Most often people think of narcissists as very confident individuals. This observation often changes
with time, to viewing the individual as being arrogant; someone who brags about their accomplishments in an exaggerated
fashion. People involved with the narcissistic person often realize that the bragging or attention-seeking belies an
insecurity that can never be bolstered adequately, no matter how much ego support the narcissist receives from others.
Being in the presence of an individual with a narcissistic personality for any length of
time often induces feelings of insecurity, or the feeling that one is subtly being put-down, competed with, or somewhat devalued.
This is due to the narcissist's inability or refusal to see others as having as much value as they do. If others had
as much value as the narcissist, then that would make them equal. This is unacceptable to narcissists because they have
a pathological need to be seen as special, out of the ordinary, deserving of adoration. Winning is a must. Losing
is not simply a matter of 'win some-lose some'; it is a personal affront.
The elevated airs and high self-regard of the narcissist can border on the ridiculous at times. Most
have seen the middle-aged male with the rotund waist line, chasing after attractive young ladies their daughter's age, not
seeming to notice the discrepancy or that the lady finds him 'fatherly' and not the 'stud' he considers himself
to be. His self view has not changed in that he sees himself as young and eligible, rather than middle-aged. It
is as if the narcissist is frozen in adolescence.
The Myth of Narcissus
The character Narcissus, in Greek mythology, was said to be so handsome that everyone who saw him
loved and desired him. Narcissus was too proud to offer his love in return. Echo, a nymph who loved Narcissus,
approached him and was haughtily rejected by him. Echo was so hurt by his rebuff that she shriveled up until all that
was left of her was her voice, and she could only repeat back the last few words she heard.
Not all the would-be lovers of Narcissus were so passive. Other versions of the myth tell of Ameinius,
who took his complaint about his rejection by Narcissus, to the goddess of vengeance, Nemesis. He asked Nemesis
to make Narcissus fall in love with himself, simultaneously incapable of accepting his own love.
One day Narcissus bent down to drink from a clear, silvery pool. As he drank, he saw a beautiful image in the pool.
He had never before caught a glimpse of himself and he did not seem to realize it was only a reflection. Narcissus fell
in love with his own reflection. He tried to kiss and embrace it, encouraged because he saw the other raising his lips
to meet his own, but couldn't. Narcissus could do nothing except keep trying. In time he realized he was
in love with his own reflection. Since he knew he could never hold himself, he despaired and realized he couldn't live
any longer. He beat his breast and died. When his body was to be buried, the body was gone. In its
place was a lovely yellow-centered white flower, the narcissus.
Narissistic Personality Traits/Disorder
The myth of Narcissus gave a name and example for the syndrome of self-absorption and investment
in an image rather than expression of the true self. When narcissistic traits are more numerous and severe, they
reflect an ego investment in an image and reflection of that image to the self and others, which excludes any evidence of
the real self. The narcissist is seen as preferring his own reflected image, to who s/he really is. For example,
indivuduals who view themselves as the 'strong silent type' often hide that they have been hurt or are emotionally
fragile, and are defending against feelings of vulnerability with the tough facade. They prefer to see themselves as
impervious to mundane human feelings and so they project the image they want others to see. This belies a belief that
who they really are, is unacceptable. It also keeps them from working through the real issues that required the implementation
of a facade in the first place.
The False Self
Often the true self is so hidden from the narcissist, that all s/he can do is desperately seek validation
for the false self. This validation is never enough because the real person or issue is not being addressed. If
one is reinforcing a role or image, the real self is not being nurtured. It grows more needy and undeveloped, while
the image is inflated.
This is often a difficult syndrome to understand. A concrete representation would be that one has
a Vitamin C deficiency. However, that is unacceptable for some reason, so the person instead "pretends" that there is
actually a Vitamin A deficiency and obtains more Vitamin A in the diet. The Vitamin C issue is never addressed and the
person becomes more and more deficient. No matter how much Vitamin A the person acquires, no improvement is seen.
Although this is a simplified example, the idea that real human needs, can never be met by presenting an image of who
one pretends to be, and getting support for that image. How would feeding the image really allow the real self to grow?
Deficit of Self
Narcissism can be described as a deficit of self; as if something is missing from the inner world of the
individual. This can be difficult to grasp when one is observing the individual to express a bragging
confident style. However, when the frequent boasting or haughtiness is understood to be a bid for attention and
validation from others, it becomes easier to see that there must be something missing in order to need continual
validation. One can understand this need in children, but it should be resolved by the time one is an adult.
This continual need for validation or attention can take a convoluted form and appear as a hypercritical
'discriminating' character. Nothing ever meets the narcissist's high standards so everyone is criticized and belittled,
sometimes in the guise of a joke.
In relationships the narcissist appears unable or unwilling to validate or attend to others, and appears
to not even notice that others have similar, (though less intense) needs for recognition, validation, nurturing. It
has been described in the literature as the narcissistic individual feeling as if there is not enough admiration or attention
to go around, so it must be grabbed up as often as can be done. Also seen is the increased need by the narcissist for
attention and adulation as s/he ages. The partner of the narcissist often feels that the nurturing they supply is not
mutual and the partner becomes 'used up' by the narcissist. Echo in the myth, is an extreme example of being used up
by a relationship with a narcissist. Echo was so depleted that she could only echo a few words she heard from others.
Narcissists also believe that others are like themselves in hiding the real self and projecting an image.
The lack of empathy on the part of the narcissist does not allow them to understand others' emotional experiences, and
they even consider evidence of emotions in others, to be weaknesses, attempts to manipulate, or fraud. These traits or weaknesses allow the narcissist to feel justified in exploiting the partner and others, as they deserve
no better, being inferior. Interestingly, most narcissists, though appearing glib and superficially cool in most social
settings, have emotional outburst that far exceed anyone they have accused of being too emotional.
Since the narcissist "sees" nothing but his or her own image, they also do not see the true self of others,
so no empathy can possibly exist in a constant state of denial of feeling. The narcissist does not really see the other
person and is susceptible to other narcissists who present their false image. The narcissistic person is more likely
to buy into another's image rather than a genuine person who projects no image.
In a relationship with a narcissist, if the partner is non-narcissistic, they may not realize that there
will be projections onto them by the narcissist. A pattern of behavior seen in narcissistic people is one of denying
feelings or behaviors, and projecting those onto others. For example, if the narcissist (N for convenience) is
jealous of the partner's accomplishments, the N may say that the partner is the one who is actually jealous. This
comes naturally for the N since s/he is used to denying feelings. So when the feeling of jealousy surfaces, it is easy
for the N to attribute that feeling to the partner. This invalidates the partner, who may not be jealous of the N at
all. If the partner points this out to the N, the partner may be attacked and told their perceptions are incorrect or
that in fact it is the partner who is attacking the N. The result for the partner is crazy-making, to say the least.
According to Nancy McWilliams (McWIlliams, Nancy, Psychoanalytic Diagnosis, Gilford Press, 1994),
a narcissistic individual uses another for a self-esteem maintaining function rather than perceiving the other as separate
person. It has a dehumanizing effect which accounts for some of the difficulties the narcissist has in relationships.
One is not loved for who they are, they are used for what they provide to the narcissist.
McWilliams further describes narcissists as having fragile self-esteem and "will go to great lengths to
avoid acknowledging their role in anything negative that happens in their lives." Unlike people who feel guilt
and remorse for their mistakes with atttempts to make ammends, narcissists run from their mistakes and avoid those
who would find them out.
Narcissistic individuals work to assert their independence and avoid expressing needs, as neediness would
be associated with a flawed image. Interestingly, they are needier in the sense that they require more outside
affirmation in order to feel internal validation. If a relationship is lost, a valuable source of validation is gone
and the narcissist will feel desperate to replace that source. The narcissist will replace the partner very quickly,
as they cannot be without ego support for long.
Alexander Lowen (Lowen, Alexander, Narcissism Denial Of The True Self, Touchstone Book, Simon &
Schuster, 1985) sees the basic disturbance of narcissism as the denial of feeling. He believes that narcissistic behavior
is not motivated by feeling, but the denial of feeling. It is a defensive position. Although narcissists may be
motivated out of feelings of hurt, their design of the image is an attempt to deny the hurt and represent themselves as the
very opposite of what they actually are; cool, calm, strong, independent. In this way they are guaranteeing that their
experience of themselves and their interactions with others are based on untruths, lack of genuineness, and falsehood.
They are also guaranteeing that their true needs will not be met, since their inner needs are denied in order to present the
cool facade. It is a self-perpetuating disorder.
Lowen also believes that narcissists are angry due to the disowned, unacknowledged hurt. Depression
is a common complaint of narcissists who seek therapy, as is a feeling of being empty.
Narcissists often lie, and believe their own lies. Since the narcissistic personality is not mature,
lying is similar to that of a child. It often consists of pretense at being more important than they truely are or denial
of wrong-doing, out of habit. If caught in a lie, the narcissist is likely to turn it around on the person s/he lied
to; declaring that they are victims of abuse and wrongful accusation. They take great risks at concealing the truth
and often their bold lies are so out of the norm that an average person is apt to believe their protestations of innocence.