When spending any serious length of time around a narcissist, we see they’re almost child-like in terms of their constant need for “narcissistic supply” in all it’s various form (attention, adoration, adulation, validation, praise, and so on).
We see that they constantly need it to stay “afloat” and inflated psychologically, and it is definitely an addictive dynamic. These people literally cannot live without it. But why is this? Why do narcissists need to be “fed” constantly with different sources of “supply”?
A narcissist’s constant need for supply relates back to their fundamentally broken and fragile personality, and their grandiose, false shell self that needs constant validation from the external world to prevent falling into psychological depletion or deflation.
In the absence of this “supply”, they are brought back to themselves, and the chaos that’s actually going on in their own internal world, and they can’t stand this. That’s why they’re always “Jonesing” for this supply, and need to constantly be distracted from the painful reality of who and what they really are.
It’s a frightful existence, and may almost make us pity the narcissist for a brief moment. Let’s look in more detail at this entire issue of narcissists being addicted to and craving constant supply.
Why Narcissists Always Need Supply (Simple Answer)
In more simple, broad level terms, a narcissist needs constant “supply” to prop of their false, grandiose “shell” sense of self. Being around narcissists for any extended time, it becomes apparent they often have an image of themselves that is at odds with reality. A kind of fake image of themselves that they buy into, “marry” themselves to psychologically, and expect the rest of the world to constantly reinforce.
Therefore, narcissistic supply can viewed as anything that the narcissist takes in from the external world to “prop up” or reinforce this false view of themselves they have. Or at the very least, distracts them from the painful reality of who they are really are, or the uncomfortable truth that they are in reality just like everyone else and nothing special at all.
This “supply” can take many different forms; here are some examples:
- 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.
Therefore, narcissists can be seen as addicts who are constantly craving for any kind of stimulus or reinforcement from the outside world to maintain their (very fragile) sense of uniqueness, grandiosity and superiority.
Why Narcissists Need Supply (Deeper Level Technical Explanation)
The above answer is fine, but really only still a general level, surface answer. A logical follow up question might be “OK, I get that, but WHY is the narcissist’s personality so broken that they literally need this supply? What happened to them to make them this way?”
That’s the real deeper level question, and requires understanding how the narcissistic personality is formed. Opinions often vary as to the origins of personality disorders like NPD, but one thing that is not really in dispute is that narcissist had to have gone through an intense level of trauma to have become the way they are.
A plenty good enough working model for the formation of NPD is given from the Sam Vaknin/Richard Grannon school of thought (especially important bits related to this specific article topic are bolded):
- 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.
Hopefully this indicates how a narcissist’s real self was either never allowed to really form in the first place, or smashed to pieces whenever it did try to come out to the point it went into hiding, and unfortunately eventually atrophied or died.
Once someone has gone past this point of no return and has full blown narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), you’re basically just dealing with a psychological “robot” whose life operates like a machine/algorithm trying to find and soak up sources of “supply” to prop up and validate this false, shell self they’ve been operating from since childhood. This tendency is machine-like and addictive, because it’s really all the narcissist has left to cling on to for any sense of control in the world.
What Happens When A Narcissist Loses Their Supply?
Now we’ve covered a narcissist’s addictive relationship with supply, another logical follow up question is what happens when you starve the addict of what they crave, when you starve the narcissist of their supply, or they lose it for whatever reason?
This is when you really don’t want to be around a narcissist; they don’t react well when they start losing access to the one thing that keeps them afloat. Life might turn against them, sources of supply leave, they lose access or ability in some key skill/thing that gave them supply, and so on.
Here are some common obnoxious reactions from a narcissist when they start losing their supply:
- The more fragile narcissists can fall into depletion and slump into a state of depression/apathy.
- Overt narcissists may take longer to reach this stage, but will also fail if enough sources of supply start leaving.
- They start attacking or provoking other as a secondary/backup way to “inflate” themselves
- A general increase in negatives traits like paranoia, suspicion, impatience, moodiness, and so on
- More fragile narcissists may also lose even more of their (often already limited) sense of competence in the world, struggling to perform basic tasks.
- In relationships, when a narcissist is no longer getting their supply off a person, that’s often when the brutal “discard” comes, where they abruptly end the relationship and never speak to the person again.
- In general, when life turns against a narcissist and they’re not getting their usual “fix” of supply, do not expect them to handle it with the same grace or class that more balanced people can. These people are entirely outer-directed and therefore need the external world to constantly be working in their favour, or they can’t handle it.
See our article for more on what happens when a narcissist loses their supply for more on this issue.
Can A Narcissist’s Addiction To Supply Be Cured/Fixed?
OK, so now we’ve thoroughly examined why a narcissist is so addicted to needing constant supply, another follow up question is whether this sickness inside them can ever be fixed or cured. Can a narcissist ever be trained to NOT depend so much on supply, and instead interact with others on a more sincere level instead of viewing them only as “sources” or objects who can or cannot supply them?
Unfortunately, narcissistic personality disorder is so deep rooted that the chances of change are not very high, and some argue impossible. The personality is too broken at the core level, and any authentic real emotions have long since atrophied and died, that it’s not really reversible.
Here’s the most generous interpretation of what might be able to get a narcissist to at least partially understand and gain insight into their false self, and cling to it very slightly less tightly:
- Undergoing many years (not weeks or months) of intensive psychotherapy, with a skilled therapist well trained in personality disorders.
- Going through an intensive 12 step recovery program for addiction (a thorough and prolonged effort, not just turning up to a few group meetings), usually in conjunction with the therapy mentioned in the above step.
- Facing criminal charges and/or incarceration which exposes them and breaks down their narcissistic image for all the public to see.
- Any other environment where they are exposed or “found out” and cannot escape to new people.
- Any other huge life upheaval which forces them to confront their personality defects over a prolonged period of time (years), not just in a fleeting and superficial way.
But some would argue that even this interpretation is too generous, and that full blown NPD is essentially irreversible:
“I’m sorry to tell you, but for a lot of things, the damage is done…..The narcissist didn’t get what they needed (in childhood), and a part of them died. The narcissistic personality disordered individual never knew true authentic love when they needed to.
In order to survive this (traumatic) scenario, the child builds a shell around themselves…..
And you come along ….. and you pour love into them, and you think ‘this poor soul, their childhood was terrible, they must be a bit weird, maybe they’re a bit autistic. Maybe they’re brain damaged. Maybe they have PTSD….I’ll love them better’.
All that love, all that sacrifice, the time, the attention, the money, was taken and given to the (narcissistic, grandiose, shell) false self…..Inside that shell, that person died. They’re dead – if it’s narcissistic personality disorder.
There is no reaching that person. There is no person to reach“.
We have an article that goes deeper into this issue on whether there is a “real person” or “inner child” still trapped inside the narcissist that we can “reach”. But if we’re too naive on this, we can spend years thinking we’re slowly “reaching” them or “training” them to be real people, when really they’re just watching on with amusement as you continue to feed them the “supply” they’re craving while they string you along.
Whatever one’s personal view on this, it’s advised to bear in mind that it’s not the job of people in the general population to fix disorders going back to infancy. It’s the job of mental health professionals, and even some of these refuse to treat NPD.