Heinz Kohut observed this in his narcissistic clients who suffered from profound alienation, emptiness, powerlessness, and lack of meaning. Beneath a narcissistic façade, they lacked sufficient internal structures to maintain cohesiveness, stability, and a positive self-image to provide a stable identity. (Russell, 1985) He believed the cause lay in the empathic failure between the caregiver and child.
He differed from Otto Kernberg, who thought the pathology began during the oral stage, claiming that it could even begin in latency. Narcissists are uncertain of the boundaries between themselves and others and vacillate between dissociated states of self-inflation and inferiority. The self divided by shame is made up of the superior-acting, grandiose self and the inferior, devalued self. When the devalued self is in the inferior position, shame manifests by idealizing others.
When the individual is in superior position, defending against shame, the grandiose self aligns with the inner critic and devalues others through projection. Both devaluation and idealization are commensurate with the severity of shame and the associated depression (Lancer, 2014).
Although most people fluctuate in these positions, the Exhibitionistic and Closet Narcissists are more or less static in their respective superior and inferior positions irrespective of reality, making them pathological. Arrogance, denial, projection, envy, and rage are among the defenses to shame (Lancer, 2014).
Although more research is required, twin studies revealed a 64-percent correlation of narcissistic behaviors, suggesting a genetic component (Livesley, Jang, Jackson, & Vernon, 1993).
Relationships with Narcissists
It’s easy to fall in love with narcissists. Their charm, talent, success, beauty, and charisma cast a spell, along with compliments, scintillating conversation, and even apparent interest in others. Enlivened by their energy, people gravitate towards them and are proud to bask in their glow.
At home, narcissists are totally different than their public persona. They may privately denigrate the person they were just entertaining. After an initial romance, they expect appreciation of their specialty and specific responses through demands and criticism in order to manage their internal environment and protect against their high sensitivity to humiliation and shame.
Relationships revolve around them, and they experience their mates as extensions of themselves. Understanding narcissism, how narcissists’ brains are wired, and what drives their behavior can help you detach, not react, and deal with them more effectively.
Many narcissists are perfectionists. Nothing others do is right or appreciated. Their partners are expected to meet their endless needs when needed – for admiration, service, love, or purchases – and are dismissed when not. That their spouse is ill or in pain is inconsequential.
Narcissists don’t like to hear “No” and often expect others to know their needs without having to ask. They manipulate to get their way and punish or make partners feel guilty for turning them down. Trying to please the narcissist is thankless, like trying to fill a bottomless pit. Their criticisms can escalate to narcissistic abuse.
They can make their partners experience what it was like having had a cold, invasive, or unavailable narcissistic parent. Anne Rice’s vampire Lestat had such an emotionally empty mother, who devotedly bonded with him to survive. The deprivation of real nurturing and lack of boundaries make narcissists dependent on others to feed their insatiable need for validation.
The Narcissist’s Partner
Although their partners feel loved when the narcissist bestows caring words and gestures, is madly possessive, or buys expensive gifts, they doubt his or her sincerity and question whether it’s really manipulation, pretense, or a manufactured “as if” personality. They feel tense and drained from unpredictable tantrums, attacks, false accusations, criticism, and unjustified indignation about small or imaginary slights.
These partners also lack boundaries and absorb whatever is said about them as truth. In vain attempts to win approval and stay connected, they sacrifice their needs and thread on eggshells, fearful of displeasing the narcissist. They daily risk blame and punishment, love being withheld, or a rupture in the relationship. They worry what their spouses will think or do, and become as pre-occupied with the narcissist as they are with themselves. Partners have to fit in to the narcissists’ cold world and get used to living with emotional abandonment.