Coronavirus Crisis: The Unexpected Gift to Narcissists

The pandemic forces a reset of self-aggrandizing demands for control.

Posted Apr 05, 2020

You probably know at least one of them, and as a practicing psychologist in New York City, I have treated many of them. The narcissist is that person in your life who always seems to crave admiration, often acts entitled and selfish, and more often than not seems unable to experience genuine empathy for the emotional hurt and suffering of others.

The narcissist is often a victim of their own deeply embedded insecurities and poor parenting, which failed to teach the importance of humility, emotional generosity, and the ability to put oneself in touch with the feelings of another.

Narcissistic tendencies in a person often lead to relationship problems, drug and alcohol abuse, anger management difficulties, and depression. These problems often show themselves when the narcissist is denied what they believe or expect is their “right” to have.

Their unrealistic “demand”  for control and the disappointment that frequently follows often bring them into my office. Often, hours and hours of therapy appear futile in changing the narcissist's demand that the world and people be and act exactly the way that they “should” behave. They demand unconditional control.

But something quite fascinating has occurred with many of these patients since the coronavirus pandemic emerged. They have been forced to give up the precious control that they felt they must have to keep their lives in order and to be happy. Their ideas of how the world “should“ treat them have been turned upside down and have challenged them to seriously rethink their deeply held beliefs about their importance and superiority over others in their lives.

A few examples of these potentially profound changes may be helpful. A young man in the entertainment field has labeled himself a sex addict. His sexual appetite was voracious and he had little regard for the feelings of his many partners. As a consequence of being quarantined in place indefinitely, and unable to cohabitate with anyone, he is now considering the idea that he can survive and develop joy and satisfaction in his life in other ways. No therapist in the world could have matched the power of the forced “reset” in his thinking about how he had misused people and disregarded their feelings.

A young woman I work with had little understanding of why, for years, other women would not remain friends with her and failed to reach out to her to plan time together. It became clear that she always one-upped them and frequently interrupted them when chatting. She demanded control, thought she was smarter than any of her friends, and displayed little interest in their lives. Since she is now only able to interact remotely, she and I are able to practice active listening and sharing her own insecurities with others. Not being face-to-face has allowed her to be more introspective, more vulnerable, and more willing to accept others' opinions without immediately dismissing them.

Another patient would spend countless hours and money shopping obsessively to capture her ”perfect“ look, hours more applying and reapplying her makeup, and then regularly complaining to her friends about how she coveted attention from every man she met. With television and internet messages of human suffering and horrific hospital images bombarding her, her awareness that there was a world around her that she had always dismissed as unimportant grew. 

The period of lockdown Is helping her to reset her demand for physical perfection (in truth, right now nobody gives a damn), and she is, for the first time in her life, volunteering to deliver food to the elderly in her neighborhood.

The COVID-19 horror is affording self-involved, entitled, unempathic individuals an extraordinary opportunity to pause, to take the foot off the self-aggrandizing pedal, and to take a good, hard look at themselves and what their lives really could be about.

Teaser image: NiE PROJECT/Shutterstock