Someone once said that all of us are, at best, sincere hypocrites. The same could be said of narcissism, meaning that many of us are capable of exhibiting self-centeredness, lack of empathy for others, and a desire for power and control at times. However, the pathological narcissist is consistently devoted to self, devoid of compassion for others, and they extend their desire for power and control to the sheer joy of causing others pain. If this sounds familiar, or at least interesting, please read on.
Tangled in the Narcissist’s Tower
If you haven’t seen it, watching Disney’s Tangled is highly recommended. It’s a brilliant film and a notable study of what some psychologists call the narcissism spectrum. As you may recall, baby Rapunzel is kidnapped by Gothel from a kind king and queen who never give up hope for their daughter’s return. Gothel is a once-beautiful but now aging narcissist who restores her youth and beauty as long as she is exposed to Rapunzel’s healing long hair. Gothel is the archetype of the worst in deceptive, abusive, and even violent narcissism. She is ‘animated’ proof that levels of abuse rise as victims are lured up each of the five stories of the tower.
Who’s on First?
The first floor in the tower houses the passive narcissist. This person has no particular caustic or evil intent toward others. They are simply self-absorbed and are their own favorite topic of thought, conversation, and behavior. The good news about passive narcissists is that they only live on the first floor, making it more likely that they can escape the tower of self-centeredness. Typically, they are still accessible and involved in relationships. Rapunzel’s handsome self-centered beau is portrayed in the film as a ‘passive’ who is transformed by Rapunzel’s healthy self-confidence, assertiveness, and empathy. Her influence plays a role in his redemptive transformation to becoming an attentive, even sacrificing lover with a concern for something greater than himself.
What’s on Second?
The second floor in the narcissism tower is passive-aggressive. According to Nathan Greno who developed Tangled’s characters, “Mother Gothel can’t be mean. She has to be very passive-aggressive… Because, if you play an extremely dominant and cruel villain, that girl is going to become meek and downtrodden, with almost nothing of a person, with low self-esteem.” In fact, Gothel engages in passive-aggressive compliments, support and attention for the first eighteen years of Rapunzel’s life. She needs her daughter to be well because she relies on Rapunzel’s hair to retain her own youth.
Shahida Arabi, in her book, “Becoming the Narcissist’s Nightmare,” calls this love-bombing, the idealization phase. Narcissists use this phase to entice and trap their targets in the tower, to control them psychologically. Fortunately, for Rapunzel, between her good genes and Gothel’s mostly positive idealization, she is an emotionally healthy heroine with strength of character and even good work ethic.
We see evidence of Gothel’s passive-aggressive behaviors throughout most of the story. “Rapunzel you’re getting kind of chubby…. Oh, just kidding…. Don’t take me so seriously,” she says laughing. Rapunzel’s mother uses passive-aggressive “gaslighting” to convince her daughter of a co-dependent lie in the song “Mother Knows Best.” Gaslighting is the manipulation and brainwashing of a victim, causing self-doubt, a grip on reality and even identity. The term “Gaslighting” comes from the 1944 film by the same title in which a husband manipulates, devalues, and controls his wife. In the Rapunzel story, Gothel’s song is intended to “gaslight” her daughter into being co-dependent on her for safety in the tower by painting a terrifying word-picture of the outside world. For 18 years, Gothel is successful in keeping her daughter in the tower. After all, “mother knows best.”
Don’t Know What’s on Third? The Stairway to Hell
Upon entering the third floor of the tower is the aggressive narcissist. Aggressive narcissists typically engage in direct verbal emotional abuse and sometimes the threat of physical abuse. This is what some call “the sucker punch.” You don’t know when it’s coming but you know that it is coming. The anticipated fear factor keeps the recipient “walking on eggshells” and under the control of the narcissist on the third floor (Mason and Kreger, 2010). We see the first evidence of aggression when Rapunzel presses her mother to allow her out of the tower.
Gothel’s response, “Don’t ever ask me about leaving the tower again.” Rapunzel resigns with, “Yes, Mother.” Gothel’s statement is the first explicit sign of aggression, domination, and revelation of her mother’s true narcissistic self – the beginning of the devaluation stage (Arabi, 2016). In the case of Rapunzel, this phase is short because of her strong self-esteem and because Gothel is co-dependent on her. Ironically, it is Gothel’s need for her daughter’s hair that ultimately saves Rapunzel.
For most aggressive narcissists, the goal is to devalue the target with abuse and contempt while inserting occasional apologies and love-bombings just to keep the “relationship” going. Certainly, in parent-child relationships, marriages, and employment situations, this devaluation stage can last for years. Some targets eventually find the courage to escape the tower. However, they may also be “hoovered” (like the vacuum cleaner), pulling the victim back in if they feel the victim is trying to exit the tower (Mouton-Sarkis, 2018).
They may “stonewall”, ignore or withdraw from the victim. The narcissist’s intent for stonewalling is to draw the co-dependent target’s attention and cause them to pursue the narcissist. While some targets remain in abusive relationships, others may be discarded by the narcissist, when no longer considered useful. The callous discard can cause the target to suffer anxiety, depression and even suicidal ideation or suicide.
Next, we will look at stories four and five of the tower – the raging narcissistic abuser (RNA) and the serial narcissistic abuser (SNA). As we climb the hellish stairway through the pathology of narcissism in Parts One and Two, it is good to know that Parts Three through Five, take us back to a healthy zone where it “doesn’t get any better.”