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A MECHANISM FOR NARCISSISM – PART 2
(A note to readers: This is the third piece on narcissism and the second one describing the proposed mechanism behind it. Apart from describing the mechanism, which is simple and straightforward, it also discusses behaviors that derive from the mechanism and support it.
The next article (or two) will focus on social and geopolitical issues. Also, there will be an article on sexuality and identity in the near future. Don’t miss that one! ;)
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At the beginning of the previous article, three “themes” were specified which would explain virtually all observed symptoms of narcissism. Those were misjudgment, dependence on others, and a need to control the environment. The first two have already been discussed, and it’s time to take a look at the last one; the narcissist’s need to control the environment, particularly other people. This one should be seen as an effect and the other two as causes. The need to control others is a direct result of the two traits discussed previously, and the essence of narcissistic behavior and its effect on other people.
To explain how this need for control works, and how the two traits cause it, an explanatory mechanism is suggested.
The basic mechanism
As previously discussed, lack of self-consciousness creates a perception or definition of self which has three main properties:
The definition of self is heavily influenced by others.
The self is “fluid” – i.e. there is poor correction mechanism for the self, and correction is dependent on others.
The definition of self is unrealistically positive.
This results in a “model of self” - which defines both self-perception and the perception of others. The model must always be maintained in such a way that self-perception remains high in relation to others.
The basic internal narcissistic mechanism essentially has two main components: the maintenance of this model, and how emotional factors are involved in its maintenance. The two traits thus come together and form the narcissistic behavior pattern. This can be described in the following sequential fashion:
Mainly caused by low self-consciousness:
The narcissist has developed an internal model of self and others.
This model is unsustainable under normal conditions.
The model is unsustainable because it is simply wrong. It is wrong about the narcissist and wrong about other people.
Because the model is wrong, it lacks robustness against the environment. It is inherently fragile.
Because it is wrong, it will constantly clash with reality (mostly other people).
Because the model has been emotionally internalized, it must be protected from reality - constantly and at all cost.
Mainly caused by emotional factors:
The incorrect internal model will take on very strong emotional properties. Self-perception is intensely connected to emotions – negative and positive.
Any value or belief system which is connected to the high sense of self will become a part of the internal model, and will be intensely connected to emotions much like the sense of self.
Any outside stimulus which moves the model up or down will result in a very strong emotional response.
When the model is reinforced (self-perception moved upward), it will result in what is basically an emotional “high.”
When the model is challenged (self-perception moved downward), it will result in an emotional low – even an emotional crash.
This will create what can be described as addiction. The narcissist will seek reinforcement of his model to get the emotional high, using whatever tools he has. This will become compulsive and tends to escalate over time.
This will also result in elaborate defensive tactics to prevent challenge to the model – to avoid the emotional crash.
In other words: the incorrect internal model will take on such emotional properties that its maintenance and defense will create a state of emotional dependence which is similar to drug addiction. This means that the reinforcement-seeking behavior becomes compulsive, like the next fix for a drug addict. This dependence is not figurative – it is a real chemical dependence based on real neurotransmitters (rather than drugs which simulate neurotransmitters).
The narcissist’s behavior has two main goals; to receive reinforcement for the model (emotional high) and to avoid challenge to the model (emotional crash). For this he has two “tactical sets” of behaviors – which are basically tool sets of sorts. One set is designed to affirm or elevate the self and reinforce the model; the other one is designed to protect the model from challenges. The use of these tools differs between narcissists, mainly depending on how far out on the distribution of the two traits they are. That will be discussed later.
The narcissist’s tool sets
So far this theory has endeavored to explain the causes and motivations for narcissistic behavior. Now it’s the time to discuss the behavior itself and its specific aims. As previously stated the behavior is motivated by either the reinforcement of the narcissist’s model of self or the defense of the model. Reinforcement tends to seek either affirmation that the model is right, or elevation – i.e. that the unrealistic self-image may actually be underestimated after all, and the narcissist may actually be even more awesome (smarter or more virtuous) than he already thinks.
Thinking about narcissistic behavior as a tool set is useful because that is exactly what narcissistic behavior is. It is very standardized and similar between narcissists, and each tool has a specific purpose. If you understand the tools, you will almost always be able to identify a narcissist and figure out what he is trying to do.
‘The reinforcement of the model’ tool set
All the tools in the reinforcement box are “active” in the sense that they involve relatively direct measures against other people. Their purpose is to get the emotional fix from the reinforcement of the model of self. This is done by seeking affirmation that the model is correct – or outright elevation of the model. This can be approval, admiration, simple complements, and outright adulation. A narcissist will always feel warm and fuzzy when he gets a compliment. That warm and fuzzy feeling is the chemical reinforcement associated with the reinforcement of the model. People on the other end of the two traits (inward orientation/low emotional salience) do not experience significant physiological effects from being complimented, and may even feel embarrassed.
Note that the list below is not complete – there are many other things narcissists can do – but these are the most common. Also keep in mind that some of the tools are complicated – as well as how they are used. Each one only has a short description which barely scratches the surface.
Rationalization – This is a tool which the narcissist employs toward himself, but has major effect on how he treats others. It is in fact the process which enables the narcissist to treat others badly without experiencing guilt. Contempt for others is a direct result of this process.
Everybody rationalizes to escape their own conscience, but the narcissist has very impressive powers of rationalization. His low self-consciousness and emotional addiction create almost unending capacity for rationalizing. The greater the ability for rationalizing, the more misdeeds toward others he can justify to himself.
Rationalization is a very strong component in narcissism. The extreme need for rationalizing would not be there if narcissists had significant “amoral” psychopathic traits. They do have a conscience, which is what makes rationalization so important to them.
Rationalization is not just a direct result of low self-consciousness and emotional neediness. It can be cultivated and honed, like any other skill. A narcissist will practice rationalizations like chess players practice position strategies. He will think them through constantly, add to them, and make them bulletproof. His self depends on the power and thoroughness of his rationalization constructs.
It is important to realize that this process is not just some standard mental process like any other. It is an extremely powerful process which can result in a mindset which is hard to distinguish from classical psychopathy. A hardcore and “evolved” narcissist can do incredible things to affirm or prop up his model of self. He can even convince himself he is doing humanity a favor by carrying out genocide – even on his own people – and may actually carry it out if he has the chance.
Empathy – It can be said that empathy is a “pure” tool. It is an ability which can be used for good as well as evil – depending on the person. Empathy, at least the way it is traditionally defined, is a “composite” ability derived from both the causal traits (inward/outward and emotional salience). An outward oriented person can read cues in the environment and other people, including emotional states. If the person is also highly aware of his own emotions, he can extrapolate that understanding to the other person. He can therefore both detect emotional states and understand them. He can basically, on some level, feel what others are feeling.
This is an extremely powerful tool to approach and manipulate other people. It is often the “opening” tool, by which a narcissist can sink his hooks into a new victim. That is ironic, because in the hands of a good and compassionate person this tool can be used very effectively to help others. That is, unfortunately, less common. Like most other skills, empathy can be developed and trained to a very high level, even by people who are not natural empaths. Many people, including mentalists and various types of con artists, practice their empathic skills systematically with impressive results.
Manipulation – This is a collective term for a variety of techniques to get people to do what you want them to do. Manipulation can have many objectives, but two are the most common. Firstly, it is used as a demonstration of power over another person to affirm or elevate the internal model of self. The fact that the narcissist can do this means that he is superior (usually intellectually) and the manipulated person is inferior. The success of a manipulation brings an emotional high which increases the frequency of the manipulative behavior in the future. Also, pushing other people down creates a “differential” between the narcissist and the other person – i.e. pushing someone else down pushes the narcissist up. The second common objective of manipulation is to do the groundwork for brainwashing a person with the aim of total control over him or her.
The frequency of manipulation differs a lot between narcissists. Some use it a lot while others use it less often. The reason for the difference seems to be raw skill at manipulation, which is most likely determined by the narcissist’s empathic skills and intelligence. Some narcissists simply aren’t good manipulators – and they tend to use other and more direct methods.
Brainwashing – Similar to manipulation, brainwashing is a collective term describing a variety of techniques ranging from the very subtle to the brutally violent. Brainwashing is both a tool for controlling and emotionally leeching off other people, and a goal in itself. The goal of brainwashing for a narcissist is to turn others into malleable puppets he can lord over and control. A person like that can provide an unending supply of emotional reinforcement for the narcissist. Narcissists always try to brainwash others around them to a lesser or a greater degree, although they are not all skilled at it. It can be said that the ultimate goal for most narcissists is to brainwash others, including spouses, children, friends, and people in general – for control and emotional reinforcement of the self.
Narcissists often select “pre-brainwashed” or “pre-broken” spouses that can be controlled and molded more easily. Narcissistic men often pick insecure women with already broken self, and female narcissists often pick emotionally damaged men, or men who are extreme “beta-males” and content to live on their knees.
It is ironic that narcissists are the group of people which is the easiest of all to brainwash. Their incorrect model of self is essentially, to a large degree, based on self-brainwashing. They can also be easily brainwashed by others using simple but subtle brainwashing techniques. You will rarely encounter a narcissist who hasn’t been brainwashed, often to a very significant degree. This is a very interesting issue, but discussing it further would require an article of its own.
Gaslighting – This is a particular manipulation technique used for the same purpose as manipulation in general. It is, however, most commonly used by hardcore manipulative narcissists to break others down to “forcibly” brainwash them – usually a spouse. There are many brainwashing techniques, but some of them involve the violent breakdown or “fracturing” of the self of the victim. When the victim’s self has been fractured, a new person/self can be created out of the ruins of the old self. This is a very potent expression of power for a narcissist.
Direct oppression – This method involves the use of force to put other people down to create a “differential” between the narcissist and them and to gain control over them. This will result in people becoming “bad” or “stupid” from the narcissist’s point of view, thereby automatically elevating and/or affirming the narcissist’s model of self through advantageous comparison.
Oppressive methods are mainly used by narcissists who are less skilled at manipulation, although all narcissists use them to greater or lesser extent. Oppression is more ham-fisted than manipulation and less subtle. Narcissists tend to fall into two categories based on their emphasis on oppressive vs manipulative methods. Those categories can be described as “manipulative narcissists” and “oppressive narcissists.”
The methods used in direct oppression are usually constant berating, shaming, and violent emotional outbursts directed at the victim – who can be a spouse, child, family member, friend, or people in general. A very common method is for the narcissist to set some kind of boundaries for others. The victim’s violation of the boundaries is then punished by degrading him or her as a stupid or bad person. If the victim relents and doesn’t violate these boundaries, control has been established which is akin to brainwashing. This is common in relationships where a narcissist forces a spouse to submit to his or her boundaries. The spouse will either rebel and leave the relationship or decide to be assimilated to keep it going. This can result in massive changes in attitudes and personality in the assimilated spouse.
The boundaries set by the narcissist usually contain something “taboo” which the victim cannot violate. This can, for example, be certain behaviors, certain opinions or certain words. Behaving in the taboo way, expressing the taboo opinions or using the taboo words will be punished in a violent and emotional manner, usually by shaming, derision, screaming or a “silent treatment” to name a few. This behavior is very common in relationships where narcissists are involved.
Virtue signaling – “I want you to know that I’m a good person and, in fact, better than you” is the message of virtue signaling. It involves activities which are associated with current standards of “moral virtue” and are highly visible to others. This is an extremely common way to elevate or affirm the model of self. It can almost become a self-affirming process, a self-soothing behavior of sorts, where the narcissist creates a “rationalization package” which he then acts on. This means that the virtuous behavior becomes reassuring for the internal model of self in almost ritualistic fashion. Because of the rationalization component, virtue signaling will affirm the model of self even without feedback from others. Still, positive feedback from others is the main objective of signaling virtue. The narcissist looks for confirmation of his (usually moral) superiority, approval and, if at all possible, adulation.
The internet has proven to be a boon to narcissists, providing a new and effective tool for large scale approval through virtue signaling. Narcissists have flocked to social media for any kind of approval and a large part of Instagram and Facebook posts seem to signal some kind of virtue. Not all attention-seeking can be classified as virtue signaling though.
Groupies and disciples – Narcissists, particularly the manipulative types, often try to assemble a group of “disciples” who look up to them. Those disciples are usually young and immature, even teenagers, which ensures the narcissist’s intellectual superiority or moral authority. The narcissist then uses the group for elevation of his model of self, and as a source of emotional fixes. It is very much like a vampire repeatedly feeding off a captive group of humans. This is very common in schools, particularly universities, where narcissistic professors assemble and cultivate naïve students who worship them for their “intellectual brilliance.”
Cults generally serve the same purpose, although on a larger scale. Cult leaders tend to be highly intelligent manipulative narcissists with extremely high emotional needs.
Power positioning – This is similar to the “groupies and disciples” tool, except that it applies to jobs and careers. Narcissists tend to seek out careers where they are in a position of power in relation to others. This particularly applies to careers where performance is hard to evaluate. The purpose is to set up a permanent system where the narcissist constantly reinforces his model of self through respect, obedience and adulation of others, while being able to interfere with their lives and manipulate them. For this reason narcissists are massively overrepresented in certain professions. Those include, for example, teachers, clinical psychologists, social workers, politicians and bureaucrats.
‘The defense of the model’ tool set
Defensive strategies are extremely important to narcissists because the stakes are very high. When the model of self is challenged, it is the core self that is being attacked. Because of the extreme connection between the model of self and emotions, attacks, challenges or criticisms directed at the model become personal and risk an emotional crash if they manage to lower the perception of self.
This means that narcissists, particularly those with poor rationalization skills, will experience emotional problems relatively frequently. It can be said that a huge majority of narcissists will suffer anxiety and associated depression from time to time or even constantly. The massive increase in the number of narcissists with their false models of self explains to a large degree the increase in emotional problems in the West. This theory directly predicts this increase.
To prevent this from happening, narcissists have defensive strategies which are relatively standardized and easy to spot. These strategies involve both avoidance behavior and extreme responses to challenges. Several of them are discussed below. The list is far from complete.
Rationalization – As in the reinforcement tool set, rationalization is a key tool. However, here its purpose is different. Here it is not used to excuse bad conduct toward others and to protect the conscience, but to justify challenges and personal failure. If the narcissist is challenged or suffers a failure, particularly connected to his model of self, the reason must be external. It can’t be because of an incorrect model of self, because that would result in an emotional “down” or an emotional crash. Elaborate rationalization strategies are therefore created to excuse any setback, irrational opinion, or failure. The goal of the strategies is to bulletproof the narcissist against reality by any means necessary.
Safe spaces and hiding – If a narcissist is exposed to a hostile environment where he is challenged, he will often retreat to a safer environment to protect his model of self and to avoid the resulting emotional turmoil. Narcissists will often cultivate and join groups of similarly minded people to seek shelter from reality and for mutual affirmation. Narcissists’ circles of friends sometimes almost function as self-help therapy groups. They are peaceful islands of mutual delusion in the hostile sea of reality.
Narcissists also tend to hide from the negative consequences of their actions to protect their model of self. When their failure comes to light, they are nowhere to be found. This is very common with narcissistic politicians. When a scandal erupts, they disappear. They are sick, on a preplanned trip, or just gone. Disappearing in the face of failure is a relatively sure sign of a narcissist.
Persecution theories and victim status – Repeated personal failures or repeated severe criticisms are often handled with a rationalization mechanism. Since failures can’t be blamed on the narcissist and his model, and they happen again and again, the reason must be both external and systematic. Repeated failures must be caused by constant and systematic targeting from others – that is the only way to explain the failures and their frequent occurrence. In response, the rationalization mechanism creates theories of systematic targeting and oppression by others. Those others can be individuals, groups of people, organizations, an entire gender, a race of people, entire countries, or theoretical constructs such as the “patriarchy.”
The persecution explanation is subsequently flipped on its head and used as a virtue. The narcissist is now a hero, fighting the oppression the rationalization mechanism conjured up. This virtue then becomes an identity, such as “warrior for social justice” or something like that. The beauty of this oppressive identity is that failure and criticism can now be used to elevate and affirm it. Failure becomes a sign of success. This is an extraordinary feat of rationalization and mental gymnastics – all with the purpose of protecting the self.
Hatred of others and attribution of evil – A narcissist, because of his high emotional salience, will experience strong emotions when challenged. These emotions can be embarrassment, shame or outright shock. Those emotions are very bad for the model of self, and are therefore instantly redirected toward anger – because “it can’t be me, it must be them.” In the face of repeated challenges, anger is then made permanent in the form of hate. This is a result of a rationalization mechanism which works like this: “My emotions are damaging my self. It makes me angry at others which I then transform into hate directed at them. Because the reason I hate them cannot come from me, it must come from them. I therefore hate them because of who they are and what they do. They do what they do because they are evil, which they must be, because why would I hate them otherwise? Evil people who deserve to be hated simply can’t be right, and my self is therefore secure.”
This makes hate the default emotion of many narcissists, particularly the fragile ones with poor empathic and rationalization skills. As a side note, I noticed that one of my subscribers has a Latin phrase as a tagline under his name: “veritas odium parit” which can be translated as “truth breeds hate.” This is exactly what happens because of this rationalization mechanism. Exposure of the false model of self to reality results in hate.
Violent emotional reactions – Some narcissists establish a pattern of violent emotional reactions to anything which might be a threat to their model of self. This is not unlike “direct oppression” in the reinforcement tool set, except this is more defensive in nature and a general rather than a specific tactic. This method is particularly employed by narcissists with low empathy skills compared to other narcissists, somewhat higher self-consciousness, and weak and fragile models of self.
The narcissist will essentially create a wall of hostility around him, where he reacts extremely negatively and angrily to anything which might be a threat. This could be a wrong opinion, a wrong word, or basically anything. The narcissist’s goal is to create an atmosphere around him where everybody has to walk on eggshells and no one dares to challenge him. This is the least subtle and most ham-fisted defense mechanism narcissists use – but a relatively common one.
A summary and a few final words
To summarize the theory, it proposes the following:
Narcissism is a result of concurrent extreme positions on two biological traits; high emotional salience and outward focus of the brain.
This concurrent positioning makes people vulnerable to narcissism, perhaps as many as a third of the population. Social factors can amplify the traits and “activate” the vulnerable ones.
A narcissist will develop a model of self which is unrealistic and will need to be upheld and protected from reality. This model of self is fluid and requires constant feedback from others.
The high emotional neediness involving other people will cause this model to be strongly associated with emotions. Its movement up or down will result in emotional highs and lows.
The emotional highs become addictive and will provide motivation for further narcissistic behavior.
The narcissist uses a standard tool set of behaviors to affirm or elevate the model of self to acquire the emotional highs.
The narcissist also uses a standard defensive tool set of behaviors to avoid an emotional crash resulting from failure or challenge to the model.
Most or all behavioral symptoms of narcissism come from those two tool sets.
One of the main assumptions of this theory is that narcissism is a result of personality rather than a psychopathic condition – although the two may sometimes coexist. The immense increase in narcissism in the West is difficult to explain any other way. To reach this narcissism saturation, there has to be a personality trait or traits which make people vulnerable and can be activated and amplified by social factors.
This also means that there have to be differences between narcissists based on where they lie on these traits. Narcissists closer to the center of the distribution, with higher self-consciousness and lower emotional neediness, must be different from the outermost narcissists, even though they share the incorrect model of self. They must also differ in how they use their behavioral tools, since some of those tools depend on skills which may vary.
Discussing these differences – or different “types” of narcissists – will be a subject of a later article.
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