A Psychologist's View of Narcissistic Personality Disorder

Dec 2010
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Hi everyone, I'm a psychologist and author of two books, the first entitled The Therapist's Use of Self in Family Therapy was published 10 years ago. The second, entitled The Emotional Toolbox: A Manual for Mental Health is currently available in its entirety on my website, http://www.DrBochner.com (nothing for sale there nor any advertising, just a good resource). The article below describes the Narcissistic Personality, how it looks to others, how it develops, and possible pathways to fuller functioning. The patients I have treated with Narcissistic Personaltiy, or those who have been significantly impacted by those afflicted with Narcissistic Personality, have found the article very helpful. I hope you like it. Please comment and feel free to comment on anything else you see on my website as well.

A Psychologist's View of Narcissistic Personality

by Dr. Dan Bochner

The narcissist is the ultimate man! He's confident and self-assured. He's tough. He's competitive. He's often gorgeous, and if not, he is definitely likely to dress in some kind of style. He's hardworking and successful. He's got it all. He's a master of the universe. He also has to have his way. He's in a world of his own. He rarely maintains any kind of real relationship, and when he does maintain a relationship, it's hard to tell he cares. He has to be right. He has to be the best. He pursues the finest of everything and he feels he's entitled to it. But nobody knows the narcissist, and essentially he's alone. In fact, the narcissist doesn't even know himself. The problem is, in fact, that there's no self there to know. At least there's no self there that reflects his humanity or any sense of vulnerability, and no self that seems to hold him together with integrity of his own.

Narcissism, strangely, is exactly the opposite of what it seems. While the narcissist behaves selfishly and confident in almost every situation, it is his lack of self that makes him act that way. The narcissist grows up in an environment in which vulnerability is unacceptable. Any sign of weakness in this environment is met with disdain and disgust. On the other hand, independent activity is necessary and significant achievements are glorified. Thus, the narcissist develops his personality for the specific and express purpose of achieving recognition and being treated as special. When all goes well, the narcissist is quite successful in this pursuit. Unfortunately, the narcissist can never achieve the one pursuit that is truly worthwhile for him. That is, he can never find his true self.

The true self resides in those feelings that are most core to life itself. Life with one's fellow man is created through the balance of these core feelings, but the particular balance maintained by the narcissist limits any development in the feelings that involve connection to others. Vulnerability, weakness, need of any kind, things being out of control, all those experiences that must be calmed and soothed by love, and thus those feelings that form the connection with others, have been abandoned in the narcissist. The one connection the narcissist attains is the sense of recognition he experiences when his achievements reflect well upon his parental figures. At those times, the narcissist feels special and important. Unfortunately, because these achievements are essentially accomplished for the impact they make on others, the narcissist never experiences true satisfaction. That is, he is achieving what makes his parents feel like they are achieving, or what impresses others most, and he never even knows what he would like to achieve.

Thus, the pursuit of success, achievements, fine things, good looks, and power becomes his unitary focus. He is desperate for the recognition of his achievements, and achieve he does. But the true desire beneath his facade, that is any desire to develop a true self that the narcissist does have, and any desire to be recognized for who he is, can only come from unconditional love and acceptance of his true nature. Although he does not always know it, he is desperate for love of his true nature in spite of his weakness or foolishness, and in spite of his truly selfish nature which is common to all in infancy. And the more the narcissist surrounds himself with the trappings of success, the less likely it will be that he will achieve true recognition of his character. Others will glory in his facade, which in turn, will help him continue to believe it to be a valid pursuit. At the same time, he will demean weakness and vulnerability in others and do anything he can to avoid it within himself. Thus, although he will be aware of a lack of meaning in his life, accompanied by an inability to attain satisfaction, and a lack of consistent closeness with others, the narcissist will generally find it impossible to understand how it could even be possible that his problems are problems.

When the narcissist does experience problems, it is typically because a particular kind of depression takes its grip on him. The lack of meaning, satisfaction and closeness in his life combine to create a kind of fragmentation of feelings. Because there is no self, no feeling that there are particular aspects of who the narcissist is as a person separate from what others see, nothing really holds together. It is as though the glue that makes all the parts of a person stick together is missing. For relatively healthy people, everything sticks together into a meaningful view of who they are. The love they have for others, their interests, their morals, what they find important, and even the things they dislike or despise, make them who they are. They carry that conglomeration of what it means to be a person with them throughout their day, their week, and their entire existence so that they can be close with others, sense meaning and attain satisfaction. What for most people can be a troubling difficulty in balancing their many roles, for the narcissist becomes complete fragmentation and a breakdown into profound depression. Only newly found specialness in the recognition of greatness from an esteemed or coveted other can forestall such fragmentation.

Even as the narcissist manages to survive and appear to thrive above his vulnerabilities, he remains quite delicately and precariously connected to his vulnerabilities in an odd way. His consistent disdain for particular weaknesses in others is, in a way, his connection to his own vulnerabilities. The connection is most clearly evinced when the narcissist believes there is a suggestion that one of those weaknesses may apply to him. At that point, the most likely reaction from the narcissist is narcissistic rage. The narcissist defends so heartily against even a possibility that he might have such weakness that he becomes completely lost in his venomous and malignant anger and spews it upon anyone who might chance upon such possibility. He cannot see the weakness, and he won't allow himself to see the weakness, and thus his best option is to completely and utterly prove that only others could have such weakness. This occurs so automatically within the narcissist that it never enters their awareness. The narcissist reacts like a cornered, feral beast, and reacts by clawing, scratching, biting and smashing until there can be no doubt that he is victorious, dominant, and superior.

Thus, the narcissist has two avenues for remaining afloat above what he believes to be despicable vulnerability. He searches for, and cultivates, recognition and specialness so his grandiosity will make sense. He also rages vociferously at any suggestion or hint of his own humanity. Unfortunately, the narcissist's grandiosity and rage preclude the possibility of finding himself and true happiness. Strangely, the only hope of finding fulfillment for the narcissist is in his fragmentation. When the narcissist fragments there is some small chance that he will seek help in others. In seeking that help, the narcissist has a chance, although relatively slim, at allowing his weaknesses to be seen and appreciated. Before that can happen, however, the typical and practiced defenses must be overcome.

Once he has sought help, the most common occurrence is for the narcissist to go back to his defense of being the “best” and being “special.” He will likely try to get those to whom he has turned to see just how great he truly is. He will do so in a way that is extremely likely to achieve his aim of gaining great recognition since he has developed the ability to be the kind of “great” that others need. He also has a tendency to seek out those who are very likely to find his particular skills especially impressive. If these others agree that the narcissist is great, and if they are deemed worthwhile judges, he will return to his grandiose state and feel good again. If they do not seem to agree that he is great, most likely they will be deemed unworthy (often with an expression of narcissistic rage), and the relationship will end. If either of these two ways of defending occur, of course, the narcissist will have no possibility of recovering. However, the occurrence of fragmentation, and even the behaviors that help the narcissist get back to grandiosity, including rage, offer an opportunity for recovery.

On the offhand chance that people will respond correctly, either due to their training or because they are especially healthy people (which would also require that they have a very good reason to work things out with the narcissist since healthy people only commune with people to whom they connect, and do not tolerate disrespectful behavior unless there is a good reason to do so), the fragmentation of the narcissist offers an opportunity for things to be different this time. Only when the narcissist shows vulnerability is it possible for anyone to connect with him. In those moments, if someone can see the vulnerability and understand just how painful it is to the narcissist, while simultaneously demonstrating that it is acceptable, and perhaps even that it has a special kind of poignancy within the narcissist, the narcissist can begin to see his true self.

By seeing his true self, no matter how painful, the narcissist can slowly begin to love his true self. In order for the narcissist to love himself, in spite of his exquisite pain, the narcissist's vulnerability must be viewed and shown to be acceptable in the reactions of another. But if the narcissist can begin to accept and love his true self, he can slowly learn to give up the grandiosity and superiority he requires in proving himself invulnerable. His vulnerability can then make it possible to more easily connect with others, which thus makes it possible for him to connect to his true specialness. His acceptance and love of himself allows him to see how his vulnerability is what makes him truly fascinating. His focus turns away from what others will think is great, and turns toward what he himself thinks is great. Because he now cares about himself, he develops the ability to care about others, not for how they reflect upon him, but for what is special and fascinating about them.

An interesting path towards growth and development thus opens up. In fact, while narcissists improve, they are often seen to become more focused on their pursuits than ever before. However, there is also a completely different quality to their new pursuits. They do not seek to be seen as superior, but instead begin to develop their own true interests. They might work hard to be the best at what they do, but now it is because they are following their own dreams as opposed to showing off. The quality of their interactions in their pursuits changes as well. Instead of communicating with others to show off their greatness, they start to truly connect with others and learn from them in meaningful ways. In a way, when the narcissist feels that his vulnerability is acceptable, and maybe even wonderful, he experiences a reawakening. When at long last the narcissist finds his true self for the first time, he finally starts to live, and he experiences exponential growth and glorious, abundant transformation he could have never before imagined.