Note: The following article is meant to examine the ways in which powerful negative emotions can combine to form certain personality traits and how that can impact sexuality. It is not meant to pathologize or demonize anyone who struggles with any of these difficulties, but merely to illustrate how problematic emotions can create chronic relational and sexual disturbances. As a therapist, I always take a strengths-based approach, and focus on how the individual can resolve their difficult emotions, rather than what is wrong with them.
Previously, I wrote about borderline personality disorder and sexuality. In this post, I will focus on narcissism. In many ways, narcissism is the jigsaw puzzle piece that is the perfect fit for the borderline. There are many reasons for this. The narcissist is often self-preoccupied and unavailable, which does not set off the borderline’s abandonment fears because the relationship feels like it will never get close enough for the borderline to truly be hurt. While the borderline tends to be more anxious/ambivalent in her attachment style, the narcissist is more avoidant, and it is this avoidancy that feels safe to the borderline. For more on attachment styles take a look here.
As in the case of borderline, there are nine distinct criteria in the DSM for narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), including grandiosity, exploitativeness, envy, and lack of empathy towards others. Again, rather than focus on diagnostic criteria, I’m going to take a look at the core emotions that the narcissist struggles with. While the borderline is consumed with fear of abandonment, the narcissist is primarily motivated by a strong sense of internal shame. In this regard, all of the grandiosity, entitlement, and fantasies of power can all be seen as defenses against feeling this core internal shame.
The origins of this shame are often found in the narcissist’s childhood and can involve a complex combination of circumstances. Often, the child can develop narcissistic tendencies if he/she only gets positive validation from his/her external accomplishments. In this way the child learns that the its value only comes from achievement. Harsh, critical and autocratic family dynamics also can lend themselves to narcissism. The child may experience a series of mixed signals from its parents– praise for achievement and devaluation for anything not deemed to be perfect or extraordinary. The child does not develop a strong sense of self, one that is rooted in a core sense of having value. Instead, the child only feels valuable through some form of external success. As a result, the child begins to experience shame due to not being “good enough.”
As mentioned above, narcissists tend towards avoidant attachment. That is because they are so defended against negative emotions such as internalized shame that they seek to avoid any forms of intimacy which can provoke those emotions. Interestingly, as adults, borderlines and narcissists often may find themselves attracted to each other. This is because the narcissist is often distant enough to not provoke the abandonment fears of the borderline, while the narcissist is attracted to the attention and adulation (at least initially) of the borderline. These are the kinds of relationships that turn into the classic distancer-pursuer dynamic, involving a constant push-pull between the two individuals.
Narcissists often can appear to be extremely charming at first. They may have developed a very attractive persona to mask their internal state. Regarding sexuality, they may be attracted to anonymous or purchased sex, because it may feel safer and less intimate, which makes them feel less vulnerable. They may also carry numerous affairs as a means of juggling more than one relationship without putting all their eggs in one basket, and because it may fulfill their need for external validation. Narcissists also carry a lot of rage, especially if their shame is provoked, and due to this anger may struggle with various forms of sexual dysfunctions, such as rapid ejaculation, delayed ejaculation, and erectile dysfunction. Allowing another person to be in control of one’s sexual response may feel too vulnerable and so the narcissist may develop various dysfunctions as an unconscious means of warding off that vulnerability. In this way, sexual dysfunctions may often be seen as a defense against vulnerability and shame. For more on sexuality and shame, click here.
As with the borderline, the narcissist needs to learn to tolerate increasingly higher levels of negative emotions, in this case shame, without reacting to it. By learning to tolerate shame, examine it, challenge it, and find ways to modify it, the narcissist can experience relief from the core negative emotions which drive the narcissism and experience sexual healing as well.