- The narcissist's incapacity to manage his feelings, including unhappiness, is the basis for his overall lack of self-awareness.
- A hallmark of narcissism is having impaired close relationships, as healthy relationships require mutuality, fairness, vulnerability, and trust.
- The primary coping mechanism the narcissist relies on to rid himself of unhappy feelings is to discharge his feelings onto a close human target.
The adage “Misery loves company” provides an apt description of what happens when a narcissist becomes unhappy, and the reasons why will be illuminated here. But understanding what a narcissist does when he is unhappy first requires a base understanding of the narcissist’s relationship with his own feelings. Though narcissism is present across genders, I’ll employ the use of the male pronoun in this post.
To begin, narcissistic personality refers to a personality disorder, Narcissistic Personality Disorder, as outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.; DSM–5; American Psychiatric Association, 2013). At the core of narcissistic personality is a distorted sense of self, one that is oriented around an identity that is special and superior, or what clinicians refer to as grandiose. Because one can’t have a distorted view of himself and also be highly self-aware, a lack of overall self-awareness is foundational to narcissism. While the narcissists may have occasional moments of self-awareness, it’s crucial to understand that real self-awareness in the narcissist is, by definition, fleeting and superficial.
While I have addressed the roots of narcissism in previous writings, I’ll briefly explain the relationship between self-awareness, the strength of one’s ego, and feelings. When an adult has a good ego (one that is not defensively inflated), he has the psychological resources to see himself honestly, which is to acknowledge the strengths and weaknesses that define the undeniable makeup of the human being. Because the adult with a good, reasonable ego has the ability to see himself honestly but imperfectly, it means that he’s also able to acknowledge the negative mix of feelings that come with failures, flaws, disappointments, and anguish. Though he doesn’t like these experiences, he can emotionally manage them.
When circumstances in life cause someone with a healthy ego to feel negative feelings, he feels his feelings without being completely thrown by them and living in them when he’s upset. More importantly, when someone with a healthy ego feels unhappy as a result of circumstances, the circumstances never threaten his overall worth and value as a person. Notably, it’s the fact that he isn’t striving for human superiority that safeguards him against such precipitous ego falls. Of course, the higher one perches oneself, the farther one has to fall.
How narcissists cope with unhappiness
It’s helpful to think of a narcissist’s ego as a mercury thermometer, one that moves up or down based on the amount of attention and validation he gets as valuable and superior. The narcissist walks through life without a solid, internal anchor, depending instead on a precarious strategy in which moment-to-moment circumstances determine the state of how he feels about himself. Given how complex and constantly changing the emotional demands of daily life are, the narcissist’s misguided strategy—an emotional insurance policy of sorts—is concerning and faulty. If, for example, the narcissist’s ego and emotional coping strategy were headlines, any of the following would apply: “Self-Worth at Stake”; “Structure Built on Fault Zone”; or “Project Doomed to Fail.” In the case of the latter, the projects that suffer the most are relationships that can’t survive without proper emotional management.
Given how the narcissist’s self-image depends upon external events (attention and validation from others), how a narcissist acts around others when he gets unhappy can be inferred. But to be clear, a narcissist who gets unhappy:
- Is unable to manage or “hold” his unhappy feelings
- Privately feels overwhelmed, mildly panicked, or “out of gas” but can’t express that vulnerability for fear of being “kicked when down”
- Gets stuck “living in” his feelings instead of feeling them and then getting over them
- Culminates his process of coping with negative feelings by seeking out the safest person to discharge his unhappy or upset feelings onto
For the narcissist, there is no way out of emotional turmoil except to discharge their negative feelings onto someone else, and that “someone else” is usually a person inside their own home or in their work environment—but never a superior. (They play emotional chess for a living; they aren’t fools.)
When the narcissist’s ego is triggered—almost always the cause of them becoming unhappy—their feelings are too big and amorphous for them to handle or, clinically, to integrate. The narcissist is guarded and proud as a rule, but he becomes pathologically so when he starts feeling unhappy, as his unhappy feelings are ones he can’t control or master. The cycle of negativity continues, and his pent-up, unbridled negative feelings escalate to the point that he becomes like a glass bottle on the verge of an explosion. In relationships, whether personal or professional, those close to the narcissist sense the narcissist’s tension rising and are often on the receiving end of a confusing, angry, mind-bending verbal explosion. (As those close to the narcissist aren’t fools either, they’re like flight control tower technicians who know exactly what’s coming.)
As the narcissist stews and escalates, zooming in on his target to pick a fight, the pattern of behavior from an analytic perspective seems calculated or even disturbing. Is he aware of what he’s doing? Does he know that he’s actually being predatory as he picks at his target, laying the foundation of what he needs for proper discharge to feel better: a full-blown argument or, at least, seeing you as upset as he felt in the beginning? Is it that he loves a fight? Does he realize the stunning way in which he hides behind feigned logic and self-righteousness during an asinine conflict that he starts unnecessarily?
Most importantly for those he aggresses, does he actually want to hurt them? Is his motive to make his colleague at work or his partner at home feel small and angry? Is his motive to make that poor person hate his or her life in those stormy, crazy-making moments?
In answer to these questions, I’ll pose two others. Hypothetically, does a 4-year-old who has a tantrum at a local restaurant today intentionally try to ruin his parents’ meal? Was the 4-year-old’s motive to make his parents unhappy? While the narcissist we’re considering here is an adult by chronological age, it’s imperative to understand that, according to the age of emotional development, the narcissist is (counterintuitively) more similar to a child when he becomes unhappy than to a normal adult.
In short, the narcissist isn’t motivated by trying to hurt those close to them; hurting them is simply an inevitable byproduct for anyone close to a person who’s trapped in an adult body but operating from a child’s level of emotional development. Secretly, the narcissist says to himself in such moments, “Well, they may feel upset after our interaction, but no one has any idea what it felt like to be me.” The narcissist ends up justifying his behavior because he tells himself that his own crosses to bear are so much worse than anyone else’s. It’s for this reason that clinicians often talk about the astonishing type of reasoning a narcissist employs in casting themselves as a victim.
Ultimately, anyone in a close relationship with a narcissist has learned firsthand what happens when he becomes unhappy. Those individuals learned early on that when he gets unhappy, the whole house gets unhappy, too. It’s important to note that when those who were close to a narcissist finally end their working or personal relationship with him, it’s not happiness they feel, but rather relief.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.