Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Narc at Midlife: Narcissistic Decompensation

"The stress of aging or illness and the attendant loss of beauty, strength, or cognitive function can undermine narcissistic fantasies of invulnerability and limitless power. It may lead to an empty, depleted collapse on the one hand or a frantic search for compensatory thrill-seeking on the other, both of which are described in the classic “midlife crisis”. Later-life crises, such as one experienced on the eve of retirement, also may reflect narcissistic pathology. For example, a 62-year-old married man was referred for depression by his internist after a month-long course of fluoxetine had failed to improve his symptoms. He was a successful self-made businessman, married with grown children, but for almost a year he had experienced a general lack of zest, anhedonia, and a sense of detachment from his loving wife. His appetite and sleep were undisturbed. On closer examination, his mood was not depression but pessimism tinged with bitterness and resentment, an affective tone frequently encountered in narcissistic individuals. He was bitter that he had never pursued a dreamt-of career as a theater actor. He had a narcissistic decompensation rather than a clinical depression." ~Kernberg, Kohut and Cooper 

"These individuals have a particularly difficult time with the limitations inherent in ageing; NPD has been associated with deterioration in midlife with the realization of mortality and loss of physical vitality (Wink, Costello, ed., p. 149). ...NPD depression is often precipitated by a crisis that punctures the narcissistic grandiosity and reflects the discrepancy between NPD expectations or fantasies and reality (Beck, 1990, p. 239)." ~ Dual Diagnosis and the NPD 

The Narc at Midlife: Decompensation

What does decompensation mean?

“Worsening psychiatric condition: the deterioration of existing psychological defenses in a patient already exhibiting pathological behavior.” 

Decompensation is a removal of the props (ego defenses) sustaining an inflated self-esteem that was unable to 'compensate' for an injury of some kind. In other words, decompensation occurs when the narcissist’s grandiosity is not validated by reality; their self image is impossible to sustain. At midlife, with all the struggles human beings have, narcissists have feelings of hopelessness, inadequacy, desperation, and confusion. Feelings they cannot tolerate, nor process. 
Midlife taxes narcissistic defenses, challenging aging individuals to mature. People with 'undeveloped narcissistic traits' will suffer, perhaps even  experience a crisis. That doesn't mean they can't grow and develop. Heinz Kohut suggests maturation is a lifelong process developing immature aspects of ourselves. That's the current thinking about a 'normal' person's midlife transition.

Then, there's the midlife narcissist. The Tragic man. The collapsible man. The man who appeared to be a shark, suddenly turning into a jelly fish. Or the goldfish turning into a shark. 
Anyone who witnessed the ‘collapsible man’ (or woman), has been stunned by allegations that we were the ones who were ‘deficient, controlling, smothering, incompetent’ or any of the traits narcissists project onto other people. 
The midlife narcissist is someone who cannot swallow his pride and as a result, vomits on the person closest to him or her. That would be the partner who for years, supported them through thick-and-thin, becoming increasingly weary of the narcissist’s incessant demands. It’s not that we lack empathy or become indifferent (though some do, it depends on the relationship), we are tired. Maybe there's a furrowed brow setting off the narcissist's crisis---maybe our individuation triggers their fears of abandonment or their envy. I don't know. What I do know is that partners are splattered with traits and behaviors the narcissist cannot claim as his or her own.

I started writing about narcissism on the Midlilfe Crisis forum back in 2003, after learning about a disorder called NPD (Narcissistic Personality Disorder). I had hoped my partner would work through his problems losing control, losing status, becoming another ordinary cog in the wheel of life; that he would eventually realize that escaping reality was less enjoyable than embracing it. That he would wake up one morning with a strange woman in his bed and recognize how much he loved and valued his family. That even if his wife was too weird for words, his children needed him. This did not happen. If the midlife narcissist has not shown signs of taking responsibility for behavior that hurts the people who loved and supported him for years, he likely won’t. He’s likely unable to face the destruction he caused, if he even realizes it (or is capable of bearing the truth long enough to see that HE is his biggest problem. Not the role he played in the family, nor the prickly personalities of family members).

It is never easy to tolerate the Walk of Shame when a person makes a mess of their lives. It’s painful processing ‘humiliation’ into ‘humility’ no matter where you are on the narcissistic continuum. If your unstable self-esteem is threatened by your mistakes and errors,  self-deception may appear to be an easier way out. Instead of falling into supine reflection on human weakness, narcissists become  grandiose, other-blaming and arrogant.
The ability to face disappointment and accept other people's willingness to forgive your mistakes is not something narcissists are capable of doing. Anytime we are forgiven by others, we surrender our power to BE FORGIVEN by  another person holding the power To Forgive. They will or they won't---their forgiveness is not in our control. This is an untenable situation for a narcissist who must maintain the perception of superiority, especially if he or she sees other people as inferiors. Imagine a peon forgiving The King? Instead of appreciating someone's willingness to even consider forgiveness (which may be a long term process), the narcissist projects fault and blame others and thus, exculpating himself from guilt and remorse. What's to forgive? His malicious wife intentionally bought the wrong type of lettuce for gawd's sake what else can a man do but seek comfort from the Ms. Radicchio?

The midlife crisis with all the accompanying destruction people do to their lives when the Inner Child (or Inner Adolescent) is given free reign to act impulsively, selfishly and without consideration for others, is very hard to resolve. Depending on the degree of narcissism, the person-having-a-midlife-crisis may NOT be able to face themselves after losing ‘face’ in their community. 
It takes a strong foundation of self and self-worth to admit to having harmed people you cared about because you were behaving like an petulant child. Still, people are able to reconcile wounded relationships--both parties willing. My assumption was that everyone would do whatever they must to clean up the messes they made at midlife when our human limitations stick out like sore thumbs and mortality becomes a certainty. I was wrong.

A narcissistic injury may precede the midlife narcissist’s decompensation 
My partner had suffered a major insult at work. His Star Status was sullied; any idea that he would be the next CEO was shattered. His impulsivity had undermined his career plans because finally, people were unwilling to excuse his rash behavior. As others have also mentioned, my spouse was involved in a sexual harassment suit which never went anywhere. Still, the threat was there as a constant reminder of his limitations. Those darn corporations! Imagine not being able to pat your secretary's ass!

The biggest threat though, was the damage his behavior did to his family's perceptions of him as a New-Age Fabulous Man who really ‘got’ women’s predicament in the workplace.

After his ‘breakdown’ at work, verbally abusing his boss (whoa…not a great career move, there buddy!), he lost his position in the company and was granted paid leave to get himself together. Now wouldn’t you think  an out-of-control person would avail themselves of psychotherapy? Wouldn’t you think  a chagrined person would be grateful to a company that didn’t just FIRE his arse, but valued him enough to provide support and time while he got himself back together?

That’s not what happened, however. 
He was not grateful. He was resentful. I don’t believe he had the capacity to process humiliation into humility. His anger increased, becoming a frightening rage at times, so furious was he at institutions; i.e.: corporations, religions, even marriage. I tried my best to encourage him to get professional help rather than rely on me. But he wouldn’t. He refused. He preferred sitting by a stream and contemplating like Siddhartha in spandex. As if the thinking that got him in this mess would get him out of the mess. 

He became more and more depressed, that much was obvious and his personality changed. He was distant and desperate, the sense of ‘rage’ beneath his smile. I was unprepared for what was to come later: I became the mother of all evils, the woman he feared would kill him, the person he saw as manipulative, hateful, and abusive. Which is preposterous. His allegations were so preposterous in fact, they kept me from internalizing his projections.

My concern for people writing about the midlife crisis is minimizing the danger of a partner who flips reality backwards and sees other people as ‘threats’ to the narcissist’s survival. For a narcissist you see, the False Self is the only self they know. When the False Self is exposed (decompensation of defensive mechanisms), it is life-threatening to a narcissist. If there is no False Self, there is no one inside…just a big dark abyss of bottomless rage and fear. He is not a superior being. Just an ordinary maN without his mask.

So when a partner confronts the midlife narcissist’s failures, she might as well be pointing a machine gun in his face. That is how he perceives his loss of ‘status’ in her eyes. It IS life-threatening to him.

Forgiveness? Yea, you are likely willing to forgive. Understanding? Yea, you are likely to understand. But narcissists need to maintain control and superiority, so your forgiveness and understanding are threats to their dominance. I remember saying to my husband, “Whatever has passed, has passed. I forgive you.” And instead of tears and gratitude he ranted, “Forgive me? I should be forgiving YOU. And I don’t!”

Bizarre. Reality turned backwards. Sadly, the people who are closest to the narcissist are the ones they hurt, destroying the relationship permanently. Would that they destroyed the False Self instead.  

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