Stop Walking on Eggshells

When someone in your life has borderline or narcissistic personality disorder

Feelings of Emptiness: Not Just a Borderline Trait Anymore

Narcissists also feel empty inside, which causes them much suffering

This is part 3 of my series on the similarities and differences between borderline and narcissistic disorders. You can find part 1 here and part 2 here.

Up until now, I've talked about ways in which people with borderline personality disorder and narcissistic personality disorder are different. Today, I will focus on something common to both disorders: feelings of emptiness (athough there is a little twist between the two, which I'll talk about at the end.)

First, let's see how people with BPD experience emptiness. Then we'll compare it to two men with NPD. A man with borderline personality disorder says:

 
Is there really nothing to me? Am I really just a blank page? Nothing fills me up, and it's hard to sleep when you're empty inside. So I drank myself into oblivion every night. Alcohol stopped working and then I was just an alcoholic with feelings of emptiness.

I had no idea I felt empty before therapy. I was too busy trying to escape the feelings to know what the feelings were. It was so painful that I thought I was going to lose my mind. It felt like I was going to fall apart and disintegrate into nothing. I would dissociate while driving and run red lights. I could have died on many occasions because I accidentally ran a red light in a dissociative state of mind. I never was suicidal, but I resented being alive and wanted to be dead.

Men do not let on to how they are feeling; they are good at hiding feelings deep inside.  This is one of the biggest differences between men and women with BPD. Women just let it hang out in the open and men carefully hide it away, so much so that I think a lot of therapist miss it in men. 

Joey, a woman with BPD, says:

I remember sitting at a picnic table by the water when I was a senior in High School and staring out to sea, feeling . . . nothing. Contrary to belief, feeling nothing is not bliss, it is actually painful. You are intellectually aware of not feeling anything, but something still hurts. It has a weight to it that pulls you down, so I suppose it's not true emptiness, that's the only word we've come up with it to describe it.

It is an awful feeling. Nothing matters, nothing counts. There is no reason for anything. It is nihilistic dread, with added powerlessness. It sits on you, an ape on your back - perhaps a dead ape is more apt a description, because it just sits there pushing you down, and never moves. In my early 30's, right after I had been rejected in a romantic relationship and there was a hurricane coming to my town, I felt that feeling again. It held me to the floor; it was so strong and heavy. I searched my mind for something that could matter and found nothing. It was difficult to even move.

These descriptions are not too different from a similar plea from two self-aware men with NPD talking about their "void." Nina Brown is the author of 2003 book, Loving the Self-Absorbed: How to Create a More Satisfying Relationships with a Narcissistic Partner. On page 30, she explains that the best way to understand narcissistic emptiness is to imagine yourself disoriented and having sensory deprivation.

"There is nothing to illuminate or provide a foundation...there is nothing to give a sense of security, no landmarks...no sounds--nothing but you. Think of what it might be like to be somewhere--you don't know where-- and not being able to use your senses to get a fix on anything. It would be terrifying. That is to me what emptiness is at the core is like for the destructive narcissist."

While Brown says that emptiness should not be confused with loneliness alienation, or depression, it doesn't seem that way for the two narcissists I have been interviewing--but possibly because they are more self aware.

One NP, who has been working in recovery (something that is almost unheard of), says:

When I was in deep, I would have what I would call normal loneliness. Like once in a while I would feel lonely, no big deal. I could probably fix that if I wanted to. Now, I still feel empty. No faith, no love coming in to me, nothing to believe in, work towards, or even be excited about or look forward to. I am surrounded by things I can't have, as well as people I can't have, and can no longer take them (or in the case of people, fool them). Being self aware is brutal. Being unique is lonely, seeing as you are the only of your kind.

But now I can't just go pick someone up, because I have to be honest with them. Really, my most interesting parts are all pretty malevolent, and not something you want to bring up when trying to make a connection with someone. So, yes, I am now self aware, leashed, and lonely.

Sam Vaknin, author of Malignant Self Love: Narcissism Revisited, describes his empty feelings this way:

I have no roots. I stay away from groups and communities. I wonder, an itinerant lone wolf. I have nowhere to go back to. I either burn the bridges or keep walking. I never look back. I detach and vanish. In my mind, I am not human. I am a machine at the service of a madman that snatched my body and invaded my being when I was very young.

Imagine the terror I live with, the horror of having an alien within your own self. A shell, a nothingness, I keep producing articles at an ever accelerating pace. I write maniacally, unable to cease, unable to eat, or sleep, or bathe, or enjoy. I am possessed by me. Where does one find refuge if one's very abode, one's very soul is compromised and dominated by one's mortal enemy--oneself?

Nina Brown gives these clues to emptiness at the core of NPD. They could also apply to someone with BPD except for the last one (people with BPD have much more of an emotional life) (p.30):

  • Your partner's support system is limited and unsatisfying
  • Is constantly dissatisfied with her relationships with others, including you
  • Makes negative comments about satisfaction with the quality of her life
  • Has no or a very limited, spiritual life (unless it is very hard-line religion)
  • Can't discuss the meaning and purpose of her life
  • Doesn't have reasonable and attainable goals
  • Can't reach out and connect to others in a meaningful way
  • Is unaware of many parts of her life
  • Has no connections and rarely acts to benefit others outside the family unless it is to impress others
  • Cannot, or rarely, expresses either authentic joy or sadness

Is there a difference between BPD and NPD feelings of emptiness? Yes.

Borderline Emptiness

For people with BPD, feelings of emptiness go hand-in-hand with another BPD trait, lack of identity. Not knowing who you are naturally exacerbates feelings of emptiness. Those with the disorder become chameleons, mimicking some of the attributes of people they're with to fit in. We will look at this trait in some depth later on.

Also, those with BPD usually seek emotionally intimate connections--even if it means negative emotions--to help fill this chronic feeling of emptiness. When things are calm--even in a secure relationship--they may feel empty and insecure inside, so they create a conflict in order to feel more emotional intensity and connection (although this often serves to push people away, which is the opposite of their intent).

But this emptiness keeps popping up inside, driving them to seek intimacy even from people who aren't capable of it. Some professionals believe that "cutting" behavior is associated with those with BPD trying to feel "something" in order to not feel empty, disconnected, alone and abandoned.

Narcissistic Emptiness

People with NPD, on the other hand, don't seem to seek intimacy, but instead seek to be constantly filled up with compliments, admiration and respect for being a superior person--narcissistic supply--although it too often evokes a negative, disrespectful response from others, which is the opposite of their intent.  The narcissistic "false self"--a front the NP puts on to hide her feelings of inferiority, even from herself--makes real intimacy (something tangible to fill the hole) nearly impossible.

Psychiatrist Otto Kernberg, widely known for his psychoanalytic theories on borderline personality organization and narcissistic pathology, says that although NPs will report feelings of emptiness, their experience of this hollowness is expressed in boredom and a restlessness. It doesn't seem to include a need for the companionship of others. He writes, "[Narcissists] often do not have available the sense of longing for or of awareness of the possibility of a significant relation with others and of missing such a relation" [from Severe Personality Disorders. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984. p 219].

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Randi Kreger is the co-author of Stop Walking on Eggshells.

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