The nature of the narcissist is paradoxical—as is much that’s been said about them

Whether as a character trait or a full-fledged personality disorder, narcissism is just teeming with irony and paradox. Take, for example, this ambiguous quote that, without explanation, may well seem baffling: “I thought narcissism was about self-love till someone told me there is a flip side to it. . . . It is unrequited self-love” (Emily Levine).

In fact, in researching some of the most memorable things that have been said about this increasingly popular—and ever-controversial—subject, I encountered many quotes so private and personal in meaning that I could hardly be sure what the writer had in mind. Elliptical at best, and flat-out contradictory at worst, I was obliged to drop them from consideration. After all, it hardly made sense to attempt to explicate a viewpoint I myself found obscure.

Moreover, when a particular quotation about narcissism was so ambiguous that it was susceptible to any number of opposing interpretations, it couldn’t really be viewed as shedding new light on the subject. Nonetheless, many of the quotes I’ve chosen for this post are undeniably paradoxical. Still, their ambiguities are clearly intentional, and so can help the reader better appreciate the unusually ironic dynamics of this core psychological concept..

Let’s start with the quote I included in my opening:

“I thought narcissism was about self-love till someone told me there is a flip side to it. . . . It is unrequited self-love.” ~ Emily Levine. And consider also: “Narcissus weeps to find that his Image does not return his love.” ~ Mason Cooley

On their surface almost nonsensical, these complementary quotes hint at the deeper truth of narcissists—that a truly loving engagement with self doesn’t (and can’t) come from putting on haughty airs, acting with self-satisfied arrogance, or being obsessed with assorted fantasies of ideal brilliance or beauty. Healthy, non-egotistical self-love stems from an unconditional acceptance of self without having to declare superiority over others. It’s a love made possible by a fully integrated self; and such “internal togetherness” forever eludes the narcissist. For, with a truly alarming lack of insight as to what’s really going on inside them, their false, fake, or “idealized,” self must forever hold in contempt their actual, far-less-than-perfect being.

Curiously, deep, deep down—and undoubtedly unconscious to them—they know they’re not really what they project. In fact, one of their central defenses (or stratagems) is to endlessly project onto others the very flaws (and fears!) they’re unable, or unwilling, to allow into awareness. As critical as they are about others’ shortcomings, they’re amazingly blind to their own.

The narcissist’s self-love must ultimately be seen as an illusion, a spectacular triumph of self-deception. It’s similar to the handsome youth Narcissus of Greek mythology, whose blemish-free reflection in a pool of water is but a reflection and so can never love Narcissus back, can never requite his obsessive, yearning adoration. Actual, “non-mythic” narcissists can love only their false (or idealized) self—a mirage that cannot possibly return such a fantasy-laden love. However much narcissists may “posture” superiority, the flawed self hidden beneath their outward bravado has been locked up and placed in permanent exile. And this walled-off self, seen as inferior, weak, and even cowardly, is typically identifiable only by an astute therapist—though in time the many unappealing characteristics of the narcissist (e.g., their dishonesty, manipulation, and lack of empathy) become all too painfully obvious to those around them.

Moreover, the main reason that narcissists are so judgmental of others is that’s the only way they can sustain the desperately required fiction of their perfection. They’re truly masters in keeping their self-contempt secret from themselves through regularly finding people onto whom they can project it. And to continually safeguard themselves from a reality that so frequently contradicts their grandiose assumptions and pretensions, they’re obliged to adopt a massive defense system—which they maintain with extraordinary rigidity.

Narcissism and self-deception are survival mechanisms without which many of us might just jump off a bridge.” ~ Todd Solondz

This quote is seminal in that very few people recognize just how essential most people’s defenses are to them. And prideful, narcissistic defenses are among the most prevalent. That is, most of us are still saddled with certain doubts about ourselves left over from childhood (particularly if our parents didn’t adequately nurture, validate, or support us). These doubts center on the crucial question: “Am I good enough?” (or “smart enough,” “attractive enough,” “deserving enough,” etc.). So consciously cultivating counter-beliefs about being special, or even extraordinary, can afford us a compensatory comfort we may require simply to feel that we’re basically okay.

Strange as it may seem, to feel “good enough” many of us must convince ourselves that we’re more than good enough. You might ask yourself whether at times you, too, have exaggerated your accomplishments? Or had fantasies of being of higher social or economic status than is really the case? Or might you sometimes have fished for compliments to reassure yourself that you’re respected and admired? In short, narcissism exists along a continuum. And although very few of us actually meet sufficient criteria to be assessed as a Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), almost all of us are guilty of sharing certain narcissistic tendencies.

For truly narcissistic individuals, however, their defenses are absolutely essential to shore up their ego deficits and reduce (or remove) feelings of shame. Absent such defenses, they might find themselves (as the above quote suggests) in a state of suicidal depression. For deep down, most narcissists don’t really like themselves—let alone love themselves. And the more they boast, brag, and put others down, the more likely they’re trying to make up for deeper, largely hidden feelings of inferiority (or unlovability).

“No one has probably helped me more with my narcissism than my dog.” ~ Tucker Max
A dog’s readiness to accept you, and to give and receive love, exists totally independent of any efforts to cajole it to do so. Canines don’t know—or care—whether you’re having a bad hair day, or what clothes you’re wearing, or whether you’re rich or poor. As long as you give them some attention and don’t abuse them, they’re delighted to be your best friend. There’s really no need to try to please them, or to win their affection. Simply throwing the occasional ball for them to fetch will do the job nicely. It only makes sense then that such pets can temper whatever narcissistic inclinations you might possess. Daily they demonstrate that love isn’t something to be earned by parading superiority or high achievement. Nor is it based on doing anything special for them. Simply “showing up” (vs. “showing off”) in a caring way will dependably “earn” you a happily wagging tail.

“Self-love for ever creeps out, like a snake, to sting anything which happens . . . to stumble upon it.” ~ George Gordon Noel Byron

Here’s a metaphor that powerfully suggests that if, however accidentally and without the slightest negative intent, you happen to say or do something that a narcissist finds offensive (i.e., is experienced as a threat to—or assault upon—their artificially inflated self-esteem), they may attack you venomously. To safeguard their ever-precarious self-love, they’re compelled to “sting” anyone they sense may be challenging it. And because they’re so sensitive to anything resembling negative evaluation (even including a tentatively offered suggestion!), they’re likely—viper-like—to lash out at you if you offer a viewpoint counter to theirs. And when such an overreaction happens, only an experienced therapist is likely to grasp what their heated response betrays.

“It is not love that should be depicted as blind, but self-love.” ~ Voltaire

As brilliant as it is terse, what Voltaire’s quote reveals is his awareness of how narcissists’ self-delusions of superiority prevent them from seeing themselves as they are. As already indicated, they’re blinded by their idealized image of self, which they’ve fabricated to hide from themselves (and others) innermost doubts about their worthiness. And so they’re driven to portray themselves not simply as good enough but far beyond good enough: gifted, exceptional, unique. Given their typically high standards for themselves (sometimes related to unrealistically lofty norms earlier set for them by overly critical parents), simply being adequate doesn’t feel anywhere close to being good enough. So they must always be demonstrating—frequently in spurious ways—that they warrant being seen as superlative. And thus their well-deserved reputation for egotism, arrogance, and condescension.

“To love oneself is the beginning of a life-long romance.” ~ Oscar Wilde
Although as stated, this quote is undoubtedly ambiguous, the term “romance” leads me to believe that Wilde’s notion of self-love leans toward the pathological—and maybe the auto-erotic as well. But healthy self-love really has very little to do with the romantic: it’s grounded in positive self-regard and an acceptance of one’s flaws and frailties. On the contrary, being “in love with” oneself (as implied by Wilde’s quote) suggests a self-absorption that can only be detrimental to narcissists in their relationships with others. In fact, one of the most common descriptions of unhealthy narcissism emphasizes their inability to care about other people—apart, that is, from how these others might satisfy the demands of their (insatiable) egos.

“Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don’t mean to do harm, but the harm [that they cause] does not interest them. Or they do not see it, or they justify it because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves.” ~ T. S. Eliot

This quote makes a vital distinction between narcissists’ being malevolent (cf. the sociopath) and their simply lacking concern about how their behaviors might adversely affect others. It’s yet another way of drawing attention to their supreme self-absorption, which makes it impossible for them to identify with another’s feelings, Most of the time they don’t consciously intend to take advantage of others. Such exploitation is merely a side effect of their overriding need to feel more important and better than others—and so feel “good enough.” Nonetheless, their insensitivity to the wants and needs of those around them can at times be nothing less than astonishing.

“I don’t care what you think unless it is about me.” ~ Kurt Cobain

Here’s another quote that, however comical in its exaggeration, addresses the narcissist’s indifference to who you are or what you have to say—unless, that is, it specifically relates to them. They’re literally incapable of any genuine interest in another, unless that person can assist them in their endless quest to amass more and more evidence of their superiority. For their “inner child’s” need for confirmation is unquenchable. Additionally, Cobain’s offhanded remark indirectly calls attention to the fact that narcissists are generally recognized to be terrible listeners.

“Narcissists are great con-artists. After all, they succeed in deluding themselves! As a result, very few professionals see through them.” ~ anonymous.
This statement seems somewhat exaggerated to me. For most therapists learn quickly enough the signs and signals that give away a narcissistic patient (e.g., regularly blaming others for their problems, taking very little responsibility for why their lives aren’t working, telling them how to do therapy, etc.). Still, the quote is instructive in pointing out not only the enormous self-deception in the way narcissists see themselves, but also their singular expertise in deceiving others. Speaking with bogus authority, they typically have an excellent track record in getting others to see things as they do, even though the result to those so taken in can be disastrous (e.g., being persuaded to make a truly ill-considered investment).

All of which is to say that—on many different levels—getting involved with a narcissist can be as dangerous as a snake bite. And the unexpected sting of it all can, alas, last a good deal longer.

Note 1: In examining literally hundreds of quotes for this post, I came across many that centered not anywhere so much on the narcissist as on their hapless victims. Consequently, my next post will explore the damage that narcissists—especially those far out on the narcissistic continuum —do to those who unwittingly put their trust in them. It’s called “Victims Of Narcissist Partners Recall What Happened To Them”. 


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Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D., holds doctorates in both English and Psychology. Formerly an English professor at Queens College (CUNY) and Cleveland State University, he now lives in Del Mar, California, where he has maintained a general private practice since 1986. With clinical specialties in anger, trauma resolution (EMDR), couples conflict, compulsive/addictive behaviors, and depression, he has also taught some 200 adult education workshops on these subjects. In addition, he has served as consultant to both corporations and publishers. The author of The Vision of Melville and Conrad, he has also written numerous articles in the fields of literature and psychology. He is probably best known for his professional guide book Paradoxical Strategies in Psychotherapy, which describes a wide array of seemingly illogical therapeutic interventions. These powerful techniques can help therapists effectively resolve difficult individual and marital/family problems when more straightforward methods have proved unsuccessful. An active blogger for Psychology Today, as of 1/1/15 his more than 250 posts--on a broad variety of psychological topics--have received over 8 million views.