A narcissist can be of the “vulnerable” or “neurotic” type (see also Two Main Varieties of Narcissists). Such inwardly insecure characters crave love and affirmation and seek it by trying to prove their exceptionality. But in our age it’s more common for a narcissist to be of the “grandiose” or character-disturbed variety and such characters are convinced of their greatness and don’t care much what others think. As I have noted before, grandiose narcissists are “legends in their own minds,” so when reality challenges their delusions of grandeur, and because they can’t bring themselves to fault themselves, in their anger and rage they can make life a true nightmare for those they choose to blame (for more on the narcissistic character see pp. 85-94 in Character Disturbance). The vignette about a grandiose narcissist that follows is meant to illustrate the point (and, as always, any potentially identifying information has been altered to preserve anonymity).
To many on the outside, Martin was a man of true virtue and conviction. He seemed to take his professed faith and his responsibilities very seriously. And he also appeared the model of dedication, undertaking his roles as husband and father as a sworn duty, firmly embraced. But Martin’s family experienced him quite differently – as a tyrant who could never be wrong and whose “my way or the highway” approach to everything discounted everyone else’s opinions and value. Jean had had just about enough, having tried for years, even with the help of counselors (Martin would always find something wrong with the ones who didn’t end up seeing things his way) to get Martin to see how his arrogant manner was crushing her spirit. So when she finally got the nerve to propose a separation, her hope was that he would begin rethinking things, especially because the children so eagerly and immediately expressed a desire to stay with her. Instead, the whole family felt the full force of Martin’s wrath. And the more they tried to reason with him or hold out hope, the worse things got. It would be months before Jean would understand that that’s what often happens when a grandiose narcissist faces the kind of “insult” her limit-setting begot.
Martin just knew he was right and everyone else was wrong. And in his benevolence, he “prayed” that eventually his wife and children would come to their senses. After all, he was Martin J. Parker, the man who built a million-dollar business from scratch and gave his family the kind lifestyle anyone would envy. How dare they be so unappreciative. Everyone else seemed to know he was a man of God, taking his responsibility to be the moral and spiritual leader of his family seriously. How could his own family not afford him his rightful due? Surely they would come to their senses. He would make them see. He would put their lack of gratitude squarely in their faces if he had to, and as often as it would take. Jean was behaving like a spoiled child and it was her undermining of his position and authority that had the kids all messed up in the head. He would go to his grave to prove that. And in just about every interaction he had with Jean or the kids, that’s exactly what he did. But in the end, the pain of such belittling and discounting was too much for all to bear. Everyone reached the point where they wanted nothing whatsover to do with Martin and his daily dishing of emotional abuse. So when the kids went off to college (both were excellent students who managed to get full scholarships), they made sure they were at institutions far enough away to ensure at least physical distance. And Jean vowed to adhere to the “no contact” contract she made with herself. There seemed no alternative, since every engagement always ended up the same way: admit he was right and everyone else was wrong and what fools they had all been not to love and appreciate him for all he had been and done.
Martin had a history of ending every engagement by sending the same kind of “Just see how you get along without me!” message, so it would take many years before he could even entertain the notion that it’s simply impossible (and pretty crazy) to brow beat someone into loving you. And it would take even longer than that for him to reckon with the additional “insult” that everyone was actually much better off the farther they kept their distance from him. It was only out of utter loneliness and a sense of total personal defeat, that well into his 60’s, Martin finally felt the need to seek some counsel. Grandiose narcissists spend much of their lives asserting they don’t really need anyone else and that what others really need is them, so it’s always a bit more than ironic when they’re no longer able to sell this false bill of goods.
I wish I could say that Martin’s story is an unusual one. Unfortunately, however, it’s one that’s all-too-common. There are plenty of grandiose narcissists out there, and most of time life has to dish them out a lot of humble pie to bring them to some sense of reality.
Character Matters will be a live broadcast this Sunday at 7 pm Eastern time (6 pm Central), so I can take your calls. Perhaps you have a story like this you’d like to share, which is good because I’ll be expanding on this topic on the program. Or perhaps you just have a question or two. Maybe you just want to listen. In any case, I hope you’ll tune in.
I’ll be on another professional training workshop tour Feb 9-12. Seminars will be held in Columbus, Ohio Feb 10, Cincinnati Feb 11, and Indianapolis Feb 12. More details can be found at the Cross Country Education website.