Narcissists are driven yet insecure

I did my Master’s degree thesis on Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) many years ago and it was an in-depth study of this kind of psychological problem.

The interesting discovery, among many, for me was that rarely do individuals with NPD perceive themselves as having a problem.

Instead, it is their partners, children, siblings, friends, work colleagues, and others who are in contact with them, who desperately seek help to deal with the problems they experience related to these individuals.

The disorder exists along a continuum of severity, from the border with neurotic personality types to the more severely disturbed levels.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) Mental Disorders, the bible of mental health professionals, the general features of an individual with this personality type are that they:

Have a grandiose sense of self-importance;

Are preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love;

Believe that they are “special”, unique and can only be understood by, or should only associate with, other special or high-status people/institutions;

Require excessive admiration. They regularly seek compliments, and are highly susceptible to flattery;

Have a deep sense of entitlement;

Are interpersonally exploitative;

Lack empathy: are unwilling/unable to recognise or identify with the feelings and needs of others;

Are often envious of others or believe that others are envious of them; and

Show arrogant, haughty (rude and abusive) behaviours or attitudes.

The individual need only meet five out of the nine items to meet the criteria of this “diagnosis”. But in many cases there are many more disturbing features that they display in their behaviour.

These include that they are highly reactive to criticism, or anything they interpret as negatively evaluating their personhood or performance.

If they’re asked a question that might oblige them to admit some vulnerability, deficiency, or culpability, they’re apt to falsify the evidence (ie: lie – yet without really acknowledging such prevarication to themselves), change the subject, or respond as though they’d been asked something entirely different. Despite all their egotistic grandiosity, they possess extremely low self esteem. Superficially their self-regard would appear to be higher and more assured than others.

Additionally, given their customary “drivenness,” it’s not uncommon for them to rise to positions of power and influence, as well as amass a fortune. Many of them become leaders of companies, political leaders and the like due to their drivenness.

However, beneath the surface of such stature – or their accomplishments generally – one can infer a degree of insecurity beyond anything they might be willing to admit. This is the self-doubting, recessive part of their being that, though well hidden from sight, is nonetheless afflicted with feelings and fears of inferiority.

In as much as their elaborate defense system effectively wards off their having to face what their bravado appearance masks, they’re skilled at appearing, or “posturing”, exceptionally high self-esteem.

They’re experts at complimenting themselves, and when – despite all their self-aggrandisement – others are critical of them, they can be inordinately self-righteous and defensive. Needing so much to protect their overblown but fragile ego, their ever-vigilant defense system can be easy to set off. Anything said or done that they perceive as questioning their competence can activate their robust self-protective mechanisms. Which is why so many non-narcissists I’ve worked with have shared how difficult it is to get through to them in situations of conflict.

In challenging circumstances it’s almost as if their very survival depends on being right or justified, whereas admitting a mistake – or, uttering the words “I’m sorry” for some transgression – seem difficult to impossible for them.

Their “my way or the highway” attitude – their stubborn, competitive insistence that their point of view prevail – betrays (while trying to conceal) their underlying doubts about not being good, strong or smart enough. The more their pretentious, privileged, exaggeratedly puffed-up self-image feels endangered by another’s position, the more likely they are to react to opposing viewpoints with anger or rage. The reason these feelings are so typically expressed by them is that in the moment they externalise the far more painful anxiety- or shame-related emotions hiding just beneath them, when they’re on the verge of feeling – or re-feeling – hurt or humiliation from their past, their consequent rage “transfers” these unwanted feelings to another.

The accompanying message communicated is: “I’m not bad (wrong, stupid, etc), you are!” Or, “I’m not narcissistic! You are!”

And if the mentally healthier individual has no clue regarding what provoked their outburst, it is likely to make them feel not only baffled but hurt, and frightened.

Whatever narcissists seek to give themselves, they generally expect to get from others, as part of their entitlement. Their porous boundaries and unevenly developed interpersonal skills may prompt them to inappropriately dominate conversations and share with others intimate details.

But having much less of a sense of shame (consciously), they’re likely to share things they’ve said or done that many would be too embarrassed or humiliated to admit. They might proudly share how they “chewed” someone out, and expect the other person to be impressed by their courage or cleverness, when in fact the listener may be appalled by their lack of kindness, tact, or restraint. Additionally, they may ask others questions that are far too personal or intimate – unwittingly irritating or upsetting them.

And such a situation can be particularly difficult for the other person if the narcissist is in a position of authority over them so that not responding could, practically, put them in some jeopardy.

Carin-Lee Masters is a clinical psychologist. While she cannot enter into correspondence with individual readers, she will try to answer as many queries as possible through this column. You can write to her at helpmecarin@inl.co.za Send a WhatsApp message or SMS to 082 264 7774.