Narcissism: Peeking Behind the Curtain

“A fragile ego is too consumed with survival to celebrate others.” Read With Caution I noticed the other day that I don’t often talk about narcissism in this space. It comes up often in counseling, but unlike most frequent flyers, I don’t usually blog about it.

I choose not to address it here because it literally takes whole books to cover what needs to be covered to avoid conveying dangerously half-baked information. (I strongly recommend Trapped in the Mirror as one of those whole books that covers it well.) Partial information about something this complex and weighty can do harm. It is not my goal to make things worse for people that are already struggling.

However I believe firmly in the power of understanding Why. “The Why” that underlies narcissism is simpler, and critically important.

I’ve worked with and known countless people who fell into the trap of a narcissistic intimate partner. Climbing back out of the trap most often leaves us feeling as though we’ve been living in the Upside Down World… because we have.

Many ask why the person targeted them. My response is that they probably didn’t. Narcissists are stuck in the ego development stage of life that typically happens around age three. Have you ever met a three-year-old? They don’t often have the most nuanced decision-making power.

How We Grow an Ego One doesn’t need to be in the presence of a three-year-old very long before one hears the words “mine” and “no.” Normally, prior to this developmental stage the idea that we are separate beings from our caregivers doesn’t make a lot of sense. Human beings start out as part of “we,” and grow into a distinct “I.”

This is why “mine” and “no” are so important. The idea that some things are mine, and some things are not, means we are distinct, separate people. If we can say “no” it means we have choices and preferences. To grow to a place where we can be healthy-enough members of a new “we,” (one where we can freely give and receive,) we have to learn that we are an “I,” among a bunch of other “I’s” that are equally valuable.

And there’s the rub.

Getting Stuck When something happens to disrupt that process, we are left with an under-developed ego. There are a whole lot of things that can challenge or arrest this stage: A new baby in the household, losing an emotionally important person (to death, to distance, to addiction or what have you,) moving, parents breaking up, limited emotional generosity in the home, shame-based parenting, family trauma, national or global trauma, a parent who never successfully navigated ego-development themselves - These can all disrupt this process.

Can. It’s not inevitable. These events don’t doom a kid to developmentally arrest. What happens next and how caregivers handle those challenges make all the difference in the world. If we understand that a child needs to develop that “I,” if we are able to support them understanding that they bring important gifts to the world around them and that each other person does too, if they learn (eventually,) that loving, supporting, and affirming others doesn’t take anything away from how precious they are, they won’t get stuck.

But When They Do When it doesn’t go well, we end up with wounded, fragile egos. Some people try to convince themselves that they have worth by trying to prove they are more

important than others. That is the oversimplified world of the three year old mind. The confidence boost doesn’t work beyond the moment, so they have to do it again and again and again. They are in a constant internal battle to prove to the shaming voices within that they matter. If they get through childhood still using these strategies, they become Narcissists.

Whatever their chronological age, this person is emotionally stuck at three, still trying to convince themselves that the “I” matters, still believing that it’s an either-or proposition, as if there is a hierarchy of humans with only a bottom and a top. If they aren’t on the top, they are on the bottom. To the three-year-old psyche, being on the bottom feels sincerely like dying. It can be intolerable.

Here are some of the signs of narcissism:

  • All or none thinking
  • Constant posturing to look like “the” best, smartest, more capable, etc.
  • Inflating accomplishments and minimizing or attempting to hide perceived flaws
  • Aligning with people who appear to be highly successful or powerful
  • Personal relationships that pivot around supporting a desire for supreme, exclusive importance
  • The successes and failures of those connected to the person internalized as a direct reflection on the Narcissist
  • Behavior that upholds a credo of “What’s yours is mine, and what’s mine is mine.”
  • Manipulating others to feed insatiable ego needs
  • Blaming and shaming others when things go poorly instead of owning mistakes made and seeking sustainable solutions
  • Drawing others close and then pushing them away; pushing people away to then draw them close
  • Behavior that looks illogical or contradictory on the surface, but consistently comes down to how the Narcissist feels about themselves in that moment, even if it sabotages future goals and aspirations.
  • Decision-making focussed on the narcissist’s immediate gratification
  • Treating others as objects in a game at the narcissist's disposal without regard for them as distinct human beings, as if “I” am the only “I” that matters.

Remember the “I” that values the “we?” Because the narcissist thinks in terms of either-or, the “we” is perceived as a threat to the “I.” Esteem and value are treated as limited quantities for which one must compete. As human beings, whether it’s toilet paper before a snowstorm or affirmation in a real or imagined emotionally impoverished environment, our first reaction to scarcity of any kind is often to clutch and greedily grab at whatever we can get before others – now perceived as threats – gobble up whatever is available. We become oblivious to the “we.”

A Quick Sidenote About Adolescence If you’re sitting there thinking “OH MY GRANDMAW! THAT TEENAGER IN MY LIFE IS A NARCISSIST!!” please relax and take a deep breath. The reason we do not diagnose people with personality disorders, (ego woundedness) before adulthood is that this kind of thinking is a normal

part of adolescent development. They do it for similar reasons as three-year-olds, because adolescence is very much a “second toddlerdom.” I’ll cover that in a future blog. For now, let’s stick with adulthood.

Intimate Relationships and Narcissists Intimate relationships are not simple, even when we pretend they are. When intimate relationships hit stress points - those opportunities to either grow deeper or farther apart - we tend to have a healthfully ambivalent response: “Why am I in this relationship? Why am I tolerating this? What is wrong with … (me, or the other person, sometimes in alternating currents.) These are constructive questions, if we answer them. If we don’t, we just keep bouncing back and forth between those unanswered questions and all of the reasons we stay.

Enter the Narcissist.

The Righting Reflex Human beings have a natural righting reflex in all things. When we are ambivalent, the Narcissist can feel powerful by putting their finger on the scale in any direction. If they threaten the relationship, our righting reflex typically floods us with feelings of abandonment, “failure,” or fear. We think “Oh my God, no! Don’t leave me!” If the Narcissist gets all lovey dovey, we might appreciate the feel good for a moment, but another part of us starts to ask again, “What am I doing with this person?”

If we don’t answer those scary questions and make authentic choices, we stay stuck. When we start to answer the questions, we usually start considering exit plans

when dealing with a Narcissist.

Upside Down World This crazy-feeling dance of ambivalence is an excellent demonstration of the fundamental difference between ego-wounded people and those whose egos are stable enough: We are not having the same conversation. That’s why it gets so baffling at times.

The stable enough person is thinking this conflict is about whether or not the relationship is healthy enough, or has enough secondary benefits, to be viable. The ego-wounded or ego-broken person is unconsciously (unless they are sociopathic with no conscience or malignantly narcissistic with selective conscience,) pressing one side or the other of the ambivalence for the sole purpose of feeling a fleeting sense of power that calms their intense fear of being found defective.

For the ego-stable, it’s about healthy relationship. For the Narcissist, it’s about winning and losing. With narcissism’s underpinnings in shame, losing is about being A Loser, and winning is about being A Winner.

See the two different conversations?

Peeking Behind the Curtain Whenever a Narcissist seems erratic or unpredictable, peek behind the curtain and look for the way their choices might serve ego. The seasick feeling we sometimes get when dealing with Narcissists most often comes from trying to stay engaged in the content of the conflict itself, while the Narcissist is using strategies honed since age three to get an ego stroke.

We sometimes think that if we just present what we’re saying well enough, the other person will surely understand and engage in the conversation we’re trying to have. After all, it’s just logical. It would even be in their best interests. It can take many tries before we recognize that the person just isn’t going to go there. It is entirely logical, if you consider how the ego-wounded person’s choices serve the goal of feeling powerful in that (often fleeting) moment.

The Grand Illusion It can be difficult to see past the harm and destruction, the demeaning and wounding that a Narcissist can deliver to recognize the terrified child frantically trying to drive an adult-sized bus. It’s in the best interests of both the potential targets and the toddler at the wheel if we avoid getting run over.

Years of perfecting the toddler game often leave the ego-broken able to be very persuasive and even charming. Watch for the signs above. Read behavior over ear-tickling words. Be mindful of how much “benefit of the doubt” you extend when you see the behaviors listed above. The rules need to be different just as the conversation is different. Sometimes the most loving, compassionate, thoughtful thing we can say, is no.

........................................................................... If you are reading or listening to this blog and sincerely wondering if you are a Narcissist, you probably aren’t. If you are starting to understand that you have a Narcissist in your life and want help figuring out your healthiest choices, contact Tiffany today. Let’s make a plan.