Before exploring the relationship between narcissism and the aversion to feeling emotionally indebted to others, it's first important to note that narcissism, a constellation of specific personality traits, exists on a spectrum.
While one person may present a few traits, another may meet the criteria for the full-blown disorder, Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), as outlined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).
NPD includes several criteria, such as excessive reference to others for self-definition and self-esteem regulation, exaggerated self-appraisal, goal-setting based on gaining approval from others, personal standards that are unreasonably high to see oneself as exceptional or too low based on a sense of entitlement, being unaware of one's own motivations, and having relationships that are largely superficial and exist to serve self-esteem regulation.
The latter criteria are crucial in considering how the disordered personality affects those closest to the narcissist: In the mind of the narcissist, they are there and earn their place by serving the narcissist and propping him up. (Note that the pronouns can be interchanged.)
To understand the effect that narcissism has on others, the most helpful word is "counterintuitive." Specifically, how the narcissist presents on the surface is entirely different from how the narcissist feels underneath.
Conventional wisdom suggests the narcissist has a pronounced ego or grandiose sense of self as if the narcissist truly believes he is inherently special and superior to others. Yet the paradox of the narcissist is that the bravado, or acting superior, is merely a facade.
Psychologically, the outward presentation of superiority reflects a mix of defense mechanisms constructed and maintained to defend against feelings of insecurity, embarrassment, self-consciousness, or even shame that come up when the narcissist feels vulnerable, exposed, or threatened.
It's clearly established that narcissism is deeply connected to a sense of entitlement. The narcissist's belief that he is inherently deserving of extra attention and special treatment requires that others acknowledge how special and superior he is. When others support the narcissist's specialness, his beliefs about his superiority and value are reinforced.
If, however, the narcissist doesn't get the special treatment he craves (what clinicians call "narcissistic supply"), the narcissist cannot tolerate the feelings that the perceived slight or rejection engender. Put another way, without others' attention propping him up, the narcissist is like a car that has no key; it simply can't function as expected.
Despite the outward appearance, colloquially speaking, of being in love with himself, the narcissist's ego is actually a house of cards that falls if others aren't there to prop him up and continually reinforce how special he is. Although narcissists resist ever showing how much they need validation from others, they suffer from a deep and dynamic insecurity, and trying to prove their worth to others requires a lot of mental work (constant vigilance and protection of how others see them). Though they could never bring themselves to admit it, they are extremely dependent on others, and what they depend on is attention, validation, and approval.
A recent session with a client shed light on one of the hallmarks of narcissism—intolerance of feeling emotionally indebted to others—that is much less talked about than the factor of exaggerated self-appraisal (in lay terms, having a big ego). My client spoke about how he had an argument with a friend after my client watched the other man's dog for a week. When the man didn't thank my client later for watching the dog, his friend, who was narcissistic, got defensive and reactionary.
He explained, "You didn't have to watch my dog. I thought you wanted to spend time with my dog!" (Read: The narcissist told himself that he was doing the other one a favor by letting him watch his dog for a week, as if the friend should have felt privileged to be able to do the narcissist such a favor.) To most people, how a person could turn the proverbial tables and not show gratefulness for watching the dog for a week is shocking. But this type of manipulation is part and parcel of the narcissistic personality.
As my client reflected more on his friend's reaction, I highlighted how his friend was really trying to disrupt the notion that he owed my client anything or was somehow indebted. On a common-sense level, the narcissist's behavior can feel extremely confusing, and my client felt confused. Psychologically, the narcissist's thinking requires a special lens to make sense of it, because the perception is so distorted and illogical.
Aside from the narcissist's biologically-based drive for survival, the primary psychological drive of the narcissist is to get his extreme psychological needs for attention and validation met. The effect of this drive on those in close relationships with the narcissist is that the narcissist is not able to meet the social expectations for fairness and equality that most adults accept as the foundation of social relationships. The narcissist, because of his deep, underlying insecurity, is too hell-bent on being recognized as special by others to be able to focus on the feelings and emotional needs of those he has relationships with.
The potential for a mutually satisfying relationship with a narcissist is bleak because, at the core, he doesn't believe in equality in relationships and can only tolerate being in the position of greater control. Acknowledging that someone did something nice for the narcissist is perceived by the narcissist as possible leverage—a chess piece—that could be held over or used against him later in some way.
Given this context, it's transparent how emotionally unsafe and distrusting the mental life (clinically, the intrapsychic world) of the narcissist is, and how challenged the potential is for a good relationship, one that is consistent, positive, and reciprocal.
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing. The basic in-text citation should look like this: (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).