Stop Walking on Eggshells

When someone in your life has borderline or narcissistic personality disorder

Why They Can't Feel Joy: Narcissistic Shallow Emotions

Narcissists cover up feelings with rage, blame, disdain

This is part 8 of my second series about the similarities and differences between those with borderline and narcissistic personality disorders. For the second series, here is part 1. Here is part 2. Here is part 3. Here is part 4, part 5 , 6, and 7. T o see a list of the 10 parts of the first series, click here and view the top of the post.

In my last post, part 7, I explained that Just like people with diabetes have a problem regulating their blood sugar and must test it several times a day, people with BPD find it difficult to be emotionally consistent. This is why you're continually walking on eggshells, never knowing what to expect when you walk in the door.

This post, on the other hand, contrasts those with BPD and those with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) While BPs feel too much, narcissists' emotions are too shallow.

Alexander Lowen, M.D., author of Narcissism: Denial of the True Self, believes that the basic disturbance in narcissistic personality is the denial of feeling. He says (p. 48) that, "The need to project and maintain an image [the False Self that the narcissist wishes to portray] forces the narcissist to prevent any feeling from reaching consciousness that would contradict with the image." Since the False Self is perfect, of course, that means that a lot of feelings have to be suppressed.

Thus, narcissists feel emotions like vulnerability, sadness, empathy and compassion in a shallow way, if at all, and cover them up with rage, blame, manipulation and disdain for others.This coping mechanism has a heavy price: they don't feel secure enough to relax and really feel happiness and joy, although they may have fleeting moments of those emotions. As therapist Nina Brown says, "They may speak the words, but the feelings behind the words is missing," (p. 27 of Loving the Self Absorbed).

Narcissist and author Sam Vaknin (Malignant Self-Love-Narcissism Revisited), writes, "Deep inside, the narcissist knows that something is amiss. He does not empathise with other people's feelings. Actually, he holds them in contempt and ridicule. He cannot understand how people are so sentimental, so 'irrational' (he identifies being rational with being cool headed and cold blooded). He becomes suspicious, embarrassed, feels compelled to avoid emotion-tinged situations, or, worse, experiences surges of almost uncontrollable aggression in the presence of genuinely expressed sentiments. They remind him how imperfect and poorly equipped he is."

This pattern of coping may stem from very early childhood, so NPs may be unaware that these deeper feelings may exist. So changing this defensive, protective pattern is very difficult That's why most narcissists don't seek or even comprehend therapy. (Jeffrey Young, founder of Schema Therapy, says that clinicians in his practice try to keep narcissists in therapy by continually reminding them of the negative feelings that brought them there, or the negative outcomes that may occur if they drop out, such as divorce from a spouse who is remaining in the marriage on the condition that the NP seek treatment.)

The Vulnerable Narcissist

There is an important exception to this. Narcissists can be divided into two main subtypes, just like those with borderline personality disorder. While researchers and clinicians have come up with a wide variety and number of subtypes, for simplicity I'll share the two main types: vulnerable narcissists and invulnerable, or grandiose narcissists. Vulnerable NPs share some characteristics with borderline personality disorder; invulnerable NPs share some characteristics with antisocial personality disorder. So far in this series, we've been speaking of grandiose NPs; when it comes to emotions, there is a difference.

Vulnerable narcissists can better access feelings like insecurity and weakness, whereas grandiose NPs better shield themselves with confidence and high self-worth. Vulnerable NPs appear to be overcompensating for low self-esteem and a deep-seated sense of shame that may have emerged during early childhood as a coping mechanism to deal with parental neglect or abuse. (Typically, grandiose NPs were not neglected; instead, they were treated like mommy and daddy's little prince or princess. As adults, they still expect to be treated as special, superior and powerful.)

Vulnerable NPs see themselves as victims of those who don't understand how superior they are, and  unlike grandiose NPs, they actually care about how their partners see them. They also have some different behaviors: they: 

  • Tend to swing back and forth between acting superior and feeling hurt
  • May get self-destructive when partners point out their vulnerabilities
  • Accuse the other partner of having affairs and may be obsessive about preventing that from happening
  • Have a pattern of looking for a perfect mate and demanding that she tells him he's important and loved

But the main difference between vulnerable NPs and invulnerable NPs is in the way they feel (or don't feel). Specifically,

  • With their fragile self-esteem, vulnerable narcissists experience helplessness, anxiety, and depression when people don't treat them as they desire.
  • They feel shamed and humiliated by negative feedback or when others challenge their superior self-image. They also experience anxiousness, bitterness, dissatisfaction, and disempowerment.
  • They suffer from many BPD-like emotions, like feelings of emptiness and inadequacy. Others find them sensitive and emotional; preoccupied with fears of rejection and abandonment. They are touchy, quick to be offended, and easily provoked.

Cut off from their true feelings, narcissists don't find intimacy and true sharing within their comfort zones. (This is a big topic; I'll talk about it more in depth in another blog post.)

Family members say:

  • My NP told me that emotions are for weak people, and weak people are inferior to him. I think talking about any feelings makes his mind give that ERROR 404 message.
  • She reminded me of Data, the android from Star Trek: The Next Generation who lacked the understanding of emotions. Except Data was striving to understand them while the she didn't even feign an interest in something that most humans hold in such high regard.
  •  During our first round of marriage counseling, it came out that my husband only had one emotion--anger. At the time we tried to joke about it because it was just too big an issue to deal with directly. After getting some more perspective, I would say in addition to anger he has self-pity, shame, fear, and worry. He'll say that he's happy about something, but it seems to be extremely fleeting and shallow. I've never seen him at peace or joyful.
  • He never gets enthusiastic or excited about anything. When I go to a new place or on holiday I feel excited and happy. But I have never seen him exhibit these emotions like I do. 
  •  Whenever the situation required an emotional type of response (someone died, for example) his vocabulary seemed tragically limited. He could only muster two phrases: "This sucks," or, "This is awesome."
  •  My husband hardly showed emotion except a few months ago when he had a rage fit at me and I threatened to leave. I walked away and he left a voicemail on my phone crying and apologizing. I have never seen him cry before, not even when his dad was sick or his friend died.
  • Oh hell no, he couldn't talk about emotions. OK, I take that back--he could talk about my emotions and how they were all wrong.

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

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