The Narcissist's Self-Defeating and Self-Destructive Behaviours
Frequently Asked Question # 69
And by being obstructive, negativistic, and passive-aggressive.
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The narcissist often engages in self-defeating and self-destructive behaviors. Can you tell me more about it?
Freud and Klein suggested that healthy narcissism is somehow related to the self-regarding life force that they called libido. Together they counter and deflect the death (thanatic) drive or instinct and redirect it at outside objects. Pathological narcissism accomplishes exactly the opposite: it nourishes and nurtures the narcissist’s death wish.
We can group self-defeating and self-destructive behaviors according to their underlying motivation:
Reckless, Impulsive, and Intermittent Explosive (Rage-related) Behaviors - Click on the links to read these articles:
act first and consider their options later. Impaired,
deficient, lacking, or absent impulse control serves important
In some mental health pathologies - cluster B ("dramatic") personality disorders, mood disorders, and others - unfulfilled or suppressed urges, drives, and impulses give rise to extreme anxiety and stress. Instantly catering to these pressing wishes is the only way to alleviate and ameliorate this inexorably mounting inner volcanic pressure.
Following impulsive acts - cheating, spending, shopping, promising, travelling, binge eating, whatever - there is an overwhelming sense of guilt and shame followed by purging and penitent behaviors (like acting extra nice to the cheated spouse, forced vomiting, or working hard to make up for the profligacy). This leads to a restoration of inner peace and homeostasis (balance) and a cathartic feeling of having attained a state of "clean slate". At least until the next transgression. It is an almost religious experience.
But impulsivity has another critical function: the regulation of labile self-esteem, fluctuating self-confidence, and one's sense of self-worth via the restoration of grandiosity. The cheating spouse affirms his irresistibility, the shopaholic her omnipotence, the kleptomaniac her invincibility and luck ("getting away with it"). The forbidden, risky, and illicit nature of most impulsive acts and behaviors only adds to this mystical aura of uniqueness. This magical elevation to a godlike status of invincibility feels like a euphoric high and is addictive - as are all the impulsive behaviours. Recidivism is guaranteed: no agreement or rule or vow can prevent them from recurring.
impulse control is compromised by his negative emotions
(especially his rage-aggression and envy). He feels ruled by them and driven
inexorably to act (an external locus of control)
Narcissists are used to being controlled from the outside, starting with their abusive parents, the overbearing and all-pervasive and infinitely demanding False Self and the addiction to Narcissistic Supply and its sources (i.e., other people). No wonder that the narcissist feels more at home with negative emotions and finds them way more accessible to him than positive ones.
Ironically, the narcissist who considers himself godlike and omnipotent is actually a slave to external circumstances and feedback from his human environment. He derives his very sense of being from his impotence.
The Self-Punishing, Guilt-Purging Behaviors
These are intended to inflict punishment on the narcissist and thus instantly soothe him and relieve him of his overwhelming anxiety, or to restore his sense of reasserted, omnipotent control over himself, his environment, and his life. By pre-empting society’s punitive measures and by self-flagellating, the narcissist is actually saying: “If I am to suffer unjustly, it will be only by my own hand and no one else’s.”
Self-punishing, guilt-purging behaviours are very reminiscent of compulsive rituals. The narcissist sometimes feels guilty though, lacking self-awareness, he rarely knows why and often believes himself to be the victim of a gross miscarriage of justice. These dim, uneasy stirrings could be anticipatory (he foresees a retribution for his abusive misconduct towards others or for his contumacious flaunting of authority), or they could be an "ancient", early childhood, guilt, a "sexual" guilt (Freud), or a "social" guilt. In his infancy, the narcissist internalized and introjected the voices of meaningful and authoritative others - parents, role models, peers - who consistently and convincingly judged him to be no good (“bad”), blameworthy, deserving of punishment or retaliation, or corrupt. His self-destruction validates these introjects and internal objects.
Parents of narcissists teach their offspring to expect only conditional, transactional love: the child is supposed to render a service or fulfil the parent's wishes in return for affection and compassion, attention and emotion. Ineluctably, the hurt child reacts with rage to this unjust mistreatment.
With no recourse to the offending parent, this fury is either directed outwardly, at others (who stand in for the bad parent) - or inwardly. The former solution yields a psychopath, or a passive-aggressive (negativistic) - the latter a masochist. Similarly, with an unavailable parent, the child's reserve of love can be directed inward, at himself (to yield a narcissist), or outward, towards others (and, thus, form a codependent.)
All these choices retard personal growth and are self-annihilating. In all four paths the adult plays the dual roles of a punitive parent and an eternal child, who is unable and unwilling to grow up for fear of incurring the wrath of the parent with whom he merged so thoroughly early on.
The narcissist's life is thus transformed into an on-going trial. The constancy of this trial, the never adjourning tribunal is the punishment. It is a Kafkaesque "process": meaningless, undecipherable and never-ending. It leads to no verdict, is subject to mysterious and fluid laws and presided over by capricious judges.
Thus the narcissist masochistically frustrates his deepest desires and drives; neglects his affairs and procrastinates; obstructs his own efforts, alienates his friends and sponsors, provokes figures of authority to punish, demote, or ignore him, actively seeks and solicits disappointment, failure, or mistreatment and relishes them, incites anger or rejection, bypasses or rejects opportunities, or engages in excessive self-sacrifice.
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In their book "Personality Disorders in Modern Life", Theodore Millon and Roger Davis, describe the diagnosis of "Masochistic or Self-Defeating Personality Disorder", found in the appendix of the DSM III-R but excluded from the DSM IV. While the narcissist is rarely a full-fledged masochist, many a narcissist exhibit some of the traits of this proposed personality disorder.
Depressive-Thanatic (“Death Wish”) Behaviors
Unloved by his labile, self-centered, immature, and capricious parents, the depressive or thanatic (“death wish”) narcissist comes to regard himself as unlovable in principle and as unloved by one and all. If he cannot be loved (especially by his parents), if he is never to experience being loved, he prefers to die. Rendered incapable of intimacy, of mutual trust, and of a mature reciprocation of love, such a narcissist seeks to destroy the very object that causes him such pervasive frustration: himself. Habits such as substance abuse and reckless behaviors are mere manifestations of this lethal self-loathing and self-directed rage. Mood disorders are common with a preponderance of depressive episodes and dysthimia. Outright suicide is uncommon, though.
The Extracting Behaviors
People with Personality Disorders (PDs) are very afraid of real, mature, intimacy. Intimacy is formed not only within a couple, but also in a workplace, in a neighborhood, with friends, while collaborating on a project. Intimacy is another word for emotional involvement, which is the result of interactions with others in constant and predictable (safe) propinquity.
Patients with personality disorders interpret intimacy as codependence, emotional strangulation, the snuffing of freedom, a kind of death in installments. They are terrorized by it. To avoid it, their self-destructive and self-defeating acts are intended to dismantle the very foundation of a successful relationship, a career, a project, or a friendship. Narcissists feel elated and relieved after they unshackle these "chains". They feel they broke through a siege, that they are liberated, free at last.
The Default Behaviors
We are all, to some degree, inertial, afraid of new situations, new opportunities, new challenges, new circumstances and new demands. Being healthy, being successful, getting married, becoming a mother, or someone's boss – often entail abrupt breaks with the past. Some self-defeating behaviors are intended to preserve the past, to restore it, to protect it from the winds of change, to self-deceptively skirt promising opportunities while seeming to embrace them.
Frustrating, Sadistic, Negativistic, and Passive-Aggressive Behaviors
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Frustrating one's nearest and dearest has the dual "advantage" of simultaneously satisfying the narcissist's masochistic and sadistic urges. By withholding love, sex, intimacy, and the fulfillment of other people's desires and needs (for example: to be parents), the narcissist torments them even as he obstructs his own gratification. This enhances and buttresses his fantastic sense of omnipotence.
Self-sabotage, self-defeat, self-denial, and self-destruction (the martyred victim stance) also serve to prevent the forming of attachment and intimacy and the potential for ultimate hurt and pain as they dissolve. But they also uphold the narcissist’s sense of superiority, uniqueness, and omnipotence. Only the strongest can overcome and vanquish desires, urges, needs, and emotions that easily overwhelm lesser mortals. The narcissist adheres to his idiosyncratic brand of ascetic religion in which he is both god and worshipper.
The narcissist’s inner monologue goes: “I reject everything that matters to other people, everything deemed valuable, worthwhile, meaningful, and desirable. I hold the weaklings who succumb to their emotions and drives in contempt: nothing they have or can possess or attain is of value to me. It is all meaningless.” The narcissist devalues the “commoners”, the average Joe, the pedestrian and routine, the “animalistic” (sex), and the socially conformist.
Thus, self-defeating, self-denying, and self-destructive behaviors and choices engender narcissistic supply because they support, demonstrate, and “prove” the superhuman nature of the narcissist, his utter titanic independence of society, of nature, and of others in interpersonal relationships. When narcissistic supply is in short supply, embarking on the path of self-negation is an efficacious shortcut to obtaining and securing. At the very least it draws astounded attention to the narcissist.
(Passive-Aggressive) Personality Disorder is not yet recognized by the DSM
Committee. It makes its appearances in Appendix B of the Diagnostic and
Statistical Manual, titled "Criteria Sets and Axes Provided for Further
Some people are perennial pessimists and have "negative energy" and negativistic attitudes ("good things don't last", "it doesn't pay to be good", "the future is behind me"). Not only do they disparage the efforts of others, but they make it a point to resist demands to perform in workplace and social settings and to frustrate people's expectations and requests, however reasonable and minimal they may be. Such persons regard every requirement and assigned task as impositions, reject authority, resent authority figures (boss, teacher, parent-like spouse), feel shackled and enslaved by commitment, and oppose relationships that bind them in any manner.
Passive-aggressiveness wears a
multitudes of guises: procrastination, malingering, perfectionism,
forgetfulness, neglect, truancy, intentional inefficiency, stubbornness, and
outright sabotage. This repeated and advertent misconduct has far reaching
effects. Consider the Negativist in the workplace: he or she invests time and
efforts in obstructing their own chores and in undermining relationships. But,
these self-destructive and self-defeating behaviors wreak havoc throughout the
workshop or the office.
People diagnosed with the Negativistic (Passive-Aggressive) Personality Disorder resemble narcissists in some important respects. Despite the obstructive role they play, passive-aggressives feel unappreciated, underpaid, cheated, and misunderstood. They chronically complain, whine, carp, and criticize. They blame their failures and defeats on others, posing as martyrs and victims of a corrupt, inefficient, and heartless system (in other words, they have alloplastic defenses and an external locus of control).
Passive-aggressives sulk and give the "silent treatment" in reaction to real or imagined slights. They suffer from ideas of reference (believe that they are the butt of derision, contempt, and condemnation) and are mildly paranoid (the world is out to get them, which explains their personal misfortune). In the words of the DSM: "They may be sullen, irritable, impatient, argumentative, cynical, skeptical and contrary." They are also hostile, explosive, lack impulse control, and, sometimes, reckless.
Inevitably, passive-aggressives are envious of the fortunate, the successful, the famous, their superiors, those in favor, and the happy. They vent this venomous jealousy openly and defiantly whenever given the opportunity. But, deep at heart, passive-aggressives are craven. When reprimanded, they immediately revert to begging forgiveness, kowtowing, maudlin protestations, turning on their charm, and promising to behave and perform better in the future.
When the narcissist truly needs and wants something or someone, it is experienced by him as a challenge to his omnipotent self-sufficiency, unbridled freedom of action, and entitlement, and, consequently, as a profound narcissistic injury.
The narcissist then rejects and abuses the very things and people he so craves and, inevitably, ends up experiencing recurrent losses and mortifications. He convinces himself that people are evil and envious and that the world is a hostile jungle, undeserving of him.
The narcissist's reactions are misperceived as self-destructive and self-defeating when in effect they are meant to preserve his grandiosity, anarchic liberty, sadistic superiority, and nihilistic cynicism as well as the inner equilibrium that these afford him: "I need no one and nothing! Look how I willingly discard and trash everything you, my inferior mediocres, hold dear and essential! I am a free man!"
Such overt humiliating contempt is tinged with a form of mild, taunting sadism: "Easy come, easy go! I accomplish all things effortlessly and this facility renders everyone and everything worthless, dispensable, and interchangeable: intimacy, sex, money, career, family, or celebrity. I just couldn't care less about what you care most! I am burning it all to the ground to communicate to you that you are slaves to society while I am a master of my life! I am my best source of self-supply! You have no hold over me because I do not need or want anything you can possibly possess or wish to share with me! I do it my way!"
Of course, these are mere defensive and compensatory projections and a desperate attempt by the narcissist to pretend that he is in control of his own inexorable decline, collapse, and defeat.
But it is also a rigid, immutable ideology, akin to the mores of the hereditary aristocracies in times bygone. Noblemen in previous centuries held in abiding disdain commoners and their existence: their labor, thrift, sexual exclusivity, and commitment to family and church. Leisurely hedonistic idleness (slacking) was elevated and normative. The ideal among these grandiose and entitled circles was to become a childless bachelor "gentleman of leisure", or "gifted amateur".
Eric Berne noted in the founding text of Transactional Analysis,
human relationships are "games people play". There are two types of
people who adamantly and proudly refuse to partake of such ludic exchanges: the
narcissist and the psychopath.
When they would not play "sex" or "intimacy" or "family" with a woman, she resorts to other playmates. When they decline to play "business" or "friendship" with someone, the rejected parties revert to another partner. These ineluctable self-inflicted losses warp, thwart, and stunt the minds and the lives of narcissists and psychopaths. In his seminal survey of grandiose psychopathy, "The Mask of Sanity", Hervey Cleckley branded it a "rejection of life itself".
The only game the narcissist will participate in is "let us all pretend that this is for real": a delusional shared fantasy with limited longevity and guaranteed expiry. The psychopath's only concession to human intercourse is a zero-sum "let's play my game: you give it all and I take everything you have and then some."
the inimitable Hervey Cleckley had observed in 1942, psychopaths (and
narcissists) reject life itself. Their nihilistic acts of self-destruction are
driven by a proud ideology of defiance, contumaciousness, and reactance. Their
self-defeat signals their profound contempt for others, for authority, society,
and for everything that everyone hold dear.
Narcissists and psychopaths consider themselves superior, unique, and, therefore entitled.
They disdain mediocrity and sheeple reflexes to obey, trust, and follow. They are contrarians: they act against all norms, subvert all expectations, and reject all the attributes of civilized co-existence and collaboration.
They smugly and ostentatiously trample upon the rewards, incentives, and inducements that reality has to offer (love, family, career, safety, reason).
When they do pursue anything that is deemed conformant and sublimated (socially acceptable), they take great care to do it their way: in the most extravagant, antisocial, reckless, callous, ruthless, merciless, and shocking manner.
They consider being hated and feared a badge of honor. They strive to be an enigma to the great unwashed teeming masses: being widely misunderstood is the coveted pinnacle of their accomplishments.
What others consider a wasted, abandoned, sad life - they see as poking society’s collective eye with a triumphant middle finger. They prevail by refusing to play the game and by aggressively upturning the social tables in everyone’s temples. The devastation of their own lives is a statement of how little they value the lives and toils of others.
From My Correspondence
“I find it difficult to accept that I am irredeemably evil, that I ecstatically, almost orgasmically enjoy hurting people and that I actively seek to inflict pain on others. It runs so contrary to my long-cultivated and tenderly nurtured self-image as a benefactor, a sensitive intellectual, and a harmless hermit. In truth, my sadism meshes well and synergetically with two other behavior patterns: my relentless pursuit of narcissistic supply and my self-destructive, self-defeating, and, therefore, masochistic streak.
The process of torturing, humiliating, and offending people provides proof of my omnipotence, nourishes my grandiose fantasies, and buttresses my False Self. The victims' distress and dismay constitute narcissistic supply of the purest grade. It also alienates them and turns them into hostile witnesses or even enemies and stalkers.
Thus, through the agency of my hapless and helpless victims, I bring upon my head recurrent torrents of wrath and punishment. This animosity guarantees my unravelling and my failure, outcomes which I avidly seek in order to placate my inner, chastising and castigating voices (what Freud called "the sadistic Superego").
Similarly, I am a fiercely independent person (known in psychological jargon as a "counterdependent"). But mine is a pathological variant of personal autonomy. I want to be free to frustrate myself by inflicting mental havoc on my human environment, including and especially my nearest and dearest, thus securing and incurring their inevitable ire.
Getting attached to or becoming dependent on someone in any way - emotionally, financially, hierarchically, politically, religiously, or intellectually - means surrendering my ability to indulge my all-consuming urges: to torment, to feel like God, and to be ruined by the consequences of my own evil actions.”
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