Indifference and Decompensation in Pathological Narcissism
By: Dr. Sam Vaknin
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The narcissist lacks empathy. Consequently, he is not really interested in the lives, emotions, needs, preferences, and hopes of people around him. Even his nearest and dearest are, to him, mere instruments of gratification. They require his undivided attention only when they "malfunction": when they become disobedient, independent, or critical. He loses all interest in them if they cannot be "fixed" (for instance, when they are terminally ill or develop a modicum of personal autonomy and independence).
Once he gives up on his erstwhile Sources of Supply, the narcissist proceeds to promptly and peremptorily devalue and discard them. This is often done by simply ignoring them – a facade of indifference that is known as the "silent treatment" and is, at heart, hostile and aggressive. Indifference is, therefore, a form of devaluation. People find the narcissist "cold", "inhuman", "heartless", "clueless", "robotic or machine-like".
Early on in life, the narcissist learns to disguise his socially-unacceptable indifference as benevolence, equanimity, cool-headedness, composure, or superiority. "It is not that I don't care about others" – he shrugs off his critics – "I am simply more level-headed, more resilient, more composed under pressure… They mistake my equanimity for apathy."
The narcissist tries to convince people that he is compassionate. His profound lack of interest in his spouse's life, vocation, interests, hobbies, social and sexual liaisons, and whereabouts he cloaks as benevolent altruism. "I give her all the freedom she could wish for!" – he protests – "I don't spy on her, follow her, or nag her with endless questions. I don't bother her. I let her lead her life the way she sees fit and don't interfere in her affairs!" He makes a virtue out of his emotional truancy, neglect, absence and abandonment, misleadingly equating them with “freedom”, “liberty”, and liberal open-mindedness.
All very commendable but when taken to extremes such benign neglect turns malignant and signifies the voidance of true love and attachment. The narcissist's emotional (and, often, physical) absence from all his relationships is a form of aggression and a defence against his own thoroughly repressed feelings.
In rare moments of self-awareness, the narcissist realises that without his input – even in the form of feigned emotions – people will abandon him. He then swings from cruel aloofness to maudlin and grandiose gestures intended to demonstrate the "larger than life" nature of his sentiments. This bizarre pendulum only proves the narcissist's inadequacy at maintaining adult relationships. It convinces no one and repels many.
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The narcissist's guarded detachment is a sad reaction to his unfortunate formative years. Pathological narcissism is thought to be the result of a prolonged period of severe abuse by primary caregivers, peers, or authority figures. In this sense, pathological narcissism is, therefore, a reaction to trauma. Narcissism IS a form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that got ossified and fixated and mutated into a personality disorder.
All narcissists are traumatised and all of them suffer from a variety of post-traumatic symptoms: abandonment anxiety, reckless behaviours, anxiety and mood disorders, somatoform disorders, and so on. But the presenting signs of narcissism rarely indicate post-trauma. This is because pathological narcissism is an EFFICIENT coping (defence) mechanism. The narcissist presents to the world a facade of invincibility, equanimity, superiority, skilfulness, cool-headedness, invulnerability, and, in short: indifference.
This front is penetrated in times of great crises that threaten the narcissist's ability to obtain Narcissistic Supply, or when the Narcissistic Supply is spurious (fake or low-grade), negative, or static. This is the Collapsed Narcissist (not Failed Narcissist which is a term invented by Grotstein to describe one of the phases in the development of Borderline personalities).
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In the majority of cases, narcissists react to deficient narcissistic supply by resorting to several adaptive solutions:
The Delusional Narrative Solution
The narcissist constructs a narrative in which he figures as the hero - brilliant, perfect, irresistibly handsome, destined for great things, entitled, powerful, wealthy, the centre of attention, etc. The bigger the strain on this delusional charade - the greater the gap between fantasy and reality - the more the delusion coalesces and solidifies.
Finally, if it is sufficiently protracted, it replaces reality and the narcissist's reality test deteriorates. He withdraws his bridges and may become schizotypal, catatonic, or schizoid.
The Antisocial Solution
The narcissist renounces reality. To his mind, those who pusillanimously fail to recognize his unbound talents, innate superiority, overarching brilliance, benevolent nature, entitlement, cosmically important mission, perfection, etc. - do not deserve consideration. The narcissist's natural affinity with the criminal - his lack of empathy and compassion, his deficient social skills, his disregard for social laws and morals - now erupt and blossom. He becomes a full-fledged antisocial (sociopath or psychopath). He ignores the wishes and needs of others, he breaks the law, he violates all rights - natural and legal, he holds people in contempt and disdain, he derides society and its codes, he punishes the ignorant ingrates - that, to his mind, drove him to this state - by acting criminally and by jeopardizing their safety, lives, or property.
A variant of this pattern of conduct is the Passive-Aggressive solution.
Passive-aggressiveness wears a multitudes of
guises: procrastination, malingering, perfectionism, forgetfulness, neglect, truancy,
intentional inefficiency, stubbornness, and outright sabotage. This repeated
and advertent misconduct has far reaching effects. Consider the Negativist in
the workplace: he or she invests time and efforts in obstructing their own
chores and in undermining relationships. But, these self-destructive and
self-defeating behaviors wreak havoc throughout the workshop or the office.
Despite the obstructive role they play, passive-aggressives feel unappreciated, underpaid, cheated, and misunderstood. They chronically complain, whine, carp, and criticize. They blame their failures and defeats on others, posing as martyrs and victims of a corrupt, inefficient, and heartless system (in other words, they have alloplastic defenses and an external locus of control).
Passive-aggressives sulk and give the "silent treatment" in reaction to real or imagined slights. They suffer from ideas of reference (believe that they are the butt of derision, contempt, and condemnation) and are mildly paranoid (the world is out to get them, which explains their personal misfortune). In the words of the DSM: "They may be sullen, irritable, impatient, argumentative, cynical, skeptical and contrary." They are also hostile, explosive, lack impulse control, and, sometimes, reckless.
The Paranoid Schizoid Solution
When narcissism fails as a defense mechanism, the narcissist develops paranoid narratives: self-directed confabulations which place him at the center of others' allegedly malign attention. The narcissist becomes his own audience and self-sufficient as his own, sometimes exclusive, source of narcissistic supply.
The narcissist develops persecutory delusions. He perceives slights and insults where none were intended. He becomes subject to ideas of reference (people are gossiping about him, mocking him, prying into his affairs, cracking his e-mail, etc.). He is convinced that he is the centre of malign and mal-intentioned attention. People are conspiring to humiliate him, punish him, abscond with his property, delude him, impoverish him, confine him physically or intellectually, censor him, impose on his time, force him to action (or to inaction), frighten him, coerce him, surround and besiege him, change his mind, part with his values, victimize or even murder him, and so on.
Some narcissists withdraw completely from a world populated with such minacious and ominous objects (really projections of internal objects and processes). They avoid all social contact, except the most necessary. They refrain from meeting people, falling in love, having sex, talking to others, or even corresponding with them. In short: they become schizoids - not out of social shyness, but out of what they feel to be their choice. "This evil, hopeless world does not deserve me" - goes the inner refrain - "and I shall waste none of my time and resources on it."
The Paranoid Aggressive (Explosive) Solution
Other narcissists who develop persecutory delusions, resort to an aggressive stance, a more violent resolution of their internal conflict. They become verbally, psychologically, situationally (and, very rarely, physically) abusive. They insult, castigate, chastise, berate, demean, and deride their nearest and dearest (often well wishers and loved ones). They explode in unprovoked displays of indignation, righteousness, condemnation, and blame. Theirs is an exegetic Bedlam. They interpret everything - even the most innocuous, inadvertent, and innocent comment - as designed to provoke and humiliate them. They sow fear, revulsion, hate, and malignant envy. They flail against the windmills of reality - a pathetic, forlorn, sight. But often they cause real and lasting damage - fortunately, mainly to themselves.
The Masochistic Avoidant Solution
The narcissist is angered by the lack of narcissistic supply. He directs some of this fury inwards, punishing himself for his "failure". This masochistic behavior has the added "benefit" of forcing the narcissist's closest to assume the roles of dismayed spectators or of persecutors and thus, either way, to pay him the attention that he craves.
Self-administered punishment often manifests as self-handicapping masochism - a narcissistic cop-out. By undermining his work, his relationships, and his efforts, the increasingly fragile narcissist avoids additional criticism and censure (negative supply). Self-inflicted failure is the narcissist's doing and thus proves that he is the master of his own fate.
Masochistic narcissists keep finding themselves in self-defeating circumstances which render success impossible - and "an objective assessment of their performance improbable" (Millon, 2000). They act carelessly, withdraw in mid-effort, are constantly fatigued, bored, or disaffected and thus passive-aggressively sabotage their lives. Their suffering is defiant and by "deciding to abort" they reassert their omnipotence.
The narcissist's pronounced and public misery and self-pity are compensatory and "reinforce (his) self-esteem against overwhelming convictions of worthlessness" (Millon, 2000). His tribulations and anguish render him, in his eyes, unique, saintly, virtuous, righteous, resilient, and significant. They are, in other words, self-generated narcissistic supply.
Thus, paradoxically, the worst his anguish and unhappiness, the more relieved and elated such a narcissist feels!
In extremis, when all these default behaviors and solutions fail, or when only negative, fake, low-grade, and static narcissistic supply is to be had, the narcissist "falls apart" in a process of disintegration known as decompensation (the inability to maintain psychological defenses in the face of mounting stress.) This is accompanied by “acting out”: when an inner conflict (most often, frustration) translates into aggression. It involves acting with little or no insight or reflection and in order to attract attention and disrupt other people's cosy lives.
The dynamic forces which render the narcissist paralysed and fake – his vulnerabilities, weaknesses, and fears – are starkly exposed as his defences crumble and become dysfunctional. The narcissist's extreme dependence on his social milieu for the regulation of his sense of self-worth is painfully and pitifully evident as he is reduced to begging and cajoling.
At such times, the narcissist acts out self-destructively and anti-socially. His mask of superior equanimity is pierced by displays of impotent rage, self-loathing, self-pity, passive-aggressiveness, and crass attempts at manipulation of his friends, family, and colleagues. His ostensible benevolence and caring evaporate. He feels caged and threatened and he reacts as any animal would do: by striking back at his perceived tormentors, at his hitherto "nearest" and "dearest".
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