Is Narcissism “contagious”? Can one “catch” Narcissism by being in the presence of a Narcissist?
The psychiatric profession uses the word: “epidemiology” when it describes the prevalence of psychopathologies. There is some merit in examining the incidence of personality disorders in the general population. Some of them might be genetically induced. Most of them are, probably, influenced by the cultural context of the society in which they are manifested. But are personality disorders communicable diseases?
The answer is more complex than a simple “yes” or “no”. Personality disorders are not contagious in the restricted, rigorous, medical sense. They are not communicated by pathogens from one individual to another. They lack many of the basic features of physical-biological epidemics. Still, they are communicated.
First, there is the direct, interpersonal, influence. A casual encounter with a narcissist is likely to leave a bad aftertaste, bewilderment, hurt, or anger. But these transient reactions have no lasting effect and they fade with time. Not so with more prolonged interactions: marriage, partnership, co-existence, cohabitation, working or studying together and the like. Is there such a thing as narcissism by proxy? Narcissism brushes off. Our reactions to the narcissist, the initial ridicule, the occasional rage, or the frustration – tend to accumulate and form the sediment of deformity. Gradually, the narcissist distorts the personalities of those he is in constant touch with, casts them in his defective mould, limits them, redirects them, and inhibits them. When sufficiently cloned, the narcissist uses the effected personalities as narcissistic proxies, narcissistic vehicles of vicarious narcissism.
The narcissist provokes in us emotions, which are predominantly negative and unpleasant. The initial reaction, as we said, is likely to be ridicule. The narcissist, pompous, incredibly self-centred, falsely grandiose, spoiled and strange (even his manner of speech is likely to be constrained and archaic) – often elicits smirks in lieu of admiration. But the entertainment value is fast eroded. The narcissist’s behaviour becomes tiresome, irksome and cumbersome. Ridicule is supplanted by ire and, then, by anger and by rage. The narcissist’s inadequacies are so glaring and his denial and other defence mechanisms so primitive – that we feel like constantly screaming at him, berating, debasing and reproaching him, even to the point of striking at him literally as well as figuratively. Ashamed at these reactions, we begin to also feel guilty. We find ourselves attached to a mental pendulum, swinging between repulsion and guilt, rage and pity, lack of empathy and remorse. Slowly we acquire the very characteristics of the narcissist that we so deplore. We become as tactless as he is, as devoid of empathy and of consideration, as ignorant of the emotional composition of other people, as one track minded. Bathed in the sick halo of the narcissist – we are “blessed”. The narcissist invades our personality. He makes us react the way he would have liked to, had he dared, or had he known how (a mechanism known as “Projective Identification”). We are exhausted by his eccentricity, by his extravagance, by his grandiosity, by his constant claims. The narcissist incessantly, adamantly, even aggressively makes demands upon his environment. He is addicted to his Narcissistic Supply: admiration, adoration, approval, attention. He feels entitled. He forces others to lie to him and over-rate his achievements, his talents, his merits. Living in a narcissistic fantasy land, he imposes on his nearest or dearest to join him there, however incommensurate the exercise, either with their personality, or with reality.
The resulting exhaustion, desperation and weakening of the will – are fully taken advantage of by the narcissist. Through these reduced defences he penetrates, and, like a Trojan Horse, spews forth his lethal charge. Imitation and emulation of his personality traits by his surroundings are but two of the weapons in his never dwindling, always creative, arsenal. But he does not recoil from using fear and intimidation. He coerces people around him by making subtle uses of processes such as reinforcement and conditioning. Seeking to avoid the unpleasant consequences of not succumbing to his wishes – people would rather comply with his demands and be subjected to his whims. Not to confront his rages – they “cut corners”, pretend, participate in his charade, lie, and become subsumed in his grandiose fantasies. Rather than be aggressively nagged, they reduce themselves, minimise their personalities, and place themselves in the shadow cast by the narcissist, however small. By doing all this – they delude themselves that they have escaped the worst consequences.
But the worst is yet to come. The narcissist is confined, constrained, restrained and inhibited by the unique structures of his personality and of his disorder. There are many behaviours in which he cannot engage, many reactions and actions “prohibited”, many desires stifled, many fears inhibiting. The narcissist uses others as an outlet to all these repressed emotions and behaviour patterns. Having invaded their personalities, having altered them by methods of attrition and erosion, having made them compatible with his own disorder, having secured the submission of his victims – he moves on to occupy their shells. Then he makes them do what he always dreamt of doing, what he often desired, what he constantly feared of. Using the same compelling methods, he drives his mates, spouse, partners, colleagues, children, or co-workers – into collaborating in the expression of the repressed side of his personality. At the same time, he negates the vague sensation that their personality has been substituted by his when committing these acts. The narcissist can, thus, derive, vicariously, through the lives of others, the Narcissistic Supply that he so needs. He induces in them criminal, romantic, heroic, impulses. He navigates them to forbidden realms of the intellect. He makes them travel far, travel fast, travel light, behave against all norms, gamble against all odds, fear not – in short: be what he could never be. And he thrives on the attention, admiration, fascination, or horrified reactions lavished upon his proxies. He consumes the Narcissistic Supply flowing through the human conduits of his own making. Such a narcissist is likely to use sentences like “I made him”, “He was nothing before he met me”, “He is my creation”, “She learned everything she knows from me and at my expense”, and so on.
Sufficiently detached – both emotionally and legally – the narcissist flees the scene when the going gets tough. Often, these behaviours, acts and emotions induced by the proximity to the narcissist – bring about harsh consequences to their perpetrators. These consequences need not necessarily be disastrous, but an emotional crisis can be as calamitous as a physical or material catastrophe. A catastrophe is bound to happen because the narcissist’s prey is not equipped to deal with the crises that are the narcissist’s daily bread and which, now, are delegated and relegated to his proxy. The behaviour and emotions induced by the narcissist are alien to the perpetrator and a cognitive dissonance usually ensues. This only aggravates the situation. But the narcissist is rarely there to watch his invaded victims writhe in pain. At the first sign of trouble, he flees and disappears. This act of vanishing need not be physical or geographical. The narcissist is better at disappearing emotionally and at evading his legal obligations (despite constant righteous moralizing). It is then and there that the people who surround the narcissist discover his true colours: he uses and discards people in an absentminded manner. To him, people are either “functional” and “useful” in his pursuit of Narcissistic Supply – or not human at all, dimensionless cartoons. Of all the hurts that the narcissist can inflict – this, probably, is the strongest and most enduring one.