What is Narcissistic Supply?
We all search for positive cues from people around us. These cues reinforce in us certain behaviour patterns. There is nothing special in the fact that the narcissist does the same. However there are two major differences between the narcissistic and the normal personality.
The first is quantitative. The normal person is likely to welcome a moderate amount of attention – verbal and non-verbal – in the form of affirmation, approval, or admiration. Too much attention, though, is perceived as onerous and is avoided. Destructive and negative criticism is avoided altogether.
The narcissist, in contrast, is the mental equivalent of an alcoholic. He is insatiable. He directs his whole behaviour, in fact his life, to obtain these pleasurable titbits of attention. He embeds them in a coherent, completely biased, picture of himself. He uses them to regulates his labile sense of self-worth and self-esteem.
To elicit constant interest, he projects to others a confabulated, fictitious version of himself, known as the False Self. The False Self is everything the narcissist is not: omniscient, omnipotent, charming, intelligent, rich, or well-connected.
The narcissist then proceeds to harvest reactions to this projected image from family members, friends, co-workers, neighbours, business partners and from colleagues. If these – the adulation, admiration, attention, fear, respect, applause, affirmation – are not forthcoming, the narcissist demands them, or extorts them. Money, compliments, a favourable critique, an appearance in the media, a sexual conquest are all converted into the same currency in the narcissist’s mind.
This currency is what I call Narcissistic Supply.
It is important to distinguish between the various components of the process of narcissistic supply:
1. The trigger of supply is the person or object that provokes the source into yielding narcissistic supply by confronting the source with information about the narcissist’s False Self.
2. The source of narcissistic supply is the person that provides the narcissistic supply
3. Narcissistic supply is the reaction of the source to the trigger.
Publicity (celebrity or notoriety, being famous or being infamous) is a trigger of narcissistic supply because it provokes people to pay attention to the narcissist (in other words, it moves sources to provide the narcissist with narcissistic supply). Publicity can be obtained by exposing oneself, by creating something, or by provoking attention. The narcissist resorts to all three repeatedly (as drug addicts do to secure their daily dose). A mate or a companion is one such source of narcissistic supply.
But the picture is more complicated. There are two categories of Narcissistic Supply and their Sources (NSS):
The Primary Narcissistic Supply is attention, in both its public forms (fame, notoriety, infamy, celebrity) and its private, interpersonal, forms (adoration, adulation, applause, fear, repulsion). It is important to understand that attention of any kind – positive or negative – constitutes Primary Narcissistic Supply. Infamy is as sought after as fame, being notorious is as good as being renowned.
To the narcissist his “achievements” can be imaginary, fictitious, or only apparent, as long as others believe in them. Appearances count more than substance, what matters is not the truth but its perception.
Triggers of Primary Narcissistic Supply include, apart from being famous (celebrity, notoriety, fame, infamy) – having an air of mystique (when the narcissist is considered to be mysterious), having sex and deriving from it a sense of masculinity/virility/femininity, and being close or connected to political, financial, military, or spiritual power or authority or yielding them.
Sources of Primary Narcissistic Supply are all those who provide the narcissist with narcissistic supply on a casual, random basis.
Secondary Narcissistic Supply includes: leading a normal life (a source of great pride for the narcissist), having a secure existence (economic safety, social acceptability, upward mobility), and obtaining companionship.
Thus, having a mate, possessing conspicuous wealth, being creative, running a business (transformed into a Pathological Narcissistic Space), possessing a sense of anarchic freedom, being a member of a group or collective, having a professional or other reputation, being successful, owning property and flaunting one’s status symbols – all constitute secondary narcissistic supply as well.
Sources of Secondary Narcissistic Supply are all those who provide the narcissist with narcissistic supply on a regular basis: spouse, friends, colleague, business partners, teachers, neighbours, and so on.
Both these primary and secondary Narcissistic Supply and their triggers and sources are incorporated in a Narcissistic Pathological Space.
What are the functions of Narcissistic Supply in the narcissistic pathology?
The narcissist internalises a “bad” object (typically, his mother) in his childhood. He harbors socially forbidden emotions towards this object: hatred, envy, and other forms of aggression. These feelings reinforce the narcissist’s self-image as bad and corrupt. Gradually he develops a dysfunctional sense of self-worth. His self-confidence and self-image become unrealistically low and distorted.
In an effort to repress these “bad” feelings, the narcissist also suppresses all emotions. His aggression is channelled to fantasies or to socially legitimate outlets (dangerous sports, gambling, reckless driving, compulsive shopping). The narcissist views the world as a hostile, unstable, unrewarding, unjust, and unpredictable place.
He defends himself by loving a completely controllable object (himself), by projecting to the world an omnipotent and omniscient False Self, and by turning others to functions or to objects so that they pose no emotional risk. This reactive pattern is what we call pathological narcissism.
To counter his demons the narcissist needs the world: its admiration, its adulation, its attention, its applause, even its penalties. The lack of a functioning personality on the inside is balanced by importing Ego functions and boundaries from the outside.
The Primary Narcissistic Supply reaffirms the narcissist’s grandiose fantasies, buttresses his False Self and, thus allows him to regulate his fluctuating sense of self-worth. The Narcissistic Supply contains information which pertains to the way the False Self is perceived by others and allows the narcissist to “calibrate” and “fine tune” it. The Narcissistic Supply also serves to define the boundaries of the False Self, to regulate its contents and to substitute for some of the functions normally reserved for a True, functioning, Self.
While it is easy to understand the function of the Primary Supply, Secondary Supply is a more complicated affair.
Interacting with the opposite sex and “doing business” are the two main Triggers of Secondary Narcissistic Supply (SNS). The narcissist mistakenly interprets his narcissistic needs as emotions. To him, the pursuit of a woman (a Source of Secondary Narcissistic Supply – SSNS), for instance, is what others call “love” or “passion”.
Narcissistic Supply, both primary and secondary, is perishable goods. The narcissist consumes it and has to replenish it. As is the case with other drug addictions, to produce the same effect, he is forced to increase the dosage as he goes.
While the narcissist uses up his supply, his partner serves as a silent (and admiring) witness to the narcissist’s “great moments” and “achievements”. Thus, the narcissist’s female friend “accumulates” the narcissist’s “grand and “illustrious past”. When Primary Narcissistic Supply is low, she “releases” the supply she had accumulated. This she does by reminding the narcissist of those moments of glory that she had witnessed. She helps the narcissist to regulate his sense of self-worth.
This function – of Narcissistic Supply accumulation and release – is performed by all SSNS, male or female, inanimate or institutional. The narcissist’s co-workers, bosses, colleagues, neighbours, partners, and friends are all potential SSNS. They all witness the narcissist’s past accomplishments and can remind him of them when new supply runs dry.
Why does the narcissist devalue his Source of Secondary Narcissistic Supply (SSNS)?
Narcissists are forever in pursuit of Narcissistic Supply. They are oblivious to the passage of time and are not constrained by any behavioural consistency, “rules” of conduct, or moral considerations. Signal to the narcissist that you are a willing source, and he is bound to try to extract Narcissistic Supply from you by any and all means.
This is a reflex. The narcissist would have reacted absolutely the same way to any other source because, to him, all sources are interchangeable.
Some Sources of Supply are ideal (from the narcissist’s point of view): sufficiently intelligent, sufficiently gullible, submissive, reasonably (but not overly) inferior to the narcissist, in possession of a good memory (with which to regulate the flow of Narcissistic Supply), available but not imposing, not explicitly or overtly manipulative, undemanding, attractive (if the narcissist is somatic). In short: a Galathea-Pygmallion type.
But then, often abruptly and inexplicably, it is all over. The narcissist is cold, uninterested and remote.
One of the reasons is, as Groucho Marx put it, that the narcissist doesn’t like to belong to those clubs which would accept him as a member. The narcissist devalues his Sources of Supply for the very qualities that made them such sources in the first place: their gullibility, their submissiveness, their (intellectual or physical) inferiority.
But there are many other reasons. For instance, the narcissist resents his dependency. He realizes that he is hopelessly and helplessly addicted to Narcissistic Supply and is in hock to its sources. By devaluing the sources of said supply (his spouse, his employer, his colleague, his friend) he ameliorates the dissonance.
Moreover, the narcissist perceives intimacy and sex as a threat to his uniqueness. Everyone needs sex and intimacy – it is the great equaliser. The narcissist resents this commonness. He rebels by striking out at the perceived founts of his frustration and “enslavement” – his sources of Narcissistic Supply.
Sex and intimacy are usually also connected to unresolved past conflicts with important Primary Objects (parents or caregivers). By constantly invoking these conflicts, the narcissist encourages transference and provokes the onset of approach-avoidance cycles. He blows hot and cold on his relationships.
Additionally, narcissists simply get tired of their sources. They get bored. There is no mathematical formula which governs this. It depends on numerous variables. Usually, the relationship lasts until the narcissist “gets used” to the source and its stimulating effects wear off or until a better Source of Supply presents itself.
Could negative input serve as Narcissistic Supply (NS)?
Yes, it can. NS includes all forms of attention – both positive and negative: fame, notoriety, adulation, fear, applause, approval. Whenever the narcissist gets attention, positive or negative, whenever he is in the “limelight”, it constitutes NS. If he can manipulate people or influence them – positively or negatively – it qualifies as NS.
Even quarrelling with people and confronting them constitute NS. Perhaps not the conflict itself, but the narcissist’s ability to influence other people, to make them feel the way he wants, to manipulate them, to make them do something or refrain from doing it – all count as forms of narcissistic supply. Hence the phenomenon of “serial litigators”.
Does the narcissist want to be liked?
Would you wish to be liked by your television set? To the narcissist, people are mere tools, Sources of Supply. If, in order to secure this supply, he must be liked by them – he acts likable, helpful, collegial, and friendly. If the only way is to be feared – he makes sure they fear him. He does not really care either way as long as he is being attended to. Attention – whether in the form of fame or infamy – is what it’s all about. His world revolves around this constant mirroring. I am seen therefore I exist, he thinks to himself.
But the classic narcissist also craves punishment. His actions are aimed to elicit social opprobrium and sanctions. His life is a Kafkaesque, ongoing trial and the never-ending proceedings are in themselves the punishment. Being penalized (reprimanded, incarcerated, abandoned) serves to vindicate and validate the internal damning voices of the narcissist’s sadistic, ideal and immature Superego (really, the erstwhile voices of his parents or other caregivers). It confirms his worthlessness. It relieves him from the inner conflict he endures when he is successful: the conflict between the gnawing feelings of guilt, anxiety, and shame and the need to relentlessly secure Narcissistic Supply.
How does the narcissist treat his past Sources of Narcissistic Supply? Does he regard them as enemies?
One should be careful not to romanticise the narcissist. His remorse and good behaviour are always linked to fears of losing his sources.
Narcissists have no enemies. They have only Sources of Narcissistic Supply. An enemy means attention means supply. One holds sway over one’s enemy. If the narcissist has the power to provoke emotions in you, then you are still a Source of Supply to him, regardless of which emotions are provoked.
The narcissist seeks out his old Sources of Narcissistic Supply when he has absolutely no other NS Sources at his disposal. Narcissists frantically try to recycle their old and wasted sources in such a situation. But the narcissist would not do even that had he not felt that he could still successfully extract a modicum of NS from the old source (even to attack the narcissist is to recognise his existence and to attend to him!!!).
If you are an old Source of Narcissistic Supply, first, get over the excitement of seeing him again. It may be flattering, perhaps sexually arousing. Try to overcome these feelings.
Then, simply ignore him. Don’t bother to respond in any way to his offer to get together. If he talks to you – keep quiet, don’t answer. If he calls you – listen politely and then say goodbye and hang up. Return his gifts unopened. Indifference is what the narcissist cannot stand. It indicates a lack of attention and interest that constitutes the kernel of negative NS to be avoided.
Filed under: The Mind of the Psychopathic Narcissist | Tagged: abuse, antisocial, battering, borderline, cluster B, compensatory, deviance, divorce, domestic violence, DSM IV, ego, emotional abuse, harassment, incest, inverted, molestation, narcissism, narcissistic, narcissistic personality disorder, NPD, object relations, paraphilias, pathology, pedophilia, personality, personality disorders, perversions, psychiatry, psychodynamics, psychological abuse, psychology, psychopathology, psychopaths, psychotherapy, relationships, schizoid, self, serial killers, sexual abuse, spousal abuse, stalking, therapy, verbal abuse |