Inside the Mind of a Narcissist: 8 Reoccurring Thoughts
They cause pain with nearly every word they speak, but have you ever wondered what they’re thinking?
It’s tricky to get inside the mind of a narcissist
Narcissists are catastrophically self-unaware—hard to believe, I know.
Anyone who has ever lived with a narcissist knows all-too-well the amount of violence and hostility they seem to effortlessly sow in their immediate environment, and it’s done with such regularity that it is difficult to imagine these behaviors are occurring unconsciously.
And yet, clarity is one of the missing ingredients in a narcissist’s mental toolkit, a fact that contributes to their lack of self-awareness and their inability to empathize with others. Because of this, it’s difficult for narcissists to recognize their own thought patterns (metacognition) and communicate about those thought patterns.
That’s where I come in.
As an individual educated in the study of psychology and as someone who has grown up with narcissists, I have spent years observing and learning about the condition, both first-hand and through academia. My personal experiences with narcissists contributed to my own co-dependent and people-pleasing behavior, which I’ve lovingly spent most of my adult life healing through therapy, meditation, and practices designed to heighten self-awareness and boundaries.
Narcissism runs in my family—a perfect combination of genetic and environmental qualities, I suspect—and I find myself occasionally fielding narcissist behaviors and thoughts of my own. I keep them in check by referring back to this list, and continuing best mental-health practices as if my life depended on it (because it does).
Once an individual has been consumed by narcissistic tendencies (which usually happens by young adulthood) it’s very difficult for them to return to themselves—although I don’t believe that it’s impossible. Much of this is due to the origination of the condition itself.
How narcissists are created: the two-ingredient cocktail
While every individual is different, there is a general consensus that two main ingredients must be present in the childhood cocktail that creates the future narcissist: emotional abandonment and an emphasis on the material/superficial aspects of life.
It’s important to note that we’re not talking about “millennial narcissists,” or “Gen Z narcissists” here, who are usually the social target of the term “narcissism.” While modern culture is undoubtably self-focused and the word “narcissism” is thrown around as a blanket statement to include self-obssessed people, those individuals are not the target of this article. This article is referring to people who genuinely display symptoms of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, which is a completely different pathology than that of image focused, self-centered youth.
The Royal Beggar
How can a child be both abandoned and praised? Easily, and it happens more often than you can imagine.
Uninvolved Parenting: Of the four parenting styles that parents engage in, uninvolved parenting is associated with the worst behavioral outcomes.
Uninvolved parenting takes many forms, but is characterized by one unique quality: emotional abandonment. Uninvolved parents in the extreme may completely ignore their children, but most don’t—they actually do ensure that their children’s essential survivial needs are met. What uninvolved parents don’t do is care about their children’s emotional well-being. They do not view or care about their children as people; they don’t care about their opinions, preferences, needs, thoughts, emotions, or ideas.
Plenty of people with uninvolved caregivers don’t grow up to exhibit behaviors associated with NPD, so what’s the difference? The difference is that somewhere along the road, children with uninvolved caregivers somehow learned to validate their own emotions, needs, wants, ideas, thoughts, opinions, and preferences. Maybe they learned by witnessing a healthy caregiver or mentor exhibit self-validating behavior, or maybe they were validated by a teacher or other family member.
Teaching self-validation at an early age is one of the keys to helping prevent narcissistic outcomes later, and if a child of uninvolved caregivers never learns this, they are much closer to developing symptoms of NPD later.
Emphasizing the Superficial: The second part of the childhood cocktail that contributes to a future NPD diagnosis is a focus on superficial qualities. In addition to denying their children emotional validation, the caregivers of future narcissists also exhibit a strong focus on superficial qualities like appearance, social index (wealth), behavior, and approval from others. This means that while a caregiver completely ignores a child’s desires and emotional needs, they will praise the child for being clean, attractive and desirable to others. Some caregivers may not be overly demonstrative with praise at all, but will ensure it is understood that superficial qualities are the only thing that matter by constantly critiquing and criticizing the child’s appearance and performance.
If a parental figure or caregiver denies emotional validation and simultaneously emphasizes the importance of superficial qualities and material gain, this is the complete recipe for a future NPD diagnosis.
This lethal caregiving combination denies a child the opportunity to develop emotional control and self-awareness, typically stunting their emotional development at a very immature and child-like stage. It reorients a child’s focus to the outside world, making them obsessively concerned with the perspectives of other people, the thoughts and opinions of other people, and the praise of other people. For this reason, narcissists often believe that they are the most giving, empathetic, self-sacrificing people that they know—and in their own minds, they are!
It seems counter-intuitive, but a narcissist’s mind is riddled with anxiety and fears surrounding the perceptions of others. The narcissist was never taught to validate their emotional self, so instead, they are constantly looking to the outside world for validation and reassurance. A narcissist feels disapproval as keenly as a physical knife, and is therefore consumed with either seeking approval pathologically, or perpetuating a narrative that “they are the best,” “they’ve always been the best,” or “their opportunity to be the best was denied them by circumstances out of their control,” thereby making them a victim of life.
Now that we’ve explored the origins of the narcissist, let’s look at some of their dominant thought patterns.
1. “I have the worst luck.”
Narcissists are hesitant to self-examine or criticize themselves aloud, so any critical thoughts they think about themselves are typically kept silent and private (unless they believe it will gain them positive attention and/or approval).
In a narcissist’s mind, they are never as good as they want to be—never rich enough, beautiful enough, popular enough, talented enough, successful enough, etc. While someone without this condition is typically able to recognize that there is more to life than superficial achievement and material wealth, narcissists aren’t able to realize this. Narcissists never had the opportunity to learn boundaries, to moderate and validate their own emotions, or to even see themselves as a real person.
For this reason, narcissists are the perpetual victims: they constantly feel like they are getting played, being cheated, being deprived, or not getting their fair shot. Of course, we know that it’s impossible for anyone to become the “master of the universe,” but being perfect, desirable, successful, etc. is legitimately the only thing that narcissists were taught to value, when what they really needed to be taught was that they were valuable and valid just as they were.
2. “Nobody likes me.”
Of course, as aforementioned, you’ll never hear a narcissist say a negative thing about themself out loud—but inside, this phrase is on repeat.
Being a narcissist is incredibly lonely.
Those of us who enjoy solitude enjoy it because we can appreciate our own company: we can introspect, we can philosophize, we can dream, and we can “be.” A narcissist cannot “be,” because they have nothing to “be” with. This is due to the lack of emotional depth and ability to self-validate they were prevented from developing in childhood. If a narcissist is spending time alone, you can bet that it is time spent on some kind of productive task. The narcissist who enjoys hobbies is extremely rare, and if they do have hobbies, they are typically connected to amassing their empire, improving their appearance, or doing something that other people will eventually see (and hopefully praise).
This is all to make up for the fact that narcissists don’t believe that anyone likes them—because they don’t like (or know) themselves. This is the unfortunate byproduct of emotional estrangement from the self: individuals who can’t connect to themselves emotionally can’t connect to others, and as a result, narcissist’s friendships often capsize and end prematurely, and their familial relationships are strained and transactional.
Individuals who display symptoms of NPD were taught as children that they were unworthy—their emotions worthless, only their shell of value—and so it is no surprise that they harbor the same unconscious beliefs in adulthood.
3. “What are they thinking?”
One of the defining features of individuals who display symptoms of NPD is their obsession with the thoughts of others.
Narcissists are ruminators, and will spend much of their free time analyzing and replaying conversations, events, and situations in their mind. This is rather tragic.
Because narcissists have no idea how to interpret their own emotions, they rely on “what was said and done” as the explicit truth. This causes narcissists to frequently rehash the past, bring up old conversations, and reference what those without the disorder would consider “old and irrelevant” information. But for the narcissist, this is critical information.
Narcissists can’t “read between the lines;” they can’t understand implied truths or subtlety—they have no idea how to interpret emotional data. For this reason, NPD is particularly crippling as it forces them to rely on their own suppositions and interpretations of events, which are often flawed and wounded, to understand what is happening around them.
4. “Everyone is looking at me.”
It seems counterintuitive that adults who were once ignored as children would feel as if everyone is constantly looking at them, but that’s where their childhood caregiver’s focus on superficial approval and material wealth comes into play.
Narcissists as children were ignored emotionally, but their physical appearance and performance was typically emphasized. This means that they learned at an early age to shelve their emotions and to step into a performative role.
As adults, narcissists are striving to “play the role” perfectly—they want to “perform the best” in whatever role they find themselves in, whether that is as a parent, a professional, a family member, or a member of society. While their actual performance in those roles is highly variable—they lack the emotional component that is so necessary to success—they may still provide every indication that they are fantastic at their roles when they feel they have an audience.
Narcissists were forced to become performers at a young age, and have no concept of expressing themselves authentically—they wouldn’t know where to begin.
5. “I am so empathetic.”
If you ask a narcissist, they will tell you that they are the most empathetic person around—in fact, some may go a step further and explain that they can feel “the vibes of a room” as soon as they walk in, or that they are dreadfully sensitive to “the moods and states of being” of others.
While these are the right words used to describe empathy on paper, this is not actually what a narcissist is experiencing. What a narcissist does when they walk in the room is size it up—they begin a process of hyper-analyzation that they have developed to give themselves feedback about their own performance.
When you are having a conversation with a narcissist, they aren’t actually conversing with you, they are conversing with themselves. They are watching the cues you are providing as indicators to see “how they are doing,” and to understand how they are being perceived. This is why narcissists are such notorious projectors—they have no sense of self, therefore, no one else is allowed a sense of self, either. When they do feel emotion (because they do, they just don’t know how to understand or process it), they immediately confuse it with the person who they are interacting with, and it interpret it as their emotion.
Narcissists get their feedback wires confused all the time, and often don’t know what is coming from them and what is coming from others—because they were never taught how to know the difference. Sadly, this can be extremely difficult to live with (for both them and others), as they often are quite sensitive people.
6. “I am so charming.”
People who exhibit symptoms of NPD fancy themselves to be extremely charming. They believe that when they are in the right mood, they can flip a switch and charm the pants off of anyone—and they can—sort of.
Narcissists can only maintain a facade of charm for a limited amount of time before it becomes diarrhea of the mouth. They may exhibit a quality of warmth and spew compliments for a short duration, but remember, this ability, like all of the other interpersonal abilities in their arsenal, is performance-based—it isn’t natural, nor is it easy for them.
As a result, narcissists often find themselves running out of “charm” and running into “over-sharing,” where they begin to divulge personal details (usually about others, but filtered through their own experience) to generate conversation. Because narcissists never developed the ability to allow and permit their own emotional states, their speech is often grandiose, over-blown, and extreme. In their minds, this is the equivalent of connecting to others, but to those present who do not exhibit symptoms of NPD, they appear theatrical, exaggerated, and hard to connect with.
Someone familiar with the symptoms of NPD may spot an individual high on the Spectrum of Narcissism within moments of meeting them, but Narcissist Charm can take several meetings and even months or years to be recognized by those who don’t have pre-existing experience with narcissism. In other words, it’s easy to be duped by Narcissist Charm, particularly if your meetings are relatively short, infrequent, or conducted exclusively in a professional setting.
7. “I’m great with kids and pets.”
This is an interesting one, because it’s true—to a point.
Narcissists often believe that they’re great with kids, and they are—until about the age of six-years-old, when a child begins to develop their own ego, and therefore also develops the need for emotional validation, boundaries, and respect. Narcissists are unable to emotionally validate, respect boundaries, or provide general respect for differences—they had no example of this in childhood, and are typically stunted around the emotional development of six-years-old themselves (noted by the way their behavior becomes tantrum-like when frustrated).
As a result, narcissists will often find children beyond the age of six to be “defiant” and “difficult” if they’ve developed boundaries. In reality, they only like children and animals (and people) that are obedient, attractive, desirable, and able to validate them (make them look good) in some way or another.
8. “I’ve sacrificed everything.”
People with symptoms of NPD are “the great givers”—in their own minds.
In their minds, they’ve sacrificed everything for others, and in a way, this is very true for them. In fact, narcissists are victims of a form of abuse, and have been sacrificing their connection to themselves since early childhood when it was severed by their caregivers.
Narcissists always feel like they’re missing something—there is a constant, massive void that they struggle to fill through achievement, performance, and in many cases, fitness, religion, health/alternative health programs, their children, their appearance, and their social circles and reputation.
Narcissists are missing something, but it’s not something that can be given to them by the outside world. What they are missing is their sense of self, which I believe can be repaired through intensive therapy, work with psychedelic substances in a therapeutic setting, and daily loving-kindness meditation.
Can Narcissistic Personality Disorder be healed?
The answer is—it depends.
Who’s asking? If you’re a family member or spouse of an individual exhibiting signs of NPD, the answer is “no.” Create healthy boundaries and seek help immediately; you have been severely wounded by exposure to this person in ways that you may not fully be aware of.
If you’re asking for yourself, the answer is “yes.” If you have the self-awareness required to recognize that these thoughts are very similar to your thoughts, and you know that your upbringing was the childhood cocktail of NPD, there is whole world of healing awaiting you and a life far more fulfilling than you ever thought possible. The longer you wait before getting help, the longer you go without experiencing the fullness that life has to offer you.
Follow this link to Psychology Today and select “Find a Therapist.” The rest is easy.
A final word.
The inner world of an individual with NPD is chaotic, stressful, and anxiety-ridden. While an individual with NPD may present as a charismatic, charming, and even sexual and exciting, this image deteriorates rapidly the closer you are to their inner-circle, where spouses and immediate family often bear the painful consequences of their real behavior (unless they, too, are narcissists).
For this reason, usually only immediate family and friends can spot a narcissist—their act is simply too foolproof for the outside world to notice.
The purpose of this article is to convey the genuine distress that a narcissist experiences on a daily basis—their experience is one fraught with paranoia, chronic stress, and typically, an addiction to drama. Narcissists are no less deserving of compassion than individuals with any other sort of disorder, and in the case of narcissists, they are often victims of an incredibly painful sort of emotional abuse (which they tend to replicate with their children and spouses).
However, compassion is not a reason to remain in close quarters with an abuser. Being someone’s punching bag will never help them heal—it will only create more wounds in both of you. The most loving thing you can do for a narcissist, and yourself, is to remove yourself from their life. Please review this resource for further help.
All my love,