Narcissists: Masters of Overcompensation

Narcissists pay a much steeper price for their defenses than they realize.

Posted Oct 14, 2020

No photographer or date given/pxhere CCO public domain
Source: No photographer or date given/pxhere CCO public domain

A consensus now exists that narcissists hide, both from themselves and others, deficits in their self-image. And they typically overcompensate for their underlying sense of  inferiority by displaying to the world a calculated manipulativeness that all-too-easily can fool those around them, seduced into believing what the narcissist tells them, or shows them as representing the essential truth of their being.

If the narcissist’s over-confidence is fake, if it’s all a mask to cover up worrisome self-doubts they’ve probably been afflicted by since childhood, it’s still pivotal to their defense system. And their various mechanisms of defense are massive, in many ways defining their entire personality. But the circumstance that their egos are pumped up artificially is betrayed by how rageful they get in the face of criticism.

In fact, anything that threatens their need to feel superior can lead to their fiercely projecting onto others what, legitimately enough, they’ve been accused of. Even a well-intended suggestion can provoke them and be sharply rebuffed because they take it as implying that the other person doesn’t think they’ve done something well enough.

The reason that eventually narcissists exhaust their support system is that over time those whom they victimized can’t help but recognize they’ve been used. For the narcissist’s relationship with them has been governed by self-interest all along, without their victims’ having felt any genuine interest in them. If the narcissist has lorded it over them, it’s because narcissists are always on the lookout for what in the literature is known as “narcissistic supply,” referring to individuals who’ve tacitly agreed to serve them and whom they can assuredly feel better than.

What makes narcissists over-compensate—vs. compensate—for their chronic anxieties and insecurities is that, deep down, they believe that to be okay, they must be more than okay. And, too, viewed by others this way as well. Which explains why they so often lie about themselves through boasting about things they’ve typically not accomplished but perhaps played a minor role in assisting someone else in achieving.

Curiously, some narcissists, if they happen to be especially talented or gifted, and inwardly driven to prove themselves, have made major contributions to art, science, and culture generally. So we certainly wouldn’t want them all gone. After all, we might really miss our Picassos, Beethovens,  George Gershwins, Thomas Wolfes, and so on.  

A narcissist’s grandiose bragging—unconsciously designed to bolster their false, self-flattering identity, and to keep their underlying insecurities safely cradled inside—could, as noted by Prestin Ni here, relate to their “physical attractiveness, material (trophy) possessions, social popularity, exciting lifestyle, merit-badge achievements, high-status associations, or other envy-worthy attributes. [And that their fragile ego] is boosted not by positively affirming [their character] but by putting others down.”

All of which is to say that a narcissist’s victims are regularly denigrated by them and pay a high price for their unwitting involvement with such a disjointed individual. But that’s what it costs to, however unknowingly, accept the one-down role to which they’ve been delegated as a narcissistic supply.

What’s especially striking here is that, largely without any sort of developed conscience themselves, they rely on their victim’s conscience to get what they want from them. Again turning to Preston Ni, by cunningly inducing guilt in their unsuspecting victims, they can emotionally bribe them to “win favors, concessions, sacrifices, and/or commitments.”

So it’s hardly uncommon for these victims—after, that is, they’ve managed to escape the narcissist’s clutches, or even been rejected by them—to wonder, “What’s happened to me? I never felt this negative about myself before.”

The DSM-5, the manual which lists the various criteria for diagnosing narcissistic personality disorder, describes the narcissist as “often envious of others or believ[ing] that others are envious of him or her.” And here their overcompensating for never-healed psychic wounds from the past takes the form of discounting others’ happiness or prosperity so they won’t be compelled to admit that anyone has it better—or has done better—than they.

Denying or disavowing the true state of affairs, their resentment is more or less neutralized, or turned into righteous anger. It works a lot better for them to see the world as unjust than having to concede that they’re not superior to or better off than others.  

From an existential perspective, it’s tragic that although narcissists may successfully conceal haunting memories and insecurities through their overcompensating defenses, these self-protective mechanisms preclude any chance that they’ll someday get beyond them. Growth and change require a certain openness to experience and, particularly in intimate relationships, a willingness to allow oneself to be vulnerable. And those whose defenses put them squarely in this personality-disordered category stubbornly refuse to challenge themselves.

Challenging others—one additional way of understanding the interpersonal ramifications of how they cope with reality—carries a price for them that, finally, may be even higher than that paid by those they’ve repeatedly victimized.

© 2020 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D.  All Rights Reserved.