By Darden Bynum
You’ve been through it already. If you’re caring for an aging narcissist, you’ve seen it. You’ve been through extremes of twisted coercions, constant demands and belittling put-downs. You’ve been the object of self-absorbed tantrums, silent treatments and personal grievances. Now that the narcissists is aging, you wonder: is this just going to get worse?
While not gender-dependent, degrees of narcissism seem to be age-dependent. At first it was easier for a narcissist. Now’s harder for an aging narcisstic person to get a fix of self-absorbed rewards.
Men and women who are compelled in their desire to control the supply of narcissistic validation go to great lengths to get it. Narcissists either step up their vain attempts to recapture their vanity or sulk into suspicious resentment. When their looks, fame, power and privilege begin to wain they still want attention.
Now there’s nobody left to control for that attention except a caregiver. It stands to reason that even sub-clinical conditions of aging narcissism gets worse as a person gets older. At the same time, there are fewer and fewer witnesses. Nobody but the caregiver sees the grind of the daily decline.
“Over the course of time, ‘child prodigies lose their magic, lovers exhaust their potency, philanderers waste their allure, and geniuses miss their touch,’” quotes Dutch psychology writer Alexander Burgemeester (https://thenarcissisticlife.com). He adds, “Time brings the narcissist closer and closer to being average as the gulf widens between his grandiose expectations and his actual accomplishments.”
Regrettably there are few scientific studies to examine this question: do narcissists actually get worse with age? A small study in The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry (F. Stinson et al, 2008) suggested that people who meet the sub-clinical criteria as well as some with the diagnosis outright of Narcissitic Personalty Disorder (NPD) may display fewer problem behaviors as they grow older.
With self-absorbed power and control peaking in middle age, the study authors speculate that many people with narcistic behaviors may be approaching the start of a long decline. They hypothesize that people fear a loss of this power. A loss, not only of sex appeal, corporate, family or professional status, but also a loss of fewer actual relationships to control. No matter the condition, loneliness and isolation are often problematic as a person ages.
“Generally, narcissists don’t get more flexible, empathic or agreeable with age. These are personality traits of NPD and they are highly unlikely to change. Aging is rough on the ego--it increases dependency and vulnerability, usually reduces status (unless you are Donald Trump or Hugh Hefner), triggers regrets, and increases feelings of envy,” observes Burgemeester.
Other Studies have suggested lower levels of self-preoccupation and narcissism, and higher levels of loneliness that sampled middle-aged and older-aged participants. It also indicates a preoccupation with self-centeredness may actually aid the person be less lonely. People with NPD expect to be supplied with ego-centric attention. And they get it. Ergo, they are less lonely.
Hold on. Please. How do we know what really motivates them? The narcissists and people with these traits are not stupid. They got where they are by manipulating, over-stating, under-reporting. They use people and information for their own gain and power. That’s just what narcissists do. Why wouldn’t they do the same by faking good answers?
Without reviewing the reliability and validity of administering these particular testing instruments in this English study, it’s clear there does need to be more research. The research must include systematic collateral info from spouses, families, neighbors, and especially caregivers.
The context of narcissistic abuse needs to include multi-source information before drawing too many diagnostic conclusions. Self-surveys by people already with these tendencies may not measure what they are intended to measure; the people with these conditions may not be the most reliable informants.
This cohort of subjects are usually pretty adept at putting themselves in the best possible light. Making themselves look good usually does not include shining light on how wrapped up in themselves they really are; so, this is a rare time when it pays for them to minimize.
Since most of these self-reporting assessments rely on responses from the person in question, outside collateral reporting from other sources is lacking. They can minimize their selfishness with impunity. Without systematically sampling of other sources, including spouses, significant others, family members and most importantly caregivers, the diagnostic and functional impressions remain incomplete.
Yes, this is not what you’ve heard. You probably haven’t heard that a few studies suggest that narcissism mellows with age. It’s likely not what you know. Personal experiences and the blogosphere reflect the inadequacies of self-reporting studies. That means your own experiences aren’t wrong. Your own anecdotal experiences likely support a worsening of this condition. Over time the person is harder to deal with. Harder to live with. Obviously, many health challenging categories do worsen with age.
It also stands to reason, if a person spends their entire life controlling, manipulating and using others abusively, they will likely pursue a burst of attempts to regain that lost control when their tactics are no longer working as well. These bursts of frenetic attempts to regain control at the expense of whoever has to deal with the fallout, can create toxic environments.
That’s when, if the person has not alienated most family and friends, that’s when the caregivers really catch it. These frantic attempts to get back some semblances of their previous control land squarely on primary caregivers. They bear the brunt.
To sum up, it’s still early in the data collection phase of this social science inquiry to know definitively if narcissists get worse. But based on many people’s unscientific and personal experience, especially caregivers, these conditions don’t seem to be getting any better. Nor do they stay the same. Real life stories show narcissists getting worse over time.
On the other hand, preliminary controlled studies, especially ones using self-reporting instruments, suggest a different trend. These emerging data show a tendency for narcissistic abuse and manipulation to be actually getting a little better with time.
Since each person on the spectrum of narcissism is unique, since each different person presents novel challenges to caregivers, perhaps it calls for a different perspective. Rather than spend more time assessing and analyzing the person you are caring for, it may be more productive to spend some time reflecting and helping yourself.
How are you holding up under the strain of caring for this person? If you are the brunt of bothersome behaviors or worse, outright abuse, and you have made clear your limits about what is acceptable vs. unacceptable, then good on you. You are headed on the right path. Not an easy path though.
If it’s less about whether the person with narcissism is better, worse or the same, and it’s more about you, and how you are managing the stress, then you are indeed on your way to helping the person and yourself. Health is contagious too. Health supports life. A healthier relationship begins with you.
If you begin to see yourself and the person in a larger context, shared with many who also care for an aging narcissist, then the path may lead you to a place for your own growth.