Thursday, December 14, 2006

Characteristics of the Narcissist II

The narcissist despises community and emotional intimacy, and so they are profoundly lonely. On the one hand, though, there is something about their loneliness that narcissists like; for they can attribute it to their unique and superior nature. But as human persons who have a radical need for others, they cannot tolerate loneliness. This conflict is a source of chronic anguish; for loneliness is hell, and yet, as Sartre would say, "hell is other people" ("l'enfer, c'est les autres").

Man is a person, from the Latin persona (through sound). He longs to express himself, to communicate himself to others, whether depraved or not. Just as those who contemplate the marvelous or the beautiful cannot hold themselves but will cry out in praise of what they behold, so too the depraved cannot help but on occasion burst out and spit their bile, thus providing others a momentary glimpse of their interior rot. Moments such as these are clues that must be stored in the memory and, like disparate pieces of a puzzle, assembled later in order to acquire a more complete picture, which will be a horror to behold, or an experience of terror -- if the narcissist discovers that he has been found out by you. The clues, in isolation, will suggest only minor imperfections or character flaws. But taken together over a number of years, they suggest something much more ominous. The inconsistencies evident in the behaviour of the narcissist -- prior to his discovery -- should never be simply accepted, only to be forgotten. Rather, one must ponder the inconsistencies in behaviour until they become consistent, that is, until the apparently inconsistent behaviour acquires an intelligible narrative that rings true.

Some pathological narcissists are so clever that certain people will simply never be able to penetrate the disguise, no matter what has been pointed out to them. One reason they are so successful is that they have come to believe their own lies. The narcissist has convinced himself that the facade is not a lie. What helps to establish this conviction, among other things, is a commitment to a cause -- a genuinely good cause. But after a few years of observation, one discovers that the narcissist's devotion to the cause is one sided and not grounded in a commitment to the principles underlying the cause, because after a time the inconsistency of the morality of the depraved becomes noticeable. His behavior, in other words, is not principled. And he will despise any individual or institution that expounds a consistent ethics, because it exposes his own inconsistent and arbitrary one and is a constant reminder of his own self-deception.

It cannot be emphasized enough just how much we typically underestimate the depravity of the pathological narcissist who operates behind a facade of respectability and altruism. We cannot forget that they have a desperate fear of exposure, that someone might catch a long enough glimpse at the rot that lies within and raise the awareness of others, thus threatening the power structure that took years of careful planning to erect. That is why the pathological narcissist is a long term plotter, like the brilliant chess player who plans ten or more moves ahead. It is almost impossible for anyone to uncover the complex and multi-layered schemes of such a person unless one is entirely aware of the depths of his depravity and the level of his intelligence. Knowing the one without the other leaves one ever open to being perpetually deceived.

The awareness that others have seen contradictory aspects of himself is a constant source of anxiety for the narcissist in a position of authority. And he is aware of the limits of human perspectives and that community has the power to enlarge individual points of view. When people talk with one another, they begin to acquire a much larger perspective on things, that is, they begin to see a bigger picture. The pathological narcissist who is in a leadership role cannot afford to have people talking amongst themselves and sharing stories. So he will go to great lengths and carefully contrive very devious and underhanded schemes to keep people divided. He will sow division among colleagues by planting lies about one person to another, and another about someone else. This can be a successful strategy because no one expects a highly intelligent adult to be carrying on like a scheming eight year old child or an emotionally disturbed adolescent. And since most of us avoid confrontation, it is much easier to believe the liar.

Pathological narcissists succeed for a time because of the extreme resonance of their personality structure. As Samuel Vaknin writes: "Narcissists appear to be unpleasantly deliberate... They are too human, or too inhuman, or too modest, or too haughty, or too loving, or too cold, or too empathic, or too strong, or too industrious, or too casual, or too enthusiastic, or too indifferent, or too courteous, or too abrasive." He is an enigma, at least prior to his exposure. One can't help but reason that he's either an outstanding citizen, leader, priest, court judge, teacher, etc., or he's the most morally depraved individual you are going to meet for a long while. And very few of us expect to discover such a depth of depravity in well dressed professional adults. So we naturally conclude the former. For he is careful not to show opposite extremes to one and the same person, especially if that person is someone he needs. The majority in his immediate environment will see his "too good" side only. Should anyone no longer be needed, or should one happen to become a threat to his facade, such a one is likely to get a taste of the narcissist's vindictive nature, even one who has been a close "friend" to him for a number of years -- a narcissist's loyalty is paper thin, for he is incapable of genuinely intimate friendships. But only the targeted victim will see his vindictive nature, or a small few. He is careful to keep this side of himself from others, for it is an inconsistency that might expose him. So adept is he at this narrowly focused persecution, in fact, that any attempt by the victim to tell another will in all probability make him (the victim) appear as if he is losing his mind.

The narcissist takes advantage of every opportunity to favor a person who is down and in need -- as long as the prospects that he will be of use later on are good. Such favors might include providing employment, personal counseling, boosting one's confidence, flattery, listening and being sympathetic (at least apparently), etc. Such opportunities supply the narcissist in a number of ways. Primarily, they ensure loyalty for the day that will inevitably arrive, the day when his personal edifice crumbles and he finally falls into the pit he has dug for his enemies over the years. Such a loyal following makes it all the more difficult for anyone to depose him. They also have the added advantage of helping him to persuade himself that he is good and that perhaps the gnawing awareness of that damp and dark cellar at the heart of his character was only a passing fancy. Furthermore, they provide a sense of superiority in that others depend upon him in order to be the persons they have become. When someone finally comes to realize that he is a treacherous and exploitative fraud -- which is inevitable -- , who is going to believe such a person when so many have been directly benefited by the accused? Gratitude makes it easier to excuse his "faults" or minor character flaws, and that is about all that the clues will suggest in isolation -- and most people have poor memories.

The depraved and pathological narcissist is very ready to forgive the faults of others, not because he is loving and merciful, but rather because he is indifferent. In fact, inordinate leniency is typical of narcissists. They are either vindictive or lenient, but rarely just. Leniency, which is a vice, is hard to distinguish from mercy or clemency, so it enables him to feel virtuous, and it also helps perpetuate the appearance of moral purity. Moreover, leniency provides another opportunity to ensure loyalty.

But ultimately, the pathological narcissist is indifferent to injustice and its victims. As St. Thomas Aquinas argues, the more excellent a person is, the more he is prone to anger (S.T. I-II, 47, 3). But the narcissist experiences no righteous indignation. He only rages against the person who is a threat to his charade and/or who refuses to cooperate with his underhanded schemes. But he will not be incensed at injustice.

Courage is the mean between recklessness and cowardliness. Here, narcissists are also at both extremes, never in the mean. Indeed, they are often bold or inordinately daring. Their inflated sense of superiority propels them to recklessness; for they are subject to fantasies of omnipotence and unequalled brilliance, and they feel that they are above the law. And it is this sense of superiority that allows them to underestimate the intelligence and determination of their adversaries. But they are not brave; they are cowards at heart. They lack the courage to gaze upon the dilapidated specter of their true selves, nor can they bear to look into the eyes of one who has discovered their true nature. They inspire terror only because we recognize that the inhibitions that govern the impulses of normal healthy persons are completely lacking in the pathological narcissist. They are psychopaths. The terror they inspire is a source of narcissistic supply that contributes to their sense of existing, which they need to counter the sense of their own nothingness, created by their immoral and unrepented choices.

Doug McManaman