The Toothpuller by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio
Ouch! There probably wasn't a ready supply of nitrous oxide anesthetizing a medical yank in 1607.
A person had to tough out the procedure and bear up to the pain or suffer consequences when something was rotten in dental. Okay, that's a lousy pun but I'm not above bad writing. I like to think it's part of my charm as a blogger, not a literary genius.
The first thing that came to mind when viewing this masterpiece by Caravaggio was my divorce. No 'laughing gas' could reduce the pain of that procedure either, though a pocket of Xanax reassured me that should my pain reach critical mass, a little pill could help me escape the pain---at least long enough to tolerate another 'yank' in the future. But today, I don't want to write about the misery of a rotting marriage and the necessity of removing a decaying molar by the roots. What I'd like to write about is the narcissist's ability to change through corrective life experiences, a term used by Elsa Ronningstam in her book Understanding and Diagnosing the Narcissistic Personality.
In other words, "How much yanking can a narcissist's ego endure before sacrificing the malignant tooth---or punishing the toothpuller instead?"
"...until recently the natural course of NPD has not received much attention in the clinical and empirical literature, and there is very little documented knowledge about the factors that might contribute to change...Our findings suggested that what appeared to be a narcissistic personality disorder at baseline actually included two types of pathology: one being a context or state-dependent type of pathology, and the other being a more long-term and stable trait pathology." (Article Link)
Ronningstam's research studied the narcissist's capacity for change through life experiences that challenged illusions, fantasies, ambitions, ideals, goals, and high expectations. The term corrective emotional experiences was first proposed by Alexander and French in 1946. Ronningstam refers to their research and subsequent studies focusing on the impact of stressful life events as being either corrective or corrosive.
My guess is that every person has gone through experiences that threatened immature (grandiose) perceptions resulting in a more grounded sense of self. When malignant self-esteem has to be yanked out by the roots, it's hurts for a little bit but eventually, our self-awareness is balanced by realistic abilities and thus, a greater possibility for achieving satisfaction in life. We might call our adjustment an Ego-Hit, or a 'reality check', or a 'growth experience'. It hurts, but only temporarily.
Once the pain of disillusionment has passed and our inflated self-esteem readjusts to it's new low (j'est kiddin'), non-pathological people gain a more realistic appraisal of the self. We accept being 'good enough', not perfect. Some of us perfectionist-types discover that our expectations were only illusions and life is pretty darn awesome just being ordinary and average. Accepting ourselves as human-mistake-making creatures who fail miserably once in a while is liberating---freeing us to make fewer mistakes in the future because arrogance has been abrogated by reality.
Perhaps the foundation to tolerating the pain of a reality check is the stability of our self-esteem---our reliable sense of worth, even in times of failure. Because narcissists regulate high self-esteem via external validation described as 'narcissistic supply', they are susceptible to protecting inflated self-esteem from deflation with ego defenses. These ego defenses serve as sentinels against perceived threats or criticism jeopardizing the narcissist's grandiose self-image. Narcissistic grandiosity is a confabulated pretense against imperfection, failure, defeat and the misery of being 'ordinary'. Ordinary, to a narcissist equates to 'inferiority'.
Because both overt and covert narcissists manifest grandiosity, a corrective life event might challenge egotistical arrogance and adjust unrealistic self-perceptions, thus promoting change. A corrective life event might occur in one of three areas :
2-corrective interpersonal relationships
According to Ronningstam & Gunderson's research study, A Stable Disorder or a State of Mind?, the successful attainment of goals may "replace feelings of being underestimated and misunderstood". Achieving recognition for expertise or success in a particular area of interest, might lessen defensive grandiosity protecting the narcissist from unbearable affects resulting from failure, incompetence, insignificance. (Success and recognition might also increase grandiosity because the narcissist has proof that s/he's superior to others. But that's another essay).
The hope for change is that corrective achievements will lessen defensive arrogance, envy, and/or contempt towards successful 'others'. Achieving success in a specific area of interest may balance the narcissist's need for attention, admiration and applause.
Corrective Interpersonal Relationships:
Establishing a durable, interpersonal relationship may assist in countering narcissistic notions of self as defective and therefore, an undesirable partner. Mutuality lessens the narcissistic devaluation of other people, a defense against conscious awareness of envy or shame for not being able to create an intimate relationship. Based on research about the prognosis for lifelong NPD, an intimate partner might facilitate the narcissist's healthy change. (Ronningstam, 1996) Please note that her research is based on a three-year follow-up study tracking enduring changes in the narcissistic personality. (In my opinion, the most likely person to change in the narcissistic relationship is the partner. And not in a healthy manner. It all depends on whether the narcissist can find a willing sacrifice. But that's another essay).
The hope for change through corrective interpersonal relationships is that a committed relationship will encourage the narcissist to break through a resistance to trust others, be intimate with others, to stop resenting others, blaming others, and resisting the urge to view themselves as better than others. The hope for sustained change is that through a corrective interpersonal relationship, the narcissist will increase his/her capacity to tolerate the emotional fluctuations inherent to all intimate relationships and moderate rage or mistreatment in order to maintain the valued relationship.
(Gosh! That sounds like fun! Where can I sign up??)
Please note: psychological research suggests that the inability to maintain a long-term committed relationship is an indication of pathological narcissism that is unlikely to improve. The prognosis is poor for narcissists who cannot sustain fidelity and commitment. Sorry to tell all you hopeful partners that bit of bad news; I don't fabricate the research--I just report it.
Life corrects our hubris every chance she gets---hubris being defined as 'misplaced arrogance'. Most people can relate to overestimating our competence--especially when we were teenagers. As teens, we knew everything there was to know about anything and anyone assuming they knew more than ourselves was a fool. Take our parents, for example. One ego-crushing humiliation after another and eventually our arrogance adjusted to reality. Breaking through the Grandiose Self rewards us with a more accurate perception of our limitations and ignorance, coupled with a healthy awareness of real talents, skills, and capabilities. We call it Growing Up.
Corrective disillusionments can be experienced in the workplace, in specialized areas of interest such as hobbies, athletic activities, artistic endeavors, etc. Perceptions of superiority that are not supported by realistic assessment of one's skills, capabilities, and talents, will eventually result in disappointment. Even disappointment and failure can lay the foundation for a healthier perception of self.
The capacity for healthy change is based on the narcissist's tolerance of emotional and psychic pain during adjustment periods of corrective disillusionment. If the narcissist cannot sustain threats to his or her self-esteem, pathological narcissism will manifest as increased grandiosity, defending an inflated self-esteem by refusing ownership or responsibility for failure. To the pathological narcissist, failure is a 'humiliation', a threat to their superiority. As many people can attest, pathological narcissists will maintain their grandiose self-image despite corrective disillusionment.
Grandiosity means narcissists resist seeing themselves as ordinary people whom they judge to be 'inferior'. If the narcissist accepts ordinary limitations, is satisfied with 'good enough', and tolerates the requisite deflation of inflated self-esteem, then corrective disillusionments may lead to healthy change. Failure to achieve idealistic expectations will hopefully result in a realistic perception of self, thus creating reasonable opportunities aligned with the narcissist's true capabilities. With a better appraisal of abilities and pragmatic possibilities, the narcissist will be more likely to experience corrective achievements promoting healthier self-esteem and eliminating the need for grandiosity.
Corrective disillusionment is summed up in the cliché: "When one door closes, another door opens." The key to opening a new door is acceptance of limitations, willingness to confront grandiosity and illusions, the ability to appreciate true skills and discard impossible expectations. When narcissists discover that their talents are better aligned with managing a small business than a Fortune 500, their potential for life satisfaction increases, resulting in a realistically grounded and more stable self-esteem.
When a fantasy door closes, a real door opens leading to viable opportunities. Rectifying narcissistic illusions with one's true strengths and capabilities, increases the possibility of success and the growth of healthy self-esteem.
A warning about Narcissist's potential for change:
There are two criteria that denote a more serious narcissistic pathology that is resistent to change no matter how many corrective achievements, corrective interpersonal relationships, or corrective disillusionment the narcissist experiences.
Let's call these criteria the One-two-Punch Reality Check for anyone hoping narcissists will eventually descend their self-anointed thrones:
"...the presence of two narcissistic characteristics---lack of commitment to others, and intense reactions to defeat and criticism from others---are associated with lack of improvement over time. In other words, the presence of these narcissistic problems is significantly associated with poor prognoses and absence of change and hence indicates a more enduring form of NPD." ~Ronningstam, Understanding and Identifying the Narcissistic Personality, page 111
In my own words and experience,
I'd describe the One-Two-Punch Reality Check this way:
One: Inability to sustain long-term commitments. That means reciprocal efforts to sustain interpersonal relationships with fidelity, mutual trust, and personal responsibility for mistakes and failures.
Two: Severe reactions to defeat or criticism, resulting in hostility and aggression towards the perceived threat (Baumeister 1996). Remember, narcissists have distorted perceptions of reality. The narcissist is paranoid about other people seeing through defensive pretenses. They will defend their egotistical facade as if their very lives were being threatened.
Punch: Wake Up! Get in reality 'cuz whether you know it or not, you're out.
I'll be writing about the flip-side: Corrosive Life Events. What happens when the narcissist cannot endure the inevitable pain of a Reality Check?
Now there's a topic I can really sink my teeth into.
Narcissistic Personality: A Stable Disorder or a State of Mind? Elsa Ronningstam and John Gunderson. 1996
Understanding and Diagnosing the Narcissistic Personality by Elsa Ronningstam, Ph.D. 2005. Oxford University Press. Pages 185-186
Relation of threatened egotism to violence and aggression: The dark side of high self-esteem Baumeister BJ, Smart L, & Boden JM. 1996