The Dual Role of the False Self
Why does the narcissist conjure up another Self? Why not simply transform his True Self into a False one?
Once formed and functioning, the False Self stifles the growth of the True Self and paralyses it. Henceforth, the True Self is virtually non-existent and plays no role (active or passive) in the conscious life of the narcissist. It is difficult to "resuscitate" it, even with psychotherapy.
This substitution is not only a question of alienation, as Horney observed. She said that because the Idealised (=False) Self sets impossible goals to the narcissist, the results are frustration and self hate which grow with every setback or failure. But the constant sadistic judgement, the self-berating, the suicidal ideation emanate from the narcissist's idealised, sadistic, Superego regardless of the existence or functioning of a False Self.
There is no conflict between the True Self and the False Self.
First, the True Self is much too weak to do battle with the overbearing False. Second, the False Self is adaptive (though maladaptive). It helps the True Self to cope with the world. Without the False Self, the True Self would be subjected to so much hurt that it will disintegrate. This happens to narcissists who go through a life crisis: their False Ego becomes dysfunctional and they experience a harrowing feeling of annulment.
The False Self has many functions. The two most important are:
- It serves as a decoy, it "attracts the fire". It is a proxy for the True Self. It is tough as nails and can absorb any amount of pain, hurt and negative emotions. By inventing it, the child develops immunity to the indifference, manipulation, sadism, smothering, or exploitation - in short: to the abuse - inflicted on him by his parents (or by other Primary Objects in his life). It is a cloak, protecting him, rendering him invisible and omnipotent at the same time.
- The False Self is misrepresented by the narcissist as his True Self. The narcissist is saying, in effect: "I am not who you think I am. I am someone else. I am this (False) Self. Therefore, I deserve a better, painless, more considerate treatment." The False Self, thus, is a contraption intended to alter other people's behaviour and attitude towards the narcissist.
These roles are crucial to survival and to the proper psychological functioning of the narcissist. The False Self is by far more important to the narcissist than his dilapidated, dysfunctional, True Self.
The two Selves are not part of a continuum, as the neo-Freudians postulated. Healthy people do not have a False Self which differs from its pathological equivalent in that it is more realistic and closer to the True Self.
It is true that even healthy people have a mask [Guffman], or a persona [Jung] which they consciously present to the world. But these are a far cry from the False Self, which is mostly subconscious, depends on outside feedback, and is compulsive.
The False Self is an adaptive reaction to pathological circumstances. But its dynamics make it predominate, devour the psyche and prey upon both the True Self. Thus, it prevents the efficient, flexible functioning of the personality as a whole.
That the narcissist possesses a prominent False Self as well as a suppressed and dilapidated True Self is common knowledge. Yet, how intertwined and inseparable are these two? Do they interact? How do they influence each other? And what behaviours can be attributed squarely to one or the other of these protagonists? Moreover, does the False Self assume traits and attributes of the True Self in order to deceive the world?
Let's start by referring to an oft-occurring question:
Why are narcissists not prone to suicide?
The simple answer is that they died a long time ago. Narcissists are the true zombies of the world.
Many scholars and therapists tried to grapple with the void at the core of the narcissist. The common view is that the remnants of the True Self are so ossified, shredded, cowed into submission and repressed - that, for all practical purposes, the True Self is dysfunctional and useless. In treating the narcissist, the therapist often tries to construct and nurture a completely new healthy self, rather than build upon the distorted wreckage strewn across the narcissist's psyche.
But what of the rare glimpses of True Self oft reported by those who interact with the narcissist?
Pathological narcissism is frequently comorbid with other disorders. The narcissistic spectrum is made up of gradations and shades of narcissism. Narcissistic traits or style or even personality (overlay) often attach to other disorders (co-morbidity). A person may well appear to be a full-fledged narcissist - may well appear to be suffering from the Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) - but is not, in the strict, psychiatric, sense of the word. In such people, the True Self is still there and is sometimes observable.
In a full-fledged narcissist, the False Self imitates the True Self.
To do so artfully, it deploys two mechanisms:
It causes the narcissist to re-interpret certain emotions and reactions in a flattering, socially acceptable, light. The narcissist may, for instance, interpret fear as compassion. If the narcissist hurts someone he fears (e.g., an authority figure), he may feel bad afterwards and interpret his discomfort as empathy and compassion. To be afraid is humiliating - to be compassionate is commendable and earns the narcissist social commendation and understanding (narcissistic supply).
The narcissist is possessed of an uncanny ability to psychologically penetrate others. Often, this gift is abused and put at the service of the narcissist's control freakery and sadism. The narcissist uses it liberally to annihilate the natural defences of his victims by faking empathy.
This capacity is coupled with the narcissist's eerie ability to imitate emotions and their attendant behaviours (affect). The narcissist possesses "emotional resonance tables". He keeps records of every action and reaction, every utterance and consequence, every datum provided by others regarding their state of mind and emotional make-up. From these, he then constructs a set of formulas, which often result in impeccably accurate renditions of emotional behaviour. This can be enormously deceiving
Last Updated: 04 July 2018
Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD