Narcissism as 'Difficult Behavior'
A broad definition of narcissism, used in therapy, is that it is a pattern of behavior in which self-image is put before the true self. Because the true self is based on feeling, this puts narcissism at war with feelings, one's own feelings and the feelings of others.
A more practical, but still broad, definition for everyday affairs is that narcissism is organizing one's life around the goal of being superior. All other goals in life become subservient to this larger goal. So for instance, one could have a goal of service to others and self-denial. But with narcissism, one seeks to be superior to others in this goal. Narcissism at this level is basic in our culture, and in many groups is considered, despite abysmal results, a proper principle of living.
Superiority is not just about learning to do one or more things well, it is about hiding any evidence of imperfection in other areas. It is this 'war with the evidence of being human' that causes much social, parenting, and relationship friction.
However, there is a important distinction to be made between persons who want to be superior, and those who believe they actually are. This latter type, sometimes called a 'pathological narcissist.' has the inability to feel other people as separate from oneself. Instead, the narcissist perceives only a reflection of his or her needs and desires. From this comes the concept that other people are treated as supplies of gratification or narcissistic supplies.
Pathological narcissism has a deserved reputation for hurting people in its path. Most important to understand is that narcissism is a lot easier to see going than coming. There are at least two reasons for this:
One, people with narcissism often provide a dazzle that could be an element of any satisfying relationship, but the other ingredients that one assumes will also be coming do not materialize. After all, first meetings are never ones in which accountability is expected. But only as time goes on, one begins to feel (or really begins to realize) that one has been cheated.
Two, narcissism is seductive. That is it provides a promise which can't be kept. The promise may be explicit but can be implied. The promise at base is to provide confidence, love. pleasure, or a feeling of specialness. People who have been shown since childhood how to find pleasure and love in solid traditional ways will be less vulnerable to this seduction. People who have been raised in family systems that are tense and essentially pleasureless, even if high achieving, will be more vulnerable to the seduction. As our culture and families have become more narcissistic (focused on being special) the vulnerability to pathological narcissists has become widespread.
A pertinent question in living is how to protect oneself from pathological narcissism. (By the way, anyone with narcissism, besides the limitation that imposes, can be hurt by the narcissism of others) Essentially the answer is to recognize the the seduction or false promise, but that is very hard if one is yearning for it. Largely people hurt by narcissism in others recognize the betrayal at the end but not the seduction at the beginning.
Familiarity with narcissism, either forced or voluntary, usually leads to the knowledge that narcissism is a tough difficult husk around a tender hurt core. But trying only to address the hurt part, as if the problematical part didn't exist has always failed. Empathy is only possible from a position of safety, and never from a position of naivety.
In a way, the damaging element of narcissism is its consistency. Everyone is defensive, unempathetic, conceited, and self-absorbed at times. But with narcissism the defense is so uniformly present, that chances to repair and re-balance relationships never occur. Slowly, the transactions of narcissism become 'normal,' and the effects on other continue insidiously.
A narcissist has an internal locus of control but externalizes responsibility. Stated another way, he or she internalizes credit and externalizes blame. This combination dominates relationships. The narcissist will not style him- or herself a helpless victim, rather he or she will imply that they are victimized by the incompetence or malfeasance of others, and defend his or her aggressive actions as 'setting things right.'
Keeping one's sanity and integrity in the face of narcissism consists of two tiers. The first tier is to keep narcissism and narcissistically traited people at arm's length in casual or 'accidental' relationships. This requires at least recognizing it. This can come both from recognizing behavior in the narcissist, but also more importantly, recognizing how you are affected by this person. This is appropriate for business relationships, casual relationships, authority figures, and distant relatives. In arm's length transactions, everything is spelled or or specified. Nothing is left to work out as one goes along.
The second tier of defense entails learning to skillfully interact with the narcissist. This unfortunately requires a way of communication that is not optimal for other relationships. It is a special skill set, and is not magic by any means. Learning these skills may make sense if one has to interact closely, such as in therapeutic relationships, marriage, or co-parenting arrangements.
At this point, it may be of value to discuss briefly another difficult personality style, psychopathy. There is some over-lap between narcissism and psychopathy, but they are not the same. Psychopathy is composed of strong vitality and self-interest and a functional lack of feeling. That is, unlike narcissism, where feeling is denied but continues to have some sort of 'shadow' or 'reactive' effect, in psychopathy, the person is 'freed' from any guidance function of emotions. In psychopathy dominance and getting one's way are paramount, and how one is viewed by others is not important for its own sake, but only as a tool. Psychopaths are most upset by not getting their way, while narcissists are most upset by being devalued or ignored. Narcissism can be present with depression or 'collapsed states, while this never happens with psychopathy. But psychopathy and narcissism may occur together and form 'malignant narcissism', which is the florid form of narcissism most recognized (and feared) in popular culture. Psychopathy has both psychological and biological elements, as elaborated in this page from my larger website on character analysis.
Defining narcissism concisely yet comprehensively is difficult because it interacts with other personality aspects. Vanity and grandiosity are commonly recognized aspects but they are too simple to define it, and are not always present. There are many strains and different intensities. Some narcissism is deeply structured into personality during development, and some is just learned behavior from early experience. The latter is the least tenacious. Yet from the outside, or 'receiving end' there are several common elements.
Common 'Problem' Behaviors in Narcissism
- Disattention Intolerance This term is meant to describe the well-known 'need for attention' but it also includes the disruptive behavior that happens when attention is directed elsewhere than the narcissist. Narcissists hate being interrupted but are big interrupters themselves. They will sabotage competing interests. Narcissists want all the attention of others, so that if anything of quality or novelty appears in the environment, the narcissist will disparage or malign it, and if possible lead targets away from it.
- Criticism Intolerance A narcissist will not just reject or dislike the content of the criticism, he or she will experience the very act of criticizing as an offense. It is common for him or her to escalate immediately and lash out in the face of it, or pretend it never happened..
- Roaming. Because narcissists invariably make a good impression in the beginning, but lose it with increasing familiarity, there is a tendency to constantly meet new people, and leave people that are starting to react with less adulation. This keeps relationships always superficial. Narcissists milk the leeway given new people, and tend not to stick around for 'repayment' time. A 'fast-track' career or many 'stepping-stone' jobs may actually indicate this roaming tendency.
- Objectification of Others: Others are seen not as separate persons with separate desires and needs, but as means to an end., or ornaments reflecting upon the narcissist.
- Criminalizing the Needs of Others: Narcissists insist on the illusion of no problems and the illusion of no seriously unmet needs. When others ask for something, rather than just saying no, they tend to stigmatize the target as being selfish, uncouth, malevolent, making unnecessary problems, etc... At the same time the narcissist tends to deny his or her own needs and desires while steadily manipulating others to meet them! It is not possible to bring a grievance or complaint to a narcissist without being attacked strongly while the narcissist manages to position him- or herself as the aggrieved party.
- Inability to Cooperate: Cooperation obscures both status and attention. It is not possible to win or be in the spotlight while cooperating. Of course taking turns is difficult also. The uncooperativeness may be disguised for quite a while by the narcissist devaluing what the target asks for. In fact, it is not the intrinsic merits of the target's choice that has anything to do with the narcissist's refusal, but rather the mere fact it is the desire and goal of another. The target on the other hand, helps and complies with any of the narcissist's goals within reason. A lopsidedness is quickly established but the target erroneously accepts it as a consequence of his or her 'making bad choices,' or having bad ideas.
- Monopolizing Initiative. A narcissist wants to be the 'prime mover,' the source of direction in interpersonal affairs. Targets often come to try to anticipate the needs and wants of the narcissist, by doing or providing something unasked. This is already a dysfunctional adaptation, but the point of this section is beyond that. Miscalculations are always possible in this 'pleasing' maneuver, but with a narcissist, almost always he or she will act like they do not want what has been done or given, and that it is crazy of the target to think that they should. This happens even if the narcissist has shown an overwhelming preference and craving for what they now reject. Besides keeping the target off-balance, it reduces him or her to having to wait around to be told what to do, a very submissive position.
- Force Feeding: Narcissists want others to be pleased with them, but they will not pay attention or consider what others truly want, so others have to pretend to like what they get or risk being called ungrateful etc..
- History Wipe The present effect of past events resides mostly in feelings. Since with narcissism there is a denial of feeling, there is naturally also a denial that there is any residual left from past events even the very recent past. This can be so seamless that the survivor questions whether he or she remembers correctly or if the event actually happened. And of course, it is not possible to seek or obtain either validation or redress.
- Seduction: A seduction is a promise that cannot be kept. Most commonly, we think of seduction as romantic or sexual but it need not be. In narcissism, seduction may be premeditated but usually it is not. Simply carrying on with a too-good-to-be-true image and persona is seductive. All seductions end in suffering for the 'naive' party. Seduction occurs in business as well, and a lawsuit is not necessarily a remedy, since courts only enforce promises that can be kept.
- Bait and Switch: Many types of people are stingy and ungenerous consistently. What can be so seductive with narcissists is that they can be so generous and warm when they believe it will get them something (and of course stingy and cold when they believe it wont). The advanced part however, is that after an initial experience of generosity, they will turn cold. The target will respond to not getting anything by trying harder. It is as if the experience of being in the special circle is given and then snatched back. The target feels he or she is at fault. This keeps many people involved a long time. A variation is to give someone an opportunity to 'prove themselves' but then shut it down quickly, leaving the target hanging and desperate to prove themselves.
- Externalizing Problems. To the narcissist, the problem is always seen as completely outside his or herself. That means that anyone that is pointing out a problem becomes the problem. This differs from blame which is a less smooth externalization based on shame. With narcissism the externalizing is done without shame and often quite brilliantly and convincingly.
- Anxiety Dump Biologically, there is a calming effect that happens when we are around someone else that in that moment becomes anxious (This is different from being around someone who has sustained anxiety). In a supportive family or community, this can have a benefit, in that members can take turns 'losing it' (as long as boundaries are functional) Onlookers and helpers can be calm but they will also want to stay and help. This phenomenon goes wrong in 'rescuing' or co-dependency', however. It can go really wrong in narcissism when the narcissist works to get the target upset and then walks away, without helping, not just calmly, but even calmer then before.
- De-skilling Others. Narcissists quickly learn some questions or skills that others in a field are very likely not to know, for whatever reason. But instead of presenting these as 'advanced' or esoteric questions, the narcissist presents these as fundamental or essential. The effect is for the target to get unnerved and lose confidence, not only in his or her grasp of the subject in question, but in his or her ability to learn and carry on as a human. The basic shock tends to thicken the mind temporarily and produce halting speech and disorientation. The narcissist then presents him- or herself as someone who can be a magnanimous mentor and provide the expert help the target needs to regain competence. A variation is telling targets that an area of expertise the narcissist knows a lot about but the target hasn't even considered is essential. Another variation is treating the routine oversights or small mistakes that everyone makes as though they are representative of the targets overall performance. In de-skilling, an asymmetrical relationship is set up, and attention is kept away from the narcissist's overall results in the area, which may not be exceptional at all.
- Appropriating Credit Narcissists often take credit for the work of others. When they are involved in situation, they tend to style what happens as a successful innovation produced by them, even if it is just a routine or predictable result for the circumstances. This feeds the illusion that they are indispensable.
- Lack of Contact A common experience is being in a room with a narcissist and feeling like the narcissist feels he or she is the only one there.
- Lack of Principles By this I do not mean antisocial behavior. Narcissists can be 'very proper.' Rather I mean that professed principles, factual statements, and historical accounts etc can change at a moments notice to the opposite or anywhere in between. That is because the only principle is support of the self image. This is why narcissists get a reputation for lying. They do not believe they are lying, the self-image is felt to be the ultimate truth. Somewhat differently, a narcissist that is in a position of inspiring others will sometimes do so with inspiring cliches and truisms that do not define any real stance that can be put into operation. What is being promoted is an image, not a principle or practice.
- Difficulty Sharing Experiences or Pleasure Narcissists understand an exchange but do not understand sharing. Since love is based on pleasure shared, sex, celebrations, and joint recreational activities will never seem to work, however exciting the buildup, and even when all parties have sufficient means of enjoyment and there are no coercive aspects. Denial of feeling is also involved with this.
- Refusing Information: Narcissists seem only to 'take in' that information which is consistent with their wishes. The rest just 'rolls off' no matter how many times and how clearly it is repeated. Since most good-intentioned people try to influence by giving information, this is a way of refusing influence. Sometimes the narcissists 'get their way because targets are exhausted, and so start to limit themselves to only what is agreed to exist just to get along. Narcissists often refuse to hear "no."
- Sham Exchanges: Often a narcissist will request something from someone and offer a service or favor in return. This is hard to refuse because of the pull of reciprocity, and also, the narcissist's offer may sound fantastic. The target usually fulfills his or her part with alacrity, but the narcissist doesn't really try. If the narcissist is asked about it, he or she usually has actually forgotten, but will claim busy-ness or some unforeseen impediment. Because in life any single informal exchange (or sharing) does not turn out quite even anyway, the exploitative nature may be disguised for a time until repetition makes things clear. A boiled-down example is the person that never picks up the check at a restaurant.
- Parasitic Relationships Narcissists will often date and marry someone with family money, a trust fund, etc... without feeling love. Expressions of feeling will be insincere, and unfaithfulness and secret relationships are common.
- Receptive Vacuum This is a higher level of refusing information. When anything is said, whether statement, question, or report, that the narcissist does not want to hear, he or she convincingly acts as though it was never said. This is very different from anger, disagreement, or even 'normal' invalidation. It can lead the speaker to wonder if they are sane or if they really spoke.
- Always Trying to Win: No one can rest comfortably around a narcissist because there is a tendency to make activities small or big into competitions or status transactions.
- Vanishing: When a new more promising narcissistic supply appears, the narcissist suddenly drops contact with the person with whom they were interacting, even if that person had been pulled away from something else or promised some experience. The narcissist gives no notice, doesn't excuse him- or herself, doesn't acknowledge the effect on the person, and often literally disappears. The narcissist literally drops awareness of the existence of the previous source of supply. Or the narcissist makes appointments and dates enthusiastically, or promises to be involved in something, but rarely following through or stands others up. This is because there was a reason to make the date at the time, but later the narcissist is on to something else, and does not consider the follow-through important.
- Unwilling to Fight: This may sound incorrect, given that narcissists are always trying to get their way and being upset when they don't. However, a good clean fight is two people struggling and competing around a conflict. A fight exposes the humanity and incompleteness of the participants. Instead, narcissists will intimidate or leave.
- Crossed Generational Boundaries Narcissists will tend to allow children adult prerogatives without any sense of what is appropriate. For instance they might teach a nine-year-old to drive, give a twelve year old a drink or hit of a drug, allow a ten-year-old to stay up late and watch a racy movie etc.. This not only creates havoc in families and overstimulates children, it aids the narcissist in emotional seduction. (compare and contrast this to the phenomenon of grooming, described here on my abuse website.)
The Narcissistic Family System
In this concept, there are three roles, the narcissist, who acts as the 'definer of reality' or 'font of truth', the golden child, and the black sheep. The narcissist is the self-appointed sole authority on what is 'right' and 'good.' The golden child can do no wrong, the black sheep can do no right. Identical actions are treated differently depending on which child is doing it. The black sheep can specialize in either 'misbehavior' or 'failure and inadequacy' but his or her function is the same. In a nutshell, the idealized self-image of the narcissist is projected onto the golden child, and the disowned shame and faults are projected onto the black sheep. This replicates an internal split in the narcissist.
Black sheep, if not driven crazy, tend to go on to become very empathetic, while golden children, without necessarily going on to be narcissists themselves, tend to struggle with empathy. Sometimes the black sheep is a child and the 'golden child' is a grandchild, or vice versa. Narcissists often will try to 'take over' a nephew or niece or grandchild or grand-nephew or -niece to create this system. This can play out in a work-group of course. The narcissistic family system has some similarities with the alcoholic/addicted family system (explained within my page on addiction), and of course, the two often coexist and merge
Early Ways to Recognize Narcissism (Warning Signs)
- Too Good to be True: This comes from name-dropping, impression management, denial or concealment of struggle, and plain lying. There are very few 'new dawns' or 'awakenings.' Real improvement come incrementally. If one has a feeling something is completely new and makes everything before obsolete, that is a warning sign.
- Entitlement: This is expecting special treatment or expecting to be treated differently than others. At first this can seem like confidence, assurance, or enjoying the fruits of success, but time will show that it is out of proportion to contributions and devalues others. Another way to look at entitlement is that is expecting to receive that is divorced from what is happening in the relationship or with the other person. For instance the narcissist may expect to be well treated or served by a random stranger, someone he or she just insulted, or someone that has received bad news, etc.. This always leave an eerie feeling. The most popular entitled stance is victim, since it is both a social norm and an emotional impulse that victims be treated specially. One way entitlement plays out is the narcissist expects more than is reasonable from any exchange or deal where the the amount is not exactly specified or is based on 'how things go'. At settling time, the narcissist insists he or she has been cheated. Entitlement is present in propounding the Law of Attraction--the basic idea of which is that by thinking and manifesting value (narcissistic self-image), value will just find it's way toward one (entitlement).
- Magnetism: This gives the immediate impression of specialness but it is not real evidence of that. It is built on extroversion, but derives from lack of self-doubt, concealment of actual concerns, disregard for social norms, entitlement, freedom from the worry of being consistent, implied promises, and believing appearances are the reality. In contrast, healthy people that are actually creative only come to seem special over time as one gets to know them. In other words, not only is magnetism not proof of emotional health, it is actually a sign of emotional unhealth.
- Blaming Others: There is a tendency to blame others not just for things for which the narcissist is responsible, but also for frustrations where no one is to blame. This is entitlement and externalizing working together.
- Self Involvement: A narcissist may be interested in others, but only as admiration suppliers or concrete suppliers. A tell-tale sign is that narcissists are not interested in what others are interested in. He or she may learn to mechanically ask about others' concerns but they will be clearly bored and switch the attention and focus back onto themselves quickly.
- Always Dominates Conversations Often brilliantly, so that on first meeting and for quite a while, one can be quite entertained, pleased, and impressed. However, if this is consistent, and has a certain 'pressure' to it, it can speak to a need to perform, or get attention. This tendency will spill over if any serious, personal, conversations are attempted.
- Generosity 'Out of the Blue': Sure there are people who are natural giving and warm but the beneficiaries of this are people they have already come to know and love. Narcissists on the other hand will use this as a seduction technique. If you don't know why you were 'singled out', then watch out!
- History of Re-Inventing Oneself: Productive people change jobs but tend to stay in the same or a related field to build on the past. Likewise, social groups change slowly but not all at once. With narcissism there is a tendency to change type of work (physicians may change specialties), location, hobbies, and 'friends' in one 'fail swoop'. In part this is because it is possible (the magnetism of narcissism may allow one to penetrate a new group like a hot knife in butter) but it is also because the previous group was catching on and 'comparing notes.'
- Denial of Struggle or Suffering: This is different than reluctance to discuss difficult times. It is the positive denial that suffering or difficulty ever occurred. Struggle or suffering is seen as a sign of weakness
- Easily Distracted from Productive Activity into Status Struggles: This is self-explanatory
- Lack of Empathy Empathy may be feigned since it is a social norm, but there will be lapses.
- Asymmetrical Relationships: Apart from parasitic relationships described above, narcissists will often get involved with subordinates, students, disciples, younger people, financially dependent people, or people who lack confidence. Alternately they may be attracted to very hierarchical organizations like police or military. Unless there are opportunistic reasons, they tend to avoid relationships with peers or others that are outside any status structure.
- Denial of Potential It has been noted that a pathological narcissist is always stumped by any question which presupposes potential, such as "What are your goals and dreams?" or "How do want/need to grow and change?" This is because it is not possible to be perfect and have potential at the same time.
Narcissists usually have at least one narcissistic parent or grandparent. Accurately complaining about mistreatment at the hands of another narcissist does not by itself indicate that the complainer does not him- or herself have narcissistic functioning. Two unrelated narcissists will tend to avoid each other but two narcissists related by family ties will be quite enmeshed if conflictual.
Also, as touched on above, narcissists will succeed in many new relationships for a fair amount of time, perhaps years, until the reality comes home to roost for the other person. This, combined with seeking attention, means that the narcissist will always have 'social proof' to the effect that they are wonderful to know. It is necessary to honor one's instincts and not just follow the herd.
Also, it is rarely advisable for a survivor to 'call out' a narcissist. Even armed with the awareness that the narcissist him- or herself will never accept the label, trying to expose the pattern to the larger group will backfire on the survivor. Narcissists are experts at agilely arguing from instantly created false premises, especially on the themes of specialness, righteousness, goodness, and victimhood. Narcissists usually offer average quality logic, but logic produces conclusions only as good as premises. Survivors, by nature, will feel compelled to address all points made, and will not be able to keep up. Would-be exposers are made to appear defensive, bitter, and jealous. Moreover narcissists instinctively understand the ploy of counter-attacking and never defending their actions. Survivors will then defend themselves, and the entire focus is on the survivor's behavior. One will never wrest validation or amends from the narcissist or his or her supporters. All that has been given and expended to satisfy the narcissist or to attempt to make the relationship or project 'right' is gone.
Limiting the harm of the narcissist is really based on prevention of the seduction which requires grounding and true feeling. Restoration or repair for the survivor comes from living well after the episode.
As mentioned above, the first tier of defense is often best staying at arms length, or not allowing oneself to be in a vulnerable position vis-a-vis the narcissist. That may not be possible if the narcissist is a family member, a co-parent, a boss in an otherwise great job, etc... In this second tier of defense, working with the narcissist, these are some incomplete ideas. They are not all meant to principles for general relationships (although none are by themselves toxic behavior) but rather special tools.
- Never Struggle This is possibly good advice for all relationships but is especially for one with a narcissist. As said above, a narcissist will avoid a good clean fight but will avidly engage in a prolonged power struggle. But in this case, instead of draining both parties, a struggle will drain you and feed the narcissist. Being able to use power tactics, even against resistance, is like oxygen to narcissism. Trying just to 'stay even' will suck you in.
- Never Argue Over or Discuss the Past Record: besides being crazy-making, it will never work to try to create a sense of obligation based on what has happened. Rather it will be turned around on you. Stick to present circumstances
- Appeal to Their Self-Image of Generosity or Magnanimity: Narcissists hate to comply with demands, but love to feel bountiful to others.
- Volunteer Yourself (or, Carefully, a Third Party) to Have the Problem: For instance start out "This has nothing to do with you but I need help with..." even when you think they are responsible for the problem.
- Do Reciprocity Right. It is natural to expect to be able to get something as well as give something in a relationship. Well-intentioned people often wish to give first and only receive later. This is almost automatic in relationships meant to be friendship or romantic, and in less close relationships, is still common, sometimes called a 'good will gesture'. However, with narcissism, there will be no natural repayment and if one is requested, the narcissist will receive the request as an offense. Exchanges will work but they must be more or less simultaneous, because to a narcissist, reciprocity only exists in deals, not in relationships.
- Say What You Will Do, Avoid Saying What You Will Not. That is, maintain your boundaries and refuse to be pressured into something you do not want to do. However, try to avoid saying 'no', which is often received as a gratuitous provocation or hostile act by the narcissist. Rather, think in terms of counter-offering what you are prepared to do. This applies to all irritable, uncooperative people.
- Employ Tokens. Tokens are things easy for you to give, and for which getting something in return is not important. Narcissists often like receiving even tokens because it is the direction of flow, not the actual good, which is important. It is frequently possible to substitute a token for what you do not want to do.
- You Can't Satiate a Narcissist. It may occur to you to just give everything a narcissist has asked for in a situation in order to be done with it and left alone. But narcissists are known for being given a mile and then demanding another mile. There is no actual complete (even very large) amount of things the narcissist wants. Rather it is the direction of flow and continuity of the supply that is important to them.
- Be Direct. In this one must choose battles carefully and be sure. But direct one must be, because narcissists simply do not get hints!
- Go Ahead and Stroke. The narcissism is already there, you cannot increase it. Once the narcissist no longer fears being devalued, he or she may listen.
- Praise Selectively: That is, since praise is listened to, praise the undistorted core intention of the narcissists behavior, or praise the effects, however minor, that you believe are positive. Narcissists want others to be pleased with them, and may provide more of what others like if it is not demanded.
- Refuse to Have Your Needs and Wants De-legitimatized: Refuse to accept the format of 'right or wrong' and instead be firm that this is something you want. That is, force a plain yes or no. Narcissists of course hate to say no because it is not in their self-image. This stance is more for your sanity and integrity than for results. This is a trickier tack to take than the rest, and by no means does it imply that general self-assertion is useful.
- Demand Upkeep: That is, explain that for you to take care of him or her, he or she needs to take care of you by doing 'x'. Because narcissists are usually good at taking care of their 'things' , this usually makes sense to them. Remember you are not pleading the justice of your case, you are demanding your due. Narcissists don't understand equity, they do understand (if not like) demands.
- Play Hardball: Narcissists count on others to not play by the same set of rules, so things shift quickly when they are dealt with in a non-trusting way. Because they tend to wreak their actions compulsively, and against the trusting, they are often not 'well-covered' against real hard-boiled scrutiny. Of course, our culture tends to excuse a great deal if it seems aligned with ambition, and retaliation is a concern.
The 'Collapsed Narcissist
The pathological narcissists described above are usually very well defended in the sense that they rarely experience or express doubt or distress. However, when they are not able to control a situation--through natural events, confrontation by savvy others, loss of a major source of supply--there will be a collapse into a distressed state. Over a lifetime, every narcissist will spend some portion of time in the 'compensated' (or normal narcissistic) state and some time in the collapsed state. A few narcissists actually spend the majority of the time in a collapsed state. What is essential to understand is that in this state the narcissist is not really healing and the exploitation of others continues. Features include
- Dysphoria. There may be complaints of 'depression' but apathy and motor retardation are not present.
- Others are manipulated to provide material needs, not just narcissistic supply, but these contributions are made somehow to seem both inadequate and the narcissist's 'just due.'
- Many changing or shifting complaints of physical illness and injuries (hypochondriasis and psychosomatic complaints)
- Feelings and statements of worthlessness, and self-deprecation, but rage and intolerance if another person agrees! Grandiosity is still in full force and the narcissist is still self-involved with fantasies of great potential.
- Inertia and work inhibition. The narcissist refuses to participate in anything he or she cannot control or be the expert in. This is true in the compensated state but there they feel they are in control and are usually busy. In the collapsed state, he or she comes to a standstill.
- Not being able to control others, the narcissist fears he or she is being or will be controlled, and makes many statements and arguments to that effect.
- Bursts of intense activity, at an emergency pace, which, if sustained may shift the state to compensated, but in any case consume the resources of anyone nearby who is drawn in.
- May use others, especially a partner and children, to live a proxy life during this time. The others will have intense direction presented as help or guidance.
The 'Covert' Narcissist (Or 'Shame-Based' Character)
Although one idea implied in this discussion is that while narcissistic functioning is not well recognized in our culture for what it is, there is a type of narcissism that only decloaks behind closed doors, and is therefore called 'secret' or 'covert,' because naive onlookers do not even get a real chance to recognize it at all. The mistreatment is directed only at family members, or 'trapped members' of a social group. This is a manifestation in which the grandiosity doesn't get off the ground in a smooth way but still functions in the background, building tension and causing eruptions at 'acceptable' targets. The term rageholic is often used.
The 'foreground' acted out by the covert narcissist often is a caricature, but a sincere one, of humility or reasonableness, because there is deep split or conflict that is not buried as it is with the more 'classic' narcissist. Therefore imperturbability or 'untouchability' is not so prominent. The covert narcissist may represent a subset of permanently 'collapsed' narcissists as described above.
The concept of covert narcissism really speaks to the vulnerability of children in the home, many more of whom are deeply wounded by narcissism in their caretakers than is realized. Children are vulnerable because they are not supposed to know what is good for them, or have an equally respected place in the family. Alice Miller has written extensively on this point. Other features include:
- If working outside the home, often is in a service profession helping others, such as teaching, nursing, social work, ministry, etc.., or possibly in a subordinate position in an organization. (Not to be mistaken with 'philanthropy for show' or cost free 'progressive social views' of the classic narcissist) In this setting there is some submission and graciousness, but great concealed resentment and envy
- If not working out side the home, often talks frequently about devotion to family, hospitality, and community building. Often there will be a lot of volunteering.
- Follows through very superficially with promises and commitments made in the course of roles described in the first two bulleted points above, while at the same time broadly accusing others of ingratitude.
- Rages at home very frequently. Keeps family walking on eggshells. Holds court, monologues, lectures, and 'speaks for' others, but doesn't listen.
- Espouses a narrative of endless victimization and vulnerability which at first may seem to be the opposite of grandiose but it insists on everyone else's constant attention and sympathy because nothing is supposed to come close to matching it.
- Is preoccupied with his or her own needs and, at home, disparages the needs of others, and insists on precedence for his or her needs.
- When not working, spends almost all his or her time at home, which gives the impression of being devoted to family, unlike a classic narcissist who tends to roam. This, however, is really about being in the place he or she gets the most narcissistic supply.
- Because the covert narcissist doesn't roam and find new supplies, he or she is very jealous of the attention of people they do have at hand. Like all narcissists he or she will sabotage competing interests, but further, the passions, interests and talents of family or group members will be attacked ferociously and ground down.
- Often is addicted or alcoholic
- Although there may not be a full narcissistic family system as described above, there is usually intense sibling rivalry
- Despite frequent lecturing on a pet dogma or two, rages and criticism are really unprincipled, based on the covert narcissist's irritability and not on any consistent position. Therefore it is never possible for targets to be 'right' even by agreeing.
The concept of the covert narcissist is included in this page both because many of the effects on targets are the same, and because it helps to understand the growing literature on recovery from abuse. It is sometimes called 'shame-based' behavior. Survivors of a covert narcissist have a hard time getting support or validation since observers outside the family will believe the narcissist is as benevolent at home as he or she is in public. A covert narcissist is best recognized by difficulty with criticism, irritability, nervous family members, perfectionism, and blame. While there is entitlement, it is more of a variety where they feel they should get favorable treatment rather than feel they will get favorable treatment.