Narcissism FAQ: The Compulsive Acts of a Narcissist

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Question:

Are there any compulsive acts typical only to a Narcissist?

Answer:

The short and the long of it is: no. In general, there is a strong compulsive strand in the narcissist’s behaviour. He is driven to exorcise internal demons by means of ritualistic acts. His very pursuit of Narcissistic Supply is compulsive. The narcissist seeks to recreate and replay old traumas, ancient, unresolved conflicts with figures of (primary) importance in his life. He feels guilty and that he should be punished. He makes sure that he is. These all possess the tint and hue of compulsion. In many respects, narcissism can be defined as an obsessive-compulsive disorder gone berserk. Like the magician’s apprentice, it did not know where and when to stop and it took over the whole edifice. The narcissist’s original personality was consumed by it.

The narcissist is faced with difficult conditions in his childhood: neglect, abandonment, capriciousness, arbitrariness, strictness, sadistic behaviour, abuse (physical, psychological, or verbal) or doting, “annexation” and “appropriation” by a narcissistic and frustrated parent. He develops a unique defence mechanism: a story, a narrative, another self. This False Self is possessed of all the qualities that can insulate the child from his predicament. It is close to perfect: it is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent. In short: it is divine. A religion follows: rites, mantras, scriptures, spiritual and physical exercises.

The child worships this new deity. He succumbs to what he perceives to be its wishes and its needs. He makes sacrifices of Narcissistic Supply to it. He is awed by it because it possesses many of the traits of the hallowed tormentors, the parents. The child reduces his True Self, minimises it. He is looking to appease the new Divinity – not to incur its wrath. He does so by adhering to strict schedules, ceremonies, by reciting texts, by self-imposition of self-discipline. Hitherto, the child is transformed into the servant of his False Self. Daily, he caters to its needs and offers to it Narcissistic Supply. And he is rewarded for his efforts: he feels elated when in compliance with the creed, he emulates the characteristics of this entity. Suffused with Narcissistic Supply, his False Self content, the child feels omnipotent, untouchable, invulnerable, immune to threats and insults and omniscient. On the other hand, when the Narcissistic Supply is lacking – the child feels guilty, miserable, unworthy. The Superego takes over: sadistic, ominous, cruel, suicidal – it chastises the child for having failed, for having sinned, for being guilty. It demands a self-inflicted punishment to cleanse, to atone, to let go. Caught between these two deities – the child is compulsively forced to seek Narcissistic Supply. Success in this pursuit holds both the promises of emotional reward and of protection from the murderous Superego.

Throughout all this, the child maintains the rhythms of regenerating his conflicts and traumas in order to try and resolve them. Such resolution can be either in the form of punishment or in the form of healing. But since healing means letting go of his system of beliefs and deities – the child is more likely to elect the former method of resolution. He strives to re-live old traumas. For instance, he behaves in ways that make people abandon him. Or he becomes rebellious in order to be punished by figures of authority. Or he defies social edicts or even engage in criminal activities. This underlying axis of self-defeating behaviour is permanent and interacts with the False Self.

The False Self breeds compulsive acts. The narcissist looks for his Narcissistic Supply compulsively. He is seeking to be punished compulsively. He generates resentment or hatred, switches sexual partners, becomes eccentric, he writes articles and makes scientific discoveries – all compulsively. There is no joy in his life or in his actions. Just the feeling of momentary liberation and engulfing protection that he enjoys following a compulsive act. Pressure builds inside, threatening the precarious balance of his personality. It is as though he is warned that a danger is imminent. He reacts by developing an acute anxiety, which can be alleviated only through a compulsive act. If this act fails to materialise, the emotional result could be anything from absolute terror to deep-set depression. The narcissist knows that his very life is at risk, that in his Superego lurks a mortal enemy. He knows that only the False Self can stand up to it (the True Self is small, frozen in time, immature and dilapidated). The narcissistic personality disorder is an Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder writ large.

Narcissists engage in all manner of compulsive actions: bingeing, shopping, gambling, risking their lives, drinking, washing hands. But what sets them apart from other compulsives is twofold:

  1. The compulsive acts constitute a part of a larger “grandiose” picture. If a narcissist shops – it is in order to build up a unique collection. If he gambles – it is to prove right a method that he has developed or to demonstrate his amazing mental or psychic powers. If he climbs mountains or races cars – it is to establish new records and if he binges – it is part of constructing a universal diet or bodybuilding and so on. The narcissist never engages in simple, straightforward activities – these are too mundane, not sufficiently grandiose. A contextual narrative has to be invented in order to lend outstanding proportion, context and purpose to the most common acts, including the compulsive ones. Where the regular compulsive patient feels that the compulsive act restores his control over himself and over his life – the narcissist feels that the compulsive act restores his control over his environment and secures his future Narcissistic Supply.
  2. The compulsive acts enhance the reward – penalty cycle. At their inception and for as long as they are committed – they reward the narcissist emotionally in the ways described above. But they also supply him with fresh ammunition against himself. Sinning by indulging himself leads the narcissist down the path of self-inflicted punishment.

Finally, “normal” compulsions can be effectively treated with behaviourist therapeutic methods. The therapist can de-condition the patient and reinforce his disengagement from his constricting rituals. This works only partly with the narcissist. His compulsive acts are part of the much larger, much more complicated picture of his personality. They are the sick tips of very abnormal icebergs. Shaving them off does nothing to ameliorate the narcissist’s titanic inner struggle.

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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