Updated: Nov 10, 2021
This post is a summary of Nancy McWilliam's chapter on Narcissistic personalities in her book Psychoanalytic Diagnosis.
Contrary to the popular idea of narcissism that equates it with vanity, narcissism is actually the product of an inner world of shame and self-contempt. In psychoanalysis, a critical piece of the analysis is determining how much someone can recognize other people as whole, separate beings with their own wants and needs. People with personalities that can be considered disordered have a much more difficult time making that distinction. They tend to project their inner world onto the external world and predictably react with rigid defenses. In narcissistic personalities, this means seeking external validation as compensation for their experience of inner lack.
Narcissistic personalities aren’t the only personality structure that can have a sense of inner emptiness, but it’s how they compensate for that lack that defines narcissistically organized people. For example, borderline personality as defined in the DSM (as opposed to a psychoanalytic definition of borderline functioning) also has an inner world of emptiness and/or anger. A tragic coupling that occurs quite often is a person with borderline personality disorder being attracted to narcissists. The person with borderline personality disorder wants to be filled and the narcissist wants to be validated. The person with borderline personality disorder is all too happy to idealize the narcissist which feeds the narcissist and the borderline personality disordered person is all too happy to be “wanted” by someone. It’s a match made in hell.
Some narcissists are overt, meaning that they are very grandiose, feel superior, and constantly seek affirmation of that. Covert narcissists are driven by the same sense of internal lack, but have a very self-critical voice that results in them seeking their narcissistic supply through seeking pity and other self-centered ways. The overt narcissist may appear arrogant and vain, the covert narcissist is like an energy vampire.
Narcissists love you when you are giving them the supply of validation they need. As soon as someone falls short in their eyes, they quickly turn to devaluing that person. They can be very envious because of perceived threats to their superiority.
Relationships with narcissists will be defined by the management of their self-esteem–this is the case with both overt and covert narcissists. You have a choice, coddle them, or have them be upset and angry when the external world doesn’t match their idealizations. While an overt narcissist may express anger directly, the covert narcissist will be angry but then seek pity and soothing because their feelings are hurt. People who are psychologically healthier may experience narcissistic personalities as boring since the person isn’t likely to see them as a person, but rather as a container for their projected sense of self.
Some ask, how do people end up this way? Many therapists feel like children who are used as narcissistic objects by parents can end up learning this behavior and ending up this way themselves. A daughter who only gets approval from a father when she wins a race or gets into a school that makes the father feel proud, may become a narcissist herself and treat her own children narcissistically. Make no mistake, it’s perfectly fine to tell children you are proud of them. The difference with the narcissist is in degree and frequency as well as the rage or disappointment that may be expressed when a child doesn’t live up to the narcissistic parent’s idealized outcome. Children who are constantly being evaluated take this in and learn that they only have value when they are pleasing the parent. Overindulgence of a child can have the same effect. They may end up seeing themselves as undeserving and then end up overcompensating for that by trying to prove the spoiled-upbringing was deserved.
No matter how toxic and draining a narcissistically-inclined person can be, we need to understand that they are inherently fragile people. They can be shattered by the smallest piece of evidence in the external world that threatens their idealized, false self. As a result, they are unlikely to express a wide-range of emotions. It’s common for fully-formed personalities to regularly experience doubt, fear, failure, regret and other emotions that the narcissistic personality will be threatened to feel because they don’t want to see any aspect of themselves as less than perfect.
Personality Analysis of the Narcissistic Personality References
McWilliams, N. (2011). Psychoanalytic diagnosis: Understanding personality structure in the clinical process (2nd ed.). Guilford Press.