Skip Navigation

Top Menu

Home Archives About

Blog Post

Thoughts on Narcissism and Constructed Personal Realities June 27, 2023

Last week I traveled to Germany and Belgium. I'll post photos when I recover the energy to go through them all, but right now my body still thinks the appropriate time to wake up and start the day is 2 am.

On the long flight over, I watched a miniseries I'd downloaded to my phone through my public library's Hoopla subscription: Deadwater Fell. I knew nothing about it except that it was a drama and starred David Tennant, so it must be good. And it was.

Tom Kendrick, played by Tennant, is a seemingly kind physician with a seemingly perfect life. A beautiful wife named Kate, three delightful young daughters, a loving friendship with the family across the street. Then one night, Kate and the girls die in a tragic fire...but it turns out they were already dead from poisoning. The girls were padlocked inside the room, with Kate lying outside in the hall holding the key. In the final scene of episode one, Tom wakes up in the hospital and asks, "What did she do?"

The show seems to reveal the cracks in the family dynamic caused by Kate's post-partum depression. The audience sees her erratic outbursts during nice picnics on the beach. A bout of reckless driving in which she lost her temper at the girls in the backseat and caused a serious accident. Scenes of her buying the padlock; snapping at her sweet mother-in-law; and drunkenly sobbing, "I don't want to feel like this anymore" while ever-patient Tom tucks her into bed and soothes her like a young child.

The underlying truth, of course, is that Tom is a covert narcissist who strategically broke Kate down to maintain absolute control over his family. Whenever Kate made close female friends, Tom would destroy the relationships by having affairs with them. To ensure Kate would never find support, he confided his "concerns" about her mental state to everyone in town. He'd touch her buttons in public until she reacted, then shake his head and say to others, "I can't deal with her when she's like this." When Kate worked up the courage to leave him and take the girls, Tom asked her to buy the padlock and calmly murdered them all.

When I arrived home this weekend, I read articles and watched videos about narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). When people say "narcissist" colloquially, they tend to mean someone is generally arrogant and selfish. Clinically, narcissists have at least five of nine diagnostic criteria (from Duke University):

  • Sense of self-importance
  • Preoccupation with power, beauty, or success
  • Entitled
  • Can only be around people who are important or special
  • Interpersonally exploitative for their own gain
  • Arrogant
  • Lack empathy
  • Must be admired
  • Envious of others or believe that others are envious of them

There are two types of NPD, covert and overt. Overt NPD is what most people think a narcissist would be: very obviously self-absorbed, loud, charming, and controlling. A charismatic bull in a china shop. But in the more insidious form, people with covert NPD present as humble and self-sacrificing. They employ passive aggressive mind games to get what they want.

A relationship with a person with NPD will generally have two stages: idealization and devaluation.

In the first stage, a narcissist will put a person on a pedestal and "love bomb" them to secure their affection. They'll be so apparently honest and open, so sensitive and generous, so vulnerable and pitiable, that the victim will happily do everything in their power to give the narcissist the attention and praise they deserve.

Then when the narcissist gets bored or threatened (for example, by the victim asking for a bit of reciprocity in the relationship), they'll suddenly transform from Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde. They'll explode in violent rages. They'll throw hurtful accusations around. They'll treat the same person they expressed undying devotion to with contempt, sneer at their pain, and abandon them for days or weeks.

How could somebody act like this? To a healthy functioning adult, it's unfathomable. They must see they're hurting others and ultimately themselves, right? Why don't they stop? And the most incomprehensible part is that none of the dizzyingly complex manipulation seems to be deliberate. The narcissist seems to be a good person. They appear intelligent and insightful. They can say all the right things about ethics, social justice, and mental health. But then out of the blue, they say things so nasty and do things so devious, normal people couldn't imagine them.

In essence, a person with NPD has the emotional maturity of a six-year-old. Due to various potential reasons, including traumatic experiences and abusive parenting, they repress their emotions and don't develop the skill to self-reflect.

Most young children learn how to recognize what's going on in their bodies when they're angry or sad, and how to communicate that in productive ways. We use our words. We don't bite or hit our friends. We say, "I feel..." and "I'm sorry."

A narcissist, however, stops growing before they reach that point. They get stuck in the perpetual state of a preschooler who demands ice cream and throws a screaming, kicking, fist-pounding tantrum when they don't get it.

This is crazy to witness when you encounter a person with NPD, because they appear to be fully developed adults. Sexually, intellectually, language-processing-wise, they might be. But inside, they have no comprehension of what's going on in their own brains. They can't regulate their emotions, so they act out impulsively to expel their feelings onto others.

The paradox is: narcissists have inflated and fragile egos because they have no real sense of self. It's completely made-up in a perfect image, like the fantasy of a child wearing a bed sheet as a superhero cape. They have a pathological need to control and protect that image. Any tiny challenge to their carefully crafted identity will be perceived as an unjust attack against them.

Most fascinating to me, narcissists create a distorted personal reality that's completely illogical to everyone else, because they can't see all the information we do.

When we feel something that indicates a change in internal state, like our forehead crinkles and our mouths turn down, healthy adults will quickly analyze the current context to identify what caused it. Let's say: I'm eating dinner with my spouse, this chicken is dry, I'm tired, and I had an unpleasant day at work. When our spouses ask, "What's wrong?" we'll say, "Ugh, today was just one dumpster fire after another."

Now imagine you're blind to anything going on inside of yourself. When you're upset, you can only see: I'm eating dinner with my spouse, and this chicken is dry. Therefore, the only possible source of your unhappiness is your spouse and their terrible cooking skills. If they ask, "What's wrong?" you might snap, "You could have at least tried to make something new for once. I hate chicken. I've always hated chicken, but you never bothered to ask. You don't even care what I like, do you?"

Naturally, when the only perceptible causes of negative emotions come from outside of you, you will always be the victim of a cruel, cruel world. Every issue is somebody else's fault. Every consequence of your actions is somebody else's problem. They're too sensitive, too selfish, too weak to deal with it, and how dare they put the responsibility for their feelings on you. Why are they being so mean when you've been nothing but nice and tolerated so much? You deserve better.

A real-life example of all of these traits is the United States' most famous overt narcissist, Donald Trump. In his mind, he is perfect and could do no wrong. Everyone adores him, and anyone who criticizes him is out to get him. He's "a very stable genius." Any investigation into his criminal activities is a witch hunt. Any political loss is a deep-state conspiracy against him. Any challenge to his baseless assertions triggers a toddler-level meltdown. While the world watched in shock as his supporters violently attacked the Capitol, he watched in delight, because he was going to get the absolute power he wanted and deserved.

While Donald Trump and Tennant's Tom Kendrick are extreme examples of narcissism, many fictional characters have narcissistic traits to a certain degree. Villains like Anakin Skywalker, certainly, but also some heroes like Jay Gatsby. In fact, every human has many of these traits as young children and retain a few of them as we age. Everyone gets a little jealous of people who have more money or friends, a little preoccupied with our looks, a little bit manipulative at work to get that raise or promotion.

And every single one of us crafts a personal reality that is not, and cannot be, 100% representative of the objective universe. For most people, our realities adjust as we encounter new information. For people with narcissistic tendencies and others with immature mindsets, sadly, their realities get frozen. They employ mental somersaults to keep them that way. When people who want to believe Donald Trump won the 2020 election are faced with facts to the contrary, they'll ignore the lack of evidence of widespread fraud and latch on to logic with the infallibility of a Jenga tower, like, "Trump was winning and suddenly all these blue votes appeared, so there was something fishy going on," and "I didn't vote for Biden, and none of my friends did either, so he must have cheated."

Character development guides and worksheets tend to build an imaginary person from specifics into a whole, like: What is their name? What are their physical traits? Where did they grow up? What do they want? What do they fear? What's their biggest flaw? And so on.

While these can help for brainstorming, I think the question to keep in mind for a consistent, cohesive character is: What is their reality? And how tightly do they cling to it?

For example, if we just play Mad Libs with character worksheets, you might end up with something like:

  • Name: Madison or "Maddie"
  • She's 18, athletic, and has curly black hair.
  • She grew up in a small town in northern California.
  • She dreams of becoming a journalist for the New York Times.
  • She's afraid of spiders.
  • She's a little too frank and sometimes doesn't think before she speaks.

So we seem to have shaped a person, but it's like an online dating profile: just a collection of vague unconnected traits. None of this will drive her story or inform how she interacts with others.

Now, what is her reality?

Maddie has an idealistic outlook informed by her protected small-town upbringing in progressive northern California. She believes people are essentially good and do bad things only because they're ignorant or misinformed. She's certain that if she exposes hard truths in viral articles, people will be energized to act and the world will change.

Now we can start to see what kind of choices this young woman would make when faced with challenges, what kind of people she would gravitate towards or come into conflict with, and so on. For example, a young person like this would be vulnerable to being used, because she couldn't fathom that people who share her views could have bad intentions. She'd have difficulty coping when she goes to college to become an investigative journalist and change the world, only to run up against discouraging professors, vicious personal attacks from readers, and pranks from mean girls she angered by putting her foot in her mouth.

We can also concoct the allies and villains of her story by considering what kinds of realities would mesh with or clash with our heroine's.

Maddie's roommate grew up in Indianapolis and has a strong pride in her identity as a Hoosier. Her upbringing was superior because girls in Indiana don't wear makeup and have good values, unlike those superficial party girls from bad states like California. But she's not mean-spirited. She'll be humbled to meet people from different backgrounds, and ashamed to realize how judgemental she's been.

A young man in Maddie's class project group is witty and kind, but cynical. He grew up with Reddit trolls and Twitter bullies. He's convinced that people are essentially selfish jerks who will never change. To protect himself from bitter disappointment, he will strongly resist getting his hopes up that people could be decent.

The mean girl down the hall believes she's the heroine of this story. She is the most attractive, most intelligent, nicest person in the room. All men would prefer her over their girlfriends, who are fatter than she is and a lot less fun than she is. If another woman becomes the center of attention, she's a threat who must be swiftly eradicated. Because, as Mom and Dad taught her so well, a person's worth as a human being is determined by how externally successful they appear compared to everyone else.

That gets to the essence of a character much faster, I think, than eye color and hobbies and that single disastrous event in their past that haunts them to this day. (How many people have one of those?)


No comments

(Will not be shown)

What is the first letter of "Ohio"?