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Narcissists Are in Survival Mode

Updated on June 25, 2018
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The Little Shaman is a spiritual coach & specialist in cluster B personality disorders, with a popular YouTube show and clients worldwide.

People often ask why so many pathologically narcissistic people don't think of the long-term consequences of their behavior. While this is a multi-faceted answer, part of the reason for it is because they are in survival mode. When you are in survival mode, you are not thinking of two years from now or two months from now or even two days from now. All you are focusing on is RIGHT NOW, and the crisis happening RIGHT NOW. Getting your needs met RIGHT NOW. Consequences are secondary in survival mode. We can't worry about consequences right now, because all that matters right now is surviving. If at some time in the future we are no longer in survival mode, maybe we can think about consequences.

The problem is, that doesn't happen. There is no future. There is only now and the endless crisis of need. People dealing with pathologically narcissistic loved ones often feel like they are stuck in Groundhog Day, where it's just the same thing over and over and over again. There's always a problem. There's always a crisis. There's always an emergency. Or conversely, there's never a crisis or an emergency because the narcissistic person doesn't care about anything at all. The narcissist never seems to get tired; it's like they don't even realize it. And it's safe to say they probably don't. To them, it seems that every day is a fresh horror filled with losses and landmines and the desperate search for self-worth and fulfillment. The focus is on just making it through day to day life. This is something many of them have a huge amount of difficulty with, and their coping mechanisms are primitive at best.

This is one reason why they are so results- or reward-driven, no matter what the cost. For a narcissistic person, the ends justify the means. They are just trying to survive. They need what they need, and anyone or anything that gets in their way is expendable. If you were starving and needed to steal food to eat so that you didn't die, you would do it. You wouldn't care that you were breaking the law, or about the situation of the person you were stealing it from. In survival mode, all that matters is your own life. That is how they see things. Their mindset is such that they have to do these things to survive, and when someone exists in that mentality, nothing is off-limits.

The problem is, they are in survival mode but not a survival situation. There is no competition for resources, no need to fear that their survival is in question, yet they conduct themselves as if there is. They behave as if there are nonstop imminent threats to their well-being, especially their emotional well-being.

It's not unlike the particular type of food aggression we see in dogs that have been neglected and starved. This is not the only cause of food aggression in dogs, of course, but it is a legitimate one. If a dog was in an abusive situation long enough, he will have learned that food resources are not stable or reliable. It may be available now, but could become scarce at any time and this puts the dog's survival in jeopardy. Because of this, he will gobble any food he is given or that he finds as fast as possible and if someone tries to take the food away, he will growl and he will bite in order to protect his resource. This dog is in survival mode. He does not know when - or if - his next meal will ever come, so he feels an urgency and an anxiety about food all the time. He has been taught that he cannot trust in a reliable source of food, therefore he secures as much as he can as fast as he can and if anyone interferes - even people he loves - they will be dealt with aggressively. Another dog that tries to eat the food or dares comes near it will be attacked, or even killed. This is how the dog attempts to cope with what he has learned about life. Survival mode takes over so that his needs can be met. He is attempting to protect and secure his resources because he doesn't know if he will ever have them again.

Humans are not all that different. We learn things the same way and we are imprinted by previous experiences the same way, especially early ones. Narcissists don't know when or if their needs will ever be met and they believe they are helpless to attend to these needs on their own, so they feel a continuous urgency and anxiety about it all the time. Their constant focus is, "What about me?" For whatever reason, early on they seem to have learned that they cannot rely on others to care about them and they have compensated for this by focusing exclusively on their own needs in the panicked belief that not to do so means these needs will never be met. This results in narcissistic people attaching astronomical importance to their own needs and perceiving any deviation from this as an attack and a rejection. Unable to attend to their own needs, they insist that others attach the same importance to their own needs that they do. When this doesn't happen, it reinforces the idea that they are in a fight for their survival.

No one will care about me if I don't care about myself.
No one will care about my needs if I don't make them care.
No one will recognize my needs if I don't force them to recognize my needs.

Of course, in a healthy relationship of any kind, this is not necessary. However, the pathologically narcissistic person generally does not recognize this. They are locked into a certain way of being, a certain mode of operation. They know no other way to be and to abandon that would be tantamount to saying their needs don't matter. For most narcissists, the only way they see out of survival mode is death. The idea that there is another way to live is totally foreign to them. It's like if someone was trying to tell you to breathe through your ears. It sounds preposterous and more than that, it sounds impossible. To the pathologically narcissistic person, it sounds like a trick. It sounds like you are trying to get them to stop focusing on their needs so that their needs will not be met and they will suffer, or possibly die.

It seems easy enough to fix this, right? Just show them that they are not in a survival situation and that they are safe. Poof! Survival mode disengaged. But it's not that easy. All facts that support positive interactions with people are either twisted, re-framed or ignored. All facts that support negative interaction and threats to survival are maximized, mis-perceived and exploited. This is what happens when someone is hyper-focused on their own needs and is unable to focus on anything else. Everything is perceived as being about, to or because of themselves. There is also the matter of being unable to attend to their own needs. This is a huge cause of anxiety and alarm in pathologically narcissistic people.

Again, we can look to our example of the abused dog. He cannot secure his own source of nourishment. He must wait for someone to give it to him. If he could get out of his cage, perhaps he could find his own food but this is beyond his ability. He must wait, pathetically at the mercy of other people's whims. It is the same for the pathologically narcissistic person. If they could get out of the "cage" of their defense mechanisms and circular logic, perhaps they would realize that they can do things like self-soothe and create self-worth for themselves. But for whatever reason, they cannot get out. They feel that they are like that abused dog, waiting for someone to bring whatever scraps they feel like throwing. And more often than not, in the narcissist's perception, no one comes. They are resentful of this, and even more resentful of the fact that they are relying on others in the first place. The very fact that this has to happen underscores and accentuates their perceived weakness.

If you are dealing with a pathologically narcissistic person, remember that you are likely dealing with someone who believes they are in a daily struggle for survival, who believes they are in resource competition with any- and everybody around them, and who is mightily resentful of this fact. They believe that everything they do is justified because of these things. When you are trying to survive, how can you be blamed for anything you have done? And for the narcissistic person, everything leads back to survival. Their manipulations, their lies, their rage, their false self... everything. This is why everything is such a big deal; even stupid things that appear to have no connection to survival are very significant to the pathologically narcissistic person. Every time they are told NO or denied anything, it reinforces the idea that they are in this alone and must fight tooth and nail for everything they get against a world that is literally trying to kill them. Every time they are asked to consider another person, it reinforces the idea that they are unimportant and worthless. Every time someone will not buy into their projections and false image, it reinforces the idea that they are too damaged to be loved or to matter.

Small things have huge implications in the mind of the pathologically narcissistic person. The fiction they depend on is so fragile that even the tiniest thing could upset the whole structure and down it goes. This is something that represents literal death in the minds of many pathologically narcissistic people, and something they will avoid at all costs. If you are dealing with a narcissistic person, realize that the stakes are very high for them - in everything. This is not a game where they can allow any other winner but themselves. If Fox is chasing Rabbit, who is going to run faster? Rabbit, because Fox is only running for his dinner. Rabbit is running for his life.

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