaggerated reactions constitute a punishment for their inconsiderateness and their ignorance of his true psychological state.
The narcissist blames others for his behaviour, accuses them of provoking him into his temper tantrums and believes firmly that “they” should be punished for their “misbehaviour.” Apologies–unless accompanied by verbal or other humiliation–are not enough. The fuel of the narcissist’s rage is spent mainly on vitriolic verbal send-offs directed at the (often imaginary) perpetrator of the (oft innocuous) offence.
The narcissist–wittingly or not–utilizes people to buttress his self-image and to regulate his sense of self-worth. As long and in as much as they are instrumental in achieving these goals, he holds them in high regard, they are valuable to him. He sees them only through this lens. This is a result of his inability to love others: he lacks empathy, he thinks utility, and, thus, he reduces others to mere instruments.
If they cease to “function,” if, no matter how inadvertently, they cause him to doubt his illusory, half-baked, self-esteem–they are subjected to a reign of terror. The narcissist then proceeds to hurt these “insubordinates.” He belittles and humiliates them. He displays aggression and violence in myriad forms. His behaviour metamorphoses, kaleidoscopically, from over-valuing (idealizing) the useful person–to a severe devaluation of same. The narcissist abhors, almost physiologically, people judged by him to be “useless.”
These rapid alterations between absolute overvaluation (idealization) to complete devaluation make long-term interpersonal relationships with the narcissist all but impossible.
The more pathological form of narcissism–the Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD)–was defined in successive versions of the American DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual published by the American Psychiatric Association) and the international ICD (Classification of Mental and Behavioural Disorders, published by the World Health Organization). It is useful to scrutinize these geological layers of clinical observations and their interpretation.
In 1977 the DSM-III criteria included:
• An inflated valuation of oneself (exaggeration of talents and achievements, demonstration of presumptuous self-confidence);
• Interpersonal exploitation (uses others to satisfy his needs and desires, expects preferential treatment without undertaking mutual commitments);
• Possesses expansive imagination (externalizes immature and non-regimented fantasies, “prevaricates to redeem self-illusions”);
• Displays supercilious imperturbability (except when the narcissistic confidence is shaken), nonchalant, unimpressed and cold-blooded;
• Defective social conscience (rebels against the conventions of common social existence, does not value personal integrity and the rights of other people).
The narcissist is portrayed as a monster, a ruthless and exploitative person. Yet, inside, the narcissist suffers from a chronic lack of confidence and is fundamentally dissatisfied. This applies to all narcissists. The distinction between “compensatory” and “classic” narcissists is spurious. All narcissists are walking scar tissue, the outcomes of various forms of abuse.
On the outside, the narcissist may appear to be labile and unstable, but, this does not capture the barren landscape of misery and fears that is his soul. His brazen and reckless behaviour covers up for a depressive, anxious interior.
How can such contrasts coexist?
Some of us fail to grow beyond the phase of self-love, others refer to themselves and prefer themselves as objects of love. This choice–to concentrate on the self–is the result of an unconscious decision to give up a consistently frustrating and unrewarding effort to love others and to trust them.
The frustrated and abused child learns that the only “object” he can trust and that is always and reliably available, the only person he can love without being abandoned or hurt–is himself.
So, is pathological narcissism the outcome of verbal, sexual, physical, or psychological abuse (the overwhelming view)–or, on the contrary, the sad result of spoiling the child and idolizing it.
This debate is easier to resolve if one agrees to adopt a more comprehensive definition of “abuse.” Overweening, smothering, spoiling, overvaluing, and idolizing the child–are also forms of parental abuse.
This is because the smothered and spoiled child is dehumanized and instrumentalized. His parents love him not for what he really is–but for what they wish and imagine him to be: the fulfillment of their dreams and frustrated wishes. The child becomes the vessel of his parents’ discontented lives, a tool, the magic airbrush with which they seek to transform their failures into successes, their humiliation into victory, their frustrations into happiness.
The child is taught to give up on reality and adopt the parental fantasies. Such an unfortunate child feels omnipotent and omniscient, perfect and brilliant, worthy of adoration and entitled to special treatment. The faculties that are honed by constantly brushing against bruising reality–empathy, compassion, a realistic assessment of one’s abilities and limitations, realistic expectations of oneself and of others, personal boundaries, team work, social skills, perseverance and goal-orientation, not to mention the ability to postpone gratification and to work hard to achieve it–are all lacking or missing altogether.
This kind of child turned adult sees no reason to invest resources in his skills and education, convinced that his inherent genius should suffice. He feels entitled for merely being, rather than for actually doing (rather as the nobility in days gone by felt entitled not by virtue of its merits but as the inevitable, foreordained outcome of its birth right). The narcissist is not meritocratic–but aristocratic.
Such a mental structure is brittle, susceptible to criticism and disagreement, vulnerable to the incessant encounter with a harsh and intolerant world. Deep inside, narcissists of both kinds (those wrought by “classic” abuse and those yielded by being idolized)–feel inadequate, phoney, fake, inferior, and deserving of punishment.
There is only one type of pathological narcissism–though there are two developmental paths to it. And all narcissists are besieged by deeply ingrained (though at times not conscious) feelings of inadequacy, fears of failure, masochistic desires to be penalized, a fluctuating sense of self-worth (regulated by NS), and an overwhelming sensation of fakeness.
In the early childhoods of all narcissists, meaningful others are inconsistent in their acceptance. They pay attention to the narcissist only when they wish to satisfy their needs. They tend to ignore him– or actively abuse him–when these needs are no longer pressing or existent.
The narcissist’s past of abuse teaches him to avoid deeper relationships in order to escape this painful approach-avoidance pendulum. Protecting himself from hurt and from abandonment, he insulates himself from people around him. He digs in–rather than spring out.
As children go through this phase of disbelief. We all put people around us (the aforementioned objects) to recurrent tests. This is the “primary narcissistic stage.” A positive relationship with one’s parents or caregivers (Primary Objects) secures the smooth transition to “object love.” The child forgoes his narcissism.
Giving up one’s narcissism is tough. Narcissism is alluring, soothing, warm and dependable. It is always present and omnipresent. It is custom tailored to the needs of the individual. To love oneself is to have the perfect lover. Good reasons and strong forces–collectively known as “parental love”– are required to motivate the child to give its narcissism up.
The division of labor between parents and children is vital both to personal growth and to proper adaptation. The child must feel, as he does in a functional family, that he can share his experiences without being defensive and that the feedback that he is getting is open and unbiased. The only “bias” acceptable (often because it is consonant with feedback from the outside) is the family’s set of beliefs, values and goals that are finally internalized by the child by way of imitation and unconscious identification.
So, the family is the first and the most important source of identity and emotional support. It is a greenhouse, where the child feels loved, cared for, accepted, and secure–the prerequisites for the development of personal resources. On the material level, the family should provide the basic necessities (and, preferably, beyond), physical care and protection, and refuge and shelter during crises.
The role of the mother (the Primary Object) has been often discussed. The father’s part is mostly neglected, even in professional literature. However, recent research demonstrates his importance to the orderly and healthy development of the child.
The father participates in the day-to-day care, is an intellectual catalyst, who encourages the child to develop his interests and to satisfy his curiosity through the manipulation of various instruments and games. He is a source of authority and discipline, a boundary setter, enforcing and encouraging positive behaviours and eliminating negative ones.
The father also provides emotional support and economic security, thus stabilizing the family unit. Finally, he is the prime source of masculine orientation and identification to the male child–and gives warmth and love as a male to his daughter, without exceeding the socially permissible limits.
We can safely say that the narcissist’s family is as severely disordered as he is. Pathological narcissism is largely a reflection of this dysfunction. Such an environment breeds self-deception. The narcissist’s internal dialogue is “I do have a relationship with my parents. It is my fault–the fault of my emotions, sensations, aggressions and passions–that this relationship is not working. It is, therefore, my responsibility to make amends. I will construct a narrative in which I am both loved and punished. In this script, I will allocate roles to myself and to my parents. This way, everything will be fine and we will all be happy.”
Thus starts the cycle of over-valuation (idealization) and devaluation. The dual roles of sadist and punished masochist (Superego and Ego), parent and child, permeate all the narcissist’s interactions with other people.
The narcissist experiences a reversal of roles as his relationships progress. At the beginning of a relationship he is the child in need of attention, approval and admiration. He becomes dependent. Then, at the first sign of disapproval (real or imaginary), he is transformed into an avowed sadist, punishing and inflicting pain.
It is commonly agreed that a loss (real or perceived) at a critical junction in the psychological development of the child forces him to refer to himself for nurturing and for gratification. The child ceases to trust others and his ability to develop object love, or to idealize is hampered. He is constantly haunted by the feeling that only he can satisfy his emotional needs.
He exploits people, sometimes unintentionally, but always ruthlessly and mercilessly. He uses them to obtain confirmation of the accuracy of his grandiose self-portrait.
The narcissist is usually above treatment. He knows best. He feels superior to his therapist in particular and to the science of psychology in general. He seeks treatment only following a major life crisis, which directly threatens his projected and perceived image. Even then he only wishes to restore the previous balance.
Therapy sessions with the narcissist resemble a battlefield. He is aloof and distanced, demonstrates his superiority in a myriad ways, resents what he perceives to be an intrusion on his innermost sanctum. He is offended by any hint regarding defects or dysfunctions in his personality or in his behaviour. A narcissist is a narcissist is a narcissist–even when he asks for help with his world and worldview shattered.