To Age with Grace: The Narcissist as an Old Person

By: Dr. Sam Vaknin

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"Ships at a distance have every man's wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time."

Zora Neale Hurston, “Their Eyes Were Watching God” (1937)

"Do not go gentle into that good night, / Old age should burn and rave at close of day; / Rage, rage against the dying of the light."

Dylan Thomas, “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night”

"The permanent temptation of life is to confuse dreams with reality. Then permanent defeat of life comes when dreams are surrendered to reality."

James Michener, Author

"Making my entrance again with my usual flair / Sure of my lines / No one is there."

“Send in the Clowns” by Stephen Sondheim

The narcissist ages without mercy and without grace. His withered body and his overwrought mind betray him all at once. He stares with incredulity and rage at cruel mirrors. He refuses to accept his growing fallibility. He rebels against his decrepitude and mediocrity. Accustomed to being awe-inspiring and the recipient of adulation - the narcissist cannot countenance his social isolation and the pathetic figure that he cuts.

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.

As a child prodigy, a sex symbol, a stud, a public intellectual, an actor, an idol - the narcissist was at the centre of attention, the eye of his personal twister, a black hole which sucked people's energy and resources dry and spat out with indifference their mutilated carcasses. No longer. With old age comes disillusionment. Old charms wear thin.

Having been exposed for what he is - a deceitful, treacherous, malignant egotist - the narcissist's old tricks now fail him. People are on their guard, their gullibility reduced. The narcissist - being the rigid, precariously balanced structure that he is - can't change. He reverts to old forms, re-adopts hoary habits, succumbs to erstwhile temptations. He is made a mockery by his accentuated denial of reality, by his obdurate refusal to grow up, an eternal, malformed child in the sagging body of a decaying man.

(continued below)


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It is the fable of the grasshopper and the ant revisited.

The narcissist - the grasshopper - having relied on supercilious stratagems throughout his life - is singularly ill-adapted to life's rigors and tribulations. He feels entitled - but fails to elicit Narcissistic Supply. Wrinkled time makes child prodigies lose their magic, lovers exhaust their potency, philanderers waste their allure, and geniuses miss their touch. The longer the narcissist lives - the more average he becomes. The wider the gulf between his pretensions and his accomplishments - the more he is the object of derision and contempt.

Yet, few narcissists save for rainy days. Few bother to study a trade, or get a degree, pursue a career, maintain a business, keep their jobs, or raise functioning families, nurture their friendships, or broaden their horizons. Narcissists are perennially ill-prepared. Those who succeed in their vocation, end up bitterly alone having squandered the love of spouse, off-spring, and mates. The more gregarious and family-orientated - often flunk at work, leap from one job to another, relocate erratically, forever itinerant and peripatetic.

The contrast between his youth and prime and his dilapidated present constitutes a permanent narcissistic injury. The narcissist retreats deeper into himself to find solace. He withdraws into the penumbral universe of his grandiose fantasies. There - almost psychotic - he salves his wounds and comforts himself with trophies of his past.

A rare minority of narcissists accept their fate with fatalism or good humour. These precious few are healed mysteriously by the deepest offense to their megalomania - old age. They lose their narcissism and confront the outer world with the poise and composure that they lacked when they were captives of their own, distorted, narrative.

Such changed narcissists develop new, more realistic, expectations and hopes - commensurate with their talents, skills, accomplishments and education. Ironically, it is invariably too late. They are avoided and ignored, rendered transparent by their checkered past. They are passed over for promotion, never invited to professional or social gatherings, cold-shouldered by the media. They are snubbed and disregarded. They are never the recipients of perks, benefits, or awards. They are blamed when not blameworthy and rarely praised when deserving. They are being constantly and consistently punished for who they were. It is poetic justice in more than one way. They are being treated narcissistically by their erstwhile victims. They finally are tasting their own medicine, the bitter harvest of their wrath and arrogance.

Interview granted to Harmony (India), February-March 2011

The first thing that occurs to me when thinking of aging is a gradual change in one’s physical structure that is apparent to others, and to oneself of course. Now what precisely do we mean by aging, or getting old or older, in terms of the mind or psyche?

 

"Old" is commonly thought of as an adjective which bundles together objective physical and mental changes (for the worse); growing dysfunctions in a variety of areas of life; and cultural and social norms and prejudices that together constitute a pernicious stereotype. Reality, however, is more complex. Aging has its positive sides: perspective and experience tend to reduce anxiety and increase efficacy; a life-long worth of networking provides enhanced access to a variety of societal and economic benefits; an extended family generate emotional (and, at times, economic) succor; as leisure time increases, one can cater to one's hobbies and fulfil one's dreams; and so on. These largely positive "externalities" are often ignored and the undeniably negative dimensions of aging are sensationally emphasized.


What major kinds of fear(s) are associated with aging in its psychological sense that you just explained? (also tell a bit about the root cause of those fears)

  

It is of course the fear of Death that wears a thousand guises. "Aging" is the name we give to the cumulation of irrefutable proofs that we are mortal. So, when we fear physical decrepitude, mental deterioration, illness, loss of capacities, social ostracism, and other less than savory facets of growing old, what we actually dread is our very end. The promise of an afterlife doesn't really fool anyone, including the most devout believers. No one wants to die and no one wants to be reminded constantly of the transience of his existence. Old-age is also a time of soul-searching and tallying: dreams unfulfilled; wishes denied; fantasies which have remained exactly that; wrong turns and erroneous decisions; remorse, regret, and heartbreak. The knowledge that there is no second chance imbues one's last years with tragedy. 


Please tell our readers a little about what narcissism is, its key personality features, and why some people develop such personalities? (Also tell who/which profession’s people etc is more prone to developing narcissism)

 

Pathological narcissism is a pattern of thinking and behaving in adolescence and adulthood, which involves infatuation and obsession with one's self to the exclusion of others. It manifests in the chronic and compulsive pursuit of personal gratification and attention (narcissistic supply), social dominance and ruthless personal ambition. The narcissist constantly brags; is insensitive to others; lacks empathy; is hypervigilant (spots slights and insults in every utterance and beahvior); and is excessively dependent on others to meet his/her responsibilities in daily life. Possessed of a grandiose and inflated fantasy of himself (the False Self), the narcissist feels entitled to special treatment regardless of his actual accomplishments, or lack thereof.  

 

Pathological narcissism is at the core of the narcissistic personality disorder. As distinct from healthy narcissism which we all possess, pathological narcissism is maladaptive, rigid, persisting, and causes significant distress, and functional impairment.

 

Pathological narcissism is a reaction to prolonged abuse and trauma in early childhood or early adolescence. The source of the abuse or trauma is immaterial - the perpetrators could be parents, teachers, other adults, or peers. Pampering, smothering, spoiling, and "engulfing" the child are also forms of abuse. There may be a genetic component in the make-up of the narcissist which predispose him to his pathology.

 

Can aging narcissists hope for returning to a normal life with some kind of therapy, counseling, or just social support? (tell briefly about what works for making narcissists get to normal thinking and behavior)

How can a narcissist return to a “normal” when – by the very definition of his disorder – he has never had a normal life and is utterly incapable of one? Narcissists are mentally-ill. Pathological narcissism cannot be ”healed", or "cured". Only certain attendant mental health problems - such as depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder - can be ameliorated or controlled with medication. Additionally, particularly abrasive, grating, or antisocial behaviours can be modified using talk therapy (cognitive-behavioral being the most successful).

What are the major signs obvious to the family or loved ones of an aging narcissist that help them identify his/her emotional crisis so as to seek therapeutic help?

Narcissists rarely seek therapeutic help and they definitely do not listen to advice of any kind. The narcissist constantly consumes (really, preys upon) adoration, admiration, approval, applause, attention and other forms of Narcissistic Supply. When lacking or deficient, a Narcissistic Deficiency Dysphoria sets in. The narcissist then appears to be depressed, his movements slow down, his sleep patterns are disordered (he either sleeps too much or becomes insomniac), his eating patterns change (he gorges on food or is avoids it altogether).

He is constantly dysphoric (sad) and anhedonic (finds no pleasure in anything, including his former pursuits, hobbies, and interests). He is subjected to violent mood swings (mainly rage attacks) and all his (visible and painful) efforts at self-control fail. He may compulsively and ritually resort to an alternative addiction – alcohol, drugs, reckless driving, shopaholism.

How do you think an aging narcissist need to be treated at home and in workplace to ensure his emotional wellbeing?

Avoid all contact with the narcissist in your life. All other advice is spurious and erroneous. Narcissists cannot be “fixed” and, if you do not keep absolute distance, will ruin your life thoroughly. To believe that one can affect the narcissist’s wellbeing is malignant optimism, a manifestation of the rescue fantasies that are so common among co-dependents.

 

Finally Sam, what are some of the healthy things or activities that an average narcissist should engage in for living positively?

 

Narcissists cannot live positively. They are other-destructive, self-destructive, and self-defeating. They are a menace to themselves, to their nearest, and to society at large. They are like drug addicts in that they compulsively and ruthlessly pursue narcissistic supply (attention and adulation). But, unlike substance abuse, narcissism is an all-pervasive and malignant problem that invades and infects all the dimensions of the narcissist’s existence. Narcissists are recidivistic, incorrigible, intractable, and hopeless cases.


Also Read

The Mid-Life Narcissist

The Narcissist's Dead Parent

The Delusional Way Out

The Narcissist as Eternal Child


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