Metaphorically speaking, narcissism is like blowing up a balloon. The balloon in this metaphor represents the narcissistic self, and the helium is narcissistic supply. When somebody has your attention, they receive helium for their balloon. When somebody can control your reaction, they also get helium for their balloon to stay inflated. Giving somebody your cooperation can also inflate their balloon. Being affirmed for your talents or appearance is helium for your narcissistic balloon. These acts all reinforce a person’s narcissistic self.
In a world where power is the tip of the spear, where power is the means to getting our wants and needs met, narcissism is a necessary dynamic in our lives. We offer each other this metaphorical helium, trading it amongst each other like a valuable commodity. When our balloons are inflated, we feel empowered and capable. The dopamine hit can be irresistible, making us want more. More power means more capacity in the same way that more helium means a bigger balloon. The problem comes when the experience of the inflated balloon takes over our reality.
In the case of a narcissist, this inflated balloon state keeps them cushioned from experiencing their True Self. When you trace back the upbringing of a narcissist, their early experiences are littered with trauma and abuse. They were attacked, manipulated and shamed into behaving how their elders expected. To escape trauma, they began reinforcing their narcissistic self by pursuing attention, reaction, cooperation and affirmation. They found that the more they inflated their balloon, the more power they experienced, and the more comfort they received. They worked toward maintaining this state, manipulating their environment and the people around them any way they could. Under no circumstance could they risk anybody or anything bursting this balloon. Nobody could challenge their reality.
So what is it that the narcissist fears so much about a deflated self? The reality is that we all experience this state at times. Mondayitis and rejection are two basic examples. The high of the weekend fills us up, and when the source of this pleasure is gone, we feel a jarring withdrawal. The hope of being accepted by somebody lifts us up but having those hopes dashed brings us crashing back down. In both cases, the experience is painful and deeply uncomfortable. This crash is narcissistic withdrawal, much the same way a person experiences drug withdrawal.
What separates a narcissist from other people is that the narcissist cannot accept this freefall state. To allow their balloon to deflate is to fall into the realm of shame, where a genuine reality takes over their experience. Emotions such as shame, guilt and empathy begin to take over, and repressed trauma and rage come to the surface. Again, metaphorically speaking, this balloon keeps the narcissist afloat over a pool of hot lava, where that hot lava is their repressed trauma. Coming down is a scathing, torturous experience. This is what they fear the most. Narcissism is like being in a drug-induced state, but power is the drug in this case. By cooperating with a narcissist, reacting to them, and allowing them to control you, you are helping them maintain their habit while denying yourself the right to be empowered.
To overcome narcissism inside of us, we need to be aware of the inflated and deflated states of our narcissistic selves. Narcissistic inflation is helpful and allows us to experience pleasure and opportunity in our lives. The crucial part is to accept the deflating stage and to be open to a state of shame. The experience of being at peak inflation and then losing our narcissistic supply is painful, but if we are mature enough, we can accept this as part of the human experience. If we can resist the urge to find unhealthy ways to inflate, we float down and reach a point of equilibrium. What is there to meet us once all of the helium has left our narcissistic self? Our True Self, of course. We reach a state of both emptiness and fullness, calmness and energy, trauma and anxiety, and genuine love and happiness. The full richness of human experience is there to meet us if we have the courage to allow ourselves to deflate once in a while, to stop inflating our balloons with actions, ploys, thoughts and drama. Although the narcissist has not found this courage, vilifying them disregards the fact that they do not have safe ground to deflate down to. Unhinged trauma, when it overtakes the True Self and then becomes entrapped within a false self, can spell the end of a person’s humanity. The way back can be near impossible.
So how do we deflate consciously and with courage? We do it through awareness and acceptance. Every high comes with a low, and every narcissistic jolt gives a sense of power with one hand while taking away our genuine human experience with the other. By accepting narcissistic withdrawal in our lives, we can inflate with joy and then deflate gladly back down into humanity; a luxury the narcissist does not have.
To better understand the dynamics of narcissism and recover from narcissistic abuse, check out the following books: