Narcissistic supply is term often banded about is discussion of narcissism and narcissists, but what exactly does it mean to newcomers to the topic? What is narcissistic supply? What are some examples of it, and how does it affect a narcissist’s identity?
Narcissistic supply can be defined as anything which reinforces a narcissist’s false, grandiose sense of self. It is the “food” or “fuel” by which a narcissist props up their very fragile identity, and can often revolve around some confirmation from their environment about how great, special or unique they are.
In other words, narcissistic supply is the psychological “food” that narcissists NEED to prop themselves up and present as a confident, “put together” person to the world.
It is not an exaggeration to say that narcissists have an addictive relationship with supply, to the extent that whenever it isn’t there anymore, or is withdrawn, they can often slump into a state of depression and start attacking others to re-inflate themselves.
Therefore, the entire concept of narcissistic supply is crucial to understanding the narcissistic personality in general. It is a foundation or cornerstone on which their very fragile and broken personality is built.
Once you understand narcissistic supply, you understand narcissists, which is why we’re going to cover it in real detail in this guide – what it is, examples of it, and what happens when narcissists lose their supply.
What Is Narcissistic Supply?
The supply model of NPD (Narcissistic Personality Disorder) is the best way to understand the disorder. It basically states that narcissists are constantly looking for some form of supply from other people, which confirms one of two things:
- How they’re so beautiful, clever, bright, funny, exceptional and special. Some kind of admiration/adoration/attention.
- How other people (or one target scapegoat individual or group in particular) is stupid and dumb, which makes them feel superior and “full” by comparison
With narcissists, it’s all about context rather than content, image rather than substance, effect rather than reality, and the concept of narcissistic supply is one more example of this.
Narcissists feed off interpersonal attention and power dynamics, and also the emotional reactions of others. Anything that feeds tham any of these things is feeding them narcissistic supply, and propping up their grandiose but fragile sense of self
Some Different Types Of Narcissistic Supply
The “top grade” narcissistic supply is the type that reinforces the narcissist’s grandiose self image.
This can take many different forms; here are just some of them (list is not exhaustive):
- Love (but they never really love you back)
- Being feared
- Control or power over others.
- Constantly being validated and affirmed in their twisted worldview 100% of the time.
- Fame (and the “VIP/celebrity status” that often comes with it)
- Social proof
- Sexual attention.
- A sense of special-ness, uniqueness and perfection.
- A sense of being the best/number 1/top dog in some field or environment
- A sense of being the smart, enlightened one, while everyone around them is a stupid, inferior servant.
- Constant silly-ness and back and forth humor, jokes, memes, and being fed constant entertainment, as long as they’re the center of attention.
- A back and forth implicit arrangement where you’ll always agree on stuff and never disagree or challenge any of his/her obvious character deficits.
Then there are some forms of narcissistic supply that I would class as “low grade”:
- I’ve seen how alcohol can act as a low level form of narcissistic supply. Narcissists can be alcoholics or other addicts, and it’s also been noted by astute observers that many narcissists became worse (not better) in their toxic behaviors once they gave up drinking. Their drinking, however dysfunctional, at least kept some of their narcissism at bay.
- It’s also possible that consuming various forms of entertainment (TV, movies etc) can act as a very low level form of narcissistic supply, at least keeping their boredom at bay. Narcissists can become very restless if there’s nothing at all to distract them.
Narcissists & Supply Explained in 2 Minutes
And then the more toxic forms of supply that involve a disparaging or negative evaluation of a person or group that makes them feel superior and “full” by comparison:
- In the discard or toxic phase of a relationship with a narcissist, this is when they’ll start hammering away at all the “buttons” or psychological weaknesses or insecurities of the other person, that they have “clocked” and stored away for later use if needed. Their aim is to generate, and feed off, negative emotional reactions in the target.
- In social situations, overt narcissists often like to be the loud-mouthed bully, singling out and picking on an easy target (via insults, belittling, jokes etc) to ingratiate themselves to the rest of the group (in their eyes at least).
- In situations where fellow narcissists are competitors and rivals in a certain sphere, any of them can be fed supply by hearing anything disparaging about their rival (especially ultra-competitive male narcissists).
- In work environments, narcissist bosses or co-workers will often have a scapegoat member of staff who they always belittle and automatically blame for anything that goes wrong, regardless of actual facts.
- In retail environments, a resident narcissist customer will have a favorite target or scapegoat they’ll always belittle and attack as a way to inflate themselves.
- Narcissists will often be racists and xenophobes, constantly having a “pet hate” they keep going on about regarding a particular race or type of immigrant into a country (I knew one narcissist that would never shut up about “those Eastern European criminals coming over here” blah blah blah.)
See here for more on how to intentionally and strategically feed supply to a narcissist, to keep them inflated and to avoid them attacking you instead.
Why Do Narcissists Depend So Much on Supply?
Defining narcissistic supply and giving some example is interesting, but some readers may ask “why is it that narcissists are even so addicted to this supply? What happened to them that made them constantly need this?”
To understand why narcissists are supply addicts, it’s important to understand how the narcissistic personality forms and how broken it is.
As a caveat, it’s fair to say that a lot is still unknown about narcissism, and views on the formation of it differ, but a plenty good enough working model that explains well enough how the majority of narcissists are formed is the Sam Vaknin/Richard Grannon school of thought on NPD (Vaknin in particular is an authority on this, having been diagnosed as a narcissist twice, and has huge knowledge of personality disorders in general).
- Narcissism is often thought to originate from excessive un-boundaried spoiling and objectification in childhood, or else from an alternating pattern where one parent berates and abuses, whilst the other spoils the child to try and compensate.
- Common motifs here are a message of “you’re special” (in excess), “you’re important”, “you’re superior”. Sometimes there may be over the top messianic talk of the child’s “mission” or “purpose”, or of being “sent by God”.
- If this happens over a prolonged period of time, it will crush the real self and identity of the child. An image is being projected onto them that isn’t real.
- The common factor here is objectification – whether being abused or idealized, the child is treated not as a real human being but as an object to be used for the parent’s gratification.
- Over time the child’s real self is discarded, and a “narcissistic shell” self is presented to the world in it’s place.
- The real human emotions of the child are also hidden away inside the narcissistic shell.
- Over time, these authentic emotions atrophy and die inside the shell.
- From this point on, you have full blown NPD, where the person can engage and interact with others in a seemingly normal way on the surface, but where there are no real human emotions left.
- NPDs are then simply robots operating from a series of defense mechanisms designed to prop up their false, grandiose, shell self. They are constantly seeking “supply” from others to do this.
- The corollary of this is that they are psychologically allergic to any kind of real, authentic emotions or human engagement. As Vaknin himself points out, narcissism can be seen as a denial of the true self
In short, the ego structure, personality and general identity of full blown narcissists is so broken, fragmented and fragile, for the reasons mentioned above, that they need constant sources of reinforcement or supply to keep their identity afloat psychologically.
This is evidenced by the fact that whenever they don’t get this supply for a long enough time, they start to fall apart psychologically, and that’s when the more toxic side of them can start to manifest. We’ll cover this in a section further below. But that in brief is why narcissists are so desperate for constant “supply” to prop themselves up.
Cerebral vs Somatic Narcissism & Narcissistic Supply
It can also be useful to break the entire concept of narcissistic supply down into categories based on how and where a narcissist draws their supply.
Different types of narcissists draw their supply from different aspects of themselves.
To explain this more, we’ll use personality disorder expert Sam Vaknin’s distinction between cerebral and somatic narcissism.
- Cerebral narcissists generate their supply by applying their minds (intellect, wit, humor etc). Examples could be narcissist academics and intellects, math geniuses (like Vaknin), or just narcissists who draw their supply from being seen as funny, sharp, witted, quick, entertaining etc.
- Somatic narcissists generate their supply by applying their bodies (beauty, fitness, sports, sex etc). Examples could be physically attractive narcissists (including models, celebrities etc), exceptional sports athletes (Tiger Woods as an example), sexually promiscuous narcissists, etc.
- I would also add that STATUS is a really important source of supply for narcissists, whether they’ve achieved this through cerebral or somatic skills. Narcissists often have their sense of self really wrapped up in their status in a particular environment or profession.
Wherever a narcissist draws their supply from will become a significant ego-investment for them, and is therefore a weak spot for them psychologically, because they will be vain about that particular thing. Their (very fragile) ego is wrapped up in it.
Therefore attacking this aspect of them is a good way to cause them narcissistic injury, by deflating their grandiose self image. Causing narcissistic injury to a narcissist is almost like the opposite of feeding them supply
Overt vs Covert Narcissism & Narcissistic Supply
Another useful distinction to make on the concept of narcissistic supply is to distinguish between overt and covert narcissists, and their relationship to narcissistic supply.
The overt narcissist is the hyper extroverted, loud, apparently confident narcissist. The covert narcissist is often the quieter, more withdrawn, passive and less initially obvious type of narcissist.
The differing traits of these two types of narcissist is directly related to their relationship with the supply they get:
Overt narcissists – Some of the more overt narcissists are so overt (out-front) with their narcissism because they have a good/reliable supply of it – everyone in their environment is constantly reinforcing their false sense of self, and there are enough different sources of supply that they’re never usually short of it. It can often take longer for these people to fall into depletion.
Covert narcissists – By contrast, the more hidden or covert narcissist (referring to in the literature as the fragile or vulnerable narcissist) is more covert precisely because their supply is not so secure or reliable; perhaps they only get it in sporadic intervals, or from less people. These types of narcissists are often more noticeably fragile and deflated, and can fall into depletion more quickly. Think about the covert narcissist boss who everyone hates and realizes is a narcissist and is useless at his job. No one in his environment is reinforcing his fake sense of self, so it’s much easier for him to feel deflated. He isn’t getting a reliable source of supply.
To use a simple analogy, the overt narcissist is akin to the drug addict who has a steady, stable, reliable source of supply, and the best quality as well, to feed their addiction. They’ve got nothing to worry about. The covert narcissist in contrast is analogous to the drug addict who has a very patchy, unstable, inconsistent source of supply, and not always very good quality when it comes either. They are much more anxious and uncertain as to where their next “fix” is coming from.
However, regardless of context, all narcissists will eventually start to feel deflated and depressed psychologically at some point if they start to lose their sources of supply. Let’s look at the different ways they can react when this happens.
What Happens When A Narcissist Loses Their Supply?
Now we get to what drives the really unpleasant aspect of narcissists and their behavior. When they’ve got their supply, everything’s going well, they’re on top of the world. They can be tolerable and even sometimes enjoyable people to be around.
But what happens when this all turns south? (it always will and must eventually). What happens when the narcissist isn’t getting their usual level of supply or psychological “food” or reinforcement?
This is when narcissists turn nasty. When someone isn’t prepared to be their humble slave anymore, an unquestioning provider of supply, or external circumstances change against them, then they start to fall apart psychologically, and you see their toxic side starting to come out. It’s sometimes referred to as a narcissist falling into depletion.
Here are some things a narcissist will do when they are losing supply:
- Rageful, vindictive outbursts
- Ignoring and silent treatment.
- More covert sniping and subtle digs.
- Gaslighting – where they try to invert and flip reality, claiming things didn’t happen when they did, or vice versa.
- Projection – where they suddenly start accusing you of things they’re doing themselves. Like cheating, lying or stealing.
- Suddenly attacking your appearance, competence or opinions at every opportunity. Trying to plant self doubt and uncertainty in you.
- They may launch smear campaigns against you in social or work circles, spreading lies and false rumors about you to others, making you out to be crazy or a troublemaker.
- In a work environment, will often start attacking you and chipping away at your confidence.
- Deliberately trying to embarrass and undermine you in front of others.
- Alternating in a mean-sweet pattern of abuse, sometimes being nice and other times being insulting and nasty.
- In romantic relationships, may openly start flirting and cheating with other people. Cheating will be especially common if their main source of supply was sexual attention. They’ll just move onto someone else.
- If there isn’t outright cheating, they’ll at least start comparing you unfavorably to other people in conversation to plant self doubt and insecurity.
- More generally, there’s in increase in drama and conflict if you’re in a relationship with them. You will feel your anxiety, annoyance and rumination start to increase – that’s what they want.
- Paranoia and suspicion are also not uncommon in narcissists once they lose their supply. They start to think the world is out to attack them as their bubble has been burst.
These provocative and reaction seeking traits emphasize how the narcissists feeds off the emotional reactions of others (as do all the Cluster B disorders). If they can’t get supply off someone via positive engagement, they’re happy to do so via negative engagement (provocation, drama, conflict).
Or alternatively, the narcissist may simply discard the person and move onto other people:
- The toxic person may simply break off all contact with the victim with no explanation or excuse. Designed to cause maximum pain by leaving victims without any answers and feeling the whole relationship was inconclusive and unfinished.
- May break off openly with a cruel, dismissive, cold message or conversation.
- May cheat openly without even trying to hide it, then blame you for them cheating to add to the insult.
- They will often wave new partners, friends and work associates in your face, either in person or on social media, trying to portray how much fun they are having with these new people now they ditched you, as they begin the cycle all over again with someone else. It’s all about mind games.
See our full article on what happens when a narcissist loses their supply for more on this topic.
Therefore, being around a narcissist when they aren’t getting their usual supply isn’t usually a nice experience. I saw this first hand with a narcissistic boss who ran a retail shop. When it as doing well, everything was great. It was the number one shop in the area, and this fed him supply (narcissists love being, and being seen as, Number 1/best/top dog in any environment or field. It feeds their grandiosity and ego). He had very little to do with the success itself, since he was incompetent in his job – he just got given an easy shop with good customers and good team, that largely ran itself. But he was happy to take the plaudits for the success. And he was at least tolerable, and sometimes even nice while he was getting fed his supply via the shop’s success.
However, once things started to turn downward, he literally started to disintegrate psychologically (he was a more fragile narcissist ). Lock-downs reduced footfall, he lost some good customers (sometimes due to his own behavior), and suddenly the shop wasn’t hitting targets, and was nowhere near number one in the region. He’d lost the supply he was drawing from the “number 1” status.
This is when he started turning nasty. Before, he was at least tolerable, sometimes fine. Now, he was bad tempered, fragile, irascible, picking fights with staff and customers, and also more confused and disordered in his (already limited) ability to do his job. He also started really attacking others, trying to find and blame scapegoats for the shop not hitting targets (when his own poor service and skills had driven away customers and staff), and continually pestered the area manager to “reduce” his targets, so he could hit the lower target and still be “number 1”. In short, he collapsed into a total mess!
It really brought home to me the concept of narcissistic supply, because I could see how the shop’s success effectively fed him “supply” and kept his fragile narcissism afloat, and how quickly his ego and sense of self deflated as soon as it wasn’t succeeding to the extent he couldn’t draw narcissistic supply from it any more.
It was also an instructive lesson to me of how fragile narcissists are (despite external shows of confidence and bluster), how externally driven and influenced they are, how shaky the foundation is on which their (broken) personality is built. This is especially more so with fragile/vulnerable/covert narcissists, versus overt narcissists, who seem to have their act together more.
But ALL narcissists are a toxic, disordered mess inside, regardless of how they present to others. It’s just some are better able to cover it than others, plus some get more (and more reliable) supply from their environment than others to conceal it.
Starving A Narcissist of Supply (Gray Rock)
It should also be said that taking supply off a narcissist is something that can be done intentionally by someone, as a way of “boring them off”, of getting rid of them.
Once it clicks how narcissists are hungry ghosts in constant need of supply, it’s possible to deliberately not feed them this supply, as a way of minimizing contact and drama with them, and encouraging them to move on to other people to get their “fix”
In the narcissistic relationship space, this is sometimes called the Gray Rock tactic, because you’re being as dull, lifeless, non dramatic and boring as possible (everything the narcissist doesn’t want), like a gray rock.
Here are some examples of gray rock tactics to starve a narcissist of supply:
- Be deliberately boring, dull, businesslike and uncommunicative with the narcissist whenever engaging.
- Keep interactions short and sweet, and withdraw as soon as possible.
- If there’s specific thing you know they draw narcissistic supply from (eg. belittling or feeling superior to others), don’t feed it to them.
- Don’t feed them any sillyness or entertainment. Stay dull and humorless.
- Don’t reveal anything personal, private, sincere or vulnerable to them. Or anything they can manipulate or use against you. Keep to dull, dry, meaningless factual observations (“oh, that cloud over there seems a bit more grey than the others” – stuff like that).
- Don’t provide them with any drama, nor get sucked into any of their drama.
- Don’t rise to any of their attempts to annoy, provoke or upset you. When it’s clear they’re saying something to you with the intent to wind you up or upset you, respond in a bland, boring way that doesn’t even acknowledge that (tactical naivety). Pretend you don’t even know that’s what they’re doing.
- Ignore any of their attempts to attack you for this new behavior.
- In cases where you must communicate with a narcissist long term (eg. when children are involved), all communication is kept as brief, boring and non dramatic as possible. Use as few words as possible in responses and don’t be drawn into lengthy engagement, disengaging from interactions with them as soon as possible.
See our full article on how to use Gray Rock tactics to starve a narcissist of supply for more information and examples.
It’s best to mention however that these gray rock tactics are often best implemented gradually and slowly, so the narcissist doesn’t notice what you’re doing. Too quickly, and they’ll notice the sudden change and start attacking you.
“The NPD feeds off drama. Or they seem to. What they’re actually feeding off is your emotional response. Because your emotionality and you’re “upset-ness” in their heads is directly proportionate to how much you care about them, and how much you care about them is directly proportionate to how much power they have over you.
When you’re a gray rock, you’re dull and lifeless. Yes, you respond, but there’s no drama there, and you’re not showing them that you’re upset, but you are responding. You’re just a boring thing – they’ll go away. Eventually, they will go away. They have to. These people are (supply) addicts. They’re hungry ghosts. That hungry ghost will float away and find someone else who’s going to give them what it is they’re really (craving) for.”
Narcissists Attempting To Reconnect With Old Sources Of Supply (Hoovering)
This is another crucial facet of the narcissistic personality, and their addiction to supply, that can actually leads to them circling back and attempting to rekindle former relationships (especially romantic ones), sometimes months or even years after it ended.
This doesn’t happen with all narcissists – some of them never speak to former lovers/friends again after they discard them, and it’s literally like they’re dead to the narcissist. However, in some cases, they will come sniffing round again, trying to reconnect and re-establish the relationship.
This actually often puzzles the person being recontacted – it often feels weird to them and they wonder what is going on with the narcissist. The energy the narcissists bring with them often feels “icky” and strangely nice and attuned, but in a way that still feels “off” and confusing to the other person. It may feel like that there’s an angle or agenda there, and there is!
This may seem strange at first; however, once you understand the concept of narcissistic supply, it’s actually very straightforward and predictable that they sometimes do this, and even why they do it. They’re romanticizing about, and seeking to rekindle, old sources of narcissistic supply.
The reasons for them re-contacting ex partners or friends boils down to their addictive need for supply, so here’s a bottom line explanation as to why they do this:
- They’re re-idealizing their old source of supply they got from the person. There was something about it that they liked, and they want to see if they can get it again.
- Their current source of supply from the people around them at the moment is low, or has gone. Perhaps someone else has seen through their BS and discarded them as well, so now they’re addicts again in need of a fix.
- A combination of the above two factors.
“The narcissist drank all your “milkshake” and then moved onto someone else to drink their “milkshake”. But after a while they remember what your “milkshake” was like and they want to come back and try it again”
This tactic is sometimes called “hoovering” in the narcissistic abuse recovery space, because they’re (manipulatively and insincerely) trying to suck or “hoover” the person back into engaging with them.
Here are some commons things narcissists will do when trying to “hoover” others back in to top up their supply:
- They’ll contact you again out the blue on social media or by text, email or some other means. This is why no contact is important to stop them doing this.
- They’ll go back to the seemingly innocent, sweet, caring image if this is what they initially reeled you in with.
- They may issue seemingly heartfelt apologies about how sorry they are about how they hurt you.
- There will be promises that the cheating, gas-lighting, projection, lying etc. won’t happen again.
- If you had been trying to get them to go to therapy because of their toxic behavior, they’ll promise to get help if you take them back.
- Any other changes in their behavior that you wanted them to make first time but they never did, they’ll latch onto these and promise to do them now, or claim they are “growing/changing/evolving/self aware” now when they haven’t changed at all.
- The general message and energy they’ll try to hoover you back in with is “I’ll be the person you always wanted me to be”. Or “this time I’ll do what you want, this time I’ll get it right”, “this time you can fix/change me” or “just one more chance, one more time”.
- If you do take them back, they’ll keep up these apparent changes for a short while, then drop them and go straight back to the old, obnoxious, abusive patterns.
- Bottom line – if you are one these people the narcissist recontacts and attempts to charm again, do not let them back in or given them another chance. They’re attention and supply addicts, and are not sincere in their intentions.
Hoovering from the narcissist (just one more chance)
The good news on this is that understanding the entire concept of narcissistic supply very effectively demystifies this entire “hoovering” process. It also helps you to see how fragile and broken the narcissistic personality is, how addicted they are to this “supply”, and how insincere and self serving they are.
It’s much easier to see through a narcissist’s attempts to draw you back in, and dismiss them accordingly, once you understand how desperately they need feeding this supply, and the lengths they’ll go to to get it.