Janet the Cheater:
My narcissistic client Janet is telling me how deeply offended she is that the man with whom she has been cheating on her husband just dumped her. Janet had just told him that she was not going to leave her husband for him. He reacted badly to this news and ended the relationship. However, in her eyes, she is his victim. Here is some of what she said to him in retaliation:
I don’t love you. I never loved you. I never intended to leave my husband for you. How dare you dump me! I expected to be the one to break it off with you. You are not even a real man. I just had sex with you because my husband is old and boring. I can’t believe you did this to me. I deserve better. I am going to get revenge on you by calling all our friends and telling them what you are doing to me. I refuse to be victimized by you!
So, what is going on? Why are these people with NPD claiming to be the real victim in the relationship when it is obvious to any impartial observer that they are quite abusive and difficult to be around?
Narcissistic Behavior and Shame
One of the ways that you can understand narcissistic personality disorder is in terms of shame avoidance. Narcissists invent a fake persona in which they present themselves to the world as perfect and always right in order to avoid feeling shame about their defects. That is the reason that in the above examples, the narcissists are shifting the blame for their bad behavior onto their mates. They need to see themselves as totally in the right.
Narcissists Lack Whole Object Relations
Narcissists need to portray themselves in this fake way because they lack whole object relations. Whole object relations is the technical term for the ability to form an integrated, fairly stable, and more-or-less realistic picture of themselves and other people that contains both good and bad traits.
From an object relations theoretical point of view, one of the criteria for diagnosing someone with a personality disorder is that they lack whole object relations and can only see people in a split way as either all-good or all-bad. Most people develop whole object relations in childhood if they are treated in a fairly consistently positive way by their caregivers and still shown love even when they make mistakes. If the parents have whole object relations, the children are likely to develop this capacity.
However, if the parents do not have it, the parents will switch back and forth between loving and hating their children. This prevents the children from developing a stable sense of self. It is as if the children spend their childhood looking into two different equally distorted mirrors. One shows them as perfect and the other shows them as irredeemably flawed.
In the narcissist’s world, all-good equals perfect, special, omnipotent, and never wrong, and all-bad equals worthless, defective, and stupid. If you are all good, you are entitled to be treated as special and the usual rules do not apply to you. If you are all bad, you are entitled to nothing. You are one of life’s losers.
This extreme form of splitting creates a situation where people with NPD cannot admit to any failings without losing their ability to see themselves as all-good, perfect, and always right. Denying their flaws and shifting the blame for their mistakes is their only alternative to feeling like worthless garbage.
There is no in-between point where they can have some flaws and make a few mistakes without seeing themselves as all-bad. If they cannot avoid seeing their errors or publicly being exposed as imperfect, they are likely to fall into a shame-based, self-hating depression. In this state, they become much less functional and may even become suicidal.