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This Is What Really Makes Narcissists Tick

And how deserving are they of our sympathy?

Key points

  • Virtually all narcissists' offensive characteristics can be perceived as defenses against unresolved hurts, disappointments, and insecurities.
  • Narcissists have an implicit belief that in order to be okay, they need to be perfect and constantly get others to enviously look up to them.
  • Many of the people whom a narcissist exploits end up deserting them.
eldar nurkovic/Shutterstock
Source: eldar nurkovic/Shutterstock

Narcissists typically seem arrogant, grandiose, manipulative, entitled, and lacking in empathy. But if these defining features are understood at a deeper level, as powerful psychological defenses to protect them from experiencing a truly frightening vulnerability, a quite different picture emerges. As a result, they may not be any more likable but can at least be viewed as more deserving of our sympathy.

The most concise summary of what I’ll be portraying here comes from the Psychodynamic Diagnostic Manual (2006), which states:

“Although some narcissistic children and adolescents seem 'spoiled’ and entitled [in other words, were raised to feel and act "privileged" through regularly being overindulged and told they were special], most are clearly defending against feelings of low self-esteem and are trying to avoid shame and humiliation."

This pointed description makes it clear that virtually all narcissists' offensive characteristics can best be perceived as defenses against unresolved hurts, disappointments, and painful insecurities. They simply were unable to develop the kind of positive, stable attachment bond to their caretakers that could make them feel loved and accepted.

Narcissists diligently cultivate personal "strengths" or "virtues," which—accurately comprehended—are rather pitiable attempts to conceal their underlying feelings of weakness, inadequacy, and non-deservingness. Typically, this sense of personal insufficiency has plagued them from early childhood.

As children, because they couldn’t get the warmth, care, validation, or support from their caretakers, they concluded that they weren’t good or worthy enough to warrant them. To defend against—and hide from—such an impoverished self-image, these individuals fabricated an attitude, mindset, or demeanor to feel they were actually more worthy than others, perhaps entitled to special treatment. Intimately related to these exaggerated compensatory mechanisms is a literally anti-social tendency to deceive, devalue, debase, and even show disdain for others. These behaviors are mostly unconscious strategies to feel better about themselves, often at others' expense.

The final tragedy is that most, or all, of the people they exploited—individuals commonly referred to as their "narcissistic supply"—end up deserting them. When that occurs, ancient feelings of emptiness, abandonment, and shame return with such “vengeance" that they’re compelled to turn up their defenses a notch, prompting them to further denigrate—through what’s commonly referred to as "narcissistic rage"—those now able to see through their façade.

Such an inflamed reaction constitutes a frenetic, last-ditch effort to protect their gravely threatened vulnerability. And if this defense fails them, they’re liable to sink into a severe depression, hardly distinguishable from what they experienced earlier as children. Previously, they shut down their softer feelings altogether, which is why their partners find them lacking both in empathy and emotional accessibility.

All along, they tried to rectify insecurities by getting the outside world to acknowledge them more positively than did their parents or early environment. When their grandiose defenses do not compensate for what was missing in their past, they face the intense vulnerability they spent their whole lives trying to escape. Given how their defense systems drive their personality, even in such crises, they’re unable to sustain any (purely pragmatic) shift in behavior. In fact, they’re far more likely to repeat these ultimately self-defeating behaviors—but with greater intensity.

So let’s now take an even closer look at the narcissist’s characteristic defenses. Overall, they are effective in safeguarding against extreme vulnerability, but further exploring their psychological armor demonstrates that their defenses are ultimately counterproductive. For example, because of their defense mechanisms, these individuals will never experience the fulfillment of their innermost desire—to believe that who they are (with no "embellishments") is okay, acceptable, and lovable. Such an idea is diametrically opposed to their implicit belief that to be okay they need to be perfect and constantly get others to enviously look up to them.

Such self-exaltation is intimately tied to their similar defense traits of arrogance, interpersonal exploitativeness, sense of superiority, and (as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) puts it) "preoccup[ation] with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love." These personality features are a reaction—or better, overreaction—to truly enormous self-doubt. Such doubt is rarely "on display,” though to the astute observer in various situations it’s clearly betrayed.

Though on the surface their self-regard would appear to suggest confidence (if not cockiness), all this bravado masks what in themselves they secretly fear is defective or unworthy. Many of them, in their desperate attempts to convince others of their superiority, are highly motivated to achieve much more than most people; this will give them something to really brag about. Narcissists can be among the most boastful of people.

As I describe in an earlier piece on narcissism: “Given their customary ‘drivenness,’ it’s not uncommon for them to rise to positions of power and influence, as well as amass a fortune." To better grasp the dynamics of their driven behavior, I added, “But if we examine what’s beneath the surface of such elevated social, political, or economic stature—or their accomplishments (which they frequently exaggerate)—what typically can be inferred is a degree of insecurity vastly beyond anything they might be willing to avow.”

Here’s how I characterize their worrisome uncertainties:

“In various ways they’re constantly driven to prove themselves, both to others and to their not-so-confident “inner child” self. This is the self-doubting, recessive part of their being that, though well hidden from sight, is nonetheless afflicted with feelings and fears of inferiority. Inasmuch as their elaborate defense system effectively wards off their having to face what their bravado masks, they’re highly skilled at exhibiting, or ‘posturing,’ exceptionally high self-esteem. But their deeper insecurities are yet discernible in their so often fishing for compliments. . . .” (L. Seltzer, “6 Signs of Narcissism You May Not Know About,” 2013).

The narcissist’s symptomatic need for admiration is all about propping up an extraordinarily fragile ego. So when they’re unable to get outward adulation, they can collapse from within.

The PDM summarizes their dilemma this way:

“The characteristic subjective experience of narcissistic individuals is a sense of inner emptiness and meaninglessness that requires recurrent infusions of external confirmation of their importance and value. . . . When the environment fails to provide such evidence, narcissistic individuals feel depressed, ashamed, and envious of those who succeed in attaining the supplies that they lack.”

This vulnerability is also suggested by just how defensive narcissists can be when others negatively evaluate them. At the same time that they’re super-critical of others (to regularly “remind” themselves of their superiority), their egos are so frail that when someone attacks their words or actions they can fly into what I’ve alluded to as “narcissistic rage.” As I explain in “The Narcissist’s Dilemma: They Can Dish It Out, But... ”:

"Although narcissists don’t (or won’t) show it, all perceived criticism feels gravely threatening to them. . . . Deep down, clinging desperately not simply to a positive but grandiose sense of self, they’re compelled at all costs to block out any negative feedback about themselves.”

After all, as children, they were either ignored by their caretakers, constantly criticized by them, or held to unrealistically high standards they couldn’t meet. In consequence, they needed to develop potent defenses against the loneliness, rejection, hurt, and humiliation inextricably linked to such parenting. However unconsciously, over time they contrived to “pump up” their deflated ego through at least cultivating the illusion that they were actually far superior to the detrimental messages repeatedly received in growing up. They needed—with as much psychological vigor as possible—to combat the unfavorable assumptions about self they earlier imbibed from their parents (who were woefully insensitive as to how their words could wound their offspring).

This is the well-known “narcissistic injury,” which has provided the focal point for many writers seeking to characterize the phenomenon of pathological narcissism. Having had parents incapable of supplying the nurturing that they (like everybody else) required, narcissists are compelled to cajole or coerce others to function as surrogate narcissistic supplies. Doing so is a constituent element in their notorious habit of not simply using others but “objectifying” them—which, in this sense, almost has a certain childlike innocence to it.

Such derogative objectification also serves the purpose of lessening their vulnerability by reducing any power that, alternatively, others might have over them. (Not to mention its deep-rooted connection to their lack of empathy.) Having learned earlier not to trust anyone—the outcome of the emotional pain inflicted on them by insufficiently caring, non-approving parents—they refuse to accept the risks associated with allowing another to get really close to them.

So if they’re to feel safe in the context of an intimate relationship, they need to keep their partner at a distance. The cost of avoiding any emotional hazards by acting in this self-protective way is that true intimacy with another remains forever beyond their reach. The grave misfortune in their decision to safeguard their (actually false) self should by now be obvious; by refusing (or being unable) to open up their heart to others, they prevent themselves from ever getting what—deep down and totally out of their awareness—they most desire and desperately need.

© 2015 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.