Tragically Unaware: The Internal World of the Narcissist.
When we think of narcissism, we often think of someone with an over developed sense of self-importance. Someone who is superficially charming, aggressive, arrogant, lacks empathy and who is willing to manipulate to meet his or her end goals. While this (at its core) is true it is important to recognize narcissism exists along a continuum (traits to disorder) and does not always manifest in the classic way we conjure up.
Often when I think of Narcissism; I think of many of the characters whose stories unfolded in the novel The Great Gatsby (written in 1925 by F. Scott Fitzgerald). There are many glaring examples of narcissism in the novel, but for the purpose of this writing Jay Gatsby (the novels main character) and the Buchannan’s (Tom and Daisy-supporting characters) are offered in exploration of narcissism and its existence across a continuum of characterological manifestations. All three characters were afflicted with the sense of entitlement, willingness to deceive, and carelessness toward others that make-up core components of narcissism. As noted, several of the characters from the novel could exist along this continuum. Characters so self-possessed that they did not value (or even truly recognize) the experiences, needs, or lives of others. Only taking, for themselves, to fulfill their perceived needs.
And, while this writing is not an analysis of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s cast of characters, it is a worthwhile and (in this writer’s opinion) interesting framework to better understand the many ways in which narcissism manifest. In reality, narcissism can present as overt and grandiose with its impaired host engaging in exhibitionism and exploitative acts to gain something or someone that supports (serves to mirror) their needed self-ideology. It can also present as a more covert approval seeking (seemingly vulnerable) individual who is slightly more aware of their fear of rejection. And, because it does exist on a continuum it may present in many ways including these two extremes. At its core it is powered by an intense and distorted need to feel loved (which is felt through admiration and feels valuing to the individual).
There are many reasons one would grow into developing narcissistic traits or in developing narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). These reasons (as many do) lay within the once developing child this person was. While it is true that unspeakable abuse can form this core, it can also be formed by over indulgent caregivers, caregivers who focused on performance rather than connection, and/or caregivers who unwittingly (due to their own pain) insisted their child mirror them-never allowing a separate mind (in a sense) to take shape. At its core narcissism does not allow its unaware recipient to tolerate (or lovingly acknowledge) anyone who feels threatening (rejecting) through difference or non-agreement. Along, with not tolerating difference the individual needs a consistent supply of admiration and approval. This person has a difficult time hearing they have done anything wrong (in any arena). Their fragile sense of self is deeply threatened at this seeming rejection.
What an intensely empty experience this would be. Always seeking approval in some form but never really feeling it is enough. In reality, never feeling they are enough. This is an internal feeling that the individual works mightily to never feel. In fact, the overt narcissist may be so well defended (psychologically speaking) that he or she is oblivious to this experience. Their focus is generally on another who, in their view, caused them to feel something they equate with undesirable or bad. It is this other’s (whether this is an individual or larger entity) fault. They work hard to stay away from these bad feelings (that resonate with not being enough) and can (on some level) accomplish this by minimizing, dismissing, or placing blame elsewhere. The covert (or more vulnerable seeming) narcissist will still deflect and place blame but will be less overtly aggressive in their counterattacks. They may more consciously feel self-doubt but will not truly own this. They are also working to stay away from that internal sense that exist under layers of defense.
Jay Gatsby and Tom Buchannan (from the novel) are solid embodiments of the overt narcissist. Dangerous in different ways. Jay Gatsby is presented as charming and mysterious. He has built his life and maintained his livelihood by engaging in illegal behavior. He uses his neighbor (Nick the story’s narrator) to lure Daisy (his long time love interest or obsession who can mirror or bring validity to his self-image) to his home in which he has consistently thrown lavish parties to entice her. He engages in a plot to have Daisy at seemingly any cost. If he has any feelings regarding his moral shortcomings, they are not overly present in the novel. Tom Buchannan is a more brash character. He bullies, brags, lies, has affairs and, is an over inflated personality. Further, when he learns his wife Daisy has been unfaithful (with Gatsby) he is seemingly singularly focused on having his possession back.
Daisy in some ways fits the characteristics of the covert (or vulnerable) narcissist. Her self -focus and need for approval, and importance is initially hidden behind what seems her pain around her husband’s betrayal and her love for Gatsby. This façade is shattered as the story came to an end.
The ending of the story is tragic as are many ill-fated relationships with well defended narcissists. In short summary, the final scenes of the novel include Daisy agreeing to tell Tom that she is in love with Gatsby and is leaving the marriage. Several characters are witness to this conversation. Daisy does not truly want to leave her marriage and makes a dramatic exit by running from the room where the characters are gathered. She frantically jumps into Gatsby’s car intending to drive away (not dealing with the reality of her own behaviors or even recognizing its impact on others). Gatsby follows and is in the car with her when she accidentally runs over Tom’s lover Myrtle. (A supporting character who could also easily fit onto this continuum, but that is a writing for another time). Gatsby, due to his seeming love for Daisy and her seemingly fragile nature, takes responsibility for Myrtle’s death. Myrtle’s distraught husband (George) then breaks into Gatsby’s home and shoots him as he lays floating in his pool. He (Myrtle’s husband) then kills himself.
Tom and Daisy continue, surrounded by their fine things and upcoming holiday. Careless, unaware, highly defended, self-involved people causing (in this fictitious tale) irreversible harm to others.
In reality, true narcissists (those suffering from narcissistic personality Disorder) are self -focused and do not have the relational skills necessary for genuine reciprocity. (A necessary ingredient in connected relationship). They do not feel deep wells of empathy and do not generally have the self-reflective capacity required to maintain emotionally safe (and sometimes physically safe) relationships. This said, with well skilled and intensive treatment (with a therapist trained in the challenges of treating narcissism) changes can be made. This is generally a long and difficult journey, laden with disruptions in relationship, for the individual and those who love him or her. To be very clear, while a fictional novel was utilized to provide a framework for exploration, there is very real harm that can come from relationship with a person who is suffering from Narcissistic Personality Disorder or is on the continuum. Often, emotional abuse (which is highly impactful to its victim) is a controlling component in relationships across the narcissistic continuum. In addition, it is highly important to recognize, danger to the physical self may exist in some circumstances. (There are many variables to this, and this is not to say that all who engage in violence toward others are narcissists, or that all who possess traits along the continuum will cross physical boundaries. This can, however, present as a variable).
For the individual involved in the relationship with the narcissist, and dependent on many nuanced factors, the journey to recovery can be lengthy. Much harm can be done to one’s self concept and they will need to work to make sense of the experiences they have had. Support is necessary as one navigates this painful process. Over time, and through reflective self-work, a stronger self-concept can grow.
Overall, it is important to note that the topic of narcissism is broad and multifaceted. This article explores minimal aspects of a vast and nuanced topic. It is intended to highlight the existence of the above noted continuum, bring understanding to the internal experience of the individual on the continuum, and its potential (and often substantial) impact on those involved. It is also worth noting that narcissism (while explored in the context of the novel The Great Gatsby whose characters’ lived lives of privilege) can exist across socioeconomic classes and individual circumstances. As always, it is important to note that this writing is not intended as treatment advice or guidance. It is offered in exploration of this subject matter.
Lastly, I do want to offer potential resources for those who may wonder if they are in a relationship with someone who is on the narcissistic continuum, or who has made the (generally highly complicated) decision to leave the relationship. As noted, this can be a long journey and gaining a better understanding, informed support, and resources in the event of escalated crisis are important pieces of this process.
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