All people who have narcissistic personality disorders are hyper-focused on self-esteem issues. They all develop a variety of strategies that are aimed at enhancing or stabilizing their shaky self-esteem. Lately, I have been experimenting with looking at my narcissistic clients through a new lens: Are they “pro-social” or are they “anti-social?” I am making this distinction based on three factors:
- What are their intentions?
- How do they get their narcissistic supplies?
- What type of impression do they want other people to have about them?
- Pro-Social Narcissists
My narcissistic clients who I am terming “pro-social” are eager to help other people. They want to be seen as good guys. These are the people who often lend their neighbors a helping hand getting their stuck garage door open or, if they are wealthy, they donate the money to build a new wing for the local pediatric hospital. Of course, they want to get credit for their good deeds, but they also add a lot of value to the world around them.
- Anti-Social Narcissists
My narcissistic clients who I am terming "anti-social” are basically “takers.” They are in it for themselves. They are quite happy to take advantage of other people or exploit their weaknesses for personal gain. Many want to be feared by other people.
At their worst, they get their narcissistic supplies from humiliating other people and destroying what others have built. They often fit the typical description of toxic or malignant narcissists. They take pleasure in other people's failures and enjoy other peoples’ unhappiness. Not only do they not add value to the world around them, but they often actively thwart other people’s efforts to improve things for everyone.
NOTE: In this post, I am using the term “narcissist” as shorthand for people who have made a narcissistic adaptation to a childhood situation that now in adulthood qualifies for a diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder. I will sometimes use the word “adaptation” instead of “disorder” to emphasize that narcissistic defenses were the child’s creative adjustment to this earlier situation.
- King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table
As a young person, I read stories about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. King Arthur’s Knights swore an oath to go out and do good deeds and protect the weak and innocent. They self-identified as “heroes.” There were other Knights in these stories, however, that self-identified as powerful and destructive anti-heroes. Instead of protecting the innocent, they destroyed and dominated them.
- White Knights vs. Black Knights
In the Arthurian legends, these scary and egotistical Knights who roamed the countryside and only fought for their personal gain were often depicted in all-black armor—I have come to think of them as “Black Knights” for short. The other, idealistic Knights who fought to save others, I think of as “White Knights.” One could say that both of these groups lived to win and saw themselves as superior beings, but the “White Knights” were pro-social and sought to be constructive forces, while the “Black Knights” were anti-social and destructive forces.
Leaving aside for now the question of whether these fictional “Black Knights” were sometimes Psychopaths, rather than narcissists; I would like to talk about how this analogy might apply to my narcissistic clients.
In this article, I am mainly discussing male narcissists, but there are female versions of these pro-social and anti-social types who go by different names, such as the femme fatale, the Sirens in the Greek legends whose singing drew men to their doom, or the powerful pro-social Fairy Godmothers in Grimm’s fairytales. I will leave them for a different article.
The White Knight Narcissist
Many of my narcissistic clients are pro-social. Their greatest desire is to do some lasting good in the world for which they will be remembered. In fact, they often describe themselves as “do-gooders.” They take jobs at nonprofits, do volunteer work for charitable causes, do favors for their neighbors, and have a social conscience. They are “White Knights” in that their basic desire is to help others. They almost never express the desire to hurt anyone else. Despite their overall pro-social orientation, they enter therapy with the same difficulties that all narcissists have:
- Unstable Self-Esteem: Narcissists feel as if their self-esteem is always on the line. Almost every situation is experienced in terms of how it might impact their self-esteem.
- Lack of “Whole Object Relations”—Whole Object Relations is the ability to see oneself and others in an integrated and realistic manner that simultaneously includes both liked and disliked traits.
- Lack of “Object constancy”—Object Constancy is the ability to maintain positive emotional feelings for someone you like (including yourself) when you feel angry, hurt, or disappointed with the person or they are no longer physically present.
- A Binary Sense of Self: Narcissists see only two possibilities: Either they are Special and Perfect, or they are Worthless and Defective.
- Status Consciousness: They strive for high status, admire those “above” them, and are acutely conscious of their own place in the hierarchy.
- Devaluation and Blaming: Narcissists hold the mistaken belief that when something goes wrong, someone needs to be blamed. Unfortunately, they equate being at fault to being worthless and defective. This makes them try to find ways to rationalize shifting the blame to someone else. When they are unable to do so, they may blame themselves and spiral down into shame-based self-hating depressions.
- Low Emotional Empathy: One might think that because of their overall pro-social personal goals that they would have more emotional empathy than other narcissists. Unfortunately, this is not the case. They do have intellectual empathy—the ability to think about how other people may react—and they use this instead.
Example—Sylvia and Hal the “Do-Gooder” White Knight Narcissist
From the outside, Hal looked like a perfect husband. Everyone was always telling Sylvia how lucky she was to be married to such a nice man. The truth was more complicated. Hal, a “White Knight” narcissist, was on his best behavior outside the home. He had a smile for everyone and was always ready to help a stranger with directions or his neighbor with a home project. He appeared calm, helpful, and kind. Hal even worked at a “do-gooder” job where his main task was to convince rich donors to donate money to a program that helped poor children get extra tutoring with their homework and prepare them for college.
Unfortunately, when Hal was not on public display, he took off his “do-gooder” mask and could be avoidant and mean. He had stopped trying to impress Sylvia with his goodness a long time ago. Now he took her for granted and basically did whatever he wanted at home without worrying about how Sylvia would be affected by his actions. Sylvia frequently complained about how hard it was to get any love and attention from Hal unless they were on public display. She said that she sometimes felt like a prop in a photoshoot of his perfect marriage that he could post on social media sites. She was hurt that he spent all his available energy on causes, while neglecting her needs.
The Black Knight Narcissist
When I first started my practice, I was not yet trained in the treatment of personality disorders. I was a bit naive and assumed that everyone who came for psychotherapy wanted help and had a desire to solve their problems. I soon found that there was a subgroup of narcissistic clients who wanted to focus on my flaws, not their own.
Left to their own devices, they would spend their session complaining about me and the people in their life. They usually had a sadistic streak and seemed to enjoy finding new ways to catch me off guard and devalue as worthless my sincere attempts to help them. What they did in therapy mirrored what they did to everyone else in their life.
Today people who have made that particular narcissistic adaptation are usually termed “toxic or malignant narcissists.” These are the narcissists that I am describing as “anti-social.”
Example—The Black Knight meets the Pretty Woman
If you have ever seen the movie Pretty Woman with Julia Roberts and Richard Gere, you may remember that Gere’s character Edward delighted in taking over other men’s companies and disassembling them. The movie makes it clear that these takeovers were motivated by a desire to get back at his hated powerful father. Every company he destroyed, and every company owner he hurt and humbled, were symbolically his father and his father’s lifework. This is classic Black Knight behavior.
Even his choice of Vivian (the prostitute played by Julia Roberts) as his eventual mate can be seen through this lens. Edward's ability to buy Vivian’s sexual services ensures that his position as the dominant one in this relationship is never in doubt. Even though he later chooses to court her in the form of the “White Knight” rescuer of her dreams, at the end of the day he is still her superior. He has chosen to marry a woman who must always be grateful to him for giving her everything that she could not get on her own. He will always be the one with more education, born into a higher social class, and who had the power and wealth to rescue her from a life of sexual degradation.
Marrying the Black Knight
My clients who have married “Black Knight” narcissists do not have the happy ending portrayed in Pretty Woman. Most of them come to therapy filled with self-doubt and psychologically and emotionally broken. After the initial courtship, they report being bullied, blamed, and abused. The good moments became fewer and fewer. Their husbands explode in rage at the slightest provocation and repeatedly tell them how useless, ugly, and worthless they are.
Initially, they fought back, but they found that doing so only prolonged the fight and increased the abuse. Those that stay in the relationship often simply give up and give in. Eventually, they become a shadow of their former self.
Example—Sandy and “The King of the World”
My client Sandy said that she had married Ralph because he was the toughest man that she had ever met. In the beginning, his ability to stare down another man at a bar and in the boardroom gave her a thrill and made her feel protected. Ralph’s nickname among his friends was “The King of the World”—as in “Here comes “The King of the World.” They said it laughingly, but respectfully. Ralph was clearly the leader of the group.
In the beginning of their marriage, Sandy was happy to defer to Ralph about almost everything. He was 10 years older than her and $3 million richer. She was delighted that she never had to go to work again and had found this incredible man. She planned to devote her entire life to pleasing him.
Unfortunately, after they were married, she found that Ralph was unpleasable. Ralph found fault with everything that Sandy did and the way she did it. Even the way she loaded the dishwasher annoyed him. Instead of being the protective man at her side that she had envisioned, he became her opponent. Now she was the one he was angrily staring into submission.
Sandy started to dread Ralph coming home from work. She knew that somehow, he would find something to criticize her about and there would be a crazy fight that would only end when she was huddled up crying on the floor begging for his forgiveness.
Sandy’s family became worried about her deteriorating mental health and begged her to leave Ralph, but she was too confused, afraid, and in awe of him to simply end the marriage. By the time they got her to come for therapy, all she could do was cry.
According to the theoretical system that I am proposing here, pro-social narcissists are those who want to be heroes and get heightened self-esteem from doing amazing and wonderful things in the world that help other people. Anti-social narcissists get their self-esteem boosts from hurting other people.
All narcissists can be difficult to live with, but anti-social narcissists are far more destructive to those around them. By the way, I am not suggesting that everyone who has made a narcissistic adaptation neatly falls into one of these two categories. I am just suggesting that looking at this characteristic—pro-social versus anti-social—may add value and contribute to a more nuanced way of looking at Narcissistic adaptations.
Based on an article "White Knights & Black Knights: Pro-Social and Anti-Social Narcissists" that I wrote for my LinkedIn page (3/4/17).