A Brief Psychology of Narcissism and How to Survive It
Based on
Heinz Kohut’s Self Psychology

Many difficult people that sift through our lives can be thought of as having narcissistic qualities.  Some will have narcissistic tendencies, or “traits,” which can be a pretty annoying turn-off, and some,  a full-blown, diagnosable “Narcissistic Personality Disorder” (NPD) which can be a really serious, and sometimes even dangerous problem.  So, depending on the degree to which their narcissism shows itself, these can be extremely challenging people to deal with and especially to live with.  Here, I’m mainly writing about living with the Narcissistic Personality partner which I will abbreviate, “NPD,” but much of the information here is relevant to those with narcissistic traits too, whether or not you are in a living-together situation.  

Before considering how to deal with the NPD it will be important to understand some of the psychology of narcissism.  (While it might be workable to use “Peter’s” strategy for dealing with NPDs, I think that knowing a psychology out of which to create your own ‘personalized’ style of responding is much more empowering than “parroting” mine, don’t you?  It’s how I work in therapy and that’s how I’d like to be helpful to you here.)   Three notes before I start:  While I do use the masculine pronoun “him” a lot in this writing, I want to stress that 50-75% of people with NPD are men (therapy.com), and that there is virtually “no difference psychodynamically” between men and women (Vaknin Ph.D, Malignant Self Love).  Next, I would invite you to take a look at the original myth of Narcissus and Echo.  It's entertaining to read and it will really illuminate the original formulation of the NPD  diagnosis.  Finally, I would really encourage you to take a look at my brief article on CoDependance to learn more about being at the effect of narcissism.  I would als encourage you to take your time as you read this.  While I think this reads fairly easily, there’s a lot of information here and it can get pretty involved...

Narcissistic Vulnerability 

The bottom line is that this condition originates in the inability to accurately assess or “estimate” (isn’t this where the word “esteem” comes from ~ “estimate?”) one’s own intrinsic value. Without this ability we become highly vulnerable to deep shame (albeit unconscious) where “Shame” is the condition of feeling broken, or damaged, or worthless.  Thus, the NPD must get that positive estimate of worth from the outside — from you. NPDs need to use other people as “self-objects.”  That is, they use other people to fulfill functions in their own Self that they cannot fulfill on their own, like estimating and managing self worth.  Actually, we all use other people at times in this way, to help us feel strong when we feel weak or to boost our self esteem when it is low.  That’s not a bad thing.  However, someone who is truly narcissistic will use other people primarily in this way and will have difficulty relating to people in any other way.  And often, they will be so slick about it, that you won’t even know that they’re doing it!  In fact, they may not even know it themselves.  They will not recognize that others have needs of their own or separate agendas than they do that may involve other People.  Rather, I’ll say that they literally can’t recognize it -- some actually don’t have the capacity to recognize others as autonomous, feeling or thinking, individual, self directed beings!  Are you beginning to understand yet, why typically, NPDs, under their initial appearance can't be sensitive to, much less empathize, with anyone else's feelings?  Here, I would invite you to take a look at Mark Milano, MD's Article about Emotional Intellegence in the ER.  While it may at first seem irrelevant, you will quickly discover why I've included it here.  I’ll say more about this in a minute...

At the deepest level, all NPDs carry with them extremely low self esteem, shame, and insecurity and have created several strategies to manage these “narcissistic wounds.” Among the most obvious is their use of other people to make themselves feel good.  The most typical ways are for “mirroring” (gaining admiration) and “idealizing” (seeking connection to someone who is admired).  

When needing admiration or mirroring you’ll find the NPD talking a lot about himself, or trying to overachieve or to impress in the presence of important others.  You’ll find him fishing for compliments, or inflating, even exaggerating his sense of accomplishment.  Here, you’ll notice very little room to talk about your own experiences.  At first, the NPD may act interested, but this is a pretty short-lived seduction.  Shortly thereafter, the attention will clearly be turned back to him/her.  Don’t be too surprised if you then find yourself either heaping on the praise (remember that the NPD can be incredibly compelling and charming), or becoming unbearably bored!

When idealizing, the NPD will try to become connected with, identified with and attempt to get the attention of admired others, such as the most popular or influential doctors, clergy, politicians, the popular peers, etc.  They will then cleverly, vicariously partake of their fame through association. 

In most extreme cases, those with true diagnosable Narcissistic Personality Disorder, fully live the position that all others are in the world, literally to serve them: to reflect back to the NPD their own, grandiose sense of “wonderfulness” and to reinforce their irrational, incorrect sense of entitlement!  Quite literally, others are seen much like appendages, having no independent needs or wants, feelings or thoughts, therefore having no empathy for them (how much sense does it make to have empathy with your foot?).  The classic example in Kohut’s Self Psychology is this: in the same way that a person will become enraged if a particular body part, a hand for example, does not work the way we intend it (perhaps due to a stroke), the NPD will become enraged (or intensely frustrated) if the “other”, who is supposed to be propping up his ego, does not function in that way.  (As you've probably guessed, this frustration or 'rage' is really a defense against fear).  I know that it’s hard to wrap your head around this contorted reality because most of us don’t have such a desperation to have our ego, our self esteem massaged by others. So, this is really important: the NPD needs to rely on the positive reflection of others to feel good with the same urgency that a person relies on oxygen to breathe...really!

Depending on the severity of the disturbance, someone with a narcissistic vulnerability will try to seduce and control others as a way of making sure that he will constantly be provided with the needed supply of self esteem that he can’t provide for himself.

You need to understand that, to the NPD, acknowledging that another person is separate from him, or not under his control is completely unacceptable.  Why?  It can evoke the same kind of terror and rage that would be felt if your very survival was at stake.  For the NPD, it is the survival of the externally fed illusion of positive self esteem which hides a very real sense of shame and brokenness.  More, narcissistic “entitlement” acts as a way of coping with the shame of needing things that he fears he may not deserve due to that lack of self worth I talked about earlier. He must somehow make himself feel special, no matter what. “Entitlement” will do it!  Can you see why it is so terrifying for the NPD to even imagine admitting to being vulnerable (here is a link to a wonderful video on the nature of vulnerability.)?  

In the most extreme, maintaining an adamant denial of fear, guilt, shame and and underlying lack of self esteem can result in physical domination over significant others when they do not act as his extended Self-Object (this is most common in domestic violence cases).  It is not uncommon for the NPD to distort reality or ignore certain aspects of reality to suit the particular needs of the damaged self esteem.  A more benign, albeit exasperating example: when someone becomes critical, you’ll see the NPD simply continue talking as if the person didn’t even speak (if you know of people who don’t seem to hear a word you say when you talk to them, especially when receiving even simple, constructive criticism, you know exactly what I’m saying here).

Other Strategies that NPDs Use

Other self esteem regulating strategies may involve a more grandiose ideational system  with illusions of being superior in some way, or, not needing anyone at all.  This is one the reasons that people with narcissistic problems (especially those with full-blown NPD) don’t usually seek psychotherapy.  The very idea that they could need help from anyone else or that anything could possibly be “wrong” with them is preposterous: a direct hit on an already fragile, delusional self esteem.  Interestingly, for those with a more idealizing style, they may actually be willing to see a therapist as a way of trying to connect with an admired professional who will validate their “airtight” view of the world, delusional though it may be.  

In addition to the more proactive measures of seeking out others to regulate self esteem (which by the way is not usually conscious on their part), the NPD has various strategies for reacting to a perceived ego/self esteem threat. In the face of an expected confrontation or other consequence for wrongdoing, unconscious fear motivates avoidance at all cost. Inevitable internal guilt or shame is immediately and easily warded off through the mechanism of blame (convincing himself that the ‘offended’ a) deserved what they got or b) brought the offense on themselves). Here is the complete avoidance of taking any responsibility for transgression and therefore, any need to  apologize for it. (Can you see how the self admission of a “fault” would be completely unacceptable?). You also need to understand that ‘blame’ is the primary defense that keeps the grandiose, narcissistically delusional system in tact.  So, in any way possible, the narcissistically wounded, motivated by the terror of being “real” with themselves, will change their perception of reality to avoid any genuine responsibility for being “wrong” whatsoever. 

Practical Strategies for Dealing with Narcissists

There is more to be said about the narcissistic condition, but I think you've read enough now, to consider a more strategic attitude for yourself.  First of all, I would again point you to my brief article on CoDependence, for a more complete view of living within the context of narcissism.  From the information that follows, you may get the idea that I’m suggesting that you take a more “enabling” position with him.  I’m not.  I make the assumption here, that you are wanting to learn how to live within, how to survive within the pretty draining, often exasperating climate of the narcissistic relationship. That is:

    • how to diffuse toxic situations how to create and express appropriate boundaries for yourself
    • how to re-engage your personal power and reclaim the sense of your Self again
    • how to make proper decisions about what you will, and will not participate in
    • how to increase the likelihood of staying emotionally and physically safe

I do not assume that you want to become the NPD’s therapist.  In fact, I do not recommend it!  You have chosen to be with the NPD, not to fix him.  That is a pretty daunting task that, I’m sure enough, you would not want to take on!  Most therapists don't want to either. 

The overarching strategy is about finding ways of decreasing the likelihood that the NPD's ego, his self esteem will feel threatened, and to help the NPD feel less reactionary in your presence.  As a general principle, empathic statements that reflect caring and understanding about the NPD’s point of view, and that validate self esteem (or the injuries to self esteem) can do a lot to de-escalate rage reactions and needs to be controlling.  (Two notes here: First, just because you accurately reflect a particular viewing point, does not mean that you agree with it.  It only means that you’ve heard it accurately!  Next, this strategy does not apply, and will likely not work with people who are “sociopathic” who are motivated more by the desire for revenge than for protection from shame reactions).

While it may seem that empathizing with the NPD’s sense of entitlement, the need to control, and self absorption may be reinforcing toxic behaviors, the need to protect his self esteem is usually so strong that it is usually pretty useless to do anything to oppose it.  In fact, if you do, your opposition will likely be met with increased defensive aggressiveness.  Trying to contend with the most basic survival mechanisms and defenses that are evoked when the narcissist’s ego is threatened, and trying to have a rational conversation with him when he is in a state of such desperate need, is not going to go very far at all.

The Basic Strategies:

1. Don’t depend on the NPD in any way to contribute to your own self esteem, ever! 

It’s just not going to happen.  This means that you’ll need to pull together for yourself a circle of support people as large as possible outside your relationship, so that you feel more validated by important ‘others’ and less need of his positive feedback or encouragement or support.  He cannot offer you any of those things because in his mind, you are not an independent, separate person.  You are seen literally as an extension of his own Self, as an appendage, like a hand or a foot. (If he does by chance offer anything positive to you, it’s most likely because he’s relating to something in you that is experienced as part of his own self, and so he’s really complimenting, massaging his own ego!).  Here, I would refer you to my brief article on Self Esteem and Individuation, for a more in-depth look at the constituants of a healthy self esteem.  I think you'd feel really supported...

2. Do not give in to the narcissist’s attempts to control you.

Here, let it be understood that one must do whatever necessary to remain physically safe. Acquiescing however, does nothing for the underlying issue of poor self esteem.  What this does though, is reinforce the idea that to have anyone care for him, love him, appreciate him, or approve of him the NPD must coerce and manipulate to get it.

How helpful to one’s self esteem can it be to think that the only reason that someone spends time with him is because he throws a tantrum every time they don’t?   In addition, if you submit, feeling controlled by the NPD, you will not be in any position to give him the thing that will ultimately help him, empathy for his self esteem needs.

3. Empathize with his need for self esteem as well as with the wounds to it.

This often calms down a rage reaction (although you may have to first give some time for the person to calm down a little himself) and sometimes even allows the person to open himself up to seeing your perspective. This may only be possible after he feels fully understood by you.  If he does not respond, the tendency is to keep trying until you find a statement that makes him feel understood enough to calm him down. Remember that the narcissistic ego must see the 'reflection' of itself in you.  The extent to which your perception appears autonomous, and therefore different than his, is the extent to which he will likely reject it.  This should work most of the time, with most NPDs.

Anticipate Challenges, Don't Get Caught Off-Guard!

I like to call that third strategy, “strategic empathy."  Following early attempts, clients have talked about seeming "fake" or "phony" when creating and expressing any empathy at all.  At first it may. It's ok!  You might feel a bit awkward in delivering these statements.  This is natural so don’t be too hard on yourself.  This may be a new communication style for you so of course it could feel unnatural and a bit awkward to you. More, you may not feel much empathy for one as ‘inappropriate’ or toxic as as the NPD can be.  Challenging as it may be, you can begin by simply trying to understand how things feel from the NPD’s perspective (I’ll say more about this in a following paragraph). Eventually, this can help develop truly empathic statements and help them flow a bit more easily and naturally.  Again you need to remember that accepting and reflecting the perspective, the viewing point, does not imply that it is an accurate one, nor that you agree with it, only that you hear it accurately!  

It is easy, given the controlling and often caustically degrading nature that the NPD can display, to be angry and defensive, and therefore to judge the NPD as “bad.”  It is a challenge to be sure.  But if you can look through the opacity of this defense, into the wound that generates it, you will be amazed at how this can facilitate your new communications with him. So the thing to keep in mind is that the narcissistic behaviors that you see, are all borne out of a terribly wounded heart, and are defensive strategies against being wounded again.  As irrational as this might seem, isn’t that at least understandable?  

For example, some NPDs grew up with contemptuously critical or neglecting parents; parents who were narcissistic and controlling or demanding themselves.  Ever know any bullies?  Others had parents who spoiled them in return for the unspoken expectation of devotion at the expense of emancipating, or developing an autonomous self.  Still others had “normal” families, but difficult situations outside the family. Ever know anyone who was bullied?  Were you?  Some were considered “over-sensitive” and to this day have a difficult time feeling good about, or believing in themselves.  All of these senarios make developing the narcissistic personality more likely in order to protect against another such injury to a vulnerable heart.  Make sense?

So, in trying to remember how the NPD became so terribly vulnerable, at some point, you might actually feel some sadness for him (which is much different than “pity”) instead of anger. It will be much easier to develop more authentic empathic strategies, set limits and impose boundaries without feeling so intimidated or obligated by his demands. I can’t stress or repeat this enough: empathy does not mean agreement, and it does not imply your willingness to comply. It only communicates acceptance of a viewing point.

Most of us have some level of narcissistic need, but most of us do not distort reality or try to control reality to get those needs met.  Navigating well, as an act of personal empowerment and maintaining the core sense of your Self within narcissistic environments requires these things: 

    1. The full awareness that you have chosen, consciously and deliberately for now, to remain in the relationship with the NPD.
    2. The full awareness that you have chosen to be with him, not to fix him.
    3. The dedicated daily practice of "Strategic Empathy" with discipline, commitment and follow-through.
    4. The reconnection with, and practicing of good self-care and self-maintenance tactics, both individually as well as socially. 

In most cases, talking to a therapist for support and coaching about practical ways of implementing and verbalizing these strategies is one of the best things you can give to yourself.  In any case, it couldn't hurt!

If you find yourself feeling unable to attempt any of these suggestions, it is possible that one of several things might be happening:

    1. Although you may not have considered it before, you may have had narcissistic caretakers yourself and anything that reminds you of them currently, is triggering some of your own historical reactions, patterns and feelings.
    2. You could have narcissistic traits yourself that you don’t want to face and whenever you see them in someone outside of yourself, you have strong negative reactions.

If you live in the Lansing, Michigan area, feel free to contact me with questions or comments, please don't hesitate to contact me:

Peter Roseman Psy.S
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sol·ace / sälis

Noun: comfort or consolation in a time of distress or sadness.
("he took solace in such understanding")

Verb: give solace to.
(synonyms: comfort, console, cheer, support, soothe calm)