Narcissism FAQ: The Unstable Narcissist

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Question:

Is the Narcissist characterized by instabilities in all the important aspects of his life at the same time?

Answer:

A narcissist is a person who derives his Ego (and Ego functions) from the reactions of his human environment to a projected, invented image called the False Self. Since no absolute control over such feedback of Narcissistic Supply is possible – it is bound to be volatile – the narcissist’s view of himself and of his surroundings is correspondingly and equally volatile. As “public opinion” fluctuates, so do his self-confidence, self-esteem, generally, so does his self. Even his convictions are subject to a never-ending voting process by others.

The narcissistic personality is subject to instabilities in each and every one of its dimensions. It is the ultimate hybrid: rigidly amorphous, devoutly flexible, reliant for its sustenance on the opinion of people, whom the narcissist undervalues. A large part of this instability is subsumed under the Emotional Involvement Prevention Measures (EIPM) that I describe in the Essay. Instability is so ubiquitous, so all-pervasive, and so prevalent and dominant – that it might well be described as the ONLY stable feature of the narcissist’s personality.

The narcissist does everything with one goal in mind: to attract Narcissistic Supply (attention).

Let us study an example of this kind of behaviour:

The narcissist may study a given subject diligently and in great depth in order to impress people later with this newly acquired erudition. But, having served its purpose, the narcissist lets the knowledge thus acquired evaporate. The narcissist maintains a sort of a “short-term” cell or warehouse where he stores whatever may come handy in the pursuit of Narcissistic Supply. But he is almost never really interested in what he does, studies, and experiences. From the outside, this might be perceived as instability. But think about it this way: the narcissist is constantly preparing for life’s “exams” and feels that he is on a permanent trial. To forget material studied only in preparation for an examination or for a court procedure is normal. Short memory storage is a perfectly common behaviour. What sets the narcissist apart from others is the fact that for him this is a CONSTANT state of affairs and that it affects ALL his functions, not only those directly related to learning, or to emotions, or to experience, or to any single dimension of his life. Thus, the narcissist learns, remembers and forgets not in line with his real interests or hobbies, he loves and hates not the real subjects of his emotions (but one dimensional, utilitarian, cartoons constructed by him). He judges, praises and condemns – all from the narrowest possible point of view: that of the potential amount of Narcissistic Supply. He asks not what he can do with the world and in it – but what can the world do for him from the most restricted aspect (that of Narcissistic Supply). He falls in and out of love with people, workplaces, residences, vocations, hobbies, interests – because they seem to be able to provide more or less Narcissistic Supply and only because of that.

Still, narcissists fall into two broad categories: the “compensatory stability” and the “enhancing instability” types.

I. Compensatory Stability (“Classic”) Narcissists

These narcissists isolate one or more (but never most) aspects of their lives and “make these aspects stable”. They do not really invest themselves in it. The stability is maintained by artificial means: money, celebrity, power, fear. A typical example is a narcissist who changes numerous workplaces, a few careers, a myriad of hobbies, value systems, faiths, what not. At the same time, he maintains (preserves) a relationship with a single woman (and even remains faithful to her). She is his “island of stability”. To fulfil this role, she just needs to be there, physically.

The narcissist is dependent upon “his” woman to maintain the stability lacking in all other areas of his life (=to compensate for his instability). Yet, emotional closeness is bound to threaten the narcissist. Thus, he is likely to distance himself from her and to remain detached and indifferent to most of her needs. Despite this cruel emotional treatment, the narcissist considers her to be a point of exit, a form of sustenance, a fountain of empowerment. This mismatch between what he wishes to receive and what he is able to give, the narcissist prefers to deny, repress and bury deep in his unconscious. This is why he is always shocked and devastated to learn of his wife’s estrangement, infidelity, or divorce intentions. Possessed of no emotional depth, being completely one track minded – he cannot fathom the needs of others. In other words, he cannot empathize.

Another – even more common – case is the “career narcissist”. This narcissist marries, divorces and remarries with dizzying speed. Everything in his life is in constant flux: friends, emotions, judgements, values, beliefs, place of residence, affiliations, hobbies. Everything, that is, except his work. His career is the island of compensating stability in his volatile existence. This kind of narcissist doggedly pursues it with unmitigated ambition and devotion. He perseveres in one workplace or one job, patiently, persistently and blindly climbing up the ladder or treading the career path. In his pursuit of job fulfilment and achievements, the narcissist is ruthless and unscrupulous – and, very often, most successful.

II. Enhancing Instability (“Borderline”) Narcissist

The other kind of narcissist enhances instability in one aspect or dimension of his life – by introducing instability in others. Thus, if they resign (or, more likely, are made redundant) – they also relocate to another city or country. If they divorce, they are also likely to resign their job. This added instability gives them the feeling that all the dimensions of their life are changing simultaneously, that they are being “unshackled”, that a transformation is in progress. This, of course, is an illusion. Those who know the narcissist, no longer trust his frequent “conversions”, “decisions”, “crises”, “transformations”, “developments” and “periods”. They see through his pretensions and declarations into the core of his instability. They know that he is not to be relied upon. They know that with narcissists, temporariness is the only permanence.

Narcissists hate routine. When a Narcissist finds himself doing the same things over and over again, he gets depressed. He oversleeps, over-eats, over-drinks and, in general, engages in addictive, impulsive, reckless, and compulsive behaviours. This is his way of re-introducing risk and excitement into what he (emotionally) perceive to be a barren life.

The problem is that even the most exciting and varied existence becomes routine after a while. Living in the same country or apartment, meeting the same people, doing essentially the same things (though with changing content)- all “qualify” as stultifying rote.

The Narcissist feels entitled to more. He feels it is his right – due to his intellectual superiority – to lead a thrilling, rewarding, kaleidoscopic life. He feels entitled to force life itself, or, at least, people around him, to yield to his wishes and needs, supreme among them the need for stimulating variety.

This rejection of habit is part of a larger pattern of aggressive entitlement. The Narcissist feels that the very existence of a sublime intellect (such as himself) warrants concessions and allowances by others. Standing in line is a waste of time better spent pursuing knowledge, inventing and creating. The Narcissist should avail himself of the best medical treatment proffered by the most prominent medical authorities – lest the asset that is he be lost to Mankind. He should not be bothered with trivial pursuits – these lowly functions best be assigned to the less gifted. The devil is in paying precious attention to detail.

Entitlement is sometimes justified in a picasso or an Einstein. But few Narcissists are either. Their achievements are grotesquely incommensurate with their overwhelming sense of entitlement.

Of course, the feeling of superiority often serves to mask a cancerous complex of inferiority. Moreover, the Narcissist infects others with his projected grandiosity and their feedback constitutes the edifice upon which he constructs his self esteem. He regulates his sense of self worth by rigidly insisting that he is above the madding crowd while deriving his narcissistic supply from this very thus despised source.

But there is a second angle to this abhorrence of the predictable. Narcissists employ a host of Emotional Involvement Prevention Measures (EIPM). Despising routine and avoiding it is one of these mechanisms. Their function is to prevent the Narcissist from getting emotionally involved and, subsequently, hurt. Their application results in an “approach-avoidance repetition complex”. The narcissist, fearing and loathing intimacy, stability and security – yet craving them – approaches and then avoids significant others or important tasks in a rapid succession of apparently inconsistent and disconnected behaviors.

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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