Myths about Narcissism

Frequently Asked Question # 72

Narcissists are either cerebral or somatic; they are not prone to suicide, though they may entertain suicidal ideation during a life-crisis;

Narcissistic Personality Disorder is often co-morbid with other mental health problems, and especially with mood disorders and personality disorders.

 

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Question:

Is there such a thing as a "typical narcissist"? Is narcissism a "pure" mental disorder or a "cocktail" of psychological problems? Is there a typical way in which narcissists react to life crises? Is it true that they are prone to suicide?

Answer:

I have to dispel a few hidden assumptions about narcissism.

The first is that there is such thing as a typical narcissist. One must always specify whether one is referring to a cerebral narcissist or to a somatic one, a classic or an inverted one, etc.

These distinctions are not trivial. Consider the gulf between the somatic and cerebral varieties:

A cerebral narcissist uses his intelligence, intellect, and knowledge to obtain Narcissistic Supply. A somatic narcissist uses his body, his looks and his sexuality. Inevitably, each type is likely to react very differently to life and its circumstances.

Somatic narcissists are a variation on the HPD (Histrionic Personality Disorder). They are seductive, provocative and obsessive-compulsive when it comes to their bodies, their sexual activities and their health (they are likely to be hypochondriacs as well).

Still, while I dispute the existence of a typical narcissist, I do accept that certain behavioural and character traits are common to all narcissists.

Pathological lying seems to be such a trait. Even the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) defines the Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) with words such as "fantasy", "grandiose" and "exploit", which imply the usage of half-truths, inaccuracies and lies on a regular basis. Kernberg and others coined the term False Self not in vain.

Narcissists are not gregarious. Actually, many narcissists are schizoid (recluses) and paranoid.

Naturally, narcissists love to have an audience - but only because and as long as it provides them with Narcissistic Supply. Otherwise, they are not interested in people. All narcissists lack empathy which makes others much less fascinating than they appear to be to empathic people.

Narcissists are terrified of introspection. I am not referring to intellectualisation or rationalisation or the straightforward application of their intelligence – this would not constitute introspection. Proper introspection must include an emotional element, an insight and the ability to emotionally integrate the insight so that it affects behaviour.

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Some people are narcissists and they know it (cognitively). They even think about it from time to time. But this does not amount to useful introspection. Narcissists do some real introspection and even attend therapy following a life crisis, though.

So, while there are no "typical" narcissists – there are traits and behaviour patterns typical to all narcissists.

Pathological narcissism is a subtle, shape-shifting, and counter-intuitive disorder. Consider the issues of grandiosity and intimacy. On the face of it the former fosters the latter: the narcissist feels entitled because he harbours and nurtures a grandiose perception of himself. But, in reality, the narcissist's personal standards and benchmarks are either too high (which supports his grandiosity), or too low (buttresses his sense of entitlement, which is incommensurate with his real-life performance.)

Indeed, why would a narcissist who firmly believes that he is perfect and self-sufficient (classic, grandiose narcissist) ask for anything from anyone? He is more likely to look down on people and scrupulously avoid any indication that he may actually be in need of anything. Only the narcissist at whose core is a gnawing void, a lack, and a deficiency (compensatory or inverted narcissist) is likely to make demands with the uncompromising urgency that constitutes entitlement.

Another "myth" is that pathological narcissism is a pure phenomenon that can be dealt with experimentally. This is not the case. Actually, due to the fuzziness of the whole field, diagnosticians are both forced and encouraged to render multiple diagnoses ("co-morbidity"). NPD usually appears in tandem with some other Cluster B disorder (such as the Antisocial, Histrionic, and, most often, the Borderline personality disorders).

Regarding the third myth (that narcissists are prone to suicide, especially in the wake of a life crisis involving a grave narcissistic injury):

Narcissists very rarely commit suicide. They react with suicidal ideation and reactive psychoses to severe stress – but to commit suicide runs against the grain of narcissism. This is more of a Borderline (BPD) behavior. The differential diagnosis of NPD from BPD rests on the absence of attempted suicide and self-mutilation in NPD.

In response to a life crisis (divorce, public disgrace, imprisonment, accident, bankruptcy, terminal or disfiguring illness) the narcissist is likely to adopt either of two reactions:

1.     The narcissist finally refers himself to therapy, realising that something is dangerously wrong with him. Statistics show that talk therapies are rather ineffective with narcissism. Soon enough, the therapist is bored, fed up or actively repelled by the grandiose fantasies and open contempt of the narcissist. The therapeutic alliance crumbles and the narcissist emerges "triumphant" having sucked the therapist's energy dry.

2.     The narcissist frantically gropes for alternative Sources of Narcissistic Supply. Narcissists are very creative. If all else fails, they exhibitionistically make use of their own misery. Or they lie, create a fantasy, confabulate, harp on other people's emotions, fake a medical condition, pull a stunt, fall in ideal love, make a provocative move or commit a crime… The narcissist is bound to come up with a surprising angle to extract his narcissistic supply from a begrudging and mean world.

Experience shows that most narcissists go through (1) and then through (2).

The exposure of the False Self for what it is – false – is a major narcissistic injury. The narcissist is likely to react with severe self-deprecation and self-flagellation even to the point of suicidal ideation. This – on the inside. On the outside, he is likely to appear assertive and confident. This is his way of channelling his life-threatening aggression.

Rather than endure its assault and its frightening outcomes – he redirects his aggression, transforms it and hurls it at others.

What form this conversion assumes is nigh impossible to predict without knowing the narcissist in question intimately. It could be anything from cynical humour, through brutal honesty, verbal abuse, passive aggressive behaviours (frustrating others) and down to actual physical violence.


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