Some see the narcissist as “a legend in their own mind.” And because the way a narcissist views their self-worth and capabilities is almost always inflated, it can indeed be a pretty ugly picture when their grandiose illusions (see also: Narcissistic Insult: When Reality Shatters Illusion) are shattered. To illustrate, I offer a couple of vignettes (as always, any potentially identifying names, circumstances, places, etc. have been altered to ensure anonymity), the first of which is presented below.
Joey had been the “man in the family” for over 8 years. His father ditched his responsibilities as husband and father after taking up with a much younger girlfriend when Joey was only 7 years old. Joey’s dad was his mother’s second husband and she was pretty “beaten down” by the experience of having been both emotionally abused and taken advantage of more than once in her life. From early on, Joey had been the apple of his mother’s eye. And as a bright, handsome, talented, and sweet child, she regarded him as her “special gift.” In many respects, he was also the highest functioning male in the household, So Joey had every reason to hold himself in high regard. But lately he was beginning to act way too big for his britches. And he was also starting to relate to his mother in abusive ways that were all-too-reminiscent of behavior she’d experienced at the hands of her former husbands: trying to rule the roost, using a variety of manipulation tactics to get his way and exert control. And when one day “things got physical” and caused his mother to become truly afraid, she decided it was time to seek some professional help, so she pushed Joey into coming with her to therapy.
Some aspects of Joey’s case are depicted in my book Character Disturbance (pp. 219-225). In particular, I highlight key aspects of my encounter with Joey and his mother during the initial assessment visit. During the session, Joey engaged in a variety of tactics to maintain the upper hand and exert control. And it was particularly troubling that he seemed to have little to no compunction about the brow-beating he inflicted on his mother (this reflected some empathy deficits and a sense of entitlement not uncommon in the narcissist). It became clear that his mother had to acquire the skills and the strength to stand up to him if he were ever going to develop a more non-abusive, less “entitled” character. And it’s when I began confronting his tactics, zeroing-in on his dysfunctional thinking and behavior, and most especially, when I began working to empower his mother that all the trouble began. Joey began sensing that the “jig was up” and the power balance in the family might be changing. As I’ve said many times, for the impaired characters among us (especially the narcissist and the various “aggressive” personalities), it’s all about position. Joey was beginning to sense his status as kingpin, his perceived omnipotence, and his grandiose self-image challenged in ways they had never been challenged before and he wasn’t going to take things lying down. Joey used just about every tactic I describe in In Sheep’s Clothing to maintain the position he felt entitled to have. One of those tactics was one of those “if looks could kill” kinds of glare that abuse victims (whether emotional or physical) are all-too-familiar with that sent a chilling message to his mother that there would be some kind of hell to pay if she dared to really challenge his greatness or power. Knowing how she had been overcome in the past, he had every reason to think this tactic would be effective enough to coerce her into a more retreating position. But his mother was finally having enough of this kind of thing and now she was finding a level of support she hadn’t had before. So, as she steadily became stronger, he felt compelled to up the ante in several ways and for quite some time. Fortunately, in this case, because he was young and still impressionable to some degree, had a modicum of decency in his character that could be reinforced and nurtured, and because he actually knew at some level that he could stand to have some authoritative guidance in his life, he eventually acquiesed and acquired a more level head. He would have problems for awhile in his young adult life, chronically over-estimating himself and his capabilities and inviting upon himself many humbling experiences. Those humbling experiences brought him back into contact with me for a time. And, of course, he wasn’t always willing to admit that his own grandiosity was at the root of problems. He was prone to blaming everyone else, engaging in denial, and digging-in his heels. So early on he wasn’t all that amenable to therapeutic intervention. But he eventually acquired the strength of character to both “own” and more honestly reckon with his shortcomings and to appreciate his need for life to teach him a thing or two about what still needed developing in his character. He also became more open to therapeutic guidance. Not all stories of narcissistic injury have such happy endings, however, as I plan to illustrate in next week’s post.
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