The narcissist’s self-serving defenses can end up making them defenseless.
It’s supremely ironic. Narcissists are notorious for ruthlessly manipulating others to gain strategic advantage over them. Yet they’re exceptionally vulnerable to being duped themselves because of their powerful psychological defenses, which—if recognized—can be vigorously used against them.
To adapt a common expression: “The bigger they [think they] are, the harder they fall.”
DSM-5, the standard manual for diagnosing mental and emotional disorders, lists nine criteria for determining whether an individual is afflicted with this serious disorder. And this post will demonstrate how virtually all of these criteria indirectly suggest pathological narcissists’ curious susceptibility to others’ outmaneuvering them. For as rigidly constricted as the narcissist’s character structure is, their fabricated, super-sized “false self” still requires the assistance of others to remain securely (though artificially) inflated. And as shrewd and scheming as they can be, they’re not without enormous blind spots. Paradoxically, their very defenses can make them defenseless in the face of anyone’s desiring to use their self-protective armor against them. And in ways that, constitutionally, they may not be able to detect—until, that is, it’s too late.
So, let’s start by exploring DSM’s introductory bird’s eye view of pathological narcissism. For everything below will derive from this pithy description:
A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy.
What, reading between the lines, this characterization reveals is that, if it’s to feel stable and secure, the narcissist’s self-aggrandizing sense of superiority depends on others’ constant confirmation. And this need to have their alleged 5-star glory outwardly validated is precisely what makes them dependent on others, rendering them vulnerable to those who, calculatingly, would corroborate their “specialness”—but only to achieve their own ends. Moreover, many times these ends amount to nothing more than avenging themselves against the narcissist who, in the past, callously exploited them, and by doing so left them with powerful feelings of anger and resentment.
Having been taken advantage of and inhumanely objectified, these victims felt not only exploited but demeaned, insulted, even humiliated—and all because of the narcissist’s egregious lack of empathy. So, in the simplest of terms, DSM’s terse overview of the most distinctive narcissistic qualities suggests the interpersonal dynamic that accounts for how the narcissist’s manipulations can lead to their victims’ retaliatory counter-manipulations.
Before going further, it’s important to explain this phenomenon on the basis of what psychoanalytic theory labels “narcissistic supply”—that which all malignant narcissists must rely on to fill the gnawing vacuum residing deep inside themselves. Emotionally disconnected from others, narcissists cannot value anyone independently of how they might address the demands of their ego, which are insatiable. So they’re destined to pursue others, but only to the degree that they can “supply” the narcissist with the attention, affirmation, admiration, praise, and respect they crave. For only then can the narcissist keep safely buried whatever ancient doubts they still harbor about their fundamental worth.
That is, most pathological narcissists are secretly plagued by self-esteemdeficits originating in childhood and masked—or defended against—by rather primitive illusions of grandeur and an overblown sense of superiority and entitlement. And this need for others to admire them, to shore up the weak foundation of their carefully concocted persona, is what ultimately makes them so vulnerable to others’ words and behavior. If they’re so sensitive and angrily reactive to anything resembling criticism, it’s because of their deep-rooted insecurities. (And here, see my Psychology Today post: “The Narcissist’s Dilemma: They Can Dish It Out, But . . . ”, 2011.)
This peculiar (and not generally recognized) dependency on others is a constant for them, and it can never be fully satisfied. Similar to mythic vampires, their emotional neediness requires a regular supply of fresh blood to sustain them. And just as these “undead” predators must depend on their victims for sustenance, so, too, do narcissists cultivate others to bolster their precarious self-image.
Consider, for example, how often narcissists boast about their (supposedly) unparalleled accomplishments, and how their efforts alone engendered them, when typically they benefited from all sorts of outside help. But narcissists loathe sharing credit for anything, or admitting dependency on others. Still, their outward reliance is all too real, and it can set them up for eventual defeat—particularly from irate individuals who’ve felt mercilessly exploited.
To put this a little differently, if the narcissist has a single, overarching goal in life it’s to achieve the loftiest possible self-image, one that’s unassailable. So they’re compelled to engage, or “enlist,” others for the sole purpose of assisting them in achieving this grandiose objective.
Let’s return now to the DSM criteria for narcissism to further expand on the points already made about how narcissists’ unavoidable dependence on their “narcissistic suppliers” render them especially gullible to those who can’t help but resent the inferior role to which they’ve been relegated.
The first benchmark in DSM revolves around pathological narcissists’ “grandiose sense of self-importance.” It emphasizes how these disturbed individuals “exaggerate [read, ‘are dishonest about’] their achievements and talents.” In short, they pretend to know a lot more about things than they actually do. As one writer (somewhat hyperbolically) puts it:
Narcissists are often gullible, naive, and stunningly ignorant of anything outside their narrow circle of interests. (They’re often stunningly ignorant of things inside their circle of interests, since clearly they have already mastered the topic and don’t need to study more or keep up on new developments.) . . . They take chances because it doesn’t occur to them that they could lose, make huge demands because it doesn’t occur to them they they don’t have a right to ask for certain things, tell lies because it doesn’t occur to them that other people could see through them. (“What to Remember When Dealing with a Narcissist,” May 31, 2016, Issendai.com)
This characterization suggests how narcissists’ brash self-confidence; optimism, grounded in their illusionary grandiosity; unwarranted presumption of entitlement; and mendacity all relate to their impaired ability to accurately detect others’ reactions, thus making them all the more susceptible to rejection, failure—and exploitation. As desperate as they are to be seen in a particular way, they can be remarkably obtuse in how they see others, frequently projecting onto them qualities they can’t let themselves recognize in themselves. And this striking short-sightedness can lead to blow-backs they’d never anticipate.
Complementing the 1st DSM criterion for narcissism, the 2nd further extends their grandiose thinking as it contributes to their gullibility: “[The narcissist] is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.”
Such grandiloquent imaginings set the narcissist up for ultimate betrayal by a reality far harsher than their self-aggrandizing fantasies. Author, professor, and self-confessed narcissist, Sam Vaknin, Ph.D., has written a seminal book on narcissism. Entitled Malignant Self-Love: Narcissism Revisited (2001), this work is distinguished for its many “insider” insights. Perhaps exaggerated in some of its contentions, it nonetheless depicts this personality disorder in ways that most readers, experientially, can easily relate to.
Here’s what Vaknin has to say about narcissists’ custom-made (yet self-blinding) fantasies, which make them susceptible to being out-maneuvered, out-strategized—or flagrantly ripped off:
[Narcissists] live in a fantasy land all their own in which they are the center of the universe, admired, feared, held in awe, and respected for their omnipotence and omniscience. . . . Narcissists are prone to magical thinking. They hold themselves immune to the consequences of their actions (or inaction) and, therefore, beyond punishment and the laws of Man. Narcissists are easily persuaded to assume unreasonable risks and expect miracles to happen. They often find themselves on the receiving end of investment scams, for instance. . . . The narcissist believes that he is destined to greatness—or at least the easy life. He wakes up every morning fully ready for a fortuitous stroke of luck. That explains the narcissist’s reckless behaviors and his lazed lack of self-discipline. It also explains why he is so easily duped [emphasis added].
Note how these astute observations tie in with DSM’s 5th criterion: namely, “[Narcissists have] a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations.”
For, as Vaknin notes:
Narcissists feel entitled to money, power, and honors incommensurate with their accomplishments or toil. [They think] the world owe[s] them a trouble-free, exalted, and luxurious existence. [So] they are rudely shocked when they are penalized for their misconduct or when their fantasies remain just that.
In short, narcissists’ all-encompassing sense of entitlement is rarely backed by the rest of the world. Hence, their pompously distorted self-perception is at any time subject to being shattered. As strenuously as they endeavor to convince themselves, they’re not above the law, or the court of public opinion. Consider this famous quote from Abraham Lincoln:
You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.
As regards DSM’s 3rd criterion—“[The narcissist] believes that he or she is ‘special’ and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people”—we can grasp that narcissists try so hard to ingratiate themselves with highly ranked individuals in order to keep their falsely elevated self-evaluation “anchored” in reality. Still, just below the surface, what’s revealed here is (as I suggested in a 2013 PT post) “a degree of insecurity vastly beyond anything they might be willing to avow” (“6 Signs of Narcissism You May Not Know About”).
And these self-esteem deficits link to DSM’s 4th criterion: the narcissist’s “requir[ing] excessive admiration.” Obviously, the loftier the station of the person admiring them, the more meaningful to them such adulation will be. If narcissists so often fish for compliments—ideally, from those with high status, or who seem to reflect the success, power, brilliance, or beauty they themselves crave—they make themselves that much more vulnerable to those who would gladly offer them such adulation, but only to serve their own purposes.
These envied others, frequently exhibiting narcissistic traits themselves, “play into” the narcissist’s overblown pride so that, pivotally, they can employ the narcissist’s defenses against them. Furthermore, the narcissist’s egocentricity, or conceit, can render them blind to others’ self-interest motives. And in their tunnel vision, they may not be able to detect that their perceived friends are actually using them. (For the narcissist is so exclusively focused on how he or she can use them.)
It cannot be over-emphasized that, incapable of filling their inner void themselves, narcissists must continually locate outside “suppliers” to compensate for their chronic emptiness. And because authentic self-validation is so far beyond their capacity, they’re constantly at risk of being taken advantage of (and especially, by fellow narcissists, who would use them as narcissistic supplies!).
Perhaps more than anything else, it’s the narcissist’s extraordinary dearth of compassion that impels others—whether self-protectively or in retaliation—to capitalize on their gullibility. As portrayed in DSM’s 7th criterion, the narcissist “lacks empathy: is [unable or] unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.” And this criterion closely joins two others already foreshadowed—the narcissist’s interpersonal exploitiveness and their arrogant or haughty attitude.
In short, narcissists often inspire their victims with vindictiveness. Over time those they’ve harmed—taunted, offended, insulted, provoked, or outraged—have learned that the best way to avenge themselves against the cruelty of these master manipulators is either to (1) exploit to the max their everlasting need to be commended, sucked up to, or acclaimed; or (2) goad them into getting so out-of-control angry that they’re driven to say or do something ruinous to their welfare. As regards the latter, when narcissists are “taken over” by their single, most self-sabotaging emotion—that is, their predominate rage—their judgment is seriously impaired, rendering them totally incapable of considering the consequences of unleashing their fury.
It’s precisely because they’re so abusive themselves that, as Vaknin succinctly puts it: “Narcissists attract abuse.” And elaborating on this rudimentary point, he adds:
Haughty, exploitative, demanding, insensitive, and quarrelsome—they tend to draw opprobrium and provoke anger and even hatred. Sorely lacking in interpersonal skills, devoid of empathy, and steeped in irksome grandiose fantasies—they invariably fail to mitigate the irritation and revolt that they induce in others.
Perhaps the ultimate irony is that narcissists, as cold-blooded as they are in objectifying others, are governed by one (already mentioned) overriding emotion—which constitutes the cornerstone of their various defenses. And that is their almost reflexive anger, which finally makes them vulnerable less to others than to themselves. Highly reactive to the slightest negative assessment—whether real or imagined—they can easily lose control of their rational faculties. And that’s what, potentially, can make it so easy for others to gain control over them. As the unnamed writer already cited describes this susceptibility: “Get a narcissist frothing at the mouth, and [they’ll] tell you exactly what [they’re] doing, why, when, how, and to whom. It’s better than getting a Batman villain to monologue” (from “What to Remember When Dealing With a Narcissist”).
Which is to say that, sooner or later, the trickster may well become the tricked. And those ruthlessly abused by the narcissist can finally get the justice—or revenge—denied to them earlier.