I’ve dealt with my fair share of narcissists. There seems to be quite a few of them in the world. I’ve been gaslighted, projected-onto, and generally treated like I was made of dog shit. Many people have experienced being treated like this. The destruction and pain that narcissists sow often leads to us judging them as being “bad people.” But they’re not really bad; they’re just doing the best they can with what they have. I think it’s really helpful to understand what’s going on under-the-hood with narcissists. This enables us to be less reactive to their behavior, and to calmly and confidently back-away once it’s clear what we’re dealing with.
At the root of narcissism, as with nearly all mental illness, is trauma. The narcissist experienced severe trauma at some point in their lives, probably when they were children and before their character crystallized. This kind of trauma is often relational and, where narcissism is concerned, it’s usually related to a parent who severely degraded the child, either actively through abuse or passively through negligence. As with all non-integrated trauma, the relational trauma that underlies narcissism continues to be a living reality for the narcissist into adulthood. From their perspective, they’re still living in the traumatic experience.
To be trapped in a traumatic experience, whether that’s being treated with contempt by someone you depend upon for survival or hiding in a bunker while bullets whistle past your head, is inherently scary. Traumatized people live in constant fear. A war veteran with PTSD is continually on high-alert, monitoring her environment for any sign of physical threat. This hyper-vigilance also applies to the adult who grew up with their self-esteem continually under threat of annihilation: there is a constant vigilance for any potential loss of relational control.
Seen from this perspective, the behaviors of a narcissist make total sense. They must always be right and good, and everyone else must always be bad and wrong. This is absolutely critical to ensure certainty of what is going on relationally. Just as the combat veteran cannot accurately perceive the true physical safety of a shopping mall, the narcissist cannot perceive the true emotional safety of normal relationships with other humans. To the narcissist, it doesn’t matter whether their beliefs about reality are true (they’re usually not) but whether those beliefs enable them to feel safe (for now), and whether those beliefs allow the feeling of terror to subside, if only temporarily.
Of course, non-integrated trauma usually leads to the false beliefs about reality materializing, at least to some degree. The combat vet, in continual fear of her life, may lash out at a spouse, injuring or killing them, or at least ending up in a significantly less safe environment such as a jail cell or in a drunken bar brawl. In the worst cases, severely traumatized people have gone on shooting sprees and made places such as the aforementioned shopping-mall just as dangerous as the combat zone (or the childhood home). For the narcissist, even if other people are accommodating, willing, loving, and kind, after enough of the lashing-out, humiliation, and contempt, even the closest friends and family members are forced to keep their distance or to disconnect all-together. The narcissist’s “I’m the victim” narrative becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy after everyone in their orbit has been systematically victimized by them.
In this light, the behaviors of the narcissist make total sense, and are not something to feel contempt for; instead, they evoke compassion. The need to be in relational control often leads to the creation of alternative facts that suit their self-narrative. People who support those facts, those who are either obsequious or whose perspectives happen to align with the narcissist, will be put into the “good” camp. Those who do not agree with the narrative will be put into the “bad” camp. This need to create an illusion of certainty about reality, and to have absolute control, is actually present in all people; it’s just massively amplified in the narcissist.
For example, expressions from a narcissist related to intelligence might be “I’m the smartest” or “everyone tells me I’m a genius” or “you’re an idiot” or “everyone says you’re an idiot”; these can be expressed either explicitly or implicitly. These can be seen as simply revealing insecurity and fear, both rooted in severe trauma. Once this is seen, it doesn’t have to be taken personally, and the narcissist can be dealt with appropriately. We can avoid promoting them to positions of power, even if that only means not dating them, and we can recommend that they seek treatment for their PTSD.
This article has been translated into Greek and re-published by psychology.gr