Whilst narcissism is often characterised by bombast and a seemingly unwavering self-belief, there are times when even a narcissist may cry. Do Narcissists cry? It seems impossible but it is true. So how can someone who is so tied up with their own success, self-image and the presentation of themselves in their everyday lives suffer the kind of emotion or tearful outburst that is more characteristic of us other mere mortals?
The clue is that like any other “disordered personality” they are not uniform. Psychiatric disorders as outlined in the diagnostic and statistical manuals of the American Psychiatric association (the bible of defining psychological conditions) are based not on absolutes, or objective criteria like neuro-imaging but often on subjective decisions about behaviours. In the DSM a condition is often defined by a list of possible behaviours which a person may exhibit as a result of their condition. A person does not have to have all the behaviours to be “diagnosed”. These are the characteristics of Narcissism as defined in the DSM V:
- Grandiosity with expectations of superior treatment from others
- Fixated on fantasies of Personal attractiveness power, success, intelligence,
- Self-perception of their own uniqueness, superior and associated with high-status people and institutions
- Needing constant admiration from others
- Sense of entitlement to special treatment and to obedience from others
- Exploitative of others to achieve personal gain
- Unwilling to empathize with others’ feelings, wishes, or needs
- Intensely envious of others and the belief that others are equally envious of them
- Pompous and arrogant demeanour
Aspects Of The Diagnosis
To qualify for a diagnosis, the behaviours must have developed by early adulthood and the abilities and experiences must be less than those claimed by the narcissist.
There are also other aspects which interplay with the formal diagnostic processes, making it more of a social construct than a scientific process.
Firstly, is a label useful to a person in dealing with aspects of their social lives? Being labelled as having narcissistic personality disorder may be less helpful for a person than say, being labelled with Asperger’s which, in the scheme of things is a much more socially acceptable these days.
Secondly, in most conditions, there is a gradient between low and high functioning. A person with “low functioning” may be unable to manage in the social world, whereas a “high functioning” individual may not only be able to cope with the real world but thrive. A fine example of this is Moffat and Gatiss’s crafting of “Sherlock” in the BBC TV series where the eponymous hero played by Benedict Cumberbatch describes himself as a “high functioning sociopath”.
The results of the diagnostic criteria and its interplay with other subjective criteria is that it is possible to end up with someone who has “high functioning narcissism”. Another term for this is “extreme narcissist” and they may be invisible to all but the most emotionally literate observer.
High Functioning Narcissists
High functioning narcissists are energetic, outgoing, confident and excel in superficial relationships but there’s the rub, they may have problems maintaining and deepening them in the way that most of the rest of us can. They make friends easily on a superficial level and can be very “hale fellow well met” someone who it is nice to have at a dinner party, social gathering, or as your dentist or sales manager. Unlike a frank narcissist, they are more charming and at first at least, a better listener.
The trouble is they can’t keep friends and will keep running up against the barrier that people will walk away from someone who is self-absorbed. They then enter a cycle of made and broken friendships and relationships and end up lonely. And that loneliness will be so deep that they may end up crying themselves to sleep for want of what other lesser mortals have, a friend. Worse still, they could end up as a virtual Peter Pan as their friends all settle down to domesticity. Being Peter Pan without Wendy or the lost boys isn’t much fun.
Early Infancy Attachment
But the deeper sadness is the tears may have had their origins years before, in early infancy. One possible cause of NPD is a failure in the attachment bond between care giver and infant. John Bowlby, and English psychiatrist in the mid 20th century came up with attachment theory (as it happens on very little empirical evidence but his theory was to developmental psychology what Newton’s theory of gravity was to physics). Attachment is the bond between a care giver and infant which acts as a template for all future intimate relationships and close friendships.
If a child does not experience this bond by about 2 years, then the critical period is passed, and in most (though not all) cases, the child lacks the ability to make enduring friendships. We know this is so because on the rare occasions where children have suffered maternal deprivation (it can be either parent) all aspects of their development are affected. The case of Genie, the girl found tied to a potty chair aged 12, is a sad illustration of this (Curtiss, 1977).
In the case of high functioning narcissists it is clear that the bond is disordered rather than deprived and the child may have suffered inconsistent parenting or conditional love and affection which in turn left them emotionally scarred (feeling empty but constantly trying to succeed to earn the love they lacked). The wounded child and later adult then develops a way of dealing with this hole, one strategy can be Narcissism.
No matter how socially skilled an extreme narcissist is, he/she has a major attachment dysfunction and wound. This wounded person constructs one or more false fronts in order to survive and insulate themselves from people because of distrust and fear (Lopez De Victoria, 2008).
Attachment therapy, is time consuming and difficult to access, but access isn’t the main issue: who will help the lost child of the narcissist access therapy when they don’t recognise they need it in the first place? Lonely narcissists who are left to cry big, wet, salt tears and they don’t know why. Hell, I feel like crying for them too.