Is there such a thing as a “typical narcissist”? Is narcissism a “pure” mental disorder or a “cocktail” of a few? Is there a typical way in which narcissists react to life crises? Is it true that they are prone to suicide?
I have to dispel a few hidden assumptions in the study of narcissism.
The first is that there is such thing as a typical narcissist.
First, one must specify whether one is referring to a cerebral narcissist or to a somatic one.
A cerebral narcissist uses his intelligence to obtain narcissistic supply. A somatic Narcissist uses his body, his looks and his sexuality to do likewise. Inevitably, each type is likely to react very differently to a narcissistic injury brought about by an disfiguring accident, for instance.
Somatic narcissists are a variation upon HPD (the Histrionic Personality Disorder). They are seductive, provocative and obsessive – compulsive when it comes to their bodies, their sexual activities and their health (they are likely to be hypochondriacs as well).
I believe that there is a continuum between families of mental health disorders. I believe that HPD (the Histrionic Personality Disorder) is actually NPD where the narcissistic supply is sex or physique. I think that BPD (Borderline Personality Disorder) is a form of NPD with emphasis on abandonment issues. I think that AsPD (Antisocial Personality Disorder) is NPD with deficient impulse control. I think that pathological narcissism underlies all these – wrongly distinguished – disorders. This is why my book is entitled NARCISSISM Revisited and not NPD.
But, while I dispute the existence of a typical narcissist, I do accept that certain behavioural and character traits are common to all of them:
Pathological lying seems to be trait of narcissists. Even the DSM defines NPD with words such as “fantasy”, “grandiose” and “exploit”, which imply the usage of half truths, inaccuracies and lies on a regular basis. Kernberg and others coined the term “False Self” not in vain.
Narcissists are not gregarious. Actually, narcissists and schizoids have a lot in common (for more on this, see FAQ67).
Of course narcissists love to have an audience. But they love an audience only because and as long as it provides them with narcissistic supply. Otherwise, they are not interested in human beings (they lack empathy which makes other humans much less fascinating than they are to empathic people).
Narcissists are terrified of introspection. I am not referring to intellectualization or rationalization or simple application of their intelligence – this would not constitute introspection. Proper introspection must include an emotional element, an insight and the ability to emotionally integrate the insight so that it affects behavior. Some people are narcissists and they KNOW it (cognitively). They even think about it from time to time – is this introspection? Not really. Narcissists do engage in real introspection following a life crisis, though. They attend therapy at such time.
Lack of “Typical” Narcissists
So, while there are no “typical” narcissists – there are traits and behaviour patterns typical to all narcissists.
The second “myth” is that narcissism is a pure phenomenon that can be dealt with experimentally. This is not the case. Actually, due to the fuzziness of the whole field, diagnosticians are both forced AND encouraged to render multiple diagnoses (“co-morbidity”). NPD usually appears in tandem with some other Cluster B disorder (such as AsPD, HPD or, most often, BPD).
Regarding the third myth (that narcissists are prone to suicide, especially after a life crisis involving a narcissistic injury):
Narcissists VERY rarely commit suicide. It runs against the grain. They have suicidal ideation and reactive psychoses under severe stress – but to commit suicide runs against the grain of narcissism. This is more of a BPD trait. A differential diagnosis of NPD (which distinguishes NPD from BPD, for instance) actually almost rests on the absence of attempted suicide and self-mutilation.
In response to a life crisis (divorce, disgrace, imprisonment, accident and severe narcissistic injuries) the narcissist is likely to adopt either of two reactions:
- He finally refers himself to therapy, realizing that something is dangerously wrong with him. Statistics show that talk therapies are rather ineffective when it comes to narcissists. Soon enough, the therapist is bored, fed up or actively repelled by the grandiose fantasies and open contempt of the narcissist. The therapeutic alliance crumbles and the narcissist emerges “triumphant” having sucked the therapist’s energy dry.
- He frantically gropes for alternative sources of narcissistic supply. Narcissists are very creative. If all fails, they exhibitionistically make use of their own misery. Or they lie, create a fantasy, invent stories, harp on other people’s emotions, forge a medical condition, pull a stunt, fall in ideal love with the chief nurse, make a provocative move or a crime… The narcissist is bound to come up with a surprising angle.
Experience shows that most narcissists go through (a) and then through (b).
The exposure of the False Self for what it is – False – is a major narcissistic injury. The narcissist is likely to react with severe self-deprecation and self-flagellation even to the point of suicidal ideation. This – on the inside. On the outside, he is likely to react aggressively. This is his way of channeling his life-threatening aggression.
Rather than endure its assault and its frightening outcomes – he redirects the aggression, transforms it and hurls it at others.
What form his aggression might assume is nigh impossible to predict without knowing the narcissist in question intimately. It could be anything from cynical humour, through brutal honesty, verbal abuse, passive aggressive behaviours (frustrating others) and down to actual physical violence.
These three debunked myths demonstrate the untenability of the proposition that narcissism is an isolated mental health phenomenon.