13. Special is the Narcissistic - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
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13. Special is the Narcissistic

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > How Dangerous

 How Dangerous is this Person? Assessing Danger & Violence Potential Before Tragedy Strikes

NARCISSISTIC: Characteristics, Criteria, or Elements for Aggression & Violence Potential
-- Code: NO=not applicable; YES=applicable; DEPENDS=Depends on other issues or occurs sometimes.

NARCISSISTIC: YES, Specific Triggering Event
NARCISSISTIC: DEPENDS, Opportunistic Behavior
NARCISSISTIC: YES, Sense of Entitlement
NARCISSISTIC: YES, Self-Righteous Attitude
NARCISSISTIC: YES, Ego-syntonic Perception
NARCISSISTIC: YES, Self-Esteem Gain or Loss
NARCISSISTIC: NO, Intense Emotional Arousal
NARCISSISTIC: YES, Functional Reinforcement (positive or negative)
NARCISSISTIC: YES, Characterlogical Behavior/Perceptions
NARCISSISTIC: DEPENDS, Transitory Behavior/Perceptions
NARCISSISTIC: NO, Isolation/Avoidance Behavior
NARCISSISTIC: NO, Presence of Remorse

“Since the introduction of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) in the DSM III in 1980, there has been considerable discussion in the literature about the prevalence of violence and suicide in patients with this character pathology.  In fact, it has been suggested that this group of individuals may be at higher risk of acting aggressively when faced with narcissistic injury because of their poorly formulated sense of self and their rigid, limited repertoire of coping strategies. Narcissistic Personality Disorder is defined in the DSM III-R as a ‘pervasive pattern of grandiosity, lack of empathy, and hypersensitivity to the evaluation of others…’ which includes features of sensitivity to criticism, interpersonal exploitation, sense of uniqueness, idealized fantasy, entitlement, need for admiration and feelings The propensity of individuals with pathologic narcissism to react to frustration with intense rage is well recognized. Kernberg, Kohut, and others have described this reaction as resulting from the disruption of a delicately held narcissistic balance. In individuals who require constant external affirmation from an important selfobject in order to maintain an experience of themselves as adequate and complete, a failure of such recognition by others or a perceived personal rejection can result in rageful affect and possibly aggressive behavior. This is understood as an effort by these individuals to reestablish their usual sense of self-integrity and wellbeing. Self-righteous rage requires revenge, or punishment of the offender, in order that humiliation is repaired and a sense of self, although infantile and grandiose, be reinstated. Noshpitz characterized these individuals' experience of narcissistic injury as equivalent to a territorial threat and, therefore, a threat to the literal survival of the self. Aggression in these patients is their necessary and often only form of ‘self-defense.’ For individuals with a pathological narcissistic self-structure, suicidal and homicidal behaviors may become equivalent final common pathways depending on the availability of a selfobject to blame and the availability of depleted grandiosity or primitive defensive options” (Schulte et al., 1994, page 611).

Camila, who was characterized as a bully, may also have had narcissistic tendencies.  Not all bullies have narcissistic characteristics, but all narcissists end up bullying others.  Bullying however is a much more subdued version of the aggression, abuse, and violence perpetuated by a narcissistic fully activated.  Bullying is also more likely to be transitory developmental behavior that recedes with maturity and increasing social competence, while narcissism is often a lifelong characterological issue.  MacKenzie was not exaggerating when she said that she had never been in a relationship with someone so controlling and abusive as Colton.  MacKenzie with her borderline issues had lousy relationships with “normal neurotics” and even nice guys.  She was provoked by their often innocent or benign actions.  Her borderline lashing out at them sometimes drew counter-attack.  More often however she initially got remorseful if somewhat perplexed apologies that they had not intended to betray, abandon, or reject her.  As she became more vindictive, they might snap back.  Sometimes, she and a partner would go at it for a few rounds, but eventually these more “normal neurotics” would eventually give up trying to be perfect… trying to not trigger her… trying to understand her …and trying to be in a relationship with her.  One partner, Dann fathered a daughter with her before getting out.  Unfortunately, with the daughter, he had to maintain a relationship with her over child custody, support, and co-parenting.  While working with her as needed, Dann had come to accept MacKenzie as problematic as she was.  Accepting her worked better rather than trying to battle overtly with her.  He gave her as little as possible to get worked up over by expecting as little as possible.  It worked more or less as he kept his distance.  It became significantly easier for Dann as MacKenzie got involved with and focused on Colton, and thus significantly less focused on her war with Dann.  Unlike Dann who cut his losses when his and MacKenzie’s relationship deteriorated, Colton did not and could not cut his losses.  

Colton knew very well that MacKenzie had some major emotional issues.  That was what made the relationship “work” for him as much as it did.  MacKenzie worked for him, especially initially because her borderline neediness for attachment tolerated his occasional narcissistic annihilations of her.  A healthier person would have been charmed by Colton’s charisma and intelligence but after a couple of rounds of abuse from his narcissistic rage would have left him.  MacKenzie, desperately needy for intimacy was punch-drunk with adulation when his energy focused on her.  He was the “one.”  Colton already knew he was the “special one.”  He was the “one” for himself!  Adding MacKenzie as another conquest or as another to his cult of admirers was characteristic of him.  Once she was committed to him, neglecting her and abusing her was also part of his pattern.  After abusing, exploiting, or humiliating MacKenzie… after her borderline hurt, rage, and lashing out… and after her tearful apologies, Colton artfully re-wrote history and convinced MacKenzie that she not only was inappropriate reacting, but that he was completely innocent of any wrongdoing (whether he was or not).  Colton understood MacKenzie’s borderline vulnerability.  It confirmed his narcissistic superiority.  Teasing and provoking her was entertaining to some degree.  It was a game... a part of asserting and maintaining his invulnerability the rules that mere mortal were held to.  He could talk and charm his way out of almost any transgression.  Having and using MacKenzie as his partner worked to a large degree and for quite a while.  She was intelligent enough, skilled and respected enough, and attractive enough to gain him some social status having her as a wife.  

Colton’s narcissistic arrogance and entitlement knew few bounds.  Sexual improprieties were just another realm for conquest.  Colton and MacKenzie getting together had been affairs for both of them.  They were both in relationships: Colton married and MacKenzie with a boyfriend.  MacKenzie thought that Colton’s affair with her was from her being “special”- true love compelling the relationship.  During the affair, she discovered that Colton had enjoyed a one-night-stand with someone he met at a bar during a business trip.  She went ballistic.  Colton adeptly withstood her initial wave of rage and behavior.  Then as she calmed, he started working on her.  How could she think that?  How could she do that to him?  As she was to find out far too often, her intensely reactive retaliations could not bear his rational scrutiny after the fact.  Next thing she knew, up was down and she had fallen down the rabbit hole.  And she was apologizing profusely to Colton.  She begged him for another chance.  Reluctantly, Colton agreed.  All was good for a while longer.  Eventually, they got married.  Then there were other women, both one-night conquests and affairs.  As MacKenzie was fooled over and over, her hurt and rage (already monumental) became volcanic.  She did things to expose him and humiliate him as the narcissistic asshole he was in front of his family, his peers, and at his work.  MacKenzie instinctively knew of his narcissistic vulnerability and need to maintain his grandiose image to the world.  She knew how to attack his high but fragile self-esteem. They cycled ever more vicious and abusive responses before they finally divorced.  However, the war was not over and their child RJ became the primary battleground.

As a narcissist, Colton could not let someone- especially MacKenzie who challenged him on his parenting rights and competence, win.  More precisely, he could not lose.  Colton was not particularly interesting in being a father. He was negligent with his older son.  Kids could adore him as long as they obeyed him.  And, children could make him look good with their achievements.  His older son was a standout athletic and an academic high achiever.  That looked good.  It made him look good.  However he did not really care about being a good dad.  He cared more about “winning” the child custody battle and not “losing” the “better parent” contest.  His older son’s mother let him “win” rather than continue to battle with him.  She settled for the child support she could get and let him have the visitation rights he wanted (but did not always take), rather than be beaten up in court for little gain.  She had learned that despite whatever a mediator or court ordered, he would just draw out the hostilities legally and she would lose by attrition.  MacKenzie however had enough borderline personality disorder issues that she did not care how much she was abused or their child RJ distressed.  She would not give up and she went after him.  Although MacKenzie may have had legal rights in these matters, she was also taking a very provocative and potentially dangerous course of action with a narcissist.  Schulte et al. (1994) found a cluster of common features that were predictive of violence: “(1) significant narcissistic personality pathology, (2) recent narcissistic injury, (3) inability to acknowledge or express affect related to this injury, (4) some history of impulsiveness when stressed, and (5) the availability of a weapon. Discussion is presented that the clinician's ability to predict the potential for violence may be enhanced by special attention to these features” (page 622).  MacKenzie could otherwise note some or all of these features as relevant in Colton and of him likely to become aggressive, abusive, or violent.  However, her borderline rage shoved her pass being cautious.

Colton could not tolerate what others might consider fair- that would not be winning.  To have MacKenzie even have the illusion of beating him was unacceptable.  He needed to destroy her.  Towards the end of their relationship as MacKenzie amped up her aggression, Colton’s glib psychological tactics became insufficient to dissuade her.  She became more confrontive, literally getting into his face.  She pushed him and slapped him.  Not so much that he felt a need to physically retaliate, but because she would not give in to him.  He was not winning so, he got more physical too.  They blocked, pushed, and slapped.  Who did what and who started what was never determined.  MacKenzie got a big one up, however when she called the police and reported domestic violence.  Colton could admit that he got physical with MacKenzie and that MacKenzie got physical with him.  However, what infuriated calm reasonable Colton by far the most was MacKenzie getting an advantage over him because she initiated the domestic violence case.  He had been handcuffed and marched out of the house into the back of a police car.  He spent a few hours in jail and had to be bailed out.  Charges were dropped and everything got worked through with mandated anger management treatment for Colton.  Not surprising, however Colton was able to avoid attending domestic violence treatment programs or groups or attending the mandated anger management classes.  As an upstanding pillar of the community and successful businessman, he managed to get court approval to go to individual therapy instead.  In individual therapy, Colton manipulated the therapist into thinking he was using it for personal growth without ever mentioning domestic violence, got the letter of attendance, and satisfied the court.

Colton was and could be very charming and reasonable initially with MacKenzie, with others, and the therapist.  He was not characteristically opportunistic about being abusive to others.  In the rest of his life- at work for example, Colton only fell into narcissistic rage when his omnipotence was threatened.  He found a way to destroy the career of a potential rival for a promotion who dared to mock him in a staff meeting.  His high fragile self-esteem (although, he would not admit it) could not tolerate losing, so anything including violence was justified.  However, after being triggered so frequently in their toxic history by MacKenzie initiating and retaliating aggression at him- in particular assaults on his grandiose image, he now looked to punish her any time and in any way.   His narcissistic omnipotence made aggression against her an entitlement, righteous, and was in sync with his sense of superior self.  His identity as a calm reasonable person flattened any overt emotional arousal while committing virtually sociopathic aggression.  It was a stunning revelation to MacKenzie to realize that Colton enjoyed intimidating, exploiting, and abusing her.  When the therapist asked Colton if he enjoyed MacKenzie’s distress, Colton smiled slightly and stated calmly, “That’s interesting.  She gets distressed… hmmm?  Well, what does she expect?"

Colton is loath to admit to holding resentments against anyone. Having resentments would constitute emotional reactivity and immaturity not compatible with his functioning as a superior being.  As such, resentments may be deeply buried and also generalized as the transgressions of inferior people as a group.  However, MacKenzie and others who had gone into open competition and hence, warfare with Colton would have resentments held against them.  Colton experiences his narcissism and his aggression as beneficial for him.  His aggressive if not abusive treatment of his older son’s mother was effective to maintain dominance and control.  Characterological narcissism has worked very well in his professional career and in his life.  His aggression is transitory as it only manifests during narcissistic injury and rage.  He is otherwise a charming, reasonable, well-liked, well-regarded, and successful individual.  However for her daring to contest him, Colton sought every opportunity now and forever to punish if not destroy MacKenzie.Colton is a social individual who does not wish to be alone.  That was why he sought out MacKenzie and other women.  He is however not content to be a part or member of a couple or group.  He has a long history of being driven to be the alpha, which creates both productive accomplishments and aggressive behavior.  Being equal partners was not his way or could be tolerable.  Any and all actions to achieve or maintain omnipotence and grandiose superiority are justified- hence no remorse harming others or empathy for others’ hurt.  Colton has limited entries for therapy and change.  His omnipotence and grandiosity- that is, entitlement to aggressive tactics and bloated self-image as deserved block most growth.  Directing him to MacKenzie’s or RJ’s distress is ineffective since his expressed remorse or empathy is not genuine.  Avoiding triggering him is impractical in any competitive social or work situation since others would not necessarily have any reason to defer to him.  And, when MacKenzie attacked his grandiose self-image through trying to humiliate him, she shifted to become a mortal enemy.  He then shifted as well to relishing any opportunity to punish her.

Colton cannot access his high fragile self-esteem for introspection much less insight.  Therefore, the therapist usually cannot get him to engage in real dialogue about his pre-conscious motivations to destroy MacKenzie.  There are however three potential entries to therapy and change for Colton.  The first is whether his aggression continues to reward him rather than punish him.  The therapist would need to quantify how abusive treatment of MacKenzie (or neglectful, disconnected, or disconnected treatment of RJ) harms him in manners that are tangible to Colton.  This cannot be a generic appeal to the well-being of MacKenzie or RJ.  Colton does not care, or at least does not care as much as he cares for his own needs.  Colton's need to be seen as the great dad to RJ in RJ and others eyes finally motivated him to drop the police case against MacKenzie for the car incident.  He found he could not convince RJ or others that MacKenzie's actions had been purely vindictive, or that he was still a great dad to RJ despite trying to put RJ's mother in jail.  The potential harm to his reputation was compelling in this rare case.  To facilitate change, the therapist would have to artistically find benefit or harm that is tangible according to Colton’s narcissistic needs: his grandiosity, omnipotence, and entitlement.  Another and related entry is Colton’s need to be social and not be alone.  The therapist should try to direct Colton to meaningful social losses including gain or loss of reputation as a magnanimous versus vindictive ex or caring supportive versus neglectful dad.  The key to this strategy is not MacKenzie or just RJ seeing him these ways, but his significant peers and other important observers, especially those whose regard affects his status in various ways
The third entry or approach is in invoking and evoking Colton’s self-image or self-definition.  Colton sees his aggression as ego-syntonic, therefore he strives to live up to its expectations.  The therapist extends how others see him to how Colton wants to see himself.  As the therapist introduces and provokes a nuanced ideal self, therapy suggests more functional and less aggressive ways to express his grandiosity, omnipotence, and entitlement.  The therapist sets this strategy with questions such as “How do you want RJ to think of you?  How can you be the best dad you can be?  Only you have the power to make this happen.  In fact, MacKenzie can’t make you do anything.  It’s up to you.  It’s your choice… and it’s your right.”   The therapist can point to Colton making himself look bad, being controlled, and giving up his rights.  “So, how do you think that makes you look?  I have to tell you… not judge you, but as an unbiased observer you should know how this looks.  Is that what you want?  So, you’re saying that you don’t have control about what you end up doing… because of what MacKenzie does?  You mean that she can make you make bad choices?  Make you do things that make you look bad?  You need to keep your right to make the best choices- not get sucked into a battle with MacKenzie that distracts you.”  Another strategy would be to use paradoxical interventions.  Permission may be attempted. “You have all the power to keep on doing what you are doing.  You don’t have to consider what others think.  It doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad for RJ, MacKenzie, or you.  You have the power to decide it’s ‘good’ just because you want it to be.” Prediction is another possibility.  “I see that eventually RJ will get disgusted with both of you.  You will have done enough so whatever MacKenzie says or doesn’t say will be believable.”  Or, “RJ is only 11 years old, so that’s only seven more years through high school… uh, make that eleven more years through college… wait, maybe fifteen years through grad school or getting on his feet… for you guys to keep hating each other and fighting each other.  Oh yeah, and then there’s grandchildren.  So, this is how it’ll be for one or two or three decades!  Enjoy!”  “So, while you deal with all this and everyone pays the price, at least you can still say to yourself… I’m right!  And, it was worth it!  Ya’ think, it’ll be worth it?”

Another approach or a stance necessary to working with a narcissist is for the therapist to assert his or her superiority.  This is compatible with the paradoxical approaches and the entries mentioned.  The narcissist dismisses an intellectual inferior or less skilled individual and finds an equal or near equal to be a potential rival and therefore a mortal enemy to be destroyed.  The therapist can be neither of these two roles.  Colton alternately dismisses MacKenzie as an inferior for her borderline neediness and seeks to destroy her as she attempted to be an equal co-parent or rival parent.  On the other hand, the narcissist will often respect and be more receptive to a clear superior or an expert in a non-competitive field.  The therapist can assert authority as a child development expert, a couples expert, a co-parenting expert, a mental health and self-esteem expert, as experienced in their dynamics, and as such qualified unlike them to predict their respective outcomes individually and collectively.  Gaining credibility to build this role may be the key to working with the narcissistic.  In couple's therapy, this has to be accomplished without losing tentative rapport with the other partner.  It is significantly easier in individual treatment.  While connecting with Colton, the therapist has to also gain rapport or not lose rapport with MacKenzie.  This is quite difficult therapy and requires tremendous skills based on astute conceptual foundations.  These suggestions cannot sufficiently guide the therapist in the live drama of an actual narcissist and borderline couple in therapy.  Colton with narcissistic personality disorder is possibly not completely, consistently, and irredeemably narcissistic.  MacKenzie with borderline personality disorder may have some capacity as well to resist her tendencies.  Promoting less disordered thinking and disordered behavior challenges the therapist.  Nevertheless, the therapist must hope that the rigidity of the disorders is not so severe to preclude any progress.

The narcissistic individual has high potential for emotional and psychological aggression and abuse, and in certain situations also for physical violence.  The narcissist's need to prevail, dominate, or win at all costs can must just that- almost any action is justified to avoid being defeated, dismissed, or humiliated.   While the narcissist may be without remorse and justifies his or her actions to preclude any guilt, he or she however must maintain his or omnipotent status and reputation.  As a result, the narcissist must ordinarily manipulate scrutiny and evaluation to be deemed blameless or having acted without other recourse.  If at all possible, he or she will concoct a compelling psuedo-logical justification of his or her behavior.  In the narcissist's mind, behavior no matter how otherwise reprehensible becomes completely rationale.    As opposed to the borderline individual's readily recognizable high emotional arousal, the narcissist usually does not give him or herself away by showing anger.  Instead, in a calm and efficient- that is, cold-blooded manner, the narcissist will execute a well constructed often intricate mission to destroy a competitor.  Emotional or psychological guerrilla warfare or terrorism involving attacks on reputation, relationships, advancement, and careers are characteristic of the threatened narcissist.  One avenue for preventing narcissistic aggression or abuse is a clear unflinching imminent greater loss that the narcissist knows will fall upon him or her if caught or exposed.  Narcissistic aggression is effective for the individual to gain and fulfill needs for omnipotence, grandiosity, and entitlement.  If the behavior will not be effective and in contrast, will cause significant negative consequences, the narcissist will ordinarily restrain him or herself.  Narcissistic calculation precludes making a fool of oneself.  Unfortunately, the narcissist will usually only delay aggression or transfer executing it against another target.

Physical assault is ordinarily considered too crude a vengeance for the narcissist.  The narcissist becomes the most dangerous when his or her ingenious eloquent non-violent attacks are effectively blocked and frustrated. The intensity can rise exponentially, if faced with exposure to derision or shame, narcissistic rage and frustration.  The rage must find outlet and a target.  Few social or cultural moral or ethical rules or boundaries can restrain the threatened narcissist.  For some individuals, this can mean violating sanctions against physical violence.  The therapist, professional, or other concerned person must note the increased potential for aggression, abuse, and violence of the narcissist when he or she has reached this stage.  The intense competitiveness of the narcissist can trigger in his or her target, reciprocal antagonism and competitive feelings and actions.  The other person can become highly motivated to win and vanquish the narcissist.  In some situations, including an opponent who also has a personality disorder or other compelling characterological and/or cultural drive to search and destroy, may be able to "win" against, defeat, and humiliate the narcissist. Facing no viable options other than admission of deficiency and humiliation, an otherwise physically non-violent narcissist may turn physically assaultive or homicidal.  It is important although difficult for an antagonized target of an intensely narcissistic individual not to trap him or her.  Allowing or maintaining a face-saving option for the narcissist may be a viable strategy to reduce danger or violence potential.

In the dynamics between MacKenzie and Colton, MacKenzie potentially has enough accrued rage, resentments, and grievances along with characterological issues of borderline personality disorder to go after Colton without consideration of how dangerous he could become.  When caught up in her high emotional reactivity, MacKenzie might trap or block Colton completely.  After the fact, she might recognize her problematic role in their dysfunction and the futility of expecting Colton to change.  She also upon reflection if guided by a therapist or professional realized that with her aggressive choices, she became more vulnerable to being or likely to be further abused by Colton.  Someone such as MacKenzie could reduce her potential to be abused by her adversary Colton by finding ways to allow him his "victories" or narcissistic sense of domination within some tolerable boundaries.  Or, otherwise disengage from their war.  This is impossible if MacKenzie stays aroused and "cannot let him win."    This is a delicate and complex issue where the integrity of the therapist or professional's guidance is challenged.  It can be interpreted as making a victim such as MacKenzie responsible for being abused or even killed.   MacKenzie arguably can be seen as contributing to the dysfunction between her and Colton.  On the other hand, Colton definitely is driven to dominate and punish her or also arguably anyone else who he manipulated that eventually wrongs him.  On a practical or functional level, MacKenzie may need to choose between giving up a significant measure of justice to gain a more stable less contentious co-parenting relationship, versus continuing to assert her right and righteousness to dangerously battle dysfunctionally for years with Colton.  The choices include relative if superficial collaboration between parents for RJ versus active toxicity for the rest of RJ's formative years and potential subsequent relationship and life consequences.  

Another consideration is the degree and intensity of the narcissistic personality disorder for an individual.  The narcissist's characterological pathology may be so profound that an individual may do absolutely nothing to become his or her victim or target.  People are there, to be used, and in the way. Colton had intimidated, dominated, used, and abused peers and colleagues who crossed him during his career.  There were several other women before MacKenzie.  His older son's mother had stopped trying to fight him for child support or anything else that might have been legally or morally her right.  She had experienced his scorched earth march across her life and decided to defer rather than battle.  She "won" by giving up.  It was not worth it for her to go through so much to gain so little that he nevertheless avoided through some fancy legal machinations.  She was scared of him.  She had no confidence that he had any boundaries whatsoever if triggered enough.  After their separation, she and her son visited with RJ (they were half-brothers).  The women, both ex's of Colton shared horror stories about Colton.  MacKenzie admitted believing Colton's story about his ex as a crazy vindictive bitch.  Now she was the crazy bitch number two... CB2!  Throughout it all, Colton remained an admired charismatic pillar of the community.  A targeted person, the therapist, the professional, or other concerned person may discover that there is really nothing conciliatory or even in acquiescing to his or her demands that can make a severe narcissist stop abuse or not be highly dangerous.  With such an assessment, everyone should explore and activate all necessary steps to protect against aggression and violence by the narcissist against the targeted individual.

3056 Castro Valley Blvd., #82
Castro Valley, CA 94546
Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, MFT32136
office: (510) 582-5788
fax: (510) 889-6553
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