The Fantasy of The Narcissist
Narcissists have fantasies about themselves, about others and just in general. However, the people who care about them often have fantasies about the narcissist, too. Since you cannot control the narcissist, we are going to talk about how to deal with your own fantasies about the narcissist.
Sometimes when talking about pathologically narcissistic people, it can be forgotten that they are not always mean and evil. People will often say things like, "Oh, they are never nice! They are never reasonable! They are never accommodating!" While it may be true that some narcissistic people - and some non-narcissistic people - are just unpleasant all the time, most narcissists are not that way. If they were, it would be easy to walk away from them. People would never become entangled with them in the first place if they were awful and abusive all the time. If someone is stuck in a devaluation cycle with a narcissistic person, it may be difficult to remember that they were ever pleasant or kind, but more than likely they were - and they still may be from time to time even, after the devaluation of the other person has begun. It is this that perpetuates the other person's fantasy of the narcissistic person.
When people meet the pathologically narcissistic person, it often seems as if they've met their soul mate. They are everything you ever wanted. If the narcissist is someone in the family, like a parent, the times when they are kind or nice rekindles the idea that the relationship the now-mature victim is longing for really is possible, and that things are better now. This can continue for quite a while. Love-bombing often occurs during this time and the victim - who may be starved on some level for love and validation - finally believes they will be loved the way they have always wanted to be loved. Red flags may pop up here and there, but because the person is so hopeful and enamored of the narcissist, these red flags are ignored or rationalized away. This is important, because it marks the first time the person allowed their fantasy of the narcissist to dominate reality. They knew something was not right about the narcissist or the situation but they actively and intentionally chose to ignore it or not to act on it. This happens many more times as the gulf between what the narcissist actually is and what the victim wants them to be gets larger.
As the idealization phase winds down, these red flags become screaming red-alert alarms. But the victim, still wrapped in their fantasy of the narcissist, chooses to believe that the kind, decent persona that they like best is who the pathologically narcissistic person really is. There is no real truth to this, and no real reason for it other than this is just what the victim wants to believe. The pathologically narcissistic person also would like to believe that they themselves are a great person and this is just an aberration in their character, and in this way, both the narcissist and the victim convince each other that this is the truth. Because the victim is looking for ways to explain this aberration, this deviation of character, they unwittingly hand the narcissist all manner of excuses for their own behavior. The narcissist will then fall on these excuses and throw them back at the other person every time their bad behavior shows up.
In this way, the fantasy of the narcissist is preserved, the victim is shamed and the narcissist is perpetually excused of any and all wrong doing. Life goes on as it has, often with the victim suffering terribly and never realizing that the entire situation is predicated on a false belief. The nice persona they like best is not who the narcissist really is. The abusive persona they hate or fear is not who the narcissist really is, either. Both of these so-called personas are fake in their own way. The true identity of the pathologically narcissistic person is a shattered, underdeveloped being that is unable to interact with the world. It is often not accessible, even by the narcissist themselves, and the narcissist's entire life is dedicated to simultaneously denying and protecting this underdeveloped self.
Many people believe that the narcissist's kind persona was developed to hide the abusive one. In truth, they are both personas of sorts and they were both created to protect the true self. The kind persona faces the world. It is the superficial projection of who the narcissist wants to be and hopes to convince others they are. It is as perfect as possible, in the hopes that if it can be perfect, it will be valued and loved. The abusive persona stands "behind" the kind one as a shield, or as a sort of buffer between the underdeveloped self and the world. If you see beyond the superficial kind persona, this is usually what you will encounter. The idea of being exposed is very threatening to the narcissistic person, because they believe that being exposed means they will be devalued and abandoned. It threatens their self-worth directly. This is why you see the rage when this happens. Any mistake, any perceived failure or slight on their part can trigger the rage and that is why: because they feel that they are going to be exposed as not perfect and therefore not valuable. Lurking behind this rage and fear is the core belief - sometimes subconscious and sometimes acknowledged - that they are defective, worthless and unlovable. They fear exposure of this perhaps more than anything else. Many of them would quite literally rather die than face the shame of exposure, and they have spent their whole lives trying to prevent this from happening.
Pathologically narcissistic people's entire lives are devoted to trying to prove to themselves that they have value, and other people are required to buy into their act in order for them to do so. If someone sees behind the mask, so to speak, they are not going to buy into it. The abuse and the rage are the narcissist's effort to get people to back off and stop trying to be close to them, or to be perfect and fall in line so that narcissist's image of themselves is not in danger. They cannot tolerate that. So they rage or manipulate or freeze you out or go into hysterics or any number of things in an effort to prevent that from happening. They don't want you poking around back there behind the curtain and they do these things to try to get you to stop. It's like putting an 80lb. attack dog outside of a door you don't want anyone to enter. Most people are not going to keep trying. They will back off and the narcissist feels safe again. For now.
It's important to remember that narcissists generally do not have any actual understanding of this dynamic. Their behavior is all reaction based on emotional triggers. This is why you usually can't get anywhere trying to get them to open up or address this wounded core. It has been so denied and repressed that many of them can't even acknowledge it, let alone access it. Mentioning it threatens them terribly and may provoke rage or hysteria or simple flat denial. It's a road that goes nowhere, in part because their pathology was created specifically to keep the knowledge of this a secret, from the world and from themselves.
Some people might say, "If they are in denial of it, how can they be protecting it?" Again, it's all reaction. Like a reflex. If someone throws a ball at your face, you may not even realize what they've thrown, but you will likely still swat it out of the air before it hits you. It's a protective reflex. Narcissists know they are not perfect and they believe that not being perfect will result in being abandoned by others. The perfect persona must be upheld at all costs in order to protect the self and receive the energy from others - what some call narcissistic supply - that they then process into self-worth. They have no ability to create or sustain their own self-worth. They must rely on other people to give this to them. It is essential for their survival and they will protect their means to acquire it at all costs. This is what they are operating from.
In truth, the pathologically narcissistic person's identity is unstable at the very best and often it is entirely nonexistent. These different personas that they portray are not real personas because usually they are not fully developed and lack any sort of true depth. They are generally one-dimensional, reflecting only one emotional "side" of the narcissistic person and that's it. They are not cohesive and do not coexist the way we understand different aspects of a person's personality to coexist. Most people have different aspects of themselves and these generally exist more or less in harmony in the person, creating one unified whole. In pathologically narcissistic people, this is not the case. The aspects are fractured and separate. They've been compartmentalized, often creating a person that appears to have more than one personality. They don't, but because of their inability to integrate these different aspects of themselves together successfully, this can result in what we refer to as a Jekyll and Hyde dynamic or presentation.
This is why the victim has such a hard time letting their fantasy of the narcissist go. When the narcissistic person is "good," they are all good. And when they are bad, they are all bad. This is called splitting. The victim - for whatever reason they have of their own - truly wants to believe that the narcissistic person is good. The narcissistic person wants the victim to believe this too, because then there are no threats to their own self-worth. It's true that narcissists misrepresent themselves, but this does not explain why the victim stays in the relationship long after they realize that the narcissist is not who they pretend to be. The victim often intentionally chooses to believe in the narcissist's false self, even after it has been established that this is not who they are. This is because the victim has a fantasy of the narcissistic person that they do not want to let go of. There is a refusal to accept the reality of the situation here, and this is understandable but it's also hurtful. This unwillingness to accept the true nature of the relationship and the narcissist is responsible for most of the pain caused by these types of relationships.
The key to addressing this is to find out what the fantasy of the narcissistic person really represents in your mind. Does it represent a subconscious undoing of childhood abuse, where you felt you could not fix that situation but you will fix this one? Does it represent proving to yourself that you really are lovable? The ideas you have of other people really have more to do with yourself than with them, so it's important to be really honest here when you are trying to figure it out.
In some ways, the answers are simple. Of course someone wants to believe the person they care about is a good person and cares about them in return. However, it becomes less simple when we take into consideration that the person may been given evidence that this is not true yet still chooses to believe it. It becomes a question of why. Why is this relationship or what it represents so important that a person will ignore evidence that it is unfair, abusive or unhealthy in order to stay in it? Is there a trauma bond? Is there a issue with the victim's self-worth or past trauma that needs to be addressed? What are you getting or hoping to get out of the relationship and why is it so important? And perhaps the most important question, are you able to accept the reality of the relationship and what that means?
This can be especially difficult when the pathologically narcissistic person is a parent or family member. It can be very painful and very difficult for someone to accept that the relationship they have always wanted or feel they deserve is simply not going to happen. However, if someone is going to be able to heal and move on, it has to be accepted. Otherwise, the toxic cycle will never end.
The good thing about these kinds of questions is that though they may be painful, people usually know the answers to them and once they start looking, they can see the connection. Most people are able to see that, for example, their narcissistic husband is very similar to their father, who they never felt cared about them. Or they are able to see that they are still trying to have the relationship with their narcissistic mother that they were never able to have. Usually the root of these relationships is the need for validation from others because of a nagging feeling that the victim is not good enough or not lovable. That is usually the fantasy: I will finally do the right thing, say the right thing, behave the right way and it will unlock the love that I want and feel I deserve.
There's nothing wrong with wanting to be loved. There is something wrong with not accepting the reality of a situation, especially when it's hurting you. Acceptance is very important here. Letting go of unrealistic or fantasy expectations is the first step in that direction. Sometimes just acknowledging that the expectations are unrealistic can take some of their power away. Making lists contrasting fantasy beliefs vs. reality of the situation can also be very helpful. And remember that it's not about blame or judgment. It's about understanding. When we know better, we do better.