The Pathological Narcissist

A person void of empathy, love or enjoyment is not someone to love

by Susan J. Elliott, J.D., M.Ed.

Copyright 2008-2018

Kernberg and Kohut are known as the “fathers” of narcissism.  As I am hard at work on my new book based on this post, I have been re-reading Dr. Kernberg and Dr. Kohut. Many of my clients have been involved with pathological narcissists and it is difficult to treat them until they understand, truly understand, what pathological narcissism is. The bottom line is that a narcissist is completely incapable of love and void of empathy. This person will never ever ever love you. Any overtures they have made that appear to be love have simply been to get you to admire them.  Yet, because they suffer from feelings of inadequacy, they actually disdain those who admire them. There is NO winning with the narcissist. 

Pathological is usually another word for personality disorder. However, personality disorder is typically established as an official diagnosis. There are many people with personality disorders who have never been diagnosed. And since you shouldn’t go around diagnosing people who don’t subject themselves to it, it’s better to use “pathological.”  

The clinical definition is a DSM Axis II personality disorder whereas pathological narcissism is more an observation. It’s a conclusion you come to in order to keep yourself safe, but no one asked you to fill out a form.  I encourage my readers and clients to observe others and draw conclusions to keep themselves safe or keep a distance after a breakup from a narcissist. I can’t tell you if your ex is someone with a personality disorder, but I can give you information so you can protect yourself from someone who is inherently incapable of loving you and acts as if he or she has a personality disorder.

So what is pathological narcissism? Dr. Kernberg posited that we are all in love with ourselves to some extent, many of us much more than others. And, also to some extent, we seek validation and approval from others.  As a young therapist, my mentor told me that there were 4 needs to be met for a person to be healthy: to love, to be loved, to have self-worth and to have others see that worth.  So having some “normal” narcissism is good. It’s good because it means we have positive self-esteem and when we have positive self-esteem, we attract others who do as well. That makes for very good relationships.  

Once our self-esteem is firmly in place, we can love, be loved, have self-worth and allow others to see that worth. All very balanced, healthy and good. A HEALTHY self-esteem leaves room for loving others. Low self-esteem does not. You cannot love another more than you love yourself.  Narcissism does not. Narcissists simply don’t love. All healthy relationships start with two people with good self-esteem. 

The pathological narcissist, though self-absorbed, does not have high self-esteem. The pathological narcissist is the epitome of the ego maniac with the inferiority complex. The narcissist brags to the world, but deep inside knows that none of it is true. They secretly feel inadequate and bolster themselves up with excessive self-admiration. They talk a good game without actually feeling any of it. 

We are all people seeking admiration to some extent from others, but a person with good self-esteem will give themselves positive feedback first. They will gravitate toward like-minded others but don’t need to be liked by everyone.   A person with good self-esteem understands that he or she will not be everyone’s cup of tea. And a person with good self-esteem will have the attitude, “What you think of me is none of my business.” where harsh criticism is concerned.  A person with good self-esteem can also take constructive criticism from trusted friends or colleagues and learn from it. They don’t believe they know everything. Constructive criticism enrages the narcissist.

The pathological narcissist is completely dependent on admiration from others. There is NO self-regard without the attention of others. There is NO constructive criticism to be received well and when harsh criticism is received, there is only slapping back, HARD. There is no attitude such as, “Who cares what you think?” Because the pathological narcissist cares DEEPLY what others think.  The pathological narcissist lives for the admiration of others and likes to trumpet it when received.

However, the pathological narcissist knows it’s a house built on shifting sand. Because the pathological narcissist KNOWS that he or she is not really worthy of admiration, they resent the very people they are dependent on for admiration.  The pathological narcissist has no empathy for his or her admirers and doesn’t really like them very much. Even though other people ONLY count if they are admirers, they don’t gain any respect or care from the narcissist. As Groucho Marx once said, “I don’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member.”  The narcissist doesn’t want to know or care about anyone who would admire him or her. 

The pathological narcissist must first be charming to his or her admirers as their admiration grows. But once the tribute is given, the narcissist is restless and bored.  I have attempted to explain to many of my clients who cannot understand where the initial charm of the narcissist has gone.  It’s gone and it’s never coming back.  Once they get you where they want you, they have lost respect for you. It’s as simple as that.  Love me love me love me (as they charm their way into your heart)…then once you say, “Wow, I love you!” they feel contempt for you as you’ve shown yourself to be a fool. 

Even if the narcissist plays the cat and mouse game later, it’s about proving they still have “it.” It’s not about really wooing you back.  It’s about proving to themselves that they are still the center of your universe.  Any follow-ups from a narcissist, just as any overtures from a narcissist, are not about you–they’re about the narcissist. 

The narcissist treats his admirers, that he courted, with public or private contempt. There are no mutual relationships in the narcissist’s world. There are no equal marriages, friendships or business relationships.  All relationships are either exploitative or parasitic.  Dr. Kernberg said that the narcissist can mask these relationships behind a surface that can seem engaging and attractive, but those close to the narcissist know there is not really a good or healthy relationship there. It’s all a sham. 

Pathological narcissists lack any kind of emotional depth.  They have quick flare-ups, but truly lack the ability to be sad or to long for anything. They are incapable of feeling wistful or melancholy.  When they are in a position where other people may feel sad, they explode in anger and express vengeful wishes.  They never express disappointment or sorrow.  You will rarely observe a happy narcissist.  They tend to be full of explosive rage that fuels their put-downs of others. There is no “emotional spectrum” for the narcissist. They know very few emotions. Their main one is anger. 

Dr. Kernberg was quick to point out that narcissists suffer from envy that causes them to try to spoil, depreciate and degrade what others have.  Because of this envy, they have little to no capacity to give and receive love. Falling in love requires a certain amount of idealization of the other. Narcissists cannot idealize another except in a surface objective kind of way.  As soon as the idealized other responds favorably to the narcissist, that person is no longer valued.  Remember the “I don’t want to belong to any club that will have me as a member” sentiment?  This is true where love is concerned. The narcissist has no respect or love for someone who will love a narcissist.  So they will then exploit the relationship, but never commit to it. 

I am writing, currently, about a male client I had who was involved with a pathological narcissist female.  She talked only about him in parts or his features, which is what a pathological narcissist does.  The person, as a whole, doesn’t exist.  The mate of a narcissist is valued or devalued based on that body part or that hair style or that ability to dress correctly. The female narcissist tends to objectify her male partner in the exact same way a male narcissist objectifies his female partner. Therefore they never have to deal with the person as a whole and can continue to deny that this person is important. Unfortunately, the mate of the narcissist has been given crumbs early on to reel them in.  Crumbs that say, “I’m important.” and spends the rest of the relationship chasing for another crumb that will never return.

Female narcissists tend to dismiss other females’ dislike of her. She will say, “Women don’t like me because men do.”  Male narcissists dismiss those who don’t like him and overemphasize friendships with people who don’t really consider him a friend in return. Many times the male narcissist is enamored of men more powerful than he and has no problem expressing admiration, hoping that the person they admire will admire back. They believe that the powerful man will return the favor, but they don’t.  In that respect, the narcissist continues to admire the more powerful man because he can’t be hoodwinked like the rest of the suckers who openly admire the narcissist. 

Neither male nor female narcissists are good at holding onto love. They don’t feel love and don’t know what it is. They don’t have soft or tender feelings. You would be hard pressed to really find a soft moment in a narcissist’s life unless they were early in a relationship and “reeling in” their lover. 

Dr. Kohut posits that narcissists vacillate between an irrational overestimation of the self and irrational feelings of inferiority. Like Kornberg, Kohut stated the dilemma of the narcissist: relying on others for admiration while despising those who admire him or her. 

Kohut stated, “Threats directed toward the self and associated feelings of shame often elicit narcissistic rage as a type of premeditated retaliation against a perceived injurious force, as in another person.  The subconscious mentality is as follows: defeat the enemy before it defeats you, before it destroys your delusion of the perfection and limitlessness of the power and knowledge of a grandiose self.” 

The narcissist is incapable of love, empathy or enjoyment. There is very little, outside of being admired, that they truly like to do, that makes them “happy.”  As a result, the narcissist can be ruthless, cold, and hateful. Very little enjoyment is obtained from life other than the tributes received or from grandiose fantasies

The tragedy of the narcissist is how desperate they are for admiration but completely unable to receive it in a healthy way. The admiration is taken for weakness and they disregard those who give them the support they crave. 

For all my clients who have found themselves involved with a narcissist: abandon hope all ye who enter here.  Where narcissists are concerned, you will never ever have a normal, healthy relationship. They are incapable of it, both with themselves and with others.  Learn to recognize that once the crumbs are gone, they are gone…and you should be too. 



Copyright 2007-2017 Susan J. Elliott, J.D., M.Ed.
All Rights Reserved No Duplication is Allowed Without Explicit Permission of the Author

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