Narcissism lies on a continuum from healthy to pathological. Healthy narcissism is part of normal human functioning. It represents required self – love and confidence based on real achievements and the ability to overcome setbacks. But, narcissism becomes a problem when one becomes excessively preoccupied with the self and seeks complete admiration and attention, with complete disregard for others’ feelings. Lack of satisfaction of this need leads to substance abuse and major depressive disorders. In adolescents, this causes ‘Substance Dependency Disorder’ (SDD) – they display overt narcissistic and prosocial behaviours, which show a connection between self – centeredness and addiction. These substances include sedatives like alcohol, psychedelics and hallucinogens like marijuana and LSD, stimulants like cocaine, narcotics like opium, heroin, and morphine, and anti-anxiety drugs like Xanax.
“Narcissists unconsciously deny an unstated and intolerably poor self – image through inflation. They turn themselves into glittering figures of immense grandeur, surrounded by psychologically impenetrable walls. The goal of this self – deception is to be impervious to greatly feared external criticism, and to their own rolling sea of doubts.” This is how Elan Golomb describes NPD, in her book ‘Trapped in the Mirror’. The narcissists fail to achieve intimacy with anyone as they view other people like items in a vending machine, and uses them to serve their own needs, never being able to acknowledge that others might have their own feelings too.
Narcissism is filled with irony and paradox, whether as a character trait or as a clinical disease. Emily Levine says, “I thought Narcissism was about self – love till someone told me there is a flip – side to it… it is unrequited self – love.” It must be remembered that, Narcissus weeps to find out that his image does not return his love. This indicates that, a loving engagement with the self does not, and cannot, come from putting on lofty airs, acting with self – satisfied arrogance or being obsessed with assorted fantasies of ideal brilliance or beauty. Healthy, non – egotistical self – love arises from an unconditional acceptance of the self, without having to declare superiority over others. Deep down, the narcissists know, albeit unconsciously, that they are not really what they project. In fact, one of their central defenses is to endlessly project onto others the very flaws and fears that they are unable or unwilling, to allow into awareness. They are critical of others’ shortcomings, but completely blind to their own – their self – love must be seen as an illusion, a spectacular triumph of self – deception. They can only love their false, idealized self – a mirage that cannot possibly return the fantasy – laden love. Their flawed self, hidden beneath their outward bravado, remains locked up and placed in permanent exile. And, to continuously safeguard themselves from a reality that so frequently contradicts their grandiose assumptions and pretensions, they are forced to employ a massive defense stratagem, with extraordinary rigidity.
Although very few of us are actually diagnosed with NPD, almost all of us are guilty of sharing certain narcissistic tendencies. So, Todd Solondz says, “Narcissism and self – deception are survival mechanisms without which many of us might just jump off the bridge.” For true narcissists, the defenses are absolutely necessary to compensate their ego deficits and reduce feelings of shame. Without them, they might result in a state of suicidal depression; for, narcissists do not really like themselves – the more they boast and demean others, they are more likely to cover up for their deeper, largely hidden feelings of inferiority and lack of love. Blinded by their idealized self – image, they try to project themselves as gifted, exceptional and unique – that in turn makes them egotistical and arrogant. According to TS Eliot, “… half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don’t mean to do harm but the harm [that they cause] does not interest them. Or they do not see it or they justify it because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves.” This shows a distinction between narcissists who are malevolent, and those who simply lack concern of how their behaviour might adversely affect others. It is yet another way of gaining attention to their supreme self – absorption, which makes it impossible for them to identify with others’ feelings.
Kurt Cobain says, “I don’t care what you think, unless it is about me.” This shows the narcissist’s indifference to the outer world unless it specifically relates to them. They are completely incapable of a genuine interest in others’ matters unless they are needed for the former’s assertion of superiority. Narcissists are also great con – artists; after all, they always succeed in deceiving themselves. It becomes particularly painful when they suffer from memory loss, when, they lose out parts of the person they love the most. In general, a narcissist “devours people, consumes their output, and casts the empty, wreathing shells aside”, says Sam Vaknin. Hate is a complement of fear, and the narcissists like being feared – it provides them with an intoxicating sensation of omnipotence. The difference between Narcissism and self – love is a matter of depth. Narcissus falls in love not with the self, but with an image or reflection of the self, with the persona, the mask. Narcissists see themselves through the eyes of others, changes their lifestyle and behaviour and expression of feelings, according to others’ admiration. Narcissism is voluntary blindness, an agreement not to look beneath the surface. Yet, Oscar Wilde says, “To love oneself is the beginning of a life – long romance” – this notion of self – love leans towards the pathological and the auto – erotic as well.