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Redefining Narcissism as a Love Deficit

false self photoNarcissism is a love deficit; and a narcissist a lost soul.

It isn’t that he’s not fully equipped for human love. He is. Like everyone else, he is human. It’s just that he hates the idea of being human. He has trained himself, from the time he was a child, increasingly, to feel disgust at signs of human “love stuff,” to prove he’s above such weakness.

He’s fought hard, in fact, to rid evidence of vulnerability in himself … and to snuff it out in others, and takes pride, craves, looks for opportunities to do so.

Socialized to adapt topsy-turvy reactions 

To be fair, his upbringing taught him to do so. Once an innocent little boy, his experiences trained him, mind and body, literally, altering the neuro-pathway structures of his brain, to adapt topsy-turvy reactions to emotions of vulnerability. And this socialized learning more or less used known principles of operant conditioning, proven in psychological studies.

Wittingly and unwittingly the environment rewards and punishes a narcissist, pushing him toward two behavioral extremes as follows:

1. Trained to reject human “love stuff” as craziness 

On the one hand, he learned to battle against emotions of vulnerability, associate these with weakness and inferiority, women and children. From the time he was a boy, for example, he was repeatedly shamed, admonished, ridiculed, and warned against “inferior” emotional displays, training him to reject vulnerable emotions, such as empathy, tenderness, fear, caring, hurt, closeness, mutual understanding, creativity, partnering, kindness, nonsexual affection, and the like.

He learned to regard the “love stuff” the woman in his life invites him to with suspicion as “emotional craziness” — expected of “weak” persons. This “love stuff,” he was warned, has an emasculating, or at best contaminating, effect on masculinity. And thus, it was his job to remain alert, protect his manliness and virility, and view “the weak” with suspicion, as potentially dangerous, fierce competitors, trying to trick, take over, control him. This taught him to treat the woman in his life as an “enemy,” to keep her at bay, remain wary of her invitations to get closer, and dismiss her invitations for emotional intimacy, closeness, partnering — as tricks.

This conditioned a narcissist’s body-mind, or subconscious, to remain on guard, in couple relationship settings in particular, in ready position to activate his body’s survival system, triggering defenses and protective strategies.

Physically, this fear-based training repeatedly sounded an alarm, in certain relational contexts, demanding, by default, a fight or flee reaction in the physiology of his body. This occurs subconscious, involving no “real” thinking processes, as the frontal cortex (higher thinking area of the brain) is bypassed, or  offline, when the body’s survival system takes over. (In actual threat situations, this is a highly useful feature, as the higher thinking can interfere, consuming precious time and energy, etc.).

(The subconscious mind, by the way, makes no distinction between a physical threat to survival, and a psychological threat to mattering in relation to others in life. The latter consists of core intimacy fears, such as inadequacy, rejection, abandonment, and the like. To not matter is an existential fear that, arguably, is more intense than a physical threat to survival.)

His subconscious mind, in other words, has been conditioned to hold beliefs that unnecessarily trigger his body’s survival system, literally treating the slightest provocation from his partner, for example, to talk about “more connection as a couple,” for example, as a threat to his survival. Based on this mindset, he must either reject this “human” stuff, or be categorized as unmanly, weak and inferior — “thus” thrown into the batch of humans regarded as having little or no worth as persons.

In most cases, a narcissist doesn’t lack empathy, as often characterized; if he did, he wouldn’t be as skilled in strategically employing empathy, as needed, to con, exploit, demoralize those he preys on, in other to collect data to use against them.

This fear-based training also taught him to associate those who exhibit human “weakness” or “emotional craziness” as “genetically” inferior, feeble-minded, needy, and the like, and to believe this gives him the right to own them, like pets or possessions. If he behaves entitled it’s because, in his mind, he holds a might-makes-right philosophical view of the world; since he’s the one with “the might,” he reasons, he’s entitled to treat “the weak” as he pleases, and to exploit them for his gain.

(By the way, this belief system forms the basis for hate-propaganda that targets or justifies enslavement of certain groups, based on gender, race, age, religion, etc.)

And thus, a narcissist learns to reject “human love” and “partner” stuff on the basis that, not only does he not believe in this love stuff, to him, it’s a trick “the weak” use to cajole “the mighty” into giving up their top-dog position. He treats the woman in his life as a dangerous, fierce competitor, out to control him, and her attempts to get him to do “unmanly” things is “proof”! If one listens closely, most of what a narcissist accuses his partner of (perhaps others as well), are projections that reveal his own intentions, efforts and strategies, and of course the fantasy-beliefs he holds of himself and his relationships.

You might say, a narcissist is one, more often a man, who compulsively seeks to prove his skill in exploiting others through the use of emotional abuse, the woman in his life in particular, in order to train them to behave as slaves, and treat him as master. (A covert narcissist is particularly hard to spot, as they focus more intensely on building a case against the woman in his life, and playing a victim.)

Notably, whereas socialized tendencies for narcissism in men, and codependency in women, are high, relatively few men meet the criteria for a diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder. Nevertheless, the tendencies in this direction are so prevalent, increasingly more hyper in the last two decades, as to affect most every couple to some degree.

It appears both men and women are socialized, in effect, to collude in making women’s wants and needs invisible, and not “seeing” women as real human beings, with the exact same core emotion-drives (needs, not wants) as men, to matter, to be treated with respect and dignity, as unique, capable, with dreams and aspirations of their own, and so on. with needs, wants of their own.

For example:

  • Unbeknownst to most men, the woman in their lives, in most cases, has little or no interest in dominating or emasculating them; more likely, she’s working hard to partner, collaborate, engage, work as a team.


  • Unbeknownst to most women, the man in their lives views their couple relationship as a “battle” and competition, a win-lose proposition; and that means one winner, one loser, and he has to make sure, overtly or covertly, he is not seen as the loser.

This therapist would estimate over 80% of couples deal with issues rooted in these limiting (survival-fear activating) belief systems. They are limiting because they unnecessarily activate the body’s survival system.

Narcissism develops into a disorder to the extent early experiences are traumatizing, and activate high levels of survival fears, energizing extreme reactions to emotions of human tenderness and vulnerability. Everywhere a boy turns, narcissism is modeled for him, and he learns from both the men and women in his life, that his feelings, as a man, matter, whereas a woman’s do not.

For both men and women, the human brain is a relational organ, and the drive to emotionally matter and meaningfully connect to life inside and around us is just as intense, if not more so, as the drive for physical survival.

It is not an easy task to realize fulfillment in relation to self and the other, however! One thing is certain, the worst from of emotional suffering is self-inflicted, and caused by avoidance of pain that is necessary for growing our capacity to love — which is what life and being human is all about.

In the words of Carl Jung, one of most brilliant psychological theorists of the 21st century:

“Neurosis is the natural by-product of pain avoidance.”

A narcissist is his worst enemy due to his desperate attempts to not only avoid, but also eliminate evidence of human love and vulnerability responses in himself, and the woman in his life. In attempt to prove his superiority, however, and so-called entitlements to demoralize and steal another human being’s sense of self, he merely arrests his own emotional development, sentencing himself to live in misery and loathing life, others, himself.

2. Trained to define “love” as a competition for power

On the other hand, the environment repeatedly rewards, praises, makes a narcissist to feel included, when he displays strength on the basis of dominance and might, physical and sexual prowess, in combination with emotional detachment– and does so in particular in relation to the woman in his life.

And thus he learns to experience his couple relationship like a battle zone, a do-or-die win-lose competition, a battle for power “over” the other.

Displays of dominance and superiority, he’s been led to believe, are what make him attractive to the opposite sex; after it, it’s the way sexual relations work for most species in the animal kingdom! A “real” man also exhibits emotional detachment as proof of superiority, in particular, a lack of empathy or caring in response to the feelings of the woman in his life, toward whom he’s expected to express a callous disregard. He doesn’t lack empathy, in most cases, as often described, as he clearly knows how to “act” and employ empathy, strategically, to impress, con, and build up a woman’s hopes, and to then take pleasure at dashing her hopes. (Rarely does he reveal this about himself, except in snippets, perhaps also in like company.)

This might makes right belief system defines, limits and focuses the “expression” of love, for men and women, to what makes men feel “manly,” and that is, physical acts of sex, body parts, sensory stimulation of sex organs, orgasm, and performance. Sex is a contest of sorts, based on performance, who desires more sex, and has more frequent orgasms.

This definition of “love”is devoid of human touch, feelings of love, nonsexual affection. Sex is weapon, a contest to prove might and rightful dominance, thus entitlements to comfort and pleasure in the relationship, too often sadistic pleasure, at minimum, emotional if not physical.

He learned to associate genetic superiority with displays of might and aggression (offensive and defensive), callous disregard for suffering of others, do-or-die competitions, and taking pleasure in inflicting pain, feeling hated and feared.

In relation to the woman in his life, a narcissist is rarely relaxed, most always on guard. What keeps him in survival-fear mode however are mere illusions. It’s his perceptions of her. It’s his false-self image of himself. It’s his might-makes-right belief system. himself that keep him in survival-fear mode. In fact, his perceptions get him to opt for the power of might, and remain not only on the defensive, but also on the offensive, strategizing ways to tame or break her will — covertly and, or overtly — to train her to know “her place,” ridding her of any “wild” tendencies, as one would with a pet dog or horse, so that she surrenders her will to compete for power over him.

For a narcissist, it’s more than mere avoidance of human feelings. It’s a rigid rejection and war against strivings for human love and connection, his own and the other’s.

Hope and healing from narcissism

A narcissist’s socialization reveals what he is addicted to, most derives pleasure from in life, and what — like a drug — keeps his false-self ego craving, fragile, in desperate need of healing, and what also sentences him to an inner life of misery and self-loathing, stuck trying to prove he’s not human.

A narcissist’s healing depends on waking to discover that the  “real” enemy in his life is the internalized false-image that is rooted in a system of limiting beliefs, lies and illusions, and that he craves like a drug.

Narcissism is a love deficit because of what the narcissist most craves, wants, takes pleasure in, attacks what is human in self and others, and rejects the power of love and human connection — opting instead for illusions of power, the power of might, deception, brutal force.

This explains why a narcissist is lost, and is his worst enemy.

  • He’s lost because, whereas humans are wired to seek happiness, primarily through making meaningful contributions and connections to life in and around them, as social beings, the narcissist looks for feel-goods, in all the wrong places; like an addict, he’s addicted to cheap feel-goods that provide only temporary, quick-fix pleasures, never satisfy, and merely increase cravings.
  • He’s his worst enemy because the drug he’s addicted to — proving he’s superior-thus-entitled-to-exploit-mistreat-others-and-be-treated-like-infallible-god — is what keeps him trapped, feeling miserable, self-loathing, insecure inside, craving to matter, feel good enough, triggered by the slightest provocation.

Defining narcissism as a conditioned love-deficit clarifies the necessary path of healing that a narcissist must take to free himself, and break out of the prison his own beliefs have imposed on his own mind, his false-self mindset.

Once an innocent little boy, shaped by unfortunate social mores and cultural mindsets, a narcissist has a pressing need to regain an understanding of himself as a human being, first and foremost, and thus to see that the misery and hatred he lives with inside, are his own subconscious mind, prompting him:

  • To break out of a learned “comfort zone” that is harming life in and around him and keeping him living in fear of fear itself (fear of intimacy).
  • To see that, the drug he’s addicted to, his false-self illusion is the “real enemy, and root of problems, chaos and misery in his life.
  • To return to love, to his own sense of self, and the other, as first and foremost human beings.

As with other addictions, the first step is for the narcissist to come out of denial, and admit that it’s “the drug that leaves them powerless, dependent, weak, and that also:

  • Deceives them into thinking it’s a friend and source of power and feel good.
  • Sets them up to have cruel dehumanizing expectations for self and others.
  • Blocks them from powerful inner resources for creating a synergy of happiness, meaning, a better world in relation to self and life around them.

Make no mistake, the narcissist is fully wired, equipped to love and be loved.

From the first breath to the last, the human quest is for meaning-making connections to life, to create a life that matters, and not merely to physically survive. The human drive to matter is what shapes most every behavior and response. The synergy of human beings, working collaboratively to secure a better world for one another is the best guarantee of survival of a species — not aggressive do-or-die competitions over resources as, we’ve been told repeatedly (i.e., by mainstream textbooks).

Without question, what sages of old proclaimed true of the forces that move and are moved by the human heart, along with major psychological theorists of the 20th century, is now proven by advances in brain imaging, and the latest findings in neurocience: humans are first and foremost social beings. The brain is a relationship organ, and human beings grow, learn, thrive in relationships. Human babies do not survive without human touch. High and prolonged levels of fear cause harm and kill cells of the body. Human beings are not designed for do-or-die fights and competitions.

Love, and the quest to express and create and contribute in meaningful ways to life in and around us, is the governing force of the cosmos.

Photo by familymwr

Redefining Narcissism as a Love Deficit

Athena Staik, Ph.D.

Relationship consultant, author, licensed marriage and family therapist, Dr. Athena Staik motivates clients to break free of anxiety, emotion reactivity, and other addictive patterns, to awaken wholehearted relating to self and other. She is currently in private practice in Northern VA, and writing her book, What a Narcissist Means When He Says 'I Love You'": Breaking Free of Addictive Love in Couple Relationships. To contact Dr. Staik for information, an appointment or workshop, visit, or visit on her two Facebook fan pages DrAthenaStaik and DrStaik

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APA Reference
Staik, A. (2017). Redefining Narcissism as a Love Deficit. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 4, 2020, from


Last updated: 30 Apr 2017
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