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The 3 Main Motivations of Narcissists

The Little Shaman is a spiritual coach & specialist in cluster B personality disorders, with a popular YouTube show and clients worldwide.


The behavior of narcissistic people can be very confusing. This is often because it can be very hard to figure out why they are doing things. When asked, their stories often make no sense at all. They may give reasons that blame others, that seem to confuse cause and effect, that misrepresent the order of events or just plain make no sense. Part of this is because many narcissists don't want to reveal their true motivations; they fear showing vulnerability or how their true motivations will make them look to others. It can also be because they are often so disconnected from themselves internally and so lacking in insight that they don't really know why they are doing something. They just do what they think they need to, or want to do in that specific moment. They may truly not realize why and most don't understand or care about long-term consequences. It doesn't matter if it will hurt them later. What matters is now.

This is because pathologically narcissistic people are in survival mode, as we've discussed in other episodes of the show. When someone is in survival mode, they cannot worry about what will happen tomorrow. They are too worried about getting through today. This is probably the number one motivation of narcissistic people: survival. All other motivations seem to spring from this one.

All of their behaviors center around this one thing. You may hear people say the motivations of narcissistic people are power and control, and that's true. But why? Why do they believe they need power and control? It's easy to stop it there and say, "That's the end," and in practical terms, that's all you need to know to decide whether you want someone in your life or not. However, it is not the end of the story as far as understanding goes. Desiring power and control is not its own endgame, regardless of the mechanics of achieving it. No matter what, there is always the question of why. There is a reason this has become such a powerful motivation in someone's life. The answer is survival.

Pathologically narcissistic people are dependent on others - literally. Because of their disordered functioning, they require the participation of other people in order to function as efficiently as they are able. When someone is dependent on others, those others have a lot of power and become very important. This is, for example, how relationships work with children. Children are dependent on their parents and other caregivers for survival. The caregivers are very important to the child because of this, and have total control over the relationship.

This is the situation narcissistic people are in as well. They resent and fear their perceived lack of power in the situation, because not having power means not being able to control others. That means not getting what you need, which equals a threat to survival. Seeking to control others facilitates their power over other people, which is really power over themselves and their continued survival. When you can control the things you need for survival, you have a better chance of surviving and feel less fear. Because you can't truly control other people, narcissistic people are in a continuous power struggle with others to bridge this gap and alleviate their anxiety over it.

This is why people must perform exactly according to the narcissistic person's wishes or they will be punished. When you assert identity, individuality or sovereignty that separates you from the narcissist, you are demonstrating that they do not control you. If they do not control you, you are a threat because you may not give them what they need. Then what are they supposed to do? They have no other way to get it. It is a survival strategy designed to essentially extort what they need from others because they have no idea how to meet their own needs, no skills with which to do so and either no ability or no desire to learn new ones.

Even in cases where the narcissist is truly sadistic and torturous, the motive is still usually fear. There is no one who fears weakness and helplessness more than an abuser.

Why do they desire to torture or be cruel?
To feel in control. To feel powerful.

Why do they desire to feel powerful?
Because they fear they are not. Those who are not in control have no power, and those with no power do not survive.

Despite their behavior, this is the mindset of a very young child who has no true control over themselves or their environment. They perceive others to be the ones with all the power and control over them, so they endeavor to take that back by exerting control over the other person or people. It's a system based on backwards reasoning that results in them actually reinforcing to themselves that they have no power, over and over again. This of course only makes the problem worse, not better, and creates a situation where they ultimately feel completely powerless in their own lives unless they play these power games with other people constantly - and win.

That is what you see with pathologically narcissistic persons: someone who is unable to feel in control and empowered in their own life unless they are degrading, berating or otherwise subjugating someone else. They believe others hold all the power and their lives are a constant struggle to take it, thereby ensuring their own survival. It's a devastating situation, both for them and anyone unlucky enough to be entangled with them in a pointless power struggle that can never be won by anyone and can therefore never end.

Understanding the motivations of narcissistic people can help you get "unstuck" and break the paralysis brought on by the confusion created by their often nonsensical behavior. It's easy to get stuck in a loop of trying to understand and trying to explain, never realizing that neither of these things will really help facilitate communication at all. They have one real goal, and if what you are saying or doing doesn't help further that goal, it's getting in the way of it. Therefore, they will either defend against, deflect, deny or destroy it - all in the fear and resulting entitled rage that their needs will not be met.

It can be easy to mistake the narcissist's motivating fear as something which can be addressed with demonstrations of love, security, kindness or other normal avenues of reassurance, but this is not "normal" fear. It is a deep, pathological insecurity centered around their own inability to perform basic survival functions or secure and address basic needs, wrapped in shame and obscured by denial coupled with cognitive distortions and skewed perception. We compare the mindset to children, and in many ways it is very much the same due to their arrested emotional development, but in other ways it is more like dealing with a machine that can only do one thing - at all costs and by any means necessary.