Soap Bubbles by Jean-Baptiste Simeon Chardin, 1773
My last entry described healthy narcissism as a developmental process. Today, I’d like to write about ‘malignant’ narcissism and how people’s lives are endangered when society accepts self-admiration as ‘normal’, even desirable. My concern with the increasing acceptance of narcissistic behavior as normal (healthy) is that we are eroding the warning signs of pathology. The more normal self-admiration becomes, the more likely we are to rationalize, minimize and maybe even ‘idealize’ signs of pathology.
In my generation, we made decisions based false assumptions about people’s capacity to change in a loving relationship. Now we are facing an interesting turn of events: the belief that self-admiration is normal or healthy. This concerns me because of my personal experience with ladder-climbing narcissists perceived to be confident and successful. For them, people are means to an end. Ambition is the measure of success and relationships are disposable. As long as the individual achieves success (fame or fortune), we ignore all the other people whose goals and right to happiness were destroyed.
Theorists like Otto Kernberg and Heinz Kohut describe narcissism differently and people may prefer one theory to another, or even a combination of several theories. No matter how psychologists define the etiology of malignant narcissism, the symptoms are the same: excessive self-sufficiency, entitlement, exploitativeness, exhibitionistic, vanity, authority, and superiority. These seven traits are similar to traditional indications of unhealthy behavior: pride, wrath, greed, lust, envy, sloth, and gluttony. (Harkens back to the original seven sins, doesn’t it?) Just like those aggravating sins we each commit to some degree, most people repent and get their lives back on track---and other people don’t. Learning about pathological narcissism and reading about people’s real-time experiences with narcissists is a good way to protect yourself from undo harm so YOU can work on your own sins instead of worrying about the narcissist’s eternal welfare.
Kernberg’s description of the pathological grandiose self fits my experience with a narcissist who was unable to resolve serious complications in his childhood. For me, when discussing narcissistic personality disorder or the incurable syndrome of malignant narcissism, the theory that rings most 'true' is the concept by Otto Kernberg. In my 'recovery' experience, Kernberg’s theories have done a better job bursting illusive bubbles than Kohut’s theory of arrested development. I don’t claim to be proficient in arguing psychological theory, but a woman learns what she needs to learn in order to save her life and many of my assumptions about human nature were completely wrong, especially the intractability of malignant narcissism. It has been a long journey questioning my assumptions and beliefs about loving someone into happiness.
For the most part, Kohut’s theory of arrested development aligned with my basic premise about maturation: that people went through stages of development, assisted by empathic partners who remained consistent and attached. It was my belief that immature behavior would self-correct over time. That people continued growing into old age, gaining wisdom, generativity, and a sense of humor, and all those good things Erik Erikson defined in his eight stages of psychosocial development. Though it’s of no doubt to me that should a narcissist rate him or herself on Erickson’s scale, or even Maslow’s, they’d be right up there at the top. Standing on everyone else’s head and justifying the crumpled heap of broken people under their feet.
So based on my relational experiences, it was natural to assume self-centeredness decreased as people aged…if they had a reliably supportive family that is. Once somebody provided the love they never got as a child, they'd change their narcissistic ways and grow up. If they got the love they needed, they'd not only love us back---they'd be grateful. This is how we were thinking back in the 1970's when the self-esteem movement was gaining headway.
My beliefs about people’s ability to change underscored my patience with people who struggled connecting to others, or living UP to responsibilities and expectations. If we examine our personal history, we see how life experiences influence the way we think, act, and feel.
It’s natural to assume other people are similar to ourselves and will mature in the same way.
If someone supported our ‘changed behavior’ when we failed or made mistakes, we may be inclined to support other people when they make mistakes. Assuming of course, that they aren’t pathological---which most of us don’t know at the time. The signs were there but without context for interpreting those signs, we rationalized the narcissist’s behavior by assuming their motivation was similar to our own.
When the best I could offer a partner resulted in hateful aggression, devaluation and betrayal, I finally uttered the word “pathological” instead of the euphemism, “midlife crisis”. My bubble burst with a resounding POP after admitting to myself that nothing I could do (or did) had an impact on my partner. So whoever it was that released me from my ignorance, ‘thank you.’
What Kohut offered that has been very useful is his concept of narcissistic rage. Narcissistic rage is not a temper tantrum or ‘venting’, what most of us assume is happening when the narcissist erupts out-of-the-blue. Most of us were/are unaware that the narcissist’s rage is based on perceived threats to their pseudo-self: the toxic bubble protecting their inflated esteem and grandiose self.
As I wrote above, having my bubble poked with realistic, albeit unwanted information, freed me from an illusion that was making life miserable. Here's some truth that might cut through denial for some of you:
1-Malignant narcissists do not mature into wise and loving people
2-You cannot apply what you know about human development to pathological narcissists.
3-Your assumptions, drawn from your own experience, are W-R-O-N-G.
4-Your capacity for intimacy will be rejected and degraded
5-Your Love and support will be perceived by the narcissist as neediness and control.
“DREAM SQUASHER! BUBBLE BUSTER! STICK-PIN FANATIC!”
Now this is the reason I posted Jean-Baptiste Simeon Chardin’s bubble blower masterpiece today: I am a Dream Squasher, a dedicated bubble-popper. When someone lives in a bubble of their own blowing, it’s my moral responsibility to stick pins in the gaseous container---gently and nicely, of course. After all, most people appreciate a reality check, including myself. Are we not each susceptible to floating in bubbles from time-to-time, especially when reality is overwhelming, uncertain, and frightening?
"You're right, Mom. Anyone who is too afraid to perform in public isn't gonna be a rock star." Bursting his bubble gave the kid half a chance to figure out what he was good at doing. Over Christmas, I got some mighty big hugs for helping my son face reality in his early twenties. He didn’t like having his grandiose bubble busted; but now he is living his dream as a computer game programmer. Something he is much better suited for. Was he ‘narcissistic’ as a young man, living inside a bubble of grandiosity and fantasy? Yea. But he wasn’t pathological.
Then there was this friend of mine who insisted her relationship with a married man was her glorious destiny. That some genie in the sky had accepted her fervent pleas for a soul mate and directed her feet to the married man's side of the street. I didn’t validate that grandiose illusion either, which doesn't make me very popular at sex-in-the-city-luncheons these days. When her bubble burst (because it always does), she thanked me for suggesting she look herself square in the eye and admit that her magical thinking had been a lie. Was she ‘narcissistic’ to believe she could escape reality with a ‘married’ soulmate? Yea. But she wasn’t pathological.
If we valued our liberation from self-delusion, we may believe we’re doing people a favor when we release them from their unhealthy fantasies. To tell y’all the truth, a few friends poked my bubble of self-delusion at appropriate times, sealing our friendship forever. I loved them even more afterwards because they cared enough to bring stickpins to lunch.
The danger is that we assume reality checks are a loving thing to do. That people will respond favorably to having their ‘illusions and unrealistic dreams’ squashed. What we don’t know is that when the fat head inside the bubble is a malignant narcissist, bursting his bubble is akin to bombing his house. In the malignant narcissist's paranoid perceptions, we are threatening his existence and he will protect himself as if we were throwing grenades on his front porch. Woe be the person who pokes pins in a malignant narcissist’s bubble! You may need to run for your life…I am not kidding.
He will want to kill you.
One thing I hope to impress on everyone’s minds is that narcissism is nothing to pooh-pooh or consider ‘normal’. Healing malignant narcissism is not a simple matter of ‘loving’ or ‘forgiving’ or ‘mirroring’ the narcissist’s behavior so he or she will jump on the bandwagon and work through eight stages of authenticity, eventually turning into Jolly Old Saint Nick.
Pathological narcissism (NPD) is a dangerous disorder. It is especially dangerous for people with pockets full of pins who have the mistaken notion that everyone prefers a reality check when self-inflated arrogance lofts them into the ethers, ruining their chances for happiness and life satisfaction. So please, never mistake a malignant narcissist for what people are calling ‘normal’ narcissists. It’s easy to be confused now that self-admiration and grandiosity and self-promotion are considered “normal,” even desirable.
It's time to stop viewing narcissistic behavior as acceptable because in the process, we blur the lines of malignancy.
Let me also point out that a lot of people are dedicated to recovery and healing their 'narcissistic wounds'. We're avidly learning about narcissism---even confronting ‘unhealthy’ narcissism in our selves. But remember: if you empathize with people, value community, and commit to relationships, you ain’t pathological. Developmental arrests can be ameliorated through self-help work, lots of support, and consistent attempts to eradicate dysfunctional behavior, childish assumptions, and invalid beliefs. If you are willing to examine sacred assumptions and take a good, hard look at yourself, and if you are able to stick with your resolutions, tolerate set-backs, value your relationships, and keep making progress, then it’s fair to say you have healthy-enough narcissism to sustain the work you must do.
If you have enough healthy narcissism, you can and will pop your annoying bubbles yourself. You may resent a friend suddenly squashing your bubble-istic fantasies, but you won’t want to kill the person with the pins.