The Interpersonal Perspective

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3 Ways to Control a Narcissist

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As stated in previous chapters, the interpersonal perspective focuses on transactions between sender and receiver in interpersonal communication. Each participant negotiates the content of the exchange so that, ideally, both parties receive messages congruent with their self-image and feel validated. Communications that are not validating support some alternative conception of self and are experienced as anxiety provoking.

Leary (1957) developed the interpersonal circle in an effort to refine and systematize the insights of Sullivan and the socioanalytic perspective of Horney, both of whom reacted to Freud's instinct model by developing psychoanalysis in an interpersonal direction. For Leary, narcissists demonstrated a competitive self-confidence founded on "adjustment through competition." Such individuals, he states, seek superiority and are terrified by dependence. Subsequent interpersonal circles have refined Leary's original contribution using more contemporary methods. Kiesler (1996, p. 21) regards narcissists as acting "presumptuously forward," "incapable of self-criticism," and "impossible to embarrass." He uses descriptors such as brazen, cocky, boastful, pushy, egotistical, self-enthralled, and "unable to ask for help with anything." Leonardo certainly demonstrates these qualities, and we can see that neither he nor Gerald acknowledge needing anyone else for anything.

Although the descriptors offered by Leary (1957) and Kiesler (1996) provide a concise summary of the interpersonal conduct of the narcissistic personality, other classic characteristics might be mentioned as well. Entitlement, as described frequently in previous sections of this chapter, is a central, defining feature of this personality pattern. Narcissists consistently expect special treatment, often as if they should hold diplomatic immunity to rules and conventions. Whereas ordinary persons should be required to abide by behavioral codes, many narcissists, especially those with a poorly developed superego, believe they should be exempted from shared standards of social living; conformity simply does not apply to their circumstances. Rules, laws, and oaths are instruments designed to keep the masses in line. Accordingly, rules should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis and dismissed where the end justifies the means or where abiding by the rule introduces too much red tape or otherwise constitutes an unreasonable restriction on free action. Making such an evaluation would be a sticky affair for any normal superego, but narcissists somehow always find themselves qualified.

Moreover, many narcissists break accepted interpersonal and social standards in a concerted effort to establish themselves as exceptional, to reinforce their own self-image of being special and unique, or to avoid defeat (Gunderson & Ronningstam, 1990). After all, only someone special can go unpunished. Some even flaunt their transgressions to competitors, and fellow narcissists may even compete to determine who can successfully take the most shortcuts; the most flagrant rule-breaker wins. Such individuals hug the boundaries between the narcissistic and antisocial personalities. In extreme cases, their self-centered exploitiveness may take on an almost diabolical quality. M. Scot Peck's (1983) portrayals of evil have been seen by some as mixing narcissism and moral corruption (Klose, 1995). Not all narcissists are like this. There are certainly those with good superego development; this alternate variant of the personality pattern often incorporates moral values into an exaggerated sense of superiority. Here, moral laxity is seen as evidence of inferiority, and it is those who are unable to remain morally pure who are looked on with contempt.

The sense of entitlement characteristic of narcissistic personalities also extends to the person, identity, and time of other human beings, where it merges with another cardinal trait: lack of empathy. Sometimes, it extends to the physical bodies of others, as with sexual harassment or domestic violence (Rothschild, Dimson, Storaasli, & Clapp, 1997). Narcissists are entitled to expect special favors, without offering anything in return. To simply do unto others as you would have them do unto you is insufficient, perhaps even mocking. Because others must know that the narcissist is an exceptional person, normal courtesies are often viewed as insulting.

Nowhere else are the interpersonal difficulties of narcissistic personalities so evident than at home, where the family is mandated not only to willingly defer to their desires but to anticipate their needs, excuse them from the pedestrian chores of everyday life, and remove obstacles from their way. It is not uncommon for narcissists to experience several divorces over the course of their lives (Beck et al., 1990), largely because of their sense of entitlement and tendency to berate others for the slightest imperfection, while putting their own actions in an unrealistically positive light (Gosling, John, Craik, & Robins, 1998). Not surprisingly, their mates often possess masochistic traits or at least a near-pathological measure of self-doubt. The masochist is attracted to the self-confidence of the narcissist, who accepts the deference of the masochist and his or her willingness to sacrifice the self to the entitlement of the narcissist. Unfortunately, the masochist always falls short of the idealized other, earning the masochist unending contempt. Worse, narcissists often fear that intimacy may be used to control them (Nelsen, 1995) and, therefore, may act out angrily against others when, in fact, they are reacting against feelings of vulnerability common to all relationships.

It may be obvious by now that the families of narcissists customarily must play second fiddle in terms of personal priorities. Anyone without direct relevance to the pursuit of personal glory is left at the periphery of the family system. Family members are not perceived as real persons with their own hopes, dreams, and aspirations, who need shared time with a caring mother or father, but as part of the furniture of existence. The family is valued only in terms of what its members might mean to the narcissist, rather than in terms of what they might mean to themselves. Children may be exhibited as baubles for their smarts or beauty, but the love they receive is contingent on their remaining so. This egocentric worldview makes it almost impossible for narcissists to grasp their abuses of others, either explicitly, through a sense of entitlement, or implicitly, by failures of authenticity in relationships. This, according to McWilliams (1994, p. 175), is the most "grievous cost" of narcissism, a "stunted capacity to love."

As with all of the personality patterns, not all narcissists exhibit flagrant, obvious hallmarks of the disorder. At this point in your study of personality patterns, you are likely realizing that there is not a singular pattern for each disorder, but many admixtures; likewise, the intensity of a disordered pattern ranges from muted to highly brazen. Our next case (see Case 10.3) concerns familial imbalance. Chase clearly demonstrates many aspects of narcissistic personality disorder and could be diagnosable as such, but he also is much less grandiose than Gerald or Leonardo. Chase and his wife are in family therapy because everything in their lives revolves around him. His wife admits that he is talented and imaginative, characteristics to which she was probably attracted from the very beginning. Now, however, she has realized that despite his good qualities, Chase is simply not emotionally available to her and takes her for granted in the relationship. This problem extends to the entire family; Chase's wife notes that he tends to "objectify" their two children. In addition, rather than spending time with the family, Chase is spending all of his free time on his novel, an achievement he feels will bring him national fame and tremendous wealth, which would alleviate any monetary concerns he or the family could possibly face. In the interim, however, he earns only a small check for his ghostwriting, and the financial difficulty this presents only exacerbates the couple's presenting problem. Probably because he fears criticism, he lets no one read his masterpiece, although he hints that the therapist might be allowed, as he may just "make the cut" of who is qualified and capable of appreciating his work.

The grandiose self usually makes a good first impression, appearing calm and carefree. These are qualities frequently mistaken for evidence of genuine strength, and only later do they become painfully transparent as arrogance or snobbishness. Many narcissists see themselves as too superior to be bothered by everyday hassles and instead prefer that others see them as unruffled by the strains of ordinary existence. To stress over meeting a deadline, for example, is simply beneath them, for it would indicate that they are just like everyone else. Instead, many present the image of just floating along through life, effortlessly enjoying their gifts of intelligence and success. Reversing Edison's dictum, they would have us believe that their life is 99% inspiration and just 1% perspiration. The good that happens they attribute to their own control (Ladd, Welsh, Vitulli, & Labbe, 1997), for their superior abilities ensure that the normal prerequisites to achievement, hard work and struggle, are suspended.

Other narcissists do not wish to be perceived as carefree but rather as confident and in control. They are the movers and shakers, manifesting power over their dominion by calling the shots and making the deals. Such individuals invest a great deal in their public image, frequently holding positions such as corporate executives, lawyers, and stockbrokers. For these individuals, impressive displays of material wealth and power— the prominently displayed sports car or elegant mansion—are all calculated to induce awe and admiration in the observer. Their conspicuous consumption and intense hyper-competitiveness in interpersonal relationships go far beyond what normal and adaptive levels of self-esteem require (P. Watson, Morris, & Miller, 1998) and speak clearly to underlying feelings of inadequacy.

Also noteworthy in the interpersonal domain is the extraordinary sensitivity to perceived slights. Many narcissists combine a conscious image of specialness with deep, unconscious feelings of inferiority, and this conflict renders them particularly disposed to perceive injury or insult. Therapists, for example, may run afoul of narcissistic vulnerability simply by making supportive comments. Attempting to induce hope

Chase entered marital counseling at the demand of his wife, who insisted that he was "selfish and totally preoccupied with work." "Our world," she states, "revolves completely around Chase. His desires. His moods. His comfort. Everything is catered to him."1 She admits that "he's a good guy, basically, with talent and imagination," but that was no longer enough. She wanted an equal partner, someone to spend time with, someone to feel intimate with, someone who would appreciate her, whereas he wanted, she stated, "a mother, a maid, and an occasional sex slave."

In therapy, Chase seemed friendly but self-satisfied and faintly disdainful. He talked at length about his writing, a novel that he hoped would bring him national fame and tremendous wealth. All his time was spent working on it, making chapters and creating dialogue. His only source of income was his ghostwriting, from which he earned a small paycheck. "Expressing creativity," he explained, "is my way of fulfilling myself." Nevertheless, he would let no one read his masterpiece. He hinted, however, that he might show it to the therapist, because "both of us have a deep concern for character and its development. I think a psychologist might be able to appreciate it."

In the third session of couples therapy, Chase revealed that alcoholism was an important factor that created problems in the marriage. During occasional bouts of drinking, he became self-condemning and irritable. Sometimes, his anger was displaced toward his wife, whom he accused of being the cause of his failures, having seduced him into marriage, putting obstacles in his way, and failing to appreciate the work he showed her. "She doesn't like anything I write!" he blurted out. "That's not true," she replied in disbelief. "I like most everything you write, and when you ask for feedback, I give it. I don't need to lie to you, do I?"

Chase recalls an isolated childhood during which he was expected to perform above and beyond the other children. Usually, he was successful, but occasionally suffered tirades from his own alcoholic father, for whom "nothing was ever good enough." Nevertheless, for the most part, his parents regarded him as "the boy wonder, the little genius of the family." Peer relationships were pleasant, but never close. Others thought of him as snobbish, an impression he admits he still encourages, because it signified that he was "more intelligent than the rest of the kids."

1Numbers mark aspects of the case most consistent with DSM criteria, and do not necessarily indicate that the case "meets" diagnostic criteria in this respect.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder DSM-IV Criteria

A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following:

(1) has a grandiose sense of self-importance (exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)

(2) is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love

(3) believes that he or she is "special" and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or highstatus people (or institutions)

(4) requires excessive admiration

(5) has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations

(6) is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends

(7) lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others

(8) is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her

(9) shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes

Reproduced with permission from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition. Copyright 1994 American Psychiatric Association.

in a depressed client, a therapist might comment, "Many others just like you have traveled the same road and yet gone on to recovery." Sensing that similar problems mean similar outcomes, most people would feel reassured. Narcissists, however, are likely to feel insulted, as if thinking, "What do you mean others just like me? There is no one else like me, and if you have the ability to understand me, you would already know that!" Some narcissists realize that anger would only disclose their vulnerability, so they hide their sensitivities. Others perceive themselves as belonging to some exceptional class of human beings and may not react at all, even to overt insults, especially if received from someone of obviously inferior status. Those who hurl insults are beneath contempt. By remaining unruffled, narcissists conceal the vulnerability of the self and prove that others are unworthy of upsetting them.

Not surprisingly, most narcissists eventually make boring conversationalists. At first, their sense of self-confidence and talk of their grand schemes are interesting and entertaining. Narcissists usually respond enthusiastically, because every willing listener is an opportunity for them to hear themselves talk and soak up yet more admiration and attention. Yet, when listeners share an event from their own life, they are likely to be interrupted as the narcissist either reasserts control over the conversation or resumes self-referential oration. Again, egocentricity prevents them from taking any interest in the inner world of others, who are not permitted to talk about themselves for long. The only thing of importance is the narcissist and what affects the narcissist. The achievements and agendas of others are irrelevant, except where they might provide a stepping stone for the narcissist's own ambitions. Eventually, most persons tire of such friendships, realizing that their destiny is to remain self-objects (Kohut, 1971), never to be known for who and what they are. For this reason, many narcissists excel at making acquaintances but fail at making friends. When asked who their friends are and what they enjoy most about them, narcissists often talk around the question.

Lacking genuine friendships and believing in the superiority of the self, many narcissists replace intimate friendships with a circle of loyal admirers. Because they see their ideas as revolutionary, they often invoke religious metaphors to describe their quest. Rather than mere associates, their loyal followers are regarded as disciples or aspirants, members of the inner circle, much as Freud's followers were in the early period of psychoanalysis. Such individuals walk a fine line. They must be special enough to rise above the ignoble horde of humanity. However, they must also be flawed in some way that prevents them from rivaling the narcissist. As extensions of the ego, they glow only by virtue of the master's own reflected light. Fortunately, if they are completely loyal and admiring, their leader's projections of grandiosity will transform them into idealized, perfect beings, whose brilliance is ensured through their participation in the glory of the great guru. Moreover, they must not have their own independent ideas, but only ideas that reinforce those of the leader, without adding anything substantial. Originality is not met with enthusiasm, but with disdain, as it implies that the prophesy of the master is as yet somehow incomplete—something must be integrated that the prophet could not supply. Freud's feuds with his disciples are notable illustrations of this point; certainly Gerald would be much happier if his coworkers would just conform to his self-image and begin admiring him.

Many narcissists have a degree of insight into their situation. Given their inability to connect with others and develop a shared history of love or work, narcissists often report feeling a sense of boredom or meaninglessness. Needing to be above everyone, narcissists salvage their own esteem and create an aura of specialness but doom themselves to a pretty lonely life. After all, emotional intimacy requires that two people strip away the illusion of power and status differences between them, creating a vulnerability intolerable to the narcissist. Realizing this, some narcissists long for more authentic and deeper emotional experiences to offset the empty worship they give themselves and receive from others.

The interpersonal development of the narcissistic personality has been sketched in detail by Benjamin (1996). Her account differs from the contemporary psychoanalytic accounts of Kernberg and Kohut, both of whom portray the disorder as a compensation or defense against early deprivations. Although narcissists seek to perfect the self, Benjamin holds that the force behind their development is actually parental overvaluation or at least a need for the child to be perfect. Following Freud (1914), Benjamin refers to the narcissist aptly as "His Majesty, the Baby." As she sees it, the early history of the narcissist personality is full of intense warmth and love, an adoration tantamount to worship. So exclusively focused are the parents on making the child feel special that they fail to disclose their own feelings and needs. As a result, the child fails to learn that others are separate beings with their own legitimate identity who might be fulfilled in ways other than basking in his or her presence.

Toddlerhood, the period of time characterized by the psychoanalytic schools as the "anal stage," is perhaps the most critical period in the development of pathological narcissism, according to the interpersonal perspective. It is here that the infant's budding sense of omnipotence runs headlong into the frustrations of reality. Whereas in early infancy, caretakers necessarily respond quickly and automatically to every demand, tod-dlerhood features the development of autonomy, important for the definition of the self. According to Benjamin (1996), the discipline that normal parents administer during this period teaches children that their actions affect others and that others are real persons, too. The parents of future narcissists, however, continue to indulge their children, remove all barriers to their progress, and fail to indicate how the children affect them. Without such messages, children can develop only an inconsiderate and insensitive egocentricity, a total lack of empathy. When no one is there to anticipate their needs, Benjamin states, such children are astonished. Naturally, as adults, they expect favors and indulgences and become rageful when these things are not immediately forthcoming, requiring instead "great dedication, overwork, and heroic performance from the people associated with him or her—without giving any thought to the impact of this pattern on their lives" (p. 150). Gerald again fulfills this pattern. His mother makes his meals and does his laundry, as she always has. This is exactly the unquestioning conformity that Gerald expects from everyone.

The final factor that Benjamin suggests is a subtle but "ever-present threat of a fall from grace" (1996, p. 146), an element that perhaps accounts for the emphasis on perfection of the self. The caretakers admire the child excessively but do not permit mistakes. The child is to be glorious and perfect, and the parents refuse to tolerate any hint of error, for then the child would be glorious and perfect no more. The covert message might be phrased, "You are glorious and perfect, and we love you for it. But don't screw it up, because if you do, it's over." All of us have both good and bad things about ourselves, but for the narcissist, the result is failure to tolerate any hint of imperfection, which immediately leads to feelings of emptiness and severe self-criticism. We see this in the case of Chase, who was expected to perform above and beyond the other children. For the most part, he succeeded, becoming the "little genius" of the family. Nevertheless, Chase has a vicious introjection: the condemning voice of his alcoholic father.

The Cognitive Perspective

When Chase drinks, this voice surfaces, and he becomes irritable and self-condemning, finally blaming his wife for his own shortcomings.

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  • Angela
    What is interpersonal perspective?
    2 years ago

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