Severe narcissism is one of the most complex and confusing psychological phenomena, and its complexity explains why so much is written about it and why there remains a need to continue educating the public about it. The focus of this article will be to address one facet of the disorder that remains so mysterious. Specifically, people who are in close proximity to severe narcissists often can’t understand why the narcissist in their life can: be so mean; get so jealous of their success or happiness; and be so competitive with them, even when we’re talking about two romantic partners.
Two words that will help you understand the narcissist
To begin, the most helpful words in framing an understanding of the narcissist are “counter-intuitive.” Specifically, how the narcissist presents on the surface is entirely different from how the narcissist feels underneath. There are two “selfs” at work in the mind of the narcissist: their real self, and their fraudulent, fantasy self they try to sell to the public. Severe narcissists have a predatory, score-keeping approach to the social world around them. The narcissist’s daily life is spent fighting off potential threats to their ego and proving themselves as superior to everyone around them, and they have little peace of mind as they move through life. To understand why the narcissist can be so mean in interpersonal relationships, you must understand the unique motivations of the narcissist’s intra-psychic world, or in lay terms, what goes on inside the mind of a narcissist.
Most, if not all, severe narcissists were likely emotionally injured at a crucial time in their development. Specifically, they were injured when they were young children, a time when a child is highly impressionable and when that child hasn’t yet figured out how to shore up psychological guards (defenses) to ward off things that make them feel bad. When the young boy or girl was emotionally injured, it probably took the following form: an authority figure or even bullying kids at school humiliated them, subjugated them, knowingly neglected them, or otherwise exploited them. To become severely narcissistic later in life, the emotional injury in childhood had to be severe enough that the individual arrived at the following (unconscious) conclusion: No one will ever hurt me like that again. I will never let my guard down. Later in life, this way of relating to people and the world has been practiced over and over for so many years that the personality becomes largely locked into place and it is extremely challenging for the narcissist to let themselves be exposed emotionally for very long at all. If someone or something threatens the narcissist’s ego, the narcissist abruptly shifts into predator mode.
Why narcissists can be so mean
In a moment, I will explain what happens when the narcissist shifts into predator mode. First, however, it is important to understand why the narcissist feels the need to fight so doggedly to begin with. In the mind of the narcissist, the social world includes two strict categories: winners and losers. There is no possible outcome they can conceive of in which everyone gets their needs met. There isn’t enough attention and praise for everyone to go around, so, according to narcissistic logic, only a few lucky ones will be selected. Because of the way the narcissist was probably humiliated, unnoticed, or subjugated in the past when it mattered most, the narcissist is also motivated by making sure that they are never put down or overlooked again. When the narcissist feels most threatened, it is because someone has said or done something that makes the narcissist feel small, unnoticed, weak, or defective, and the narcissist cannot allow anyone or anything to make him feel like that under any circumstances. The narcissist’s thinking goes like this: Any threat to her or his temperamental ego must be identified and erased immediately. If the threat continues, it must be annihilated by any means necessary.
If you put down the narcissist or humiliate them publicly, you will unleash decades-old rage and the narcissist will not stop until they feel you have been verbally or emotionally decimated. (Keep in mind that what the narcissist perceives as a slight is rarely objective.) People who haven’t been in close proximity to a severe narcissist would never believe the animalistic, ugly wrath that spews from the narcissist when they are activated. Many boys and girls, or men and women, who have suffered at the hands of an extreme narcissist talk about how seeing such hate-filled “colors” in another human being is traumatic in itself. (These same individuals also find it hard to ever emotionally trust someone again who shows such unbridled, predatory rage.)
If you are in close proximity to a severe narcissist, understand that the meanness and viciousness the narcissist displays when threatened or held accountable is not personal. Narcissists can use words as bullets, zeroing in on anything they can to unsettle and upset you. Being on the receiving end of this behavior is horrifying and confusing. The recipients often turn to self-help books or articles (like this one) to make sense of the experience because the experience is so traumatic and disturbing. Recipients often become sort of “armchair therapists,” learning about this personality disorder and trying to become an expert on this type of personality to maintain their sanity. If you are in close proximity to a narcissist, I will highlight what is important for you to understand to move forward. At root, severe narcissists are highly abnormal men and women who have a form of mental illness (a personality disorder). The root of the disorder means that the narcissist, by definition, violates basic social rules and social conventions. When triggered, especially, they don’t show empathy; they are entitled; they create their own reality from moment to moment; and they don’t really care about others’ feelings. The rules or social conventions that most elementary school children have already mastered are absent in the adult narcissist. I use the following expression with clients dealing with individuals like this: “They don’t get it, but they also don’t want to get it.”
To understand why narcissists can be so mean, you must understand that there are no limits or boundaries when they get triggered (e.g., something makes them look bad, countering the false, impermeable image they desperately try to sell to themselves and to the world overall). Nothing is off limits with the narcissist when they are upset. No one else in the room has feelings when the narcissist is overwhelmed by his or her own negative feelings. It’s a true onslaught, and to see someone who supposedly cares about and loves you completely deny your–and everyone else’s–reality and to rip you to shreds, at times, is simply par for the course. If narcissists were foods approved by the Food and Drug Administration, the sticker would read: “Can be extremely malicious and destructive when provoked.” Perhaps some men and women can handle being occasionally treated in an abusive way, but I’m not sure that that should be the goal. The goal isn’t to steel yourself against a loved one to the point that nothing they say or do hurts you. Yes, you could play that game, but what’s the point of investing in a relationship that has no real emotional intimacy? Moreover, what’s the point in having a relationship with someone who violates basic social rules that most third graders already subscribe to?
Why narcissists are so competitive and can’t let you, figuratively speaking, shine
Because the narcissist’s emotional scar involved them being unnoticed, humiliated, or subjugated at a crucial point in their psychological development, the overall topic of succeeding, shining, or getting noticed is a so-called hot-button issue. It is a loaded issue fraught with primitive and unconscious memories, thoughts and feelings. So many people in close proximity to a severe narcissist feel confused about why the narcissist has such an intense and often negative reaction when the other person feels really good, succeeds, or shines. Here is where things get tricky, and highly personality-disordered. Oddly enough, the severe narcissist takes your success as a reflection on them, but not necessarily in the way that you might be imagining. The mind of the narcissist is a binary, all-or-nothing world. If you succeed, their twisted logic tells them that your success means they failed. Someone else succeeding or shining (especially someone close to them who they see all the time) is actually upsetting (even unconsciously painful) because they see your success as a missed opportunity for themselves to get a little love or attention. While most people rightly believe that there is enough of all the good stuff to go around–love, attention, respect–severe narcissists are convinced that only a select few will get recognized. Sadly, no amount of convincing will convince them otherwise. It is critical to understand that the narcissist isn’t competitive with you because they hate you or want you to hurt you emotionally. They do what they do because they are feeling emotionally deprived themselves.
Normal people are entirely confused about how the narcissist–anyone, for that matter–can go through so much of their life without ever having learned and accepted some of the most fundamental social laws. Most third graders already understand and follow these basic social conventions, so it is almost hard to understand on a logical level how someone who looks like an adult and is not cognitively disabled could act so much like a child? This issue broaches the subject of another factor that underlies the disorder: oppositionality.
Oppositionality is an often overlooked part of the disorder.
Anecdotally, having worked with many children and teenagers who have Oppositional Defiant Disorder, I have noticed an interesting overlap between that disorder and adult Narcissistic Personality Disorder. The overlap is worth examining because it will help you to see how so much of the narcissist’s mental approach and behavior is inherently oppositional under the surface.
Oppositional Defiant Disorder (known as ODD in clinical circles) is a mental disorder seen in school-aged children. The diagnosis includes the following criteria: often loses temper; often argues with adults; often actively defies or refuses to comply with adults’ requests or rules; often blames others for his or her mistakes or misbehavior; is often angry and resentful; and is often spiteful or vindictive. If you are in close proximity to a narcissist, you see the shared characteristics.
Children who have oppositional, defiant personalities and adults who have narcissistic personalities are the way they are for a reason. There is no strict biological basis for these complex, difficult personalities. Perhaps biology plays a role, but my many years of experience with clients has shown that something in the individual’s emotional relationships early in life was usually a major contributor (unhealthy parenting approaches, trauma). The point is that the narcissist’s personality got constructed in a highly defensive way. For a personality to become so resistant, difficult, and all-around abnormal, something abnormal in the individual’s past had to take place over a significant length of time or during an especially critical period in that individual’s development (perhaps within the first several years of life, or what many birth to five experts call the “critical period”).
For those in close proximity to the severe narcissist, they must understand what, again, is counter-intuitive. In other words, how the severe narcissist acts with you often–and especially when their ego or sense of power has been threatened–has nothing to do with you.
What kind of a relationship can you have with a severe narcissist?Given the highly abnormal relationship dynamic a narcissist requires, what kind of relationship can you have with a severe narcissist? The answer isn’t simple. If you don’t emotionally trigger the narcissist, you can have a semblance of a relationship. There won’t be real intimacy–because intimacy is about equals and narcissists can’t do that, no matter what–but you can coexist. But if you are someone who feels good about yourself, gets noticed and praised by others, and holds them or anyone else accountable for major social or relationship violations, there can usually be no relationship. To make it work with a narcissist, you must alter your entire line of thinking with them in the this way: They have the power, they are in control, and they matter more. Without adopting this skewed, counter-intuitive framework, the narcissist, from time to time, will always end up making you pay a price for the self-esteem you have.
To read about specific visualize techniques you can use to keep the peace with a narcissist, read my article on the subject here.
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing. (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).