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Frequently Asked Questions # 21
By Dr. Sam Vaknin
Am I to blame for my husband's/child's/parent's mental state and behaviour? Is there anything that I can or should do to help him or to reach him?
Self-flagellation is a characteristic of those who choose to live with a narcissist (for a choice it is). Constant feelings of guilt, self-reproach, self-recrimination and, thus, self-punishment characterize the relationships formed between the sadist-narcissist and the masochistic-dependent mate or partner.
The narcissist is sadistic because, early on, he was forced into expressing his own guilt and self-reproach in this manner. His Superego is unpredictable, capricious, arbitrary, judgemental, cruel, and self-annihilating (suicidal). Externalising these internal traits is a way of alleviating internal conflicts and fears generated by the narcissist's inner turmoil.
The narcissist projects this "civil war" and drags everyone around him into a swirl of bitterness, suspiciousness, meanness, aggression and pettiness. His life is a reflection of his psychological landscape: barren, paranoiac, tormented, guilt ridden. He feels compelled to do unto others what he inflicts upon himself. He gradually transforms his closest, nearest and dearest into replicas of his conflictive, punishing personality structure.
Some narcissists are more subtle than others. They disguise their sadism. For instance, they "educate" their family members or friends (for their sake, as they present it). This “education” is compulsive, obsessive, incessantly, harshly and unduly critical. Its effect is to erode the subject, to humiliate, to create dependence, to intimidate, to restrain, to control, to paralyse.
The victim of such "edification" internalises the endless hectoring and humiliating criticism and makes them his own. She begins to see justice where there is only twisted logic based on crooked assumptions. She begins to self-punish, to withhold, to request approval prior to any action, to forgo her preferences and priorities, to erase her own identity – hoping to thus avoid the excruciating pains of the narcissist's destructive analyses.
Other narcissists are less sophisticated and they use all manner of abuse to domesticate their kin and partners in life. This includes physical violence, verbal violence (during intensive rage attacks), psychological abuse, brutal "honesty", sick or offending humour, and so on.
But both categories of narcissists employ very simple deceptive mechanisms to achieve their goals. One thing should be clear: such abusive practice is not a well thought out, previously planned campaign by the average narcissist. His behaviour is dictated by forces that he cannot master.
Most of the time the narcissist is not even conscious of why he is doing what he is doing. When he is self-aware – he can't seem to be able to predict the outcomes of his actions. Even when he can foretell them – he feels powerless to modify his behavior. The narcissist is a pawn in the chess game played between the structures of his fragmented, fluid personality. So, in a classical – juridical sense, the narcissist is not to blame, he is not fully responsible or aware of what he is doing to others.
This seems to contradict my answer to FAQ # 13 where I write:
"The narcissist knows to tell right from wrong. He is perfectly capable of anticipating the results of his actions and their influence on his milieu. The narcissist is very perceptive and sensitive to the subtlest nuances. He has to be: the very integrity of his personality depends upon input from others… A person suffering from NPD must be subjected to the same moral treatment and judgement as the rest of us are. The courts do not recognise NPD as a mitigating circumstance – why should we?"
But, the contradiction is only apparent. The narcissist is perfectly capable of both distinguishing right from wrong – and of foreseeing the outcomes of his actions. In this sense, the narcissist should be held liable for his misdeeds and exploits. If he so chooses, the narcissist can fight his compulsive inclination to behave the way he does.
This would come at a great personal psychological price, though. Avoidance or suppression of a compulsive act result in increased anxiety. The narcissist prefers his own well-being to that of others. Even when confronted with the great misery that he fosters, he hardly feels responsible (for instance, he rarely attends psychotherapy).
To put it more plainly, the (average) narcissist is unable to answer the question: "Why did you do what you did?" or "Why did you choose this mode of action over others available to you under the same circumstances?" These decisions are taken unconsciously.
But once the course of action is (unconsciously) chosen, the narcissist has a perfect grasp of what he is doing, whether it is right or wrong and what will be the price others are likely to pay for his actions and choices. And he can then decide to reverse course (for instance, to refrain from doing anything). On the one hand, therefore, the narcissist is not to blame – on the other hand, he is very guilty.
The narcissist deliberately confuses responsibility with guilt. The concepts are so close that the distinctions often get blurred. By provoking guilt in responsibility-laden situations, the narcissist transforms life with him into a constant trial. Actually, the continuous trial itself is the punishment.
Failures, for instance, induce guilt. The narcissist always labels someone else's efforts as "failures" and then proceeds to shift the responsibility for said failures to his victim so as to maximise the opportunity to chastise and castigate her.
The logic is two-phased. First, every responsibility imputed to the victim is bound to lead to failure, which, in turn, induces in the victim guilt feelings, self-recrimination and self-punishment. Secondly, more and more responsibilities are shifted away from the narcissist and onto his mate – so that, as time goes by, an asymmetry of failures is established. Burdened with less and less responsibilities and tasks – the narcissist fails less. It preserves the narcissist's sense of superiority, on the one hand – and legitimises his sadistic attacks on his victim, on the other hand.
The narcissist's partner is is often a willing participant in this shared psychosis. Such folie a deux can never take place without the full collaboration of a voluntarily subordinated victim. Such partners have a wish to be punished, to be eroded through constant, biting criticisms, unfavourable comparisons, veiled and not so veiled threats, acting out, betrayals and humiliations. It makes them feel cleansed, "holy", whole, and sacrificial.
Many of these partners, when they realise their situation (it is very difficult to discern it from the inside) – abandon the narcissist and dismantle the relationship. Others prefer to believe in the healing power of love or some such other nonsense. It is nonsense not because love has no therapeutic power – it is by far the most powerful weapon in the healing arsenal. It is nonsense because it is wasted on a human shell, incapable of feeling anything but negative emotions, which vaguely filter through his dreamlike existence. The narcissist is unable to love, his emotional apparatus ruined by years of deprivation, abuse, misuse and disuse.
Granted, the narcissist is a consummate manipulator of human emotions and their attendant behaviours. He is convincing, he is deviously successful and sweeps everyone around him into the turbulent delusion which he consists of. He uses anything and anyone to secure his dose of Narcissistic Supply and discards, without hesitation those he deems "useless".
The narcissist-victim dyad is a conspiracy, a collusion of victim and mental tormentor, a collaboration of two needy people who find solace and supply in each other's deviations. Only by breaking loose, by aborting the game, by ignoring the rules – can the victim be transformed (and by the way, acquire the newly found appreciation of the narcissist).
The narcissist also stands to benefit from such a move. But both the narcissist and his partner do not really think about each other. Gripped in the arms of an all-consuming dance macabre, they follow the motions morbidly, semiconscious, desensitised, exhausted, concerned only with survival. Living with a narcissist is very much like being in a maximum security prison.
The narcissist's partner should not feel guilty or responsible and should not seek to change what only time (not even therapy) and (difficult) circumstances may change. She should not strive to please and to appease, to be and not to be, to barely survive as a superposition of pain and fear. Releasing herself from the chains of guilt and from the throes of a debilitating relationship is the best help that a loving mate can provide to her ailing narcissistic partner.