Are Narcissists likely to go through a midlife crisis and, if so, to what extent will such a crisis ameliorate or exacerbate their condition?
The sometimes severe crises experienced by persons of both sexes in their middle age (a.k.a. the “midlife crisis” or the “change of life”) is a much dissected though little understood phenomenon. It is not even sure that the beast exists. Women go through menopause between the ages of 42-48. The amount of the hormone oestrogen decreases sharply, important parts of the reproductive system shrink and menstruation ceases. The woman suffers “hot flashes” and a thinning and fracturing of her bones. The “male menopause” is a more contentious issue. Men do experience a gradual decline in testosterone levels but nothing as sharp as the woman’s deterioration of her oestrogen supply. No one has proven any link between these physiological and hormonal developments and the mythical “midlife crisis”.
This fabled crisis has to do with the gap between earlier plans, dreams and aspirations – and reality. The lack of satisfaction with life, career, or spouse that sets in has to do with this gap of expectations. People get more disappointed and disillusioned with age. They understand that they are not likely to have a second chance, that they largely missed the train, that their dreams will likely remain just that: dreams. They have nothing to look forward to. They feel spent, bored, fatigued and trapped. Some adults make a transition. They define new goals, look for new partners, form new families, engage in new hobbies, change vocation and avocation alike, or relocate. They regenerate and reinvent themselves and the structures of their lives. Others just grow bitter. Unable to face the shambles that is their life, they resort to alcoholism, workaholism, emotional absence, abandonment, escapism, degeneration or inactivity.
Another pillar of discontent is the predictability of adult life. Following a brief flurry of excitement and vigour, of dreams and hopes and aspirations – we succumb to and sink into the grey dust of mediocrity. The mundane engulfs us and digests us. The routine consumes our energy and leaves us dilapidated and empty. We know what is awaiting us and this knowledge of the almost inevitable is maddening.
Paradoxically, the narcissist is best equipped to successfully tackle both problems. The narcissist keeps dreaming, hoping, planning, conspiring, scheming and fighting all his life. To him, there is no reality with its sobering feedback. He occupies a world of his own where hope springs eternal. It is a world of serendipity and auspiciousness, of lucky chances and coincidences, of major downs and uplifting ups. It is an unpredictable, titillating, exciting world. The narcissist may feel bored for long stretches of time but only because he anticipates inevitable excitement.
The narcissist lives in a constant midlife crisis. His reality (no matter what it is) is always way short of his dreams and aspirations. He survives in a constant “Grandiosity Gap” – the same “gap” that plagues the healthy midlife adult. He is used to being disappointed and disillusioned. He brings it upon himself by devaluing persons and situations that he previously idealised. The narcissist regularly employs a host of mechanisms to cope with this simmering, festering incessant “crisis”. Cognitive dissonance, over- and de-valuation cycles, abrupt changes in moods, behaviour patterns, goals, companions, mates, jobs and locations are the narcissist’s daily bread and escapist weapons. So, whereas the healthy and mature adult confronts the abyss between his image of himself and his real self, his dreams and his achievements, his fantasyland and his reality only late in life – the narcissist does so constantly. The healthy and mature adult recoils from and is abhorred by the predictability of his routine revealed to him so late. The narcissist’s life is not predictable or routine in any sense of the word. The mature 40+ years old adult tries to remedy the structural and emotional deficits of his existence either by a renewed commitment to it or by a cataclysmic break with it. The narcissist so regularly and habitually swaps these structures that they lose all their “structural” meaning and become flitting images of structures in transition. The narcissist’s life structures are so flexible that they do not exist, his routine so riddled with surprises and changes of course that it is not predictable, his grandiose fantasies so far from his reality that even his disillusionment and disappointments are so superficial that they are easily overcome. Soon enough the narcissist is engaged in a new project, as exciting, as grandiose and as impossible as any before. The gap between his fantasyland and his reality is so yawning that he chooses to ignore his reality. He recruits people around him to affirm his choice and to confirm to him that reality is unreal and his fantasyland is reality. It is counterproductive and self-defeating, but it is also a perfect defence. The narcissist does not go through a midlife crisis. Forever the child, forever dreaming and fantasising, forever begging for accolades, the narcissist’s sad figure inhabits the twilight zone between sanity and its absence.