Narcissistic Personality Disorder - A Letter about Trust

Frequently Asked Question # 20

The breach of trust in early childhood is at the root of pathological narcissism and the Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).

Trust must be discriminate, it should be re-tested and violations of trust must be exaggerated for good psychodynamic reasons.

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"Support (emotional, consultative, materialistic) is the most important for me. It underpins relationships of any kind: with family members, friends, partners, colleagues, etc. In my view, everyone needs to be supported and to support another. When any two support each other with constancy, they develop a relationship of common trust and respect, then they rely on each other and share their emotions. In my world this is LOVE."

(Lidija Rangelovska, Editor of "Malignant Self-love: Narcissism Revisited")

For millions of years nature embedded in us the notion that the past can teach us a lot about the future. This is very useful for survival. And it is also mostly true with inanimate objects. As far as people go, the story is less straightforward: though it is reasonable to project someone's future behaviour from his past conduct, this may prove erroneous some of the time.


But it is mistaken to project someone's behaviour onto other people's. Each one of us is unique and our behaviors are idiosyncratic: specific to us. Actually, psychotherapy amounts to an attempt to disentangle past from present and to inculcate in the patient that the past is no more and has no reign over him, unless the patient lets it.


Our natural tendency is to trust, because we trust our parents in order to survive. Reflexive empathy (mimicry of expressions) starts within 6 hours of birth.


It feels good to really trust. It is also an essential component of love and an important test thereof. Love without trust is dependence masquerading as love.


We must trust: it is an almost biological urge. Social psychologist Shelley Taylor says that trust accounts for our success as a species. Paul Zak, a neuroeconomist, demonstrated that people secrete oxytocin when they trust and it enhances the perception of others as more trustworthy. Squirt oxytocin nasally – and presto you trust.


Most of the time, we do trust (“presumptive trust”). We trust the universe to behave according to the laws of physics; soldiers to not go mad and shoot at us; our nearest and dearest to not betray us; our institutions to function. We filter out, repress, ignore, or challenge info to the contrary (confirmation bias).


We all have implicit theories: stereotypical beliefs which correlate observable cues with psychological traits. We also think that our judgment is better than average (Dunning-Kruger effect). We trust others to tell us who to trust. And we maintain an illusion of personal invulnerability and unrealistic (or malignant) optimism even in the face of hard data.


Trust indicators are easily faked or manipulated: smiling, eye contact, touch, banter, declare honesty. People forewarned feel counterfactually even better at detecting fraud.


Nadia Brashier, a cognitive scientist, and Elizabeth Marsh, a cognitive psychologist, discovered that information is judged to be true because we rely on base rates (we are naturally trustful), on emotional feelings and attachment, and on consistency (echo chambers or silos where the narratives are repeated ad nauseam). We suffer from proportionality bias, a manifestation of which is: the bigger more forceful the claim, the truer it is. We all harbor intentionality bias and apophenia (we search for patterns and conflate them with meaning). We trust people who are similar to us and members of our social in-group (the Lisa DeBruine morphing studies). Physical contact enhances trust (Dacher Keltner).When trust is broken, we feel as though a part of us had died, as though we had been hollowed out.


To not trust is abnormal and is the outcome of bitter or even traumatic life experiences. Mistrust and distrust are induced not by our own thoughts, nor by some device or machination of ours, but by life's sad circumstances. To continue to not trust is to reward the people who wronged us and made us distrustful in the first place. Those people have long abandoned us and yet they still have a great, malignant, influence on our lives. This is the irony of the lack of trust: it perpetuates the abuse long after the abuser is gone.


Some people prefer to not experience this sinking feeling of trust violated. They choose to not trust and, thereby, to never be disappointed. This is both a fallacy and a folly. Trusting releases enormous amounts of mental energy, which is better invested elsewhere. But trust – like knives – can be dangerous to your health if used improperly.


You have to discern whom to trust, you have to learn how to trust and you have to know how to confirm the existence of mutual, functional trust.

 (continued below)

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People often disappoint and are not worthy of trust. Some people act arbitrarily, treacherously and viciously, or, worse, offhandedly. You have to select the beneficiaries of your trust carefully: he who has the most common interests with you; who is invested in you for the long haul; who is incapable of breaching trust ("a good person"); who doesn't have much to gain from betraying you - is not likely to mislead you. These people you can trust.


You should not trust indiscriminately. No one is completely trustworthy in all fields of life. Most often our disappointments stem from our inability to separate one area from another. A person could be sexually faithful – but utterly irresponsible when it comes to money (for instance, a pathological gambler). Or he could be a good, reliable father – but a womanizer.


You can trust someone to carry out some assignments but not other, because these activities are more complicated, more boring, or do not conform to his values.


Still: we should not trust with reservations. Qualified trust is common in business and among criminals and its source is rational. Game Theory in mathematics deals with questions of calculated trust. We should trust wholeheartedly but know who to entrust with what. Then we will be rarely disappointed.


As opposed to popular opinion, trust must be put to the test, lest it goes stale and staid. We are all somewhat paranoid. The world is complex, inexplicable, arbitrary, and overwhelming. Some forces are benign, some capricious, others downright malicious. There must be an explanation, we feel, for all these amazing coincidences, for our existence, for events around us.


This tendency to introduce external powers and ulterior motives into our reality by way of explanation permeates human relations as well. We gradually grow suspicious, inadvertently hunt for clues of infidelity or worse, masochistically relieved, even happy when we find some.


The more often we successfully test the trust we had established, the stronger our pattern-prone brain embraces it. Constantly in a precarious balance, our mind needs and devours reinforcements.


Yet, such testing should not be explicit but circumstantial.


Your husband could easily have had a lover, or your partner could easily have embezzled your money – and, behold, they haven't. They have passed the test. They have resisted temptation.


Trust is based on the ability to predict the future. We react not only to the act of betrayal, but also to the feeling that the very foundations of our world are crumbling, that it is no longer safe because it is no longer predictable. When betrayed, we are in the throes of death of one theory or even paradigm and the birth of another, as yet untested.


Here is another important lesson: whatever the act of betrayal (with the exception of outright maiming or murder), its outcomes are frequently limited, reversible, and, ultimately, negligible. Naturally, we tend to exaggerate the importance of the event. This serves a triple purpose. First, it aggrandizes us: if we are "worthy" of such an unprecedented, unheard of, and major betrayal, we must be worthwhile and truly special. The magnitude of the betrayal reflects on us and re-establishes the fragile balance of powers between us and the universe.


The second purpose of exaggerating the act of perfidy is simply to gain sympathy and empathy, mainly from ourselves, but also from others. Catastrophes are a dozen a dime and in today's world it is difficult to provoke anyone to regard your personal disaster as anything exceptional. Finally, the greater and more unprecedented the act of treason, the less responsible we feel for it and the more we believe that there was nothing we could have done to prevent it.


Amplifying the event has, therefore, some very self-salving purposes. But, finally, this self-deception poisons the victim’s mental circulation. Putting the event in perspective goes a long way towards the commencement of a healing process. No betrayal stamps the world irreversibly or altogether eliminates other possibilities, opportunities, chances, and people. Time goes by, people meet and part, lovers quarrel and make love, dear ones live and die. It is the very essence of time that it reduces us all to the finest dust. Our only weapon – however crude and naive – against this inexorable process is to trust each other.


The wise know when to stop suspecting and start trusting. There is a thin line separating the paranoid from the moron.

To suspect all the time is counterproductive. It inhibits and retards. It consumes scarce resources. It prevents collaboration and progress. It constricts one's life and limits it. And it impairs one's reality test. Constant vigilance is a long name for the anxiety and fears induced by stupidity and ignorance.

Paranoia is a form of grandiosity: "I am important enough to be the target of conspiracies and the epicenter of critical events." It is an element of narcissism.

At some point, you have to say: "Enough is enough. I am willing to lay a bet on this person, invest in this business, go on this trip". In hindsight it may prove to have been a wrong decision. But any decision is better than lifelong paralysis.


In love - and to some extent in sex - we "undress": remove protective layers and expose vulnerabilities and weaknesses to our partner.

This information about the chinks in our armor can and will be used against us even by the most loving of mates. We must take this fact into account when we decide what to share.

In a healthy relationship, secrets are an essential ingredient. Unmitigated, unalloyed truth telling is never a good idea. Couplehood and intimacy wither on the vine of total openness.

Of course, not all secrets are created equal. Some information if held back festers and poisons any liaison. Fundamental issues have to be aired, dissected and resolved. Emotions and conflicts require communication and closure. Expectations and hopes are best expressed. Behavior modification is predicated on good communication.

But not every mood should be reported. Not every lapse and transgression need be confessed. Not every fear articulated. Let Time, the Great Healer, do its job.

Separate Vacations and Trust

Separate vacations may, indeed, signify the beginning of the end of your relationship - or serve as a boost to its quality and durability. It all depends on several factors:


1.     Topical vs. recreational vacations


If your wife is addicted to chess and you can't stand the game, she has the right to travel to attend a tournament in another city. If you are an expert skier and your spouse prefers more sedentary pursuits, why drag her along to your ski resort? Separate vacations that are centered around the hobbies and interests of the "absconding" parties are legitimate and should not threaten the stability of the marriage or the relationship. On the contrary: your intimate partner is likely to return rejuvenated and to miss you to boot.


Not so with recreational vacations. These should be shared. The pressures of modern life - careers, kids, financial stressors - make intimacy and pleasurable memories scarce commodities that should be hoarded. Quality time together in a romantic ambience is indispensable.


Ideally, there should be a balanced mix of both types of vacations: separate and joint. Spending every waking minute together is a recipe for marital disaster. But drifting apart into a private universe with experiences and memories that are not shared with your partner is likely to lead to a breakup.


2.     Travelling mates


Going on a separate vacation with friends of the opposite sex is a no-no. Issues of trust and romantic jealousy are bound to rear their ugly head.


3.     Length of vacation


Separate vacations should not exceed a few days, preferably on a weekend. Distance makes the heart grow fonder, but a fortnight of separation may break it - and the relationship - altogether.


4.     Fairness and reciprocity


Separate vacations should not "break the bank" and consume the entire family budget leaving nothing in the till for the non-vacationing spouse and for a future shared vacation.


While away, the non-vacationing partner has to assume the vacationing partner's chores. It is only fair to reciprocate by assuming some of his chores in return and upon return.


5.     Trust and cheating


It is far easier to cheat on a vacation. The combination of anonymity in a strange place, the thrill and excitement of the unfamiliar, and the proximity of potential mates may prove irresistible. Summer flings are a well-documented phenomenon, for instance.


The short and the long of it is that there is no way to prevent your wife from cheating on you if she is so inclined. But, this applies even when she is not on a vacation! Cheating can occur any time, at any place!


Some palliatives include:


- Your wife can update you frequently as to where she is; what she is doing; and with whom;


- Your wife can agree not to consume alcohol or drugs while away (to avoid disinhibition and tricky situations);


- Your wife can refrain from including herself in potentially compromising situations.


Ultimately, whether she cheats on your or not depends on the strength on your relationships and the trust that underlies it. Still, studies have demonstrated conclusively that, given the right circumstances with the right person, people - men and women alike - would cheat, even if they are in a perfectly happy and healthy relationship.


This is just one of those sad facts of life.


Which leads me to my last point:


6.     Quality of the relationship


The accepted wisdom is that separate vacations are ill-advised when the relationship is tottering on the verge of dissolution. My view is different: separate vacations allow the partners in such a dysfunctional liaison to re-experience being single and to re-consider their propensity to break up with their current partner.


How can you tell a TRUE friend from a FAKE one?


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A TRUE friend supports you only when he believes that you are doing the right thing in your self-interest and welfare;

A FAKE friend supports you always, no matter what you do.

A TRUE friend respects you only when you have earned respect and act respectably;

A FAKE friend "respects" you regardless of your behavior - or misbehaviour.

A TRUE friend trusts you only as long as you prove yourself trustworthy, only while you do not put his trust to the test too often, and only on certain issues;

A FAKE friend "trusts" you with everything and always.

To summarise:

A TRUE friend puts to you a mirror in which you see REALITY and the TRUTH.

A FAKE friend puts to you a mirror in which you see your own reflection, yourself and nothing else besides.

A TRUE friend loves YOU in your friendship. He loves YOU even without your friendship.

A FAKE friend loves HIMSELF in your friendship - or loves the friendship itself, but never YOU.

With a TRUE friend you need never ask: "what is he getting out of this relationship?" for loving you is its own reward.

With a FAKE friend you must always ask "why is he still in this relationship?" for loving you is never enough of a reward.


Also Read

The Narcissist as Liar and Con-man

How to Recognize a Narcissist Before It is Too Late?

Approach-Avoidance Repetition Complex and Fear of Intimacy

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