If you’ve been on the receiving end of traumatizing narcissistic abuse or even treated to the repugnant spectacle of narcissistic self-puffery, it can be easy to miss the desperate vulnerability underlying the behavior. Widely misunderstood, Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) derives not from self-love but from fundamental feelings of inferiority, which the narcissist strives continuously to hide from others and from herself through overcompensating entitlement, self-aggrandizement, and assertions of superiority over others.
Narcissism as Maladaptive
As a result of parental loss, abuse, and/or overindulgence in childhood, NPD occurs in about 6.2 percent of people in the United States (with a higher incidence in men than women), according to the National Institutes of Health.
While NPD is an adaptive strategy adopted early in life, it is cripplingly maladaptive in adulthood. The narcissist is particularly toxic to others, most traumatically to his family, because he operates emotionally at the developmental level of a toddler but with the cognitive ability of an adult, which he beams with laser focus on one thing: manipulating his environment to fuel his limitless need for self-affirmation at virtually any cost.
The tragic nature of NPD is that the narcissist spends her life chasing something she will likely never attain—a stable sense of her own personhood. And yet the narcissist as tragic figure is difficult to sympathize with because of her abusive nature.
The Paradoxes of Narcissism
The person suffering with NPD presents numerous paradoxes.
1. He is furious at the world and yet utterly dependent on other people for psycho-emotional sustenance.
2. He believes he is entitled to special treatment while being oblivious to if not contemptuous of others’ needs.
3. He constantly seeks attention and admiration but often self-sabotages by being rude, haughty, or attacking.
4. He is morally bankrupt in his relationships while expecting people around him to admire and serve him.
5. He is extraordinarily vulnerable to shame and rejection but readily humiliates and abandons others.
6. He continuously claims credit while deflecting all accountability.
7. He is expert at detecting and exploiting others’ desires and vulnerabilities but is blind to his own inner workings.
8. He routinely bullies, manipulates, and betrays those closest to him while demanding their good will and loyalty.
9. He expects unconditional love without the capacity to give the merest morsel of empathy in return.
The Narcissist’s Logic
And yet what appears as paradoxical has its own, albeit flawed, logic. The narcissist is grabbing at what she didn’t get enough of from her caretakers at a crucially formative time of life—validation of self. Like anyone compensating for deprivation, she tries to fill the void. But what is acceptable behavior as a young child becomes pathological as an adult, and the narcissistically disordered personality ends up harming and alienating others more often than winning their adoration.
The narcissist is drinking from a cup without a bottom, looking to others to fill and refill it only to end up empty. No one can give him what he needs, because he cannot see anyone but himself. Without a childhood “redo,” his search for self in others’ eyes only shows him his own empty eyes reflected back.