The Midlife Narcissist
Frequently Asked Question # 62
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Are narcissists likely to go through a midlife crisis and, if so, to what extent does such a crisis ameliorate or exacerbate their condition?
The sometimes severe crises experienced by persons of both sexes in middle age (a.k.a. the "midlife crisis" or the "change of life") is a much discussed though little understood phenomenon. It is not even certain that the beast exists.
Women go through menopause between the ages of 42-55 (the average age of onset in the USA is 51.3). The amount of the hormone oestrogen in their bodies decreases sharply, important parts of the reproductive system shrink and menstruation ceases. Many women suffer from "hot flashes" and a thinning and fracturing of the bones (osteoporosis).
The "male menopause" is a more contentious issue. Men do experience a gradual decline in testosterone levels but nothing as sharp as the woman's deterioration of her oestrogen supply. No link has been found between these physiological and hormonal developments and the mythical "midlife crisis".
This fabled turning point has to do with the gap between earlier plans, dreams and aspirations and one's drab and hopeless reality. Come middle age, men are supposed to be less satisfied with life, career, or spouse. People get more disappointed and disillusioned with age. They understand that they are not likely to have a second chance, that they largely missed the train, that their dreams will remain just that. They have nothing to look forward to. They feel spent, bored, fatigued and trapped.
Some adults embark on a transition. They define new goals, look for new partners, form new families, engage in new hobbies, change vocation and avocation alike, or relocate. They regenerate and reinvent themselves and the structures of their lives. Others just grow bitter. Unable to face the shambles, they resort to alcoholism, workaholism, emotional absence, abandonment, escapism, degeneration, or a sedentary lifestyle.
Another pillar of discontent is the predictability of adult life. Following a brief flurry, in early adulthood, of excitement and vigour, of dreams and hopes, fantasies and aspirations, we succumb to and sink into the mire of mediocrity. The mundane engulfs us and digests us. Routines consume our energy and leave us dilapidated and empty. We know with dull certainty what awaits us and this ubiquitous rut is maddening.
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Paradoxically, the narcissist is best equipped to successfully tackle these problems. The narcissist suffers from mental progeria. Subject to childhood abuse, he ages prematurely and finds himself in a time warp, constantly in the throes of a midlife crisis.
The narcissist keeps dreaming, hoping, planning, conspiring, scheming and fighting all his life. As far as he is concerned, reality, with its sobering feedback, does not exist. He occupies a world of his own where hope springs eternal. It is a universe of recurrent serendipity, inevitable fortuity, auspiciousness, lucky chances and coincidences, no downs and uplifting ups. It is an unpredictable, titillating, and exciting world. The narcissist may feel bored for long stretches of time but only because he can't wait for the ultimate thrill.
The narcissist experiences a constant midlife crisis. His reality is always way short of his dreams and aspirations. He suffers a constant Grandiosity Gap – the same Gap that plagues the healthy midlife adult. But the narcissist has one advantage: he is used to being disappointed and disillusioned. He inflicts setbacks and defeats upon himself by devaluing persons and situations that he had previously idealised.
The narcissist regularly employs a host of mechanisms to cope with this simmering, festering incessant "crisis". Cognitive dissonance, over- and de- valuation cycles, abrupt mood swings, changes in behaviour patterns, goals, companions, mates, jobs and locations are the narcissist's daily bread and escapist weapons.
Whereas the healthy and mature adult confronts the abyss between his image of himself and his real self, his dreams and his achievements, his fantasyland and his reality only late in life – the narcissist does so constantly and from an early age.
The healthy and mature adult recoils from the predictability of his routine and is abhorred by it. The narcissist's life is not predictable or routine in any sense of the word.
The mature 40+ years old adult tries to remedy the structural and emotional deficits of his existence either by a renewed commitment to it or by a cataclysmic break with it. The narcissist so regularly and habitually does both that these decisions are rendered flitting and insignificant
The narcissist's personality is rigid but his life is changeable and tumultuous, his typical day riddled with surprises and unpredictable, his grandiose fantasies so far removed from his reality that even his disillusionment and disappointments are fantastic and, thus, easily overcome.
Soon enough, the narcissist is engaged in a new project, as exciting, as grandiose and as impossible as the ones before. The gap between his confabulations and the truth is so yawning that he chooses to ignore his reality. He recruits people around him to affirm this choice and to confirm to him that reality is illusory and that his fantasyland is real.
Such pretensions are counterproductive and self-defeating, but they also serve as perfect defences. The narcissist does not go through a midlife crisis because he is forever the child, forever dreaming and fantasising, forever enamoured with himself and with the narrative that is his life.
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