Aging itself can bring about a withering, if not bursting, of the narcissistic bubble. You’re no longer a fresh young thing and are starting to develop wrinkles, bags, sags, or a gray or bald head. Your clothes don’t fit the same way they did before, and you find you can no longer squeeze into your favorite skinny jeans, no matter what you do. Then there’s the inevitable “ma’am” or “sir” that the barista uses in referring to you (yes you, not the person behind you).
The factors that cause the narcissistic bubble to retreat and burst were addressed in an astute article by Eda Goldstein in 1995. Goldstein described what happens somewhere in the middle years when narcissists come to grips with their own failings, exposing their weaknesses to themselves. They can become both enraged and ashamed.
As she noted, there are dangers associated with the sudden coming to grips with reality that can put the individual’s life into a wild tailspin:
“Believing that they should be able to control life and be strong and self-sufficient, individuals with severe narcissistic vulnerability do not allow for human limitations or the effects of life’s vicissitudes… indignation, bitterness, envy, disbelief, and humiliation are commonly expressed and may, in some extreme instances, result in vengeful acts of violence” (pp. 410-411)
The thicker the bubble, in other words, the more damage it leaves when it bursts.
There are ways to survive the sudden realization that you’re not really all that special and, in fact, have defects. Whether the bubble bursts in midlife, with its associated stresses, or at some other time, people who must come to grips with their limitations benefit by taking a page from the therapist’s playbook. Goldstein wrote about three cases of midlife individuals suffering from the bursting of their bubbles and noted the therapeutic strategies that seemed to work to get them through this period in their lives.