If you’ve ever had interactions with a narcissist, you likely have noticed that they seem extremely paranoid. They’re often accusatory and inconsolable if they think you’ve turned against them. You might have a basic understanding of how narcissism develops, but you still might not understand how that process can result in such paranoid and delusional thinking.
Understanding why narcissists are so paranoid involves understanding the root of narcissism. Here are 9 reasons connected to the dysfunctional development of self that explain why some narcissists are so paranoid:
- No Internal Agency or Representation
- Unsupported Self
- Focused on False Image
- Inability to Trust
- Rigid Thinking
- Binary Thinking
- Inability to be Introspective
- Inability to Acknowledge Facts
These narcissistic characteristics are all connected to the underlying cause of narcissism — the failure to fully develop a sense of self. It’s important and helpful to explore each of these in greater detail to truly understand narcissistic paranoia.
1. No Internal Agency or Representation
As explained in a 1991 study conducted by experts in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Health Sciences, Chicago Medical School, narcissism develops as a result of certain traumatic events that compromise what is called the ego-ideal and/or cause the loss of self-object relationships. The ego-ideal refers to the part of the mind that imposes on the self certain concepts of what is considered ideal behavior as learned from parental and social standards.
When psychologists talk about self-object relationships, that refers to what is a dynamic internalized relationship between one’s self and significant others which are considered ‘objects.’ Object relations specifically refers to the mental representations of the self’s perception of the object, the self in relation to the object, and finally, the relationship between the self and the object.
For example, an infant might perceive the mother as good because she feeds the child when they are hungry. This would be an example of the representation of the object as good. The infant might further perceive him or herself to be good because their mother takes care of them. That’s an example of the representation of the self in relation to the object.
Lastly, the infant might feel love for his or her mother, and that is a representation of the relationship between the self and the object. When the self-object relationship is damaged along with the ego-ideal, the self becomes dislodged from the internal agencies and representations that ultimately support the self.
Without a healthy concept of self that is connected to internal support structures, it becomes impossible to adopt meaningful goals and make good choices. The narcissist then experiences a reduction in hope, aspiration, and affection. They feel lost, and because of that, they become attached to the paradoxical sense of ‘security’ they experience with paranoid delusions. There’s security in the acceptance that everyone is out to get you.
2. Unsupported Self
When the narcissist is unable to experience a connection between the self and their internal support structures, the self is unsupported internally. That leaves the narcissist with little choice but to turn to external sources of validation.
Normally, the self is born when an infant experiences healthy exchanges with caregivers while internal psychic structures are developing. The narcissist, however, doesn’t experience healthy exchanges with early caregivers, and as a result, the self is never fully developed leaving the narcissist to struggle with self-expression.
That struggle ultimately results in an unhealthy fixation on the relationship of self to ego, superego, and the ego ideal. Since the self is not connected to those vital internal supportive structures, self-expression is vulnerable and that gives rise to paranoid phenomena.
3. Focused on False Image
Without a genuine sense of self and the loss of connection of the self to internal support systems and representations, the narcissist cannot comfort themselves nor can they support their own self-esteem. To support their self-esteem, they must turn to other people for external validation.
Without a healthy self, they cannot use that to project to and interact with the outside world. They must then create a structure — the false self — that they can use to interact with other people. They impose grandiose ideas onto the false image they create. This is a child-like reaction to the lack of a healthy sense of self.
Once the narcissist has created the false self or image, they need it to be validated by the people in their life. They need an almost constant supply of adoration and validation to continue propping up this incredibly vulnerable false self-image.
With such a vulnerable false self, the narcissist becomes overprotective and paranoid that their false image will be revealed to be a fraud. Their true self, of which they feel ashamed and loath, might be exposed and they perceive they will lose everything.
4. Inability to Trust
Because of their disconnected sense of self, the narcissist has difficulty trusting that their relationships are real or that they will continue to get the support they so desperately need. Their extreme sense of fragility encourages paranoid delusions.
They begin to manipulate the people in their life in order to get the narcissistic supply they need. As with most people, the narcissist begins to believe that everyone experiences the world in the same way they do.
They believe that people are manipulating them just like they do with their loved ones. They also come to believe that others don’t understand them and are always trying to undermine them. This only feeds their paranoid delusions even more.
5. Rigid Thinking
Given the dysfunctional development of self that the narcissist experiences, it’s not surprising to think they would be very rigid in their thinking. They must almost constantly tightly control the events and situations in their life.
They need their loved ones to validate them, but their rigid thinking leaves little room for compassion, empathy, and understanding. That makes them unable to relate to people in a way that takes the other person’s feelings into consideration.
Their rigid thinking makes them very inflexible with regard to other people’s behavior. They come to believe that other people are against them and trying to undermine their sense of superiority. Any deviation in the behavior of another person, anything that differs from their high expectations generates disappointment, distrust, and causes the narcissist to lash out.
When they experience that letdown, it feeds their paranoid delusions, and they strike out in self-defense. They devalue even the people they say they love the most. This is often when the narcissist’s victim sees their true colors.
6. Binary Thinking
Binary thinking is black and white thinking. It’s a situation of one thing or the other; you’re either with me or against me, good or bad. To the narcissist, you’re either part of them or you’re their enemy.
Because a narcissist needs external validation, they come to see people as extensions of themselves. Other people are just part of their internal support system, and when they don’t act in a way that is consistent with their grandiose ideas, they are betraying the narcissist on the deepest, personal level.
Moreover, because a narcissist needs that narcissistic supply of adoration and approval from outside themselves, they are constantly on the lookout for any indication that someone is not on their side. They are always on alert and everything begins to seem like a betrayal or as though the person is working against them.
Their binary thinking means that if you show yourself to be critical of them in any way, it means you’re against them. You’re working to undermine and expose them, and that makes you the enemy.
7. Inability to Be Introspective
Most people with a healthy internal psyche are able to look within and evaluate their own behavior to see if it is consistent with their values. They know themselves and they have self-awareness regarding their actions.
The narcissist, however, never developed that healthy internal psyche, that sense of self. Instead, they developed a false image and infused it with grandiose ideas of who and how they are. They have buried what they consider to be a shameful true self, and they are filled with shame and self-loathing.
That makes them unable to face the prospect of honest self-evaluation. They turn away from any internal awareness, preferring instead external validation. They have no capacity for introspection, no moral compass.
Since they are so dependent on external validation to keep their fragile false psyche in place, they see threats to their false image everywhere. They have no internal mechanisms with which to soothe themselves, and that makes them particularly vulnerable to paranoid delusions.
As you can imagine by now, the world of the narcissist is very fragile and extremely dependent on the people around them. They need external validation, but they have no ability to trust others, and they have no way to soothe themselves.
They become hypersensitive to the slightest indication of criticism or threat to their false image. That hypersensitivity leads them to misinterpret anything you might say, and that feeds into their paranoid delusions.
9. Inability to Acknowledge Facts
The final trait that encourages paranoid delusions is the inability of a narcissist to acknowledge facts. At the heart of their mental condition is a false image and the grandiose ideas they’ve imposed on it. It’s a house of cards they’ve built and are projecting to the world.
What’s more, lying and manipulation are tactics that are vital to their fragile self-esteem. They must convince everyone in their world that they are all the grandiose ideals they’ve imposed on the false image. They need them to confirm that for them in order to sustain their self-esteem.
The narcissist can’t face anything that is contrary to their false sense of self nor can they consider even the slightest criticism to be valid. It is an existential threat to their self-image. The possibility of facts that would show them to be the fraud they consider themselves to be or falsify the grandiose ideas they’ve created about themselves is a genuine threat to their fragile mental state.
They simply can’t even entertain them, and as such, it feeds into their paranoia and makes them hypervigilant and extremely defensive. They respond with a narcissistic rage at even the most gentle criticism. Their goal is to ensure you never dare to question them again.
Narcissists are so paranoid because they can’t entertain any perceived or genuine threats to the false image they’ve created in place of a healthy ego. They must remain constantly vigilant, and they see everyone as acting out of the same motivations as they do. That makes them very paranoid and very defensive.
Aside from understanding how narcissism develops and the character traits that result in paranoia, you’ll also need to read this article on whether or not a narcissist can benefit from counseling. You’ll learn about what it takes to help a narcissist with their devastating mental condition.
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