The World of the Narcissist (Essay)
(Fifth, Revised Impression, 2003)
Narcissism, Pathological Narcissism, Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), the Narcissist,
And Relationships with Abusive Narcissists and Psychopaths
By: Dr. Sam Vaknin
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THE CONCEPT OF NARCISSISTIC SUPPLY
Women possess things that the heterosexual narcissist needs.
They have the biologically compatible equipment for sex. They provide emotional comfort through their friendship and love. This kind of emotional support and companionship is not available from any other source.
But, as we said, in the narcissist's world, to need is to be inferior. To admit to the existence of a universal need, means to compromise one's uniqueness. To be in need of a woman is equated with being inferior and with being a commoner.
The narcissist aware of this negating power reified and possessed by women envies them for being emotionally more adept. He is also mad at them for creating in him this conflict between needs and the price he has to pay to satisfy them (feelings of inferiority, loss of uniqueness, etc.).
Moreover, to satisfy his need of women, the narcissist has to convince them to be with him. In other words, he has to promote himself and to win them over. This casts women as judges. They are granted the power to compare, evaluate, rate, adjudicate, accept, reject, or abandon. They possess the capacity to hurt the narcissist by rejecting him or by abandoning him and he feels that they flaunt their power. This realisation cannot coexist with the narcissist's conviction that he is omnipotent.
To restore the proper balance of power, the narcissist must frustrate women. He must re-acquire his superior position of being judge, jury, and sole decision-maker. Women are anti-narcissistic agents. They are perceived by the narcissist to possess unnatural powers of mental penetration and insight, the kind that might reach the narcissist's TRUE Self. This is a real threat. These ostensible and ominous "supernatural" capacities evoke strong emotional reactions in the narcissist.
These reactions may appear to be focused on certain features of the feminine anatomy (vagina, feet, breasts) in the form of fetishes. Many narcissists are fetishists and even (more rarely) cross-dressers. But usually they more diffusely target women as an abstract category.
We already said that the narcissist feels inferior in the presence of women, that his conviction of omnipotence is effected, that he is envious of women's emotional skills, and that he feels that his uniqueness is at risk. The narcissist also becomes very angry. Enraged, to be precise. All this is accompanied by the eternal "background emotion": the fear of being exposed as an impostor, a fake.
This rage, deeply explored, leads to the very heart of that darkness, the narcissist's soul.
All of us search for positive cues from people around us. These cues reinforce in us certain behaviour patterns. There is nothing special in the fact that the narcissist does the same. However there are two major differences between the narcissistic and the normal personality.
The first distinction is quantitative. The normal person is likely to consume a moderate amount of social approval verbal and non-verbal in the form of affirmation, attention, or admiration. The narcissist is the mental equivalent of an alcoholic. He asks for more and yet more. He directs his whole behaviour, in fact his life, to obtain these pleasurable titbits of human attention. He embeds them in a coherent, completely biased, picture of himself. He uses them to regulate his labile sense of self-worth and self-esteem.
He projects to others a confabulated, fictitious version of himself, known as the False Self. The False Self is everything the narcissist is not: omniscient, omnipotent, charming, intelligent, rich, or well-connected.
The narcissist then proceeds to harvest reactions to this projected image from family members, friends, co-workers, neighbours, business partners and social milieu, or from colleagues. If these the adulation, admiration, attention, fear, respect, applause, affirmation are not forthcoming, the narcissist demands them, or extorts them. Money, compliments, a favourable critique, an appearance in the media, a sexual encounter are all transformed into the same currency in the narcissist's mind.
This currency is what I call Narcissistic Supply (NS).
It is important to distinguish between the various components of the process of narcissistic supply:
1. The trigger of supply is the person or object that provokes the source into yielding narcissistic supply by confronting the source with information about the narcissist's False Self.
2. The source of narcissistic supply is the person that provides the narcissistic supply
3. Narcissistic supply is the reaction of the source to the trigger.
Publicity (celebrity or notoriety, being famous or being infamous) is a trigger of narcissistic supply because it provokes people to pay attention to the narcissist (in other words, it moves sources to provide the narcissist with narcissistic supply). Publicity can be obtained by exposing oneself, by creating something, or by provoking attention. The narcissist resorts to all three repeatedly (as drug addicts do to secure their daily dose). A mate or a companion is one such source of narcissistic supply.
But the picture is more complicated. There are two categories of Narcissistic Supply and their Sources (NSS):
The Primary Narcissistic Supply is attention, in both its public forms (fame, notoriety, infamy, celebrity) and its private, interpersonal, forms (adoration, adulation, applause, fear, repulsion). It is important to understand that attention of any kind positive or negative constitutes Primary Narcissistic Supply. Infamy is as sought after as fame, being notorious is as good as being renowned.
To the narcissist his "achievements" can be imaginary, fictitious, or only apparent, as long as others believe in them. Appearances count more than substance, what matters is not the truth but its perception.
Triggers of Primary Narcissistic Supply include, apart from being famous (celebrity, notoriety, fame, infamy) having an air of mystique (when the narcissist is considered to be mysterious), having sex and deriving from it a sense of masculinity/virility/femininity, and being close or connected to political, financial, military, or spiritual power or authority or yielding them.
Sources of Primary Narcissistic Supply are all those who provide the narcissist with narcissistic supply on a casual, random basis.
Secondary Narcissistic Supply includes: leading a normal life (a source of great pride for the narcissist), having a secure existence (economic safety, social acceptability, upward mobility), and obtaining companionship.
Thus, having a mate, possessing conspicuous wealth, being creative, running a business (transformed into a Pathological Narcissistic Space), possessing a sense of anarchic freedom, being a member of a group or collective, having a professional or other reputation, being successful, owning property and flaunting one's status symbols - all constitute secondary narcissistic supply as well.
Sources of Secondary Narcissistic Supply are all those who provide the narcissist with narcissistic supply on a regular basis: spouse, friends, colleague, business partners, teachers, neighbours, and so on.
Both these primary and secondary Narcissistic Supply and their triggers and sources are incorporated in a Narcissistic Pathological Space.
When the narcissist loses one or more of these sources he reacts with dysphoria. Dysphoria is an element within a larger emotional reactive pattern. This emotional barrage provokes self-healing through avoidance and escapism. I call this reactive pattern the Reactive Repertoire.
The Reactive Repertoire is fairly rigid and linear. It develops gradually. It comprises a change of framework, of location (geographical change), job, marriage partner, profession, vocation or avocation. The Reactive Repertoire is a change in the substantial parameters in the narcissist's life.
Such change is accompanied by the inner feeling that normalcy is restored. This is a false sensation. Change alone does not normalcy make, nor are the deep-seated problems of the narcissist thus resolved. But the very alternation makes the narcissist feel that he is breathing "fresh air" again, that his life is on a mend, and that he is in control.
The last element in the Reactive Repertoire is false or faux accomplishments. The narcissist convinces himself by first persuading others that he is in the process of making great progress towards one or more significant achievements.
It is easy to mistake the Reactive Repertoire for an NSS-reconstruction mechanism. It is not. Its main purpose is neither to regain NSS for the narcissist, nor to find any NSS substitutes. True, apparent achievements and apparent normalcy are sources of comfort to the always self-deluded narcissist. But comfort does not amount to Narcissistic Supply.
The aim of the Reactive Repertoire is to take some time off the highly taxing and energy wasting narcissistic game. This breather is obtained by changing places or contexts, by evading the scene of a failure, by hitting upon an alibi to justify the continual absence of NSS.
The Reactive Repertoire is the physical dimension of the narcissist's constant evasion of life and reality. Granted, the creation of a false pretence of normalcy and the faking of achievements do elicit admiration, appreciation, or celebrity. But this is a form of escapism. The narcissist represses the knowledge that it is all feigned.
Understandably, all these measures are temporary. They do not deal with the heart of the problem: with the narcissist's neediness, with his Narcissistic Personality Disorder. This is why the narcissist is doomed to repeat the same tiresome, familiar cycles of absence and escape.
The dilapidation, or disappearance of NSS creates a conflict within the narcissist which manifests itself through anxiety and, ultimately, through dysphoria-depression. The Reactive Repertoire "resolves" this conflict and eases the ensuing tension and anxiety. Yet, it does not tackle the underlying reasons.
This article appears in my book "Malignant Self-love: Narcissism Revisited"
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In other words, the Reactive Repertoire is an analgesic. It negates the narcissist's dysphoria-depression for a limited period of time. But because it does nothing to create alternative NSS it is, usually, not long before it loses its utility. The dysphoria-depression is back with a vengeance. This time the narcissist is forced to create new Sources of Narcissistic Supply. These, in turn, are again lost to him and provoke a new crisis, which brings about another Reactive Repertoire.
Mental Map # 2
Narcissistic Supply Sources (NSSs)
2. Loss of the NSS partial or whole
4. Reactive Repertoire (escapism)
5. Relief (resolution of the conflict)
6. Renewed Dysphoria-depression
7. Creating new NSS
8. Back to stage 2, 3, etc.
It is evident that there are two types of dysphoria-depression:
Loss induced dysphoria-depression, which is past-orientated and mourns the loss of NSS and deficiency induced dysphoria-depression, which is future-orientated and leads to the creation of new NSS.
The loss of NSS is typically the outcome of some life crisis (fading celebrity, a divorce, personal bankruptcy, incarceration, death in the family).
By "deficiency" we mean securing insufficient or dysfunctional NSS (a larger deficiency happens when a PN Space disappears).
There is a third reason, which leads the narcissist down the path of dysphoria-depression. It is when the narcissist (rarely) gets in touch with his own emotions. To do this means to re-enact painful past relationships (mainly with the Primary Object, the mother).
If the exact same psychological reaction is elicited by apparently disparate reasons could it be that they are not so disparate after all?
It seems that the loss of NSS forces the narcissist to get in touch with his hitherto repressed emotions, to reconstruct past events and relationships, which still deeply traumatise and hurt. The connection lies in that figure of the narcissist's private mythology, his mother. In rare cases it could be the father or some other meaningful adult, or even a social group of reference (peers) or a socialisation agent. This depends on who was the predominant influence in the narcissist's early life.
The whole structure of the narcissistic disorder is a derivative of the narcissist's relationship with these Primary Objects usually (but not always) his mother.
The narcissist's mother may have been inconsistent and frustrating. By being so, she thwarted the narcissist's ability to trust others and to feel secure and wanted. By emotionally abandoning him, she fostered in him fears of being abandoned again and the nagging feeling that the world is a dangerous, hostile, and unpredictable place. She became a negative, devaluating voice, which was duly incorporated in the narcissist's Superego.
Two diametrically opposed mental solutions are adopted by the tender victim of such disguised maternal aggression.
With such a constant reminder of his worthlessness the narcissist begins a lifelong quest for reassurance and positive reinforcements. He searches for people (individuals or groups) to affirm his behaviour and applaud him on a regular basis.
At the same time the child refers to himself for mental nurturing and nourishment, for affirmation and satisfaction, in one word: for love. He withdraws inwards.
This dual solution polarises the narcissist's world. The child is the only reliable benevolent source of positive emotions. All others are regarded functionally. They have a role to play in the narcissist's drama, they are the audience, which is supposed to applaud but not to interfere with the play.
Every loss of a Narcissistic Source of Supply is reminiscent of, resonates with and re-enacts the early loss of the mother, a loss which is felt as constant, frustrating, and painful.
The narcissist's reactions to a loss of NSS are incredibly strong and the world is anthropomorphised. The universe is perceived and treated as a conspiring, conniving, entity. The loss of the NSS is inconsistent and frustrating. The narcissist cries in agony: "Why have they stopped writing about me in the press?", "Why did she leave me having told me that she loved me?"
The loss of the NSS is an abandonment, an affirmation of the negative, devaluing inner voice. If the press is no longer interested in him, it proves to the narcissist that he is no longer interesting. If his spouse left him, this goes to show that he is a failure, both as a person and as a man, and that more successful and healthier men won her over.
Such loss leads to a retreat from the world, to reclusion. Only there inside his self does the narcissist feel safe, gratified and approved of.
But even the narcissist's capacity to deny and to repress, to lie and to deceive, to camouflage and to pretend is limited. There always comes a time when even the narcissist's self, buried under these mountains of self-deceit, is silenced. This constitutes a total collapse of self-image, sense of self-worth and personal credit. The only way to restore a semblance of self is by withdrawing from the world and from the need to pretend, to pose, and to disguise one's self.
These symptoms are even more aggravated by the fact that NSSs are not lost one at a time. They usually vanish simultaneously together with the narcissist's ability to sustain them with his theatrics.
The narcissist experiences then a loss of inner compass, the nauseating feeling that he cannot trust even himself, or properly gauge his own capabilities. He is very weakened by the re-enactment of his childhood's traumatic disappointments. He is sad because he gets in touch with his emotions and realises suddenly how crippled he is and how much he misses by being so. He feels inferior, underprivileged and perennially envious.
The lesson that he derives: he must avoid love, love substitutes and libidinal objects. Because he was always told that he is unworthy of love, because he internalised these voices (of the ideal objects) when he is loved or when he secures love substitutes (money, power, prestige) he finds himself embroiled in an internal conflict.
Reality offers the narcissist both love and love equivalents or substitutes but the ideal (badly) internalised object (the narcissist's mother, in most cases) says that he is not worthy of love, that he should be punished because he is inherently bad and corrupt. Impaled on the horns of this dilemma, the narcissist loses control and embarks on an orgy of self-destruction which leads to the loss of both his loved ones and his love substitutes.
Mental Map # 3
Women, love substitutes
Conflict of internalisation
Conflict with introjected ideal object
("You are a bad boy, you do not deserve love, and
you deserve to be punished")
Re-enactment of the basic conflict or Oedipal Conflict
Acts of self-destruction
Destruction of relationships
Acts of self-destruction and resolution of the conflict
Destruction of love substitutes
Loss of love substitutes leads to dysphoria and depression
Resolution of the conflict due to loss of NSS and the reconstruction of the conflict
Dysphoria and depression due to loss of NSS
Mental Map # 4
The basic Narcissistic Cycle
Narcissistic Supply Source: Women
Love substitutes and Narcissistic Supply Sources (NSSs):
money, power, prestige, etc.
All lead to:
A conflict with an internalisation of an ideal (Oedipal) object
("You are a bad boy, you are not worthy of love, you deserve to be punished")
Fear of losing control initiation of abandonment and of losses
Contact with women leads to a re-enactment of the basic conflict with the mother
and to the formation of (pathological, adult) narcissism.
All the above results in:
Abandonment (by women) and loss of love substitutes
This constitutes the resolution of the conflict with the internalisation of the ideal object
and to dysphoria and depression due to a loss of the Narcissistic Supply Sources.
The abandonment leads to depression and suicidal ideation
because the basic conflict with the mother is replayed.
Women are NSSs. But they also negate the narcissist's conviction that he is unique, sustained through much investment of mental energy. Women are therefore anti-narcissistic agents.
They cause a replay of the basic conflict with the mother and of the failed internalisation of the ideal object (the traumatic disappointment). Their love provokes in the narcissist untold powers of self-punishment and of self-destruction. Being abandoned by them constitutes an exact recreation of the relationship with the abandoning mother and her vindication.
The very need for a woman is a constant reminder of the narcissist's inferiority and weakness (to need is to be inferior and weak).
The universality of this need, the fact that everyone has such a need, negates (really, obliterates) the narcissist's sense of idiosyncrasy, of being special, superior, different.
He envies women because of their emotional skills ("equipment", he is likely to call it), their strength, resilience, maturity, forgiveness and the ability to humiliate, reduce to size, put in perspective, deflate, and, thus, inflict pain.
Women, the narcissist feels, judge him out of their superior position, they accept, reject, and then abandon. This makes him rebellious. He wants to frustrate them, to hurt them. This is anathema to his narcissistic feeling of omnipotence.
The fact that women can never be his exclusively again makes the narcissist feel as one of many, the feeling that he detests the most. He is panic stricken by performance anxiety. The woman is always available, receptacle-like. In the sexual act the narcissist is constantly put to the test.
Admittedly this performance anxiety has come to characterise most western men. Still, the narcissist experiences this anxiety so acutely and so persistently that it becomes pathological. Concurrently, the narcissist envies men who are emotionally skilled. He acknowledges his emotional infirmity and inferiority.
The narcissist is possessive and suspicious of his partner. Her (projected) departure confirms his emotional insufficiency. He envies her emotional capacity, her alternative partners. Narcissists learn about life and about themselves by generalising and by extrapolating. This is how the narcissist reaches the conclusion, following yet another separation or divorce, that he has no future with other women and no chance to form a functioning couple and to have children.
This shocks him anew, pains and saddens him. He likes these feelings. They vindicate his torturing inner voices, appease them for a while, solve the tormenting inner conflict and turmoil.
As he entertains the imaginary scenes of his spouse's infidelity the narcissist envies her (she is being gratified). He rages against her (she is violating the contract between them, she is unfair and unfriendly). The narcissist feels anxious precisely because of these feelings (had his spouse known what he feels she surely would have left him). He feels that her betrayal compromises his uniqueness.
To be replaceable and interchangeable is to be objectified and his spouse's infidelity implies that the narcissist is, indeed, replaceable. He experiences emotional annulment. He feels that it is easy to leave him because he does not exist emotionally and does not elicit emotional reactions in others. Finally, there is the universal reaction of possessiveness. This woman ("thing") was his and now it is someone else's.
The narcissist rehearses his emotional reactions to abandonment because he knows that he is going to be abandoned. The primary reaction to the ultimate fulfilment of this self-fulfilling prophecy is feeling crippled, emotionally incapacitated and drenched. The secondary reaction is anger. Only the tertiary reaction is narcissistic and possessive.
These all are direct reactions to the loss of a NSS. NSSs are the sources of the narcissist's feeling of uniqueness (a function performed by the Ego in a healthy person). When NSSs evaporate the narcissist ceases to feel unique and reacts possessively, trying to recoup the loss.
Losing a NSS means that the narcissist is dispensable, that unique (intimate) moments are, probably, duplicated with another and, thus, lose their uniqueness. The very "possession" of "his" woman helps the narcissist feel special. His companion both defines and constitutes the uniqueness of her narcissist mate. The narcissist often feels defined by his possessions, his spouse being one of them. Losing her to someone else is, in a major way, a transfer of his uniqueness to his competitor.
The narcissist wants to engage in sex and emotional bonding as much as anyone. But this gives rise to conflicts in him and he feels that he is fast and irrevocably being transformed into a "common male", a "basic animal", "not unique". The narcissistic drive is very powerful. The urgent, unconquerable desire to be different pits the narcissist's sexuality against his cravings for Narcissistic Supply.
Conflicts are bound to breed anxiety and this conflict is no different. The narcissist also experiences anxiety whenever his ego functions are threatened and whenever his sense of uniqueness is put to the test. He reacts with anxiety to routine work, to anonymity, being part of a crowd, facing professionals with superior qualifications, or intermingling with wealthy and fashionable people.
By extension, the narcissist reacts the same when the uniqueness of people whom he regards as his "assets" is threatened (for instance, when he sees them among their peers or colleagues). His anxiety drives him to pervert or odd behaviours when confronted with a competitive situation or when he has to "promote" himself (especially when others are present). His always-on anxiety severely disrupts the health and normalcy of his sexual life. The range of anxiety-related dysfunctions is astounding.
One of them is sexual abstinence.
The narcissistic defence mechanism is often a winner in the internal psychodynamics of the narcissist. The narcissist vows not to be like others. Being superhuman, the narcissist needs no one and nothing, and competes with none. He is special, so he has nothing to do with something as ordinary, as bestial, as common as sex. He is strong and thus allows no one and no thing (such as sex) to have the upper hand.
He realises that he sounds incredible, or, worse, ridiculous, and so he vows to frustrate his adversaries (for instance, women). He will be unavailable when they want him. This fulfils a dual purpose: to prove to them how different, superior and invincible he is and to sadistically punish them and delight in their despair.
The narcissist rebels against feminine expectations (and the world's). It is through this rebellion that he achieves distinction. Actually, any kind of conformist or institutionalised success is likely to prove threatening because it entails the loss of uniqueness. A conformist, routine and common way to succeed is "not unique, different, or special" and is, by definition, a direct challenge to the narcissist's grandiose fantasies.
On the beaten path, there is always someone more successful than the narcissist, dwarfing his uniqueness. A rebellion is different, it is rare, and there is no real competition. After all, there are no agreed criteria as to what constitutes a "successful rebel". Rebellion, by its nature, is not comparable, it is unique, sui generis.
But, to better understand what drives a narcissist to get his drug (NS) we must revert to his childhood.
Most narcissists are strange, inferior, and odd children. They are scorned and mocked, or feared. They are the objects of suspicion and, often, social ostracism. They are emotional invalids, pariahs and emotionally healthy children the most conformist group of humans react with revulsion and with rejection.
The narcissist, humiliated, feels very inferior and this feeling is buttressed by the internalisation of the ideal object and its sadistic voice. The Narcissistic Personality Disorder is an adaptative reaction to this emotional incapacity and to these degrading voices. It gives the narcissist the feeling that he is unique, different and superior (albeit only within his reclusive universe).
This feeling of superiority is usually based on some personal trait such as brain or brawn. NPD is a compensatory disorder. The validity of the negative judgement of the external world is thus negated and a conflict, and the constant anxiety attending to it, are resolved satisfactorily.
But the narcissistic disorder leads to the further isolation of the narcissist and to his gradual re-emergence as a freak. This generates more scorn, amazement, avoidance and suspicion and, these, in turn, lead to revulsion, hatred and sanctions, social or physical.
As these processes unfold, the narcissist's awareness of them, however vague, is intact. He deeply resents and envies the emotionally and socially skilled, the sexually initiated. This all-pervasive envy is felt as depression and sadness. The narcissist resorts to the more drastic measure of constructing a world of virtual reality, which only he inhabits.
He projects to the world a "False, virtual Ego or Self". Gradually, he grows to believe this fake miscreant, his own creation. He nurtures it and measures himself and his achievements against it. His main task becomes to support the existence of this patently fictitious structure by coercing his environment to reinforce it. He collects and cherishes every sign that this False Self succeeded in establishing its independent existence.
Then he proceeds to fall in love with an "ideal virtual partner". He uses a real life woman as a "hanger" and dresses her with this fictitious figure. There is no connection between the real life woman and the invented one. The end result is the narcissistic world: a False Ego which cohabits with a virtual partner, going through the phases of an invented life.
When these lies are exposed as they always are the narcissist pays a dear price, both emotionally and in terms of image, and becomes the subject of detestation, hatred and ex-communication. He is sentenced to forever repeat the horrors of his childhood magnified through the prism of adulthood. The same happens when the narcissist's "virtual normal life" is shattered, for instance, when his romantic or business partners abandon him.
The NSSs have, therefore, a double function. They supply the narcissist with his drug (Narcissistic Supply) and they provide him with the feedback he needs to re-orientate himself.
The Narcissistic Feedback has a heavy influence on the narcissistically disordered personality. The narcissist compares signals emanating from Primary NSS and from Secondary NSS and judges the extent of their coherence and consistency. When the two match, a Narcissistic Feedback Loop is formed.
At the beginning of every narcissistic mini-cycle, the narcissist activates only his PNSS. A Primary Narcissistic Feedback Loop (PNFL) is formed and activates the SNSS. These, in turn, form the Secondary Narcissistic Feedback Loop (SNFL).
It is important to note that anti-narcissistic agents are transformed into NSSs during a positive PNFL. Conversely, when the PNFL is negative, even proper NSSs are transformed into anti-narcissistic agents.
Examples: having sex, the narcissist's workplace, being in a crowd, or in a competitive situation, all become NSSs when the PNFL is positive. Yet, they are transformed into all powerful and anxiety provoking anti-narcissistic agents when PNFL is negative. The opposite example: NSSs such as possessing money, exerting power, or "conquering" women, are transformed into anti-narcissistic agents when the narcissist is not famous (when his PNFL is negative).
The Primary NSSs (Narcissistic Sources of Supply) include: publicity (celebrity, notoriety, fame, infamy), mystique (when the narcissist is considered to be mysterious), having sex and deriving from it a sense of masculinity/virility/femininity, a projection of wealth (the image is more important than reality), proximity to power (money/knowledge/contacts) which is in itself mysterious and awe inspiring.
The Secondary NSSs include: having a mate, conspicuous and ostentatious wealth, visible creativity and its results, running a business (if transformed into a Pathological Narcissistic Space), the sense of an anarchic freedom, belonging to a group of people who, together, constitute a PN Space, success as measured by others, owning property and status symbols (show-off).
Let us remind ourselves of the utility of NSS:
The narcissist internalises a "bad" object in his childhood. He develops socially proscribed feelings (aggression, hatred, envy) towards this object. These feelings reinforce the narcissist's self-image as bad and corrupt. Gradually he develops a dysfunctional sense of self-worth. His self-confidence and self-image become unrealistically low, unstable, and distorted.
The narcissist learns through his tortuous, inexplicable, stochastic life that every good thing inevitably comes with a bad corollary, every success ends in failure. He tries to pre-empt the inevitable by himself initiating (and, thus controlling) the inevitable calamity.
The narcissist often attempts to rehabilitate himself but because he is emotionally dissociated he fails repeatedly and miserably and his efforts often end in an orgy of destruction, both of himself and of others. This further strengthens his self-image as inferior, "bad", and a failure.
In an effort to repress these "bad" feelings, the narcissist is forced to suppress all emotions, negative and positive. His aggression is channelled to fantasies or to legitimate outlets (dangerous sports, gambling, reckless driving, compulsive shopping).
The narcissist views the world as a hostile, unstable, unrewarding, unjust, and unpredictable place. He defends himself by loving a completely controllable object (himself) and by turning others to functions or to objects so that they pose to emotional threat to him. This reactive pattern is what we call pathological narcissism.
But narcissism is a brittle construct. It is fragile because it is based on falsehoods. These falsehoods are exposed by those who gain access to the emotional side of the narcissist. These people mostly his romantic partners thus threaten to wreck the inner equilibrium so laboriously established by the narcissist. Women, especially, threaten to facilitate a breakthrough of the narcissist's repressed negative emotions. The narcissist is very frightened by this and by what women represent: further, final, and irrevocable destabilisation.
Every narcissist relies on some strong trait of his, which was encouraged or praised by others during his formative years. If he was a brainy child he is likely to become a cerebral, intellectual adult. He is likely to be "Vulcanised" (after the exclusively cerebral Vulcan Dr. Spock in the TV series "Star Trek").
Such a narcissist flaunts, displays, emphasises, and externalises his intellect and subjects to it all other emotions and traits. In such a narcissist, intellect plays the role of the finger in the dam, trying to hold at bay negative feelings, which threaten to gush forth. Alas, it is as effective. It is in the "intellect comfort zone" that the cerebral narcissist feels most "at home" because there he can ignore the fact that his emotional volcano is bound to ultimately erupt with disastrous consequences.
The intellect is in the service of the Ego. The Ego uses the intellect and the knowledge amassed by the narcissist to resist change and healing. The narcissist constantly seeks (and finds) narcissistic and intellectual satisfaction but is never content. The world's love of the narcissist never outweighs the narcissist's self-hate. The internal voices are never silenced by the bustle of a successful life. "You are bad", "You have negative emotions, which must be suppressed", "You should be punished severely" they keep susurrating.
The narcissist's exclusive emphasis on the intellect is self-deluded. It ignores the narcissist's irrepressible emotions and the abuse of his intellect by the narcissist's Ego. Functionally, the narcissist's personality has a low to medium level of organisation.
To counter his demons the narcissist needs the world: its admiration, its adulation, its attention, its applause, even its penalties. The lack of a functioning personality on the inside is balanced by importing ego functions and boundaries from the outside. The Primary Narcissistic Supply reaffirms the narcissist's grandiose fantasies, buttresses his False Self and, thus allows him to regulate his fluctuating sense of self-worth.
While it is easy to understand the function of a PNSS, the SNSS is a more complicated story.
This article appears in my book "Malignant Self-love: Narcissism Revisited"
Click HERE to buy the print edition from Barnes and Noble
Click HERE to buy the print edition from the publisher and receive a BONUS PACK
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The company of women and pursuing a career are the two main Sources of Secondary Narcissistic Supply (SNSSs). Women serve as SNSSs only concurrent with PNSSs (Primary Narcissistic Supply Sources). SNSSs coexist with PNSSs.
The narcissist mistakenly interprets his narcissistic needs as emotions. To him, the pursuit of a woman-SNSS is what others call "love" or "passion".
In the absence of a PNSS, SNSSs become anti-narcissistic agents. Analysing this transformation sheds light on the important functions of the SNSSs.
If we compare the narcissist's personality to a multi-layered archaeological excavation, we find his personal traits at the earliest, bottom layer. His looks, intelligence, sense of humour, are all part of this layer. However, because it is universal (every one has personality traits, everyone is "unique" in this sense) the narcissist tends to ignore this layer as a Source of Narcissistic Supply.
Then, in the next layer up, come the external (mostly social) parameters which help to define the narcissist. His personal status, economic situation, property owned by him or to which he has access, etc. This layer is only marginally more rewarding narcissistically because everyone has such distinguishing parameters.
Only the next, third, level is of some narcissistic importance. It is the layer comprised of the narcissist's personal history. Asked to describe his life, the narcissist tries to emphasise the unusual and extraordinary elements. It is the uniqueness of these events, which endows them with their narcissistic potency.
The final layer is the layer of narcissistic circumstances. They are the direct result of the operation of PNSSs. Being famous or being considered rich, for instance, are narcissistic circumstances and they are the results of the twin PNSSs: publicity and (wealth related) conspicuous consumption.
The third layer (unusual personal history) is filled with narcissistic content and can be directly derived from SNSS but it does not form a part of the narcissistic circumstances unless there is a parallel or complementing presence of a PNSS.
For example: the narcissist can author a Web site about narcissism and publish it (which is somewhat unusual). However, he will derive no Narcissistic Supply from this unless it makes him famous or unless he is famous already. Uniqueness and, therefore, Narcissistic Supply are at the core of the narcissistic circumstances. In the absence of these circumstances the narcissist does not feel (narcissistically) unique and, therefore, he feels non-existent.
But this still does not explain why does a SNSS (the narcissist's spouse, for example) function as an anti-narcissistic agent in the absence of a PNSS. It is one thing not to provide Narcissistic Supply and yet another to drain the narcissist of it.
Let us study the internal dialogue of a narcissist who has a romantic liaison with a woman but no PNSS.
If the woman loves him (when he has no PNSS and narcissistic circumstances), he can't understand her motivation. He believes that she must be either lying to him, or interested in a limited sexual relationship, or after his money, or, worse, she may not be looking for someone special (to remind you, the narcissist does not feel unique in the absence of PNSS).
If she is lying and doesn't really love the narcissist, he feels justified in responding with paranoid rage, suspicion, hostility and a desire to frustrate her, i.e. to be aggressive towards her.
If she is interested only in sex, it means that she perceives the narcissist merely as a sex object and thus she totally negates his uniqueness. He is likely to panic and keep his distance from this expressly anti-narcissistic agent.
If the third possibility is true, that the woman is not interested in someone special, this means that she is not special, or that she does not experience herself as special, or that the issue of uniqueness is of no interest to her.
In other words, her order of priorities is radically and substantively different from the narcissist's who is obsessed with uniqueness. Maybe she supports the view that everybody (and, therefore, no one) is unique. No relationship can survive such an utter lack of compatibility.
Loving a woman in the absence of a PNSS (when the narcissist does not feel unique) means risking being loved as merely a sex object, being lied to, or having to live with a radically incompatible person. In all three cases the relationship is doomed.
The narcissist does not love his True Self (with which he is unacquainted). His True Self, he feels, might as well be non-existent. He loves his False Self, the one which he presents to the world and which gives him narcissistic gratification.
The narcissist would have liked to be loved by a woman but he feels that he has got nothing to offer to her without PNSS. The narcissist's True Self is well concealed, it is not functioning, and it is fragmentary, disintegrated and distorted. The False Self functions only in the presence of PNSS. If there is no True Self and no functioning False Self "what is it that she loves?", wonders the narcissist.
In the absence of PNSS the narcissist experiences annulment. As far as he is concerned there is simply no one there to make emotional contact with the woman or for the woman to interact with.
Moreover, the narcissist does not believe that he has a right to exist and he hates the burden of existence. He exudes an air of absence and people around him are receptive to this eerie message. It is reciprocal. The narcissist treats people around him as though they did not exist and they often treat him as though he were transparent.
Even when he becomes known or famous he plants seeds of self-destruction in his fame and reputation so as to preserve the option not to exist, when (not if) it all becomes unbearable. Women threaten him because they force him to confront his existence (physical and emotional).
The narcissistic equations are pretty straightforward and easy to follow:
The narcissist's True Self is perceived by him as a void, a non-entity. This experience is debilitatingly frightening. Moreover, the internalised voices in him tell him that he (his True Self) has no right to exist even if he could (because he is "bad").
Only the narcissist's invented, False Self feels alive.
The narcissist knows that if he were to be in touch with his True Self he would pay a dear emotional price.
This True Self is hurting, is full with negative, ominous emotions. Danger and aggression lurk in this abyss. The narcissist prefers to refrain from entering there.
The True Self is maintained incommunicado and, therefore, is devoid of any meaningful mental existence. The narcissist invents a False Self instead. But how does the narcissist know that the self, that he has just created, is the right and functioning one? He badly needs feedback to refine his Golem to the point that it becomes indistinguishable from an authentic True Self.
This feedback he derives from the outside world through the NSSs. The NSSs are sources of information, which pertains to the "correctness" of the False Self, to its calibration, intensity and proper functioning. The NSSs serve to define the boundaries of the False Self, to regulate its contents and to substitute for some of the functions normally reserved to a True, functioning, Self.
Women, though, have access to the True Self. Sexuality, friendliness, and emotions in general are all elements of the True Self. The narcissist's False Self is perceived by most women he is intimate with to be a mask, which they should penetrate to reach the True Self. To the narcissist, this is subversion. It is a serious threat because numerous ego functions have been transferred to the False Self and it serves as a shock absorber and a protector against the intrusion of unwanted emotions.
The narcissist wants a woman to fall in love with his narcissistic circumstances and False Self because it would be impossible for her and dangerous for him if she were to fall in love with his True Self. When PNSSs are abundant he can get involved in an emotional affair based on the third layer, the extraordinary circumstances of his life. The best of all worlds is when a woman falls in love with him because of a combination of the two: his narcissistic circumstances and the extraordinary details of his biography.
Any other motivation renders the woman an anti-narcissistic agent. She would be thus negating the narcissist's preciously acquired sense of uniqueness. She would be demonstrating how unimportant uniqueness is to her ("You are special but this is not why I love you"). This would constitute a roundabout criticism of the narcissist's order of priorities and way of life.
The narcissist much prefers to be admired or loved because of narcissistic circumstances ("She loves my power, my fame, my money").
Instead of having to cope with the management of the emotional side of his relationships he can now deal with the more familiar territory of managing his PNSS. In the narcissist's ideal world, emotions would fame or wealth automatically with no need to invest in them or to maintain them.
Next the narcissist prefers to be loved because of his unusual personal history ("He is such an amazing man, his life is like a movie, it is so interesting"). Loving him for what he is is perceived by the narcissist to be a threat ("How many men had she told that they are very clever, that their smile is heart melting, or that they have a great sense of humour? in other words, how unique am I?" he asks himself).
But this order of priorities subjects the narcissist to immense pressure. If he fails to "deliver" PNSS the whole foundation of his relationships could collapse. He feels that he is "letting down" his partner if he fails to guarantee the constant existence of PNSS. He feels pressurised to achieve more, to pursue additional PNSSs, to secure their constant and stable functioning once achieved. If he fails in doing so the narcissist feels ashamed, censored, humiliated, and guilty.
Moreover, to maintain and reinforce his uniqueness, the narcissist must be with a partner he deems unique. He superimposes his fantastic notions of uniqueness on his partner. He revels in her illusory specialness as a major contribution to his own.
To him, the very fact that she chose him indicates that he is special. He might say: "My wife was a beauty queen. She could have been with any guy she wanted, yet she chose me."
The narcissist feels good with his mate only when the narcissistic circumstances are good and the Narcissistic Supply is abundant. This is because his partner does not exist as a separate entity. She fulfils a function of mirroring (reflection). She continuously reflects to the narcissist the state of his Narcissistic Supply.
The emotional content of the relationship changes in accordance with the flux of Narcissistic Supply. Any effort on her part to alter her role or to augment it; any time she ceases to behave as a function, or as an object ends in conflict with the narcissist and in aggression transformed and expressed through narcissistic rage.
The narcissist's romantic relationships deplete his energy. They exhaust the narcissist to the point of looking for external sources of energy (additional PNSSs). The narcissist uses the (narcissistic) energy provided by PNSSs to cope with his partner. This is a reversal of the natural state of things in which a loving relationship generates energy in both partners.
Having a relationship with a woman also contradicts the wish to remain a child (the Peter Pan Syndrome) prevalent among narcissists. The narcissist uses others and cajoles them into giving him shelter, affection, warmth, understanding and unconditional acceptance. This is exactly what he missed in his childhood.
But he achieves all that by remaining a child, by being irresponsible, naughty and overly curious. One cannot maintain the dual roles of child and adult at the same time. Such duality leads to a failure to maintain adult relationships. Lack of emotional maturity also obstructs the formation of relationships. Children, for instance, cannot be expected to have a sustained sexual relationship or to sire children.
To the narcissist there are a few preferable modes of sexual activity:
First, there is the anonymous, random, transactional (and autoerotic) kind of sex. The narcissist has few problems with it because, in these encounters, he does not exist. This is what characterises group sex, masturbation, and sex with minors, paedophilia, or sexual fantasy (all with totally controlled objects).
This type of sexual activities has a lot in common with publicity-seeking. Both involve exhibitionism (physical in the case of group sex biographical in the case of publicity).
Exhibitionism is about being reflected (and, thus, defined) by an observer. In orgies, for instance, the participants are usually anonymous as are the consumers of interviews in the mass media. Anonymity guarantees the avoidance of intimacy or commitment. All the players are objects, or functions.
This kind of sexual intercourse represents transformations of aggression and, at times, involves sadistic and masochistic activities. It non-conformist, leads to a sense of complete freedom, and, thus, is kind of a rebellion.
Objective sex also has strong autoerotic undertones. The participant is sexually stimulated by witnessing his reflection in the eyes of all other participants. This is doubly true, of course, in the case of masturbation and incest. These are the modalities of sex most preferred by the narcissist because they involve anonymity, no emotional dimension, and the objectification of his partners.
The second category of sex is when the narcissist is personally recognised but not considered special. The narcissist abhors this kind of sex because he perceives to be a threat to his sense of uniqueness.
The narcissist has no problem to maintain sexual exclusivity with a partner as long as this partner thinks that the narcissist is unique due to his narcissistic circumstances. This is close to the narcissistic ideal sex. THE ideal would be to have sex with people that the narcissist considers of a lesser "pedigree". The ideal partners are the narcissist's inferiors in stature, in fame, in personal traits, in wealth, or in their personal biography.
But whomever the sexual partner is, he or she are expected to adore the narcissist and enhance his sense of uniqueness. The conclusion is that the narcissist has a problem with having sex with a woman who does not judge him to be unique. He cannot have satisfactory sex with a partner who only knows a few bare biographical facts about him. This is not enough to establish uniqueness.
This is one of the important roles of PNSSs: to create an a-priori asymmetry, to establish the superiority of the narcissist. If he is a celebrity, more information about him is available to potential partners. If he is a high level functionary, he is ipso facto powerful. If a known prodigy, he has more potential and uniqueness than his sex partner.
NSS determine the boundaries of his Ego, its contents and its functions but, as importantly, they endow the narcissist with uniqueness. They save him the trouble of introducing himself, time and again and convincing others that he is special. They give him an advantage, the upper hand, and they reinforce his uniqueness in his own mind.
Publicity is when everyone knows that you are special and this makes you believe that you are unique and that you exist.
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