31 Aug

Understanding Narcissists (Part II)

In the previous article (Understanding Narcissists (Part I), I began to identify a problem exemplified by the “Myth of Narcissus”. This myth portrays a scenario where a beautiful young boy is mesmerized by his own image staring as longingly and lovingly back at him, as he is at it.   Being unable to recognize the reflection as himself, he  tries so desperately to form a relationship with his own image that it costs him his life.

Narcissistic relationships with others occur under two conditions.

The first is when we fail to appreciate that our way of seeing them is precisely that – our view of them.  In other words, we fail to appreciate the fact  that “who they are” is inextricably connected  to “our interpretation of them”.

The second condition arises when we subsequently demand of the other (one way or the other) that they become more like us.

When we  look at others and unconsciously see them as a reflection of our self, we do not (and cannot) view them as individuals in their own right.  Rather, we unconsciously expect and anticipate they will see things the way we see them, hold similar views, notice similar things, have similar preferences and so on.

As described by Alice Miller (1981) “we experience them not as the center of their own activity but as a part of ourselves….. as objects that we expect will reflect and support our wishes and desires”.

Within these type of relationships, when we are with others who give us what we want, which is to say they agree with what we say, believe what we believe and support the same values we identify with, then our relationship proceeds smoothly.

As Miller continues to say however,  “if the object does not behave as we expect or wish, we may at times be immeasurably disappointed or offended, almost as if an arm ceased to obey us or a function we take for granted (such as memory) lets us down.  This sudden loss of control may also lead to an intense narcissistic rage.”

There are many, like Narcissus, who can easily fall in love with someone or something as long as that person helps support the image of that person as strong, caring intelligent, valuable, and so on.  In fact, such individuals will over-extend themselves precisely in order to foster an image of  being generous and kind and understanding,  and will highly reward those who support this perception.

But they absolutely cannot tolerate those who disagree with them, or those who asked to be treated as separate individuals with their own wishes and needs. Narcissists are the nicest people you can imagine if they can have things their way.   But they become incensed and indignant with those who do not act in accordance with their wishes and no amount of reasoning with them will soothe their wounded pride.

“Successful” narcissists have learned how to effectively manipulate and control people and can appear, at least to the casual observer, to be a remarkably likable, agreeable, and friendly individual.  “Unsuccessful” narcissists are not so skilled at getting nourishment from others and tend to have a much smaller circle of friends and acquaintances.  Even in this simpler arrangement, struggles and conflict are fairly common as the awkward efforts to please others and the limited capacity to know how to respond appropriately to the needs and wishes of others creates repeating frustrations for everyone.