What is narcissistic supply?
The concept of “narcissistic supply” was first introduced to the field of psychoanalytic theory by Otto Fenichel in 1938. The term defines the admiration that narcissists need to keep their self-esteem intact. They need to take this supply of approval from the people in their environment so that their false face can survive.
Narcissists require admiration, and if they don’t get it, they may react with rage, ridicule, mockery, or by humiliating their target. Narcissists are arrogant, and proud, and view others as insignificant or as competitors to conquer. They feel entitled and expect special treatment.
Methods for obtaining supply
Overt narcissists (arrogant, loud, and insensitive to the needs of others, lack empathy, always looking for compliments) attract attention to themselves directly by over-dressing, dressing provocatively, talking too loudly, wearing attention-getting makeup, hairstyles, or accessories, or driving conspicuous vehicles.
Covert narcissists (crave admiration and importance, and lack empathy, but are less “obvious,” and harder to spot as a narcissist) get their supply mainly from being rescued or emotionally care-taken, and in the case of narcissistic mothers, by their children. Taking care of a covert narcissist’s needs will be number one on their priority list. If you question them, they’ll assume you’re challenging them, and will become defensive, maybe violent. Narcissists don’t respect your boundaries or your privacy. For example, a narcissist would be totally at ease going into your personal space, looking in your purse, reading your journal, listening to your phone conversations, reading private mail and documents, and sharing your personal and private information with others. (Because of this, you’d feel a sense of shame in multiple areas, but you won’t realize that these behaviors are it’s source.)
A narcissist likes knowing we are hurt when they use the “silent treatment” to actively ignore us, as a form of power and control. Our pain demonstrates that they are so powerful they can devastate us whenever they choose. Our pain is their narcissistic supply.
Remember, narcissists don’t view people as unique individuals with their own needs, feelings, goals, or lives. To narcissists, people are simply props who play a supporting role in their lives. A narcissist’s only concern is what they can get from others or what others can do for them. They have difficulty emotionally bonding with others because their relationships are all about power, control, and the benefits that they can obtain from them.
A narcissist cannot survive as a narcissist without narcissistic supply. It’s their emotional food; any form of attention, affirmation, approval, or admiration they get will suffice. They feel a sense of power and importance from any emotional reaction. Any emotion—fear, sadness, anger, shame, whatever—will do, because it feeds their “false self” (everything the narcissist would like to be, but is not) and makes it stronger.
Why do they need supply?
Securing narcissistic supply keeps a narcissist’s false self working in an automatic cycle: project the false self, receive the supply, empower and strengthen the false self, repeat.
The cycle repeats itself because it provides feelings of power, control, and importance. Narcissists thrive on these, feeling formidable, even omnipotent after getting supply. This leads to a “narcissistic high,” which potentially makes them more dangerous. You won’t be permitted to share your thoughts or feelings when your narcissist is on a high. They won’t take any challenge lightly and will go for your jugular to prove their supremacy. They’re not interested in what you have to say or how you feel. It’s all about them.
After going through this cycle with a narcissist a few times, we get it. We understand that they’re more powerful than we are—that it’s always about “winning,” and they’ll be delighted to win at our expense. In their mind, they’re always right, and there’s no use trying to have a conversation or share an opinion because they’ll become combative. Eventually, we’ll likely end up feeling defeated, unloved, and insignificant. We’ll learn to walk on eggshells and to appease, please, and pacify. We’ll anticipate their needs and moods and act accordingly. Do you remember what that’s called? Yep! Codependency.
A narcissist usually reveals their true self during a time of crisis, conflict, or high stress. When they’re pressured, and it’s hard for them to control their emotions, their lack of empathy is exposed. When they feel threatened, they go for the “win” at any cost, even if it threatens important relationships. What’s said or done won’t matter. Winning matters. High-pressure situations show how shallow their emotional connections are. Our shame, humiliation, and embarrassment are their narcissistic supply.
How to deny them any supply
A tool that I use when it comes to denying a narcissist their supply, alongside (loving) detachment, is responding calmly then shutting up.
“Not responding”(aka “shutting up,” or “not taking the bait”) works because it removes the possibility of giving emotional feedback and responses. Emotionally responding is a form of “narcissistic supply.” Giving a narcissist any amount of emotional response validates and affirms their perspective and behavior. They thrive on any and all interaction and attention, especially when you become emotionally unhinged during the interaction. Narcissistic supply makes a narcissist a stronger narcissist.
If my narcissistic mother (or anyone) pushes my buttons in an attempt to trigger an emotional response from me, I do not take the bait, I do not pick up the proffered tug-of-war rope, and my mouth remains shut. I deny them any narcissistic supply. I do this consistently and repeatedly because it indicates that I’m OK with whatever they think or do. I will not react. (This takes PRACTICE! Take advantage of any opportunity they give you to practice this. It helps YOU!) The reaction is what they’re looking for, hoping for, waiting for. The reaction is their narcissistic supply.
As I said earlier, not engaging, not defending, not arguing back, requires mindfulness and practice, and it’s worth the time and effort to learn how to do this. Knowing how to control your responses, also known as “regulating your emotions” is also part of the process for learning how to “lovingly detach” and also to maintain your boundaries.
As you may know, having a conversation with a narcissist feels like a game of emotional tug-of-war. When you drop your end of the rope, the game stops. It can’t continue unless you pick up your end and start pulling again. So, stop playing the game! You don’t have to explain that you’re no longer playing or why. Your actions speak loud and clear: when you drop the rope, you’re demonstrating that they have no more control over you. Dropping the rope is an aspect of loving detachment, enforcing a boundary, and demonstrating self-empowerment and self-love. If you haven’t tried it, I can tell you from experience that it’s very empowering.
Detaching with love (versus “angry” or “middle-finger” detaching) and not giving emotional supply to a narcissist means that I simply listen. I don’t rush in to fix problems or rescue them from the consequences of their choices or actions. If we disagree, I don’t argue or try to change their mind; I state my opinion, and I accept that they are entitled to have their own opinion. We don’t have to agree. I don’t steal their personal power, and I leave them the dignity to deal with their own problems and consequences. If they instigate, I don’t pick up the tug-of-war rope; instead, I might end our conversation. All of this means that I emotionally disconnect when they’re baiting or instigating and trying to get a reaction from me.
Be a rock… a gray rock
“Gray Rock” is a term coined in 2012 by Skylar, a blogger who wrote the article, “The Gray Rock Method of Dealing with Psychopaths” (2018).
If you’ve never tried the “Gray Rock” method, you’re missing out on a really effective tool.
Gray Rock is a technique that causes emotionally unbalanced people to lose interest in you. The method completely removes any emotional charge or drama from your interaction with them. When you use Gray Rock, it removes all narcissistic supply.
To use the Gray Rock method:
- Appear calm, even if you’re not.
- Maintain eye contact. Do not look down or away.
- Use the following responses when applicable:
- I’m sorry you feel that way.
- I welcome your opinion, but I feel good about my choice.
- I have no right to try to control how you see me.
- I accept how you see me.
- I accept how you feel.
- You’re entitled to your reality.
- Your anger is not my responsibility.
- It’s possible. I guess it could be true.
- I’d like to continue this discussion, but it seems that we don’t share the same perspective. Maybe when you’re calm, we can resume this conversation in a mutually respectful way. (This is an example of enforcing a boundary as well.)
In a nutshell
These three approaches focus on letting the narcissist run their own life and solve their own problems while you take care of yours, your life and yourself. Learn to let go of the desire to control the narcissist and the outcomes of your interactions with them. Focus on the next best thing for you.
Start taking these steps today to deny your narcissist their emotional food. When they realize that you are no longer a satisfying source of supply, they’ll look for it elsewhere.
Try using your new tools as soon as possible:
- loving detachment
- not responding, not engaging, not picking up your end of the tug-of-war rope
- the Gray Rock technique
You’ll begin to experience a new type of freedom that’s hard to describe!
More tools for healing:
Conscious awareness: Be aware and make conscious choices before acting. Self-awareness releases us from making impulsive and potentially damaging decisions. Practice mindfulness.
Learn about setting boundaries
Learn about dysfunctional family roles
Understand Trauma Bonds
Learn about codependency and maladaptive coping skills
Understand the Narcissistic Abuse Cycle
Learn about expectations
More resources to guide you in healing from childhood trauma, abuse, or neglect. Available on Amazon and wherever books are sold. (ebook, audiobook, hardcover, and paperback.)
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About the author
As a result of growing up in a dysfunctional home, and with the help of professional therapists and continued personal growth, Diane Metcalf has developed strong coping skills and healing strategies. She happily shares those insights with others who want to learn.
Her books and articles are the result of her education, knowledge, personal growth, and insight regarding her childhood experiences and subsequent recovery work.
Diane holds a Master of Science degree in Information Technology and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology. She has worked in numerous fields including domestic violence and abuse and is an experienced advocate, speaker, and writer about family dysfunction. Currently, she writes about recovery from narcissistic victim syndrome and symptoms of C-PTSD on The Toolbox and has authored three books in the “Lemon Moms” series. Visit her author’s website here.
She is no longer a practicing Social Worker, Counselor, Program Manager, or Advocate.
This website is intended for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional therapy.