I am a recovering (usually benign) narcissist.
In order to keep going, narcissists need fuel. The fuel (aka ‘supply’) comes in the form of neurochemical highs induced by the ways others interact with the narcissist. These can be positive reactions as when the narcissist is attended to, admired, and adulated. Or they can be negative as when others get angry at or afraid of the narcissist. What these reactions mean to the narcissist is that he matters. They confirm to him that he exists. The question of his existence is pressing at all times because he doesn’t know or live from his true self but instead knows, lives from, projects, and idolizes a fake self-image.
To the narcissist, the fuel he gets from others feels like love and respect. It may feel like love and respect to those supplying it as well. Love is present, I suggest, but distorted and imperfect love. Love (however one defines it) is indeed correlated with the release of certain neurotransmitters like dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin (among others) – the body’s endogenous feel-good drugs. To remain happy, however, the narcissist needs extreme doses of these chemicals to compensate for the yawning abyss at the core of his being that is his true self. In an attempt to fill up that black hole of shame, self-loathing, and self-terror, the narcissist goes to great lengths to elicit responses from others that will release high doses of his feel-good chemicals. If a healthily loved person can be compared to a candle burning an ample fuel supply at a slow and steady rate, the narcissist can be likened to a stick of dynamite which, when its volatile fuel runs out, is annihilated. The instinctual fear of this annihilation drives the narcissist to relentlessly seek love – the addictive love that is the only love he has ever known. This frantic search for fuel pushes him to master techniques for inducing love and respect: charm, smarts, wit, humor, education, power, seductiveness, uniqueness, grandiosity, flamboyance, etc.
Within my family and community of origin, I eventually learned which inborn and learned traits I could exploit to guarantee a near-ceaseless flow of narcissistic fuel. These included good looks, good grades, good behavior, good sense of humor, friendliness, agreeableness, obedience, prestige, language abilities, cross-cultural experience, and probably most of all, a cherished identity as different. These served me quite well until I entered the wider world of graduate school and adult life where one has to distinguish oneself much more in order to elicit the same levels of narcissistic supply. To my dismay, I discovered that without the love-fuel and respect-fuel that I thought was forever mine to enjoy, I turned out to be a hollow shell of a person. I didn’t know who I was.
The less fuel I acquired, the more frantic became my search. Like a heroine addict, I had to find more and more narcissistic fuel in order to feel temporarily satisfied. This drove me to extremes. In my narrative at the time, I spiritualized my addiction to narcissistic supply. I told God before going to Uganda that I wanted to serve him in the most difficult assignment available. In retrospect, I see that this was for three reasons: 1) to prove to myself and the world that I wasn’t as horribly weak as I felt, 2) to garner the awe and adulation of people who knew me and my ‘heart’, and 3) to show my gratitude and devotion to Christ (the Perfect One presumably saving me from imperfection). It seemed to work, for a while, but I was already running on fumes. I expected the Ik people’s love and respect to fuel me for years once they appreciated the monumental sacrifices I was making to leave my life of entitlement and privilege to come and ‘serve’ them. Wrong!
The two journal entries below were written not long after a three-month reprieve in the United States. They touch on an interesting phenomenon: whenever we left our assignment for a break, we spent time with our families and friends (who, for a narcissist like me, are also fans). Being with them filled up my fuel tanks. This all seemed quite natural and understandable, but what I didn’t get was why those tanks drained dry so quickly when we went back. The loss of psychic fuel and associated deterioration in mood was so drastic, I decided to calculate it. The average seemed to be about 1day:1week. That is, it took one day in Karamoja to lose the fuel I had gained in the course of one week outside Karamoja. Suffice to say, most of the eight years we spent in the region, I was running on empty, or coasting, or rolling with the engine off, sometimes in reverse. I didn’t have the external or internal resources to generate self-sufficiency.
March 20, 2010:
The zeal I had at first to re-engage the local people is fading fast. I can feel it draining out. I realize that when we arrived I had a surplus of love in my heart from being with people in the US, but here, people just don’t love me in the ways I’m accustomed to being loved. They love me for what I can give them or do for them.
March 27, 2010:
It’s happening again. The layer…of faith, Jesusness, Christness, Spiritness that accumulated over furlough is eroding…Slowly, day by day, the elementality, organicity, and baseness of life in Karamoja chips away at the spiritual level. Little by little the ability to focus and concentrate on an inner reality fades away. It’s no wonder I don’t have much in the way of a spiritual life. I can’t maintain one. I pray for it to be different, but each day praying itself becomes more of a struggle…