Letters to Sam Vaknin no 8
©Stephen McDonnell and Sam Vaknin 2004, 2005
All text is copyrighted and is published here
with the permission of the authors.
Saturday, January 22, 2005, Eighth Letter to Sam
Vaknin from Stephen
NPD: the good, the bad and the ugly or is it an addiction?
Where would we be without narcissists? There would probably
be no great works of art, or of science. Great empires would
not exist. The ego and self esteem necessary for creating something
new is found partially in the mirror of a narcissist's soul;
they need to be admired and only by creating or destroying, can
they attain that goal.
"Though there is plenty of narcissism without greatness,
there is no greatness without narcissism." Albert Bernstein
author of Emotional Vampires
Dr Bernstein points out in his books that narcissists are
very competitive, they are driven to be admired and if they do
not stay a 'legend in their own mind' (many NPDs believe their
own publicity, but others actually can go beyond their own hype)
they may well become a legend in their time by dent of hard work
and intelligence. For better or worse we are stuck with them,
so must learn to live with their foibles. They can be good citizens
and contribute to society.
I have often grappled with this question. Is pathological
narcissism a blessing or a malediction?
The answer is: it depends. Healthy narcissism is a mature,
balanced love of oneself coupled with a stable sense of self-worth
and self-esteem. Healthy narcissism implies knowledge of one's
boundaries and a proportionate and realistic appraisal of one's
achievements and traits.
Pathological narcissism is wrongly described as too much healthy
narcissism (or too much self-esteem). These are two absolutely
unrelated phenomena which, regrettably, came to bear the same
title. Confusing pathological narcissism with self- esteem betrays
a fundamental ignorance of both.
Pathological narcissism involves an impaired, dysfunctional,
immature (True) Self coupled with a compensatory fiction (the
False Self). The sick narcissist's sense of self-worth and self-esteem
derive entirely from audience feedback. The narcissist has no
self-esteem or self-worth of his own (no such ego functions).
In the absence of observers, the narcissist shrivels to non-existence
and feels dead. Hence the narcissist's preying habits in his
constant pursuit of Narcissistic Supply. Pathological narcissism
is an addictive behavior.
Still, dysfunctions are reactions to abnormal environments
and situations (e.g., abuse, trauma, smothering, etc.).
Paradoxically, his dysfunction allows the narcissist to function.
It compensates for lacks and deficiencies by exaggerating tendencies
and traits. It is like the tactile sense of a blind person. In
short: pathological narcissism is a result of over-sensitivity,
the repression of overwhelming memories and experiences, and
the suppression of inordinately strong negative feelings (e.g.,
hurt, envy, anger, or humiliation).
That the narcissist functions at all - is because of his pathology
and thanks to it. The alternative is complete decompensation
In time, the narcissist learns how to leverage his pathology,
how to use it to his advantage, how to deploy it in order to
maximize benefits and utilities - in other words, how to transform
his curse into a blessing.
Narcissists are obsessed by delusions of fantastic grandeur
and superiority. As a result they are very competitive. They
are strongly compelled - where others are merely motivated. They
are driven, relentless, tireless, and ruthless. They often make
it to the top. But even when they do not - they strive and fight
and learn and climb and create and think and devise and design
and conspire. Faced with a challenge - they are likely to do
better than non-narcissists.
Yet, we often find that narcissists abandon their efforts
in mid-stream, give up, vanish, lose interest, devalue former
pursuits, fail, or slump. Why is that?
Narcissists are prone to self-defeating and self-destructive
Can the narcissist be harnessed? Can his energies be channeled
This would be a deeply flawed ñ
and even dangerous ñ "advice".
Various management gurus purport to teach us how to harness this
force of nature known as malignant or pathological
narcissism. Narcissists are driven, visionary, ambitious,
exciting and productive, says Michael
Maccoby, for instance. To ignore such a resource is a criminal
waste. All we need to do is learn how to "handle" them.
Yet, this prescription is either naive or disingenuous. Narcissists
cannot be "handled", or "managed", or "contained",
or "channeled". They are, by definition, incapable
of team work. They lack empathy, are exploitative, envious, haughty
and feel entitled, even if such a feeling is commensurate only
with their grandiose fantasies and when their accomplishments
Narcissists dissemble, conspire, destroy and self-destruct.
Their drive is compulsive, their vision rarely grounded in reality,
their human relations a calamity. In the long run, there is no
enduring benefit to dancing with narcissists ñ
only ephemeral and, often, fallacious, "achievements".
Your last letter was great. I wonder if anyone who is ignorant
of the DSM IV, and the different diagnostic criteria in it, would
understand what we are talking about? Only seven years ago, I
would have thought what you and I have written as so much "hog
wash." Having brought up to not believe in mental disorders,
and even after I had attended medical school, it took a great
mental leap and effort to open my mind to the labeling of people
with mental disease. Having also been brought up by people who
label others very easily, something NPDs do because they only
see in black and white, I am reluctant to put someone in a box
and say he or she is such and such a thing. My change in outlook
happened when I saw that several people, male and female and
from different age brackets and cultures, all were acting the
same way. A light went on in my head, and a lot of preconceived
ideas - and nightmares- disappeared.
Therefore I hope that a reader of these letters will indulge
us, and hopefully will have attained enlightenment, before reading
them. Or maybe he or she will suddenly see the light; there is
an intellectual component to understanding, as well as an emotional
one. The realization that Narcissistic Personality Disorder was
real, that such people did exist and it wasn't me who was crazy
but them, changed my life forever. Knowledge is power. It started
me on a journey to understand more of how the mind works and
how it can be derailed by mental and personality disorders. I
can understand most of the concepts you write about, but there
are always new surprises along the way.
Fortunately one of my first stops was your web site, Sam.
When you started writing about Inverted Narcissism, it resonated
with me. How often had I seen such behavior? More than I would
like to admit. When I broached the subject of BDSM, in the last
letter, I envisioned the same kind of relationship existed between
a narcissist and a victim. You set me straight on that. Though
I believe that the invisible bonds that form and the verbal abuse
that occurs in a NPD victim dyad is just as binding as a slave
Don't misunderstand me: I found your idea of comparing narcissistic
abuser-victim dyads to BDSM dyads thought-provoking and fascinating.
I just am not sure that it holds true for the majority of victims.
It is a fact, after all, that a vast number of the abused are
unhappy (ego-dystonic) and do their best to extricate themselves
from the abusive relationship. Having said that, the model you
proposed in dialog 7 is, in my view, surprisingly useful in comprehending
the dynamics of abusive relationships!
And thank you for your kind words regarding my work. A moment
of self-congratulatory reminiscing (what else could you expect
from a narcissist):
When I started writing "Malignant
Self Love - Narcissism Revisited" in 1996, I went online
to search for "narcissism" and the "Narcissistic
Personality Disorder". Google wasn't invented yet. Infoseek,
the reigning search engine of the time, spewed out 150 Web sites
containing the word narcissism. That was it. There was not a
single mailing or discussion group dedicated to narcissism. Alt.narcissism,
the Usenet group, was defunct.
Fast forward to 2005. Type the word "narcissism"
into Google or Yahoo and you get 500,000 results. There are more
than 50 discussion, study, and mailing groups dedicated to pathological
narcissism, with well over 15,000 active members in total. Even
the media is beginning to pay attention. It is gratifying.
Is there a chemical addiction involved? In a book I am reading
by Dr. Susan Greenfield, The Private Life of the Brain in which
she details the actions of drugs on the brain. As well, she talks
of how we often seek strong physical and emotional situations
that obliterate our consciousness - she says we are seeking to
recreate our childhood mental state. I wonder if the NPD victim
is seeking a parent child relationship? The feelings of joy and
pain we felt when growing up are engrained in our minds.
This is the orthodoxy, the prevailing view.
The narcissist is a person who is irreparably traumatized
by the behavior of the most important people in his life: his
parents, role models, or peers. By being capricious, arbitrary,
and sadistically judgmental, they molded him into an adult, who
fervently and obsessively tries to recreate the trauma in order
to, this time around, resolve it (repetition complex).
Thus, on the one hand, the narcissist feels that his freedom
depends upon re-enacting these early experiences. On the other
hand, he is terrified by this prospect. Realizing that he is
doomed to go through the same traumas over and over again, the
narcissist distances himself by using his aggression to alienate,
to humiliate and in general, to be emotionally absent.
This behavior brings about the very consequence that the narcissist
so fears - abandonment. But, this way, at least, the narcissist
is able to tell himself (and others) that HE was
the one who fostered the separation, that it was fully his choice
and that he was not surprised. The truth is that, governed by
his internal demons, the narcissist has no real choice. The dismal
future of his relationships is preordained.
I know very little about brain chemistry, but I want to offer
The narcissist's moods change abruptly
in the wake of a narcissistic
injury. One can easily manipulate the moods of a narcissist
by making a disparaging remark, by disagreeing with him, by criticising him,
by doubting his grandiosity
or fantastic claims, etc.
Such REACTIVE mood shifts
are not provoked by the fluctuations in the narcissist's body
chemistry (for instance, his blood sugar levels), or with the
presence or absence of any substance or chemical in his brain.
It is possible to reduce the narcissist to a state of rage and
depression AT ANY MOMENT, simply by employing the
above "technique". He can be elated, even manic ñ
and in a split second, following a narcissistic injury, depressed,
sulking or raging.
The opposite is also true. The narcissist
can be catapulted from the bleakest despair to utter mania (or
at least to an increased and marked feeling of well-being) by
being provided with the flimsiest Narcissistic
Supply (attention, adulation, etc.).
These swings are totally correlated to
external events (narcissistic injury or Narcissistic Supply)
and not to cycles of hormones, enzymes, neurotransmitters, sugar,
or other substances in the body.
It is conceivable, though,
that a third, unrelated problem causes chemical imbalances in
the brain, metabolic diseases such as diabetes, pathological
narcissism, and other mental health syndromes. There may be a
common cause, a hidden common denominator (perhaps a group of
Other disorders, like the Bipolar
Disorder (mania-depression) are characterised by mood swings
that are not brought about by external events (endogenous, not
exogenous). But the narcissist's mood swings are strictly the
results of external events (as he perceives and interprets them,
Narcissists are absolutely insulated from
They are emotionally flat or numb.
The narcissist does not have pendular (cyclical)
mood swings on a regular, almost predictable basis, from depression to
euphoria (mania), as is the case in biochemically induced mental
Additionally, the narcissist goes through
which last months or even years. These cannot, of course, be
attributed to blood sugar levels or to Dopamine and Serotonin
secretions in the brain.
The Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD)
per se is not treated with medication. The underlying disorder
is treated by one of the long-term psychodynamic or cognitive-behavioural
therapies. Other Personality Disorders (NPD is usually comorbid
- diagnosed with other PDs) are treated separately and according
to their own characteristics.
But phenomena, which are often associated
with NPD, such as depression or OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder),
are treated with medication. Rumour has it that SSRI's (such
as Fluoxetine, known as Prozac) might have adverse effects if
the primary disorder is NPD. They sometimes lead to the Serotonin
syndrome, which includes agitation and exacerbates the rage
attacks typical of a narcissist. The use of SSRI's is associated
at times with delirium and the emergence of a manic phase and
even with psychotic microepisodes.
This is not the case with the heterocyclics,
MAO and mood stabilisers, such as lithium. Blockers and inhibitors
are regularly applied without discernible adverse side effects
(as far as NPD is concerned).
Additionally, cognitive-behavioural therapies
are often used to treat the attendant OCD and depression.
Not enough is known about the biochemistry
of NPD. There seems to be some vague link to Serotonin but no
one knows for sure. There isn't a reliable non-intrusive method
to measure brain and central nervous system Serotonin levels
anyhow, so it is mostly guesswork at this stage.
Thus, as of now, the typical and recommended
treatment for pathological narcissism and the comorbid depression
and OCD is talk therapy of one kind (psychodynamic) or another
Antidepressants can be used moderately
(with SSRI being currently under critical scrutiny).
One of the elements we left out in my discussion of the dyads
is what happens in the brain during and afterward - I am not
discounting what you wrote and agree with you. But why do people
becoming addicted to such behavior - is there a chemical component?
Both the NPD and the victims show signs of addiction to each
other; as you pointed out in your letters this is a sign of codependency,
Stockholm syndrome etc. I posit that just as there is a "runners
high" caused by brain chemicals (neurotransmitters), in
both a BDSM and an NPD/victim relationship the victim becomes
addicted to the high of the pain and abuse. The brain has neurons
with have receptors for chemicals that either are produced internally
or come from the exterior - that is why morphine and other drugs
work so well, they fit into pre-existing sites in the brain.
Watching the interaction of NPDs and victims, I would surmise
that they are addicted to each other; both are giving each other
some kind of supply of chemicals. Take the case of cigarette
smokers; there is both a social and a chemical component to nicotine
addiction. We can suppose there is a predisposition to smoking
in all of us, yet many of us never develop an addiction to cigarettes.
Is the same true for addiction to the pain of a NPD relationship?
The parties in involve, no matter how much they protest to the
contrary, are enmeshed to the point where the victim as to detoxify
after leaving a NPD. On the other hand, I have recently read
a newspaper article, unfortunately without any reference, that
alleged people with NPD and Borderline personality disorders
often become stalkers - they cannot accept that their object
of desire either is not interested in them or would reject them.
I suggested long ago that the narcissist
is the mental equivalent of the alcoholic. He is insatiable.
He directs his whole behaviour, in fact his life, to obtain the
pleasurable titbits of attention called "Narcissistic
Supply". He embeds them in a coherent, completely biased,
picture of himself. He uses them to regulates his labile sense
of self-worth and self-esteem.
In other words, we both think that the
narcissist is an addict. But I postulate that he is addicted
to narcissistic supply - and not to the SOURCES
of narcissistic supply, as you propose. The sources (his victims)
are interchangeable. His dependence on narcissistic supply is
Are the victims addicted to "their"
Some are undoubtedly (the ones who are
Inverted Narcissists and the straightforward codependents). But
I still maintain that the majority are not.
Regardless of whether the victim is addicted
to her abuser or not, it is an intriguing idea to apply therapeutic
modalities borrowed from the treatment of addictive behaviours
to the treatment of victims of abuse.
The NPD relationship is about power, the power to charm, to
control and eventually to receive 'narcissistic supply' in all
of its various forms. The supply can begin with just compliments,
to admiration, to 'love', to subjugation and finally complete
control; the victim becomes a puppet mimicking and providing
what the master or mistress wants. In mild forms, most people
enjoy the charm of NPDs and do not mind paying them attention;
only later is there a flip flop of interaction, whereby the NPD
demands an in-ordinate quantity of attention for the little he
or she gives you. (I am not sure how many times I have heard
a NPD say to the victim that they belong to the NPD - all the
benefits they receive are due to the NPD's generosity.)
Even with all I have read all about NPDs, I still do not understand
Intellectually, I can see what type of behavior is indicative
of narcissism taken to a higher level, but I still wonder why?
They are monsters who think differently than normal people even
while they mimic normal behavior. What I do know is that we -
as adults - must learn about them in order to avoid them, or
at least cope with their destructive behavior. We cross paths
with NPDs daily, we work and live with them and we suffer from
what they do. Most of all, children suffer from NPDs, because
they do not have the maturity or intelligence to understand what
is going on. A NPD mother or father is like an emotional cancer,
what they do as parents is infect their children. Only later
will the seeds of their sickness blossom. Not always, but often
an adult child will wonder why they do certain things, why they
react in certain ways, and wonder what went wrong? Why are they
Emotionally abused children of NPD
I was just thinking about how I have always been obsessed
with the truth. Not knowing if all victims of narcissists share
this characteristic, I do know some who do, it struck me that
if a child grows up surrounded by liars who live in a fantasy
world (the narcissist who creates a world based on three things;
me, myself and I) then it would follow that a child would either
imitate the narcissist or would reject the lies, and try to discover
the 'truth'. The first instance of this world that I found in
reading about narcissists was in Alice Miller's Book, "The
Drama of the Gifted Child, The Search for the True Self"
in which she describes the house one of her clients lived in
as a child. Her patient said that it was a glass house (he could
have said one made of mirrors) and that all the bad things were
hidden; this is the world a narcissist creates for themselves
and their families. Ever noticed that some people's houses are
perfect? The houses don't look lived in? Their children are perfect,
or if they are too loud or difficult the parents put their children
on drugs to make them perfect? I wonder if these kinds of people
are NPD, if not Compulsive Obsessive? What is it like to live
with such people? Perfectionists who nit pick everything and
everyone, who are never happy, who fall apart whenever something
goes wrong are difficult to live with.
What if a child sees the world one way then is told by parents
that it is not real because the world is filtered through the
adult NPD's anxieties and warped vision. Can this cause anxiety
in the child? A child has to interpret what is real and what
is fake; see Piaget for the stages of development of a child's
brain/consciousness. The NPD's worldview is hell for children
but it may provoke anxiety in other adults. Are we not all are
raised to be fooled - it this what makes us adult - in order
to survive? The transition to adulthood requires that we go along
with the lies; learn how to tell white lies and to see a white
lie. Children are cruel in that they will say what is on their
minds, without a 'filter', what they see is the good bad or ugly
truth. Only later do they realize the tooth fairy did not bring
them a gift for their tooth (I know of a banker who used to give
his child a hundred dollar bill and made sure everyone knew it)
and the child becomes a skeptic and cynic. When a child learns
how to lie, they enter the adult world, I believe.
Narcissists continue to believe in fantasies - especially
about them selves. They are fun to be around for this very reason
- they are the tooth fairies that fulfill our dreams. A narcissist
warps reality; making lies into truths and vice versa.
If you live in such an atmosphere, it seems that nothing is
real, all emotions are studied and acted, and all make believe.
A child depending on an adult for emotional and moral comfort
finds that the NPD parent is not there; either the parent is
acting, or absent. Firstly the parent acts as if they are the
greatest parent in the world, with ostentatious signs of love
and caring; only the best schools, the best clothes, the best
of everything. They will shower their child with 'material' love
in a show for the watching audience. For a NPD, their child is
an extension of the NPD adult, like their car or house, and so
much reflect back their glory. Go to a soccer game and watch
the parents who want their kids to win, no mater what, even if
they end up hating the game. Is this because the parents 'care'
for their children? Or is it because they see the child winning
for the greater glory of the parent? Love that is conditional,
that comes with instructions and all kinds of rules is a NPD
The other side of NPD parenting is the total rejection of
the child. The child is loved, from a distance, but never held,
nor listened to. The child is a thing; hopefully it will grow
up to be civilized. The NPD parent who is absent has no idea
what to do has no inner voice to guide them. So the child believes
they are unlovable. This is probably as bad as being 'loved to
death' by the exhibitionist NPD parent. Do NPD parents spend
time with their child? As Kat Stevens sang, in the song Cats
and the cradle:
My son turned ten just the other day He said, "Thanks
for the ball dad, come on let's play Can you teach me to throw?"
I said, "Not today, I've got a lot to do"
The child who is raised by NPDs is at a loss to understand
the parent's actions. The NPD parent is probably as clueless.
And so our society continues to encourage such behavior, keeping
up with the Jones etc. The treadmill of conformity leads to the
My mother suffered from a severe case of pathological narcissism
(as well as other Axis II and Axis I disorders). I described
my experiences as a child in this segment
(titled "Abuse"), in my poetry,
in my short fiction,
and in my journal.
Despite years of writing, helping others, and interacting with
both narcissists and victims (not to mention two bouts of failed
therapy) - I failed to exorcise my childhood demons.
I wrote a very extensive essay about the way the narcissist
is molded by his faulty upbringing. You can find it here:
There is very little to add to the concise and accurate way
you described the pernicious effects of growing up in a household
A few more insights and observations, though:
As you poignantly pointed out, the atmosphere in the narcissist's
family unit is outlandish and sinister.
The narcissist's very self is a piece of fiction concocted
to fend off hurt and to nurture the narcissist's grandiosity.
He fails in his "reality test" - the ability to distinguish
the actual from the imagined. The narcissist fervently believes
in his own infallibility, brilliance, omnipotence, heroism, and
perfection. He doesn't dare confront the truth and admit it even
Moreover, he imposes his personal mythology on his nearest
and dearest. Spouse, children, colleagues, friends, neighbors
- sometimes even perfect strangers - must abide by the narcissist's
narrative or face his wrath. The narcissist countenances no disagreement,
alternative points of view, or criticism. To him, confabulation
The coherence of the narcissist's dysfunctional and precariously-balanced
personality depends on the plausibility of his stories and on
their acceptance by his Sources of Narcissistic Supply. The narcissist
invests an inordinate time in substantiating his tales, collecting
"evidence", defending his version of events, and in
re-interpreting reality to fit his scenario. As a result, most
narcissists are self-delusional, obstinate, opinionated, and
The narcissist's lies are not goal-orientated. This is what
makes his constant dishonesty both disconcerting and incomprehensible.
The narcissist lies at the drop of a hat, needlessly, and almost
ceaselessly. He lies in order to avoid the Grandiosity Gap -
when the abyss between fact and (narcissistic) fiction becomes
too gaping to ignore.
The narcissist lies in order to preserve appearances, uphold
fantasies, support the tall (and impossible) tales of his False
Self and extract Narcissistic Supply from unsuspecting sources,
who are not yet on to him. To the narcissist, confabulation is
not merely a way of life - but life itself.
We are all conditioned to let other indulge in pet delusions
and get away with white, not too egregious, lies. The narcissist
makes use of our socialization. We dare not confront or expose
him, despite the outlandishness of his claims, the improbability
of his stories, the implausibility of his alleged accomplishments
and conquests. We simply turn the other cheek, or meekly avert
our eyes, often embarrassed.
Moreover, the narcissist makes clear, from the very beginning,
that it is his way or the highway. His aggression - even violent
streak - are close to the surface. He may be charming in a first
encounter - but even then there are telltale
signs of pent-up abuse. His interlocutors sense this impending
threat and avoid conflict by acquiescing with the narcissist's
fairy tales. Thus he imposes his private universe and virtual
reality on his milieu - sometimes with disastrous consequences.
The narcissist is the guru at the center of a cult. Like other
gurus, he demands complete obedience from his flock: his spouse,
his offspring, other family members, friends, and colleagues.
He feels entitled to adulation and special treatment by his followers.
He punishes the wayward and the straying lambs. He enforces discipline,
adherence to his teachings, and common goals. The less accomplished
he is in reality ñ
the more stringent his mastery and the more pervasive the brainwashing.
The ñ often involuntary
ñ members of the narcissist's
mini-cult inhabit a twilight zone of his own construction. He
imposes on them a shared psychosis, replete with persecutory
delusions, "enemies", mythical narratives, and apocalyptic
scenarios if he is flouted.
The narcissist's control is based on ambiguity, unpredictability,
fuzziness, and ambient
abuse. His ever-shifting whims exclusively define right versus
wrong, desirable and unwanted, what is to be pursued and what
to be avoided. He alone determines the rights and obligations
of his disciples and alters them at will.
The narcissist is a micro-manager. He exerts control over
the minutest details and behaviors. He punishes severely and
abuses withholders of information and those who fail to conform
to his wishes and goals.
The narcissist does not respect the boundaries and privacy
of his reluctant adherents. He ignores their wishes and treats
them as objects or instruments of gratification. He seeks to
control both situations and people compulsively.
He strongly disapproves of others' personal autonomy and independence.
Even innocuous activities, such as meeting a friend or visiting
one's family require his permission. Gradually, he isolates his
nearest and dearest until they are fully dependent on him emotionally,
sexually, financially, and socially.
He acts in a patronizing and condescending manner and criticizes
often. He alternates between emphasizing the minutest faults
(devalues) and exaggerating the talents, traits, and skills (idealizes)
of the members of his cult. He is wildly unrealistic in his expectations
ñ which legitimizes
his subsequent abusive conduct.
The narcissist claims to be infallible, superior, talented,
skillful, omnipotent, and omniscient. He often lies and confabulates
to support these unfounded claims. Within his cult, he expects
awe, admiration, adulation, and constant attention commensurate
with his outlandish stories and assertions. He reinterprets reality
to fit his fantasies.
His thinking is dogmatic, rigid, and doctrinaire. He does
not countenance free thought, pluralism, or free speech and doesn't
brook criticism and disagreement. He demands ñ
and often gets ñ complete
trust and the relegation to his capable hands of all decision-making.
He forces the participants in his cult to be hostile to critics,
the authorities, institutions, his personal enemies, or the media
ñ if they try to uncover
his actions and reveal the truth. He closely monitors and censors
information from the outside, exposing his captive audience only
to selective data and analyses.
The narcissist's cult is "missionary" and "imperialistic".
He is always on the lookout for new recruits ñ
his spouse's friends, his daughter's girlfriends, his neighbors,
new colleagues at work. He immediately attempts to "convert"
them to his "creed" ñ
to convince them how wonderful and admirable he is. In other
words, he tries to render them Sources of Narcissistic Supply.
Often, his behavior on these "recruiting missions"
is different to his conduct within the "cult". In the
first phases of wooing new admirers and proselytizing to potential
the narcissist is attentive, compassionate, empathic, flexible,
self-effacing, and helpful. At home, among the "veterans"
he is tyrannical, demanding, willful, opinionated, aggressive,
As the leader of his congregation, the narcissist feels entitled
to special amenities and benefits not accorded the "rank
and file". He expects to be waited on hand and foot, to
make free use of everyone's money and dispose of their assets
liberally, and to be cynically exempt from the rules that he
himself established (if such violation is pleasurable or gainful).
In extreme cases, the narcissist feels above the law ñ any kind of law. This
grandiose and haughty conviction leads to criminal acts, incestuous
or polygamous relationships, and recurrent friction with the
Hence the narcissist's panicky and sometimes violent reactions
to "dropouts" from his cult. There's a lot going on
that the narcissist wants kept under wraps. Moreover, the narcissist
stabilizes his fluctuating sense of self-worth by deriving Narcissistic
Supply from his victims. Abandonment threatens the narcissist's
precariously balanced personality.
Add to that the narcissist's paranoid
and schizoid tendencies, his lack of introspective
self-awareness, and his stunted
sense of humor (lack of self-deprecation) and the risks to
the grudging members of his cult are clear.
The narcissist sees enemies and conspiracies everywhere. He
often casts himself as the heroic victim (martyr) of dark and
stupendous forces. In every deviation from his tenets he espies
malevolent and ominous subversion. He, therefore, is bent on
disempowering his devotees. By any and all means.
The narcissist does not require
ñ nor does he seek ñ his parents' or his siblings'
love, or to be loved by his children. He casts them as the audience
in the theatre of his inflated grandiosity. He wishes to impress
them, shock them, threaten them, infuse them with awe, inspire
them, attract their attention, subjugate them, or manipulate
He emulates and simulates an
entire range of emotions and employs every means to achieve these
effects. He lies (narcissists are pathological liars ñ
their very self is a false one). He acts
the pitiful, or, its opposite, the resilient and reliable. He
stuns and shines with outstanding intellectual, or physical capacities
and achievements, or behavior
patterns appreciated by the members of the
family. When confronted with (younger) siblings or with his own
children, the narcissist is likely to go through
At first, he perceives his offspring
or siblings as a threat to his Narcissistic
Supply, such as the attention of his spouse, or mother,
as the case may be. They intrude on
his turf and invade the
Pathological Narcissistic Space. The narcissist
does his best to belittle them, hurt (even
physically) and humiliate them and then, when these reactions
prove ineffective or counter productive, he retreats into an
imaginary world of omnipotence. A period of emotional absence
and detachment ensues.
His aggression having failed to elicit Narcissistic
Supply, the narcissist proceeds to
indulge himself in daydreaming, delusions
of grandeur, planning of future coups, nostalgia and hurt (the
Lost Paradise Syndrome). The narcissist reacts this way to the
birth of his children or to the introduction of new foci of attention
to the family cell (even to a new pet!).
Whomever the narcissist perceives
to be in competition for scarce Narcissistic
Supply is relegated to the role of the enemy. Where the uninhibited
expression of the aggression and hostility aroused by this predicament
is illegitimate or impossible ñ
the narcissist prefers to stay away. Rather than attack
his offspring or siblings, he sometimes
immediately disconnects, detaches himself
emotionally, becomes cold and uninterested,
or directs transformed anger at his
mate or at his parents (the more "legitimate"
Other narcissists see the opportunity
in the "mishap". They seek to manipulate their parents
(or their mate) by "taking over" the newcomer. Such
narcissists monopolise their siblings or their newborn children.
This way, indirectly, they benefit
from the attention directed at the infants.
The sibling or offspring become vicarious sources of Narcissistic
Supply and proxies for the narcissist.
An example: by being closely
identified with his offspring, a narcissistic father secures
the grateful admiration of the mother ("What an outstanding
father/brother he is"). He also
assumes part of or all the credit for baby's/sibling's achievements.
This is a process of annexation and assimilation of the other,
a strategy that the narcissist makes use of in most of his relationships.
As siblings or progeny
grow older, the narcissist begins to see their potential to be
edifying, reliable and satisfactory Sources of Narcissistic Supply.
His attitude, then, is completely transformed. The former threats
have now become promising potentials. He cultivates those whom
he trusts to be the most rewarding. He encourages them to idolise
him, to adore him, to be awed by him, to admire his deeds and
capabilities, to learn to blindly trust and obey him, in short
to surrender to his charisma and to become submerged in his follies-de-grandeur.
It is at this stage that the risk of child abuse
- up to and including outright incest - is heightened. The narcissist
is auto-erotic. He is the preferred object of his own sexual
attraction. His siblings and his children share his genetic material.
Molesting or having intercourse with them is as close as the
narcissist gets to having sex with himself.
Moreover, the narcissist perceives sex in terms
of annexation. The partner is "assimilated" and becomes
an extension of the narcissist, a fully controlled and manipulated
object. Sex, to the narcissist, is the ultimate act of depersonalization
and objectification of the other. He actually masturbates with
other people's bodies.
Minors pose little danger of criticizing the narcissist
or confronting him. They are perfect, malleable and abundant
sources of Narcissistic Supply. The narcissist derives gratification
from having coital relations with adulating, physically and mentally
inferior, inexperienced and dependent "bodies".
These roles ñ allocated
to them explicitly and demandingly or implicitly and perniciously
by the narcissist ñ are best fulfilled by ones whose mind
is not yet fully formed and independent.
The older the siblings or offspring, the more they become critical,
even judgemental, of the narcissist. They are better able to
put into context and perspective his actions, to question his
motives, to anticipate his moves.
As they mature, they often
refuse to continue to play the mindless pawns
in his chess game. They hold grudges against him for what he
has done to them in the past, when they were less capable of
resistance. They can gauge his true stature, talents and achievements
ñ which, usually, lag far behind the claims that he makes.
This brings the narcissist a
full cycle back to the first phase. Again, he perceives his siblings
or sons/daughters as threats. He quickly becomes disillusioned
and devaluing. He loses all interest, becomes emotionally remote,
absent and cold, rejects any effort to communicate with him,
citing life pressures and the preciousness and scarceness of
He feels burdened, cornered,
besieged, suffocated, and claustrophobic. He wants to get away,
to abandon his commitments to people who have become totally
useless (or even damaging) to him. He does not understand why
he has to support them, or to suffer
their company and he believes himself to have been deliberately
and ruthlessly trapped.
He rebels either passively-aggressively
(by refusing to act or by intentionally
sabotaging the relationships) or actively (by being overly critical,
aggressive, unpleasant, verbally and psychologically abusive
and so on). Slowly ñ to justify his acts to himself ñ
he gets immersed in conspiracy theories with clear paranoid hues.
To his mind, the members of the
family conspire against him, seek to belittle or humiliate or
subordinate him, do not understand him, or stymie
his growth. The narcissist usually finally gets what he wants
and the family that he has created disintegrates to his great
sorrow (due to the loss of the Narcissistic Space) ñ but
also to his great relief and surprise (how could they have let
go someone as unique as he?).
This is the cycle: the narcissist
feels threatened by arrival of new family members ñ he
tries to assimilate or annex
of siblings or offspring ñ he obtains
Narcissistic Supply from them ñ he overvalues
and idealizes these newfound
sources ñ as sources grow older and independent, they
adopt anti narcissistic behaviours ñ the narcissist devalues
them ñ the narcissist feels stifled and trapped ñ
the narcissist becomes paranoid ñ the narcissist rebels
and the family disintegrates.
This cycle characterises not
only the family life of the narcissist. It is to be found in
other realms of his life (his career, for instance). At work,
the narcissist, initially, feels threatened (no one knows him,
he is a nobody). Then, he develops a circle of admirers, cronies
and friends which he "nurtures and cultivates" in order
to obtain Narcissistic Supply from them. He overvalues them (to
him, they are the brightest, the most loyal,
with the biggest chances to climb the corporate ladder and other
But following some anti-narcissistic
behaviours on their part (a critical remark, a disagreement,
a refusal, however polite) ñ the narcissist devalues all
these previously idealized individuals.
Now that they have dared oppose him -
they are judged by him to be stupid,
cowardly, lacking in ambition, skills
and talents, common (the worst expletive in the narcissist's
vocabulary), with an unspectacular career ahead of them.
The narcissist feels that he
is misallocating his scarce and invaluable resources
(for instance, his time). He feels besieged and suffocated. He
rebels and erupts in a serious of self-defeating and self-destructive
behaviours, which lead to the disintegration of his life.
Doomed to build and ruin, attach
and detach, appreciate and depreciate, the narcissist is predictable
in his "death wish". What sets him apart from other
suicidal types is that his wish is granted to him in small, tormenting
doses throughout his anguished life.
This is a very destructive pattern
because parents (Primary Objects) and,
more specifically, mothers are the first agents of socialisation.
It is through his mother that the child explores the answers
to the most important existential questions, which shape his
entire life. How loved one is, how loveable, how independent
one becomes, how guilty one should feel for wanting to become
autonomous, how predictable is the world, how much abuse should
one expect in life and so on.
To the infant, the mother, is not only
an object of dependence (as his survival is at stake), love and
adoration. It is a representation of the "universe"
itself. It is through her that the child first exercises his
senses: the tactile, the olfactory, and the visual.
Later on, she becomes the subject of his
nascent sexual cravings (if a male) ñ a diffuse sense
of wanting to merge, physically, as well as spiritually. This
object of love is idealised and internalised and becomes part
of his conscience (Superego). For better or for worse, she is
the yardstick, the benchmark against which everything in his
future is measured. One forever compares oneself, one's identity,
one's actions and omissions, one's achievements, one's fears
and hopes and aspirations to this mythical figure.
Growing up entails the gradual separation
from one's mother. At first, the child begins to shape a more
realistic view of her and incorporates the mother's shortcomings
and disadvantages in this modified version. The more ideal, less
realistic and earlier picture of the mother is stored and becomes
part of the child's psyche. The later, less cheerful, more realistic
view enables the infant to define his own identity and gender
identity and to "go out to the world".
"abandoning" mother is the key to an independent exploration
of the world, to personal autonomy and to a strong sense of self.
Resolving the sexual complex and the resulting conflict of being
attracted to a forbidden figure ñ is the second, determining,
The (male) child must realise that his
mother is "off-limits" to him sexually (and emotionally,
or psychosexually) and that she "belongs" to his father
(or to other males). He must thereafter choose to imitate his
father ("become a man") in order to win, in the future,
someone like his mother.
The third (and final) stage of letting
go of the mother is reached during the delicate period of adolescence.
One then seriously ventures out and, finally, builds and secures
one's own world, replete with a new "mother-lover".
If any of these phases is thwarted ñ the process of differentiation
is not be successfully completed, no autonomy or coherent self
are achieved and dependence and "infantilism" characterise
the unlucky person.
What determines the success or failure
of these phases in one's personal history? Mostly, one's mother.
If the mother does not "let go" ñ the child
does not go. If the mother herself is the dependent, narcissistic
type ñ the growth prospects of the child are, indeed,
There are numerous mechanisms, which mothers
use to ensure the continued presence and emotional dependence
of their offspring (of both sexes).
The mother can cast herself in the role
of the eternal victim, a sacrificial figure, who dedicated her
life to the child (with the implicit or explicit proviso of reciprocity:
that the child dedicate his life to her). Another strategy is
to treat the child as an extension of the mother or, conversely,
to treat herself as an extension of the child.
Yet another tactic is to create a situation
of shared psychosis or "follies-a-deux" (the mother
and child united against external threats), or an atmosphere
suffused with sexual and erotic insinuations, leading to an illicit
psychosexual bonding between mother and child.
In this, latter case, the adult's ability
to interact with members of the opposite sex is gravely impaired
and the mother is perceived as envious of any feminine influence
other than hers. Such a mother is frequently critical of the
women in her offspring's life pretending to do so in order to
protect him from dangerous liaisons or from ones which are "beneath
him" ("You deserve more").
Other mothers exaggerate their neediness:
they emphasise their financial dependence and lack of resources,
their health problems, their emotional barrenness without the
soothing presence of the child, their need to be protected against
this or that (mostly imaginary) enemy. Guilt is a prime mover
in the perverted relationships of such mothers and their children.
The death of the mother is, therefore,
both a devastating shock and a deliverance - ambivalent emotional
reactions. Even a "normal" adult who mourns his dead
mother is usually exposed to such emotional duality. This ambivalence
is the source of great guilt feelings.
With a person who is abnormally attached
to his mother, the situation is more complicated. He feels that
he has a part in her death, that he is to blame, somehow responsible,
that he could have done more. He is glad to be liberated and
feels guilty and punishable because of it. He feels sad and elated,
naked and powerful, exposed to dangers and omnipotent, about
to disintegrate and to be newly integrated. These, precisely,
are the emotional reactions to a successful therapy. With the
death of his mother, the victim (often a narcissist himself)
embarks on a process of healing.
Thank you, Stephen, for
airing these important issues. Looking forward to our next exchange!
Last updated September 25, 2006