Talking to a Narcissist: The Weapon of Language

A teen boy with boxing gloves on staring at the camera with his fists up.
“A sharp tongue is the only edged tool that grows keener with constant use.”
(Rip van Winkle by Washington Irving)

In the narcissist’s surrealistic world, even language is pathologized. It mutates into a weapon of self-defence, a verbal fortification, a medium without a message, replacing words with duplicitous and ambiguous vocables.

Narcissists (and, often, by contagion, their unfortunate victims) don’t talk, or communicate. They fend off. They hide and evade and avoid and disguise. In their planet of capricious and arbitrary unpredictability, of shifting semiotic and semantic dunes – they perfect the ability to say nothing in lengthy, Castro-like speeches.

The ensuing convoluted sentences are arabesques of meaninglessness, acrobatics of evasion, lack of commitment elevated to an ideology. The narcissist prefers to wait and see what waiting brings. It is the postponement of the inevitable that leads to the inevitability of postponement as a strategy of survival.

It is often impossible to really understand a narcissist. The evasive syntax fast deteriorates into ever more labyrinthine structures. The grammar tortured to produce the verbal Doppler shifts essential to disguise the source of the information, its distance from reality, the speed of its degeneration into rigid “official” versions.

Buried under the lush flora and fauna of idioms without an end, the language erupts, like some exotic rash, an autoimmune reaction to its infection and contamination. Like vile weeds it spread throughout, strangling with absent minded persistence the ability to understand, to feel, to agree, to disagree and to debate, to present arguments, to compare notes, to learn and to teach.

Narcissists, therefore, never talk to others – rather, they talk at others, or lecture them. They exchange subtexts, camouflage-wrapped by elaborate, florid, texts. They read between the lines, spawning a multitude of private languages, prejudices, superstitions, conspiracy theories, rumours, phobias and hysterias. Theirs is a solipsistic world – where communication is permitted only with oneself and the aim of language is to throw others off the scent or to obtain Narcissistic Supply.

This has profound implications. Communication through unequivocal, unambiguous, information-rich symbol systems is such an integral and crucial part of our world – that its absence is not postulated even in the remotest galaxies which grace the skies of science fiction. In this sense, narcissists are nothing short of aliens. It is not that they employ a different language, a code to be deciphered by a new Freud. It is also not the outcome of upbringing or socio-cultural background.

It is the fact that language is put by narcissists to a different use – not to communicate but to obscure, not to share but to abstain, not to learn but to defend and resist, not to teach but to preserve ever less tenable monopolies, to disagree without incurring wrath, to criticize without commitment, to agree without appearing to do so. Thus, an “agreement” with a narcissist is a vague expression of intent at a given moment – rather than the clear listing of long term, iron-cast and mutual commitments.

The rules that govern the narcissist’s universe are loopholed incomprehensibles, open to an exegesis so wide and so self-contradictory that it renders them meaningless. The narcissist often hangs himself by his own verbose Gordic knots, having stumbled through a minefield of logical fallacies and endured self inflicted inconsistencies. Unfinished sentences hover in the air, like vapour above a semantic swamp.

Types of Narcissists and How They Use Language

In the case of the inverted narcissist, who was suppressed and abused by overbearing caregivers, there is the strong urge not to offend. Intimacy and inter-dependence are great. Parental or peer pressures are irresistible and result in conformity and self-deprecation. Aggressive tendencies, strongly repressed in the social pressure cooker, teem under the veneer of forced civility and violent politeness. Constructive ambiguity, a non-committal “everyone is good and right”, an atavistic variant of moral relativism and tolerance bred of fear and of contempt – are all at the service of this eternal vigilance against aggressive drives, at the disposal of a never ending peacekeeping mission.

With the classic narcissist, language is used cruelly and ruthlessly to ensnare one’s enemies, to saw confusion and panic, to move others to emulate the narcissist (“projective identification”), to leave the listeners in doubt, in hesitation, in paralysis, to gain control, or to punish. Language is enslaved and forced to lie. The language is appropriated and expropriated. It is considered to be a weapon, an asset, a piece of lethal property, a traitorous mistress to be gang raped into submission.

With cerebral narcissists, language is a lover. The infatuation with its very sound leads to a pyrotechnic type of speech which sacrifices its meaning to its music. Its speakers pay more attention to the composition than to the content. They are swept by it, intoxicated by its perfection, inebriated by the spiralling complexity of its forms. Here, language is an inflammatory process. It attacks the very tissues of the narcissist’s relationships with artistic fierceness. It invades the healthy cells of reason and logic, of cool headed argumentation and level headed debate.

Language is a leading indicator of the psychological and institutional health of social units, such as the family, or the workplace. Social capital can often be measured in cognitive (hence, verbal-lingual) terms. To monitor the level of comprehensibility and lucidity of texts is to study the degree of sanity of family members, co-workers, friends, spouses, mates, and colleagues. There can exist no hale society without unambiguous speech, without clear communications, without the traffic of idioms and content that is an inseparable part of every social contract. Our language determines how we perceive our world. It IS our mind and our consciousness. The narcissist, in this respect, is a great social menace.

Narcissists often carry on talking (rather, lecturing) long after their interlocutors – bored stiff and resentful – have physically departed or mentally switched off. They are shocked to discover that they have been conversing with thin air for awhile. They are equally astounded when they are abandoned or shunned by spouses, friends, colleagues, the media, their fans, or audiences.

The root of this recurrent astonishment is the narcissist’s perverse object constancy.

According to the great developmental psychologist, Margaret Mahler, between the ages of 24 and 36 months of life, the infant is finally able to cope with the mother’s absence (by finding appropriate substitutes to her presence). It knows that she will return and trusts her to do so time and again.

The psychic image of the mother is internalized as a stable, reliable, and predictable object. As the infant’s sense of time and verbal skills evolve, it becomes more immune to delayed gratification and tolerant of inevitable separation.

Piaget, the renowned child psychologist, concurred with Mahler and coined the term “object constancy” to describe the dynamics she observed.

As opposed to Mahler, Daniel Stern, another prominent psychoanalyst, proposes that the child is born with a sense of Self:

“Infants begin to experience a sense of an emergent self from birth. They are pre-designed to be aware of self – organising processes. They never experience a period of total self / other undifferentiation. There is no confusion of self and other in the beginning or at any point during infancy.

They are pre-designed to be selectively responsive to external social events and never experience an autistic like phase.

During the period of 2 – 6 months the infant consolidates the core sense of self as a separate, cohesive, bounded, physical unit with a sense of their own agency, affectivity and continuity in time. There is no symbiotic like phase. In fact the subjective experiences of union with another can occur only after a core self and a core other exists.”

But even Stern accepts the existence of a distinct and separate “other” versus the nascent “self”.

Narcissism and Attachment

Pathological narcissism is a reaction to deficient bonding and dysfunctional attachment (Bowlby). Object relations in narcissists are infantile and chaotic (Winnicott, Guntrip). Many narcissists have no psychological-object constancy at all. In other words, many of them do not feel that other people are benign, reliable, helpful, constant, predictable, and trustworthy.

To compensate for this lack in ability (or willingness) to relate to real, live people, the narcissist invents and molds substitute-objects or surrogate-objects.

These are mental representations of meaningful or significant others (Sources of Narcissistic Supply). They have little or nothing to do with reality. These imagoes – images – are confabulations, works of fiction. They respond to the narcissist’s needs and fears – and do not correspond to the persons they purport to stand for.

The narcissist internalizes these pliable representations, manipulates them, and interacts with them – not with the originals. The narcissist is entirely immersed in his world, talking to these “figurines”, arguing with these substitutes, contracting with these surrogates, being admired by them.

Hence his dismay when confronted with real people, their needs, feelings, preferences, and choices.

Thus, the typical narcissist refrains from any meaningful discourse with his spouse and children, friends and colleagues. Instead, he spins a narrative in which these people – represented by mental avatars – admire him, find him fascinating, fervently wish to oblige him, love him, or fear him.

These “avatars” have little or nothing to do with the way his kin and kith REALLY feel about him. The protagonists in the narcissist’s yarns do not incorporate veritable data about his wife, or offspring, or colleagues, or friends. They are mere projections of the narcissist’s inner world. Thus, when the narcissist faces the real thing – he refuses to believe and accept the facts:

“My wife has always been so cooperative – whatever happened to her lately?”

(She was never cooperative – she was subservient or frightened into submission. But the narcissist didn’t notice because he never actually “saw her”.)

“My son always wanted to follow in my footsteps – I don’t know what possesses him!”

(The narcissist’s poor son never wanted to be a lawyer or a doctor. He always dreamed of being an actor or an artist. But the narcissist was not aware of it.)

“My friends used to listen to my stories enraptured – I have no idea why they no longer do so!”

(At first, his friends politely listened to the narcissist’s interminable rants and ravings. Finally, they dropped from his social circle, one by one.)

“I was admired by the media – now I am constantly ignored!”

(At first, an object of derision and morbid fascination, the novelty wore off and the media moved on to other narcissists.)

Puzzled, hurt, and clueless – the narcissist withdraws further and further with every narcissistic injury. Finally, he is forced into choosing the delusional way out.

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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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