The Narcissist's Grandiose Fantasies
Frequently Asked question # 3
The grandiose fantasies of the narcissist support his inflated sense of self, regulate his sense of self-worth, and buttress his False Self.
By: Dr. Sam Vaknin
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What happens to a narcissist who lacks even the basic potential and skills to realise some of his grandiose fantasies?
Such a narcissist resorts to deferred Narcissistic Supply which generates an effect of deferred grandiosity. He forgoes his grandiose schemes and gives up on the present. He defers the fulfilment of his fantasies – which support his inflated Ego – to the (indefinite) future.
Such narcissists engage in activities (or in daydreaming), which they fervently believe, will make them famous, powerful, influential, or superior in some unspecified future time. They keep their minds occupied and off their failures.
Such frustrated and bitter narcissists hold themselves answerable only to History, God, Eternity, Future Generations, Art, science, the Church, the Country, the Nation and so on. They entertain notions of grandeur which are dependent upon the judgement or assessment of a fuzzily defined collective in an ambiguous time frame. Thus, these narcissists find solace in the embrace of Chronos.
Deferred grandiosity is an adaptive mechanism which ameliorates dysphorias and grandiosity gaps.
It is healthy to daydream and fantasise. It is the antechamber of life and often anticipates its circumstances. It is a process of preparing for eventualities. But healthy daydreaming is different from grandiosity.
Grandiosity can be conceived of as a set of cognitive biases constructed on an edifice of cognitive deficits which emanate from a profoundly flawed reality test.
The narcissist’s grandiosity has four components.
The narcissist believes in his omnipotence. "Believe" in this context is a weak word. He knows. It is a cellular certainty, almost biological, it flows in his blood and permeates every niche of his being. The narcissist "knows" that he can do anything he chooses to do and excel in it. What the narcissist does, what he excels at, what he achieves, depends only on his volition. To his mind, there is no other determinant.
Hence his rage when confronted with disagreement or opposition – not only because of the audacity of his, evidently inferior, adversaries. But because it threatens his world view, it endangers his feeling of omnipotence. The narcissist is often fatuously daring, adventurous, experimentative and curious precisely due to this hidden assumption of "can-do". He is genuinely surprised and devastated when he fails, when the "universe" does not arrange itself, magically, to accommodate his unbounded fantasies, when it (and people in it) does not comply with his whims and wishes.
He often denies away such discrepancies, deletes them from his memory. As a result, he remembers his life as a patchy quilt of unrelated events and people.
The narcissist often pretends to know everything, in every field of human knowledge and endeavour. He lies and prevaricates to avoid the exposure of his ignorance. He resorts to numerous subterfuges to support his God-like omniscience.
Where his knowledge fails him – he feigns authority, fakes superiority, quotes from non-existent sources, embeds threads of truth in a canvass of falsehoods. He transforms himself into an artist of intellectual prestidigitation. As he gets older, this invidious quality may recede, or, rather, metamorphose. He may now claim more confined expertise.
He may no longer be ashamed to admit his ignorance and his need to learn things outside the fields of his real or self-proclaimed expertise. But this "improvement" is merely optical. Within his "territory", the narcissist is still as fiercely defensive and possessive as ever.
Many narcissists are avowed autodidacts, unwilling to subject their knowledge and insights to peer scrutiny, or, for that matter, to any scrutiny. The narcissist keeps re-inventing himself, adding new fields of knowledge as he goes. This creeping intellectual annexation is a roundabout way of reverting to his erstwhile image as the erudite "Renaissance man".
The narcissist believes that he does not need to refer to reality as the last arbiter: he only has to tap his own superior intelligence in order to derive universally-applicable and invariable rules. Regardless of the paucity of his own experience and knowledge, the narcissist holds himself to be a supreme authority on almost every issue and topic. Indeed, the narcissist is emotionally-invested (cathexed) in his self-imputed omniscience and infallibility and regards any challenge to them as a narcissistic injury which threatens to undermine the very foundations of his precariously-balanced personality.
Narcissists exhibit the cognitive bias known as the “Dunning-Kruger effect”: they are deluded about the true level of their abilities, knowledge, and skills. But, they tend to sustain this delusion also by devaluing and underestimating others.
Even the narcissist cannot pretend to actually be everywhere at once in the PHYSICAL sense. Instead, he feels that he is the centre and the axis of his "universe", that all things and happenstances revolve around him and that cosmic disintegration would ensue if he were to disappear or to lose interest in someone or in something.
He is convinced, for instance, that he is the main, if not the only, topic of discussion in his absence. He is often surprised and offended to learn that he was not even mentioned. When invited to a meeting with many participants, he assumes the position of the sage, the guru, or the teacher/guide whose words carry a special weight. His creations (books, articles, works of art) are extensions of his presence and, in this restricted sense, he does seem to exist everywhere. In other words, he "stamps" his environment. He "leaves his mark" upon it. He "stigmatises" it.
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Narcissist the Omnivore (Perfectionism and Completeness)
There is another "omni" component in grandiosity. The narcissist is an omnivore. He devours and digests experiences and people, sights and smells, bodies and words, books and films, sounds and achievements, his work and his leisure, his pleasure and his possessions. The narcissist is incapable of ENJOYING anything because he is in constant pursuit of perfection and completeness.
Classic narcissists interact with the world as predators do with their prey. They want to own it all, be everywhere, experience everything. They cannot delay gratification. They do not take "no" for an answer. And they settle for nothing less than the ideal, the sublime, the perfect, the all-inclusive, the all-encompassing, the engulfing, the all-pervasive, the most beautiful, the cleverest, the richest, and the most brilliant.
The narcissist is shattered when he discovers that a collection he possesses is incomplete, that his colleague's wife is more glamorous, that his son is better than he is in math, that his neighbour has a new, flashy car, that his roommate got promoted, that the "love of his life" signed a recording contract. It is not plain old jealousy, not even pathological envy (though it is definitely a part of the psychological make-up of the narcissist). It is the discovery that the narcissist is NOT perfect, or ideal, or complete that does him in.
Ask anyone who shared a life with a narcissist, or knew one and they are likely to sigh: "What a waste". Waste of potential, waste of opportunities, waste of emotions, a wasteland of arid addiction and futile pursuit.
Narcissists are as gifted as they come. The problem is to disentangle their tales of fantastic grandiosity from the reality of their talents and skills. They always either over-estimate or devalue their potency. They often emphasise the wrong traits and invest in their mediocre or less than average capacities at the expense of their true and promising potential. Thus, they squander their advantages and under-rate their natural gifts.
The narcissist decides which aspects of his self to nurture and which to neglect. He gravitates towards activities commensurate with his pompous auto-portrait. He suppresses these tendencies and aptitudes in him which don't conform to his inflated view of his uniqueness, brilliance, might, sexual prowess, or standing in society. He cultivates these flairs and predilections which he regards as befitting his overweening self-image and ultimate grandeur.
But, the narcissist, no matter how self-aware and well-meaning, is accursed. His grandiosity, his fantasies, the compelling, overriding urge to feel unique, invested with some cosmic significance, unprecedentedly bestowed – these thwart his best intentions. These structures of obsession and compulsion, these deposits of insecurity and pain, the stalactites and stalagmites of years of abuse and then abandonment – they all conspire to frustrate the gratification, however circumspect, of the narcissist's true nature.
An utter lack of self-awareness is typical of the narcissist. He is intimate only with his False Self, constructed meticulously from years of lying and deceit. The narcissist's True Self is stashed, dilapidated and dysfunctional, in the furthest recesses of his mind. The False Self is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, creative, ingenious, irresistible, and glowing. The narcissist often isn't.
Add combustible paranoia to the narcissist's divorce from himself – and his constant and recurrent failure to assess reality fairly is more understandable. The narcissist overpowering sense of entitlement is rarely commensurate with his accomplishments in his real life or with his traits. When the world fails to comply with his demands and to support his grandiose fantasies, the narcissist suspects a plot against him by his inferiors.
The narcissist rarely admits to a weakness, ignorance, or deficiency. He filters out information to the contrary – a cognitive impairment with serious consequences. Narcissistic are likely to unflinchingly make inflated and inane claims about their sexual prowess, wealth, connections, history, or achievements.
All this is mighty embarrassing to the narcissist's nearest, dearest, colleagues, friends, neighbours, or even mere on-lookers. The narcissist's tales are so patently absurd that he often catches people off-guard. Behind his back, the narcissist is derided and mockingly imitated. He fast makes a nuisance and an imposition of himself in every company.
But the narcissist's failure of the reality test can have more serious and irreversible consequences. Narcissists, unqualified to make life-and-death decisions often insist on rendering them. Narcissists pretend to be economists, engineers, or medical doctors – when they are not. But they are not con-artists in the classic, premeditated sense. They firmly believe that, though self-taught at best, they are more qualified than even the properly accredited sort. Narcissists believe in magic and in fantasy. They are no longer with us.
We can reconceptualize grandiosity as a
cognitive deficit and intelligence as a psychological defense mechanism.
Like every cognitive deficit or bias, grandiosity impairs the reality test: it hampers our ability to grasp and assess facts as well as properly interpret cues, both social and environmental.
Many people deploy their intelligence as a formidable bulwark against ego-discrepant or objectionable content: information that challenges their self-perception, theories of the mind and the world, beliefs, values, emotions, and cognitions. In other words: they reframe their narratives and firewall them by misusing their intellect.
But grandiosity is a self-defeating cognitive
deficit: the more the narcissist fails, the more delusional he becomes. Fantasy
- a psychological defense mechanism - gradually becomes the sole reality of the
Healthy, normal folk modify their self-perception & modulate their sense of self-worth to accord and be commensurate with real life accomplishments or setbacks.
Unable to accommodate & integrate challenges to his godlike False Self, the narcissist retreats into an inner realm which is almost psychotic in its absence of a reality test.
This divorce from the world leads the narcissist to make spectacularly bad and self-destructive decisions.
The narcissist's grandiosity is entrenched because it serves multiple psychological needs and functions. One of them is to mask the fact that, far from being admired and adulated, the gullible and self-preoccupied narcissist is derided, humiliated, mocked, taunted, betrayed, abused, cheated on, robbed, and utterly disrespected by everyone in his life and by those who merely cross paths with him - often to his face. Yet, he ignores this constant molestation and collaborates with the charade.
Ironically, it is precisely because of his grandiosity that the narcissist has no trace of self-respect or personal boundaries. Being possessed of cold empathy and sometimes high intelligence, the narcissist is usually aware of what transpires around him: his woman is cheating on him with other men or flirting in his presence, his business partner is robbing him blind, his audience is turning a cold, contemptuous shoulder to his interminable ramblings.
Yet, he is afraid to challenge his molesters because if he does, he would be confronted with the fact that he is perceived and treated by everyone as a bumbling fool of a clown. Such a realization will denude him of his narcissistic defenses and drive him even to suicidal psychosis. So, he keeps mum, denied that he is being mistreated, and obstinately maintains the delusion that he is revered in the face of a tsunami of evidence to the contrary.
A common misconception about narcissists is
that they strive to be the best, richest, most powerful, and brightest of them
all. They most emphatically do not.
Narcissists are, indeed, grandiose and emotionally invested in feeling and in appearing to be superior and unique.
But the locus of the narcissist's grandiosity - his or her "claim to fame" - can be anything and anywhere. The narcissist just wishes to stand out: as a good son, a victim, an altruist, a hedonist, an arsonist, an academic, a fisherman, or a fireman. Anything goes as long as the narcissist can lay claim to excellence or to any kind of distinction. Grandiosity can be pedestrian or charitable, criminal or morally righteous, desultory or committed - as long as it sets the narcissist apart and above all others of his or her kind.
The narcissist regards learning something new
and getting advice as narcissistic injuries because both situations imply that
he is not perfect and not omniscient (all-knowing).
To defend against this challenge to his grandiosity, the narcissist distorts reality and uses reframing, cognitive biases, and emotional regulation:
1. I knew that already. There is nothing new here.
2. It was actually my idea, not yours.
3. You are wrong. Truth is relative. This is just your opinion.
4. I am far more qualified to make this call or to state this fact.
5. You are saying this because something is wrong with you or because your research is sloppy or because you are ignorant (devaluing the source).
6. I prefer to not hear from you again. I am busy. Please don't bother me. Go away. Fuck off. Aggression.
7. I listened to you carefully and will consider your views. NOT. Passive-aggression.
It is ironic that the narcissist - who considers
himself omnipotent (all-powerful) and godlike - also has alloplastic defenses
and an external locus of control. What are these?
People with alloplastic (as opposed to autoplastic) defenses believe that whatever happens to them is the fault of others: spouse, colleagues, the boss, the government, the world at large, or even God. Their failures, bad decisions, reversals, and defeats are either misfortune or the ineluctable outcomes of malign and insidious conspiracies. This involves a modicum of paranoia and more than a pinch of fatalism ("there is nothing I can do about it"). The constant frustration yields all manner of aggression (including passive aggression) or even decompensation, acting out, and depressive illness.
An external locus of control is the natural extension of having alloplastic defenses: if nothing is one's fault or one's responsibility, then one has no control, mastery, or ownership of one's life. Someone with an external locus of control feels like driftwood on powerful ocean waves: at the mercy of - usually invisible - forces, his life determined by currents, trends, and decisions made way above his head and out of sight.
This is exactly how even the most powerful and successful narcissists - think Trump - view their lives: as the largely incomprehensible outcomes of sinister, hostile, ruthless, and unrelenting attempts to put them down, control and direct, co-opt and compromise them. At the beck and call of unnamed powers, most narcissists - especially religious ones - use even this learned helplessness to buttress and uphold their grandiosity: their lives are steered and directed from without because they form a part of some cosmically significant plot, plan, narrative, or pattern. Their paranoid persecutory ideation - that they are the targets of cabals and their conspiracies - serve to enhance their inflated and fantastic self-image.
Grandiosity and entitlement - the two pillars
of narcissism - are widely misunderstood.
In previous work, I proposed to regard grandiosity as a cognitive deficit: an impaired reality test that leads to a gross misjudgment of one's abilities, gifts, knowledge, skills, and roles. A Dunning-Kruger Effect writ large.
The ineluctable corollary of grandiosity is entitlement: if you are divine then you deserve special treatment.
I suggest to reconsider entitlement: it is not a behavior, but a delusion. The narcissist is deluded by his grandiose fantasies and within his delusional space, he develops expectations regarding his environment and adopts behaviors that conform to these expectations and uphold them.
Together, grandiosity and entitlement provide the narcissist with a complete virtual reality with an organizing principle and commensurate theory of mind and theory of the world around him and how it should function.
The narcissist them imposes this virtual reality on a pathological narcissistic space (a physical place where his grandiosity and entitlement are uncontested or even egged on).
Grandiosity is kaleidoscopic, adaptive,
self-efficacious, and multi-faceted fantasy combined with a set of cognitive
deficits and delusions. When challenged on one front (say, as a genius), the
narcissist shapeshifts his claim to fame and uniqueness (now posing, say, as
self-righteous or a victim)
Grandiosity has a role in healthy personal growth: separation-individuation, the formation of self and identity, and boundary setting. In its malignant form, it is a phase in the onset of Borderline Personality Disorder ("failed narcissism") and is also manifest in psychopathy, the manic phase of Bipolar Disorder, and other derangements.
Narcissistic grandiose defenses can be triggered by locus and circumstances even in otherwise normal people. Some people are narcissistic in only a specific environment ("pathological narcissistic space"), forming a "grandiosity bubble".
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