The Narcissist as Compulsive Giver
By: Dr. Sam Vaknin
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There are two types of narcissists: (I) Stingy and mean and (II) compulsive givers. Most narcissists feel abused and exploited when they have to pay money in order to satisfy the needs and wishes of their "nearest" and "dearest".
Not so the compulsive givers.
To all appearances, the compulsive giver is an altruistic, empathic, and caring person. Actually, he or she is a people-pleaser and a codependent. The compulsive giver is trapped in a narrative of his own confabulation: how his nearest and dearest need him because they are poor, young, inexperienced, lacking in intelligence or good looks, and are otherwise inferior to him. Compulsive giving, therefore, involves pathological narcissism.
The ostentatious largesse of codependent compulsive givers is intended to secure the presence and attachment of their "loved" ones and to fend off looming (and, in their mind, inevitable abandonment.) By giving inexorably they aim to foster in the recipient an addictive habit and thus prevent them from leaving.
In reality, it is the compulsive giver who coerces, cajoles, and tempts people around him to avail themselves of his services or money. He forces himself on the recipients of his ostentatious largesse and the beneficiaries of his generosity or magnanimity. He is unable to deny anyone their wishes or a requests, even when these are not explicit or expressed and are mere figments of his own neediness and grandiose imagination.
Inevitably, he develops unrealistic expectations. He feels that people should be immensely grateful to him and that their gratitude should translate into a kind of obsequiousness. Internally, he seethes and rages against the lack of reciprocity he perceives in his relationships with family, friends, and colleagues. He mutely castigates everyone around him for being so ungenerous. To the compulsive giver, giving is perceived as sacrifice and taking is exploitation. Thus, he gives without grace, always with visible strings attached. No wonder he is always frustrated and often aggressive.
In psychological jargon, we would say that the compulsive giver has alloplastic defenses with an external locus of control. This simply means that he relies on input from people around him to regulate his fluctuating sense of self-worth, his precarious self-esteem, and his ever shifting moods. It also means that he blames the world for his failures. He feels imprisoned in a hostile and mystifying universe, entirely unable to influence events, circumstances, and outcomes. He thus avoids assuming responsibility for the consequences of his actions.
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Yet, it is important to realize that the compulsive giver cherishes and relishes his self-conferred victimhood and nurtures his grudges by maintaining a meticulous accounting of everything he gives and receives. This mental operation of masochistic bookkeeping is a background process of which the compulsive giver is sometimes unaware. He is likely to vehemently deny such meanness and narrow-mindedness.
The compulsive giver is an artist of projective identification. He manipulates his closest into behaving exactly the way he expects them to. He keeps lying to them and telling them that the act of giving is the only reward he seeks. All the while he secretly yearns for reciprocity. He rejects any attempt to rob him of his sacrificial status - he won't accept gifts or money and he avoids being the recipient or beneficiary of help or compliments. These false asceticism and fake modesty are mere baits. He uses them to prove to himself that his nearest and dearest are nasty ingrates. "If they wanted to (give me a present or help me), they would have insisted" - he bellows triumphantly, his worst fears and suspicions yet again confirmed.
Gradually, people fall into line. They begin to feel that they are the ones who are doing the compulsive giver a favor by succumbing to his endless and overweening charity. "What can we do?" - they sigh - "It means so much to him and he has put so much effort into it! I just couldn't say no." The roles are reversed and everyone is happy: the beneficiaries benefit and the compulsive giver goes on feeling that the world is unjust and people are self-centered exploiters. As he always suspected.
The Narcissistís Relationship with Money
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When the narcissist has money, he can exercise his sadistic urges freely and with little fear of repercussions. Money shields him from life itself, from the outcomes and consequences of his actions; it insulates him warmly and safely, like a benevolent blanket, like a mother's good night kiss. Yes, money is undoubtedly a love substitute and it allows the narcissist to be his ugly, corrupt, and dilapidated self. Money buys the narcissist absolution and his ego-syntonic friendship, forgiveness, and acceptance. With money in the bank, the narcissist feels at ease with himself, free, arrogantly soaring supreme above the contemptible, unwashed masses.
With money lining his proverbial pockets, the narcissist can always find people poorer than him, a cause for great elation coupled with ostentatious disdain and bumptiousness on his part.
The narcissist rarely uses money to buy, corrupt, and intimidate outright. He is more subtle than that. Contrary to common stereotype, the narcissistís avarice seldom devolves into conspicuous consumption. Many narcissists wear 15 year old tattered clothes, have no car, no house, and no property. It is so even when the narcissist can afford better.
Money has little to do with the narcissistís actual physical needs or even with his social interactions. True, the narcissist leverages lucre to acquire status, or to impress others. But most narcissists conceal the true extent of their wealth, hoard it, accumulate it and, like the misers that they are at heart, count it daily and in the dark. Money is the narcissistís licence to sin and to abuse, his permit, a promise and its fulfillment all at once. It unleashes the beast in the narcissist and, with abandon, encourages him - nay, seduces him - to be himself.
Narcissists are not necessarily tight-fisted, though. Many a narcissist spend money on restaurants and trips abroad and books and health products. They buy gifts (though reluctantly and as a maintenance chore). Narcissists addictively gamble and speculate and lose fortunes. The narcissist is insatiable, always wants more, always loses the little that he has. But he does all this not for the love of money, for he does not use it to gratify his self or to cater to his needs. No, he does not crave money, nor care for it. It is the power that it bestows on him that matters: the legitimacy to dare, to flare, to conquer, to oppose, to resist, to taunt, and to torment.
In all his relationships, the narcissist is either the vanquished or the vanquisher; either the haughty master, or an abject slave; either the dominant, or the recessive. The narcissist interacts along the up-down axis, rather than along the left-right one. His world is rigidly hierarchical and abusively stratified. When submissive, he is contemptibly so. When domineering, he is disdainfully so. His life is a pendulum swinging between oppressed and oppressor.
To subjugate another, one must be capricious, unscrupulous, ruthless, obsessive, hateful, vindictive, and penetrating. One must spot the cracks of vulnerability, the crumbling foundations of susceptibility, the pains, the trigger mechanisms, the Pavlovian reactions of hate, and fear, and hope, and anger. Money liberates the narcissistís mind and unleashes his cold empathy. It endows him with the tranquillity, detachment, and incisiveness of a natural scientist.
With his mind free of the quotidian, the narcissist can concentrate on attaining the desired position: on top, dreaded, and shunned - yet obeyed and deferred to. He then proceeds with cool disinterest to unscramble the human jigsaw puzzles, to manipulate their parts, to enjoy their anguish as he exposes their petty misconduct, harps on their failures, compares them to their betters, and mocks their incompetence, hypocrisy, and cupidity. The narcissist cloaks his misdeeds in socially acceptable garb - only to draw the dagger. He casts himself in the role of a brave, incorruptible iconoclast, a fighter for social justice, for a better future, for more efficiency, for good causes, an altruist, or an empathic and selfless benefactor. But it is all about his sadistic urges, really. It is all about death, not life.
Still, antagonizing and alienating potential benefactors is a pleasure that the narcissist cannot afford on an empty purse. When impoverished, he is altruism embodied: the best of friends, the most caring of tutors, a benevolent guide, a lover of humanity, and a fierce fighter against narcissism, sadism, and abuse in all their forms. He adheres, he obeys, he succumbs, he agrees wholeheartedly, he praises, condones, idolizes, and applauds. He is the perfect audience, an admirer and an adulator, a worm and an amoeba: spineless, adaptable in form, slithery flexibility itself. To behave this way for long is unbearable, hence the narcissistís addiction to money (really, to freedom) in all its forms. It is his evolutionary ladder from slime to the sublime and henceforth to mastery.
The Narcissistís Puppets on the Receiving End
The recipients of the narcissistís tainted and conditional ďlargesseĒ similarly equate money with love. Craving the latter, they settle for the former. With so many strings attached to the narcissistís ďgiftsĒ they end up entangled and dangling like dysfunctional marionettes, puppets in the narcissistís theatre of the absurd.
The psychodynamic dimensions of money and giving are myriad and crucial to maintaining the victimís precarious inner balance. People embark of great feats of self-deception and cognitive dissonance to justify the sacrifices in self-respect, dignity, and the perception of reality that they have to make in order to remain on the narcissistís good books.
But self-awareness is never far under the surface. Gradually, the human props in the narcissistís staged plays rebel outwardly or inwardly: they become passive-aggressive, bitter, depressed, and paranoid. They feel alienated, dehumanized, objectified, and misunderstood. They seek to free themselves by becoming contumacious and unruly counterdependents Ė or by clinging to the narcissist and emotionally extorting all others as flaming codependents.
These reactive behavior patters are ingrained and hard to break. They ossify into the moulds in which the narcissistís victims fester and putrefy, writhing in agony, and crumbling whenever the narcissist inflicts on them abuse in its many forms. If they do not extricate themselves in time, these victims gradually acquire many of the traits and behavior patterns of their narcissistic tormentors and form with them a shared psychosis, a mini-cult of domination and subjugation that is mediated via the ubiquitous dollar sign.
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