Sympathy for the Narcissist


Still from the film The Tin Drum (1979) based on the novel by Günter Grass

I’m not planning on making any excuses for Narcissists and their behaviour. I just think that it is important to remember that although Narcissists often seem like they are not human, as not being human is something they are actively seeking to become, they are in fact human. They are afraid of being human, thus their humanness is very deeply hidden underneath their fervent desire to be more than human.

This is one of the keys to understanding what motivates a Narcissist. Much of what they say and do is to achieve their need to transcend being human. The reason they believe that this is possible is because they are stuck in early childhood. Their thinking is like that of a child, magic is very real to them, monsters still live under the bed, tooth fairies still visit to collect their offerings, there be dragons and damsels in distress, frogs turn into princes, princesses get trapped in towers and need rescuing, pots of gold await at the end of a rainbow, and Santa Claus has a list which determines whether or not you get a prize.

This permanent childhood, with all the magical thinking it brings with it, explains why Narcissists are so charming. They can be some of the most positive people you will ever meet, as long as you never get to know them more than as a casual acquaintance. They can still be extremely charming if you are in a relationship with them, but you get to see the Mr. Hyde side too.

For those who only ever see the wonderful side of a Narcissist, they are a magical presence. They will encourage others to pursue their dreams, believe in magical spells such as the power of positive thinking, the power to think anything into being, to become whoever you want to become just by thinking it and believing it, and do whatever you want to do because you can. They are the ultimate salesmen of turning the word ‘impossible’ into ‘I’m possible’.  Their passion for believing the unbelievable is fuelled by the need to prove to themselves that Clark Kent can turn into Superman, because one day they will become Superman, only better than Superman ever was. New and improved.

They are ideal perfection chasers. They are highly effective motivational speakers, the success against all odds story teller who will never actually tell you how they really achieved their success. You probably won’t be told about all those who helped them, they usually climbed the mountain all on their own without equipment, nor will you ever hear about all the people they stepped on and screwed over to get to the tippy top of their magical dream mountain. Those are the details which need to be omitted or you lose the attention of your audience. Keep the story short and simple, but make sure it has a large dose of magic. You will be told how if they can do it, you can do it too, because what is possible for one person is possible for every person. But they don’t believe that, they know that they are better than you, they prove it to themselves every time they lie to you telling you that you can achieve what they have achieved, but their lies are noble, because ordinary humans need all the help that superhumans can generously give them.

That spiritual guru who keeps telling you about heightened mystical experiences they have had, which are very rare to have and you probably won’t ever have one, but they will still teach you how to attain spiritual enlightenment… at a price. Who steals the words of wise men and women who shared their work for free, then sells their recycled wisdom to you at a high price, because nothing worth having is ever free. No matter how much you pay them, you will never reach spiritual enlightenment, you will probably never understand the process, or any of their teachings, the whole thing will be highly mysterious and elusive, mainly because they don’t actually know how to get it themselves, they imagined it and it happened, but it is not actually real. They are a spiritual guru because they do not want to be an ordinary human.

That exciting, mysterious friend who tantalises you with all the drama and secrets in their life, which they might one day share with you, if you prove to them that you are worthy enough to receive their gift of sharing their specialness, but never actually do. Because there is no real drama except for that which they create and there are no real secrets except for those they invent. Yet there is a real tragedy within them, which they are desperately seeking to escape through magic, fantasy, illusion and deceiving others… to deceive themselves.

That is what truly lies behind why they deceive others. If you believe their lies, then they can believe them too. They need you to reinforce their version of reality.

To understand a Narcissist, you need to see them as very young children who refused to grow up.

My father’s favourite book was The Tin Drum – the story of a little boy who thought he was a very special being and when he was told that once he grew up he would have an ordinary life, he deliberately stunted his growth to remain a child forever. One of my father’s favourite games was what he called – Let’s Pretend. We used to pretend we were pirates, royalty, mythological beings, and that we ruled the world, and that everyone and everything in it was at our beck and call. I grew out of that game. My father never did.

Narcissism is a healthy phase of growth, we all go through it, and most of us move on to the next phase. We retain the positive aspects of Narcissism, which help us deal with our journey through the human life experience. We can all be a bit childish in our behaviour, sometimes this is good, sometimes bad, depending on the moment and situation. We usually are aware of when we revert to childishness. Sometimes it is fun.

This is why Narcissists find it so easy to attract us and spin a web around us. They seem to be fun to be around. Everything is a game. Emotions are heightened, the highs are very high, and the lows are very low. Everything is larger than life. It’s addictive, especially if our own lives are very serious, very real, and very adult. The magical thinking of the Narcissist reminds us of our own inner child, and invites our inner child out to play. And play some more. And more. Until the game turns into the Lord of the Flies.

When they are good, they are very very good, and when they are bad, they are horrid. That was my mother’s favourite nursery rhyme, she always told me that it described her perfectly. In fact she had a picture of herself when she was 3 years old, which showed an innocent little toddler with a curl right in the middle of her forehead. When she showed me that picture she was not showing me an image of who she had been, it was portrait of herself as she saw herself always, a Picture of Dorian Gray.

Narcissists don’t actually like real mirrors with real reflections. What they see when they look in the mirror, is not what is being reflected back at them. My mother saw the perpetual little girl with the curl, my father saw a little boy who refused to grow up and liked to play pretend. All of his self portraits were of him either as a young boy, or a grown man wearing clown makeup.

Many Narcissists will actually tell you that they are Narcissists, it’s just that we don’t always hear what they are saying when they say it because we think that they think as we do. Thus when they behave in a way which hurts us and they seem oblivious to the pain they are causing, and they deny all responsibility for their actions, we think that they did it deliberately, with cold calculation. Perhaps it is cold calculation, but it is not the manipulations of an adult with an adult mind, it is a child with a child’s mind inside an adult’s body.