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What Happens When a Narcissist Has to Face Reality

... and why experts say even the most self-absorbed can adjust.

Key points

  • The more self-reinforcing experiences one has, the more chance there is to end up in a narcissistic bubble.
  • Aging can be considered a bursting of the narcissistic bubble.
  • When one's narcissistic bubble bursts, dealing with the crisis can involve seeking out role models and a therapist.
Source: Andrey_Popov/Shutterstock

Expecting special attention and feeling entitled are key features of narcissism. There are times when, without realizing it, even an ordinary person can get swept up in this narcissistic frame of mind: You’ve been pampered all day at a spa while getting ready for your best friend’s wedding. Perhaps you’ve taken a trip where everything gets done for you, and you don’t have to think about the normal exigencies of life. It feels nice to be treated well—it boosts your self-esteem and you start to feel a bit more important than you did before.

Life is full of opportunities, unfortunately, to enter a more permanent narcissistic bubble. Let’s say your hard work has been rewarded and you’ve received a promotion. Instead of having to answer the phone yourself, someone now does it for you. Coffee is provided at meetings without your having to lift a finger, and the lower-ranked people who work for you write down everything you say with great fervor.

The “promotion” doesn’t just have to be at work. Perhaps your partner really knows how to treat you well and completes the multitude of chores needed to keep your home running. Or maybe you’ve made some demands on your family (such as when and where to have the next celebration) to which they concede. You didn’t know you had that much power; your narcissistic bubble begins to grow.

The narcissistic bubble can creep over you in an almost imperceptible manner. You’re not even fully conscious of having created it. The more reinforcing experiences you have, the larger and more rigid it becomes. Then, without warning, something happens that causes the bubble to burst. Those loyal employees who attend to your every need may still be fawning over you, but you’re frustrated with your inability to progress as high as you hoped on the career ladder. Your family members start to turn their attention away from you and toward a new in-law or grandchild. You’re no longer the center of their world.

Aging itself can bring about a withering, if not bursting, of the narcissistic bubble. You’re no longer a fresh young thing and are starting to develop wrinkles, bags, sags, or a gray or bald head. Your clothes don’t fit the same way they did before, and you find you can no longer squeeze into your favorite skinny jeans, no matter what you do. Then there’s the inevitable “ma’am” or “sir” that the barista uses in referring to you (yes you, not the person behind you).

The factors that cause the narcissistic bubble to retreat and burst were addressed in an astute article by Eda Goldstein in 1995. Goldstein described what happens somewhere in the middle years when narcissists come to grips with their own failings, exposing their weaknesses to themselves. They can become both enraged and ashamed.

As she noted, there are dangers associated with the sudden coming to grips with reality that can put the individual’s life into a wild tailspin:

“Believing that they should be able to control life and be strong and self-sufficient, individuals with severe narcissistic vulnerability do not allow for human limitations or the effects of life’s vicissitudes… indignation, bitterness, envy, disbelief, and humiliation are commonly expressed and may, in some extreme instances, result in vengeful acts of violence” (pp. 410-411)

The thicker the bubble, in other words, the more damage it leaves when it bursts.

There are ways to survive the sudden realization that you’re not really all that special and, in fact, have defects. Whether the bubble bursts in midlife, with its associated stresses, or at some other time, people who must come to grips with their limitations benefit by taking a page from the therapist’s playbook. Goldstein wrote about three cases of midlife individuals suffering from the bursting of their bubbles and noted the therapeutic strategies that seemed to work to get them through this period in their lives.

The underlying basis of Goldstein’s approach is that it takes heaps of empathy to help individuals overcome the shame and outrage they feel when their narcissistic ways come to an unpleasant end. She believes that therapists must empathically understand those feelings and help clients to recognize and accept them. As midlife adults get in touch with their feelings, “They may begin to grieve the childhood that never was, the roads not taken, the lives not led, aspects of the self that have changed, relationships that never were or have been lost, and the future that will never be” (pp. 411-412).

In addition to empathy, people experiencing the bursting of the narcissistic bubble may benefit from “mirroring,” in which they receive “applause” or “self-affirmation” from others (p. 412). If you’re feeling ashamed that you need these little encouragements to restore your self-esteem, Goldstein would say to the contrary that we all need to be appreciated. From a practical standpoint, this can also mean that you get over yourself and do something that will allow you to gain that tiny bit of applause from others. Bring cupcakes that you baked to work or make something such as wooden or crocheted toys for your young relatives.

Goldstein also recommends that you seek out role models who can help you accept your changing self. How are they navigating the stress of getting older? Try not to feel envious, but instead figure out what they seem to be doing right. It’s possible to age without losing your groove, and these individuals can inspire you to find what’s right for you.

Midlife doesn’t have to involve crisis, and even the bursting of the narcissistic bubble doesn’t have to accompany midlife. However, as Goldstein pointed out, there are ways that our past experiences can lead us to that point. At the same time, our past experiences can also help us get over this temporary block in the road. Think back on the accomplishments you’ve had, large and small, and about how you’ve coped with the difficulties you’ve had to face. Draw on the resources of your past successes. That fulfillment you seek now may follow if you use those adaptations that have gotten you to where you are today.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.


Goldstein, E. (1995). When the bubble bursts: Narcissistic vulnerability in mid-life. Clinical Social Work Journal, 23(4), 401-416. doi:10.1007/BF0219162

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