We all know one. Those armoured Cockroach Narcissists that can survive anything. It is said that cockroaches are some of the most adaptable creatures on earth. They are in-vulnerable survivors. But at what, and who’s cost?

One of my patients, whom I shall call Lucy, reported that she was “Drowning in work”. Despite trying to communicate with her boss that what was being demanded of her was not appropriately balanced with the resources available to her, she was informed that she was “Not performing to an adequate standard”. This invalidation fuelled Lucy’s anxiety and she started to work longer hours and have panic attacks that resulted in her needing to take medical leave. Lured back to work after two weeks with a threat of losing her job she was then marched into the bosses’ office and told “If you don’t do well, I don’t do well! You are making me look bad and I can no longer allow that to happen”. When Lucy opened up in an attempt to talk about the panic in her body as a result of the inappropriate demands she was told “Panic! Don’ t you think I am in a panic too? That’ s irrelevant, the work comes first!”

Lucy was ‘let go’ not long after and for years, rather than be able to see that none of this was her fault, she carried a mantle of shame and low self-worth which stopped her even trying to get another job. You see, Lucy was branded with an imprint that many narcissists embellish on their victims:

You Are Not Good Enough! If You Don’t Make Me Look Good You Are Worthless!

The costs and burdens of being ‘used up’ by narcissists, in their entitled need for never ending supply, are carried by the common or garden everyday creatures called Human Beings. It’s the humanness in us that makes us vulnerable. We feel, we have compassion, we can empathise and we have a natural instinct to support and protect others. We see this mechanism of care operational throughout the animal kingdom.

Gabor Mate says it is a disservice to call someone a rat as rats are very empathic creatures and will support their kin, often to their own detriment. Paradoxically the narcissist will “rat out” their fellow man and expose them to undeserved punishment. All with the aim of their own embellishment and fuelling of omnipotence. An expert in severe criminal acts says that financial backgrounds and social class births a fine-line distinction between a future serial killer and a narcissist. The working class pathological male does not have the same opportunities to climb the societal ladder and become a narcissistic leader. The serial killer arrogantly takes out his rage on those weaker than him via murderous acts. What’s so different between him and the Cockroach Narcissist leader who wields his destructive aggression outwards on to thousands and calls it a corporate reorganisation? And yet, with a hardened shell, he himself will survive the redundancy programme — again — and will feel yet another sense of narcissistic inflation whilst marvelling at his own brilliance.

The murderous narcissist can be identified throughout all realms of leadership — politics, financial markets, the movie industry. He will take what he needs — power, fear, adoration, money, sex — to fuel his narcissistic supply, and often associated sadomasochistic tendencies, and then dispense with the shell of the used up country, organisation or person.

When what they do is so obviously blatant, why do these Cockroach Narcissists survive? Why are they given the opportunity to move onto the next target of their malignant desire? And not only that but often to rise up in rank from CFO to CEO, Trader to Portfolio Manager, Politician to Warlord, Businessman to … Roles where more control and a wider influence allows for the infliction of stronger ripples of distress and pain.

It is said that controlling and eliminating a cockroach infestation is exceptionally difficult. They are resilient and they breed rapidly. Their mechanisms honed for survival keep them alive, keep them flourishing. University of Melbourne evolutionary biologist Mark
Elgar explained that the Mythbusters test which sought to examine the ‘cockroach survival theory’ (they survived longer than humans once exposed to extreme radioactive material but still all died) was not fully accurate. Namely, because the Mythbusters team made their assessment of survival based upon how many days they continued to live after radioactive exposure. What was missing was their ability to produce viable eggs, and hence survival of the species!

There is a psychological term called ‘identification with the aggressor’ which emotionally and physically neglected and abused children may unconsciously recruit in and develop through adulthood. This mechanism keeps the child psychologically safe and able to survive the most difficult of circumstances. They introject, or take into their character structure ‘perpetrator parts’, the negative attributes of their abuser.

They become their abuser in order to survive them.

To do otherwise can lead to other psychological mechanisms being used which are more self- destructive, more self-immobilising, and less about destroying others. Thankfully most of us will ‘own’ our vulnerabilities and not dissociate from them. We will continue to think and feel despite the pain it causes, and we will develop alternative relationships which assist us to transition away from our perpetrators and voice our dissent. These new relationships help us to become more than we believed ourselves to be in those abandoning and abusive childhood situations.

We can acknowledge that the emotional neglect, the dismissiveness, the verbal shaming and the physical wounding inflicted upon us from our perpetrators was more about them and less about us.

How that hurts? A deep chasmic well of hurt. To know that those who were supposed to love us just didn’t, couldn’t, wouldn’t.

It is a delicate act, in the clinical space of adult psychotherapy, to open up that awareness that toxic self-aggrandised parents, bosses and other leaders who devalued you and manipulated your need to connect to someone or something you perceived as “safe”, needed for “protection”, or even “loved”, cared more about themselves and their own agendas than about you. That they could not even access or think about, let alone acknowledge, the pain their needs and their behaviours, would cause you.

A patient, whom I will name John, reported a number of failed sexual relationships. He sought psychotherapy in order to change his ways, to improve, so that in the future he would be able to meet the needs of the “Incredible women he dated”. Historically he had been repeatedly ‘dumped’ and blamed himself for not being good enough. It became clear that throughout his childhood John had been a consummate performer for his mother, Stella. He was a skilled swimmer and debate champion and on a weekly basis mother and son would travel to competitions and stay overnight. Apparently John’s father was never invited.

His mother would smile through pursed lips when she told John how much of her life she was dedicating to him and his competitions, but how she wants the best for him so “Will do whatever it takes”. When John hit 16 he developed other interests and felt the burden of the weekend trips to “Win the gold”. Part of him thought his mother would be pleased if he no longer needed her to travel. But another part of him knew that she would be deeply disappointed in him and may even get angry – “In her own way”.

There were a lot of layered complexities to this case which John and I had to work through, but eventually John was able to see that his successes filled a vacuum in his mother’s life. When he “Got the gold” she would adore him, in John’s words “Pour herself out over him”. But on trips back home with “The silver” she would be sullen and silent. John eventually realised that his adult relationships with women paralleled the maternal relationship. He picked women who outwardly admired him but when he failed to keep the narcissistic supply going they no longer wanted him. John had to let himself re-shape his awareness of himself and his relationships. He was able to put into context why he felt abandoned by his mother over recent years, and felt a twist of pain inside when she was too busy for him to visit as she was ‘helping’ his nephew with his scholarship exams for a prestigious school. John experienced deep hurt as a result of his realisation that he was being used as an object in cold harsh ways and was punished when he failed to inflate his mother’s and partner’s needs. He journeyed through his own vulnerabilities and could step into his mother’s shoes and understand the aetiology of her mechanisms which in turn eradicated her power over him.

The hard backed narcissist will never enter that pain. They defend and react against it with a lack of fellow-feeling, an inability to feel into the pain of the other because they have never entered their own pain. They project this unconscious chasmic hurt outwards, they take on the mantle of power from their own manipulators and pass it on implicitly/passively in underhanded ways and explicitly/directly in their self-serving words and actions. The narcissistic adult damages and perpetuates damage. Like the indomitable cockroach he has durability and will survive. Just as he was parented with emotional abandonment, he will inform you that his hands are tied, that it is your fault he is treating you this way, and that ultimately he is only doing it for your own good.

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