Narcissism comes in many forms. I suppose the one common denominator is that those around the narcissist either feel ‘less-than’ or face harsh repudiation. I want to focus on the altruistic narcissist because her cloak of kindness can confuse her victims. Such narcissists go way out of their way to curate the image of a selfless caregiver. This image is insincere. It is there to combat an inner sense of worthlessness rather than to genuinely care about and protect others.
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In this post, I will explain how narcissists can use surface-level altruism as an antidote to their core sense of worthlessness. This antidotal altruism requires tremendous inward self-absoprtion and self-conceit. Two features that do not align with the concept of altruism. As a result, such narcissists must work extra hard to ‘see’ their hyper self-focus (or ‘selfishness’) in others rather than themselves. I will then describe the signs of an altruistic narcissist, followed by a case description of a client’s* mother who abused him to be a prop for her altruistic ‘act’.
All narcissists suffer a core sense of deep worthlessness that they cannot bear to acknowledge. In order to keep this dreadful feeling out of awareness they inflate their sense of importance and specialness. This is also known as developing a grandiose sense of self. Grandiosity alone, however, does not sufficiently battle the sense of worthlessness. They also need others to comply with this inflated view of who they are. To this end, they will exert coercive influence on the people around them to mirror back what they want to see…or else! Their expectations for others to comply with their exaggerated expectations is called a ‘sense of entitlement’.
Entitlement and grandiosity are ‘antidotes’ the narcissist uses to solve their inner sense of worthlessness. Psychological antidotes usually do not work because they are not grounded in connection to another person. Psychological suffering compounds when treated in isolation. It is only through the sincere reaching out to others and receiving what is needed that suffering gets effectively relieved. A narcissist often does not believe it is possible to confide in others about how bad they feel inside. The shame they feel is too intense. As a result they way the deal with others is inherently insincere. Others are used as props for the management of their very fragile self-esteem but there is never any real connection.
The narcissist’s antidotes leave them psychologically alone. This fact can evoke understandable sympathy. At the same time, the way such people go about coping with their inner worthlessness does tremendous damage to others. One thing I have come to appreciate in this profession is the varying capacity of people to bear the burdens of life. Most of the survivors of narcissistic abuse show great such capacity. Narcissists, I believe, have a very low capacity to bear adversity. Instead, they foist the responsibility for what they cannot bear onto those around them. And typically those getting burdened are more capable of bearing it.
Some narcissists are pretty transparent in their grandiosity. Others are less so. Altruistic narcissists view themselves as supreme caregivers. They base their inflated self-concept on this supposed ‘ability’. Then they expect others to react to them as though they are the caring, generous, people they want to seem like. As a result, it can sometimes take a little longer to identify this kind of narcissist.
Parenthood can seem very appealing to the altruistic narcissist. They get to demonstrate their – supposed – superior caregiving abilities to a child whom they may assume will be nothing but appreciative. What a rude awakening when the child comes into this world as a bundle of joy – and needs! Children by design require an adult who is ready to give a lot more than they receive from the child. That is not what the child of an altruistic narcissist gets.
The altruistic narcissist can maintain her fragile self-esteem so long as her grandiose sense of self and entitlement to others’ reflections of that self go uninterrupted. Her primary occupation in life is to keep thinking this way about herself. She is utterly incapable of lasting and sincere loving feelings towards another person. As appealing as parenthood may have seemed, the reality of a child looking up at her with the expectation of being met with genuine love and affection can actually feel terrible for this type of parent. The altruistic narcissist is faced with the fact that she does not really want to provide care to her own child. Her identity as a ‘nurturer’ is a sham and her inability to feel love for her child proves it. If she admits this to herself, then her inflated self-concept crumbles and she would be left with her dreaded worthlessness.
On top of the unflattering realization of her lack of genuine care for others, parenthood poses constant interruptions to her antidotal grandiosity and entitlement. Such interruptions can lead to the parent feeling their dreaded worthlessness. A child’s rightful and persistent needs for care, feeding, attention and love are about the child – not the parent. For most parents, this is not a problem. For a narcissistic parent, the volume and intensity of the child’s needs requires her to interrupt her focus on herself. Unless she can feel appreciated by the baby or others are witnessing how ‘well’ she is parenting, the narcissistic parent will see little motivation to offer care. Doing so, does not reinforce her inflated sense of being a caregiver because she cannot get her child to comply with it.
Some clients who were raised by a narcissistic parent have a feeling that in order to receive care from another they must find a way to make it in that person’s self-interest. That is, they can expect care so long as it benefits the other person somehow. They may feel a mandate to show immense gratitude or flattery at an act of kindness towards them. These feelings were come by honestly because that is exactly what their narcissistic parent required from them. Therapy often allows them to see this pattern as a reflection of their ability to adapt to and survive a very awful and one-sided relationship.
Sarah’s mother saw herself as a nurturing woman. She worked as a psychologist. In therapy, Sarah recalled her mother flying into rages whenever she left any toys out as a young child. As Sarah grew, her mother reacted to her as though all of her needs were ‘too much’. She insisted that Sarah always watch herself from taking ‘needed’ attention away from ‘those that needed it’ – like her younger brother. In one of the most searingly painful moments of Sarah’s childhood, Sarah was asking for her mother’s attention to a drawing she had made and her mother pulled her aside and contemptuously said, “You know Sarah, the world does NOT revolve around you!”.
Sarah’s mother is a good example of a caregiving narcissist. She curated an image as maternal provider yet consistently met her daughter’s real needs with contempt, exasperation and blame.
All of the narcissist’s efforts to prop herself up are to stave off the core feeling of worthlessness. The keystone of the altruistic narcissist’s propping involve her persona as a ‘selfless’ provider to others. However the strategies of inflating her sense of importance and expecting others to comply are inherently self-absorbed aims. The altruistic narcissist must fiercely deny this fact because it could unravel what is staving off her worthlessness.
Her own self-absorption gets denied by unconsciously relocating this quality in others and reacting to them as though they are the selfish ones. This relocation is best done in relationships where the narcissist has more authority. The child of an altruistic narcissist offers a convenient target. The child’s existence and expectation for love reminds the narcissistic parent of how little she can care about anyone but herself. In order to combat this reminder, she will work to see her child as defective to excuse her inability to love him. Part of this accused defectiveness may include perceiving and reacting to him as though he is the selfish one. When a kid is told by his mother that asking for a piece of candy means that all he cares about is himself and he is incredibly selfish, he tends to believe her. The narcissistic mother in this case can more readily claim that she remains selfless and altruistic but had the rotten luck of giving birth to the world’s most selfish child. Quite a ruse but not uncommon in households with a narcissistic parent.
In my personal and professional experience I have identified the following features of many altruistic narcissists.
When an altruistic narcissist “gives” something to another person, they are doing it – solely – to get a reflection of their grandiose “caring” self. If the other person requires more than a quick symbolic gesture, the narcissist may quickly grow impatient and show frustration with the recipient.
John had an altruistically narcissistic mother. She would scream at and berate him when he ‘misbehaved’ (which seemed to be three times per day at least) then act as if she had done nothing wrong. After yelling at him in shrieking and murderous tones the night before for not taking the trash out, she came into his room in a stark contrast sweetly said she could take him to school the next day. When John awoke, his morning routine made him a few minutes late to be ready to get in the car with her. The entire car ride was filled with her yelling at him for his ‘inconsiderateness’ and ‘ selfishness’ that she was now going to be made late for getting to work.
Children like John of an altruistic narcissistic parent learn to make it easy for others to care for them. They intuitively knew their parent did not have much in the tank for them so they best not test the parent’s willingness show care to them.
An altruistic narcissist not only expects to have to expend very little real effort to help someone else but they also require shows of gratitude.
John recalled how much he hated opening presents on Christmas mornings. He had to train himself to show wide-eyed surprise, delight, and demonstrations of appreciation whenever he opened a gift from his mother. He knew that if he did not do that and walk across the room to hug her, that she would grow angry and abusive towards him.
Such people will vary in how explicitly they convey this expectation. If they have power or authority over someone, then they may brazenly show they expect gratitude. Insisting that the other says “thank you” right away, for instance. If they are not in a position of power and the other person does not meet their standard of gratitude then the narcissist may just seethe and speak ill of that person when they can.
Rules are a means to an end for the altruistic narcissist. They find ways to be on the side of enforcing rules and take satisfaction in catching and punishing the rule breakers. It gives them an opportunity to see someone else as ‘worthless’ and deserving of punishment. As discussed above, seeing others as worthless offers an antidotal relief from their own sense of worthlessness.
John’s mother would set up rules around their household that centered around him doing certain chores. Everytime she screamed and verbally abused him it was on the premise that he had broken one of these rules. She felt justified in her treatment of him because he was so ‘defiant’ and ‘disobedient’. John knew that she seemed to sadistically enjoy catching him breaking these rules and the ensuing punishments she then got to administer to him.
A lot of times an altruistic narcissist will presume to know what is best for a friend or partner better than that person does. The narcissist will then target this person as the ‘defective’ one who needs the narcissist to fix him or her. She may talk about this person as though they are a ‘lost cause’ and just can’t seem to make the ‘right’ choices. They may grow frustrated and angry with this person for not following their advice and prescriptions. They see such people as having a deficit and this helps the narcissist again relocate their own sense of worthlessness.
Nancy was born to two alcoholic parents. Her mother was concerned with appearances in public and modeled chronic deceitful and mean-spirited behavior in private. Her father was an accomplished soldier but recused himself from taking an active role in the family. She identified with her mother’s contemptuous attitude towards her brother and father. The attention paid to Nancy was as a trophy: her parents would bring her and her brother out to their drunken parties and show off how ‘well-behaved’ their kids were. Nancy would repeatedly try to be the adult and admonish her parents for drinking.
She learned that she did not really matter in this world except for the purposes she could serve for others. She hated this predicament to her core and could not stand to know how worthless she felt. From an early age, she carried a reservoir of rage that she would find opportunities to release when she could get away with it. On the one hand she had to act like a ‘well-behaved’ caring young woman but on the other she wanted to make others pay for how excruciating life felt for her. Thus began her life of profound self-deception – on the surface acting saintly while privately being wicked.
Nancy adorned herself with trappings of altruism to keep her rage at bay. She studied education in college and became a teacher for students labelled as “Socially and Emotionally Disturbed’. By teaching a group of students who were marginalized already by the school system, she was afforded extra cover for when she grew overly punitive at a pupil. She would typically identify one male student in her class as a ‘behavior problem’ – usually the most strong-willed of the group. She could then blame her cold and punitive ways on the student. “I’m trying to be a good teacher, but I just cannot get through a lesson without ________ acting up.” Such statements to her colleagues served as justification for her hateful and sharp ways of speaking to the student. She would also devise special ways to antagonize him so that she could have an excuse to take her rage out on him. Creating an arbitrary reason why he could not go to recess – at the minute all the kids were headed out the door – was one of her favorite tacts. The boy would often cry out in exasperated fury – which would justify her holding him back in the classroom and terrorizing him with threats of expulsion or suspension for the duration of the recess.
She married a man who was very pliable and deferent towards her. When she gave birth to her first child – a son – she assumed imperious authority over how he should be raised. Her husband readily stood out of her way or colluded with her when she blamed her son for her inability to love him. She curated an image amongst her friends as a doting mother. Once she was alone with her son, however, she had no patience for him.
Most parents experience an internal wealth of love from which to meet their child’s needs and demands. It gives them meaning and joy to do so. Nancy, in contrast, did not have this wealth to rely upon. She would muster energy to care for her son if others were around. Behind closed doors she could quickly grow weary of him. She would exclaim “What?!” if he called to her in such moments. Her tone carried a combination of threat and exasperation.
She could not bear to know that when she saw what made most people fill with love and joy – say her son playing with blocks – she felt nothing. But it was worse than ‘nothing’ she would grow angry at him for reminding her of how vacant she was. She always preferred to be filled with rage instead of emptiness in such moments. Her rage could be directed away from herself and towards the boy. Maybe he was not obeying her instructions. That’s why he deserved her wrath. There was nothing wrong with her for feeling nothing for her child. If he were less rotten she could certainly be filled with the motherly love she must possess…right?
She found that she could only feel like the good mother she wanted to be when watched by others. So, she made sure to get out into public as often as possible with her son. Just as her own parents paraded her to her friends, she paraded her son to reinforce the wished-for claim that she was good on the inside.
For Nancy, everyone in her life became bit players with the sole function to hide how empty and cruel-hearted she felt. It seemed that as long as she could secretively target someone as the source of her inability to love, she could function well in the world. She gave birth to a daughter three years after her son. This child was much closer in character to Nancy. She did not stand up to her the way her son often would. Her daughter was a much more willing co-conspirator in Nancy’s efforts to blame someone else for her cruel intentions. As her son grew and became more and more the target for her rage, she would often act proportionately kind to her daughter. It was as if she could blame her internal bitterness on her son and used her daughter to promote the wished-for truth that she could be sincerely kind and good. However, it was all an act and she knew it. She had to divorce her husband after 14 years of marriage because he had grown weary of her rage fits and had left her for another woman. She received custody of her children and this gave her free reign to continue splitting up her children psychologically with impunity.
She died from brain cancer ate age 50. Her son had taken to caring for her while she met her end. At one point while he was helping carry her back to the bed, she said, “You’ve always been my true strength”. This statement made no sense to him at the time. He had always thought of himself as a bad person. Why else would she have treated him so wickedly? Years later in therapy he grew to understand that she was crediting him with bearing the truth she could not. He knew firsthand how little genuine care, love, or empathy she could hold towards him – or anybody. And he bore all that she saddled him with and did not break. For someone whose psychological life depended on a lie, having a son she could hate instead of herself really did mean ‘being her true strength’.
At Nancy’s funeral service, the pastor and attendees liked to say that she was ‘everyone’s best friend’. Everyone extolled the virtues she worked so hard to curate: her care for those less fortunate, her willingness to listen to others, and her nurturing ways. Even the son who knew the other side of her joined this chorus. He gave a eulogy that portrayed as she insisted on being seen – at the time it was not psychologically safe enough for him to speak the truth of who she was. Years later as her influence wane, he would gain clarity on who she actually was and how he was never the horrible things she claimed he was.
The altruistic narcissist may seem caring but closer examination shows that this is all a ruse. Therapy can help victims recover the sense of goodness that comes under assault by an altruistic narcissist.
Jay Reid is a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC). If you are considering therapy to recover from narcissistic abuse please contact me for a free 15-minute phone consultation.