Not without cause, malignant narcissism is one of the most searched for topics on the internet in part because seemingly there are so many people that appear to have those toxic traits that negatively impact on us. These individuals are notorious because they destabilize our lives, make us feel insecure, undervalued, disparaged, or inconsequential, and as I noted in my book, Dangerous Personalities (Rodale/Penguin), they can victimize us emotionally, as well as physically, even financially. They come into our lives as family members, friends, lovers, spouses, colleagues at work, bosses, or worst as national leaders. Once they enter our orbit, no matter how distant, toxicity is what they have in common and they always leave a debris field of human suffering behind them.
By now we recognize how dangerous these individuals are precisely because their pathology drives so much of their sordid behavior, especially toward others. Their common traits such as: a hyper inflated sense of entitlement, grandiose feelings of superiority or uniqueness, delusions of infallibility, incessant disregard for the truth, perennial conniving and scheming to take advantage of others, feeling that rules and laws don’t apply to them, and of course the need to debase others, coupled with callousness, not only wears on us, it can have devastating consequences.
The one area that is rarely talked about when it comes to the malignant narcissist is what happens when they fail? Failure in private, at work, or as leaders for the narcissist can be quite disquieting if not traumatic for the rest of us. As Stuart Yudofsky notes in Fatal Flaws, these individuals are so severely “flawed of character,” that they handle failure much different than you and I because they are not introspective or capable of reform, and are lacking in empathy for others.
We often see narcissists in glowing terms as successful leaders of industry, or as heads of state, and yet, more often than not, their malignancy will likely, in time, ensure their own downfall, failure, or even arrest. Be it because they cheat on taxes, because they embezzle money, they circumvent rules and laws, they cheat business partners, they devalue and torment their family or domestic partner to the point of divorce, or in the case of cults (thinking of Jim Jones and Charles Manson here) or as national leaders, they can lead their followers or their nation into actions that are destructive. And so, when calamity strikes or failure of some sort is inevitable, how the narcissist reacts and what we, as potential victims of their actions can expect to see, is what this article is about.
As with many personality disorders, those who are severely flawed of character, but especially the narcissist, when they face public disgrace, when they are outed as criminals or for their misbehavior, or when they fail in a very public way—that is when they become metastable, placing us as family, friends, co-workers, corporations, the public, or a nation in greatest danger. When things begin to sour for the narcissist here is what we can expect:
- They will falsely claim that everything is fine and that there is nothing wrong. They will try to first misdirect us or claim there is nothing to the allegations or circumstances.
- If evidence is presented, they will seek to have it invalidated or claim that it is false, fake, or a product of vague conspiracies, but most certainly not true.
- Any evidence presented, and those that present it will be attacked aggressively and vindictively. The better the evidence the more aggressive the attack. Individuals who are doing the right thing by reporting criminal acts, unethical behavior, or failings are to be discredited, humiliated, hounded and bullied—not even their families are to be spared if need be. The narcissist will engage supporters or enablers to simultaneously attack those who offer proof or evidence, even if it embarrassingly exposes their poodle-like behavior as that of spineless sycophants.
- Foolproof evidence will be portrayed as false and the result of: pettiness, jealousies, bad actors, malicious individuals, negativity, haters, enemies, losers, conspirators, opposition, gain seekers, the faithless (usually seen in religious groups or cults), or as we are seeing now in American politics, “fake news” or “deep state” actors. There is always a large constellation of people to blame, the narcissist casts wide to see which vacuous claim resonates, especially with their supporters.
- As they lash out with vindictiveness, the malignant narcissist will continue to talk about themselves in glowing terms; irrespective of their actual situation, as they are incapable of introspection, much less contriteness. They will trumpet their greatness, their achievements (real or imagined), their faux infallibility, and even portray themselves as worthy of being revered rather than reviled.
- They will seek to find someone to blame for their troubles or downfall, preferably someone that cannot defend themselves. A scapegoat is always useful and when there is not a real one, one will be invented. If they are not promoted or fired, it is because a cabal at work was against them. If they cheat their business partners, it was because they deserved it. If the wife gets the kids in a divorce settlement, it is because of her dastardly attorney, not his abominable behavior. If they lose an election it is because of campaign managers, unappreciative voters, trickery, fraud, or some other kind of malfeasance on the part of a conspiracy (conspiracies are useful to the narcissist because they conveniently require no evidence). As they are not married to the truth, they will prattle countless baseless reasons that all point away, never at themselves.
- As circumstances become dire, the narcissist will not take any responsibility—EVER! Anything that has gone wrong is the responsibility of others. They will blame spouses as undeserving of their greatness, ignorant colleagues who just don’t measure up, the disloyal (Oh, they love to blame the disloyal), those who abide by rules and laws because ironically, they abide by rules and laws, or those that just clearly did not understand the very specialness of the narcissist. Everyone, and I mean everyone from people long gone, to the peripherally connected, to the earthly departed will be blamed for the failure or downfall of the narcissist. Once more it is never their fault.
- In the process of casting blame, even the most loyal and stalwart will be discarded and denigrated if needed with reptilian indifference. For the malignant narcissist there is only the “good” — those that provide blind unwavering loyalty who are useful, and everyone else who is an enemy, useless, and thus “bad.” Whether you are in or out, good or bad, is not determined by history, by friendship, sacrifices, or how well you have performed in the past—it is determined by the capricious and selfish needs of the narcissist, and that can change in a moment.
- Expect lies to increase and to be repeated exponentially. They will, even in light of factual evidence to the contrary, lie more profusely and adamantly. Lies are and always will be the number one tool of the malignant narcissist. The only difference now is that in facing failure or public ridicule, the lies must increase in frequency and audacity to the point of incredulity. The narcissist will expect supporters, the unethical, and enablers to lie for them or even create plausible alibies. That they imperil others by compelling them to lie is the collateral damage the malignant narcissist does as they thrash in despair when they are failing or caught.
- And while lies will increase, so too will be the need to devalue others in order to further value themselves. They will attack everyone and anyone in the most vicious and vindictive ways. This is when we see their rage come through. Not just anger, but unbridled rage. They will say things that shock the conscience and they expect everyone to swallow what they say, much as their enablers do. The most decent of persons will be attacked, mocked, ridiculed, and turned into a human chew-toy as the narcissist unleashes untethered rage and hatred. They will dip down into a bottomless cauldron of antipathy and like an arterial spurt, will spew this toxic brew far and wide with metronomic regularity.
- The malignant narcissist lacking guilt or a conscience, is only concerned with respect and not being publicly shamed. Any kind of public embarrassment will cause them further anger, further rage, further attacks, further unethical comportment, and unprecedented incivility.
- If the narcissist is going to be brought down, they will also seek to bring everyone else around them down to vindictively make them suffer. How the narcissist vilifies, lashes out, or destroys others (spouse, friends, business partners, workmates, the general public) is up to the morbid creativity and depravity of the malignant narcissist, the viable tools they have available, and of course how dire or desperate the situation. The internet and social media are certainly useful as lives can be ruined with a single tweet. But so are guns and rifles, poison, and even assassins for hire. And if they command a country, they can put the security organs or the military to work on their behalf.
- In certain situations, as the end nears, the suffering of others is paramount to the malignant narcissist. It is their way of elevating themselves—sick as that sounds—by malevolently paying back society with even more suffering. As they lash out, they will show no concern or empathy because they have none. If others are suffering because of their actions, the narcissist simply does not care. Lacking a conscience or any kind or remorse, much like Robert Hare’s psychopath, they sleep very well at night while everyone else is anxious, worried, stressed, physically or psychologically traumatizes all the while nervously and justifiably pondering what further malevolence will take place.
- As they face failure, arrest, indictment, or dismissal, they will endlessly air their grievances. Narcissists are natural wound collectors and as such, they have been collecting and nurturing social slights and perceived wrongs just for this occasion. They will wallow in victimhood claiming they have been relentlessly and needlessly persecuted. They, of course, expect their attorneys, followers, or enablers to subserviently echo their flatulent claims.
So, what happens in the end? Difficult to predict. Each circumstance is different. Some will kick and flail and disappear for a while, intentionally or thanks to incarceration—biding their time until they can do it all over again. Others regroup, plan, scheme, and prepare another triumphant entry into the lives of the unsuspecting to victimize them when the opportunity arises. Others unfortunately, will seek to do harm as they face a breakup, a divorce, are fired from a job, are outed for their crimes, or are removed from office. Others will hound, stalk, or just make life intolerable for those they deem responsible. Their past can often give us insight as to what they might do, but one can never be sure—humans are terribly complex and as with many afflicted with a personality disorder, sensitive to the smallest of unrecognized but catalytic triggers.
In the case of narcissistic cult leaders, the cult members often pay with their lives as they did in Jonestown Guyana when Jim Jones came under investigation. In interpersonal relationships, violence is always something to be concerned about as J. Reid Meloy reminds us in his book, Violent Attachments.
And of course, in politics, much harm can be done when power can be wielded—but the worst comes when a malignantly narcissistic leader or head of state, severely flawed of character, claims that only they can fix things, that only they can shape the future, that only they have the answers, and that only they have a grand vision for the future and so out of necessity they must stay on to save us.
When you hear that, it should give you pause. That is when we have to worry the most. If you don’t believe me, let me tell you about one malignant narcissist of note. You may have heard of him—he was an Austrian corporal who painted postcards for a living. Full of himself and with no shortage of grandiose ideas, he decided on his own to run for office with one goal among various, which was to “Deutschland wieder großartig machen” — to make Germany great again.
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