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Children of Narcissus
An evolutionary analysis of narcissism

3. Narcissism

Copyright © 2008, Paul LutusMessage Page

The Narcissist | The Enabler | The Strategy
The Remedy | References

(double-click any word to see its definition)

 

NOTE: If you came to this page directly from a search engine, I want to emphasize this is a discussion of clinical or malignant narcissism, not the everyday kind.

The Narcissist

There is an obvious question about the relation between evolution and narcissism (and other destructive adaptations), and that is, "if narcissism is a failed strategy, how can there be so many at any particular time?" The answer is that, without failed experiments, there can't be successful ones. In other words, in the messy process of evolution, each success is accompanied by any number of failures. Remember that evolution isn't a wizard who knows what's going to succeed in advance. Evolution is more a dogged, patient experimenter like Thomas Edison, hoping to succeed through sheer persistence.

Here is a summary of narcissistic traits:

  • A narcissist secretly feels worthless, and because this is a perception not necessarily accessible to the narcissist's conscious mind, he has an openly hostile relationship with candor and truth.
  • Someone who lies to you is a risky association, but not as risky as a narcissist, who lies to himself.
  • The classic narcissistic defense is to shape an invulnerable persona, the mask of someone indifferent to what anyone thinks. But the narcissist actually cares very much what everyone thinks.
  • Narcissists don't have friends, they have acolytes. Friends are too risky.
  • All interpersonal interactions are about control, not communication.
  • A narcissist's relationships are wildly asymmetrical and hypocritical — he expects concessions that he wouldn't dream of granting to others.
  • A narcissist feels entitled to things that defy reason.
  • To a narcissist, nothing is ever good enough, and it's always someone else's fault.
  • Narcissists struggle to disassociate themselves from personal accountability, for example by using a plural pronoun where a singular one would make more sense. Saying "we are unhappy" is preferred over "I am unhappy," because an imaginary plural entity can't be bargained with.
  • Narcissists can't bring themselves to admit they don't know something, which over time assures there will be more and more things they don't know. This builds a strong association between narcissism and simplemindedness, although it's hard to say which came first.
  • Narcissists, eager to take credit when things go right, refuse to accept responsibility when things go wrong, and cannot engage in constructive self-criticism.
  • Narcissists cannot see how their behavior looks to others, and if confronted by their own behavior in another, refuse to accept it.

In the overview, a narcissist's life lacks symmetry — it only has one side. A narcissist doesn't see himself as an actor in his own play, as a moral agent capable of error. That's for other people.

The Enabler

Narcissists are parasites — they can't survive without something called "narcissistic supply". This commodity is normally provided by narcissistic enablers, people naturally predisposed to a supportive role, some of whom spent their childhoods learning how to be an enabler in a family of narcissists.

Enablers are often as self-deceiving as narcissists. While a narcissist might say, "I deserve it!", an enabler will say "I'm helping!" Enablers tend to picture themselves as coöperative, nurturing team players, and they almost never foresee the consequences of their actions.

A narcissist's behavior is not volitional, and an enabler's behavior isn't either. It is a given that, if an enabler is separated from a narcissist by uncontrollable circumstances, (s)he will find another narcissist to enable. This is a factor in a well-established pattern in spousal abuse, in which the battered partner, freed from one abuser, quickly finds a replacement.

The relationship between narcissists and enablers is not always a private matter with trivial consequences. Charles Manson and his female acolytes represented a classic narcissist/enabler relationship. (Manson and his followers were convicted of a string of gruesome murders in the late 1960s.) A more extreme example is David Koresh, whose followers appear to have been enablers of the most self-abasing kind (and some were children, too young to choose to be followers). David Koresh's entire sect burned up at the end of a long standoff with authorities in Waco, Texas in 1993.

These examples show that narcissists can be dangerous, and if their enablers cannot or will not escape, the danger only increases. The enabler is not "helping" the narcissist in any meaningful way, quite the reverse. The combination of narcissist and enabler creates a system more risky and disabling than either individual alone. Because the narcissist must have a narcissistic supply, and all outward appearances to the contrary, the enabler is the key to breaking the destructive bond.

The Strategy

Obviously an attachment to authority isn't the only narcissistic game plan, but it is surprisingly common. An attachment to unimpeachable authority provides the narcissist with a number of advantages:
  • It shields the narcissist from a challenge to his (in truth) fragile sense of worth.
  • It provides a mechanism for manipulating people for narcissistic ends.
  • It can be used to attract acolytes/enablers.
  • In some cases, authority includes a social role that coincidentally resembles narcissism, thus disguising what in fact is ordinary clinical narcissism.
  • A position of authority enables narcissism more effectively than an individual enabler possibly can.

It is estimated that 1% of the general population are clinical narcissists, but in positions of authority, the percentages are much higher, and among the ruling class one regularly sees astonishing exhibitions of narcissistic behavior (cf. Eliot Spitzer).

In the next section of this article we will explore specific examples of narcissist/authority roles.

The Remedy

Clinical narcissism is generally regarded as incurable. If you are entangled with a narcissist, typical advice from a mental health professional (something I am not) is to get away from him. If instead you believe you are helping him, and in particular if the narcissist insists that you are helping him, you are acting as an enabler, and you need to understand that this can be a dangerous position for both of you. Remember that Charles Manson's followers (e.g. enablers) were jailed along with him — they weren't allowed to argue that they were blameless psychological slaves. They were certainly psychological slaves, but they were not blameless — courts are skeptical of people who try to evade responsibility on psychological grounds, also it can be argued that Manson's "family" of enablers made him possible.

References

 

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