Although narcissists would never admit it, they are by nature dependent on other people for their emotional survival. If they were loners, many lives would be spared immeasurable misery. But the narcissist actively, persistently pursues others to obtain “narcissistic supply,” or the attention, status, and reassurance s/he needs for emotional survival. The narcissist as human parasite takes a heavy emotional and physiological toll on her/his supplier “hosts.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines a parasite as follows:
“A parasite is an organism that lives on or in a host and gets its food from or at the expense of its host. Parasites can cause disease in humans.”
Parasitism isn’t just about “feeding,” however. Scientists have uncovered many parasite-host relationships in which the parasite actually alters the brain and behavior of its host to make it assist in fulfilling vital parts of the parasite’s life cycle. A certain type of tiny wasp, for example, injects its egg along with chemicals into a ladybug. The egg hatches and consumes the nutrients that the ladybug ingests when it eats, essentially devouring the ladybug from the inside out. When the wasp larva is big enough, it squirms out of the ladybug and wraps itself in a cocoon beneath it. Immobilized and half dead, the ladybug is still programmed in essence to protect the larva by thrashing its body around if threatening insects approach. Once the larva-turned-wasp hatches from its cocoon and flies away, the ladybug typically dies.
Understanding narcissism through the lens of parasitism explains the narcissist’s reliance on others as a means of supply. Individuals with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) suffer from a destabilized identity and sense of inferiority rooted in childhood attachment disruptions. Narcissists attempt to adapt by projecting a superior persona. But they are always seeking the validation they did not receive at crucial developmental stages. Their incomplete sense of being compels them to seek identity and self-worth externally, either by aligning with high-status people/things or by devaluing and dissociating from those who either threaten their false persona or who somehow in their eyes lower their status.
Like most parasites, narcissists rarely kill their hosts (although malignant ones may subject them to extreme violence). But like the mind-altering variety of parasite, the narcissist works to control the “brains” of her/his suppliers through a wide range of manipulations, from bullying to projecting, denying to gaslighting, guilt-tripping to silent-treatment. The narcissist continuously orchestrates the “reality” around her/him by enlisting others in supporting her/his delusions of grandeur and punishing and/or rejecting them if they do not comply. To the narcissist, her/his spouse questioning an opinion s/he has declared as patented truth or her/his child not making the soccer team are potential humiliations, to which s/he may react with scorn or rage. In the parasitic narcissist’s eyes, both situations weaken the desirability of sources of supply, and thereby threaten her/his sense of well-being.
Narcissists have an instinct for finding and attaching themselves to potential hosts. Such people in some way offer narcissists status while also enabling their harshly self-serving world-view and behavior.
A host may confer status to the narcissist in many ways, including by being well-liked, good looking, wealthy, famous, or professionally accomplished. The host also enables the narcissist by directly or indirectly being complicit in the narcissist’s distorted reality and abusive behavior to protect her/his false face. In this sense, the enabling host is like the mind-altered ladybug, serving the needs of the narcissist, often at its own expense.
Are you functioning as a kind of host for a narcissist? Here are some ways to tell if you’re in a relationship with one: