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Narcissist: The Impulse to Be Perfect (Fear of Failure and Success)

Uploaded 3/31/2013, approx. 5 minute read

My name is Sam Vaknin, and I am the author of Malignant Self-Love: Narcissism Revisited.

Most people who fear failure try hard not to fail.

Since, as we have shown, not failing amounts to failing to succeed, such people equally dread success and therefore try not to succeed.

They opt, in other words, for mediocrity. Not a failure, but not a success.

In order to not succeed, one needs to not apply oneself to one's tasks or to not embark on new ventures and other dakings.

Often, such avoidant and constricted behaviors are not a matter of choice, but the outcomes of inner, very strong psychological dynamics that compel them.

Narcissists cannot tell the difference between freewill choices and irresistible compulsions, because they regard themselves as omnipotent and therefore not subject to any forces, external or internal, greater than their own willpower.

Narcissists tend to claim that both their successes and their failures are exclusively the inevitable and predictable outcomes of their choices and decisions. No other force is involved except the narcissist.


Okay, the preference to not fail is trivial. No one wants to fail.

But why the propensity to not succeed? It's crucial to understand that not succeeding actually abates the fear of failure. After all, a one-time success calls for increasingly more unattainable repeat performances.

Success just means that one has got more to lose, more ways to fail.

Deliberately not succeeding also buttresses the narcissist's sense of omnipotence, because he is able to say, Iand only I, choose to what extent and whether I succeed or fail.

Similarly, the narcissist's grandiose conviction that he is perfect is supported by his self-inflicted lack of success, because he can tell himself, I could have succeeded had I only chose to and applied myself to it. Better to fantasize than to test this theory in reality.

The narcissist always says, I elect not to manifest my perfection by a success. I could have been a success if I really wanted to.

Indeed, as a philosopher, Benedict Spinoza observed, perfect beings have no wants and no needs. They don't have to try and prove anything. They are perfect.

In an imperfect world, such as ours is, the mere continued existence of a perfect being constitutes a success. I cannot fail as long as I merely survive.

It's the perfect entity's narcissist's motto.

Many narcissistic defenses, traits and behaviors revolve around this compulsive need to sustain a grandiose self-image of perfection, colloquially known as perfectionism.

Colloquially, deficient impulse control, inability to control one's impulses, helps achieve this crucial goal.

Impulsive actions and addictive behaviors render failure impossible, as they suggest a lack of premeditation and planning.

If you don't plan anything, if you don't premeditate, you can't fail.

Moreover, to the narcissistic patient, these kinds of decisions and deeds feel imminent and intuitive, an emanation of his core self.

The true expression of his quiddity is being, his essence.

This association of the patient's implied uniqueness with the exuberance and elation of involved in impulsive and addictive acts is intoxicating. It also offers support to the narcissist's view of himself as superior, invincible and immune to the consequences of his actions.

So, when the narcissist gambles compulsively, shops, drives recklessly or abuses substances, he feels godlike and thoroughly happy, at least for a fraction of the same.

Instant gratification, the infinitesimal delay between volition and desire and fulfillment. This small delay, short delay, enhances this overpowering sense of omnipotence.

The patient, the narcissist, inhabits an eternal present, actively suppressing the reasoned anticipation of the future consequences of his own actions.

Failure is an artifact of a future tense. You anticipate failure, you start something in the present and you fail in the future.

In the absence of such a horizon, in the absence of a future tense, success is invariably guarantee or at least imply.

Some narcissists, admittedly, are egodystonic. They loathe their lack of self-control. They berate themselves for their self-defeating profligacy and self-destructive immaturity.

But even then, their very ability to carry out the impulsive or addictive feat is, by definition, a success. If you succeed to gamble, succeed to shop, succeed to drive recklessly, you succeed. You are a success. The patient is accomplished at behaving irresponsibly and erratically. His labile self-ruination is his forte and his achievement as he masterfully navigates his own apocalyptic path to doom.

Even by failing to control his irresistible impulses and by succumbing to his addictions, is this kind of narcissistic patient able to act at all, otherwise it is paralyzed. His submission to these internal higher powers provides him with the perfect substitute to a constructive, productive, stable, truly satisfactory engagement with the world at all.

Thus, even when he is angry at himself, the narcissist castigates the ominous success of his dissolute ways, not his own failure.

He says, I am very good at destroying myself. I am very good at defeating my own purposes and goals.

But there is this sentence, I am very good at. I am a success at.

The narcissist's rage is displaced. Rather than confront his avoidant misconduct, he tries to cope with the symptoms of his underlying or pervasive and pernicious psychodynamics.

Ironically, it is this ineluctable failure of his life as a whole that endows the narcissist with a feeling of self-control. He is the one who brings about his own demise, inexorably but knowingly.

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