When sitting with a narcissistic patient, I must prepare myself to listen beyond the words or accounts they provide to tune into a secret world of fleeting changes of topics, sudden subtle flickers of emotion, and abrupt but unarticulated shifts in the way my patient is relating to me. These shifts and deflections, which signal underlying pain, are generally occurring within the context of self-inflating narratives, along with complaints about other people, including me. Based on clinical experiences in treating narcissistic patients, the following are some guidelines and advice to help you understand the peculiar mental world of the narcissist.
In order to understand the narcissistic mind we must familiarize ourselves with the logic of shame avoidance. The focus in shame (unlike guilt in which we regret an action that has, in fantasy or reality, harmed another person) is on a deflating sense of the entire self. When shamed, we feel inadequate, small, bad, or deficient in the eyes of an internalized devaluing other.
Characteristic narcissistic behavior develops to protect against the shame experience. As a result, people with narcissistic personalities appear deficient in, and defiant of, shame. Because the characteristic human responses to shame include hiding, deflecting blame, and lashing out angrily, these responses come to dominate the narcissist’s behavior. Following are some examples of these responses.
Hiding. Ironically, the person who seems to crave attention, always seeking center stage, is actually adept at hiding in plain sight. It is important to keep in mind that the narcissist is not hiding from you – in fact it is rarely ever about you . Narcissists are hiding from aspects of themselves. Narcissists frequently complain that they are not getting the attention or recognition they are due. The topics they do not reveal include a sense of an enfeebled, defective self always lurking in the background, craving repair. Off-limits as well is as any empathic awareness of the impact of the narcissist’s neediness and demands on others.
In my clinical experience, the narcissistic inner world is often plagued by a sense of emptiness and deficiency. Many narcissists grew up in environments in which at least one parent was abusive or unavailable, while the other compensated by becoming overindulgent, conveying that the child could do no wrong. As a result, inflating fantasies of success, power, and self-admiration became secret sanctuaries, offering shelter from contact with a sense of diffuse self-hatred. When the narcissist is bragging endlessly, criticizing or demeaning you, the triggering stimulus may often be a deflating memory or fantasy that has but tangential relevance to you. You will seldom know what caused the conflict or sudden display of grandiosity, but it is all too easy to take it personally.
A special instance of hiding from self-appraisal emerges in the case of envy, a core narcissistic trait. In envy, attention turns from the self to an external object admired in some way, seen as immune to some defect in the envier. At the same time, there is a hostile component to envy, in which the envied object is demeaned in order to lessen the perceived distance between self and other.
Whether you know it or not, if you are in an enduring relationship with a narcissist you will be the object of envy. This may surprise you because it may often seem that the narcissist is excessively critical of you and seems to look down on you. But if you are important in a narcissist’s life, it is because he or she perceives you as a source of valuable ego supplies, including traits he or she wishes to possess or control in you.
Deflecting Blame. Compulsive blaming can be seen as an attempt to fix or change the locus of the sense of “wrongness” at the core of narcissism (Zaslav, 1998). Externalizing blame rids the self of responsibility for the perceived defect or error. Thus, for the narcissist, a fundamental algorithm is that when complaints, criticism, or failure are in the air, it must be someone else’s fault. People in relationships with narcissists are frequently surprised when they are blamed for things they did not do, or were actually done by the narcissist him or herself. The difficult task is not to accept distorted accounts of what transpired between you. Often, simply stating the obvious truth will require courage and tact to stand your ground. There is seldom any benefit to engaging in arguments.
Lashing Out. When a narcissistic individual perceives slight or offense, whether imagined or real, they may enter a state of self-righteous rage. In these states of mind, the narcissist will lash out angrily at “tormenters.” A common error is for the recipient of this anger to attempt to reason with the narcissist while in this state. In states of rage, the narcissist is not able to think clearly or to see you realistically.
In my work with narcissists and other severe personality disorders, I have learned to introduce anger management measures when angry individuals are threatening to lose control. The danger is that if allowed to escalate, the encounter may have severe consequences for the relationship. It may be helpful to calmly but firmly point out these negative consequences should escalation continue. You should attempt to disengage, take a time out, and avoid becoming drawn into an argument at these times. Remember that anger and rage generally have a short half-life and readily run their course. It may be helpful to re-examine the issue giving rise to conflict when the iron is cold.
It is helpful to understand that narcissists see the world differently than you do. The fundamental issues that actually trouble them are rarely shared. Prepare to be blamed for things you did not do, and viewed unrealistically, particularly if you refuse to be reduced to a mere agent of self-enhancement. If you feel that things are excessively toxic, and certainly if there is a threat to physical safety, you may need to disengage completely and seek professional help or protection.
Zaslav, M. (1998). Shame-Related States of Mind in Psychotherapy, J. of Psychotherapy Practice and Research; 7:154-166.