Simone Hoermann, Ph.D., is a Psychologist in private practice in New York City. She specializes in providing psychotherapy for Personality Disorders, Anxiety, and Depression ...Read More
Last week, I wrote a blog post about a conversation with Dr. Frank Yeomans on the fragile sense of self worth that is underneath some narcissistic behaviors. In my conversation with Dr. Frank Yeomans, who is a leading expert on narcissism, we also touched upon another significant characteristic that is frequently found in people with Narcissistic Personality Disorder: One of the DSM IV criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is an excessive need for admiration. If you’ve ever been around a narcissist, you might have realized how exhausting it can be to constantly feed their ego and reassure their fragile sense of self-worth. Narcissists will try to elicit admiration from those around them by exuding a sense of superiority and an air of being special, unique, and powerful. And they can get quite upset when that feeling of admiration is not forthcoming. So, what’s that all about?
“Everyone wants to feel special,” explains Dr. Yeomans, “and most of us achieve this through our relationships. The relationships with our friends, family, romantic partners, that’s what usually makes us feel special. We tend to feel special when we feel loved. The problem for narcissists, though, is that they don’t trust that they are really loved. Most of them have never felt loved in their lives, and so they doubt that they can actually be loved.”
As I mentioned in a previous blog, narcissists tend to be high achievers and very driven, because they believe that they need to be special and superior. Underneath it all, they feel empty and worthless inside. Part of this need to be special is driven by their insatiable need for admiration: Achieving high goals, being particularly successful and powerful, is an attempt to feel better about themselves. The admiration that comes with being superior, powerful and unique, is also a way of getting validation from the outside world, of chasing away that lingering inner sense of worthlessness that is so torturous for the narcissist.
“Deep down, narcissists hope for love and caring”, says Frank Yeomans, “but it often makes them feel very uncomfortable if they seem to find it, partly because they feel vulnerable and doubt the authenticity of any love that comes their way. In addition, they may devalue anyone who loves them because that person, like themselves, can not live up to their excessively demanding standards. Narcissists can’t grasp the concept of love as a mutual devotion that includes acceptance of flaws. Love does not sustain them, it feels elusive and unsafe.” The problem is, he explains, that to the narcissist, admiration feels safer. It feels safer, because we can earn admiration through our achievements. Hence, for the narcissist, admiration feels much more like something they can control, something they can work for. On the other hand, love can’t be controlled, so it means taking a leap of faith. Narcissist, then, prefer to be admired, and are endlessly trying to provoke admiration, because that’s what they know to do.
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Part of this distrust in love has to with early childhood experiences. Typically, it is the role of the caregiver to be empathic and attuned to the infant. The caregiver’s role is to protect and soothe a child when they are upset, and in order to effectively be able to do that they need to understand the child’s internal experience. In other words, the caregiver needs to be empathic and attuned. The idea is that for people who develop NPD, there was some breakdown in this process of empathic attunement, which prevented them from feeling loved, and which lead them to develop internal representation of relationships that are somewhat skewed.
The way narcissists typically experience relationships is characterized predominantly by a superior self and a devalued other, which, when something rattles the narcissists sense of self-worth, can rapidly shift to a devalued self and a superior other. In other words, relationships for the narcissists are uneven and imbalanced, and the narcissist is usually vaguely aware that they vacillate between idealizing and devaluing others.
Frank Yeomans believes that problems in attunement may have gotten worse nowadays: “When people grew up in more extended families, if there was a kind of empathic failure, someone else was there to pick up the slack” he says.
Is this something that can be repaired? Yes, according to Dr. Yeomans. “A person can be helped to move beyond that, and to develop a view of relationships that integrate positive and negative aspects of a person based on mutual connectedness, instead of this one-up and one-down approach. It takes a long time, however, because narcissists have such a shaky sense of self worth and their defenses are so fragile that they can’t handle a lot of confrontation.” says Dr. Yeomans, “You have to be patient.” After all, sometimes, what it takes is just one good relationship.