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Never Satisfied: Narcissists Crave Their Narcissistic Supply

Narcissists often stop at little to satisfy an unhealthy need for attention.

Key points

  • Narcissists will lie, cheat, or steal if that’s what it takes to keep others engaged.
  • Many narcissists have the ability to inhibit their worst narcissistic tendencies from view as relationships are forged.
  • Narcissists may be willing to raise up another so long as the payback is a hit of narcissistic supply.

Everyone loves a good time, and narcissists are more than adept at turning any event into a party or celebration if the focus of the attention includes the narcissists themselves. They crave the limelight and the perks of success more than they need healthy relationships, intimacy, or love. The tragic aspect of narcissism is that they depend totally on other people to nurture their sense of self, yet they are devoid of any ability to give back to others in any way that has meaning. Narcissists exhibit a twisted sense of connection and are unable to develop truly mutual or authentic relationships. They are driven by their need for narcissistic supply.

What Is Narcissistic Supply?

Narcissists have been compared to addicts in that both groups are driven to great lengths to get their fix. In the case of addicts, whether it’s an addiction to drugs or alcohol, their goal is to ensure a steady supply of their substance. For narcissists, their “substance” is the attention and admiration from other people. Narcissists can go to great lengths to gain the attention of others and will lie, cheat, or steal if that’s what it takes to keep others’ eyes trained on them and keep their grandiose fantasies of greatness intact. Any attention, even negative attention, is better than no attention for narcissists. Being talked about and being known feed the narcissist’s craving for supply.

It’s been suggested that there are two types of narcissistic supply, primary and secondary (Vaknin, 2018). Primary supply is described as the attention that arrives randomly in life, such as positive exchanges with casual friends, people in shops or cafes who might receive handsome tips that are given as evidence of the narcissist’s largess or success, or kind words from coworkers or “likes” on social media. If you’re in a relationship with a narcissist, such as a parent or romantic partner, you would be a provider of secondary narcissistic supply. You support the narcissist in their efforts to be viewed as a success in ways that matter most to the narcissist. You may be feeding their need to be seen as a “happily married individual,” if you fill the role of partner and give them the relationship that fulfills their need to be seen in this way. Narcissists typically settle down in monogamous relationships only if their partner has the ability to keep the narcissistic supply flowing freely. Partners are often viewed as “trophies” and proof of the narcissist’s ability to “bag” an attractive or successful partner. Children are also seen as objects and are raised to subjugate their autonomy in order to keep their narcissistic parents supplied.

Narcissists Can Hide in Plain Sight

What’s confusing for many people is that narcissists have the ability to inhibit their worst narcissistic tendencies from view as relationships are forged. It’s only as relationships become more entrenched that the worst narcissistic traits are revealed. Narcissists, like addicts, develop keen skills in accessing their fix; unfortunately, narcissists use their keen relational skills to manipulate others rather than to build healthy connections. Narcissists also resemble functional addicts—they can excel in their careers, be fun to be around, and make people around them feel like the narcissist truly cares about them. They may go out of the way to be “the perfect partner,” “the perfect parent,” or “the perfect boss.” These roles are designed to generate the narcissistic supply they demand. It can feel great to have “the fun parent” until the “fun parent” isn’t much fun anymore because the child is growing into their own person or the child loses interest in a sport or activity that generated the narcissist’s supply. It’s the same in romantic relationships—so long as their partner is generating their narcissistic supply in ample doses, the narcissist takes pleasure in being in the relationship. But when a partner is no longer as malleable, as attractive, or seen as a positive addition to their fantasy self-image, the narcissist loses interest in meeting the needs of another.

It's Possible for Narcissists to Change Over the Lifespan

As narcissists age, their need for narcissistic supply may be harder to fill, as they may have driven away the people who they relied on when they were younger. For those with subclinical narcissism, their need for adulation and attention may diminish somewhat, but they may still seek out settings where they can show off their swagger and boast of past successes and accomplishments. They may even live longer than less narcissistic individuals due to the motivation to stay socially engaged. But not everyone can wait to see if the craving for narcissistic supply goes down over time.

Exiting or Accepting the Relationship?

If you feel that your partner invests in your happiness only to buy your complicity and to fill up on narcissistic supply, invite them into an honest discussion of your observations and concerns. Narcissists who are fearful of losing their supply may respond with an angry denial of any intentional wrongdoing, attempt to gaslight you into believing that your perspective is wrong, or even respond with promises to “be better” and “try harder.” Narcissists are often terrified of losing the supply you provide, but are unable to be the kind of partner who is willing to supply the authenticity or intimacy that a partner needs. Just as the desperation of an addict increases as their fix is harder to get, narcissists who are fearful of losing access to their narcissistic supply can become desperate and dangerous. Take care if you are exiting a relationship with a narcissist and be prepared to maintain firm boundaries and allegiance to yourself and your own needs if they try to drag you back into their self-serving, others-draining orbit. Narcissists often fifill their needs for admiration and attention by putting themselves first; however, it’s important that someone trying to free themselves from the grasp of a narcissist put their own needs first in order to ensure their own supply of sustaining, not draining, relationships.

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Vaknin, S. (2018). Narcissistic disorders of the self as addictions. Journal of Addictions Research, 2(2), 1-5.