The Psychological Mechanism of Narcissism: what is it really?

by Caroline van Kimmenade

A lot of HSPs I speak to don’t want to label anyone they know as a narcissist. And I think that’s sweet. There is a deeper concern of: “but narcissism is bad! And I know this person up close, they have their good side! They’re likeable! They have their human struggles! I don’t want to condemn them”.

I think partly, this is because popular discussions on narcissism tend to get very black-or-white. “Narcissism is bad and toxic. End of story.”

Partly, this is because many discussions focus on what it’s like to be in a romantic relationship with someone who is very narcissistic. And the answer is: hell.

Yet, that same person could be manageable enough at work, or decent enough as an acquaintance. They may even be doing crucial humanitarian work or saving lives as a doctor. So saying someone like that “is just toxic” typically doesn’t fit when you know them better. Often the big disfunction only festers with those closest.

So that’s one aspect of all this. The other aspect is that narcissism is a collection of traits, and we all have these traits to bigger or smaller degrees. So it’s only when someone has a lot of narcissistic traits, to the point where these traits are like weeds, taking over their whole personality, that narcissism becomes toxic.

There are lots of people who have some narcissism, but it’s workable, and many are even willing to work on it once they see why it doesn’t work.

I think a much more interesting question to ask is…

What is narcissism really? Where does it come from? What’s the mechanism of it? How does it work?

Here’s my take on it now (2023):

Narcissism is a particular way of dealing with trauma.

This can be big trauma (losing a parent, a car accident, chronic emotional abuse), or it can be small trauma (being laughed at once, being rejected on a date, not getting the job you wanted).

Narcissism as a strategy says:

“Wow Mike. Look at all that pain. That is not exactly Funtastic.

But look, with the Narcissism ClingWrap Solution, we wrap it all up and tuck it away like so. Poof, it’s gone! Now, watch this, we use this little mental app and we create a fun little story of what should have happened in the Perfect World we deserve to live in. Look how cute that story is! Look how good it feels!

O.k. so now we take that story and position it on top of the pain. There!

And look now, Mike! This is AMAZING!! The pain is just gone completely!! You can’t even tell it was ever there!”

You could (rightly) call this lying or denial, but many times, narcissistic people seem to really believe the stories they tell themselves. “Everyone is just jealous of me because I am so perfect”.

Now, if someone uses this strategy once or twice, it’s not such a disaster. The problem is that once they get the hang of it and it works for them, they’ll use it more and more. Their image of themselves – and their life – will be further and further from reality. Every time they get hurt, they’ll create a story.

The pain is trying to confront them with reality but their coping mechanism is to run from reality and tell themselves a better story. So the more narcissistic someone is, the more they will end up in their own little world. They don’t see things for what they are and they no longer see or hear others as they are. The imaginary world becomes the most important thing to maintain, at all costs, because it’s keeping the pain away.

Narcissism is essentially pain avoidance

So by creating these fantasy stories, narcissism is essentially pain avoidance. That’s it. And it sounds innocent enough (you’d be foolish to enjoy pain after all). But as the pain avoidance habits grow, narcissistic people:

  • Start to lose touch with reality more and more. They live in their own interpretation of things.
  • They don’t build the skills to confront their pain, so they become more and more terrified of it and less and less willing to truly heal.
  • Their prime concern becomes to defend their own Fantasy World from “attacks” by “jealous and bad people”.
  • They start to believe love is anything that confirms their fantasy world, and that anything that rips the bandaid off is “evil”.
  • They may use drugs and excessive alcohol to further escape from the pain, and fortify their fantasy life.

This is the real tragedy, the pain and suffering that comes from being around someone who has a lot of narcissism:

You are attacked, judged and annihilated when you threaten their Personal Fantasy Land, but then when you leave it alone, they can be perfectly normal people. Because, they are not “delusional” in the outrageous sense. But they do have lots of subtle “overlays” where they’ll twist meanings and twist interpretations to navigate away from their own pain at all costs.

At best, they are cute ice-skaters, trying to circumvent a hole in the ice. Whenever you wonder why they suddenly made a drastic turn – it was to avoid plunging into that hole of despair, that hole in their Fantasy Ice.

The Hole of Despair

Now, I would love to be able to tell you that that hole of despair is sealed off from the world, but it is not. It has a tendency to become its own kind of monster.

The narcissist skates around the hole, but the monster in the hole still needs an outlet, still needs someone to scream at. More often than not, if you see the hole, you become the one who gets screamed at.

And that’s why the people who are the most intimate with someone like this, get the most shit. The people who care the most and want to help the most, are the ones who get yelled at, abused, and rejected.

Everyone else, the spectators admiring the graceful icecapades, clapping, don’t see what lives in the hole.

The irony is, plenty of narcissistic people will run around yelling that narcissists are toxic and evil and need to be avoided. They get so good at avoiding their own hole (especially if they consider themselves spiritually advanced), that they don’t realise they have the thing they judge so harshly.

I was approached by someone a little while back who was like this. He wanted a black-white answer on how to spot and avoid narcissistic people in 5 minutes. He demonstrated very little psychological understanding but got it in his head that narcissism is toxic and bad and that that is all there is to say about it: “Let’s get down to business: how do we spot the monster asap?”

But you don’t spot the monster asap. The monster is under the ice. The narcissistic person is skating on the ice, avoiding the monster. The monster is hidden by default.

And the monster is only a monster because it’s the part of someone’s personality that has been utterly and completely abandoned, ignored and vilified by the narcissist themselves!

I don’t have a black-white answer for that.

But I do see how simply labeling things as good or bad, pushes the monster further beneath the ice.

“But our society is increasingly narcissistic, what do we do about that?”

If you’re really concerned about narcissism, the best thing you can do is practice spotting your own ice, your own holes, your own little monsters. We all have some of it and when we do our own inner work, at least we don’t make the problem bigger. But it would be foolish to ever think that you have zero ice, zero monsters and that people who do have any at all are all evil.

When someone believes they are literally flawless, it just means they’ve gotten really good at skating and dodging their own holes, so much so that they don’t think they exist.

This is why they can look at you with such unseeing eyes – oblivious to all the pain they are causing. Yet, rather than get all worked up about them we have to practice seeing our own part in the dance: too often, these interactions are not one-offs. They keep hurting you, and you keep trying to fix it, or trying not to care. What’s going on there, underneath your own ice? Narcissism has ice, but so does co-dependence. The last thing you want is to get locked into an interaction with someone where you both obsess about the other, to avoid your own holes.

“Are narcissists evil? Are they too broken to ever heal?”

Many narcissistic people “do good” in the world. Maybe not for all the right reasons per se, but they can be working at charities and doing their bit to make the world a better place. People are complicated, we can be “kind” on one level and self-absorbed on another level.

I don’t believe anyone is “too broken” (Too broken for me to help? Sure! I have my limits. But too broken to ever heal at all? No, I believe there always is a way when someone truly wants to heal).

I do believe far too many people are too lazy to heal. Real healing takes real work, and it’s often painfully slow-going. Not very glitz and glam.

Plus, once someone becomes an excellent skater, it’s far too easy to avoid the holes. It’s far too easy to keep going the way they have. They will have less and less reasons to actually face the holes and do their healing.

Skating becomes easy (and it’s comfortable) while healing is hard and uncomfortable. Why would they chose healing?

So in practice most narcissists won’t ever heal (not in this lifetime anyway).

If hearing that makes you want to up the convincing-them-to-heal-ante, know this:

It’s not up to you or other people to get someone to heal, it’s up to the skater. As long as the skater decides to keep avoiding the holes, nothing you do or say can change that.

So if you spot a lazy skater with a huge hole… don’t try to save (or confront) the monster, don’t try to fix the hole, don’t try to convince the skater that there is a problem.

But if someone tells you “I think there may be a big hole in my ice” and you see it too, don’t try to cheer them up and make them feel better. This is an important moment, they see the hole. Confirm it. “Yes, there is a hole, are you going to confront it, or keep running away?”

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