This is part 4A of my series on the similarities and differences between borderline and narcissistic disorders. You can find part 1 here , part 2 here and part 3 here.
We are social creatures, born needing our parents, our families, and our communities. And our most cherished dream is finding that one special someone with whom to share our life. Others enrich our life and make it worth living.
But this basic human need becomes distorted--even disturbed-- for people with narcissistic and borderline personality disorder. Just what those needs are depends upon whether your loved one has NPD or BPD (or both).
Narcissists require others for for than attention: they rely on them for the overarching "narcissistic supply": anything that builds them up and confirms their superiority, gradiosity, and entitlement. They are terrified of losing it. People with BPD, however, fear abandonment. These twin fears incite behaviors that wound their loved ones and ironically drive them out of relationships with those who need them so desperately.
In this blog post, I will talk about narcissistic personality disorder and narcissistic supply. In my next post, I will cover BPD fear of abandonment. Narcissistic supply and fear of abandonment are at the very core of these disorders; once you appreciate how they work you will truly comprehend the essence of these disorders and your challenges in loving someone with them.
While we all want to hear good things about ourselves from family and friends, we value them even when it's not forthcoming. The best among us and even appreciate those who tactfully gave us negative feedback. Narcissists, however, only value those who feed their craving for something called "narcissistic supply." Children--especially young ones--are good sources of supply, along with other family members and people reporting to them at work.
Sam Vaknin, author of Malignant Self Love: Narcissism Revisited, has NPD himself: for that and other aspects of his personality he gets much criticism on the Internet. I don't agree with everything he says, and he is not a therapist. But I find his work to be revealing and accurate because as a narcissist who studies other narcissists, he has a flair getting his point across. He writes:
The narcissist actively solicits narcissistic supply--adulation, compliments, admiration, subservience, attention, and being feared--from others in order to sustain his fragile and dysfunctional ego. Thus, he constantly courts possible rejection, criticism, disagreement, and even mockery.
The narcissist is, therefore, dependent on other people. He is aware of the risks associated with such all-pervasive and essential dependence. He resents his weakness and dreads possible disruptions in the flow of his drug--narcissistic supply. He is caught between the rock of his habit and the hard place of his frustration. No wonder he is prone to raging, lashing and acting out, and to pathological, all-consuming envy (all expressions of pent-up aggression).
By playing on the narcissist's grandiosity and paranoia, it is possible to deceive and manipulate him effortlessly. Just offer him supply and he is yours. Harp on his insecurities and his persecutory delusions and he is likely to trust only you and cling to you for dear life.
Being deprived of narcissistic supply is like being hollowed out, mentally disemboweled or watching oneself die. It is a cosmic evaporation, disintegrating into molecules of terrified anguish, helplessly and inexorably. It is disintegrating like the zombies or the vampires in horror movies. It is terrifying and the narcissist will do anything to avoid it.
In her book, The Object of My Affection Is In My Reflection, Rokelle Lerner explains that the desperation for narcissistic supply is linked to the narcissist's lack of a true identity apart from the "false self" --a type of costume they create to cover up wounds they may have experienced as a child. She writes (p. 56, 57, 58):
People are objects who exist for their satisfaction...[They] focus on potential sources of supply (people) and engulf them with charm, concentrated attention, and contrived deep emotions....If a narcissist must be liked to secure a supply, he does all he can to be liked. If he needs to be feared to be admired, he makes sure he is feared....
Entrapping and maintaining a source of supply is a full time job for the narcissist. The level of manipulation, seduction, and political shrewedness it takes to cultivate and maintain a supply is honed to absolute perfection. This makes sense if you consider that his supply is as important as oxygen...a matter of emotional life or death. The problem is that there is never, ever enough.
To a narcissist, other people are like parts in a machine that only get noticed when something goes wrong and they stop "working." Once someone suggests they're not perfect or experiences some other narcissist injury (something that reminds him he's just another faulty human being) he will turn from Dr. Jeckyl to Mr. Hyde, raging, criticizing, blaming, giving others the silent treatment, and projecting his own deficiences onto others.
Even when the "supply" does no obvious wrong (often because of her horror at being called "selfish"), the narcissist may eventually devalue or discards the "part" (partner) and "orders" a new one--for example, has an affair once the shiny sheen on a new relationship fades into the dull squabbles that typify even the best relationships.
Shirley and Jack have partners with NPD. Lenny has an NPD parent. Here are their real-life stories.
Shirley: If I didn't give my husband Dan the boost to his ego at the time he needed it, he would completely shut me off, give me the silent treatment, and go out with the young secretaries who would praise him and make him feel like the big man on campus. Then he would get disillusioned by them and come back to me.
Jack: My wife Penny would get angry at me if I didn't acknowledge a new outfit, a change in house decor, an email she had left for me, a card she had sent me, her hair, and so many other things. I couldn't keep up with the constant praise she needed about everything.
After our son went to college, she would call and text him to say he wasn't acting loving and respectful if he didn't call her at least once a week to see what was going on in her life. At home, I watched him cringe as we would apologize profusely after her tantrums to try to de-escalate her emotions.
Lenny: My father's whole life was dedicated to obtaining narcissistic supply. He was like a person who gets a cute kitten or puppy from a shelter and then discards it when it's bigger and isn't as cute. When we were very young, he loved to cuddle us and give us things. I have clear memories of his loving attention.
But when my sister and I were four and five, we started to have our own lives. So he divorced my mother and had more little kids with his second wife (10 years younger than him) and basically forgot about us. As an adult, he only contacts me when he wants something. On his birthday and father's day he expects tribute like some king in the middle ages. Of course when something terrible happens to me he has no interest. When my apartment was broken into he scoffed at my loss and said, "It was only property," and demanded to know when I was going to take him out to dinner.
I still feel awful and embarassed about the time his sister's son died unexpectedly. Rather than visit her and go to the funeral in another state, he stayed at home and played the injured uncle deserving of pity because his nephew died. All the kids had to pay their respects to him. When I came over, he was bitterly complaining about the lack of sympathy cards he had received. It just makes me shudder.
Keep in mind that narcissists seek out others who will affirm their heighten beliefs about themselves. We all do, to some extent. But there are some critical differences:
- Narcissists never get their fill; they're always hungry for more.
- They don't understand the principle of reciprocity. For example, it was OK for the narcissist on the beach, to make phone calls. But it was verboten for his partner.
- As we can see in the same example, narcissists will try to manipulate others to keep the supply going; sometimes subtly through sexual seduction, fear, obligation, guilt, and the silent treatment; other times more forcefully through lies, threats, or simply discarding the used-up supply. Narcissists can be very good at finding just the trigger that will get supply going again.
In later posts (once I am done illustrating the similarities and differences of BPD and NPD) I will talk about what to do about this. For now, keep in mind that shame is at the root of the narcissist's dilemma. We can affirm ourselves when the going gets tough. Narcissists can't. It's not a fun way to live.