Narcissism FAQ: Narcissists, Paranoiacs and Psychotherapists

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Question:

Do Narcissists tend to react with paranoia when threatened (or when they feel threatened) and how long do these “attacks” last? Will the Narcissist forever deride and fear the subject of his paranoia?

Answer:

A specific paranoid reaction tends to fade and is easily replaced by new “agents of persecution”.

Arguably the most hurtful thing about a relationship with a narcissist is the ultimate realisation of how interchangeable one is, as far as the narcissist is concerned. The narcissist is hungry for Narcissistic Supply. Even his paranoia is a “grandiose” one. Through it, he proves to himself that he is sufficiently important, interesting, and enough of a threat to be threatened back, to have people conspire and worried over him, in other words: to be the subject of incessant attention. This untoward mode of attracting Narcissistic Supply wanes easily if not fed constantly.

It is true, however, that many narcissists are of the suspecting kind. Narcissism is the deformed emotional derivative of a mysteriously dangerous, precariously balanced, illusionary world (inhabited by the narcissist in his mind). In such a world, the inclination to see enemies everywhere, to guard against them and to imagine the worst is almost adaptive and functional.

Moreover, the narcissist has illusions (even delusions) of grandeur. Important Men deserve Important Enemies. The narcissist attributes to himself influence and power much greater than he really possesses. Such overreaching power would look misplaced and abnormal without opponents. The victories that the narcissist scores over his (mostly imagined) foes serve to emphasise his superiority. A hostile environment (overcome by the superior skills and traits of the narcissist) is an integral part of all the personal myths of the narcissists.

The narcissist’s partner (mate, spouse) usually craves and encourages his (paranoid, or threatening) attention. Their behaviour and reactive patterns tend to reinforce his. This is a game of two.

But the narcissist is not truly a paranoiac.

The veritable paranoiac fails the reality test. A paranoid reaction is different. It is triggered by reality itself, and egged on by the ostensibly innocent (the narcissist’s partner or mate or spouse or colleague, etc.). Actually, the participating partner is likely to feel barren and vacuous when this petite-jeux ends.

Moreover, the paranoid lives in constant fear and tribulation. This (plus the deficiencies evident in the very structure of a narcissistic personality) allow the partner to assume a position of superiority, elevated moral ground and sound mental health. The partner regards the narcissist in inferior terms: a child, a monster, an invalid, or a misfit. She would tend to play the missing parent or, more often, the “psychologist” in the relationships. The narcissist is assigned the role of the “patient” in need of care and “objectively mirrored” (for his own good) by the partner. Such a presumed status endows the partner with authority and provides her with a way to distance herself from her own emotions (and from the narcissist’s). This presumption of superiority is, therefore, analgesic. The partner is permanently enmeshed in a battle to prove herself (both to the ever critical and humiliating narcissist and to herself) worthwhile. To restore her shattered sense of security and self-esteem, the partner must resort to narcissistic techniques. This is the phenomenon of “NARCISSISTIC MIRRORING”. It happens because the narcissist succeeds in turning himself into a (preferred) frame of reference, the axis around which all judgements revolve, the fountain of common sense and prevailing logic, the source of all knowledge and an authority on everything of import.

The narcissist’s paranoidal delusions extend to the therapeutic sessions.

One of the most important presenting symptoms of a narcissist is his (or her) insistence that he (or she) is equal to the psychotherapist in knowledge, in experience, in social status. The narcissist in the therapeutic session spices his speech with psychiatric lingo and professional terms. He distances himself from his painful emotions by generalising them, analysing them to small verbal pieces, slicing life and hurt and neatly tacking the results under what he thinks are “professional insights”. In effect, he is telling the psychotherapist: there is nothing much that you can teach me, I am as intelligent as you, you are not superior to me, actually, we should both collaborate as equals in this unfortunate state of things in which we, inadvertently, find ourselves involved.

Finally, the partner gathers enough courage, to confront the narcissist with the fact about the narcissist’s self (as seen from the partner’s vantage point). The threshold of tolerance is crossed, the measure of suffering exceeded. The partner does not expect to induce changes in the narcissist (though she is most likely to insist otherwise). The partner’s motivation is much baser: to exact revenge for a period of mental slavery, subservience, subjugation, subordination, exploitation, humiliation and objectification. The aim is to anger the narcissist, and, thus, to make him vulnerable, inferior for a minute. It is a mini-rebellion (which does not last long), sometimes possessed of sadistic elements.

Living with a narcissist is a harrowing experience. It can tilt one’s mind toward abnormal reactions (really normal reactions to an abnormal situation). The capriciousness, volatility, arbitrariness and vicissitudinal character of the narcissist’s behaviour can facilitate the formation of paranoid reactions. The less predictable the world, the more ominous and precarious it is and the more paranoid the pattern of reactions to it. Sometimes – through the mechanism of Narcissistic Mirroring – the partner adopts a way of reacting to a prolonged period of emotional deprivation and stress by emulating the narcissist himself. The latter is then likely to reproach the partner by saying: “You became I and I became you!!! I do not know you anymore!”

The narcissist has a way of getting under his partners’ skin. They cannot escape him because he is part of their lives and part of their selves, as internalised as any parent is. Even after a long sought separation, the partners still care for the narcissist greatly – enough to be mulling over the expired relationship endlessly. It is this that the partner should clarify to herself: she may be able to exit the narcissist’s life – but will he ever exit hers?

A narcissist’s partner wrote to me these heartbreaking words:

“I have made him sound like a monster, and in many ways he really is. At the same time, I have always seen a vulnerability in him, the small terrified hungry child (almost split-off from the rest of him) and I suppose this is why I tried so hard with him. I knew, almost intuitively, that while his (false) Ego was constantly swelling, his heart (True Ego) was starving…

I tried as hard as I could, in as many ways as I could, to feed the real person inside (and I believed there was a fragment of that person still alive, represented by the child). In a way, I think the violence of his reactions near the end was due to my coming so close, in arousing those ordinary needs. When he realised he has become dependent on me, and that I knew it, I think he just couldn’t take it. He could not finally take the chance of trusting me.

It was an orgy of destruction. I keep thinking I could have handled it better, could and should have done things differently. Maybe it wouldn’t have made any difference, but I will say that there was a real person in there somewhere, and a quite delightful one.

But as you pointed out, the narcissist would always prefer his invented self to the true one. I could not make him see that his real self was far more interesting and enchanting than his grotesque inflated grandiose superman construct. I think it is a tragic loss of a truly interesting and talented human being.”

Sam Vaknin is the author of Malignant Self Love, and runs the website Malignant Self Love - Narcissism Revisited.Sam has served as the author of the Personality Disorders topic, Narcissistic Personality Disorder topic, the Verbal and Emotional Abuse topic, and the Spousal Abuse and Domestic Violence topic, Suite101.

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