Do Narcissists have emotions?
Of course they do. All humans have emotions. It is how we choose to relate to our emotions that matters. The narcissist tends to repress them so deeply that, for all practical purposes, they play no conscious role in his life and conduct, though they play an extraordinarily large unconscious role in determining them.
The narcissist’s positive emotions come bundled with very negative ones. This is the outcome of frustration and the consequent transformations of aggression. This frustration is connected to the Primary Objects of the narcissist’s childhood (parents and caregivers). Instead of being provided with the love that he craved, the narcissist was subjected to totally unpredictable and inexplicable bouts of temper, rage, searing sentimentality, envy, prodding, infusion of guilt and other unhealthy emotions and behaviour patterns. He reacted by retreating to his private world, where he was omnipotent and omniscient and, therefore, immune to such vicious vicissitudes. He stashed his vulnerable True Self in a deep mental cellar – and outwardly he presented to the world his False Self.
But bundling is far easier than unbundling. The narcissist is unable to evoke his positive feelings without provoking his negative ones. Gradually, he becomes phobic: afraid to feel anything, lest it be accompanied by the fearsome, guilt inducing, anxiety provoking, out of control emotional complements. He is thus reduced to experiencing dull stirrings, dim movements in his soul, that he identifies to himself and to others as emotions. Even these are felt only in the presence of a subject capable of providing the narcissist with his badly needed Narcissistic Supply. Only when the narcissist is in the overvaluation phase of his relationships, does he go through these convulsions and convolutions that he calls “feelings”. These are so transient and fake in nature that they are easily replaced by rage, envy and devaluation. The narcissist really recreates the behaviour patterns of his less than ideal Primary Objects.
The narcissist knows that something is amiss. He does not empathise with other people’s feelings. Actually, he holds them in contempt and ridicule. He cannot understand how people are so sentimental, so “irrational” (he identifies being rational with being cool headed and the latter with being cold blooded). Many times he finds himself believing that their behaviour is fake, intended to achieve a goal, grounded in ulterior, non-emotional, motives. He becomes paranoidally suspicious, embarrassed, feels compelled to run away, or, worse, experiences surges of almost uncontrollable aggression in the presence of genuinely expressed emotions. They remind him how imperfect and poorly equipped he is. They threaten him. Constant nagging by a spouse, colleagues, professors, by employers – only exacerbates the situation.
The weaker variety tries to emulate and simulate “emotions” – or, at least their expression, the external facet. They mimic and replicate the intricate pantomime that they learn to associate with the existence of feelings. But there are no real emotions there, no emotional correlate. This is empty affect, devoid of emotion. Being so, the narcissist fast tires of it, he becomes impassive and begins to produce the inappropriate affect (remain indifferent when grief is the normal reaction, for instance). The narcissist subjects his feigned emotions to his cognition. He “decides” that it is appropriate to feel so and so. “Emotions” are invariably the result of analysis, goal setting and planning. He substitutes “remembering” for “sensing”. He relegates his sensations (bodily), feelings and emotions to a kind of a memory vault. The short and medium-term memory is exclusively used to store his reactions to his (actual and potential) Narcissistic Supply Sources. He reacts only to such sources. The narcissist finds it hard to remember what he felt (even a short while ago) towards a Narcissistic Supply Source once it has ceased to be one. It is difficult for him to recreate the emotions, which were ostensibly involved. In his efforts to emotionally recall – he encounters a void, draws a mental blank.
It is not that narcissists are incapable of expressing what we would tend to classify as “extreme emotional reactions”. They mourn and grieve, rage and smile, excessively “love” and “care”. But this is precisely what sets them apart: this rapid movement from one emotional extreme to another and the fact that they never occupy the emotional middle ground. The narcissist is especially “emotional” when weaned off the narcissistic supply drug. Breaking a habit is always difficult – especially one that defines (and generates) one’s being. Getting rid of an addiction is doubly taxing. The narcissist identifies these crises with emotional depth and his self-conviction is so immense, that he mostly succeeds to elude his environment, as well. But a narcissistic crisis (losing a Source of Narcissistic Supply, obtaining an alternative one, moving from one Narcissistic Pathological Space to another) – must never be confused with the real thing, which the narcissist never experiences: emotions.
Many narcissists have “emotional resonance tables”. They use words as others use algebraic signs: with meticulousness, with caution, with the precision of the artisan. They sculpt in words the fine tuned reverberations of pain and love and fear. It is the mathematics of grammar, the geometry of syntax. Devoid of all emotions, they watch people’s reactions and adjust their verbal choices accordingly, until their vocabulary resembles that of their listeners. This is as close as narcissists get to empathy.
To summarize, the emotional life of the Narcissist is colourless and eventless, as rigidly blind as his disorder, as dead as he. He does feel rage and hurt and inordinate humiliation and fear. These are very dominant, prevalent and recurrent hues in the canvass of his emotional existence. But there is nothing except these atavistic gut reactions.
Whatever it is that the Narcissist experiences as emotions – he experiences in reaction to slights and injuries, real or imagined. His emotions are all reactive, not active. He feels insulted – he sulks. He feels devalued – he rages. He feels ignored – he pouts. He feels humiliated – he lashes out. He feels threatened – he fears. He feels adored – he basks in glory. He is virulently envious of one and all. The Narcissist can appreciate beauty but in a cerebral, cold and “mathematical” way. Many have no mature, adult sex drive to speak of. Their emotional landscape is dim and grey, as though through a glass darkly.
Many narcissists can intelligently discuss other emotions, never experienced by them – like empathy, or love – because they make it a point to read a lot and to correspond with people who claim to experience them. Thus, they gradually form working hypotheses as to what people feel. As far as the Narcissist is concerned, it is pointless to try to really understand emotions – but at least these models he forms allow him to better predict people’s behaviour.
Narcissists are not envious of people who feel. They disdain feelings and emotional people because they think that they are weak and vulnerable and they deride human frailties and vulnerabilities. Such derision makes the Narcissist feel superior and is probably the ossified remains of a defence mechanism gone awry.
Narcissists are afraid of pain. Pain is a pebble in their Indra’s Net – lift it and the whole net revives. Their pains do not come isolated – they constitute families of anguish, tribes of hurt, whole races of agony. The Narcissist cannot experience them separately – only collectively.
Narcissism is an effort to contain the ominous onslaught of stale emotions, repressed rage, a child’s injuries.
Pathological narcissism is useful – this is why it is so resilient and resistant to change. When it is “invented” by the tormented individual – it enhances his functionality and makes life bearable for him. Because it is so successful, it attains religious dimensions – it become rigid, doctrinaire, automatic and ritualistic. In other words, it becomes a PATTERN of behaviour. This rigidity is like an outer shell. It constrains the Narcissist and limits him. It is often prohibitive and inhibitive. As a result, the Narcissist is afraid to do certain things. He is injured or humiliated when forced to engage in certain activities. He reacts with rage when the mental edifice supporting his disorder is subjected to scrutiny and criticism – no matter how benign.
Narcissism is ridiculous. Narcissists are pompous, grandiose, repulsive and contradictory. There is a serious mismatch between who they really are and what they really achieved – and how they feel about themselves. It is not that the Narcissist THINKS that he is far superior to other humans intellectually. The perception of his superiority is ingrained in him, it is a part of his every mental cell, an all-pervasive sensation, an instinct and a drive. He feels that he is entitled to special treatment and to outstanding consideration because he is such a unique specimen. He knows this to be true – the same way one knows that one is surrounded by air. It is an integral part of his identity. More integral to him than his body.
This opens a gap – rather, an abyss – between the Narcissist and other humans. Because he considers himself so special, he has no way of knowing how it is to be THEM – nor the inclination to explore it. In other words, the Narcissist cannot and will not empathize. Can you empathize with an ant? Empathy implies identity or equality, both abhorrent to the Narcissist. And being perceived by the Narcissist to be so inferior, people are reduced to cartoonish, two-dimensional representations of functions. They become instrumental or useful or functional or entertaining – rather than loving or emotionally interactive.
It leads to ruthlessness and exploitativeness. Narcissists are not “evil” – actually, the Narcissist considers himself to be a good person. Many narcissists help people, professionally, or voluntarily. But Narcissists are indifferent. They couldn’t care less. They help people because it is a way to secure attention, gratitude, adulation and admiration. And because it is the fastest and surest way to get rid of them and their incessant nagging.
The Narcissist may realize these unpleasant truths cognitively – but there is no corresponding emotional reaction (emotional correlate) to this realization. There is no resonance. It is like reading a boring users’ manual pertaining to a computer you do not even own. It is like watching a movie about yourself. There is no insight, no assimilation of these truths.
Still, to further insulate himself from the improbable possibility of confronting the gulf between reality and grandiose fantasy (the Grandiosity Gap) – the Narcissist comes up with the most elaborate mental structure, replete with mechanisms, levers, switches and flickering alarm lights.
Narcissism Isolates the Narcissist from the pain of facing reality and allows him to inhabit the fantasyland of ideal perfection and brilliance.
These once-vital functions are bundled in what is known to psychologists as the “False Self”.