The Pathological Narcissist Who Can’t Really Love
by Susan J. Elliott, J.D., M.Ed.
Author, Attorney, Podcaster, Media Commentator, Motivational Speaker, and Creator of the World's Most Successful Breakup Program.
- Getting Past Your Breakup: How To Turn A Devastating Loss Into The Best Thing That Ever Happened To You (Hachette Book Group 2009)
- Getting Back Out There: Secrets to Successful Dating and Finding Real Love After the Big Breakup (Hachette Book Group 2015)
- Getting Past Your Past Workbook: The Definitive Workbook to Emotional Healing, Health and Happiness (La Bella Vita Publishing 2012)
- GPYP Power! Affirmations (La Bella Vita Publishing 2019)
This is an edited version of an article that was published, once upon a time, in Psychology Today. This article is mostly about the classic narcissist, with only a few references to the covert narcissist. The covert narcissist will be covered in other articles.
The Pathological Narcissist
A person void of empathy, affection or
enjoyment is not someone to love – Susan J. Elliott, J.D., M.Ed.
Drs. Kernberg and Kohut are known as the “fathers” of narcissism. Because so many of my clients have been involved with narcissists, I have been re-reading Dr. Kernberg and Dr. Kohut. I was married, the first time, to an overt narcissist who gaslighted me (see my video on gaslighting HERE) and abused me in many ways, all the while blaming it on me (one of my articles about the disordered behavior in my first marriage, is HERE).
I spent years in therapy recovering from the trauma and I have spent years, first as a graduate student and then as a psychiatric clinician, therapist and attorney, learning everything I could about personality disorders. I subscribe to multiple academic databases, both in psychology and the law and receive many journals each month from various psychological resources and ABA resources. I am always updating my research.
My biological parents were both narcissists and my adoptive mother had borderline personality disorder. Unfortunately I know personality disorders entirely too well from all sides.
As a survivor of narcissistic abuse and someone who has spent decades researching it, I have attracted a large percentage of clients who have been involved with pathological narcissists. It is difficult to treat them until they understand, truly understand, what pathological narcissism is. GPYB is a program of observation, preparation and cultivation. (To understand the steps of the program, go HERE).
All you will ever need to know is that a narcissist is completely incapable of love and caring. They pretend and they act in the beginning of the relationship, but it’s what they mirror is expected. They are simply acting out how they think they are supposed to look when falling in love.
The truth is that a narcissist has not loved you and will never 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. It sounds crazy because it is crazy. If you’re a normal person, it is hard to wrap your head around it. But once you read below, you might have a better grasp of it and be able to protect yourself from these people.
Another article that goes into this more is 8 Traits Almost Every Narcissist Has or Why Some People Can’t Love. (just click on the title and it will come up). You can also search GPYB videos and Mean Lady Talking podcasts on the YouTube channel for the many podcasts and videos I’ve done on narcissists:
Now that I’ve told you all you need to know as well as some additonal resources, I’ll now tell you what you may want to know:
Pathological versus Diagnosis
Pathological is usually another word for mental disorder or 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: Narcissistic Personality Disorder. (2020 Note: DSM V no longer uses the axes model but I find it easier to explain it to non-psychologists in the axis way. A mental disorder like depression or anxiety was listed on Axis I, personality disorders were listed on Axis II. When you discussed “an Axis II situation,” another clinician knew you were talking personality disorder which is very different than a personality disorder).
Calling it pathological narcissism is more a conclusion you come to after careful observation of the person and how you feel around them (again, see that gaslighting video for more about that “what the heck is going on?” feeling. It’s a conclusion you come to in order to keep yourself safe, but no one asked you to fill out a form. People have often said that true narcissism – Narcissistic Personality Disorder is rare because it’s .5 or 1 percent of the population. The population of the US is 325 million so 1 percent is a lot of people and I don’t consider that amount of people, “rare.” I also keep a small therapy practice and yet most of my clients have disordered exes. I see the damage they do and I know it can be very severe and have long-lasting effects on people. Therefore, I will continue to talk about it and write about it so more people are fully aware of what NPD is and what pathological narcissism is and what damage it does.
These exes were never diagnosed officially but once we start talking about, their pathological narcissism becomes crystal clear. I also gauge someone’s narcissism by how their ex partners have felt leaving the relationship. Usually their head is spinning and they don’t know down from up. It takes a long time for them to sort it all out. A GPYB saying is that water seeks its own level and I can tell if someone is abusive or disordered or addicted or whatever by speaking to their partner or ex-partner. These relationships have patterns and the “victim” in the relationship usually has a very discernable pattern of thinking, feeling and behaving after years of being with someone who has treated them so terribly. That tells more of a story than speaking to the person directly.
Although many people think the term narcissism is overused (and on a podcast I recount a story of a trial I sat through in Family Court where the litigant ex-wife started screaming that her ex was a narcissist. I didn’t see it AT ALL and I can usually spot them at 50 paces. I had sat through 3 weeks of this trial and listened to all the testimony and I thought that if anyone was personality disordered, it was her.
I realize that the old dictum, “When all you have is hammer, everything looks like a nail,” can be applied people’s declaration of others’ narcissism, but honestly I have more than a hammer. I’m an attorney, a therapist, a former psychiatric clinician and a former victim of an abusive narcissist. I know lots of terms and disorders. I only come to rest on narcissism when appropriate. I honestly can understand how people come to think that the term is overused, and perhaps it is, but some days – especially when I’m working almost exclusively with Family Law attorneys, I don’t think it’s used ENOUGH.
People will often say, “Oh you can’t diagnose someone else!” or something along those lines, but you also can’t go through life ignoring people’s deeply disturbed psychological profiles, especially when you are being victimized by them. Therefore, 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 definitively diagnosis someone with a personality disorder via a third party, but I can give you my opinion as well as information to protect yourself from someone who is inherently incapable of loving you because he or she acts as if they have a personality disorder. Also remember there is a scale of narcissism and everyone falls somewhere along the lines.
There Is Healthy Narcissism
All of us are narcissistic to some degree. If we have healthy self-esteem, that is healthy narcissism. On one side of the narcissism spectrum is healthy self-esteem, on the other side is personality disorder (unhealthy or malignant narcissism).
We are all people seeking admiration to some extent, but a person with good self-esteem will give themselves positive feedback before seeking it from others. A person with good self-esteem will gravitate toward like-minded others but doesn’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 where overly harsh or undue criticism is concerned, a person with good self-esteem will have the attitude, “What you think of me is none of my business.” A person with good self-esteem can take constructive criticism from trusted friends or colleagues and learn from it. A person with good self-esteem isn’t above hearing good, honest, reflective feedback from those who care.
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 to be psychological healthy, a person had 4 needs to be met:
to be loved,
to have self-worth and
to have others see that worth.
To have these needs met, we need healthy narcissism or good self-esteem. 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. This is a very balanced, healthy and good psychological state. HEALTHY self-esteem leaves room for loving others. Low self-esteem does not. You cannot love another more than you love yourself. All healthy relationships require two people with good self-esteem. Otherwise, it is simply not possible.
What is Pathological Narcissism?
A person with low self-esteem is not necessarily narcissistic, but they struggle to have healthy relationships as they inherently believe they don’t deserve them. As the GPYB program teaches, it is possible to raise your self-esteem through affirmations, positive self-talk and crafting a life that celebrates positivity. The GPYB program teaches Power! Affirmations and it is devoted to creating a life of positive abundance. The Power! Affirmations booklet is available on this website. For instant download go HERE.)
As a person falls down the self-esteem scale, they veer in the waters of pathological narcissism. They might not fit all the criteria of NPD, but they have many of the traits. Pathological narcissism is about negativity. It does not involve loving others. Narcissists simply don’t love. A person with healthy self-esteem can take constructive criticism, a narcissist cannot. The narcissist is enraged by criticism, constructive or not. The classic narcissist will boom and shout in response, often turning the critique back onto the other person. The covert narcissist will sit and stew, often plotting some kind of revenge for this feedback.
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. The covert narcissist (a subtype of the classic narcissist) doesn’t even talk a good game. They simply sit and secretly envy everyone and everything, including the classic narcissist who can be the center of attention, the life of the party, the boisterous charmer, the fun guy or gal who attracts others. The covert narcissist comes off as the seemingly quiet, reserved, nice guy/gal although they are sitting there seething behind the cursory smiles.
The pathological narcissist is completely dependent on admiration from others and likes to trumpet it when received. 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. The pathological narcissist will often revert to childlike, bullying behavior that includes name calling and ridiculous amounts of public shaming of the person who dared show a chink in the armor of the narcissist. An intimate partner will often be brutalized for a comment or even a passing suggestion for improvement.
Unlike a person with good self-esteem, the narcissist has no internal attitude such as, “Who cares what you think?” Because the pathological narcissist cares DEEPLY what others think. 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 classic narcissist must first be charming to his or her admirers as their admiration grows. The covert narcissist is the quiet one that people tend to like – shy, withdrawn, somewhat child-like. But once the tribute is given, the classic narcissist is restless and bored, often turning into a negative, impossible-to-please person who picks at their partner’s every move or suggestion. 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. The narcissist shouts: Love me love me love me (as they charm their way into your heart)…then once you say, “YES! Yes, of course I love you!” they feel contempt for you as you’ve shown yourself to be a fool. You are well on your way to being discarded. You are no longer wanted or needed. For now.
Later, as the narcissist feels the admiration supply being depleted (there’s no one new around to shower love and attention on them), they may circle back to you…they first appear to want to compliment YOU, woo YOU, shower YOU with compliments and sentimental overtones, but it’s just a ploy to get you to give back to the narcissist. 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 once courted with excessive compliments and gift-giving (called “love bombing”), with public or private contempt. There are no mutual relationships or equal marriages, friendships or business relationships in the narcissist’s world. 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. They not only fool the world as to who they are, but how well they conduct their relationships. Those once close to the narcissist know there is not really a good or healthy relationship there. It’s all a sham.
Pathological Narcissists Lack Emotional Depth
There is no “emotional spectrum” for the narcissist. The emotions known to narcissists are mostly shame, envy and anger. They truly lack the ability to be sad or to long for anything. They are incapable of feeling wistful or melancholy. They never express disappointment or sorrow and often seem annoyed, and occasionally enraged, at othe people’s sadness. The classic narcissist has no ability to feel empathy toward another and, when put in a position where they are expected to express empathy, they either pretend to be empathic or they become angry. When a person has known a narcissist a while and their sadness is met with anger, the person becomes very confused. Not knowing they are dealing with a narcissist, incapable of empathy, the exchange tends to rattle a person. Normal people can’t comprehend this kind of response to someone’s sadness or sorrow.
You will rarely observe a happy narcissist. While they may have a good time for a while (at a party where they are the center of attention), it is not the usual emotional state. They tend to be angry much of the time. They appear full of explosive rage that fuels their put-downs of others. A covert narcissist does not express his or her anger. A covert narcissist keeps it all inside, smiling away, but doing a “slow burn” inside. (This will be covered in other articles). They are often bullies and act like children on the playground – taunting and teasing. They can be brutal to others, especially when they detect weakness. They will always move in for the kill and not exhibit mercy.
Dr. Kohut stated that narcissistic rage comes from an uncompromising insistence that the intimate partner (the “Other”) be perfect. The Other is not an autonomous being to the narcissist, but merely a reflection of the narcissist who demands a perfect reflection. Any amount of veering from that perfection is seen as a slight, an injury TO the narcissist, even when the Other has no clue what form of perfection the narcissist is demanding. The Other should also be a good mind reader.
The narcissist is a shame-based, overly sensitive, childish fanatic who sees every imperfection in the Other as an offense to the narcissist. That offense must be met with revenge or a tick on the “things done to the narcissist” list. The narcissist never forgets, very often carrying a laundry list of past injustices and slights. The list, when cobbled together, adds up to the many things the Other has done to purposely (hurt, anger, ridicule, shame, betray etc.) the narcissist. Because the narcissist sees the laundry list items done on purpose, the Other is blamed, gaslighted and seen as the dreaded enemy of the good. If only the Other would behave. All would be fine. But the Other doesn’t behave (they never do!) Therefore, things will never be fine.
The narcissist is also deeply suspicious. People who aren’t trustworthy don’t trust others. People who lie (as narcissists often do – as their entire existence is a lie in some respects) don’t believe others. People who have a hidden dark side assume everyone else does too. The narcissist knows his or her dark personality exists beneath whatever movie is playing on the outside. Therefore they suspect everyone has this side. They blame others for their unhappiness and assume you’re blaming them for yours. So they must strike first. Unfortunately the partner is often unsuspecting of all this because they are not harboring a dark personality or being unhappy or blaming anyone for any unhappiness that does exist. Unlike the narcissist, they are not playing emotional Three-card Monty with their mate. Most often, they are exactly who they are, and they are not suspecting the narcissist of having a dark side because THEY don’t have a dark side. The two are in completely different relationships that bear absolutely no resemblance to each other or to reality.
The shame-based narcissist suspects that any slight by the partner is purposeful and any trangression or normal, human error was clearly made to make the narcissist upset. The classic narcissist then responds to the perceived, purposeful injuries with rage. Grandiosity is the main feature of narcissism and this grandiosity leads to many uncompromisingly ridiculous positions shouted about on a regular basis by the classic narcissist or spewed forth (usually toward a completely unsuspecting, shocked partner) by a covert narcissist on the way out the door.
The classic narcissist will bellow about the injuries on a regular “grind down your version of reality” basis. The covert narcissist will most likely sit silently nursing a grudge until the day comes when the laundry list is too long for them to bear, and they fly out the door (or they become a primary psychopath and murder the Other).
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 and even who they are. The classic narcissist will openly insult and degrade others. They may be saying it to shore themselves up or saying it to shore YOU up (as the partner of the narcissist you have to have value otherwise he or she has no value). The narcissist may insult someone comparable to you (in age, gender, occupation etc…someone in the range that could be the narcissist’s potential partner) to give YOU status and therefore they give themselves status. The higher up you are at certain times, the higher up the narcissist is. All those compliments the narcissist paid you have nothing to do with you. It’s either a part of love-bombing to reel you in, or part of their own tribute to their own ego. The narcissist says: Look, (he or she) is x, y, and z (fabulous things) and because they’re with me, I must be fabulous too.
Narcissists have few emotions but one that they feel very strongly is envy and this encompassing envy prevents them from being able to love or to 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.
For another article, I am writing 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.
A Narcissist Can’t Love
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. But even then they are playing a part. They are mirroring what they think love is supposed to look like. All the world is a stage….
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 classic narcissist can be ruthless, cold, and hateful. Very little enjoyment is obtained from life other than the tributes received or from grandiose fantasies. The covert narcissist is much better at pretending that everything is okay, though their front is completely false and their smile is completely painted on. Observing others having a good time will often lead a narcissist to either overtake the gathering (life of the party) or bring it to ruination (party pooper). The narcissist will often undermine what could have been a pretty nice time. They seem to go out of their way sometimes to make others miserable. But when others are miserable, they will blame it on everyone and everything else – very often the partner they have worked to make miserable. Somehow, some way, the partner is to blame for the misery the narcissist has caused. The blame comes about through gaslighting, projection and denial. It’s often completely pointless to try to argue against it. There is no winning and it’s crazy making.
What To Do If Your Mate Is A Narcissist
It is very easy for someone to say, “Heed all the words above and abandon all hope. They are hopelessly disordered.” It is hard, however, for anyone to hear that. It’s hard for normal people to understand a person who can’t love those who love them. But they are playing a part. They are mirroring what they “think” love should look and sound like. They are truly incapable of loving or of feeling the normal range of emotions: love, grief, enjoyment, sadness, sorrow, empathy etc.
They can feel anger, envy, shame and emptiness and that’s about IT. They don’t know that they are not the same as others. They are not like the characters in the Wizard of Oz who know they’re missing a heart, courage or a brain. Narcissists have no clue how out of the norm they are.
The tragedy of the narcissist is how desperate they are for admiration but completely unable to receive it in a healthy way. They crave admiration and then despise the very people who give it. The admiration is taken for weakness and they disregard those who give them the support they crave. Don’t fall into the trap of feeling sorry for the narcissist. You cannot love him or her into normalcy. They will never, ever, ever be grateful for what you have done for them or given to them. The dilemma is that if you love a narcissist, the narcissist thinks you are a fool. You will never ever ever win. You’re never going to make it work. It’s hard to understand…if you’re a normal person you will never be able to wrap your brain around the inner workings of the narcissist, but it’s important that you accept it. Let the relationship go. There is no future there.
For all my clients who have found themselves involved with a narcissist, I tell them 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. It’s unfortunate to realize there is no other answer. A GPYB truism is that every situation has only 3 options available, “Accept it, change it or leave.” If you apply that to a relationship with a narcissist, the choice is clear. Accept it? No. You should not accept such a demeaning relationship where you will always be scapegoated and gaslighted. Change it? No. Any attempts to change it will be utterly futile.
There is one option left: LEAVE.
Recovery from a relationship with a narcissist takes time and work. It requires rebuilding your self-esteem and understanding how to recognize the personality disordered in the future. It requires RUNNING when someone seems charming and viewing early, excessive compliments and expressions of affection with suspicion. It takes not being wow’d too early on. Everyone wants to believe they’ve found someone wonderful who truly cares, but understanding if that is real or not takes time. Use the time wisely. Don’t rush into relationships with seemingly wonderful people. Allow time to find out if they really are wonderful or not.
Use the GPYB program to go through the relationship and figuring it all out. Use the program to build back your self-esteem, work on your observation skills and grieve the relationship you thought you had. I’ve worked with the former partners of the personality-disordered for over 25 years and I can tell you, absolutely, the program works to restore your sanity and put you on the road of recovery. As I tell all my clients and boot campers: YOU CAN DO THIS! Because you can. Best of luck to you!
Copyright Susan J. Elliott, J.D., M.Ed.
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