Narcissism FAQ: The Guilt of Others

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Question:

Am I to blame for my husband’s/child’s/parent’s mental state and behaviour? Is there anything that I can or should do to help him/reach him?

Answer:

Self-flagellation is a characteristic of those who choose to live with a narcissist (and a choice it is). Constant guilt feelings, self-reproach, self-recrimination and, thus – self-punishment typify the relationships formed between the sadist-narcissist and the masochistic-dependent mate or partner or child.

The narcissist is sadistic because he was forced into expressing his own guilt and self-reproach in this manner. It is his Superego, which is unpredictable, capricious, arbitrary, judgmental, cruel, and self-annihilating (suicidal). Externalising these internal traits is a way of alleviating internal conflicts and fears generated by this inner turmoil. The narcissist projects his civil war and drags everyone around him into a swirl of bitterness, suspiciousness, meanness, aggression and pettiness. His life is a reflection of his psychological landscape: barren, paranoiac, tormented, guilt ridden. He feels compelled to do unto others what he perpetrates unto himself. He gradually transforms all around him into shadowy replicas of his conflictive, punishing personality structures.

Some narcissists are more subtle than others. They disguise their sadism. For instance, they “educate” their nearest and dearest (for the sake of the latter, as they present it). This “education” is compulsive, obsessive, harshly and unduly critical, incessantly so. Its effect is to erode the subject, to humiliate, to create dependence, to intimidate, to restrain, to control, to paralyse. The victim internalises the endless preaching and criticism and makes them his own. She begins to see justice where there is only twisted logic based on crooked assumptions. She begins to self-punish, to withhold, to request approval prior to any action, to forgo herself, to erase her own identity – hoping to thus avoid the excruciating pains of the Narcissist’s destructive analyses.

Other Narcissists are less sophisticated and they use all manner of abuse to domesticate their kin and partners in life. This spans physical violence, verbal violence (during intensive rage attacks), psychological abuse, brutal “honesty”, sick or offending humour, and so on.

But both categories of Narcissists employ very simple deceptive mechanisms to achieve their goals. One thing must be made clear: this is not a well thought out, previously planned campaign by the average narcissist. His behaviour is dictated by forces that he cannot master. Most of the time he is not even conscious of why he is doing what he is doing. When he is – he can’t tell the outcomes. Even when he can – he feels powerless to behave otherwise. The narcissist is a pawn in the chess game played between the structures of his fragmented, fluid personality. So, in a classical – juridical sense, the narcissist is not to blame, he is not fully responsible or aware of what he is doing to others.

This seems to contradict my answer to Responsibility and Other Matters where I write:

“The narcissist knows to tell right from wrong. He is perfectly capable of anticipating the results of his actions and their influence on his human environment. The narcissist is very perceptive and sensitive to the subtlest nuances. He has to be: the very integrity of his personality depends upon input from others… A person suffering from NPD must be subjected to the same moral treatment and judgement as the rest of us, the less privileged, are. The courts do not recognise NPD to be a mitigating circumstance – why should we?”

But, the contradiction is only apparent. The narcissist is perfectly capable both of distinguishing right from wrong – and of foretelling the outcomes of his actions. In this sense, the narcissist should be held liable for his deeds and exploits. If he so chooses, the narcissist can fight his compulsive inclination to behave the way that he does. This would come at a great personal psychological price. Avoidance or suppression of a compulsive act results in increased anxiety. The narcissist prefers his own well being to that of others. Even when confronted with the great misery that he fosters, he hardly feels responsible (for instance, he rarely goes to psychotherapy).

To put it more plainly, the (average) narcissist is unable to answer the question: “Why did you do what you did?” or “Why did you choose this mode of action over others available to you under the same circumstances?” These decisions are taken subconsciously. But once the course of action is (subconsciously) decided, the narcissist has a perfect grasp of what he is doing, that it is wrong with it and what will be the price others will pay for it. And he can then choose to reverse course (for instance, to refrain from doing anything). In one sense therefore, he is not to blame – in another he is very guilty.

The narcissist deliberately confuses responsibility with guilt. The concepts are so close that the distinctions often get blurred. By attributing guilt to responsibility-laden situations, the narcissist transforms life with him into a constant trial. Actually, the trial itself is the punishment and, therefore, is eternal. A failure, for instance, induces guilt and the narcissist always labels someone else’s efforts as “failures”. The narcissist then strives to shift the responsibility to the proclaimed failure to the victim so as to maximise the victim’s potential to fail and the narcissist’s opportunities to chastise and castigate him. The logic is two-phased. First, every added responsibility is bound to lead to failure, which, in turn, induces in the victim guilt feelings, self-recrimination and self-punishment. Secondly, more and more responsibilities are shifted away from the narcissist and onto his mate – so that, as time goes by, an asymmetry of failures is established. Burdened with less and less responsibilities and tasks – the narcissist fails less than others. This has a “double whammy” effect: it preserves the narcissist’s sense of superiority, on the one hand – and legitimises his sadistic acts, on the other.

The narcissist’s partner is also to “blame”. Such folies-a-deux can never take place without the full collaboration of a willingly and voluntarily subordinated victim. They have a wish to be punished, to be eroded through constant, biting criticisms, unfavourable comparisons, veiled and not so veiled threats, acting outs, betrayals and humiliations. It makes them feel cleansed, “holy”, whole, sacrificial. Many of them, when they realise their situation (it is very difficult to see from the inside) – abandon the narcissist and dismantle the relationship. Others prefer to believe in the healing power of love or some such other nonsense. It is nonsense not because love has no therapeutic power – it is by far the most powerful weapon in the healing arsenal. It is nonsense, because it is wasted on a human shell, incapable of feeling anything but binary and negative emotions, which vaguely filter through his dreamlike existence. The narcissist is incapable of loving, his emotional apparatus ruined by years of deprivation, abuse, misuse and disuse.

Granted, he is unequalled at simulating human emotions and their attendant behaviours. He is convincing, he is deviously successful and sweeps everyone around him into the turbulent delusion which he consists of. He uses anything and anyone to secure his dose of Narcissistic Supply – and discards, without a second thought those he deems worthless in this – and only in this – regard.

It is a conspiracy, a collusion of victim and mental tormentor, a collaboration of two needy people who find solace and supply in each other’s deviations. Only by breaking loose, aborting the game, by ignoring the rules – can the victim be transformed (and by the way, acquire the newly found appreciation of the narcissist). The narcissist also stands to benefit from such a move. But both the narcissist and his partner do not really think about each other. Gripped in the arms of an all-consuming dance macabre, they follow the motions morbidly, semiconscious, desensitised, exhausted, concerned only with survival – their survival. Living with a narcissist is very much like being in a maximum security prison. It is taxing.

The narcissist’s partner should not feel guilty or responsible and should not seek to change what only time (not even therapy) and (difficult) circumstances may change. She should not strive to please and to appease, to be and not to be, to barely survive as a superposition of pain and fear. Releasing herself from the chains of guilt and from the throes of a debilitating relationship – is the best help that a loving mate can provide to her ailing narcissistic partner.

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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