What is Narcissistic Supply?
Narcisssistic supply is a phrase that most people familiar with narcissism are familiar with. But a supply of what? What are people supplying to the narcissist? To clarify, many often use use the words "energy" or "attention" because those are the things that are actually being supplied.
Most of the literature regarding narcissistic supply centers around positive types of attention, such as flattery or admiration. However, those who've actually dealt with pathologically narcissistic people know that any attention given to narcissistic people can be used as supply. They will gladly accept negative forms of attention if that's all they can get. Some even seem to prefer this type of attention; they behave in ways that provoke negative reactions from people as it validates their self-hatred and enables them to perpetuate their fantasies of victimhood. "You see? I am a victim because everyone is mean to me."
But what is the point of narcissistic supply? Why do they need it? Pathologically narcissistic people are essentially unable to create, sustain or regulate feelings of self-worth. Unless other people continually prove they matter, they do not feel that they do. This is devastating to them. Loss of narcissistic supply can lead to decompensation if it goes on long enough. Decompensation can lead to debilitating depression, psychosis or even suicide. That is how important supply is. Because it isn't really supply they are after; it's validation and self-worth. Without other people to create feelings of worth inside the narcissist, they will not have any. This is why negative types of attention often work just as well as positive types. If someone is yelling at you, you exist. If someone hates you, you are important. If someone argues with you, you matter. Even though they are not positive, these things still help validate the narcissist's worth - usually by simply acknowledging their existence.
Narcissists exist in a world of self-hatred, pathological shame and deep-rooted insecurity. They have very unstable or even nonexistant identities. They look to other people to validate them and their worth because they are unable to validate these things themselves. Left to their own devices, they feel worthless, useless and unloved. Narcissists generally have a sadistic superego that abuses them nonstop. They have no internal way of fighting off this onslaught. The only weapon they have against it is the reaffirming of their self-worth from other people. They attempt to secure this by creating a false-self that is the opposite of what they believe themselves to be. They don't believe anyone will love or even like them if people can see what they really are. So they create a persona that is the opposite.
If they believe they are stupid, the false self will come across as smart. If they believe they are weak, the false self will seem strong. If they believe they are a victim, the false self may be a predator. Or it may be someone that helps others. Whatever is the opposite of the horrible thing they believe themselves to be is the face they will show the world. When people buy into the false self, they are validating the narcissist's worth as a person. This creates momentary self-worth. If other people believe the narcissist is a good person, it helps them to believe it. They can then lean on that when their internal abuse becomes overwhelming.
Of course, they never truly believe that they are good people; their self-hatred and shame is too entrenched for that. They resent the fact that they have to rely on others and they resent the fact that they have to pretend in order to get others to like them. This is experienced as something being wrong with themselves, but is denied and projected as something being wrong with the other people. "There's nothing wrong with me. Something's wrong with them. They dislike me for no reason!" This, even though the other people may have done nothing to actually show that they dislike the narcissistic person. It's all in their head, partly paranoia that the lie they are living will be seen through and partly projection of their own self-hatred.
The narcissist's fictional structure is very fragile, yet their entire well-being is dependent upon it. The slightest deviation from the script disrupts this fiction and tears holes in it. Pathologically narcissistic people become very distressed when people don't perform according to the script. If you've ever seen a child playing with Barbie dolls or something like that, you'll understand sort of how it works. The child moves the doll, speaks for the doll, creates the doll's personality... the doll is an extension of the child and the child's fantasies. This is similar to how narcissists view other people. When the doll does not fit correctly into the role or function the child has in mind, the child discards that doll for another. The child may become frustrated when the doll does not perform as they wish, the same way narcissistic people do when others do not do what the narcissist wants them to do. This creates a feeling inside the narcissist that they are not in control and worse, that their fiction has been seen through.
To their way of thinking, when someone is "good," they deserve everything they want and they will get it. If they are not getting everything they want, they must be bad. If people think they are bad, they must be able to see the defective self the narcissist is trying desperately to deny and hide. Narcissists cannot tolerate imperfection - in others or themselves. That's the point of the false self: to be perfect. Only when you are perfect will you get the needed validation from other people. This is what the narcissist believes. Of course, they cannot meet this standard because it's unreasonable. Nobody is perfect. The people they surround themselves with are held to the same standards. Be perfect or be punished. It's important to remember that "perfect" here doesn't have to mean perfect in general, but it always means perfect for the narcissist. The people around them can have no flaws, make no mistakes, have no needs and above all, they can never behave in a way that makes the narcissist fear even for one second that their defective self will be exposed. And anything that deviates from the script will trigger this fear.
Narcissists idealize others until this happens. Other people are mirrors that narcissists see themselves reflected back in, and as long as the person has given them no reason to believe the fiction has been exposed, the reflection will be good. Once this happens, the reflection becomes negative. The narcissist believes they will be abandoned and their life-sustaining supply will be cut off. They feel betrayed that their perfect mate has betrayed them and tricked them. So they begin to look for other ways to find that supply, either through other people or by changing the dynamic of the relationship. Instead of drawing sustenance through the reflection from this amazing perfect person that loves them - which made them feel perfect and good, they draw it from punishing and shaming this person who lied and betrayed them - which makes them feel strong, superior and vindicated. Or perhaps they simply leave the relationship altogether when they find another person who will again be their perfect reflection. For now.
So, that is what narcissistic supply is. It is attention and energy from other people - either positive or negative - that supplies the narcissist with validation of their worth. They can never receive enough of it. The moment they stop receiving it, they are empty again. This is why they provoke arguments, why they make up stories, why they twist people's emotions. People's reactions to all of these things say to the narcissist, "You matter." Some people refer to narcissistic supply as an addiction. To say something is an addiction implies that it is not necessary; the fact that you are breathing right now does not mean you are addicted to oxygen. You are breathing because you have to. It's automatic. You do it to stay alive. Perhaps narcissistic supply is the same. It certainly seems to be considered life and death by a majority of pathologically narcissistic people and judging by some of the suicide statistics, many are literally dying for attention.