Indifference and Decompensation in Pathological Narcissism
The narcissist lacks empathy. Consequently, he is not really interested in the lives, emotions, needs, preferences, and hopes of people around him. Even his nearest and dearest are, to him, mere instruments of gratification. They require his undivided attention only when they “malfunction” – when they become disobedient, independent, or critical. He loses all interest in them if they cannot be “fixed” (for instance, when they are terminally ill or develop a modicum of personal autonomy and independence).
Once he gives up on his erstwhile sources of supply, the narcissist proceeds to promptly and peremptorily devalue and discard them. This is often done by simply ignoring them – a facade of indifference that is known as the “silent treatment” and is, at heart, hostile and aggressive. Indifference is, therefore, a form of devaluation. People find the narcissist “cold”, “inhuman”, “heartless”, “clueless”, “robotic or machine-like”.
Early on in life, the narcissist learns to disguise his socially-unacceptable indifference as benevolence, equanimity, cool-headedness, composure, or superiority. “It is not that I don’t care about others” – he shrugs off his critics – “I am simply more level-headed, more resilient, more composed under pressure … They mistake my equanimity for apathy.”
The narcissist tries to convince people that he is compassionate. His profound lack of interest in his spouse’s life, vocation, interests, hobbies, and whereabouts he cloaks as benevolent altruism. “I give her all the freedom she can wish for!” – he protests – “I don’t spy on her, follow her, or nag her with endless questions. I don’t bother her. I let her lead her life the way she sees fit and don’t interfere in her affairs!”. He makes a virtue out of his emotional truancy.
All very commendable but when taken to extremes such benign neglect turns malignant and signifies the voidance of true love and attachment. The narcissist’s emotional (and, often, physical) absence from all his relationships is a form of aggression and a defense against his own thoroughly repressed feelings.
In rare moments of self-awareness, the narcissist realizes that without his input – even in the form of feigned emotions – people will abandon him. He then swings from cruel aloofness to maudlin and grandiose gestures intended to demonstrate the “larger than life” nature of his sentiments. This bizarre pendulum only proves the narcissist’s inadequacy at maintaining adult relationships. It convinces no one and repels many.
The narcissist’s guarded detachment is a sad reaction to his unfortunate formative years. Pathological narcissism is thought to be the result of a prolonged period of severe abuse by primary caregivers, peers, or authority figures. In this sense, pathological narcissism is, therefore, a reaction to trauma. Narcissism is a form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that got ossified and fixated and mutated into a personality disorder.
All narcissists are traumatized and all of them suffer from a variety of post-traumatic symptoms: abandonment anxiety,
reckless behaviors, anxiety and mood disorders, somatoform disorders, and so on. But the presenting signs of narcissism rarely indicate post-trauma. This is because pathological narcissism is an efficient coping (defense) mechanism. The narcissist presents to the world a facade of invincibility, equanimity, superiority, skilfulness, cool-headedness, invulnerability, and, in short: indifference.
This front is penetrated only in times of great crises that threaten the narcissist’s ability to obtain narcissistic supply. The narcissist then “falls apart” in a process of disintegration known as decompensation. The dynamic forces which render him paralyzed and fake – his vulnerabilities, weaknesses, and fears – are starkly exposed as his defenses crumble and become dysfunctional. The narcissist’s extreme dependence on his social milieu for the regulation of his sense of self-worth are painfully and pitifully evident as he is reduced to begging and cajoling.
At such times, the narcissist acts out self-destructively and anti-socially. His mask of superior equanimity is pierced by displays of impotent rage, self-loathing, self-pity, and crass attempts at manipulation of his friends, family, and colleagues. His ostensible benevolence and caring evaporate. He feels caged and threatened and he reacts as any animal would do – by striking back at his perceived tormentors, at his hitherto “nearest” and “dearest”.