The Little Shaman is a spiritual coach & specialist in cluster B personality disorders, with a popular YouTube show and clients worldwide.
As many already know, pathologically narcissistic people have significant trouble with their identities. Often, their self-concept or idea of themselves is very unstable. It can swing wildly back and forth between extremes, and they may seem to change their personality based on who is around or what they are being influenced by. For example, a narcissistic person who is reading a series of books or watching a new show on TV may begin to act or speak like the main character in an attempt to imitate them. If they have a new circle of friends, they may very quickly adapt their likes, dislikes, interests and even speech patterns to reflect the likes, dislikes, interests and speech patterns of the people in the group - even if these things result in the narcissist becoming completely opposite of who they seemed to be before.
A person who seems to be a devout vegetarian among one circle of people may suddenly reverse themselves and start eating meat if they enter into a new group of friends. A person who championed civil rights and equality may suddenly begin using racist stereotypes and slurs if they start dating a person who holds these views. They may begin dressing differently, listening to different music or changing any number of things that we usually consider to be pretty consistent about personality.
This unstable, chameleon-like behavior is often frustrating and confusing for the narcissistic person's loved ones. They wonder if they ever really knew this person, or if they know them now. They may express their frustration or confusion to the narcissistic person, asking why they can't just be themselves, or what happened to the person they know. They may ask, "Who are you??" This is a very good question, and it's one that pathologically narcissistic people don't really have an answer to. If you feel like you don't really know this person anymore, you're not far off. The truth is, there is really no one to know. The person you believed you knew was more than likely no more genuine than the "new personality" you see now. Because they have such issues with self-concept and identity, narcissists often have no "real self." All you are likely seeing are the reflections and stolen pieces of other people - including you.
One of the most common things people in romantic relationships with narcissists say is, "In the beginning, I could not believe how alike we were! We believed all the same things! We agreed on everything!" Yes, you did. Because the narcissist was mirroring you. They were simply reflecting back to you what you were showing them. In return, you reflected approval and validation and positive things back to them. It's like holding a mirror up to another mirror, and all you see is an endless maze of reflections. They reflect back to you what you are putting out there so that you will reflect positive attention and approval back to them that they then attempt to turn into some semblance of self-worth.
This is essentially what some people call "narcissistic supply." Unfortunately, it is not true self-worth, because true self-worth does not rely on what other people think of you or how they react to you. True self-worth has nothing to do with other people. So because it is not actual self-worth, it doesn't stick. It doesn't last. It lasts as long as it takes for a negative thought about themselves to come into their mind and then they need more. Once what the person is reflecting back to the narcissist changes and is no longer quite so positive - or once the narcissist feels it does - the false sense of worth they were propping themselves up with evaporates. This is when you often see devaluation and even discard. Pathologically narcissistic people simply cannot handle this change in reflection; they can't face the reality of what they feel they are, and they believe they will be humliated and rejected. They believe they will be abandoned and they leave the situation first, in order to make sure that does not happen. Others may not leave but they abuse and punish the other person for the same reasons: they cannot handle the humiliation, rejection and abandonment they believe will occur when they are no longer seen as perfect.
Narcissistic people need to mirror others because they have no true sense of self. If they have nothing to mirror, they are often lost. They often have extreme difficulty reading other people's emotions and their own, so they really have nothing they can use as a reference point. When left to their own devices, they may misread other people's emotions very badly, projecting and inferring all manner of emotional states onto other people that have nothing to do with reality or anything that has actually happened. They also seem to have trouble understanding anything other than rudimentary emotion. These would be emotions such as fear, anger, sadness... When asked how others may be feeling, the answers are often very general and non-specific, like the way a child would answer: bad, sad, mad, happy. It is usually the same when they are asked how they feel. They may have no insight into how they truly feel or why they feel that way.
Pathologically narcissistic people may sometimes use language that indicates they have a more complex emotional understanding, but when asked to describe or define these things, they are often unable to do so. As with so many other things they say, it's as if they heard it somewhere in the same context and are simply using it without understanding what it means. And they may very well be doing exactly that. If pressed, they may even look the word up and simply repeat the definition as it is written. When asked to translate the definition into their own words, again, they are often unable to do so. They are simply mirroring the language they have heard other people use in similar situations.
Children learn by mirroring adults. Through the fullness of time, with appropriate caregiver modeling and the development of insight, among other key components of self-reflection, they learn why they are doing the things they are doing, why they are feeling the things they are feeling. It seems that, for whatever reason, pathologically narcissistic individuals have been unable to do that. They are stuck simply mirroring to try and survive because without information reflected from others to use as a guidepost, things become very difficult for narcissistic people. This is one of the reasons that the grey rock method can defuse narcissistic rage. It's also one of the reasons it can provoke it. When you employ the grey rock method, you don't react. You don't reflect anything back to them. Therefore you give the narcissistic person nothing to go on.
There was a study done recently about how narcissists feel stress where narcissistic people were told they were going to give a presentation to a group of human behavior experts. The people in the audience were not human behavior experts, they were part of the experiment, and they were specifically told not to reflect anything back to the speaker, either positive or negative. With nothing to feed off of or mirror, the narcissistic people giving the presentations became very stressed out, much more so than non-narcissistic people who were in the same situation. The end result of the experiment showed that narcissistic people can experience stress much more powerfully than those who are not narcissistic, but the source of the stress is very important to the topic we are discussing now. With no one to reflect anything back to them, they experienced serious discomfort. Since studies have also shown that people with high narcissism have much greater difficulty assessing both their own and other people's emotions, not reflecting anything to them at all leaves them with nowhere to go.
This is why when you ask them an open-ended question or give them a choice and they are given no clues to what the "right thing" might be, they often cannot answer. They may avoid the question, deflect, invoke sarcasm or otherwise dodge answering completely. You have asked an empty shell to make a decision or answer, and with nothing to use to guide themselves, they cannot do so.
Who am I?
What makes me, me?
Where am I coming from?
Why did I do that?
How do I feel?
These are all questions that pathologically narcissistic people may have nothing but the most basic answers for. Many may have no answers at all. They are simply existing in a world they cannot emotionally navigate, trying to get their needs met and make it through life minute by minute without falling apart. If you are in any type of relationship with a narcissistic person, whether they are your spouse, your child, your parent, your sibling... remember that your function in this relationship is to provide whatever reflection they can turn into fleeting self-worth and personality traits they can mimic. That's it. You are the mirror they are standing in front of, alternately admiring themselves, hating themselves, preening, frowning, pouting, smiling, raging, crying, laughing, posing... There really is no more to it than that.