Mental Health professionals used to harbor the notion that narcissists were insecure and frail deep down. Their trumped up attitude was viewed as off-putting and the job was to help them tone it down so others would like them more. And life would be easier for them. Strangely, narcissists were frequently people who at first glance, did not convey the compelling qualities that might explain extreme self-love.
Things have changed. Current thought challenges the notion that narcissists secretly suffer from low self-esteem or insecurity. Or that they suffer as much as we thought in the ways that we thought. Recent findings indicate they take pleasure in successful manipulations. Putting down unsuspecting, soft-hearted souls in their midst is a sport. They truly believe in their superiority even if objective evidence does not back it up. One psychiatry professor of mine did say, “They make everyone around them feel badly but they don’t feel badly themselves.”
I was quite moved by a blog I read in which the author beautifully captures what it is like to be the target of a severe narcissist. Shame, fear, jitters, lack of trust and ever-present guardedness sweep through the abused person and trammel his or her identity and world view. The transformation of a hopeful, can-do enthusiast into a dismal, wary withdrawer is a form of soul murder.
But to those thus violated, take heart. Understanding the complexities of what/who you were dealing with might make you feel better. Just “naming” brings relief, as it is a form of containment. Besides, in this particular situation, tables do turn. If you have faith that justice will be served, somehow, you might find the motivation to rise up and get yourself back.
Let’s contemplate the nuances of narcissism in a person with narcissistic traits or the full-blown personality disorder. The diagnosis includes entitlement, grandiosity, arrogance, envy, easy exploitation of others, a sense of specialness or superiority and fantasies of unlimited success.
Helpful Words for the Severe Narcissist:
Narcissism can be protective in the sense that you do not feel that badly if you offend another. Narcissism can be pleasantly deceptive. When criticized, you can tell yourself and others, “It is them—not me.” Deflect, project, externalize and feel relieved of the problem. If you manage to convince relevant parties (plus your self) that your offense was justified, non-existent or that you were the victim rather than the perpetrator, you escape responsibility. If you turn your envy into arrogance, you no longer have to feel inferior. In the short run, that works pretty well. In the long run, a trail of deception can lead to trouble. If you are caught and confronted, painful consequences can ensue. Being revealed or to having to deal with the truth is very upsetting for you.
An unpleasant moment might arise if you rage against someone who criticizes or exposes you, but you will probably bounce back quickly. Since your conscience isn’t too troubled, moving on and into social situations with upright shoulders and a smile is no problem. Narcissism feeds self-esteem in that denial covers up (suppresses) limitations so they are not in your face. You do not have to feel weakened by them or make the tiresome effort to change. Inflated self-esteem keeps you psychologically intact, organized and safe. If others are attracted to your strut and charisma, you can breeze through life with a facile ease.
But there is a problem. True narcissism is a defective solution. It is a flawed defense, an unsound shield. Believing that you are better than you are leads to hard falls if you are put to the test. If you are cocksure about your skills you may not take the time to actually develop them. The requisite healthy worry that leads to persistence, attention to detail, stubborn grit and solid ability eludes you. When you claim credit for something you did not do, people pick up on it and it disturbs them. This can compromise your success, as you are not seen as trustworthy.
Charming others in superficial or infrequent encounters is a piece of cake but close or intimate relationships are a problem. If your self-concerns are paramount, there may not be room for anyone else’s. You may destroy important relationships because your lack of empathy, compassion and concern wears people out. Your unwillingness to own up and apologize alienates others and you are seen as someone without integrity. You become tainted, rather than respected, which is troubling for a person who cares deeply about image.
As you do not see dangers as dangerous, you take risks that set you up for payback. Consequences you never expected—loss, abandonment, debt, legal trouble and ultimate loneliness might become your lot and a situation that your high-honed tactics cannot undo. At a certain point you cannot brush it off or continue the ruse.
Therapeutic, spiritual, community, or educational interventions can help you. Start with a self-inventory, achieve insight, break out of the script, say “I’m sorry.” Humility can actually feel good. Enjoy the hope that when you change, some meaningful connections may come your way.
If you have been the target of a severe narcissist, severing ties may be necessary. Others may never understand why you had to make this choice. Without exposure, a capacity for insight, concern and curiosity, they cannot perceive the destructiveness. It may make you feel alone, but so be it. Do what you have to do.
Once you are removed and safe, thoughts about what happened—why, how, makes no sense, they do not care about the damage they caused, etc,—may haunt you. You may feel damaged or tainted because you are now saddled with the memories and feel you cannot get them out of your head.