Narcissistic behaviour is prevalent in our culture to-day, actually it is reaching epidemic proportions (affecting both males and females), yet not many therapists (Psychotherapists, Counsellors, Coaches, and Supervisors) would be quick to recognise it in the therapy room when clients present with what is now termed as Narcissistic Victim Syndrome (NVS). In order to be able to work effectively with narcissistic victim abuse, it is vital that the therapist first understands what narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is, what causes it, and what the insidious behaviours looks like. Failing to understand the highly complex narcissistic behaviour is to also fail to understand the psychological hell that your client has been through. Once understood, however, you will have the clarity of vision to be able to shine a light on the dysfunctional narcissistic behaviour that has baffled and confounded your client for so long. Narcissistic behaviour is so insidious that it keeps the victim living in a nightmarish hell where they are always walking on eggshells to the point that it impairs their ability to be able to function. In order to avoid clumsy repetition of “he/she” and “his/her” in this article, I will use the pronoun “he” when describing NPD.
The following insights are useful for beginning to understand narcissistic behaviour:-
1. Rejection: Because the narcissist is suffering from the core wounds of abandonment, he fears rejection more than anything else in the world. Because of his deep wounds, his antenna is alerted to the slightest hint of any impending danger of rejection (real or imagined), and he will do anything he has to in order to avoid the overriding feeling of shame that it brings. As a result he builds elaborate defence mechanisms all around him, and he will lie, cheat, abuse and manipulate in any conceivable way in order to protect his fragile false-self.
2. False-self: The Narcissist desperately craves love, but at the same time, because of his inordinate fear of abandonment, betrayal, and rejection, he is terrified of intimacy, therefore leaving him deeply lonely within himself. Never having learnt the art of honest communication, he lacks the skills of forming healthy relationships. His first loving and completely controllable object he attaches to is “himself”. Just like the mythical character Narcissus, he has become the object of his own desire, and he projects that idealized image onto the world through a persona that is a False Self, a false self that he sees as being omnipotent (all-powerful) and omniscient (allknowing). Unfortunately, these images are confabulations, merely elaborate works of fiction which have little or nothing to do with reality. From there he turns others into objects so that they pose no emotional risk. These mental representations of meaningful or significant others become the “Sources of Narcissistic Supply”.
3. Narcissistic Supply: Narcissistic Supply really refers to those people who provide a constant source of attention, approval, adoration, admiration etc, for the narcissist. The attention they receive from the “Supply Source” is vital for the survival of the narcissist, without it they would die (either physically or metaphorically), because their weak ego depends on it in order to regulate their unstable self-worth and self-esteem. The narcissist perceives themselves as being very independent. They could not deal with the fact that they need anybody, because needing someone brings with it the threat of being rejected. This would imply some boundary to their power or imply that they are incomplete. Furthermore, they can not tolerate any sign of independence and autonomy from their “supply”, this only serves to enrage them. The narcissistic supply is there to serve them, so they try to cement their source of supply into the role they have made for them, and there they remain under the narcissist’s control. Any attempt by the supply person to not comply sends him into a rage.
4. Rage: His narcissistic behaviour is full of rage. The raging is the narcissist’s way of screaming for attention because it is all about them, their wants, needs and desires. Narcissistic rage is the uncontrollable and unexpected anger that occurs due to a narcissistic injury. Narcissistic injury is a threat to a narcissist’s self-esteem or worth. Rage comes in many forms, but all pertain to the same important thing, “revenge”. It is important to point out here that narcissistic rage should not be confused with anger, (although the two are similar), the narcissist’s rage is not necessarily caused by a situation that would typically provoke anger in an individual. Their rage frightens people, seeing the fear on others face makes the narcissist feel that they have won, so they feel even more powerful and in control of the situation, and this also satisfies their sadistic nature. The rage supports and covers up their cognitive distortions, fragmentation, dissociation, arrested emotional development, their black and white thinking, their false self, their grandiosity, their need for attention (even if negative), their need to be right, and their lack of empathy. In short, the narcissists “rage” houses the actions necessary for the narcissist to defend himself against his hostile world (i.e. splitting, devaluation, projection, projective identification etc), however, these defences, like a double-edged sword, render any closeness or intimacy impossible, whether intentionally or unintentionally. However, the rage makes him feel that he is taking back control whenever in fear of losing it.
5. Power and Control: In his everyday existence he seeks to dominate each individual and group he interacts with, whether that is in the home, the workplace or social events. His power is not “power with”, but rather “power over” all that he surveys. His power and control is his springboard to verbal and emotional abuse. For example, while he enforces financial restrictions over his family, he is free to make decisions regarding expenditure for himself. When it comes to the everyday caretaking of the household he does not partake of the menial tasks, however he undermines and condemns those doing the tasks. His energy is spent on “ideas” as to how things get done, but the doing is left to the “plebs” to carry out the work and ideas for him. As the job gets done, the narcissist criticizes and complains, and he fails to give credit where credit is due. He convinces himself that it is his brains that direct the work, without him nothing would be achieved, and he totally fails to appreciate the work done by others. He is lost in his own grandiosity.
6. Grandiosity: Grandiosity is usually the most outstanding and discriminating feature of individuals with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Grandiosity can be expressed in an unrealistic overvaluation of talents and abilities; preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited beauty, power, wealth or success; and a belief in unrealistic superiority and uniqueness. This is usually accompanied by boastful, pretentious, self-centred and self-referential narcissistic behaviour. According to Gunderson and Ronningstam, from “The Diagnostic Interview for Narcissistic Patients” (Archives of General Psychiatry,1990), that the research shows that the grandiose narcissist exaggerates his talents, capacity, and achievements in an unrealistic way. He believes in his invulnerability, or does not recognize his limitations. His grandiose fantasies lead him to believe that he does not need other people. To need others would fill him with immeasurable shame.
7. Shame: Shame would appear to be the ongoing tension between the narcissist’s grandiosity and his desire for perfection. When shame is experienced by the narcissist he feels inadequate, flawed, and inferior. Narcissistically injured himself, he is now likely to fly into a sudden resurgence of rage as he feels conspicuous, exposed, and vulnerable to humiliation. He is overwhelmed by anxiety because he believes that he will lose the imagined love and admiration from other people if he isn’t perfect. So we can say that consciously the narcissist is being driven to do better and better within the rigid frameworks they have created for themselves; however, unconsciously they cannot control their behaviour, so they and anybody who surrounds them have to suffer.
8. Perfectionism: Governed by a False Self, the narcissist’s obsessional behaviour sets unrealistic goals. He then struggles to maintain those goals within the realities of what he perceives as an imperfect world. This pressure that the narcissist puts on himself comes from his unrelenting demand for perfection, which of course is necessary if his grandiosity and illusion of omnipotence is to be maintained. Furthermore, since the narcissist is ruled by his “black and white” or “all right or all wrong” thinking, he can only views his achievements in one of two ways, either they are viewed: as being the greatest accomplishments, or they are viewed as the greatest failures. There is no middle space; therefore there is no room for the emergence of a process for further learning. So he either reaches his positive ego ideal (his Eureka moment), where he experiences an elated self-esteem to his liking, where he can feel a great sense of achievement, and flaunt it to the world with pride. Or he experiences a negative ego ideal, where his omnipotence is threatened; throwing his sense of perfection and uniqueness into question. When the latter is experienced, it leads to feelings of shame, vulnerability and failure for the narcissist; his pride of accomplishment is likely to be devalued, and his commitment and capacity to follow through on this achievement is most likely to be scrapped, because it is too painful not being able to live up to his positive ego ideal. Of course this is going to enrage him, and he is likely to be engulfed by feelings of self doubt, self-loathing, and self-reprimanding behaviour. Shame would appear to be the ongoing tension-generating dialectic between the narcissist’s grandiosity and his desire for perfection. When shame is experienced by the narcissist he feels inadequate, flawed, and inferior. Narcissistically injured himself, he is now likely to fly into a sudden resurgence of rage as he feels conspicuous, exposed, and vulnerable to humiliation.
9. Boredom: Narcissists have an insatiable need for excitement in order to feel good about themselves, and they are forever chasing thrills. Because they are so full of aggression, any excitement helps them to burn off their furious anger that is always bottled inside of them. Of course, their aggression comes in many guises, and one of their favourite disguises is boredom. Faced with boredom, the narcissist plummets into the abyss of despair where he touches old feelings of helplessness, and inadequacy born out of earlier experiences (for example, it may be feelings of inferiority that came from an inability to understanding lessons in school, or as a result of being bullied etc). Boredom creates anxiety for them; it simply devastates their morale, so they won’t tolerate it for very long. It is precisely these feelings of anxiety that lead the individual to search for “narcissistic supply” in the first place. In order to assist him in his never ending quest, he looks for fame.
10. Fame: One of the reasons that the narcissist has an insatiable need for fame is because it leads him to the inexhaustible repository of praise and admiration which he craves in order to fill the “Gap” of his shameful childhood. The intolerable shame experienced as a child leaves the narcissist to experience pervasive feelings of self-contempt and worthlessness. Since the painful effects of shame cannot be regulated, the narcissist develops an effective way not to experience it. He routinely “splits off” from that part of himself that feels the shame, thus allowing him to “bypass” his shameful feelings. To the onlooker, by-passed shame looks like shamelessness, or an absence of conscience. The “shamelessness” works in such a way that it directs the shame outward, away from the Self, where nothing is ever his fault, thus defending the narcissist against the feelings of self-contempt and unworthiness that he feels. His tried and tested way of alleviating the effects of such feelings is by having admiration from his endless menu of narcissistic supply, and this he manages to maintain by assuming an attitude of grandiosity and entitlement, which in turn makes him feel famous and special. The feelings of fame make him feel alive, and the more alive he feels, the more he plays to his audience. His audience reflects his celebrity image and status back to him, and his very existence is affirmed. This affirmation of himself is expressed outwardly in his narcissist hubris and over-confidence. Hubris refers to the exaggerated self confidence or pride displayed by the narcissist, and it often operates within the connotation that retribution will follow if you should dare to cross him.
To conclude: Narcissism is a pathological condition where the individual experiences great difficulties within his relationships as a direct result of deprivation suffered as a child. The narcissistic behaviours are the narcissist’s self-preservative attempts to protect himself from any further painful narcissistic insult as experienced as a child, through his hostile world and dysfunctional school and family system, his internal regulating system so to speak. Because the narcissist does not possess the internal structures necessary to combat their terrifying sense of fragmentation, anxiety and declining self-esteem, they turn to these external behaviours in their attempt to self-soothe. And as you can see, the narcissistic behaviour becomes an endless spiral that keeps looping back on itself in every situation, causing an endless stream of narcissistic victim abuse in its wake.