Sometimes, I teach on and counsel regarding the personality disorder known as “Narcissism.” I get asked about it a bit and used to pretty regularly teach other therapists about it. In an effort to get some thoughts on paper and help anyone who might be orbiting themselves or another, I figured to put something down here.
Additionally, though you or I may not be a full-blown diagnosable narcissist, we often will have some lines of thought, or some chips in our soul that are very similar. I think the narcissist lurks in the hearts of many of us. I recommend getting the help you need to come clean.
Entitlement has no place in the life of the Christian and virtually any sense of expectation is toxic in friendships and marriage, but we live in a narcissistic culture and many of us need to be honest, face these tendencies, pray for deliverance, and dealing with them in community. I am so much more free since I began to recognize some of this junk in my own heart. I pray the same for you.
Incidentally, the name from this disorder comes from the myth of the man, Narcissa, who starved to death because he could not tear himself away from his own reflection in a pool of water.
Some theorists say that people cannot be “cured” of personality disorders. And with man some things are impossible, but with God all things are possible (Matt 19:26). Change is never easy and it is impossible for them. Even for someone who knows no god higher than themselves, there is a God who may decide to break a false one.
I depend on the Holy Spirit to make me whole through His sanctifying work, and He does. I will start this conversation with a story that may be all too familiar with some of us:
There is a couple newly married. He goes away for a weekend business trip. His bride gets excited to surprise him, so she sneaks out to the lingerie shop and buys something new to surprise him with. He comes back on Sunday evening and finds rose petals spread in a path to the bedroom. There, his bride seduces him in a free act of love, romance and passion. His desire to feel desired is overflowing! This also includes his insecurities about being wanted, needed, etc. He feels empowered because of her free gift of choosing him in this powerful way.
Six months later, he goes away on another business trip. He finds himself anticipating his welcome home! Here is a key that I will mention later… *there is something special that happens here for the emerging narcissist (usually not for the first time)… however, in an effort to show how damaging this mindset can be, even for those of us living a less than fully blown narcissistic life… He finds himself anticipating his welcome home! He arrives home to find that due to what happened in her life this weekend, for whatever reason, sex with him has not even crossed her mind once (yes, this is possible for most women). Even in the best of situations, he is a little disappointed.
Likely he, as most of us do at some point, responds in an emotionally negative way. He pouts, or is a little more edgy, maybe much worse. Soon, she puts it all together and realizes that the negative emotional consequences come when she “lets him down” in this way. The depth and breadth of his response will dictate so much in this moment of their marriage. Let’s assume it is pretty strong. It certainly doesn’t have to be, but for simplicity, we will say he is sullen for a few days. After a few days, she catches on – rather through her intuition, or through a fight he lets it be known, or another way, she catches on.
Six months later, he goes on another trip. When he comes home, she seduces him again. It looks similar, if not almost identical from a behavioral sense, but it isn’t at all the same in a spiritual sense. What motivated her a year ago? Freedom, and the expression of her new freedom to love her husband in power and grace. What motivates her now? An effort to avoid negative emotional consequences… what we might call wages.
In its worst form, which will be created if this is left unchecked, what was once a gift will become dutiful labor, if not downright blackmail. In our example (which is common, but certainly not universal – there are myriad different things this can play out about – what happens if I disagree with him or correct him? Joke in a way that he feels is at his expense? Prepare dinner for him? If I am on the phone when he gets home? Keep a clean house?)
“If I don’t work for him correctly, then my wages are anger, disconnection, etc. So, I better pay.” What was a gift, is now an effort to earn wages. It may not look different on the outside, but it is death.
This can happen to any couple, and almost any marriage can accidentally become defined with this kind of performance based wages version of marriage. It is like plant killer on the garden of marriage. It is a key part of the teaching on marriage that I think can rescue us from this awful spiral. It is too easy for any of us to get there. However, this cycle is virtually guaranteed in a marriage with the true narcissist… and even if he understood it, he would be ok with it so long as it gets him what he wants.
At some point in life, the narcissist’s identity becomes dependent on proving certain things.
He isn’t just any person, but is a special, extraordinary person and he needs to continually prove it to be true. This splinter begins to create other symptoms.
For example, they need to relate to other exceptional people, and can only really be understood by them. They need to be show that they can escape the gravity of the rules that bind other people. Other people must obey their rules nearly flawlessly, but the rules aren’t for them. The narcissistic thinking is to berate a wife for buying shirts for their kids that he considers unnecessary while feeling totally free to spend his money without any accountability, even if it means coming home with a new business he has invested their retirement in.
Before we think “I would never do that,” keep in mind that the way of thinking is the same even if the degree isn’t. If the rules apply to others, but not to you, there is a seed in there. If you need to be treated better than others, it is there.
Also, the narcissist tends to treat other people’s boundaries as somewhat personally offensive. This is because it indicates that the boundary draw-er apparently respects their own boundaries more than the narcissist.
Anything the narcissist has to compete with for perceived respect must be fought against.
Consider, wouldn’t the ultimate proof of his value comes when someone chooses to please him rather than hold to their boundary? The more precious, personal, and intimate the boundary is, the more it proves. This seems to be why the narcissist’s sex partner often feels under constant pressure. If she is uncomfortable with something, she can count on him pushing because he feels less “loved” because of it. He will often obsess over anything that she is unwilling to do for him. This isn’t only about sex, either.
Their life will slowly begin to take on the look of a series of steps that she must take in virtually each interaction in order to avoid his emotional consequences. If he gets angry if she is on the phone when he walks in the door from work, then he will demand that behavior change.
For be it from him to accept her attention being pointed anywhere but him when he arrives. He feels a strong need to hold first place in everyone’s heart. Technically, he feels a strong need for constant evidence that he is first. After he has communicated this kind of preference, he then breaks into what may be the most important mindset of the narcissist, entitlement.
In the story at the beginning of the article*, I mentioned that something key happens in the soul of the narcissist at moments like that.
Entitlement is that key.
There is more than can be put in a blog, but this is the fuel that keeps the narcissistic cycle running. Expectations can and usually do steal the joy from marriage, but the narcissist’s heart is ruled by them. Everything needs to conform to him. Vacations and holidays should look a certain way, and if they don’t, everyone will pay somehow. He expects his children to respond to him a certain way (and the younger children generally do, but his teenagers usually cry out in some form). All of us may do this at times, but the narcissist cannot escape it.
Remember, he must be constantly proving, proving, proving, and manipulating others to prove. They must prove that he is first, strong, right, desired, respected… that he is ok. These stem from his deep insecurities. If the entitlement is the fuel, I believe insecurities are the hidden engine.
Who needs to constantly and sometimes frantically prove these things about themselves?
Someone who doubts those things. One way that this plays out, incidentally, is probably why narcissists seem to never evaluate their own motives. When they are unhappy, they never consider that it could be themselves. Their marriage is not going as they feel entitled to, and it honestly never crosses their mind that it could be them (they have to subconsciously protect themselves from their insecurities); who does that leave? The witch.
I once had a “recovering” narcissist tell me about sitting in a parking lot for an hour inwardly debating the true motives for returning the extra change the attendant had given him – because it is the right thing to do, or in order for her to say “wow, more people should be like you.” He had no memory, as an adult man, of ever questioning his own motives before.
These deep insecurities, which the narcissist is almost always totally unaware of and totally unwilling to face, are the crack in their soul.
The ability to honestly deal with these is a huge sign of how able a narcissist will be to escape their painful mindset. So far, it is the only path by which I have seen them break free.
Very often, the narcissist has been taught since childhood that their performance is all that makes them valuable. Since only performance proves value, they are often great performers. In fact, very often they are much loved and respected people, at least to those who never create any real friction with them. They are often super honeymooners and romancers. Relationships with them, at first, don’t just seem to be going well, but extraordinary.
I won’t go into it in this blog, but the women they often draw into their orbit are very capable women, who are used to being able to solve their own problems, but who deeply desire to be with an exceptional and special man (this can be seen in a series of cycles that I can send to anyone interested). She meets him, and he believes himself to be that exceptional person and knows how to perform. She is swept off of her feet. It is not until after the honeymoon is over (often such wives will talk of things literally suddenly changing during or right after the honeymoon), that things begin to change.
How this plays out in marriage sometimes is that the narcissist seems like the fun, suave, healthy one to most people. Most therapists are even taken in by his ability to perform in a counselor’s office. If their wife is present, in fact, this tendency will make her panic – fearful that once again, she will be labeled the problem. Typically, her histrionic plea only comes across as more evidence of the theory that she is the problem. Often have I had these men look at me with a painful and almost pitying expression with a little nod to say “see what I have to deal with?”
Post tragic of all is that he believes this to be true. Generally, in fact, my experience is that it is the narcissist who finally leaves, sick of the way she has ruined his life. By the time they see me, they are often on the second or third marriage.
Another way this performance skill plays out is in their careers. Sometimes, they are narcissistic without anything to show for it, but in my experience they are more often quite successful from a worldly perspective. Performance pays. They are also often drawn to careers that “earn” them a measure of respect automatically.
The majority of the narcissists I have worked with have been doctors, pilots, military men, and clergy, for example. These roles cause people to immediately offer them the benefit of the doubt.
The last thing I want to take the time to mention is that the narcissist is almost always, and unknowingly accepting the counterfeit version of what he really wants. He deeply wants to be loved, but you cannot force something that by definition is a free gift. So, in his effort to force someone to “love” him, he receives “fear” instead.
If my wife engages with me in order to avoid negative consequences of not engaging, that is fear, not freedom! He wants “respect”, but gets “humored.” He wants “submission” but gets “capitulation.” Sadly, very often the friend or family member is trying to offer something free, like love, trust, respect, etc., but because he must push it and force it, he only receives it as the counterfeit! It is just too scary to let someone else be in charge of the narcissist feeling loved, and if it is a free gift, then it can be taken just as easily.
That feeling of not being in control of how another responds to him is intolerable to him. There is much, much more to talk about in this context… but to make sure you can see the whole picture:
In a nutshell, here are the symptoms of the narcissistic mindset:
1. offended by boundaries
2. strict personal rules that don’t apply to themselves
3. want to relate to “special” people *
4. a sense of expectation and entitlement *
5. doesn’t examine own motives.
6. great performers
7. expects to be treated as superior *
8. obsessed with their own desire for perfect love, success, etc *
9. requires excessive admiration *
10. thinks about things from their perspective only – this causes them to be exploitative of others *
11. believes others are envious of him *
12. is arrogant and haughty *
* these are also found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (IV)
If, after reading this, you are interested in the cycle of a common cycle of the narcissistic marriage, or if you suspect yourself or someone else to be trapped in this mindset, let me know and/or come see me. My contact info is on my counseling page.
Incidentally, I freely use the masculine “he” when referring to the narcissist. This is because according to the research and to my experience, the vast majority are male. Women can be trapped in this mindset as well, though, even if not diagnosable-y so, so I waited until the end to mention this.
Chris Legg LPC