- Detaching from others to feel superior can ultimately lead narcissists to personal failure and social rejection.
- Narcissists may determine that outward circumstances permanently compromise what’s crucial to them, and so consciously “forfeit” their life.
- When their defensive rage fails them, underlying feelings of shame, humiliation, and unacceptability can lead them to feel irreparably defeated.
Studies have shown that individuals who meet the criteria for Cluster B personality disorders (PD) are at a substantially higher risk of killing themselves than the general population. These dysfunctional psychological categories include people with borderline, histrionic, narcissistic, and antisocial personalities.
Despite notable differences, these disturbances can share many common elements. As the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) describes it, they all illustrate “a pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others.”
This primary guidebook goes on to list seven more specific criteria for this disorder. I’ll refer—abbreviatedly—to each so as to suggest how, over time, they can lead both to personal failure and social rejection (which at times is a lethal combination):
- A failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors.
- Impulsivity, or failure to plan ahead.
- Irritability and aggressiveness.
- Reckless disregard for the safety of self [my emphasis] or others.
- Consistent irresponsibility.
- Lack of remorse.
One study, in particular, posits that while suicide is a leading cause of death in Cluster B personalities, borderlines and narcissists may well be the most at-risk for this self-destructive fate. Differentiating between these two closely related afflictions, researchers have often emphasized that borderline suicides are governed principally by impulsiveness, and narcissists’ by careful planning.
Consciously giving up on their life, narcissists determine that outward circumstances have permanently compromised what matters most to them. Put succinctly, that’s being admired, honored, and respected by others—as special, superior, and entitled.
When their imagined grandiosity, so intrinsic to their inflated sense of self, is inexorably undermined, life ceases to make any sense to them. It’s bereft of all positive meaning. In a sense, they feel “deceased” even before they are deceased.
Better understanding the connections between narcissism and its suicidal potential requires, if it’s to be more effectively averted, a deeper, more comprehensive evaluation.
What makes narcissists susceptible to prematurely ending their life?
Curiously, personality disorder specialists have identified three to five types of narcissism: overt and covert narcissism, as well as communal, antagonistic, and malignant narcissism. Still, to varying degrees, all of these types are liable not just to threaten to kill themselves (by way of manipulating others, especially their partners, into capitulating to them); they’ll actually follow through on their threats when the “going” gets way too rough for them.
The unheeding recklessness of so many of their behaviors ends up defining their vulnerability. For as inhumanely insensitive as they can be to the needs of others, whom they routinely disparage, they’re acutely sensitive to others’ rejection. What they experience in the face of such dismissal is what in the literature is regularly labeled “narcissistic injury.” And most commonly, they respond with what’s also well-known as “narcissistic rage.”
However, rage may not always be a tenable response for them: They may be either too overwhelmed with depression to express it—or, when belligerently voiced, this rage fails to remedy the situation they view as intolerable. This is when underlying feelings of shame, humiliation, and unacceptability can rise to the surface, leading them to feel irreparably defeated.
Although narcissism is rightfully classified as a personality disorder, such individuals are hardly immune to a generally well-camouflaged mood disorder as well. So when their defenses, however stringent, can’t be maintained because of impossible-to-combat external assaults on them, they can become unbearably depressed.
In other words, narcissists don't commit suicide because of their PD but because they can sink into the deepest, inconsolable depths of depression. When their exploitation, entitlement, and marked lack of empathy have been called out, their emotional suffering can drive them toward suicide. At that point, only rarely do they turn to others for support or to dissuade them from their self-eradicating intent.
The future of narcissistic research and treatment
Much more attention needs to be devoted to narcissists’ potential for suicide. We need to better appreciate the different factors that provoke it and how best to treat those most vulnerable to it.
Ironically, narcissists’ defenses are such that it’s more important for them to stand out from others than to experience “belonging." Nonetheless, it’s their almost constitutional separateness from the rest of us that puts them at higher risk of harming themselves.
Unknowingly, they desperately need to feel a more intimate mental and emotional tie with those surrounding them. Only then can they be protected from a sense of alienation that, perhaps more than anything else, renders them vulnerable to experiencing hopelessness that makes their life feel no longer worth living.
So any therapy likely to help them ought to focus on assisting them in rejoining the human community from which they experience so much detachment. Because many narcissists have experienced severe parental neglect or its opposite—parental overindulgence—therapy needs, in a sense, to “re-parent” them. And that can be incredibly challenging since their defenses are so resistant to change.
Still, trauma-repair therapies—for instance, Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS) and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)—might pave the way for effecting a shift in their personalities. And that would make them less susceptible to suicide—as well as much easier to live with for the multiple others who’ve been victimized by them.
© 2022 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.
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