It’s Narcissist Friday!
(I appreciate the great questions that come up in the comments from time to time. This one had me thinking… and writing. The question is whether narcissists mourn the death of someone close to them.)
The more we study the concept of narcissism, the more we will lose the generalizations that led us to the subject in the first place. The individuals we meet may fit the broader categories of narcissistic behavior, but differ widely on the specifics.
This is normal in any area of study, of course. I heard an unusual owl sound the other night. It was a human-like scream followed by a series of hoots. Now, if you just enjoy owls, you probably know that they hoot at night. If you know a little more, you might understand that some owls screech. But the more you study, the more you find that few owls do both. Some neither scream nor hoot. And the screeches can sound very different between owls. In other words, the familiar owl sound, that “whoo-whoo” we have heard at night, only represents a fraction of the different kinds of owls.
The same is true with most personality issues like narcissism. Each person will react in his or her own way to a given stimulus. We already understand that narcissists exhibit anger differently. The experience of grief will be different for each individual as well.
Also, grief may be somewhat narcissistic for all of us. We each experience our own grief, as the Bible says in Proverbs 14:10. We may accept the grief of others, perhaps even be caught up in it, but we can’t really understand the loss felt by another. The only thing we can take from our own experience is the fact of grief and memory of its pain. That allows us to empathize with others.
However, there are some basic characteristics that might help us to understand the particular experiences and motivations of narcissists as a group. These are generalizations, of course.
First, the definition of narcissism is a lack of empathy. That means narcissists will be unable to connect with your loss, no matter who has passed away. In other words, you may feel the loss of his mom much differently than he does and he will have no interest in your feelings. Because the narcissist is unable to connect with the feelings of others you will probably find him/her to be indifferent or at odds with yours. At the same time the narcissist has worked very hard to deny or destroy any heart feelings toward anyone. The loss of a parent or a child will not be experienced as the loss of a person by someone who doesn’t see others as persons. It will be the narcissist who will almost flippantly say, “Well, we can have another baby.”
Second, all grief is intensely personal and directed inward. All of us, in one way or another, wonder who we are now that our loved one is gone. Because we connect part of our identity to others, we lose a little of ourselves when the others pass away. But narcissists avoid connecting in this way. They have resisted tying their hearts to others because the risk is just too high for them. So we would not expect them to feel the loss of anyone as a loss of self. The narcissist would most likely not experience the intensity or the confusion that grief brings to the rest of us.
Third, many narcissists formed their sense of self in relation to certain others. Their feelings of betrayal or abandonment, the feelings that moved them to hide and form the false image, came out of relationship. As long as the offender is alive, the feelings of inferiority or anger may continue. So narcissists might experience a sense of relief when an opponent, who might even be a parent or sibling, passes away. Or the anger might be trapped forever without hope of resolution. Who knows what might change in the heart of the narcissist if a parent would apologize or give a blessing and a word of approval? But death closes that door and the emotions may be locked in forever.
(Now, before I go on, I have to say that I believe a certain sense of relief is a normal part of the grieving process, especially when there has been extended illness or friction in the relationship or some other challenge. When the burden of the relationship is lifted—and that should not be taken negatively—there is a natural sense of relief. Please don’t think of yourself as narcissistic just because you felt some confusing relief at the death of a loved one. That can be very normal and acceptable.)
Finally, death is motivation for some practical challenges. Perhaps more than others, narcissists will ask who will do the things the deceased used to do. “Well, now I have to get a new hairdresser!” I suspect that narcissists will move quickly to those practical things simply because that’s how they see people. We must remember that it is very difficult and very undesirable for the narcissist to have a heart connection such as that which is so easy and common in our lives. If the narcissist grieves for his loss, it will be a practical loss. The death of a boss might mean a job opening or it might endanger his current position. The death of a parent might mean an influx of money or it might mean more responsibilities. The death of a child might mean less service from the wife or more opportunities for travel and work. We resist most of these thoughts when they come to us, but narcissists will be much more inclined to see loss as practical change.
I guess I want to be a little more compassionate in this post for two reasons. It is difficult and, perhaps, inappropriate to try to judge or define the feelings of another person, especially in something as intricate and personal as grief. Also, grief does move most of us to do things, say things, and feel things that will be narcissistic (if we think of narcissistic as self-centered). At the same time, the narcissists I have known have handled grief in peculiarly narcissistic ways. There was no reason for me to look at them any differently.
When the narcissist mourns, he mourns as a narcissist.