Updated: Apr 24
The Rise and Fall of Narcissists
Image by Patricia Beeck
Contrary to popular belief, narcissistic people are not created by traumatization (in terms of living in fear as many other PDs do). Narcissistic traits are more common among people who receive extreme (unrealistic) praise, live in nice/favorable conditions, and show outstanding characteristics of some sort — distinguishing themselves in something — especially if that something is appreciated by those around them; it could be beauty, intelligence, or even height and hair color. Narcissistic Personality Disorder develops as a combination of narcissistic traits, ‘favorable conditions’ plus being ‘used’ as a token (or an object) for the ‘user’s satisfaction, which normally compensates for their clear deficiencies, disadvantages, or shortcomings that could go from professional frustration, physical disadvantages, or even poverty).
People who develop NPD suffer from distortions in the perception of their value and the value of others, but also on the value of their actions. They are raised by, or live among, people who promote to disregard the needs of others including those who are ‘less than’ them or could be on their way to success. This environment fosters a sense of entitlement that allows them to break laws, exploit others, and ignore rules in pursuit of their own perceived superiority and their desire for the position they believe they deserve. This position may be essential for the success of the group as a whole, rather than solely for the individual seeking it.
Yes, there is shame in most people with a personality disorder, and narcissists are not the exception, but this shame is not the root of the disorder, as many people believe. The shame they carry and hide develops with time as the result of their actions. There is also shame coming from having been shamed on their shortcomings (which are normally the shortcomings of the adults around them) and on not achieving what helps the ‘user’ shine. But the shame developed later keeps causing them to escape emotionally, making them even more insensitive to the needs of others, the hurt they cause, or the need for them to change. Shame may arise as well when they ‘discover’ that they are not as great as they were told or made to believe. They normally discover it too late to be able to accept they are like most others since they have already fabricated this halo of being special, which, by the way, has served them to get ‘special’ positions or treatment. Our society is prone to praise those who make us believe they are superior, and that’s why, on top of all their issues, they develop an “impostor syndrome.” It develops when they see how much they work on making people believe they are something they “know” they are not. I use quotations around “know” because that knowledge is distorted as well. They may not be objective in assessing their qualities and shortcomings, and many times they judge themselves harshly.
Commonly, people with NPD find the motivation to work ultra-hard to keep the illusion of grandiosity they created. The need to succeed contributes to make them cold and detached, and the downward spiral may grow exponentially. They may keep the illusion of being close and have many friends, but they feel extremely lonely. Symptoms of NPD get worse as the person ages or ‘achieves’ many of their goals; their behavior becomes more extreme and hurtful because they lack satisfaction even when they get everything they were supposed to.
One of the characteristics that make them feel ashamed and somehow defeated is the discovery that they were not really seen as great or superior by those who praised them, but instead, those people used them to validate their own inadequacies. The praise was for them to feel better more than to recognize the pwNPD’s superiority. Since they were used as objects, they learned to use others in the same way. That realization pushes many of them to feel less human, like monsters and frauds.
After the accumulation of emotional reactions that weaken them, they try to escape reality in different ways, normally leveraging what they were good at (and even outstanding) such as making money or desired by their beauty, physical strength, etc., becoming obsessed with continue being recognized, but also dreading the effort and spending huge amounts of energy maintaining the illusion. They get so exhausted and fearful of being discovered that they need to resort to drugs, sex, alcohol, trickery, conning, or whatever helps them to avoid confronting themselves or to become accountable for their actions and limitations.
As their fall progresses, they resent everyone, including those that bought into their importance; at some point those that used to admire them become disappointed. Those that ‘discover’ them are normally those closer to them, who become threats to their fabricated image; those close to them like partners or even children, who know them better than the rest. That’s why they cause so much damage to them. When they try to control those that can denounce or unmask them is when they feel lost and in danger. They will try to annihilate them before they risk being exposed. They get themselves into a trap that many times ends up crushing them financially, romantically, physically, and socially, commonly in that order.
Many pwNPD talk about their difficult upbringings and play victim as another resource for control over others. It has become common since ‘trauma’ is now used to explain and justify almost every emotional challenge. It may be true that being used instead of being seen in their own right is harmful and hurtful, but not at the level of many other people that suffer from emotional issues, and even personality disorders, that got the worst of their families or societies and had none of the advantages of those that develop narcissism. Narcissists don’t grow up with the same level of fear as other PDs. They were too busy shining and making their parents ‘proud’. They became mindless not because they were terrified, but because they were focused on becoming the best, even if that meant stepping on others in their way up, steps that got them far in the eyes of others but also far from enjoying peace of mind.
pwNPD suffer deeply. When they recognize their suffering and are willing to be vulnerable, they could start healing. Emotional pain is not a shortcoming. It’s human nature!