How do narcissists react to criticism?
The narcissist is forever trapped in the unresolved conflicts of his childhood (including the famous Oedipus Complex). This compels him to seek resolution by re-enacting these conflicts with significant others. But he is likely to return to the Primary Objects in his life (parents, or caregivers) to do either of two:
- To “Re-charge” the conflict “battery”, or
- When unable to enact the conflict with another.
The narcissist relates to his human environment through his unresolved conflicts. It is the energy of the tension thus created that sustains him.
He is a person driven by parlously imminent eruptions, by the unsettling prospect of losing his precarious balance. It is a tightrope act. The narcissist must remain alert and on-edge. Only if the conflict is fresh in his mind can he attain such levels of mental arousal.
Periodically interacting with the objects of his conflicts, sustains the inner turmoil, keeps the narcissist on his toes, infuses him with the feeling that he is alive.
The narcissist perceives every disagreement – let alone criticism – as nothing short of a THREAT. He reacts defensively. He becomes indignant, aggressive and cold. He detaches emotionally for fear of yet another (narcissistic) injury. He devalues the person who made the disparaging remark. By holding the critic in contempt, by diminishing the stature of the discordant conversant – he minimizes the impact on himself of the disagreement or criticism. Like a trapped animal, the narcissist is forever on the lookout: was this remark meant to demean him? Was this sentence a deliberate attack? Gradually, his mind turns into a chaotic battlefield of paranoia and ideas of reference until he loses touch with reality and retreats to his own world of fantasized grandiosity.
When the disagreement or criticism or disapproval or approbation are PUBLIC, though – the narcissist tends to regard them as Narcissistic Supply! Only when they are expressed in private – does the narcissist rage against them.
The cerebral narcissist is competitive and intolerant of criticism or disagreement. To him, subjugation and subordination demand the establishment of his undisputed intellectual superiority or professional authority. Alexander Lowen has an excellent exposition of this “hidden or tacit competition”. The cerebral narcissist aspires to perfection. Thus, even the slightest and most inconsequential challenge to his authority is inflated by him. Hence, the disproportionateness of his reactions.
Some narcissists employ denial mechanisms, which they apply to their “extensions” (=family, business, workplace, friends) as well.
Consider the narcissist’s family. These narcissists instruct, order, or threaten their children into hiding the truth of abuse, malfunction, maladaptation, fear, pervasive sadness, violence, mutual hatred and mutual repulsion which are the hallmarks of the narcissistic family. “Not to launder the dirty laundry outside” is a common sentence. The whole family conforms to the fantastic, grandiose, perfect and superior narrative invented by the narcissist. The family becomes an extension of the False Self. This is an integral function of the sources of Secondary Narcissistic Supply. Criticizing, disagreeing, or exposing the fiction and lies, penetrating the family’s facade – are considered to be mortal sins. The sinner is immediately subjected to severe and constant emotional harassment, guilt and blame – and to abuse, including physical abuse. This state of things is especially typical of families with a case of sexual abuse.
Behaviour modification techniques are liberally used by the narcissist to ensure that the skeletons do stay in the family cupboards. An amusing by-product of this atmosphere of concealment and falsity is mutiny. The narcissist’s spouse or his adolescent children are likely to exploit this soft spot of the Narcissist to express their rebellion against him as a figure of reference and authority or as a role model. The first thing to crumble in the narcissist’s family is the mass denial so diligently cultivated by him.