Narcissism is a Defense Mechanism
We always hear about Narcissistic Personality Disorder, but what about narcissism, with a lower case N? Narcissism is not a disorder. It's a trait. Like a symptom. When someone has a pathological degree of narcissism - meaning an extreme, inflexible amount, then they may be diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Or they may not. Someone can have an extreme and inflexible degree of narcissism but not meet the specific criteria for NPD. Or they may but it may not be recognized. This does not mean we cannot call them a narcissist. NPD is not the only disorder or problem that has elements of narcissism. There are others, and they are not all personality disorders. Even still, contrary to popular belief, a person does not have to be diagnosed with NPD or ANY disorder to be considered a narcissist. And just because they are not does not mean they are not narcissistic. "Narcissist" is not a diagnosis, and it doesn't need to be. It's a word we use to describe a type of person.
So if narcissism is not a disorder, why is it so problematic? Narcissism evolves as a defense mechanism against abuse or neglect most of the time. Let's say there is a child whose parent ignores them most of the time. When the child does try to get attention, the child is spoken to harshly and pushed away. As the child grows, they become a scapegoat for the parents. The child is blamed, abused and neglected. The parent says and does horrible things to the child. "You were a mistake, I wish you were never born, I hate you, you're worthless, you're stupid, you're ugly..." To a child, this is like hearing these things from God. Small children who are not valued by their parents do not value themselves. It would be as if God Himself came down from Heaven and told you that you were worth nothing.
The child's brain is immature and unable to defend against these words and these feelings. The only thing it can do is deny them and create a different reality for itself, so that's what it does. This is where the delusional beliefs narcissists hold come from, as well as the false self they create. The false self is the narcissist's defense against these hurtful words and the resulting hateful feelings they have for themselves. It is the wall they hide behind, the only real defense they have. It is their way of saying, "Look! I'm not bad, I'm good. I'm not worthless, I'm important. I'm not unwanted, I am necessary" and most importantly, "I'm not weak, I'm strong."
This is why it's so important to the narcissist that other people to believe in this false self. It isn't for them. It's for the narcissist. How can something be untrue if other people believe it? The narcissist has no internal regulation system for their self-worth. Without input from others, it is zero. This is what so-called "narcissistic supply" is for. This is why they need it. Because of the abuse they suffered, they did not develop the way they were supposed to. Their mind was too preoccupied with simple survival and as a result, their emotional capabilities are stuck in toddler survival mode. They've never matured or been able to move on. They've never learned to deal with loss, control their emotions, handle frustration or how to soothe themselves.
To the narcissist, they are still in the abusive situation, under attack all the time. And in a way, they are. Their mind has never resolved the feelings of shame, self-hatred and worthlessness from when they were very young. They still experience these feelings as if the abuse is going on right now, and the abuse they heard still plays over and over in their minds. So now instead of coming from outside, the abuse is coming from inside and has become a constant part of their inner dialogue. This is why they overreact to minor things, or misperceive things as intentionally offensive or hurtful. They aren't reacting to what is actually happening. They are reacting to that constant internal abuse and self-hatred.
Narcissist believe they are defective, disgusting, unlovable, wretched... If your own parents don't love you, you must be despicable indeed. This is how narcissists grow up. A lot of people say that the narcissists they know were not abused, they were spoiled and coddled. Indulgence is abuse too. That's why it's called "spoiling." When something is spoiled, it's ruined. Indulging - commonly called "spoiling" - a child ruins the child's potential as a person. When a child is coddled, indulged, protected and given everything they want, a lot of the same things happen that happen to children abused in more recognized ways. The child's development does not proceed as it should. They never learn how to handle their emotions, self-soothe, deal with loss or disappointment and they learn to connect their worth to the actions of others. It is the same mindset: "If people don't give me what I want, it's because I am worth nothing."
Narcissism is not cruelty or being mean. Narcissism isn't not sharing things. Narcissism is self-centeredness arising from the failure to distinguish the self from external objects. This means that the narcissists is unable to tell the difference between other people's feelings and their own, or to regulate their own internal emotionality instead of relying on others to do it for them. It is the result of arrested development, and indulgence can cause it just as much as other forms of abuse.
Imagine your self-worth truly relying on other people, to the point that if they did not do what you wanted, you didn't feel life was worth living. Imagine having to pretend you are someone else every second of every day, and being so afraid that people would find out you were a disgusting thing not worthy of love. Imagine being unable to provide for your own even basic emotional needs and simply having to suffer until someone did it for you. Imagine being unable to see that this is the problem, and instead believing that everyone in your life tortures you and wants you to suffer because they are cruel, abusive and hate you.
This is why they react the way they do when they don't get what they want. It doesn't matter why they didn't get it in reality. It is perceived as malicious and purposeful withholding, which causes a narcissistic injury. "You are not giving me what I want because you hate me and want me to suffer!" which of course really means, "I think I'm worthless and I'm afraid you think so, too. I'm afraid you have realized that I'm so defective that I don't deserve anything, because that's what I believe about myself." This is all subconscious and the narcissist may even be unaware of it on the surface; it's experienced by the narcissist as feelings of rage, loss and rejection. Consciously, they just know they are not getting what they want because of you.
A narcissistic injury is something that's a threat or offense to their fragile self-worth. We could call it a "blow to the ego" and it is, but because of the way narcissists are wired, this phrase really does not describe how severe of an injury it is. Narcissists interpret it as life-threatening. This is why narcissistic injuries cause narcissistic rage. They literally feel that they are fighting in defense of their very lives.
In a way, narcissism is the perfect defense mechanism. There is an excuse for everything, a reason why everything is someone else's fault. They never have to listen to criticism, take responsibility or blame. They have justifications for everything they do wrong. With narcissistic projection, they can project their painful or uncomfortable emotions and thoughts about themselves onto other people and then the narcissist does not even have to own these. Everything belongs to someone else.
However, because the narcissist is not truly able to separate themselves from the external world, it still all belongs to them. This is endlessly frustrating, like trying to throw a boomerang away. It just keeps coming back. It's sadly ironic that, for all their complicated and convoluted machinations designed to defend themselves against all of the abuse they believe they are experiencing, they aren't really escaping anything. They cannot escape the abuse because even though they don't realize it, it's coming from inside of them. They are only providing themselves temporary relief at best, and it comes at the expense of the very thing they need most: validation from other people. The more they blame, abuse and hurt other people, the worse other people's opinions of them become. Eventually, these people leave, tired of the abuse and the games. Then the narcissist is left alone with the very person they hate the most: themselves.