The Freudian term ‘the narcissistic phase’ used in the field of child psychology refers to a period which occurs approximately between the ages of 2 to 3 or 4. This is a crucial developmental phase during which the child begins to understand the concept ‘I’ and develops an ego.
During this phase, a child views itself as the center of everything and is not yet able to see things from the perspective of another. Which is exactly how things should be since the child first needs to have an awareness of ‘I’ before becoming aware of ‘you’ and ‘we’.
The classic definition of narcissism can be interpreted as ‘self-love’. Healthy love of self plays an important role during all phases of emotional development. People with a narcissistic personality disorder are, however, pathologically narcissistic in the sense that their self-love is malformed. For convenience sake, on this site the term narcissism will be used to refer to pathological narcissism.
When a person fails to create a healthy -independent- self-image, validation of the ‘self’ has to come from others. Narcissists are overly concerned with their image and outside appearance, which creates a fragile and unrealistic self-image based on vanity, grandiosity and entitlement (‘I have a right or deserve to get what I want’) combined with a painful lack of reciprocation.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) occurs in approximately 1% of the population. There are other statistics that contradict this and indicate that 1 out of 25 people display characteristics of NPD. One explanation for this discrepancy of figures is that people with this disorder do not see their own behavior as an obstacle in their lives (in fact, it ‘works’ for them) and for that reason, they are very unlikely to seek help from a therapist. The people who are closest to a person with NPD, often the family, are the ones who really suffer. Narcissism is a broad spectrum ranging from people with mild narcissistic tendencies to psychopathy. While not all narcissists are by any means psychopathic, the majority of psychopaths (70-80%) display narcissistic behavior.
Whereas narcissists seek attention from -and use- others in order to build up and strengthen their ego, psychopaths want to cause others pain. There are, however, a number of similarities between these two disorders. Characteristics they have in common are, among other things, manipulative behavior and the inability to show empathy or lack of insight into the needs of another.
Rules only apply to others. People with NPD have very little understanding of others and are mainly concerned with how they can benefit themselves. They often manage to get others to do things for them and can always justify their inappropriate behavior. This works for them until they are met with resistance. They don’t handle criticism well, which is evident in the tense silence or rage that can arise when they’re opposed or stood up to. Their ability to genuinely respond to another’s emotions is very limited. However, they are very good at pretending to be cooperative for a short time. When dealing with someone with NPD, you will eventually begin to ask yourself whether your needs are of any importance at all. No matter what you do or say, the narcissist will always tell you you’re wrong; you’re either making too much of something or not enough. In any case, you will never be able to do anything right.
Most likely, this person first places you on a pedestal. Then you gradually come to realize that it was done simply to provide them with positive or negative attention, the so-called narcissistic supply. People with NPD can be very interesting, but are particularly good at acting interesting. At a certain point, you feel that you are being used by these people. They are generally people who like to hear themselves talk, especially about themselves. Their best friends are those who give them affirmation. Characteristics that apply to people with NPD can be: manipulative, domineering, self-indulgent, dismissive, oversensitive, playing the victim, egotistical, dishonest, unfaithful, criminal/immoral behavior, expectations/demands that you must always conform to and sending mixed messages. All while camouflaging the true self behind a charming facade. The ways this is done might include: showing interest, putting on a show just for you, going through a lot trouble for you, offering help and being extremely understanding. By doing these things the narcissist presents a false reality full of promises and desires that will never be fulfilled.
The first impression
These people often make a very positive first impression. The narcissist suffers from a fragile self-image or inner emptiness which makes them dependent on confirmation (narcissistic supply) from others. They consider themselves to be exceptional and expect others to give them special treatment. In doing this, the other person is constantly called upon to reinforce the narcissist’s fragile self-image. Narcissists can also easily become depressed, which causes them to be continually in search of narcissistic supply. The idea that the other person in a relationship also has a need to be heard, appreciated and have some space is of no importance to the narcissist. Narcissist are, however, very capable of giving their full attention to others for short periods of time, especially when they find it necessary in order to achieve their goal. That goal might be: attention, admiration, influence, respect, money, power, sex, sympathy and/or favors. The victim also serves as someone to take frustrations out on. The narcissist’s mood can change without notice and to the outside world they show a totally different personality than at home.
People with NPD typically have a heightened feeling of being exceptional (kind or sensitive). This overestimation of themselves appears to be connected to an extremely unstable self, which is compensated for by the ‘false self’. The narcissist’s personality is built entirely on false pretensions.
‘There is no developed Self, or in other words: there is no real person as you know real people to be, only the mere appearance of normalcy’.
According to psychoanalyst and author Dr. Frans Schalkwijk, the narcissist has subconsciously given up the belief that relationships can be satisfying. The belief that another can be well-meaning has been permanently broken. The narcissist is convinced that when the other begins to become important this signifies ‘losing’. A ‘we’ is not possible and longing for another is not permitted. One cause of this could be a distorted bond with a parent or guardian during childhood. The hidden – or covert, thin-skinned or vigilant- narcissist suffers from a destructive sense of shame. The continual subconscious self-judgement and inner self-rejection form the basis of the disorder. What stands out in Dr. Schalwijk’s findings is the notion that a hidden narcissist sometimes desires to give a lot. So much so that the other is made to feel that they have nothing to bring to the relationship and is being set aside. This is the narcissist as giver instead of taker. You can also get the feeling that the ‘giving’ has become a kind of competition. The experiences of victims I have treated in my practice show that the ‘giving’ is often temporary and meant to deceive the victim, who will then begin to have doubts about the narcissist’s real intentions.
NPD does not tend to become less over time. The aging process itself is an affront to the self-image and often results in a midlife crisis. They might suddenly start a new life with a younger partner, begin running marathons or spend a lot of money on their appearance. No genetic factor has been identified in relation to NPD, although it is believed that the parental style of upbringing can contribute to a child’s feelings of grandiosity and being exceptional.
As time goes by, sometimes only after years, their calculated behavior becomes more noticeable and it becomes clearer and clearer that everything is always all about them. It’s understandable that at some point those close to the narcissist will no longer be able to put up with this one-sided relationship. They feel they are always walking on eggshells or being put under a microscope and begin to doubt themselves. The effects of a relationship with a narcissist can be highly destructive.
Are you a victim of narcissistic abuse?
For victims of narcissism help and guidance are needed in order to recover from the psychological and physical asbuse they had to endure. Years spent living under subtle manipulation leads to emotional instability, depression, stress, exhaustion or physical complaints. The consequences of narcissistic abuse are actually a form of PTSD, also known as Complex PTSD. For a successful recovery process it is very important that the care provider treating is well-acquainted with this disorder.
If you would like help to deal with the after effects of narcissistic abuse and you don’t live in the Netherlands, a Skype/ Messenger or FaceTime consultation can be very effective. You can also take a first step towards recovery and request an e-consultation or make an appointment for a visit at the practice.