By Sam Vaknin
Author of “Malignant Self-love: Narcissism Revisited”
The Grandiosity Gap (between a fantastically grandiose – and unlimited – self-image and actual – limited – accomplishments and achievements) is grating. Its recurrence threatens the precariously balanced house of cards that is the narcissistic personality. The narcissist finds, to his chagrin, that people out there are much less admiring, accommodating and accepting than his parents. As he grows old, the narcissist often becomes the target of constant derision and mockery, a sorry sight indeed. His claims for superiority appear less plausible and substantial the more and the longer he makes them.
Pathological narcissism – originally a defense mechanism intended to shield the narcissist from an injurious world – becomes the main source of hurt, a generator of injuries, counterproductive and dangerous. Overwhelmed by negative or absent Narcissistic Supply, the narcissist is forced to let go of it.
The narcissist then resorts to self-delusion. Unable to completely ignore contrarian opinion and data – he transmutes them. Unable to face the dismal failure that he is, the narcissist partially withdraws from reality. To soothe and salve the pain of disillusionment, he administers to his aching soul a mixture of lies, distortions, half-truths and outlandish interpretations of events around him. These solutions can be classified thus:
The Delusional Narrative Solution
The narcissist constructs a narrative in which he figures as the hero – brilliant, perfect, irresistibly handsome, destined for great things, entitled, powerful, wealthy, the center of attention, etc. The bigger the strain on this delusional charade – the greater the gap between fantasy and reality – the more the delusion coalesces and solidifies.
Finally, if it is sufficiently protracted, it replaces reality and the narcissist’s reality test deteriorates. He withdraws his bridges and may become schizotypal, catatonic, or schizoid.
The Antisocial Solution
The narcissist renounces reality. To his mind, those who pusillanimously fail to recognize his unbound talents, innate superiority, overarching brilliance, benevolent nature, entitlement, cosmically important mission, perfection, etc. – do not deserve consideration.
The narcissist’s natural affinity with the criminal – his lack of empathy and compassion, his deficient social skills, his disregard for social laws and morals – now erupt and blossom. He becomes a full-fledged antisocial (sociopath or psychopath). He ignores the wishes and needs of others, he breaks the law, he violates all rights – natural and legal, he holds people in contempt and disdain, he derides society and its codes, he punishes the ignorant ingrates – that, to his mind, drove him to this state – by acting criminally and by jeopardizing their safety, lives, or property.
The Paranoid Schizoid Solution
When narcissism fails as a defense mechanism, the narcissist develops paranoid narratives: self-directed confabulations which place him at the center of others’ allegedly malign attention. The narcissist becomes his own audience and self-sufficient as his own, sometimes exclusive, source of narcissistic supply.
The narcissist develops persecutory delusions. He perceives slights and insults where none were intended. He becomes subject to ideas of reference (people are gossiping about him, mocking him, prying into his affairs, cracking his e-mail, etc.). He is convinced that he is the center of malign and mal-intentioned attention. People are conspiring to humiliate him, punish him, abscond with his property, delude him, impoverish him, confine him physically or intellectually, censor him, impose on his time, force him to action (or to inaction), frighten him, coerce him, surround and besiege him, change his mind, part with his values, victimize or even murder him, and so on.
Some narcissists withdraw completely from a world populated with such minacious and ominous objects (really projections of internal objects and processes). They avoid all social contact, except the most necessary. They refrain from meeting people, falling in love, having sex, talking to others, or even corresponding with them. In short: they become schizoids – not out of social shyness, but out of what they feel to be their choice.
“This evil, hopeless world does not deserve me” – goes the inner refrain – “and I shall waste none of my time and resources on it.”
The Paranoid Aggressive (Explosive) Solution
Other narcissists who develop persecutory delusions, resort to an aggressive stance, a more violent resolution of their internal conflict. They become verbally, psychologically, situationally (and, very rarely, physically) abusive. They insult, castigate, chastise, berate, demean, and deride their nearest and dearest (often well wishers and loved ones). They explode in unprovoked displays of indignation, righteousness, condemnation, and blame.
Theirs is an exegetic Bedlam. They interpret everything – even the most innocuous, inadvertent, and innocent comment – as designed to provoke and humiliate them. They sow fear, revulsion, hate, and malignant envy. They flail against the windmills of reality – a pathetic, forlorn, sight. But often they cause real and lasting damage – fortunately, mainly to themselves.
The Masochistic Avoidant Solution
The narcissist is angered by the lack of narcissistic supply. He directs some of this fury inwards, punishing himself for his “failure”. This masochistic behavior has the added “benefit” of forcing the narcissist’s closest to assume the roles of dismayed spectators or of persecutors and thus, either way, to pay him the attention that he craves.
Self-administered punishment often manifests as self-handicapping masochism – a narcissistic cop-out. By undermining his work, his relationships, and his efforts, the increasingly fragile narcissist avoids additional criticism and censure (negative supply). Self-inflicted failure is the narcissist’s doing and thus proves that he is the master of his own fate.
Masochistic narcissists keep finding themselves in self-defeating circumstances which render success impossible – and “an objective assessment of their performance improbable” (Millon, 2000). They act carelessly, withdraw in mid-effort, are constantly fatigued, bored, or disaffected and thus passive-aggressively sabotage their lives. Their suffering is defiant and by “deciding to abort” they reassert their omnipotence.
The narcissist’s pronounced and public misery and self-pity are compensatory and “reinforce (his) self-esteem against overwhelming convictions of worthlessness” (Millon, 2000). His tribulations and anguish render him, in his eyes, unique, saintly, virtuous, righteous, resilient, and significant. They are, in other words, self-generated narcissistic supply.
Thus, paradoxically, the worst his anguish and unhappiness, the more relieved and elated such a narcissist feels!