Boundary problems can be seen in all kinds of relationships with others; however, it is most likely that boundary conflict occurs in the early years of life when the child is learning to separate and individuate. It can be a difficult time for everybody, especially as the child is learning how to build their character on the appropriate use of the word “No”.
During this phase, the parent’s patience will be tested, however, it is crucial that the child is allowed to experiment and practice their disagreeable behaviour without having the love withdrawn from them. The child needs the connection to the caregiver to remain constant while they push the boundary out further, and that is very important. It is alright to be angry with the child as you correct their difficult behaviour, appropriate expression of anger teaches them what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour about cultural social norms. This protects the child from being disliked by others in the community.
However, to detach from the child sends out a totally different message: “You are only lovable to me when you behave a certain way”. The feeling of abandonment can be so painful that the child may over accentuate their compliant, loving, sensitive nature, and grow to fear and mistrust their more assertive parts. They will even hide their anger for fear of further rejection because fundamentally, every child needs to be loved and to belong to feel safe.
My attachment bond to both my parents was very healthy, they always made me feel very loved and safe. However, what was not so safe was my affectional bond to Gerard, and this attachment bond played havoc on my sense of boundaries.
As Gerard was four years older than I, we were, for the best part good companions. The attachment bond I had with him made me feel a sense of security a lot of the time. In a way, he provided the outlet for my sense of being needed, and when things were good, he provided me with a sense of worth and competence. In his absence, I missed him and felt lonely. I thought of him as my best friend, and the affectionate bond, despite the difficulties, was indeed long-enduring (approximately 40 years). He left home when he was seventeen, I was thirteen years old at the time, and I can remember feeling the inexplicable pain of separation, and then the joy when once again I was in his company.
But because of the secure base my parents provided me with, I could be confident and engage with other friends. I think, from a very early age I provided Gerard with some relief from the rejection and abandonment he was experiencing in the brutal school he attended. Even back then I was playing a protective caregiving role, and he could confide in me in the knowledge that I would keep confidentiality. I think the “big brother” caretaking role that he adopted with me also helped him feel more secure, more in control and less helpless. Indeed, he did provide me with comfort and care when things were good with him, and that was the Gerard I loved to be with.
It is understandable that the reader would wonder why I would not set limits. The answer is simple really, to set a limit with Gerard was to risk upsetting him, throwing him into a rage, and then losing the relationship. This rejection happened enough times early in our childhood, often leaving me feeling isolated and alone until he was ready to forgive me once again for some misdemeanour or other. I needed the connection with him to feel secure around him. Of course, this left me a prisoner to his wishes, I became his little puppet, where he, as Puppet Master pulled the strings.
In this primary trauma-bonded relationship that lacked good foundations, how could I ever hope to build healthy boundaries? I found my boundaries being violated in many areas for a great many years of my life. Boundaries affect every part of us by defining what is me and what is not me.
For example, our physical boundaries define our sexual and body space. Our mental boundaries define our freedom to express our thoughts and opinions. Our emotional boundaries define our freedom to feel our own emotions. Our material boundaries determine who we share our belongings with. Our spiritual boundaries relate to our beliefs, values, potential, aspirations, dreams, goals, etc. Our first boundary is our body, yet many children who are physically or sexually abused have their bodies violated. A second boundary is our words, and the most boundary-setting word we have is being able to say “no” to the demands of others. Time and space boundaries allow us to get a breakaway when we are feeling overwhelmed and unsafe. However, it is important to remember that it is hard to protect one’s boundaries as a child when you do not understand that you are being manipulated and violated, and especially when you are given little scope to make mistakes and learn from them.
Growing up in an environment of narcissistic abuse is very traumatic and confusing for any child. The narcissist projects their needy and vulnerable self onto their co-narcissist victim, coercing them to take responsibility for surrendering to their needs. Whenever there is any confusion regarding responsibility and ownership it is always a problem of boundaries. However, the co-narcissist child soon learns that failing to conform will be met with bitter disapproval, and not feeling safe enough to say “no” whenever the need becomes terrifying. Rather than developing an “I-self”, the co-narcissistic victim develops a “we-self”, where everything revolves around the other.
Fearing to say “no” to a narcissist because you are afraid of the consequences of their anger fosters a pattern of obedience and compliance. That affects boundary development, not just in early life, but throughout one’s entire life as the co-narcissist melts to the demands and needs of others and becoming cemented in a “pleasing stance”. Of course, boundaries are not meant to be walls that are fixed, they are more like fences, that are flexible to be moved whenever necessary. But when in a relationship with a pathological narcissist, it is not easy to maintain or move one’s boundaries, unless you are willing to accept the consequences.
A big part of the recovery work with the co-narcissistic victim is for them to learn how to define the boundaries between self and other. From their earliest beginnings, trying to contend with the restraints and servitude of the pathological narcissists “gaslighting behaviour” would have been a continual source of struggle for the victim. This struggle would, without doubt, have contributed to their life-long boundary dilemma.
Defining the Boundaries Spectrum (from poor to healthy):
When we talk about boundaries, we are talking about both the physical (our body and material possessions), and psychological (those that deﬁne us as separate and individuated from others). It is this demarcation of self that deﬁne where “I” begin and “others” end. Boundary strength, according to Nina Browne (2006), can range on a spectrum from poor to healthy (i.e. soft, spongy, rigid, and flexible).
For example, when our boundaries are soft, we have poor boundary strength. We feel so much for people that we find it difficult to say “no” to their demands, thus leaving ourselves open to be taken advantage of. When we have spongy boundaries, we have little control over what we let in or keep out, therefore become overwhelmed by other’s emotions. We are likely to have difficulty holding our ground even when we know we are being manipulated.
When we have rigid boundaries, it is likely that we have experienced physical, emotional or psychological abuse. We are so walled off that others cannot get close to us. We find it difficult to trust people or feel safe and use our rigidness to protect us.
When we have Flexible boundaries, we can decide what to let in or keep out. We make our own choices regarding what we will do or will not do, and we can stick to that decision, not allowing ourselves to be manipulated into doing something else. Therefore, we are harder to exploit and manipulate, and our shame and guilt are harder to trigger. We can both give and receive support and treat others with respect. It is especially important to have clear strong boundaries when you are dealing with a narcissist because if your boundaries are not sufficiently developed, they are likely to turn you into an extension of themselves. Also, it is best that you do not over empathise with them, by doing so you open yourself up to their projections (the toxic shame that they cannot tolerate in themselves and want to dump on you), and projective identifications (their shame that you unconsciously take on).
Narcissists cut across every border they can to get full control of their co-narcissist victim:
It is well documented that pathological narcissists have very poor personal boundaries, and therefore they do not recognise the boundaries of others. Stuck in the psychological stage of growth, they see their victims as extensions of their self, to be used and controlled for self-gratification. Narcissists cut across every border they can to get full control, leaving their co-narcissist victim with distorted, and undefined boundaries. The co-narcissist is not usually aware of how inadequate their limits are, and this leads to them having a sick sense of who they are, and what their personal needs are.
Probably the most important change the co-narcissist (victim) needs to make, (if they want to move out of the Caretaker role), is to set healthier personal boundaries. Boundaries are what separates one person from another, and essential for making us who we are. They house one’s thoughts, sense of responsibility, needs and wants from another. Most importantly, boundaries are a way to describe our spheres of responsibility: what we are and are not responsible for (Cloud & Townsend, 1992). I have found co-narcissists to have well established functional boundaries, where they fail miserably in their relational boundaries. What does this mean? It means that when the co-narcissist has a task to complete, they perform that task with a high level of competency. This is where their perfectionism really kicks in, but in a positive way. However, when it comes to their relational boundaries, they are less able to tell a friend that they don’t like their chronic lateness, or how they talk over them in company. Boundaries are not inherited; they are built as our character forms during childhood through either our supportive or unsupportive attachments with others in our environment.
Where my parents may have provided a healthy separation-individuation process for my developing healthy boundaries (i.e. hatching, practicing, and rapprochement), Gerard, my “fledgling psychopath” was a big attachment influence in my formative years. When attachments are faulty the boundaries become twisted. Without internal safety and attachment, the child’s autonomy is stifled, and their world feels unsafe, and their separation and individuation are somewhat compromised.
Living with a narcissist who has neither impulse control or boundaries and who considers himself to be omnipotent is a lethal cocktail for any child to swallow. It makes “building one’s fence” and having realistic boundaries almost impossible, that is if you want to survive. It is especially difficult when the child is in a relationship with a pathological narcissist as I was, because if one tries to set one’s own limit it is likely to end up in rejection, abandoned, and isolated. However, if one does not set limits, one is likely to remain at the beck and call of the narcissist, their virtual prisoner. Withdrawal from our boundaries and hostility toward our boundaries are the ground from which trauma springs (Cloud & Townsend, 1992). Unfortunately for me, Gerard was not the only pathological narcissist I had to deal with throughout my life. The conditioning I experienced in early childhood and my lack of boundaries left me primed for re-victimisation from other pathological narcissists. Had I have known the need for having better boundaries, perhaps I could have saved myself the indignity of further narcissistic abuse in the bigger world.
Most relational conflict is a direct result of poor boundaries, and probably the most common scenario of boundary violations happens in the very family we grew up in. So how do we recognise when there is a lack of boundaries in our family? A “red flag” is when you find yourself giving one person too much power in your life, and this affects your relationships with others. For example, when a married co-narcissistic son does not have good emotional boundaries with his narcissistic mother, each time he has contact with her he ends up frustrated and angry. Because he is unable to speak to his mother about his feelings, he brings that anger back to his wife. His lack of boundaries will inevitably result in conflict between both his families; where his family of origin versus his immediate family, or vice versa. Because he has not completed the “leaving before cleaving” process (Cloud & Townsend, 1992), his old boundary issues with his mother prevented him from moving fully and freely into his immediate family.
Consequently, his wife and children’s needs will always come second to his mother’s and sibling’s needs. Fearing to be shamed (as he was in the past) he will opt for keeping on the good side of his mother and siblings, but this is likely to impinge on his immediate family, which will leave them feeling that they are being treated as second best.
Rather than the man’s immediate family transitioning nicely into his family of origin for becoming an extended family, they will most likely remain like outsiders on the fringe. Over time, this is likely to erode the relationship with his wife and children, who are left feeling abandoned, resentful and rejected. With his narcissistic mother having all the control, in effect, the man’s two dysfunctional families are set up for a certain boundary problem called triangulation.
The Dyadic Pairing Of the Pathological Narcissist and their Co-narcissist Victim
How can two children living in the same household with the same parents have such different childhood experiences? Experiences that leads to one child becoming a pathological narcissist in adulthood, and the other to become a pathological co-narcissist?
Ultimately, the answer to this conundrum lies in how each child manages their “shame”. In my own situation, one child (Gerard, my brother, the narcissist) managed his shame by developing an antagonistic interpersonal style, with his constant need to manipulate, dominate and control everyone (a dependence pattern); while the other child (myself, Gerard’s younger sister, the co-narcissistic caretaker) managed my shame by adopting a co-operative helpful interpersonal style, with a constant need to please and take care of everyone (a nurturance pattern).
Clearly, both children are traumatised by their shameful events, and each develops their own pathology and schemas to survive.
When there is a match between the goals of the two individuals (one wants to receive something, and the other wants to give something), they will be interpersonally complementary, and both will feel somewhat fulfilled through the other (dyadic pairing).
This is the narcissistic and co-narcissistic “convoluted dance” in action. Just like the Tango, one partner leads and controls the movement of the dance, while the other partner submits. The narcissistic/co-narcissistic dance locks both partners into a pattern of one-up-manship, and one-down-manship, and the dance continues if both are willing to be dance partners.
This dance is universal between all narcissists and their co-narcissistic victims, but it generally proceeds through four phases. In the beginning, the dance is exciting, and the relationship seems to work well for both while in the rush of the first stanza (the Idealisation Phase).
In this phase, the narcissist becomes totally motivated towards “reward”. Their ‘Seeking System’ gets switched “on” in the brain’s reward centre (the dopamine-producing areas where motivation and desire arise). The dopamine high increases the narcissist’s reward seeking behaviours as they set out to hook their new source of narcissistic supply (victim).
While in pursuit of the chase, they also become intentionally focused on grooming their new target (victim), this is an important part of the conditioning for keeping the victim hooked to them, no matter what happens.
In this phase the narcissist is at their most attractive, attentive, seductive, and may even display compassion at times. The grooming manipulates the victim to bond with the narcissist and the illusion that is being presented to them. That is, the illusion that they are in a loving, healthy relationship with someone that cares for them in the same way that they care for the narcissist.
After the intensity of the first phase, it is almost impossible for the victim to imagine that the relationship is not genuine, never mind being a mere fantasy.
The narcissist’s fantasies become the expressions that fuel their Seeking System, and secretes dopamine and other chemicals that are highly addictive. At the same time, the seduction and love bombing works on the co-narcissistic victim, and they too are flooded with chemicals (i.e. dopamine, oxytocin, norepinephrine, etc.) creating a deep connection with their narcissist. Many victims become spellbound, the intensity of the relationship leads the victim to believe that they have found their ‘soul-mate’. But the honeymoon phase does not usually last long. With time, the co-narcissist may feel that the relationship is not being reciprocated, they may also feel like they are being pushed around and being taken advantage of. Because the co-narcissist (victim) is far more flexible than the pathological narcissist, they are the one that is likely to look for a mutual equality in the relationship, and start making demands that can lead to deepening the relationship even more.
However, the narcissistic perpetrator is far too brittle to bend to the needs and wants of the co-narcissist partner, their desire is to be the centre of the co-narcissists world (to be taken care of).
Consequently, when things seem to be getting worse instead of better, the co-narcissist begins to pull away, and not be quite so accommodating to the pathological narcissist.
The narcissist immediately experiences this ‘moving-away’ as rejection or abandonment, and they react by devaluing the co-narcissist victim. Without the excitement of the dopamine rush, the narcissist gets bored and slips into their baseline status where they are no longer stimulated.
With their ‘Reward Centre’ now switched “off”, boredom sets in, and any semblance of a bond is severed. The narcissist becomes callous and cold, and they strike out in anger at their victim. The relationship enters the second stanza (Devaluing Phase), and a lack of mutuality is being experienced by both in the relationship. There is trouble in Paradise, and the co-narcissist has falling from grace for having rejected and abandoned the narcissist during the dance.
If things do not change back to where they were (with the co-narcissist being accommodating and nurturing), then the disgruntled narcissist is likely to become very punishing, or they may decide to start looking for a new source of narcissistic supply.
The relationship is now doomed, and the narcissist moves into the third stanza (Discarding Phase), which generally leads to the co-narcissist being discarded in favour of the new source of supply. The dramatic Tango comes to its end, whether the narcissist leaves the relationship or not. The victim, although still bonded to the narcissist, will experience the painful feelings of being discarded and abandoned. They will then be subjected to the psychological warfare that goes with narcissistic abuse (i.e. gaslighting, projections, stonewalling, triangulation, intimidation, invalidation, scapegoating, etc.).
But there is a fourth stanza that is not always mentioned, it is called “The Hoover Manoeuvre” that most co-narcissists will face from time to time. The term “Hoover Manoeuvre” is a metaphor taken from the famous brand of vacuum cleaner known for its powerful suction, and is used to explain how the abusive pathological narcissist asserts their right to suck the victim back into the relationship for further oxygen whenever they feel inclined. Characteristically, it follows the discard phase (where they physically, mentally, or emotionally, discarded you).
When you enter into a relationship with the narcissist, what you don’t know is that you have unwittingly entered into a psychological contract that you are theirs for all time.
This sucking of the co-narcissist victim back to them time and time again confirms the cognitive dissonance that keeps the victim tied to them. The tactics may be either benign or malignant in nature, depending on how the co-narcissistic victim enters the narcissist’s sphere of influence.
The Pathological Narcissist & Their Victim Connect In Very Different Ways
Although the abuse that these two individuals (the narcissist and their victim) have experienced in childhood is quite similar, the personality of the pathological narcissistic (perpetrator) and the pathological co-narcissist (caretaking victim) becomes forged in very different ways, yet both are left feeling the ravages of agonising shame.
It is important to remember that a child’s behaviour never occurs in isolation, always it has meaning, whether it shows itself as being a narcissistic “bullying” personality, or as a co-narcissist “pleaser” personality.
How each individual child manages their shame is likely to be the underlying cause and a contributing factor of whether they become a narcissist (perpetrator) or a co-narcissist (caretaker/victim) in adulthood.
The pathological narcissist’s behaviour, as per The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) published by the American Psychiatric Association, can be recognised by the following 9 criteria: (1) Grandiosity, (2) Power & Control, (3) Being special, (4) Needing attention, (5) Sense of Entitlement, (6) Exploitative, (7) Lack of empathy, (8) Envious, and (9) Haughty and arrogant.
The pathological narcissist’s shameless personality develops a grandiose sense of self-importance. Although they appear highly confident and superior individuals, underneath their ego is extremely fragile. Their delicate ego leaves them easily offended, and prone to spiralling rages.
To the confusion of the co-narcissist victim who is in the relationship with them, they too must live with the narcissist’s confusing oscillations as they go between their Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personas.
Because the pathological narcissist does not adequately complete their separation and individuation process due to their early childhood abuse, they seem to be unable to distinguish between their own self and others.
Clearly, they have no boundaries, this accounts for why they treat their co-narcissist victims as an extension of their self, and why they exert excessive control over them, to the point where both become overly enmeshed in each other.
This often causes a lot of frustration and resentment in the co-narcissist (victim) as the dysfunctional relationship is forged.
However, the more they resist, the more the pathological narcissist increases the dominating control.
Their need to control is driven by their sense of grandiosity, entitlement, and exploitation. So, when they give an order, they expect their co-narcissist caretaker (victim) to drop everything immediately.
They have absolutely no empathy for what the other may be doing or feeling at any given moment.
Everything is about forging a connection with them, and any hesitation or resistance to jump to attention will be taken personally as an act of mutiny by the narcissist, and that is a punishable offence.
Furthermore, any independent action by the co-narcissist (victim) can become the justification for the narcissistic anger, retaliation, and revenge.
The narcissist acts with superiority and contempt, and this can play a big part in their feelings of envy. When envy is directed at a victim it can be very dangerous.
The pathological narcissist cannot see anybody having anything that they do not have, this touches into their inferiority shame complex and triggers their shame anxiety, which is likely to release their rage.
What they really want is for others to envy them (i.e. their status, their possessions, their looks, their intelligence, etc.) only then are they truly happy.
In their grandiosity, you will often hear a narcissist saying that they had to end a relationship because the other person was envious of them, and they believe that fully.
Of course, the opposite is the truth, they envied their victim for one reason or another, and then they could not handle the shame of their own inadequacy they had to get the victim out of their life.
Unfortunately, they are selfish, arrogant, demanding individuals, and everybody is nothing more than a pawn in their game.
If their victim refuses to play the game, then they will be treated as an enemy, and they are likely to experience the narcissist’s rage to intimidate and control them into playing the game.
The co-narcissist’s (victim) over-identified personality characteristics, on the other hand, is in stark contrast to the pathological narcissist’s.
Very often the co-narcissist, unlike the grandiose narcissistic, is a modest, gentle, and humble self that does not need to be the centre of attention or admiration.
Far from feeling “special”, their humbleness keeps them grounded, allowing them to respond to the needs and wishes of others; this is an unconscious defence they used to stay safe when under the control of their pathological narcissist.
Because of working so hard to please others, unfortunately, they become out of touch with their own needs and feelings.
They prefer, for safety reasons, to fade into the background in their relationships, allowing others to have the limelight.
They tend to become over responsible, therefore likely to take the blame for any interpersonal problems in their relationships. They don’t look for attention or help for themselves but instead become serious problem solvers and rescuers at every opportunity for others.
The co-narcissist caretaker (victim) has no need to compete for the limelight.
They learn early how to avoid trouble and further shaming by fading into the background and making themselves invisible, that way they are no threat to the narcissist they share their environment with.
They become little helpers to everybody, not just Mummy’s little helper (i.e. they do the shopping, put on the dinner, clean the house, be pleasing, etc.).
They also help outside the home (i.e. running errands for neighbours, helping the teacher, looking after the younger or more vulnerable children in school, etc.).
Caught in a dangerous environment with a pathological narcissist (especially if it is their own home), these behaviours help the distressed child to regulate their self-esteem in a safe way.
However, all this responsibility takes their innocence away, and they tend to become like 20-year olds trapped in a 14-year-old’s body. With all the responsibility that they take on so young, they develop a high moral compass and an innate sense for distinguishing right from wrong.
Often, they become the voice of conscience when they see injustice towards others. They will fight for other people’s rights, and yet they don’t speak up for themselves most of the time.
They don’t tend to handle conflict well; any confrontation makes them feel very unsafe and shameful.
Also, because they are highly empathic they are very sensitive to other’s pain, so when there is any disagreement, they are likely to back down rather than hurt another’s feelings or shame them.
People see them as harmonisers who bring peace to all situations, and although they do manage to do that very well, this is likely to cost them to lose their identity in any narcissistic relationships they form.
This is probably why they are like a magnetic force for pathological narcissists, who all want to be taken care of, and minded. It is easy to see why the co-narcissist, as caretaker, is so valued by the narcissist, at least for as long as they satisfy their needs.
Because the narcissist (perpetrator) does not trust that they will get the love and attention they want, they grow to trust that they must take whatever they can, whenever they can.
This way of being becomes their favourite addiction, the addiction to their own selfish “self” (Selfism).
So, at every opportunity, they set out to grab narcissistic supply wherever they can find it, and in effect, they become consummate “takers”. The victim, on the other hand, is the complete opposite. They learn to trust that by taking care of other people’s needs, and by being nice, they will be safe.
So, here we have a coupledom made in heaven, one is addicted to “taking” (a form of pathological kleptomania), while the other is addicted to giving (a form of pathological altruism).
But unfortunately, things are more complicated than that for them both.
Rather than being on the road to heaven, they end up on the road to hell, where they are likely to end up eventually hating each other.
The Pathological Narcissistic as a Spouse:
When in a romantic relationship, or a marriage, there will always be a struggle for power between the narcissistic partner (perpetrator) and their victim partner. Regardless of whether they are male or female, this is always the case.
Always, the Lion’s share of the power will remain with the narcissist. This can be witnessed in many ways.
For example, because the narcissistic can never be wrong, and will never take responsibility or be held accountable for anything that goes wrong, inevitably the victim will always get the blame.
Because the narcissist sees themselves as superior to everybody, they deem their victim partner to be inferior, therefore not worthy of an opinion or getting their needs met.
With getting little or no empathy, and with the constant put-downs, the victim partner will eventually feel pathetic, and internalise that they are “not good enough”, and surrender themselves to relinquishing most of the power.
From the moment, the narcissistic (perpetrator) sets eyes on the victim, they consider them to be objects that are theirs alone.
They immediately begin the convoluted dance, and the love-bombing manipulation gets underway. It is as if the victim is possessed, and the boundaries of where one begins and ends just melts away with the intensity of the “idealisation stage”, and with it too, their personal identity.
This idealisation stage is an exciting time for both partners of the dance, both enraptured with each other.
However, one of the couples knows exactly what is happening, while the other is totally oblivious to the dangerous predicament they are in.
Like the fly that enters the spider’s web, the narcissist slowly wraps their soft silk around the victim, entangling them, and binding them into a cocoon that holds them tight until they are ready to consume their precious commodity.
From the beginning, the narcissist takes the power.
Whatever the victim owns is destined to become theirs; their time, their friends, their knowledge, their possessions, their finances, etc.
The narcissist’s sense of entitlement knows no bounds, and soon their prey will be stripped of everything they own, including their dignity, self-esteem, liberty, and finally, their identity.
The victim is reduced to be an object whose main task is to feed the narcissist’s insatiable ego, failure to achieve this end goal will cause a narcissist wound, and the narcissist will feel like the victim.
When this happens, they will then feel entitled to hurt the person who caused this wound. When the cracks begin to show in the relationship, the narcissist shows no accountability or responsibility; therefore, it will be the victim that will get the blame for everything.
Nothing is ever the narcissist’s fault, and you must never challenge them, or you will pay a high price. What is yours is theirs, but what is theirs is their own; finance, property, personal possessions, etc.
The spotlight is always theirs, so tread lightly, because even if you accidentally upstage them, you will provoke their rage. The victim is expected to give and fawn over their narcissist, but they will not have that kindness reciprocated
A Victim’s Foreboding Joy and the “Dress Rehearsal” Tragedy
Growing up for all my childhood with my “fledgling psychopath” brother was very difficult. I worshipped him most of the time, and I wanted to be with him. But mostly, I wanted to please him, because when I pleased him I felt the connection and emotional closeness that I was looking for from him. Life with him was not always cruel, there was a soft side to his way of being, and this was the side of him that I loved being around. There were times when he would complement me on something or other (i.e. having a bright idea that he approved of. Or perhaps I may have surprised him (in a good way) with a strategy I used to win a game, etc.). In these wonderful exchanges together, I would feel such joy. However, there were those times when my joy would turn to disappointment, when Gerard would destroy the moment by shaming me in some particular way, leaving me feeling extraordinarily vulnerable. The momentary joy where I was feeling connected could suddenly turn to my feeling of being unacceptable, feeling exposed and humiliated. So, in an instant, I would become bound by shame, and a sense of foreboding joy. Of joy, Brené Brown says: –
“Joy is the most vulnerable emotion we experience. If you cannot tolerate joy, what you do is start dress rehearsing tragedy” …. “We’ve learned that giving into joy is, at best, setting ourselves up for disappointment and, at worst, inviting disaster”
I can remember many happy times playing with my pathological brother Gerard, but there was always the inevitability that it could end badly, and then something tragic would happen that would rob me of the happiness I was feeling.
Joy became somewhat fragile and precarious, probably the most vulnerable emotion I experienced. Far too often my joy and fear went hand in hand with each other. I suppose it is inevitable that I would “dress rehearse” tragedy when feeling joy. Being prepared for disappointment at some level of the self makes one less likely to be caught off guard. When the tragedy did not strike, I was full of gratitude for being able to stay open to the joyous connectedness Gerard and I shared. Brené Brown describes gratitude as a spiritual practice which connects gratitude to doxology. She says: –
The antidote to foreboding joy, are the practices of gratitude…. People who stay open to joy, despite its risks, are those who practice gratitude…. “joyfulness and gratitude [are] spiritual practices that [are] bound to a belief in human connectedness and a power greater than us.”
This “rehearsing tragedy” is something that is very common in most narcissistic abuse victims. I had one narcissistically abused client tell me that there was something happening to her that was somewhat disconcerting. When I inquired what that could be, she told me that she was feeling such joy in her life right now. It was as if everything was going right, and nothing was going wrong. She went on to explain that she does not seem to be worried that it would not last, and how strange and lovely that feeling was. She was able to say that she would not normally allow herself to feel too good about things, because she knew that something terrible was waiting to happen. I knew immediately she was relating to “foreboding joy”, but I decided to stay with her, and look at her feelings of gratitude. This was the perfect time to teach her about practicing “gratitude” instead of the foreboding joy that she had learned as a survival strategy.
I knew this feeling myself, it was so familiar to me. Whenever I received a compliment for any achievement, it would spontaneously trigger a sense of foreboding joy and activate my shame response, which I wrongly identified as shyness or modesty. Although I did not know it at the time, I became shy because I had experienced too much humiliation in the form of being belittled, ridiculed, or ignored by Gerard. I carried that underlying shyness into adulthood. I remember one particular day when in my 50’s when I received the highest score in the class for a psychology assignment. The tutor was blown away with the way I presented a case-study. She even went as far as to suggest that if the other students could get a chance to read my essay, that they should. I was feeling very “shy” and uncomfortable with the attention turned to me, but I was feeling pride and excitement for the compliment, and the fact that I had achieved such a personal high mark.
I immediately started to give some excuse, saying something like, “Well I did psychology before.” My psychology tutor was really fast, and said, “Stop that! That is not the point, the point is it was a brilliant analysis.” Of course, what I was doing was my usual “foreboding joy” and “dress rehearsing tragedy” to avoid disappointment at feeling such momentary bliss. So, I did stop, and I thanked her, and received the compliment humbly.
Unfortunately, the feelings of pride and excitement did not last long. In an instant, one of my peers turned to me, and in an angry and loud voice that everybody could hear, she said, “It’s well for you, you’re good at this, but what about giving the rest of us a chance”. Instantly I felt totally mortified and ashamed as if I had done something terribly bad by doing well in the assignment.
This was an enactment of what would happen if I ever outshone Gerard. His unhealthy shame and envy would be triggered and projected onto me. Here I was now in a similar position with a fellow student who felt shame at not doing well in her project.
She too projected her shame and venom onto me, and I became so shamed-based that I was unable to speak. I just wanted the floor to swallow me up, and once again I abandoned myself. Instead of being able to enjoy the compliment from the tutor, and experience a healthy pride in my well-deserved accomplishment, I was gripped in a cocktail of enjoyment-shame, excitement-shame, competence-shame, not to mention anger-shame. I can still feel the shame now as I am recalling that incident. This is a good illustration of the multi-dimensional effects of shame, and how it can evolve through specific developmental pathways.
One thing I am most grateful for, is that I did not allow my shame to crush my individuality, or my creativity. My mother, especially, encouraged those qualities in me, and they did flourish. I also feel a sense of gratitude that my children are a testimony to the fact that my shameful feelings did not affect my willingness to love them unconditionally, or to receive their love in return. My immediate family are my ultimate and unashamed joy.
The narcissist’s pervasive feelings of shame are the root cause of their multi-addictions. So, whenever they experience a narcissistic wound, the narcissist turns to one of their addictive mood-altering experiences to deliver them from pain, in this way their addiction becomes their form of self-soothing. For example, unable to regulate their strong feelings associated with shame, they may turn to one of their multi-addictions, i.e. a chemical substance as an auxiliary regulator (Hotchkiss, 2003), or to retail therapy to get their fix.
Narcissism, by its very nature, is an obsession and a compulsion, therefore the narcissistic personality is particularly prone to addiction. Obsessed by the illusion of a False Self, and an inflated sense of their own superiority, power, and control, the narcissist renders themselves susceptible to all sorts of obsessions, compulsions, and addictions.
As well as being addicted to some of the classical addictions (i.e. drugs, alcohol, shopping, gambling, food, sex, etc.) the narcissist will also become addicted to anything that will assure the survival of their False Self. That is, anything that allows them to self- medicate against the pain of any unpleasant anxious emotions (i.e. loneliness, illness, failure, uncertainty, shame etc.) and guarantees the paralysis of the True Self.
The addictions are the nutrients to the narcissist appearing to be in control, and being beyond the control of others. For example, their addictions to “self” support their feeling superior and being better than anybody else in their presence; cultivates their feeling of being “special” so that they feel acceptance wherever they are; satisfies their need for the copious amount of excitement needed to burn off their deep anger and rage; maintain the illusion of the inflated self, thereby they can avoid facing their limitations, defeats, and ordinariness; relieves their horror of boredom, and fills the inner “Gap” in order to feel whole for at least a little while; and to gain access to their endless need for “narcissistic supply”.
Narcissism is indeed a pattern of addiction. The narcissist’s greatest addiction is not so much in getting attention than it is on having a grand view of themselves. Their goal in life is to gain admiration, power, and control, and in this way, they boost their self-esteem and avoid their constant intrusive shameful feelings.
The best way for a narcissist to reach this goal is specifically through their addiction for “narcissistic supply”. The narcissist in their addiction is like other types of addicts. They both yield to their urges of a preferred “fix”; for the drug addict, it may be their heroin, but for the narcissist, it is their new source of narcissistic supply (victim). In their pursuit, the narcissist is highly motivated, and will successfully search out a suitable candidate for their purpose.
They are especially drawn to people who are “caretakers”, those people who have advanced empathy because it is these people who offer the most satisfaction and pleasure, and who help them to self-regulate. Just like a drug addict, their craving for intense satisfaction grows stronger and stronger with each conquest, until it dominates their thought processes and behaviours.
They are continually on the lookout for new and greater triumphs that bring greater glory to their self-esteem. As they progress along this path, with their repeated behaviour they are likely to become bored, or, they may set the bar too high, and crash. Either way, this will result in the narcissist experiencing diminishing levels of satisfaction and self-esteem. So just like the junkie, they develop a “tolerance” to their drug, seeking even higher dosages to feel better about themselves. In time, because of their pathological behaviour, the pathological narcissist will eventually ruin the relationship that provides for these cravings.
When the narcissist gets their “high” through their narcissistic supply, they feel as if they are reaching their goal of sought-after admiration. They enter a period of inflated self-regard, where they feel wonderfully euphoric, flying high on the feeling of connection with another.
They are feeling relatively normal with a secure attachment and mirroring eyes that tell them that they are wonderful. Unfortunately, like the addict, they are likely to indulge their craving in a way that becomes destructive in the extreme. Unfortunately, before long, their acquired drug (their victim) will, unfortunately, disappoint them, and their self-aggrandising feelings soon deflate.
Like the junky whose fix wears off, the narcissist comes back to earth with a bang, and their self-esteem takes a tumble. Inevitable, the victim will stir up feelings of dependency and vulnerability in the narcissist-pilot, and in doing so, they find themselves becoming an enemy. The narcissist will then withdraw from them, devaluing them, and likely to turn to one of their multi-addictions in order to get back control.
What is Shame?
It is the Intensely Painful Feeling of Being Fundamentally Flawed
Shame is the most difficult emotion to identify within ourselves because we feel ashamed to do so. For me, shame is a natural but powerful emotion. Shame has a job to do, that is, to protect us by making sure we fit in with our culture’s norms and rules for acceptance in our family and community, therefore, it plays a big part in our overall survival.
Shame comes with its own built-in “inner critic” that works hard to protect us from getting further shamed by our outside world. Unfortunately, the inner critic can be very harsh, and it can become the critical parent screaming in our ear, telling us that we are bad, stupid, and worthless. When exposed to a lot of shame in early childhood, the child’s inner critic leads them to believe that they must be lacking in some way, therefore, fundamentally flawed and “bad”.
This may cause the child to act out accordingly, bringing another layer of shameful feelings onto the initial shameful feelings. So, it can create a very vicious cycle. Furthermore, it can catch you unawares because it has a way of sneaking up on you when least expected.
But don’t take my word for it. What do other experts in the field of trauma say about shame?
Dr. Peter Levine (1997) says, “Shame is a very powerful emotion. It probably, in many ways, is the most powerful emotion because of the way it sneaks up and just takes over the person’s organism from the inside”.
According to Dr. Borysenko (2007) “Shame very much like eating a poisoned plant. If you eat a poisoned plant just once, you never want to go back there again because the physiological terror and horror and sickness of it imprints on your brain because that’s how we survive, by not eating poisoned plants.
So, I’d have to say, shame is the poison plant of emotions. And I think it takes a lot clinically to erase that tracing of shame, which really is so deeply connected to the nervous system.”
Dr. McGonigal (2015) says, “We often interpret the strength of the shame as a sign about how truly bad we are, or what’s truly wrong with us. Instead, I think we should learn to read that intensity as a metric of how much and how deeply we care, not a metric of how fundamentally screwed up or inadequate we are.”
Dr. Buczynski (psychologist and President of NICABM) says, “Shame is such a pervasive issue in our work. If you think about it, any clinical problem that presents itself with a kind of self-criticism or judgment is almost always dealing with shame. And when shame goes untreated, it grows stronger. And it eventually reaches beyond ourselves to affect future generations.”
Dr. van der Kolk: “At the centre of human structure are all of these good emotions – there are no bad emotions. All parts are welcome, and shame is there for a reason. We don’t say to people, “Don’t be ashamed.” We say, “Let’s go there. Let’s explore shame. Let’s feel shame. Let’s see what this shame is about.”
Dr. Richard Schwartz (Founder of Internal Family Systems (IFS)says, “Shame is a two-part phenomenon. There is a critic who says you’re shit, and there’s this young part that believes it. Usually, there’s then yet another part whose job it is to get away from the shame, and sometimes that will resort to extreme behaviours that can then actually bring on more shame.”
Shame may well be “the bedrock of psychopathology” in both the narcissist and their victim’s behaviours.
Paul Gilbert & Bernice Andrews (1998) writes: –
The behaviours associated with shame can be divided into four aspects: (1) behaviours aroused as part of the shame response—the hot response; (2) behaviours that are triggered to cope with, or conceal, shame as it occurs; (3) behaviours instigated to avoid being shamed (safety behaviours) or shame being discovered; (4) behaviours designed to repair shame. These behaviours can be self-focused to soothe the self, or socially focused to soothe others—for example, making apologies.
Recognisable self-defeating shame reactions:
We all experience shameful feelings at some time or other, but, according to Peter Breggin (2014) when they are in excess, it may indicate that we are experiencing self-defeating shame reactions:
• Feeling sensitive
• Feeling unappreciated
• Blushing uncontrollably
• Feeling used
• Feeling rejected
• Feeling you are small or have little impact on people
• Being concerned about what other people think of you
• Worrying that people don’t treat you with enough respect
• Feeling taken advantage of
• Wishing you could have had the last word
• Keeping your thoughts and feelings to yourself to avoid embarrassment
• Not wanting to seem stupid or inappropriate
• Being concerned about failing rather than about doing something bad
• Being a perfectionist
• Feeling left out, different, or like an outsider
• Being distrustful or suspicious
• Avoiding being the center of attention
• Feeling like a “shrinking violet” or “wallflower”
• Feeling like withdrawing or shutting people out
Before we can combat shame, we must be able to identify it in ourselves, and of course, that will make us feel vulnerable. This checklist above may give you some indicator of your own shame responses, and how these negative emotions could be holding you back from being your true self, especially as you try to make yourself inconspicuous. Shame can be so powerful that it can crush our very identity. Of shame, Brené Brown observes:
Somewhat paradoxically, our bodies often react to shame even before our conscious minds do. People always think it’s strange when I ask them where and how they physically feel shame. But for most of us, shame has a feeling—it’s physical as well as emotional.
This is why I often refer to shame as a full-contact emotion. Women have described various physical reactions to shame, including stomach tightening, nausea, shaking, waves of heat in their faces and chests, wincing and twinges of smallness.
If we can recognize our physical responses, sometimes we can limit the powerlessness that we feel when we are in shame.
Cognitive Dissonance is a psychological term that describes the uncomfortable tension that victims experience when in a relationship with a narcissist; it is not something that happens in healthy relationships.
It is a common defence mechanism that the victim uses for coping with the deception, domination and abuse that occurs in such a relationship. The cognitive dissonance really results from the victim having two conflicting thoughts at the same time, or from engaging in behaviour that conflicts with their beliefs and values.
The concept of cognitive dissonance is almost self-explanatory by its title: ‘Cognitive’ is to do with thinking (or the mind); while ‘dissonance’ is concerned with inconsistencies or conflicts.
Simply speaking, cognitive dissonance is the discomfort a person experiences whenever they are holding two conflicting ideas simultaneously. Naturally, people do not like the discomfort of conflicting thoughts; this theory proposes that when this happens, people have a motivational drive within them that allows them to rationalize and change their attitudes, beliefs, values, and actions, anything that allows them to reduce or dissolve the dissonance they are experiencing.
For example, a woman who is being abused by her narcissistic spouse will hate the conditions she is living in. However, with the real fear of a violent reprisal from her captor, if she tried to leave, she will more likely choose to stay put.
The cognitive dissonance shows itself through rationalization of the truth and denial: On the one hand: she abhors her unhealthy relationship and all the abuse that goes with it (truth); while on the other hand, she tells herself that he only fights with her because he loves and cares for her (denial). Of course, this reframing of abuse as ‘love and kindness’ is simply an extreme form of everyday denial, and it can take many forms.
For example, it can manifest itself in a way that allows her to convince herself that the relationship is still in the idealisation stage when, in fact, it has moved into the devaluing stage. It can also allow her to shift the blame for any injustices in the relationship away from the narcissist (because it is too dangerous to accuse him) to either herself or another victim.
It can also help in hiding her shame of being in such a dysfunctional relationship, something that she does not want others to know.
This inner dialogue reduced her anxiety, allowing her to trauma bond (Stockholm Syndrome) with her abuser, to the point that she will even protect him from the outside world if people attempt to rescue her or encourage her to leave.
The result is that a massive draining conflict ensues between the person’s emotional self and their rational reasoning self.
Their “cognitive dissonance” is a sign of the disharmony the victim is experiencing because of two conflicting ideas going on at the same time; i.e. the victim knows that they should get out of the abusive situation, but they also know that to do so will put them (and possibly their children) in great danger and hardship.
In the cognitive dissonance theory, the decision that decides which path the victim will take is likely to be the path that causes the least emotional stress. To reduce the dissonance, the victim will choose the path of least resistance, and their motivational drive will support their beliefs and justify any decision that helps them stay safe.
As you can imagine, the cognitive dissonance can lead to irrational decision making as the person struggles to reconcile these two conflicting beliefs. Researchers suggest that it is the cognitive dissonance that causes the victims to choose to stay put with their abuser. Furthermore, to support their seemingly irrational decisions to stay put in the abusive relationship, the victim makes heavy investments that almost cements them into the bad relationship forever. There are six types of investment the married victim may get embroiled in that helps to reduce their cognitive dissonance: –
1. Emotional Investment (the victim interprets their abuse and trauma bonding as love).
2. Social Investment (the situation dictates that the biggest social investment the victim must make is to their narcissist).
3. Family Investments (investing everything in their narcissistic partner is the only way the victim finds to keep the family going).
4. Financial Investment (Narcissist typically seeks to control the family finances. Trapped by the situation, the victim finds themselves waiting for a better financial situation to develop so that they can make their exit and detachment easier.
5. Lifestyle Investment (Sharing financial security with the narcissist, the victim may fear to lose their current lifestyle for themselves or their children. So, they stay because of their fear of the poverty trap that awaits them if they manage to leave.
6. Intimacy Investment (Narcissists use a type of blackmail of intimacy against their partner. Finding themselves in a hopeless situation and broken, the victim feels the only way out is for them to stay.
While experiencing cognitive dissonance the victim may adopt a pattern of denial, diversion, and defensiveness to control their discomfort. So, to survive, they must find ways of reducing their cognitive dissonance, the strategies they employ may include; justifying things by lying to themselves if need be, regressing into infantile patterns, and bonding with their narcissistic captor.
Infantile Regression is a marvellous unconscious defence mechanism that is triggered when a person is exposed to terror. Narcissists render their victims to mental emotional and physical terror, a terror that must be denied if the individual is to survive the unrelenting onslaught of abuse over time. Trying to survive under these conditions, the victim is reduced to becoming pretty much like an infant that first comes into the world; that is, helpless and dependent on its survival from their main caregiver (which usually begins with the infant’s mother).
Nature is a wonderful thing; it pre-programmes the infant for survival by providing it with a way to bond with their primary caregiver.
In effect, this is the infant’s first emotional attachment in a frightening world, and they instinctively bond with someone who possesses the attributes for maximizing their survival, that is, a caregiver that displays a sense of power, security, safety, and compassion. In effect, every child instinctually goes through the process known as Stockholm Syndrome as a natural defence mechanism against its own annihilation
Pathological narcissists are addicted to a drug called Narcissistic Supply. Narcissistic supply is defined as a psychological concept whereby the narcissist draws admiration and support from their environment for boosting their ego. Narcissistic supply applies to anyone or anything that brings the pathological narcissist personal attention, and builds their fragile ego-up to levels where their feelings of superiority, grandiosity, and entitlement are affirmed. Generally, it does not matter very much whether the supply is good or bad, what is important is that the supply brings attention that is constant, reliable, and predictable.
Understanding the phenomenon of Narcissistic Supply (especially for clinicians) is critical to understanding narcissistic personality disorder, and most especially the narcissist’s behaviour with regard to their targeted victims. Like all addicts, the pathological narcissist must continually replenish their drug of choice, and their drug of choice is “Narcissistic Supply”. All their focus for gaining this supply consumes great amounts of their energy, leaving them very little for the pursuit of genuine happiness and relatedness with others.
Like any drug addict, the pathological narcissist is unable to operate at full capacity. This is because they must dedicate so much time to sourcing new supply that is vital for managing and regulating their mood disorders and self-worth. All the time, their own inner critic is judging them harshly as to whether they are achieving their aim for an endless reservoir of supply, or are they failing? The attention they receive from their supply source is vital for the survival of the narcissist, without it they would die (metaphorically speaking) because their weak, fragile ego depends on it to regulate their unstable self-worth and self-esteem and keep their shame at bay.
The pathological narcissist perceives themselves as being very independent, which is a total self-lie. The truth is they are parasites, like a flea, that gets under the skin of their source of supply (their victims), invading every aspect of their life while sucking the lifeblood out of them. Of course, the narcissist cannot deal with the fact that they need anybody because requiring someone would imply some boundary to their power or suggest that they are incomplete in some way (inferior). Furthermore, they cannot tolerate any sign of independence and autonomy from their “supply” person; this only serves to enrage them.
Their narcissistic supply is there to serve the narcissist, so they try to cement their co-narcissistic victim into the role they have made for them, and there they remain under the narcissist’s control. Any deviation from this position on the part of their victim will end in punishment for the transgressor. So, like the Queen Bee, the narcissist is surrounded by a hive of worker bees, all in service to their needs, which ironically make them totally co-dependent on others for their survival.
The narcissist’s pattern of behaviour is driven purely by their addiction for admiration and respect from others, getting this attention drives all their actions and deeds, and ironically, the source of that supply is not particularly important. As with all addictions, there are good and bad sources of supply, and to the narcissist, any source is better than none. However, given a choice, their first choice would be to pursue the finest sources possible.
The best source would depend on how they viewed their target. If they can get admiration from a source of supply that they find superior, then that would be even better (as they provide the highest quality oxygen, and the most satisfying). So, if they admire someone, for whatever reason, for example, their intellect, their knowledge, their wealth, their position, the circle they move in, etc., then these people would be welcome trophies to have notched up on their belt. Of course, they would only respect those people who they acknowledge as being of a higher social status than themselves anyway.
If they manage to gain admiration from a high ranking, high-status person, they will ingratiate themselves to that individual with a clear intention to extract any “greatness” they perceive that person to have. This may be by way of getting information, skills, knowledge, financial reward, etc., which they will then go on to model, as these attributes are a further source of power to the narcissist. If they can glean that which they admire in the other, then they in effect become just like the object of their desire, they are elevated (in their own eyes) to a higher social status themselves. In the meantime, they will continue to extract as much admiration for themselves from the relationship as possible; this bolsters their confidence while they model their new status to the world.
However, the narcissist knows that this honeymoon period will be short-lived, because once they have exhausted the relationship, and they get all that they wanted they will become bored. Once bored they will be unable to keep up the pretence of being a mutual caring cohort, the false integrated self they presented begins to breakdown, along with their patience to keep up their act of being an ally. Then, quite abruptly and inexplicably, they decide it is the time that it is all over, and as quick as the changing wind, the narcissist becomes cold, uninterested and devious.
The narcissist then starts their vicious attack whereby they set about devaluing the very things that had once attracted them to their victim in the first place (i.e. their innocence, amenableness, humbleness, wisdom, warm-heartedness, knowledge, energy, etc.), they now despise these qualities in them. Then, with a hardness and razor-sharpness befitting a warrior’s Samurai sword, they can instantly, metaphorically speaking, kill off their co-narcissistic victim without any remorse.
Part of the reason for wanting to kill off the individual is because, in order to con them into giving them what they want, the narcissist is required to reveal some personal things about themselves. This brings a sense of intimacy which is very unsettling to the narcissist because it makes them feel vulnerable, therefore fearful. After having, what felt like an intimate relationship, naturally, the victim is utterly confused by the sudden discarding change in behaviour toward them. Being treated in this fashion is a very personal thing to the victim. However, to the narcissist their treatment is not that personal at all, they would have reacted the same way to any other source because, to them, all sources of narcissistic supply are transposable.
Now that it has been decided that this narcissistic source of supply has reached its end, the narcissist’s behaviour becomes angry, and the exchanges become bizarre, lies and punishing behaviour ensues. Because the narcissist is unable to be truly intimate or have empathy, it would not be long before the other person realises that something is seriously very wrong with how the relationship is going. And as in any healthy relationship, the co-narcissistic victim (still believing that they are good friends), begins to fight for the relationship and challenges the narcissist as to what is happening between them. When this happens, the narcissist feels rebuffed, and unable to handle the imagined rejection and conflict, and they become even angrier.
Because they have been through this process many times before and recognises that the other person is no longer their “ideal” source of supply for admiration, so they want to quit. Also, rather than risk being rejected further, the narcissist wants to move on, so their reaction is to “reject before being rejected”. Leaving their unsuspecting victim totally confused. The more hurt and confused their victim becomes, the more the narcissist’s sadistic tendencies are rewarded. But this can be a difficult time for the narcissist, especially when they find themselves without a co-narcissist victim to lean on. That is why, before they discard one source of supply they usually have set up another source during the devaluing stage.
They do not have a psychic home of their own, so they must rely on their victims to provide a secure base for them, protect them and take responsibility for them and their needs. When there is a sudden break in their affectional bonds, they may find themselves spiralling downward into a depression, where they may even become psychotic or experience suicidal ideation. This may last until they find a new source of supply, and then it will pass. It is as if the current loss reawakens their earlier loss (with their authoritative parent or another caretaker), and this becomes another ‘narcissistic wound’, and with it, a shameful blow to their fragile ego at the core of their self.
Once again, the narcissist goes looking for a new narcissistic supply source, and if necessary, they will resort to a lower social network of victim to feed their addiction for admiration. They will not be happy that they were rebuffed by their once superior supply; they are likely to feel that having to resort to a lower status supply an insult to their inflated ego (further shame). Therefore, they rationalise that their obnoxious treatment for the victim was justified. Sometimes the feeling of hitting “rock bottom” makes the narcissist put a stop on their narcissistic pattern, but it is only likely to be a temporary stay of humility until they recover. Then once someone walks into their sights that interest them, their crazy spiral cycle is likely to begin all over again.
The Dark Triad is a constellation of three overlapping personality constructs that are seen in three independent but closely related personality traits: Narcissism, Machiavellianism and Psychopathy. These three personality types are on a continuum (each with their own substantial genetic components), and are better known by clinicians as: –
The narcissist (NPD), who is characterised by grandiosity, lack of empathy, and egotism.
The malignant narcissist (MN), who is characterised by deception, exploitation, and self-interest.
The psychopath, who is characterised by anti-social sadistic behaviour and a callous lack of conscience.
Each of these three personality types share a number of common features, but when it comes to behaviour, each type acts-out even worse behaviour than the one preceding it (one that is lower down on the scale).
But whatever way we refer to these personality types, their pathological behaviours are always the same, they come with dark malevolent and hard to tolerate qualities. Unfortunately, people with these traits function normally, therefore they surround us daily in our lives (i.e. in the home, the workplace, and in romantic relationships and friendships.
Technically these three personalities are referred to in criminal psychology as the Dark Triad. Many political and social leaders throughout history are examples of the powerful success that comes from the dark triad traits; for example, Gaius Julius Caesar.
Of course, we do not have to go back in time, to-day we have the United States President, Donald Trump. Unfortunately, these personality types because of their workplace aggression, generally do not show good leadership skills in the long-run. In fact, they usually end up costing their organisations/governments billions before they manage to get rid of them. Furthermore, they also have negative consequences for the people that they employ to serve them.
The Russian Doll Metaphor:
A useful way of understanding the psychology of the Dark Triad (NPD, MN and Psychopath) is through the Russian nesting dolls metaphor.
The Russian doll system is a series of wooden figures that can be dismantled to reveal a series of several dolls (all similar, yet different in size) all fitting snugly encased into the largest doll.
For the purpose of understanding the full spectrum of narcissism, imagine four dolls, with each doll representing a different level of narcissism, and its own particular, recognisable, overlapping pathology.
For example, the smallest doll represents healthy narcissism; the second slightly larger doll represents narcissistic personality disorder, and the third slightly larger doll represents the malignant narcissist.
The largest doll combined with the other dolls represents the psychopath, thus covering the whole spectrum of psychopathy within one Russian doll system—all encased into one complete “whole”.
The Russian doll system demonstrates nicely how each of these three unhealthy structures are in themselves complete, yet each fulcrum (level) of pathology distinguishes one from the other, depending on the trauma caused to each fulcrum, and how it twisted and distorted the individuals’ growth as they went from childhood to adulthood.
As the narcissistic individual moves from one level of narcissism into the next level of narcissism (i.e., from NPD to malignant narcissism), each level includes its predecessor, integrating it into the new and more pathological structure of self.
The Dark Triad as a New Focus of Personality Psychology:
The Dark Triad has been known in Criminal Psychology for some time, but it is only now becoming a new focus of Personality Psychology. Therefore, it needs to be understood (even at a basic level) by clinicians. Understanding the damage these three personalities (the narcissist, the malignant narcissist, and the psychopath) types can do to their victims is vital for working with victims of pathological narcissistic abuse.
These individuals only have one goal, and that is to get their own needs met. People who score high on the Dark Tried will use any means they can to achieve their end goal, and this can be very detrimental to the
physical and mental health of anybody they have chosen to target as their victim. Anybody trying to get in their way will be treated most aggressively.
The Dirty Dozen Scale:
Jonason and Webster (2010) have come up with a scale to help others to spot these aggressive characters more easily. It is a 12 – item rating scale called the “Dirty Dozen” and is considered a concise Measure of the Dark Triad.
The Dirty Dozen asks a set of questions that are designed to highlight the individual’s behaviours, and highlight their aggressiveness, sexual opportunism, impulsivity, etc. and show where they fit in the Dark Triad scale. For example: –
Questions to detect levels of Narcissism:
I tend to want others to admire me.
I tend to want others to pay attention to me.
I tend to expect special favours from others.
I tend to seek prestige or status.
I tend to feel that things are owed to me.
I tend to try to be dominant in social situations.
I tend to be grandiose or pompous.
I tend to feel that I am more special than others.
I tend to feel that I am better than others.
I tend to have a sense of self-importance.
I tend to be egocentric.
Questions to detect levels of Psychopathy:
I tend to lack remorse.
I tend to be callous or insensitive.
I tend to not be too concerned with morality or the morality of my actions.
I tend to be cynical.
I tend to get frustrated easily.
I tend to lose my temper quickly.
Questions to detect levels of Machiavellianism:
I have used deceit or lied to get my way.
I tend to manipulate others to get my way.
I have used flattery to get my way.
I tend to exploit others towards my own end.
I tend to have trouble understanding other people’s feelings.
It is not hard to see how people who score high in any of these individual areas are going to be very hard to be around, especially when in a personal relationship with them, or working alongside them in the workplace.
Scoring above 45 would rank an individual high on the Dark Triad scale. Perhaps the reader would like to test themselves to see how they treat others… now there is a thought!
If you are interested in knowing more about this test:
(PDF) The Dirty Dozen: A Concise Measure of the Dark Triad. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/44653925_The_Dirty_Dozen_A_Concise_Measure_of_the_Dark_Triad [accessed Sep 01 2018].