The Narcissistic Harem: A Study in Pathological Resource Management
What do Ghengis Khan, Montezuma and King Soloman all have in common? They had extremely large harems. The size of the harem was a reflection of someone's power and virility. King Soloman was known to have around 700 wives and up to 300 more mistresses. Ghengis Khan is considered to have more than 2,000 women in his harem. Many of the people in harems were there involuntarily; that is to say, they were slaves.
Nowadays, humans are no longer considered property by most people but that doesn't mean that the harem has lost it's place in the world. It just doesn't mean exactly what it used to, although its function is still the same. Pathologically narcissistic people often create harems, and it is for a similar reason. The way the word harem is used in this context applies universally to men and women. Women can have harems. Men can be in them. This is really the only thing that has changed. The people in them are still used like objects, and they are still a symbol of power.
The word harem usually makes people think of sex, or sexual relationships, and while this is often still the case with the narcissistic harem, it isn't the only one. Sex (and anything else) only matters to narcissists if it is how they receive various forms of validation or what we often call narcissistic supply. That is the true goal of the narcissistic harem, and because of this, there may be people in the harem that the narcissist has never slept with and never would.
For example, a narcissist seeking sympathy rather than sex may still have a harem of people they farm for sympathy. A narcissist seeking admiration rather than sex may have a harem of people they farm for admiration. A narcissist needing to be needed or fix others may have a harem of people they know fit this bill. Many people who don't believe the narcissist in their lives has a harem may hear this and realize that isn't true. It's just not about sex or romantic relationships, that's all.
The behavior and needs of narcissists usually coincide with how they receive and process this narcissistic supply. This is the supply of admiration, sympathy, attention, sex, power or whatever it is they need to validate themselves as worthy human beings. A narcissist who needs to be feared may be a bully. A narcissist who needs to be desired may be promiscuous, either physically or emotionally. A narcissist who needs to be pitied may behave like a victim. A narcissist who needs to be needed may behave like a hero. It all depends on what they have learned means "power" in their lives and how they have learned to get their needs met. For a narcissist, "getting their needs met" usually translates into "feeling better." This is why it doesn't matter if the thing making them feel better is actually detrimental to them or anyone else in the long run. If it makes them feel better now, that's all that matters.
Narcissistic people cannot create, regulate or sustain their own self-worth. Without a constant supply of validation and attention from others, the narcissist's self-worth cannot be regulated and will drain away. Think of a pitcher with a hole in the bottom. When any human being loses all of their self-worth in this way, a suicidal crash at the bottom is essentially inevitable, and the true narcissist is much closer to the bottom already than a person who has healthy coping mechanisms and who can build their own self-worth. Where it might take a healthy person months or even years to reach that dark and terrible point, a narcissist can often reach it in a matter of hours. In order to function at all within this horrific handicap, narcissists need a steady supply of the necessary feedback from others that they then convert into momentary self-worth. Because they can create no self-worth of their own and cannot sustain whatever they receive from others, it does not last long and they are soon teetering on the brink of collapse again.
This is a big reason so many of them seem to overreact to really small things, or put such importance on things that don't matter. It is what's behind their entitled rages and self-righteous tantrums: the pervasive fear and belief that they don't matter enough to get what they want, or are too broken and awful to deserve anything. In order to combat that deep-seated belief, they've created the ego story that they are actually extremely important and therefore deserve whatever they want or expect. When they don't get it, this narrative is punctured and all those bad feelings they were holding at bay come pouring through. It is overwhelming and usually very painful, and because they have no self-worth to speak of, they have no way to self-soothe or protect themselves against it.
It is important to note here that suicide among those with narcissistic disorders is disproportionately high when compared with the rest of the population. Some studies put it at 20% when combined with depression, something many narcissists have life-long issues with. Many people believe a narcissist would never kill themselves, but this is only a testament to how good their act can really be. The loss of self-worth and subsequent bottoming out is truly life-threatening to the pathologically narcissistic person because they have nothing at all to combat it with. And they know it even if they don't realize it, because they are battling to keep it at bay all the time.
This is why harems become necessary. One person is just not enough, especially considering that most narcissistic people use up the goodwill of others so quickly due to their atrocious behavior. And even when they are not overtly abusive, the most solicitous, people-pleasing narcissist in the world will eventually burn people out with their endless needs. They can't keep bringing the same old sob stories, heroic feats and power trips to the same old people all the time anyway, because eventually these people stop reacting the way the narcissist needs them to in order to feel validated. They get tired of hearing it, stop finding it shocking, tragic or impressive, or they simply stop listening because it's the same thing over and over again. This means others are needed who have not been exhausted yet.
But what is the difference between a harem and a support system? There is actually a marked difference between a harem and a support system, though a narcissist might consider the harem their support system and in a very literal sense, it is. A support system created by a person who is not a narcissist is comprised of people they are friends with or family to, whom they trust, respect and care about. There is healthy and equal give and take, with all of the people supporting each other at different times. A narcissistic harem is not based on trust or respect, and there is no healthy give and take or equality because all of the people support one person - either voluntarily or through emotional extortion - who does not ever reciprocate. The people in the harem may also be independent, meaning they do not exist as a interrelated group or even know each other. Traditionally, people in harems were often slaves and as slaves, they had no rights. They were treated like objects instead of people. The narcissistic harem is no different. These people exist in the narcissist's life solely for what they can give. There is no true interest in them as people or what they need., and not only is there no healthy give and take, there is no true give and take at all, because even when the narcissist appears to be giving, they are taking because of what is called mirroring.
Through the process of mirroring, the narcissist presents a "good" image of themselves to someone and receives approval, admiration, sympathy or whatever from the other person in return. They are not doing it to benefit the other person in any way, no matter how it looks. It is done only so that the other person "reflects" positive feelings about the narcissist back to them like a mirror - which they then process into temporary self-worth. It's the only way they have to create any, because as stated earlier, they cannot create their own. Through careful examination of the narcissist's relationships, this behavior often becomes very obvious. Love-bombing is a perfect example of narcissistic mirroring and it's one of the reasons love-bombing is not proof that narcissists can give in relationships. Love-bombing is not giving - ever. It's taking.
It's important to understand here that the "positive feedback" or supply the narcissist is seeking from others doesn't always mean things that feel good to the other person. It means things which feel good to the narcissist, and these may not be the same thing. It can be things like admiration and approval, but it can also be things like pity, fear, anger or anything else. In the same way, the "good" image they are presenting of themselves doesn't necessarily mean what we think of as a "good person," though it often is. It just means something that will create the reaction they are looking for from others and that is usually the opposite of what they believe themselves to be.
For example, if they feel they are a weak person, they may create an image of themselves that is intended to inspire fear or awe in others so that they can be validated as strong through other people's reactions to them. If they feel they are a monster, they may create an image of themselves that is intended to inspire pity or sympathy in others so they can be validated as a victim through others' reactions. But it can also be less specific; anything which validates their existence in any way can be enough. As an example of this, we might think of the narcissists who get supply through arguing, or of internet trolls, who are only looking for any attention of any kind. The life of the pathologically narcissistic person is a performance of one for one by one, and other people are the props narcissists use to make the fiction more believable to themselves. If others believe it, that makes it more real. And when it's more real, they can believe it and convert it into self-worth - at least for a time.
This is the function of the narcissistic harem. They are kept and farmed like a herd, to be milked for whatever it is they can give the narcissist and left out to graze when they are not needed. Because pathologically narcissistic people require - literally require - the input and cooperation of others to function, keeping a harem is not just a vanity move or their way of flexing their proverbial muscles. In a very real way, it is resource management, or even hoarding, that is in many ways no different than stocking your pantry with dry goods. If you understood your pantry to be as bottomless as the narcissist's needs are, then you will understand how much it would take to fill it.
Narcissists exist in survival mode all the time. The pathological processes and perceptions their mind developed in order to keep them safe as children have now trapped them in the idea that they are not safe - ever. Worse, they cannot meet their own needs, self-soothe or create self-worth and because of that, they are dependent on other people to survive. As they have a deep distrust of all people, including themselves, and because their perceived experiences with just about everyone have been painful and disappointing, they don't feel they can rely on others to do for them what they need. This creates a deep-seated, pervasive insecurity about their own ability to survive and because of that, they endeavor to manipulate and control people in order to make sure their needs will be met.
The fact that narcissists are dependent on others means that other people are actually resources for narcissists, like food and water. Objects, in other words - but necessary ones. When someone is in survival mode, they will experience anxiety regarding their resources because they need them in order to live. For example, when there is a snowstorm, people often rush out to buy milk, bread and water because they want to make sure they have enough just in case. Their anxiety over the situation requires them to do something about it and buying these things makes them feel better. Plus, it's just logical to stock up in an emergency. The anxiety over the situation creates action with purpose. In this same way, creating a harem is the narcissist's way of making sure they have enough resources to live on in case anything happens, because when you are in survival mode, everything is an emergency - or could become one quickly. This is why we said earlier that, though there is a very real difference between the two things as they are commonly understood in this context, a narcissist would probably say the harem is their support system and it literally is. It is not just the stocked pantry that's important, either. Their power over the stocked pantry matters, too. It puts them in control.
Power and control are very important to pathologically narcissistic people, because they feel powerless inside. How could they not, when they can't even meet their own needs? To control resources is to have power, and possibly the only power that matters, because if you control the resources, you have ultimate power over your own survival. You are helpless no longer. People often experience narcissists' attempts to control others as the narcissist simply wanting to be in charge, but the stakes are much, much higher than that. If survival depends on others, then others must be controlled to ensure that they will do their part. This is one reason triangulation between resources can happen. It's not just about wanting to get away with lies or continue on with bad behavior. It's deeper than that.
The narcissist wants to be sure to control the situation as much as possible and prevent exposure of things about them that would disrupt the flow of validation they need from these people. For example, if Jimmy knows something about Bobby that Bobby thinks makes him look bad, Bobby will do what he can to keep Jimmy away from his other resources so that Jimmy doesn't contaminate them with this "bad image" of him and cause that flow of validation that he needs - that supply - to change or dry up. This is actually very similar to the behavior of young children on the playground and can include keeping people separate or compartmentalizing them away from each other, turning them against each other, playing them off each other, smearing and discrediting Jimmy behind his back in the hope that this causes people to distrust him or not listen to him, discarding Jimmy totally and more.
If it is a group of people who are known to each other, Bobby will do what he can to control the information they receive about him. For example, if the group is people at his job, he may make sure to never bring his partner around the group. He may tell members of the harem that they cannot be friends with his partner or family or he will no longer deal with them. He may demonize people outside the group who know things about him that he doesn't want people in the group to find out. This is all about securing resources for survival. That is why they take it so seriously. Narcissists don't expend effort on something unless it really matters to them within their limited scope, and survival definitely does. It's the entire focus of their existence.
Perhaps the worst part of this is, most of them don't realize any of these things are true, or why they do the things they do. They are just doing what they have always done in the way they've always done it. This is how they survive. The crocodile doesn't look like a floating log because it wants to. It looks like a floating log because that's what it does. This doesn't excuse the abusive behavior of pathologically narcissistic people in any way, but it does shed some light on whether or not it can be changed. If their defense mechanisms could be penetrated and they could somehow be made aware that this is what they were doing, they probably still wouldn't be able to understand emotionally that it's wrong. The crocodile doesn't feel bad for tricking the zebras with his appearance. He doesn't feel anything except hungry. This is how he survives.
Many people assume that narcissists attempt to control others out of the desire to hurt others, or out of the desire for power. These are actually both the same thing, because the desire to hurt others comes from a need to feel powerful. As we've discussed, this is true in a manner of speaking, but a desire for power does not exist for no reason. What creates the desire for power in the first place? A desire so strong that a disproportionate amount of someone's time would become devoted to creating, imagining, engineering or securing situations where they can feel like they do have it? Obviously, this comes from feeling they have no power at all. The truth is, despite their efforts, narcissists have no power over other people. They have no power over anything - including themselves, and they lack the necessary tools to take it. The extremes they go to to get their needs met and their frantic efforts to control and manipulate others demonstrate very clearly how vulnerable and powerless they really do feel. All you have to do is look.