Carly Simon probably never imagined that this song would grow to represent the narcissists of the world, even though it’s clear that she was dealing with one of her own. Its irony stands as a paean over the adversity and pain wrought by those whose only concern is themselves, who lead you down a path of false trust and love so that they have you before they reveal themselves.
I’ve already discussed how they feel completely empty except for the negative emotions they have about themselves and that they are compelled to drop on others. I believe that the narcissist I was married to was also gay, and that this compounded his self-hatred and his intense feelings of shame.
The conversations that I have had with my counsellor and the reading I have done inform me that growing up with some kind of shame is pretty normal. My interpretation is that unless we feel shame, we will be unable to regulate unacceptable behaviours and internalize a notion of what empathy is and how it functions. Like most things in life, shame is good for us in small doses. Let it get out of control, however, and it becomes a serious impediment that, in the case of the narcissist, can lead to self-hatred and what I call instability of character. In other words, they don’t know who they are.
In “As Gertrude Stein Said, ‘There’s No There There,'” I discussed how the narcissist will exploit anything that provides an advantage, that they will “become” anything in order to get ahead or to be seen in a flattering light. They also do this so that they can “manufacture” a character. If they are at a party and the small talk turns to food dislikes, they will invent a dislike just so that they will fit in, so that they will have something to say and can have the spotlight focussed on them, even if they have never really thought about it before. Thereafter, for this particular group of people, the narcissist will insist on a dislike of pomegranates, with accompanying dramatic and illustrated story, such as snorting pomegranate seeds through his nose while driving full-tilt down the highway. Piece by piece, then, the narcissist will concoct what he or she sees as “character.”
The problem with this and where the instability starts to come in is two-fold. First, it starts to become difficult to keep track of “who” you are when there are numerous groups, and perhaps sub-groups, of people. And what about these groups mingling with each other? If the lady from your quilting class suddenly starts also attending your wine-tasting class, then things might get dicey. Yikes! She knows that pomegranate story … or maybe it was that other story, the one about being slung into prison in Angola, left there to rot and stuck listening to that drip, drip, drip on the stone cold floor while great brutes of cockroaches scuttled around looking for a place to build a new bedroom.
Well, the narcissist has an answer for this – one of these classes is going to get the boot. And for good measure, she may never talk to the quilting lady again because that lady has introduced fear into the narcissist’s life and has to be blamed, punished and excised. The fact is that unless the narcissist has settled on a group of “reliable” stories that are told and re-told, none of which are likely to be true, mind you, he or she will compartmentalize.
In other words, no one group of people in the narcissist’s life can mingle with another. There just might be too great an exchange of information, and the narcissist’s construct as a superior and special being might be found out. People might learn that he’s, well, that he’s just ordinary! One of the great ironies about this scenario that the narcissist is just too self-absorbed to get is that unless he forces it, he likely will not be the center of attention; people might have other things to talk about besides him.
It’s also interesting to note that despite the fears that narcissists have of being found out, they can be completely blase if they are found out. They will quickly invent an explanatory lie that on the surface sounds plausible, but on closer examination reveals major faults. They may laugh at you or be aggressively confrontational as diversionary tactics. They may also just stare and not respond at all, leaving the recipients to believe that there’s something wrong with them. I experienced all of these responses from my former narcissist husband.
The second part of this instability is the narcissist’s profound misunderstanding that having a collection of dramatic/heroic/tragic stories to tell does not constitute character, nor does “acquiring” someone else’s belief system. They absolutely fail to get that the development of a set of principles and beliefs requires years of honing, of examining, of molding and of casting off, and that it is fluid and responsive over time. It is as if they see a shelf of labelled characteristics from which they can choose, like deciding on an outfit for the day. As in Alice in Wonderland, “drink me” comes with a set of literal and surface results that for the narcissist, are completely “predictable”. “This is what I am” – today.
But underneath all this bullshit is shame. Shame because they believe that everyone else is better than them. Self-hatred because they are incapable of getting past the shame. Makes you want to feel sorry for them, doesn’t it? Don’t. Because if they remember what it was that made them hate themselves and feel ashamed, its reality is only a dim memory – likely it’s been replaced with a story. They may not even recognize that the hate and the shame exist, and if they do, they will certainly deny it. All they know is a frenetic need to fill up that vast nothingness, that vanity, by stealing the very being, the very core, of those who are unfortunate enough to come into contact with them.