- Absolute narcissists are one-trick phonies. Criticizing their one trick will inevitably make them confirm the accusation.
- Being proud of one's own fallibility forces narcissists to confront reality rather than judge others by their perfectionistic standards.
- No one can pretend they’re more right than reality forever.
Throughout history, individuals and groups have fallen for an easy way out of life’s complications by just pretending that they can do no wrong. Moment to moment, challenge to challenge, they’ll grab any bogus rationalization that they pretend beats all challenges to their absolute authority.
It can happen to any of us depending on appetites, aptitudes, and opportunities. Indeed, as psychologist Craig Malkin rightly points out, some narcissism is a good thing. But here the focus is on people who fall all the way into it: Absolute narcissists.
Confirmation bias, the universal impulse to embrace only what affirms us and dismiss all that challenges us is a problem we all must learn to manage. Absolute narcissists instead treat confirmation bias as the solution to all of their problems.
Being an absolute narcissist takes discipline of a peculiar kind, the discipline to be completely undisciplined, no consistency in their relentless and bogus rationalizations, the discipline to say in response to everything “that proves I’m right” with no attention to reality, or the meaning of the things they say since all that matters is keeping up the appearance of winning, acting like a robot programmed to pretend to beat every challenge, an algorithm for sorting all wins to themselves and all losses to whoever challenges or threatens their authority. To be an absolute narcissist, one needs to know nothing but how to act like an absolute know-it-all. No wonder it has been such a tempting option throughout the ages.
For an absolute narcissist to stay on message, there can’t be a message other than a relentless “See? I win!” Still, to conceal their egomania, absolute narcissists have to pretend that they have some moral message. They, therefore, cloak themselves in whatever fake crusade justifies declaring total war against all of their competition. Their fake crusade distracts their competition, people who take the meaning of words seriously and are trying to figure out what’s right.
Throughout history, absolute narcissists have proven again and again that one doesn’t need a vision, just the pretense of one. Like all con artists, they can fake a good winning streak and garner a following of gullible people who want in on the streak. Thus, throughout history, there have also been absolute narcissist epidemics, cults thrilled at having discovered a way to escape reality just by treating their confirmation bias as a solution to all their problems.
Absolute narcissists are exhibitionists. They sidle up as if for normal human conversation. When they’ve got you hooked, they open their trench coats and show off their stiff little absolute invincibility. They do so with confidence because they know they can win no matter how you respond. They’re ready for your reaction whatever it may be. If you scold them, they’ll call you a prude. If you walk away, they’ll call you a chicken. If you try to be nice to them, they’ll call you a wimp. If you act out, they’ll call you upset. If you attack them, they’ll scold you for being uncivil. They’ll posture automatically and robotically any which way to maintain their false appearance of invincibility.
No society has ever found an antidote to an absolute narcissist epidemic. Instead, the epidemics have died eventually simply because no one can pretend they’re righter than reality forever. Such movements eventually lose their battle against reality, though often causing mass destruction in the process. The most likely cause of humankind’s eventual extinction is the runaway confirmation bias of absolute narcissist movements whether through world domination or the conflagration that results from infallibility battles between opposing absolute narcissist movements.
The challenge that has eluded humankind all along is this: How do you stop absolute narcissism? How do you stop people and movements whose only goal is remaining unbeatable? Here are some curiously untried suggestions:
Don’t try to persuade an absolute narcissist. Instead, humiliate them, cut them. Make them bleed in any exchange with others listening in, whether face-to-face or in a Twitter exchange. Talk past them to the audience. He’s just a specimen of mindless mechanical pretend invincibility. “See what they did there?”
How do you cut them?
Absolute narcissists are one-trick phonies. Focus doggedly on their one trick: “See what they did? They’ll say anything to jerk themselves off into feeling like a winner, like some scummy little exhibitionist.”
The absolute narcissist will retaliate and yet, having only the one trick, everything they say will confirm your accusation. Respond with “Look, they did it again.” Be relentless and don’t fall for any of the distractions they throw up as their smokescreen. They don’t care about substantive debate except as an excuse for pretending everything that challenges them is wrong. Don’t be confused.
Leave your subjective morality out of it. Don’t scold by your personal standards. Whatever your standards, an absolute narcissist will make you wrong for having them. There’s really only one moral issue and it's universal: No one beats reality. Reality, which absolute narcissists don’t care about at all, beats all absolute narcissists no matter how insistent their pretense of ruling reality.
There’s no need to defend yourself. Absolute narcissists will try to ensnare you in your own moral doubts by pretending they care about moral standards they care nothing about. They operate on defaulty logic. If they can find any fault in you, that proves that they are faultless by default. They blare their morality police siren so loud they don’t have to hear their own hypocrisy. Don’t let yourself be ensnared. Be proud of your human fallibility and shame them for pretending to be superhumanly infallible.
For example, if they play prude, saying, “Don’t be a mean name-caller,” say to the audience, “This fool doesn’t even notice that name-caller is a name. We all name-call. We’re all mean sometimes. I’m trying to name-call with precision, and I’m mean where I think meanness is earned. This absolute narcissist doesn’t care about name-calling or meanness. They pretend to care when it helps them pretend they’re eternally right and righteous. Pitiful.”
And then flip it to ensnare him. Call them things that you don’t think are universally bad. Say they’re just masturbating in public. When they try to deny it as though masturbation is bad, laugh at them for their prudishness. Tease, ridicule, and shame them mercilessly for not trying to figure out right from wrong, instead, pretending to have it all figured out.
Stay calm, even friendly, to the person cowering inside their absolute narcissistic fake infallibility cloak. Stay light, even humorous. It’s nothing personal. Anyone can become an absolute narcissist. They think they’re special. Far from it. They’re just another in a long line of people for whom reality is too scary to face and too easy to dismiss.
Don’t be distracted by your own judgmental labeling as if calling someone an absolute narcissist is condemning them to a life sentence. A narcissist is a gloat-aholic, absolutely addicted to the gloating lifestyle. You're intervening because you are optimistic that they could get over their addiction. They'll deny it and scold you for calling them names. That's no different from an alcoholic taking umbrage at being called an alcoholic. The irony is that you're more hopeful than the absolute narcissist. You believe they could drop their robotic self-aggrandizement and rejoin humankind. To you, it's a deadly lifestyle they could drop. To them, it's their very essence, unchangeable. If anyone thinks their condition is permanent, it's the absolute narcissist, not you.
Exhibit confidence not born of some strategic posture you have to try to sustain through all of the absolute narcissist’s maneuverings but from your gut opposition to all absolute narcissists because they pretend they’re God, masters of, and not subject to reality. If an absolute narcissist tried to seduce you by pandering to your every care and commitment, you’d try to cut them too. You’re not fighting against what the absolute narcissist believes. They don’t have beliefs in anything other than their own absolute infallibility. Rather, you’re fighting in opposition to all absolute narcissism. You’re a fallible human trying to adapt to our rapidly changing reality—just as the narcissist would be if he hadn’t fallen for the oldest, cheap trick in the book. Life is and has always been trial and error, iffy guesswork. Be proud of your ever-learning guesswork.
Don’t let the narcissist turn the debate into a win-all/lose-all battle for fake infallibility where if you admit to your humanness, you're suddenly proven eternally absolutely wrong about everything and they’re vindicated, suddenly proven eternally absolutely right about everything. No one is infallible and anyone who pretends to be deserves a swift, sharp kick. Kicking them doesn’t mean you’re infallible. Don’t play along. Everyone is fallible.
Fallibilism has always won because reality isn’t impressed by narcissistic strutting. Reality will do what it does and all we can do is our human best to learn how to deal with it, starting with learning how to shut down know-nothing, know-it-all narcissists who pretend they’re done learning.
With absolute narcissists, it’s not that the emperor has no clothes. It’s that the emperor is nothing but clothes, a suit of armor with nobody home. You can embarrass that empty suit in front of an audience. That’s how you shame a narcissist back to their fallible human senses.
Malkin, Craig. (2016) Rethinking Narcissism: The Secret to Recognizing and Coping with Narcissists. NYC. Harper Perennial.
Bardon, Adrien. (2019) The Truth About Denial: Bias and Self-Deception in Science, Politics, and Religion. Cambridge, MA: Oxford University Press.