The Narcissist: We’ve all met one! They’re hard to miss because they generate powerful reactions in us. They can anger us and make us feel we don’t exist. They can hurt us and make us feel our needs are not important. They often turn us into their personal audience; they have little interest in truly knowing who we are or what we need beyond how it serves their own agenda.
In short, the narcissist doesn’t really understand that other people are independent agents with separate needs, perspectives, and expectations. Instead, the narcissist believes that he or she is close to the center of the universe—the center of focus, of interest, of importance, of relevance. It’s no coincidence that the narcissist’s behavior is infantile; like the infant, he or she needs those very important narcissistic supplies of love, affirmation, recognition, and attention in order to exist and to feel whole. And like the infant, narcissists are skilled at arranging things so that they are assured of getting what they need. Unfortunately, in the process, they often leave an array of derailed relationships and failed marriages behind them.
Because the narcissist is so difficult to relate to, and because he or she is so often enragingly self-centered, narcissists are easy to dislike. This is understandable; after all, no one adores a 45-year-old baby!
I want to talk here, not about how hard it is to live with a narcissistic person. Rather, I want to try to talk about what life like looks like from the point of view of the narcissist. I want to try to illuminate what the narcissist sees, feels and needs, and in doing so, want to try to debunk the thinking that he or she is intentionally behaving selfishly and childishly. I want to try to debunk the thinking that the narcissist has any degree of self-awareness—not because he or she is stupid, but because they are, simply, unaware of the other. They have not learned to recognize the other except as someone who can be useful in providing those badly needed supplies. In essence, like the infant views his or her mother.
Believe it or not, having the ability to recognize the other is a developmentally sophisticated achievement. The infant and young child—indeed—even the teen is not yet able to fully understand that other people—his parents, teachers and even friends are separate agents with different needs, apart from their roles as a caregiver. We call this early perspective primary narcissism.
In health, the infant is initially treated as the center of the universe! His or her developmentally appropriate primary narcissism is met and satisfied! This continues throughout childhood, and even into the teenage years. By the late teens, the healthy person is ready to take the developmental leap out of that narcissistic position, and into a position of mutual engagement.
The irony? Unless the child’s primary narcissistic needs are satisfied at the developmentally appropriate age, those needs will persist! Sadly, we see this in the narcissistic adult who talks about himself or herself all the time, who doesn’t appear able to understand the needs and motivations of others, and who, ultimately, cannot sustain healthy long-term adult relationships. This individual is stuck. His primary narcissistic needs were never properly satisfied and he’s stuck, unable to develop past them, and condemned to seek out their satisfaction.
For the adult narcissist, life is difficult and confusing. They’re almost always in the painful state of feeling deprived. Some narcissists try not to feel this pain by surrounding themselves with material wealth; others, by turning their pain into anger, or by pulling it in other ways. Regardless, they inevitably look to undo their deprivation by seeking those narcissistic supplies they couldn’t get as children. “Look at me,” they seem to say. “Pay attention to me.” And sure enough, they become confused because no one wants to “play mommy” all the time! People grow exasperated, angry, and frustrated. They roll their eyes and tell the narcissist to “grow up.” All the while, the narcissist feels deprived, injured, and unfed. Why am; I always being criticized, he wonders. Why can’t I get what I need?
For a frank discussion on how therapy can help resolve unmet narcissistic needs and help you get back on track in becoming all the person you know yourself to be, please see my discussion about psychoanalysis here.