Who are you? Do you have value? Who gets to answer those questions? For a narcissist, other people are responsible to answer these questions.
Narcissism is a commitment to gaining your sense of identity and worth from other people. But it’s not so much a conscious commitment; it’s your reality. It’s the way you assume life is. It’s what you see and therefore the only way you know to see. You have an image of identity and worth inside, but it’s only a facade. There’s no substance to it. You have a grandiose snapshot of who you want to be seen as, but you have no capacity to internally produce any depth or substance for the image.
You are completely dependent on those around you to prop up the image. This is the value other people add to your life. They feed your image. They support the facade of substance where there is none. So narcissism positions you in relationship to use people. You take but don’t give. When you give it’s a manipulation so you can get. You don’t see other people as people you affect. You see other people as the source of your image of identity and worth. You need to see yourself a certain way and you can only do this if others act as if they see you that way. You need to see yourself as strong, as competent, as intelligent, as spiritual, as respected, as successful, as included, as beautiful…
This makes you un-confrontable. You teach those around you to not give feedback about how you actually affect them if that feedback is incongruent with the image you need them to support. You teach them through control and punishment, through manipulation. You get defensive. Maybe you bully them. Maybe you charm them. Maybe you’re brilliant with reason and can convince them they’ve got it all wrong. Maybe you’ve always got a way to say “that wasn’t what I meant at all” to dismiss their experience of you. Maybe you’re a martyr and can play the “woe is me” card accompanied by dramatic emotion that shuts them down. After all, when they’re trying to encourage a specific adjustment in how you treat them and you respond as if they’re claiming you’re the devil incarnate (which isn’t what they’re saying at all), they quickly learn it just isn’t productive to give you real feedback, helpful information about how they experience you and what they need from you in the relationship.
You don’t know who you are or what you’re worth or where that comes from. But you do have an internal picture of how you’d like other people to see you, how you’d like to see yourself. When other people give you feedback that supports this image, it allows you to remain convinced that this is the real you. No one is genuinely welcome to give you any other feedback. The role of everyone around you is to support the image. If they don’t, they get punished. Those who stick around learn to play by these rules. Those who aren’t willing don’t stick around.
For more from our 10 part series on narcissism, check back next week or read previous posts: