Although narcissists would never admit it, they are by nature dependent on other people for their emotional survival. If they were loners, many lives would be spared immeasurable misery. But narcissists actively, persistently pursue others to obtain their “narcissistic supply,” or sense of worth in life. The narcissist as human parasite usually takes a heavy emotional and physiological toll on her “suppliers.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines a parasite as follows:
“A parasite is an organism that lives on or in a host and gets its food from or at the expense of its host. Parasites can cause disease in humans.”
Parasitism isn’t just about “feeding,” however. Scientists have uncovered many parasite-host relationships in which the parasite actually alters the brain and behavior of its host to make it assist in fulfilling vital parts of the parasite’s life cycle. A certain type of tiny wasp, for example, injects its egg along with chemicals into a ladybug. The egg hatches and consumes the nutrients that the ladybug ingests when it eats, essentially devouring the ladybug from the inside out. When the wasp larva is big enough, it squirms out of the ladybug and wraps itself in a cocoon beneath it. Immobilized and half dead, the ladybug is still programmed in essence to protect the larva by thrashing its body around if threatening insects approach. Once the larva-turned-wasp hatches from its cocoon and flies away, the ladybug typically dies.
The Narcissist as Human Parasite
Understanding narcissism through the lens of parasitism explains their need to “feed” on others as a means of supply. The individual with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) suffers from a destabilized identity and sense of inferiority based in the formative years of childhood. He attempts to adapt by projecting a “superior” persona. But he is always seeking the validation he did not receive at crucial developmental stages as a young and relatively unformed person. His incomplete sense of being compels him to seek self-worth elsewhere, either by aligning himself with high-status people and/or by devaluing and dissociating from those who either threaten his false persona or who somehow “lower” his status.
Like most parasites, narcissists rarely kill their hosts (although malignant ones may subject them to extreme violence). But like the mind-altering variety of parasite, the narcissist works to control the “brains” of her suppliers through a wide range of manipulations, from bullying to projecting, denying to gaslighting, guilt-tripping to silent-treatment. The narcissist continuously orchestrates the “reality” around her by enlisting others in supporting her delusions of grandeur and punishing and/or rejecting them if they do not comply. To the narcissist, her spouse questioning an opinion she has declared as patented truth or her child not making the soccer team are potential humiliations to which she may react with scorn or rage. In the parasitic narcissist’s eyes, both situations weaken the desirability of her “hosts,” or sources of supply, and thereby threaten her sense of well-being.
Are You a Narcissist’s Host?
A host may confer status to the narcissist in many ways, including by being charming, good looking, wealthy, famous, well-respected, or professionally accomplished. The host also enables the narcissist by directly or indirectly being complicit in the narcissist’s distorted reality and abuse of others to protect his false face. In this sense the enabling host is like the mind-altered ladybug, serving the needs of the narcissist, often at its own expense.
Are you functioning as a kind of host for a narcissist? Here are some ways to tell if you’re in a relationship with one:
- They demand inordinate attention and admiration.
- They react with retaliatory rage or sulking punishment if you disagree or argue with them.
- They don’t apologize or take responsibility for their behavior, no matter how inappropriate or hurtful.
- They lack interest in or compassion for your feelings and needs and project their behavior onto you.
- They display an inflated sense of entitlement and cause a scene or react bitterly if they feel snubbed or victimized.
- You feel like you’re constantly vulnerable to attack and/or criticism.
- You find yourself regularly placating and avoiding confrontation.
- You feel it is unsafe to freely express your feelings or opinions around them.
- You are emotionally and physically hypervigilant to potential conflict.
- You feel isolated by the relationship.
NOTE: This article does not intend to demonize narcissists. They are victims in pain, which they are constantly trying to mitigate. However, they deliver a sh*t storm of hurt to those around them, and their lack of empathy and unwillingness to take responsibility for their actions often make them devastatingly abusive.
Julie L. Hall’s articles on narcissism regularly appear in her popular blog The Narcissist Family Files, as well as The Huffington Post and PsychCentral. She is the author of a forthcoming memoir about life, and a few near deaths, in a narcissistic family (read excerpts).