GUEST AUTHOR Sam Vaknin, PhD writes:
Some people rarely fail, but they are no roaring successes, either. They linger in a limbo, somewhere between minimal attainment and mediocrity. They pass, but never quite make it. They seem to fear and avoid failure and success in equal measures. How can this be explained?
We can define “succeeding” as “realizing one’s full potential.”
“Not failing” can be defined as “not realizing one’s full potential, but only some of it.”
So, “not failing” is the opposite, the antonym of “succeeding.” Not failing=not succeeding=failing to succeed. Most people who fear failure try hard to not fail. Since, as we have shown, not failing amounts to failing to succeed, such people equally dread success and, therefore, try to not succeed. They opt for mediocrity.
In order to not succeed, one needs to not apply oneself to one’s tasks, or to not embark on new ventures or undertakings. Often, such avoidant, constricted behaviours are not a matter of choice, but the outcome of inner psychological dynamics that compels them.
These character traits and behaviors are narcissistic.
Narcissists cannot tell the difference between free-will choices and irresistible compulsions because they regard themselves as omnipotent and, therefore, not subject to any forces, external or internal, greater than their willpower. They tend to claim that both their successes and failures are exclusively the inevitable and predictable outcomes of their choices and decisions.
The preference to not fail is trivial – but, why the propensity to not succeed?
Not succeeding assuages 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: “I – and only I – choose to what extent and whether I succeed or fail.” Similarly, the narcissist grandiose conviction that he is perfect is supported by his self-inflicted lack of success. He tells himself: “I could have succeeded had I only chose to and applied myself to it. I am perfect, but I elect to not manifest my perfection via success.”
Indeed, as the philosopher Spinoza observed, perfect beings have no wants or needs. They don’t have to try and prove anything. In an imperfect world, such as ours is, the mere continued existence of a perfect being constitutes its success. “I cannot fail as long as I merely survive” – is the perfect entity’s motto.
Many narcissistic defences, traits, and behaviours revolve around the compulsive need to sustain a grandiose self-image of perfection (“perfectionism”.) Paradoxically, deficient impulse control helps achieve this crucial goal. Impulsive actions and addictive behaviours render failure impossible as they suggest a lack of premeditation and planning.
Moreover: to the narcissistic patient, these kinds of decisions and deeds feel immanent and intuitive, an emanation or his core self, the true expression of his quiddity, haecceity, and being. This association of the patient’s implied uniqueness with the exuberance and elation often involved in impulsive and addictive acts is intoxicating. It also offers support to the patient’s view of himself as superior, invincible, and immune to the consequences of his actions. When he gambles, shops, drives recklessly, or abuses substances he is “godlike” and thoroughly happy, at least for a fraction of a second.
Instant gratification – the infinitesimal delay between volition or desire and fulfillment – enhance this overpowering sense of omnipotence. The patient inhabits a sempiternal present, actively suppressing the reasoned anticipation the future consequences of his choices. Failure is an artifact of a future tense and, in the absence of such a horizon,success is invariably guaranteed or at least implied.
Some patients are ego-dystonic: they loathe their lack of self-control and 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: the patient is accomplished at behaving irresponsibly and erratically, his labile self-ruination is his forte as he masterfully navigates his own apocalyptic path. Only by failing to control his irresistible impulses and by succumbing to his addictions, is this kind of narcissistic patient able to act at all. His submission to these internal “higher powers” provides him with a perfect substitute to a constructive, productive, stable, and truly satisfactory engagement with the world.
Thus, even when angry at himself, the patient castigates the ominous success of his dissolute ways, not their failure. His rage is displaced: rather than confront his avoidant misconduct, he tries to cope with the symptoms of his underlying, all-pervasive, and pernicious psychodynamics. Ironically, it is this ineluctable failure of his life as a whole that endows him with a feeling of self-control: he is the one who brings about his own demise, inexorably, but knowingly.
by Sam Vaknin, PhD, the excellent Author of “Malignant Self-love: Narcissism Revisited.”