What You Didn’t Know About Narcissism

by Caroline van Kimmenade

When you think about “narcissists” you probably think about entitled, selfish people who only do what’s best for themselves while trampling on others, right? And those people exist, for sure, but they are not what you need to be on the lookout for when you’re trying to be smart about handling narcissism.

You see, narcissism is – on the extreme end – a personality disorder. But in its milder form, it’s also a survival mechanism.

Narcissism is what many people do when they don’t like the reality they see and don’t want to feel their feelings. Maybe because those feelings are just much too painful. Or maybe because they never learned how to feel their feelings so the smallest feeling seems like an unsurmountable obstacle of “discomfort” for them.

drawing of person living in their head and avoiding their body and feelings
“I’m in control in my mind. I’ve tuned out my body and feelings. I am feeling fine!”

The Narcissistic Avoidance of Feelings

We all do this sometimes.

We all have been in some situations that hurt a lot and where we told ourselves:

“I don’t want to feel this”

“It’s just too much

“I just need to move on from this a.s.a.p.”

“How do I let this go? (without having to be in pain)”

“When I say I am o.k., I am o.k.!”

“I’m fine really!”

Or you end up holding your breath, pushing the feeling away, tensing up or developing some kind of chronic physical sensation where the pain was. As in: you started out feeling immense grief, but then you just kind of pushed it out of your mind because it felt like too much, and you’ve had lower back pain ever since…

Or maybe you’ve decided you deserve better. You deserve to be done with the struggling. You should no longer have to deal with things you don’t like. You want to live life completely on your own terms now…

What might be empowering in a smaller dosage, can quickly turn into entitlement when taken too far.

Narcissism starts out like that.

It starts out as: I don’t want to feel this.

I Don’t Want to Feel it, but I Have to

Now, most healthy people will go through periods of not wanting to deal with something, but deep down, they know they eventually will have to. So you spend a year pushing the grief aside but then you give in and bawl your eyes out for a few weeks. Or you go on a retreat because you know you need help dealing with it. Or you get massages and every time you do, you cry.

You might not have been on top of it from the get go, but you do deal with it eventually because you instinctively understand that that’s how life works. That’s how the body works.

Your body is o.k. to carry something for you for a while, but not forever, and you know and respect that.

What happens though, when someone has pushed the feelings away so far and deep that they convince themselves those feelings are “gone”? Not because those feelings actually are gone, but because they spend so much time trying to mentally override what is actually happening. They convince themselves that the feelings no longer exist.

Narcissists are Good at Convincing Themselves that their Feelings Don’t Exist

Instead of feeling their sadness, they’ll say in their head: I am not sad! Sad is for sad people! I am not a sad person! Buckle up! Just be positive! Don’t be a loser! Tears are for weak people!

And so on.

Doing this once might not be such a big deal, but imagine doing this with every single emotion, year in, year out!

Eventually someone like this will train themselves to completely lose touch with their own emotions. Not because those emotions no longer exist, but because they have developed a chronic habit of yelling in their head, to drown out the feelings.

At this point, a determined and somewhat self-aware narcissist might say: “Yes, I do that! And I am better for it!”

But what they don’t understand is that this is the beginning of the lies and the skewing of reality.

How Narcissists Skew Reality

I know we value rationality as civilised people, and as someone who used to teach university classes on logic I believe that logical reasoning IS very important. But that doesn’t mean that all there is to say and know starts and ends with your thoughts!

And that is where narcissists lose the plot. Because they have trained themselves to live in their mind, and in their thoughts only.

Bear with me as I go on what seems like a detour here to explain how this works.

In logic, there is a distinction between the premise and the reasoning that you build “on top of” that premise. The premise is the bedrock of your argument. The premise can be reasonable, but it can also be completely out of whack.

Imagine the premise like the foundation of a house, and the reasoning that you build on top of that foundation, is the house itself.

Without a decent foundation, the house could sink into the swamp!

(Cue Monty Pyton’s Swamp Castle: “All the other kings thought I was daft to build a castle in the swamp! But I built it all the same. Just to show ’em! It sank into the swamp… So! I built a second one. That sank into the swamp. So I built a third one. That burned down, fell over, then sank into the swamp… but the fourth one, stayed up!”)

The thing is, with logical thought, all you can really do is check that the argument you build on top of the premise, makes sense. There is no foolproof way to check whether the premise itself is correct.

There is no foolproof way to check whether your argument is like a castle, that you’re trying to build in a swamp.

In fact, science is filled with tricky premises because when it comes down to it, there is a whole lot we just don’t know. In order to get anywhere in life (and science) you have to make some assumptions, even if you cannot prove that those assumptions are 100% correct.

Much of the time, we have some ground to build on. But we’re not sure how solid it is. Will it hold a castle, or not? In theory, you could debate this forever. But in practice, often you just have to build something with what you’ve got! In practice, we do a lot of “to the best of my knowledge” reasoning, and learn to live with the benefits, and fallout of that.

The Two Parts of a Logical Argument, that Narcissists Ignore

You can compare a logical argument to math. If I state that 2+2 = 4, my reasoning is correct. But what if the first “2” I started reasoning with is the wrong number? Then my math itself is correct, but the outcome is still wrong because I put in the wrong numbers.

Logical reasoning is like that. There are two parts to a logical argument:

  1. how you “add up” all the thoughts in your argument
  2. the “basic data” (premise) you use to start your reasoning!

A well functioning and well-trained mind would ideally be really good at number 1. But where does your mind get its data?

This is where things get tricky because there is ultimately just a lot we don’t know. This is true about the world in general. Look closely at any scientific field and you’ll e.g. see that despite the fact that engineers can build amazing things, much of the physics theory that was used to make it happen, still has serious holes, questions and unknowns.

So in short, the fact that we can build useful things, doesn’t mean that we know everything about those things. That’s o.k! We can still build useful things! But it does mean we need to keep our human arrogance in check: there are many many things we don’t really know!

To make things even more complicated, our reasoning about ourself and others depends in big part on even more complex and murky “facts”. Namely, our emotional intelligence. And this – is where narcissists falter, hugely.

Why Narcissists Can’t Think Logically About Themselves and Others

If I am feeling really sad because someone died, but I tell myself that I am NOT sad because sadness is for stupid people… then whatever reasonable train of thought I build from there is already wonky.

Even if the logical reasoning within my argument is perfect, the premise is all wrong and so the outcome of my reasoning is too.

Wonky example:

My best friend died. I am NOT sad. My eyes are watery. Someone over there is splashing in a pool… It’s not raining. I don’t have any allergies…

Given these “facts” I must conclude that someone from over there in the pool, splashed water into my eyes! (how dare they… grrr)

From the outside, this an outrageous conclusion, yet this kind of argument would be very easy for a narcissist to make! Since they deny their own feelings, their reasoning always involves someone else doing something to them. They’ve completely cut their own inner emotional workings out of their reasoning about themselves and the world.

(It’s a little more complicated than that since narcissists tend to love anything they can use as a weapon: like rage, or being offended. Or even fake happiness, so they can appear “perfect”! But all in all, the emotions they do embrace are typically ones they feed -and even create – through their way of thinking, while they ignore the emotions that come directly from their body intuition, because those emotions feel vulnerable and confusing)

The Journey of the Narcissistic Mind

So, narcissism starts out as not wanting to feel something. Yet over time, it turns into chronically faulty reasoning about themselves and the world, because they cut out the role of their own intuitive emotions. Hence, they end up with a skewed worldview, in which other people are constantly “at fault” for doing things to them. But, there is more.

In order to keep these emotions pushed down and out of sight, it is not enough to deny having them. You see, the mind is naturally prone to doubt. Doubt is what lets the light in. Doubt is what opens you up to other perspectives.

Yet, when you are a narcissist and you are trying very hard to stay away from something about yourself (your emotions) you must eradicate doubt to maintain control.

Because once you let doubt in you might think: “hmm, the people in the pool are very far away and it does seem unlikely that they’d splash water into my eyes from that far away… and am I 100% sure that those watery sensations in my eyes couldn’t possibly be tears?…”

“No, no, no! That would be the beginning of the unraveling of everything!”

So, a dedicated narcissist MUST be in control of the story at all times.

How do you stay in control of a story?

You eradicate all other story options. They are all verboten.

There is just ONE story. This story is the RIGHT story.

But is that enough?

Of course not. We must add more safety mechanisms!

How Narcisssists Maintain their One Truth

Sometimes narcissists get “lucky” and they can use scientific studies or religious texts to back up their ONE TRUTH.

Never mind that religious texts always have multiple interpretations. Never mind that scientists are never in agreement about everything and there are always studies that contradict each other.

Though actually, now that you point that out Caroline, that is a problem. So how do you deal with other viewpoints? How do you make sure other ways of thinking don’t challenge the ONE TRUTH?

Oh, that’s simple.

Bullying.

Simple bullying.

You start off small:

Someone says something that contradicts your ONE TRUTH and you whisper, she’s a little loopy that one isn’t she? Didn’t she have a reiki initiation last year? Doesn’t she have more than 3 cats? Doesn’t she have a friend who was in prison? Don’t you notice how her socks don’t always match? I mean, I’m a very openminded person, as you know I listen to everyone, but I have some doubts about that lady!

You do that for a while, and then you up the ante:

People like that are crazy. They are wrong, They are evil… but I am so openminded that I think they do have the right to speak and protest etc. But yeah, who in their right mind would listen to them!

Then you pull in the reigns more:

Those people are a danger to society. They are not smart enough to embrace the ONE TRUTH! How can we all do THE ONE RIGHT THING when those people sabotage us? They are a threat! They must be silenced! They must be forced to comply! They must be punished!

drawing of person holding flag and taking a bow on the olympic first place block

How Narcissism Polarises Debates

When a narcissistic way of thinking gains popularity, discussions that used to be open-ended, considering multiple possibilities, become battlefields between the side that is “right” and the side that is “wrong”.

In other words, narcissists are polarising. Narcissistic ways of thinking are polarising. There are no 2, 3, 4, 5 ways to legitimately think about something or solve a problem… there is just ONE WAY and then there is “everything else” which is clearly crazy and wrong.

Sooner or later there is “one established truth”. This truth is (supposedly) backed by science, or common sense, or morality or religion and everyone who does not agree with it is both crazy and dangerous to the progress and well-being of others.

(Those people who are crazy and dangerous then include established scientists, religious and moral experts and other people who simply follow the “maybe, but maybe not” ways of thinking that are common and encouraged in democracies)

And at that point, civil discourse is dead. Open debate is dead. Real progress is dead.

How Narcissism Simplifies Debates – and kills them

Where narcissistic thinking gains influence, there is no longer any distinction between well-reasoned versus different points of view. Ideas are no longer judged based on how well-researched and well-reasoned they are. They are now based on outcome and agreement only.

Where in a truly open-minded debate, you can get points for contributing a new, well-thought out perspective, in a narcissistic debate you only get points for agreeing with the ONE TRUTH.

In a narcissistic debate, there is only one right viewpoint and if you are not for it, you are by default, against it.

What’s more, everyone who is against it is thrown onto one heap. The drunk rambler is on equal footing with the researcher who spent 10 years doing research on this topic. They are in the same category because they both “deny the one truth”.

What makes this narcissistic way of thinking different from other kinds of conviction is that it conflates everyone who is “against them” as simply crazy.

In a healthy debate you might say: I strongly believe X. But when someone can lay out a clear and well-researched argument that disagrees with X, I am more likely to listen to them. However, when someone is clearly drunk and rambling or just yelling insults without any rhyme or reason, I will just dismiss them as irrelevant.

In other words, in a healthy debate, there would also be people and positions you’d dismiss. But you’d dismiss them not based on their conclusions, but based on their ways of argueing. Clearly, there are better and worse ways to present an opinion!

Yet, in a narcissistic debate, it doesn’t matter how someone arrives at their conclusions, all that matters is that they give the “right” answer. So, in a narcissistic debate, someone who yells, “4 is the only right answer, because all other numbers are idiotic!” would be welcomed (“he agrees with us, so he knows what he’s talking about!”). Also in a narcissistic debate, a math genius who walks you through 335 lines of math, to arrive at an answer of 4.2 would be laughed away as idiotic. Not because he doesn’t know math or because his answer makes no logical sense, but because his answer is “the wrong answer”.

This can create odd situations where “representatives” of “alternative viewpoints” are invited to speak, but those representatives are the worst possible representatives that could be found: they are incoherent, they yell, they can’t explain why they believe what they believe. Meanwhile, legit experts with alternative viewpoints go unheard.

Why? The narcissistic camp has already “heard” the alternative viewpoint. After all, they’ve already invited the ramblers and yellers to make a fool of the opposition. To the narcissistic way of thinking: there is no difference between the fool and the genius. All that matters is which side they are on. Or, put differently, everyone who is on the RIGHT side is by definition a genius, while everyone who is on the wrong side is a fool.

At that point everyone knows: we have to speak the ONE TRUTH and if the one truth is wrong, we have to lie to make it appear right.

And for what?

Why are Narcissists so Scared of Alternative Views?

Narcissists need and must stay in control of the conversation. They must assert the one truth over and over. Why?

  • All so that the narcissists don’t have to deal with their feelings.
  • All so that the narcissists don’t have to face the fact that there are a lot of unknowns.
  • All so that the narcissists don’t have to deal with doubt and not knowing.

In this way, narcissism is a lot more than a personality disorder.

It’s a way of thinking that gains power when people are afraid to feel their feelings. Afraid to not know.

Why Narcissists Gain Power in Uncertain Times

When there is a lot of fear, the mind will try to counter that by coming up with solid answers to cling to. Even when those answers are not as solid as they seem.

When there is a lot of fear, the narcissists will come to the rescue with their ONE SOLID TRUTH for everyone to cling to.

A crisis needs a strong leader and the narcissist will provide both the crisis and the single-minded leadership.

Ironically, it’s the narcissistic fear of not knowing and the fear of having difficult/unwanted feelings that creates crises small and large in the first place!

Narcissists are quick to panic, quick to explode, quick to overreact because they are not at home and not at ease within themselves. They are uncomfortable in their own bodies. They are afraid of their own feelings. They are in effect, constantly fighting themselves, and fighting everyone else too.

The one thing that calms them down is believing that they are right.

Even if their ONE TRUTH is inconsistent (it’s one thing today, and something else tomorrow) you must agree that they are right, both today and tomorrow.

Because for those inconsistencies too, they have a solution.

Why Narcissists Believe they are Right – Even when they Contradict Themselves

Narcissists have selective amnesia. They only remember what suits them. Much of the time, they aren’t even lying about that, they really believe it!

Or as one prime minister of a small country of tulips and windmills would say: I have no active memory, of saying that thing that was recorded on camera and broadcast nationally, so…

Or as Trump would have said: it’s all just fake news.

Narcissists don’t want diversity. They don’t want people doing and believing different things. They want everyone to be the same way, their way, the one right way.

When You Are on the Lookout for Narcissism, what you really need to look at is this:

  1. How o.k. am I with feeling all my feelings? (Note: feeling your feelings does not mean lashing out, blaming or making things someone else’s problem)
  2. Do I make time to feel my feelings? Do I make space for doubts and confusions, or do I rush on to the next thing in a flurry of rational assurances and distractions?
  3. Does not having an answer to everything scare me? Am I convinced that we MUST have answers in order to take meaningful action?
  4. How o.k. am I with not knowing things?
  5. How o.k. are the people around me with not knowing things? Or do they believe they know the one truth and that everyone else who is not onboard with that is just crazy?
  6. Am I part of respectful debate where people with very diverse opinions are being heard? Or do I know what I and everyone else is “supposed” to say, and leave it at that because it doesn’t feel worth fighting about?
  7. Do I listen to people with a different opinion only to try and better convert them to the correct perspective? Or do I truly believe there are multiple valid ways to look at something?
  8. Is there clearly a multitude of respected opinions in my social enviroment? Or are there just two camps, one of which is “everyone else” who are “all crazy”?
  9. Do the people around me value reasoning, or do they value outcomes only? In other words, do people seem to care about how you come to your conclusions, or do they not much care about how you got there, as long as you agree with what they believe?
  10. Are vulnerable feelings accepted as part and parcel of being human? Or are vulnerable feelings ridiculed as being for weak sissies?
  11. Are people in my environment supportive and understanding when others break down and cry, or do they ridicule it and shut it down a.s.a.p.? Do tears bring out empathy in others? Or do tears clearly make others very uncomfortable?

Summing Up: What We All Need to Know About Narcissism

There is a time and place for learning about The Narcissist out there. What they do, what they do to you, and how to get away. But doing too much of that can create an unhelpful illusion, that just because you can point to a bigger narcissist somewhere, you don’t have any narcissism of your own, or in your community to be concerned about.

You see, it’s really easy to overlook narcissism when you are convinced that you are on the right side of history, that you have the only valid viewpoint etc. It’s even easier to be convinced when people around you agree with you.

By upholding stories of “those terrible narcissists” we overlook the narcissism closer to home, woven into our communities. The dogma and the shaming and the closed-mindedness that cloaks itself in: I AM OPENMINDED, it’s just those stupid people over there who won’t convert to my superior viewpoints. You should go talk to them! Leave me alone! I’ve got it all figured out.

I know this article was a lot. So let me sum it up for you in one handy take-away:

Bullshit moves fast. Truth needs slow processing.

Read more on empathy versus narcissism in this collection of articles

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