Many of us who look into, or directly experience a narcissistic person are disturbed but also puzzled by this peculiar personality type. Sometimes they charm us, sometimes they confuse us, and other times they horrify us with their self absorption.
It can be difficult to put a context around all this and simply understand in general terms what drives the narcissistic personality disordered individual in relationships. What makes them behave the way they do? What are they trying to get out of life and people?
We have tried to boil the motives and needs of the narcissistic personality down to a few simple over-arching concepts. In general terms, they are only really after a few things, and everything they do basically boils down to getting these things.
In their interactions with others, only a few general things really matter to the narcissist:
- Being seen as awesome, special, unique and superior to others.
- Power and provoking emotional reactions from others. They like to upset other people.
- Context is more important than content to the narcissist in relationships. Truth does not matter as much as getting fed their narcissistic supply and how they are seen by others.
In short, the narcissist is an addict that gets fed from either being admired and fawned over by others, or else upsetting and making others feel bad.
If other people are thinking about them, either in a positive or negative way, then this is what the narcissist wants. What they do not want is for someone to be completely indifferent to them, because to them this means they don’t matter – the worst kind of insult to the narcissistic personality.
Let’s look in more detail at some of the things that matter most to a narcissist in relationships with others.
1. The Narcissist is Obsessed With Being Seen as Special & Unique
This is a crucial cornerstone aspect of the narcissistic personality, that is actually quite well known now even in mainstream circles.
It is now understood by formal study of narcissism that this personality disorder is most often created by either outright spoiling and admiration in youth, or else a combination of rejection/abuse by one parent, whilst the other parent spoils them to try and compensate for this abuse.
Over time, the result of this is that the real self of the person is crushed, since the relentless spoiling objectifies the person and causes them to break with reality psychologically.
See Sam Vaknin’s YouTube channel for more academic and technical analysis of how the narcissistic personality is formed, from someone who himself has been diagnosed with the disorder and knows it inside out.
The bottom line of all this is that once you encounter the real life adult narcissist, you are interacting not with an authentic, healthy person, but with someone who is malignantly in love with a false self image of being special, unique, and superior to others that was drummed into them repeatedly in childhood.
Of course all children need to be told in some sense that they are special and worthy of respect, but when it is taken to extremes over many years, the self perception of the child starts to become exaggerated and grandiose, not in touch with reality.
A sense of superiority also starts to emerge, which shouldn’t in normal people. A healthy “in-the-middle” self peception would be something like “I’m a human being worthy of respect. I have my wants, needs and talents, but I’m also just like anyone else. I’m not superior, I’m not inferior. I’m just me”.
The narcissistic self perception is more like: “I’m special, unique, great. No one is on my level. I’m smarter, better than everyone else. Only my needs matter. No one else’s do”.
Therefore when you interact with a narcissist, you are interacting essentially with a psychological robot who will do anything it takes to prop up this grandiose, false self image.
They need confirmation from others that this self image is indeed true, that they are special, unique and superior. This is often referred to as narcissistic supply – anything that keeps them “fed” and confirms this pathological and exaggerated view of themselves.
This can take a number of forms, including the following:
- Being admired for their looks and beauty – somatic narcissist.
- Being admired for their intellectual talents – cerebral narcissist.
- Being constantly fawned over and given attention.
- Always constantly being entertained with sillyness and jokes.
- Always talking only about themselves and how great, special, unique and clever they are.
- Look especially for the “I was the only person that ever……” narrative, as well as the “I am a misunderstood genius” narrative.
- Alternatively, being able to talk about how stupid someone else is and how superior they are to this person.
- For this reason, the friends who a narcissist keeps around long term will often fall into the “chumps”, “sycophants” or “hangers on” dynamic.
Narcissists are constantly looking for others to affirm how special, unique & awesome they are (Grandiosity)
Perhaps even more importantly though, if for whatever reason you stop giving this supply to a narcissist, then they fall into depletion, and the more unpleasant aspects of their character start to come out – narcissistic rage.
This is where all the abusive patterns of narcissists come out in relationships – when they aren’t getting this admiration. As with all the Cluster B type personality disorders, including their close cousin the psychopath, they don’t value you; they only value the feelings they get when they are around you.
Whenever this “flying high” feeling of narcissistic elation or supply starts to fall away, then their real underlying emotional state is revealed, and this is where they start to turn nasty and provocative, which leads us to our next point.
2. Narcissists are Obsessed With Power & Provoking Reactions In Others
“Planet Narco (The inner world of the narcissist):
A toxic, barren, tempestuous mess. Baseline state of panic and emotional dysregulation. Power and emotional reaction fixated”
Despite what we covered in the section above, it is also important to realize that the baseline state of narcissism is not one of happiness and calmness, but of desperation and irritation.
They only appear calm and “together”, as long as they are getting their narcissistic supply, which is why they demand that anyone around them in relationships constantly feeds their ego and validates their superiority/greatness/specialness etc and never questions or challenges them.
But no sane person who is also taking care of their own needs and setting their own boundaries can keep this supply up 100% of the time. At some point what you want/feel and what they want/feel will differ, which is the where the narcissist gets annoyed in relationships, because to them, only their needs matter!
In other words, the narcissist is constantly walking a tightrope, desperate to make sure they are always getting their “supply” or “fix”, and whenever they don’t, their toxic baseline state returns, and they resort to provoking and hurting others to get their supply instead.
So drama and provocation act like a fall-back next best option for the narcissist. If they can’t get their supply through admiration, then they resort to provoking and upsetting others to feel good about themselves.
This is why relationships with narcissists and psychopaths inevitably fall into chaos, drama and conflict, because no person with healthy boundaries can keep their supply intact, so the relationship inevitably turns toxic as the disordered person needs to get their supply by any means necessary, including hurting others.
Here are some ways this toxic trait can manifest in narcissists:
- Relentless arguments, drama and conflict.
- Overt or subtle undermining, nasty comments to the victim.
- “Gas-lighting” – trying to flip reality on it’s head and say things happened or were said when they didn’t, and vice versa, Trying to mess with your head and make you think you are “losing it”.
- Triangulation – playing other off against you in work or personal settings.
- Infidelity can also be part of this triangulation, and they’ll often wave this infidelity in the target’s face to maximize the pain caused.
- Sending provocative texts, emails, voicemails during a relationship to provoke an argument.
- Sending provocative text, emails and voicemails after a relationship, trying to lure you back in and still make sure they are occupying your thoughts.
- Relentless micro-management and provocation in a work environment.
Narcissists are constantly looking to provoke drama and negative emotional reactions in others in order to feel good about themselves
The general goal of all this from the narcissist is to get you thinking about them, even negatively. This is all that matters to the narcissist in a relationship. They need the attention from others; this attention can be positive or negative, but they need the attention to feel “fed” psychologically.
This is also where the power aspect comes in. As long as the narcissist has you thinking about them and reacting emotionally to them, then as far as they are concerned, they have power and control over you.
This is why calmness, detachment and indifference, become crucial skills in breaking away from narcissists, since to not care about them is what they fear the most. They want admiration first, but will accept hate, because you still care. What they don’t want is for you to be indifferent to them.
What Does The Narc Fear The Most?
Staying calm in the midst of relentless provocation is very important when dealing with disordered people like narcissists.
The following quote from Richard Grannon is a perfect example of the provocative, reactive dynamic the narcissist will be constantly be trying to draw you into, and therefore what you need to resist:
“The narcissist reaches out with a provocative communication, with the intent of upsetting or hurting you…..The victim gets their adrenaline spiked….they become angry or anxious or depressed….The victim feels instantly, neurotically compelled to redress the balance…and they reply way too instinctively, way too quickly, with way too much emotion….trying to use reason where there is none….
….(The victim feels): ‘I have to drop everything and answer straight away and send through a 500 word essay about what they just said was wrong, and it was wrong, and they shouldn’t and it was unfair, and this is because of this, and also when you say that to a person that means X etc etc.’
And you’re psycho-babbling and philosophizing and you’re pouring out all this stuff. And the narcissist is sat back going “Ha ha ha ha! Got ya!”.
You’ve given them exactly what they want. Because you’re showing them you’re upset. You’re showing them you’re in an emotional state.
The narcissist then goes into an emotional high….and they learn that this works, and they keep it in their toolbox. Effectively what we do over time is we teach the narcissist what hurts us….Don’t teach the narcissist what hurts you”
3. Context is More Important Than Content to the Narcissist in Relationships
This could be seen as a way of re-stating the previous two points, but is a key thing to understand so you can have a “bird’s eye” view of narcissists in relationships, and what matters to them.
This insight again comes from Richard Grannon (Spartan Life Coach), who offers superb resources on narcissism – see the last section for some useful links to his material.
But what exactly do we mean when we say context is more important than content for narcissists?
It basically means that the narcissist is only interested in getting fed their supply. They don’t care how they get fed; all they care about is that they are a) being admired or b) upsetting others.
In other words, the context of how others are relating to them is more important than any “higher” principles like truth, facts, substance, honesty, integrity, decency etc.
The actual content of situations – what’s really true, what’s really going on – is not important to the narcissist. What matters is getting what they want – reinforcing their grandiose self image.
Let’s look at some examples of how this can play out:
- When a narcissist has a stable “supply” – usually a group of people around them who constantly reinforce their view of themselves – they’ll happily accept any nonsense that is fed to them as long as it keeps this scenario intact – their ego remains propped up.
- A narcissist is happy to live in a false reality, their own little “bubble”, forever as long as they keep getting attention and admiration from others (think fake celebrities and narcisstic attention seekers on social media). Reality or truth is not important.
- Narcissists and sociopaths will often triangulate and play others off against you by charming and manipulating them, particularly in a work environment. See our article on the sociopath-empath-apath triad for more on this. However, most of the time they don’t even like the onlookers they co-opt into their politics and mind games, even if they seem very friendly with them. Again they just care about the context of how they are hurting and isolating a specific scapegoat or target.
- You can make up a completely false story about something, but the narcissist will not question it as long as it is a) making them look awesome or b) making other people look stupid or inferior in comparison to them. Again it’s the context that matters to them – how they are seen.
- When in conflict with narcissists, do not try to use reason, facts or logic, because they don’t care about this. All they care about is the context – they are hurting and provoking reactions from others. The truth of situations – what really happened or what was said – is irrelevant.
- In more general terms, it’s how the interpersonal interaction between you and them feeds them (either through admiration/grandiosity or provocation/upsetting) that matters, not what’s actually being done or said.
- “The point is there is no point. The point is chaos, cause chaos”. Richard Grannon/Gary Klein.
- “Any and all communication is an opportunity for abuse”. Richard Grannon
- “When dealing with the insincere, you must forego all sincerity”. Richard Grannon.
When you understand this general idea, then it becomes clear why a healthy person can never have a workable relationship with a narcissist, because to them, the other person literally does not matter as a human being.
All that matters is the context of how interacting with this person can feed them the narcissistic supply they need. It is very difficult to have a functional relationship with someone who doesn’t even care about things like truth, justice, facts, logic, sincerity and so on – the actual content of life, events and interactions.
Living in the world of the narcissist is a very strange, twisted world, which is why it is always recommended to get away from these people as soon as possible once you realize this is what you are dealing with.
What Does NOT Matter to The Narcissist
We have already covered some of this in passing, but it is important to explicitly state all the things that the narcissist is NOT interested in in relationships, so anyone involved with these character types is not caught up in any confusion that this person somehow “means well” or “can change”.
Here are some things the narcissist is not interested in in relationships:
- They are not interested in valuing you as a separate person, with your own wants, needs, feelings, talents and preferences. You are seen as an OBJECT to be used for their own ends.
- They are not interested in “higher” principles like truth, logic, reason, facts, justice, integrity, sincerity, honesty. They need their supply or they start to lose their grip on reality. Truth and content is a distant second.
- They are not interested in your growth or change as a person. They want to keep you submissive, subservient and propping up their own false self image. Stray from this in any way and the narcissist will brutally attack you.
- They are not interested in equal – they only do vertical interactions, not horizontal, where you are equal and on the same level. They must see themselves as superior to others. No one is equal to them as far as they are concerned. Everyone serves them, feeds them their “supply”.
Some Resources on Narcissists in Relationships
Hopefully everything we have covered so far points to the obvious fact that narcissists are not the sort of people you want to get into relationships with.
But it is also true that they can be very charming and lure people in at first, and it is only later on when the mask drops that we realize what sort of person we have really got tangled up with.
For those people, here are some resources to more fully understand, deal with, and detach from narcissists in relationships:
- Dr Ramani Durvasula’s YouTube channel – An expert on narcissism, and a superb, validating voice on toxic relationships.
- Richard Grannon YouTube channel – Another brilliant resource on narcissism, NPD and recovery from abuse.
- Spartan Life Coach Courses – Provided by Richard Grannon. Superb move-the-bar courses to speed up recovery from narcissists and move on with your life.
- Sam Vaknin YouTube channel – Another expert on narcissism, having been diagnosed as one himself. Good if you prefer a technical, scholarly examination of how this personality is formed and behaves in the world.
- See our Resources Page, where we have links to some good books on narcissism.