Narcissists can be charming, charismatic, seductive, exciting, and engaging. They can also act entitled, exploitative, arrogant, aggressive, cold, competitive, selfish, obnoxious, cruel, and vindictive. You can fall in love with their charming side and be destroyed by their dark side.
It can be baffling, but it all makes sense when you understand what drives them. That awareness protects you from their games, lies, and manipulation.
Narcissists have an impaired or undeveloped self. They think and function differently from other people. They behave as they do because of the way their brain is wired, whether due to nature or nurture.
Remember that the severity of narcissism varies. Some people have more symptoms with greater intensity, while other narcissists have fewer, milder symptoms. The following discussion thus may not apply to all narcissisic people to the same degree.
1. Narcissists are very vulnerable
Despite having seemingly strong personalities, they are actually very vulnerable. Psychotherapists consider them to be “fragile.” They suffer from profound alienation, emptiness, powerlessness, and lack of meaning.
Due to their extreme vulnerability, they crave power and vigilantly must control their environment, people around them, and their feelings. Displays of vulnerable feelings, such as fear, shame, or sadness are intolerable signs of weakness both in themselves and others.
Their defense system, discussed below, protects them, but hurts other people. When they feel most insecure, they’re more malicious and the impact of their actions is irrelevant.
2. Narcissists have toxic shame
Underneath their façade is toxic shame, which may be unconscious. Shame makes narcissistic people feel insecure and inadequate―vulnerable feelings that they must deny to themselves and others.
This is one reason that they can’t take criticism, responsibility, dissent, or negative feedback even when meant to be constructive.
Instead, they demand unconditional, positive regard from others. Here’s how
To compensate for feeling inferior, they maintain an attitude of superiority. They’re often arrogant, critical, and disdainful of other people, including entire groups they consider inferior, such as immigrants, a racial minority, a lower economic class, or people of less education.
Like bullies, they put down others to raise themselves up.
Their hidden shame accounts for their braggadocio and self-aggrandizement. They’re trying to convince themselves and others that they excel, that they’re uniquely special and the best, smartest, richest, most attractive, and most talented.
This is also why they gravitate toward celebrities and high-status people, schools, organizations, and other institutions.
Being with the best convinces them they’re better than others, while internally, they’re not so sure.
Narcissists feel entitled to get what they want from others regardless of their behavior. Their sense of entitlement masks their inner shame and insecurity. They convince themselves that they’re superior and it follows that they deserve special treatment.
For example, their time is more valuable than others, and they shouldn’t have to wait in line like the masses. There is no limit on what they might expect from others.
Interpersonal relationships are a one-way street, because other people are considered inferior and not separate from them (see below). They don’t recognize their behavior as hypocritical, because they feel superior and special. Rules for other people don’t apply to them.
3. Due to lack of empathy
Narcissists’ ability to respond emotionally and express appropriate care and concern is significantly impaired. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, narcissists lack empathy. They’re “unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.” (APA, 2013)
Research shows that they have structural abnormalities in brain regions associated with emotional empathy. They may claim they love you, but you must determine whether you feel loved by the way they treat you.
Real love requires empathy, compassion, and deep knowledge of the one we care for. We show active concern for that person’s life and growth. We try to understand their experience and world view though it may differ from ours.