The Narcissist is a Tommyknocker Knocking At Your Door
Does anyone remember that old Stephen King book and series, The Tommyknockers? I'm a King fan, and I remember being really creeped out when I came across this golden horror oldie in the 90s, even though the author himself has since said it's an awful story (the curse of every writer seems to be second-guessing themselves). What really got me about these Tommyknocker freaks was what they did to the dog. No spoilers, but let's just say they used him as an energy source. I remember asking my boyfriend at the time why these advanced alien beings from another world would need to use a dog like that.
"They had no imagination," he explained. "They thought they had to use people as batteries. I guess they couldn't figure out another way to do it."
It's classic Stephen King. In the book, like in so many of his other stories, townspeople come under the influence of a mysterious object that hypnotizes them into abandoning everything they know to be true and everything they hold dear. They surrender to this evil influence body and soul, believing the only way forward is through merger with the object and its will. Dissidents are ruthlessly hunted down. The affected townspeople do terrible things to themselves and others for the promise of greatness, denying the reality that is going on all around them. Does this remind you of anything? Sure, COVID policy. But I was thinking more of narcissism.
Every single one of King's short stories and novels explores narcissism and psychopathy, whether he would characterize it as such or not. The theme is almost always the same: a non-human entity that desires complete control at any cost, with the ultimate goal of destruction, completely remorseless and lacking in empathy, entirely concerned with its own gain, devoid of any moral truth or goodness, conscious of its own emptiness but still determined to win, succeeding by means of lies and only defeated by truth. Maybe it's time to recap the diagnostic criteria for pathological narcissism, from the DSM-IV: it's a simpler bulleted list than the DSM-V, so I'm choosing to use this one, but you can read the latest diagnostic criteria in the DSM-V here.
Criteria for narcissistic personality disorder
1. Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements).
2. Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love. 3. Believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions).
4. Requires excessive admiration.
5. Has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations.
6. Is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends.
7. Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.
Only 5 of the 7 criteria are necessary for a diagnosis of NPD. Of course, the Tommyknockers themselves, though less elitist and more democratic than our traditional grandiose narcissist, had all seven plus goal-oriented psychopathy and sadism, too. No wonder Stephen King is so popular; his readers are well acquainted with these universal themes in their own lives. Almost everyone, not just horror fans, can relate to being exploited by entitled individuals on a personal, professional or societal level at one point or another.
Narcissists aren't just entitled or mean, they also lack imagination
The reason I think The Tommyknockers have such a close correlation with narcissists is that, in addition to the main diagnostic criteria, there are dozens and dozens of lesser-known traits that every narcissist possesses to some degree that every victim of narcissistic abuse will recognize. One of them is a lack of imagination.
Narcissists can be very creative and talented - let's not take that away from them - but when it comes to behaviour, they have a very limited playbook, returning to the same tired tactics over and over and over. Sam Vaknin, known as "the grandaddy of narcissism" for his 2001 book Malignant Self-Love: Narcissism Revisited, says that narcissists are extremely predictable in their relationship patterns of idealization, devaluation and discard. That might seem surprising to someone who has been kept off-balance for years by the gaslighting, lies and fantastical pronouncements of the narcissist. But though narcissists make it up as they go along, they're actually following a very rigid programming. Without access to nuanced emotions, they can't be truly imaginative. They use the same basic technique over and over - inventing a false reality, forcing others to go along with their absurd behaviour, punishing disagreement - because it works. When it stops working on you, like a marauding alien flying off to seek a new planet to plunder, they just find and groom another victim.
If you look back at your correspondence with a narcissist, you'll see they use the same insults, the same condescending speech patterns, the same intermittent reinforcement, the same denial of facts, the same distorting of narratives. It's like watching a robot cycle through factory programmed settings.
Stop being a human battery for the narcissist
The one thing a narcissist needs from you is supply. They feed off your attention, your admiration, your obedience and your compliance, needing worship so badly that it's even okay if that worship is tinged with fear or resentment. Even your characterization of the narcissist as the worst creature ever to have lived is still attention, and therefore oxygen, to him. Love, hate, or fear, it's all an energy source for the narcissist, who needs to use your emotional feedback as a battery pack to keep his fragile, false sense of self intact.
How do you unplug from the narcissist and stop juicing him up? First, stop buying in to the fantasy - all of it. If you know you're dealing with a narcissist, don't believe their promises, their characterization of you, or their version of events without fact checking everything. Disengage as much as possible. Don't fuel them by arguing, pleading, or trying to persuade. Don't curse them out or try to placate them. As much as possible, ignore them. They are not the best or the worst. They are really pretty uninventive, unevolved, and boring. They don't deserve your precious energy and attention. Recharge your battery not with the narcissist's empty compliments but with the legitimate validation that springs from your own accomplishments, your own healthy relationships, and your own healing.
It's a frigid, locked-down weekend in Toronto, a perfect day to curl up with some old Stephen King movies. I'm so glad the narcissist is gone from my life and the thrills and chills are strictly onscreen.