We refer to self-absorbed people by different names—narcissistic, egocentric, self-serving, vain, self-indulgent, or conceited. Such people have additional traits that, when taken together, form a distinct personality style. Personality comprises your enduring ways of thinking, behaving, and displaying emotions.
In studying egocentric people for forty years, Homer B. Martin, M.D. and I discovered details of their unique ways of thinking, behaving, and emoting that make up their personalities. We discovered they go through their lives believing unconsciously they are inert and helpless. In our book, Living on Automatic, we refer to this as the “impotent personality.”
We use the word impotent to mean helpless, ineffective, weak, lacking in vigor, and unable to take effective action. We discovered that characteristics of the impotent personality include being demanding, capricious, irresponsible, arrogant, whimsical, and insatiable. Such people have inflated self-worth. They blame others for their own deficiencies and have tunnel vision. Their commitment to relationships is conditional, not steadfast.
What is the core difficulty in the personalities of the self-absorbed? What is the source of this difficulty? Let’s take a look.
Creating the Impotent Personality
When we examined the childhoods of people with impotent personalities, we found that unconscious training, emotional conditioning, teaches the child to be inert. Parents teach these children to expect a lot of assistance from others. Parents overindulge them in various ways. Parents believe the child is incapable and fragile. They baby them, feeding and dressing them far longer than necessary. Parents do not set limits or establish expectations for personal accomplishments––brushing teeth, doing homework or chores, abiding by rules, doing well in school, and sharing with others. When these children fuss or cry someone immediately attends to them until they are pacified.
These children make emotional and behavioral associations from how parents behave with them. Within a few years, they are emotionally conditioned. Whenever they desire something, they get it. Parents fulfill every request. They emotionally condition their children so that the children expect the job of fulfilling their desires will be done by other people, not by themselves. The children’s only part of the scenario is to cry, ask, or demand. This emotional conditioning process is similar to how you train your dog to sit, roll over, or beg. It is associational learning.
Move forward in time to adulthood and we see the outcome of this childhood emotional conditioning. It causes impotent personalities with the following attributes. I’ll describe each and describe how it relates to the core difficulty of helplessness.
Demands for Emotional Support. Impotent personalities demand that others fulfill their desires. This is the only way they are not helpless. They easily raise a ruckus, throw tantrums, threaten, and may become violent. Others work diligently to meet their requests and demands, while the impotent remains inert, doing little or nothing. When thwarted, impotent personalities demand more and do it louder. This way of engaging in relationships is the only way an impotent knows how to interact because it was the only way he was taught as a child.
Capricious Quality of Thought. Those with impotent personalities change their demands according to their whims. They want something and the next moment demand the opposite. They see no inconsistency in the new expectation. They justify capricious demands by saying, “I changed my mind. I want this now.” They had such whimsical behavior accommodated in childhood. It becomes a part of their impotently-conditioned role and their helplessness. They believe they are incapable of being steadfast or sticking with one idea or one desire.
Irresponsible Actions. A person can remain helpless and inert when others take responsibility for getting things done. Impotent personalities can easily be irresponsible because they shift responsibility for getting things done to others.
Arrogant Attitude. Impotent personalities assume a haughtiness in their demeanor. This can be traced to their incessantly being catered to as children. They are also catered to in adult life. When they expect and demand others do what they want, they act imperious and arrogant. They come to believe they are worshipped and adored because they were as babies and children.
Standard of Seeking the Path of Least Resistance. Since impotents expect little of themselves and a lot from others, they put out minimal effort. They look for the easiest ways to maneuver if they cannot get others to take care of something for them. They will put out minimal effort. They follow the easiest route.
Value System of Inflated Self-Worth. If parents overly adore you in childhood and rush to fulfill your every desire so you don’t have to lift a finger, you will soon have an exaggerated sense of who you are. You will come to see yourself as overly-valued even though you put out no effort on your own behalf. This inflates your concept of yourself, even if you have done nothing of real substance or merit.
Insatiable Demands for Emotional Support. Impotent personalities are conditioned by interactions where they get lots of attention. They naturally expect more and more attention as it is their only known way of interacting with other people. This makes them insatiable for craving attention and maintaining the status quo they expect. They feel helpless, especially when they are thwarted. At these times they become angry and demand more. It is the only tool they’ve acquired.
Tunnel Vision Scope of Interest. We discovered impotent personalities fixate only on activities or thoughts that interest them. They do not have wide-ranging interests. Nor do they want to pay attention to activities that broaden their horizons. They focus only on personal delights in a job, at home, or in a hobby.
Projections of Blaming Others. Feeling inert and inept, when something goes amiss from what impotent personalities desire, they blame others. They do not see themselves as having powerful personal agency. What is uppermost in their thoughts is expecting that others will take the reins and make things happen. If others do not do this or displease them, then others are to blame. It is a projection of impotents’ own deficiencies and inability to accept responsibility for themselves and their actions.
Enjoys Being Dependent. When I work in therapy with people who have impotent personalities, we focus on their self-centric view in relationships that handicaps them from giving care to others. This is a knotty problem because of their emotional conditioning. They see themselves as needing all the care in the relationship.
They describe a feeling of hitting a brick wall with the thought of supporting a spouse, child or friend. When emotional conditioning results in an inability to give care to those they love, impotents are incapacitated, both at home and at work.
In psychotherapy we work together on deconditioning them by making them aware of a part of life they never knew existed––other people’s viewpoints and needs.
Conditional Way of Committing in Relationships. When you displease an impotent personality, the impotent will abruptly end the relationship. They do this even with slight disappointments. Impotent personalities are accustomed to receiving gratification. When they are not gratified, they want to discard the person who thwarted them. They cannot cope with discomfort or disappointment.
Whimsical Conscience. Impotent personalities lack a fixed, unwavering conscience of what is right and wrong. They determine right and wrong in a fluid way, depending on what they think or feel at the moment. Often, something they desire is right. Something they don’t want is wrong. But they have no consistent rule they abide by. Conscience fluctuates depending on their latest whim.
When we see these traits together, we get a complete picture of a person with an impotent personality. We also appreciate how the emotional conditioning in childhood to be inert and helpless programs a child to live a repetitive and automatic life of not tackling life’s problems and instead expecting others to do for them.