The Soul of a Narcissist: The State of the Art
Book Excerpts Index
Malignant Self Love - Narcissism Revisited
- Introduction: The Soul of a Narcissist, The State of the Art
- Chapter 1: Being Special
- Chapter 2: Uniqueness and Intimacy
- Chapter 3: The Workings of a Narcissist a Phenomenology
- Chapter 4: The Tortured Self The Inner World of the Narcissist
- Chapter 5: The Narcissist and the Opposite Sex
- Chapter 6: The Concept of Narcissistic Supply
- Chapter 7: The Concepts of Narcissistic Accumulation and Narcissistic Regulation
- Chapter 8: The Emotional Involvement Preventive Measures
- Chapter 9: Grandiose Loss of Control
The Essay and some of the chapters contain professional terms.
We all love ourselves. That seems to be such an instinctively true statement that we do not bother to examine it more thoroughly. In our daily lives - in love, in business, in other areas of life - we act on this premise. Yet, upon closer inspection, it looks shakier.
Some people explicitly state that they do not love themselves at all. Others confine their lack of self-love to certain traits, to their personal history, or to some of their behaviour patterns. Yet others feel content with who they are and with what they are doing.
But one group of people seems distinct in its mental constitution - narcissists.
According to the legend of Narcissus, this Greek boy fell in love with his own reflection in a pond. Presumably, this amply sums up the nature of his namesakes: narcissists. The mythological Narcissus was rejected by the nymph Echo and was punished by Nemesis, Consigned to pine away as he fell in love with his own reflection. How apt. Narcissists are punished by echoes and reflections of their problematic personalities up to this very day.
They are said to be in love with themselves.
But this is a fallacy. Narcissus is not in love with HIMSELF. He is in love with his REFLECTION.
There is a major difference between True Self and reflected-self.
Loving your True Self is a healthy, adaptive and functional quality.
Loving a reflection has two major drawbacks.
One depends on the existence and availability of the reflection to produce the emotion of self-love.
The absence of a "compass", an "objective and realistic yardstick", by which to judge the authenticity of the reflection. In other words, it is impossible to tell whether the reflection is true to reality - and, if so, to what extent.
The popular misconception is that narcissists love themselves. In reality, they direct their love to other people's impressions of them. He who loves only impressions is incapable of loving people, himself included.
But the narcissist does possess the in-bred desire to love and to be loved. If he cannot love himself - he must love his reflection. But to love his reflection - it must be loveable. Thus, driven by the insatiable urge to love (which we all possess), the narcissist is preoccupied with projecting a loveable image, albeit compatible with his self-image (the way he "sees" himself).
The narcissist maintains this projected image and invests resources and energy in it, sometimes depleting him to the point of rendering him vulnerable to external threats.
But the most important characteristic of the narcissist's projected image is its lovability.
To a narcissist, love is interchangeable with other emotions, such as awe, respect, admiration, attention, or even being feared (collectively known as Narcissistic Supply). Thus, to him, a projected image, which provokes these reactions in others, is both "loveable and loved". It also feels like self-love.
The more successful this projected image (or series of successive images) is in generating Narcissistic Supply (NS) - the more the narcissist becomes divorced from his True Self and married to the image.
I am not saying that the narcissist does not have a central nucleus of a "self". All I am saying is that he prefers his image - with which he identifies unreservedly - to his True Self. The True Self becomes serf to the Image. The narcissist, therefore, is not selfish - because his True Self is paralysed and subordinate.
The narcissist is not attuned exclusively to his needs. On the contrary: he ignores them because many of them conflict with his ostensible omnipotence and omniscience. He does not put himself first - he puts his self last. He caters to the needs and wishes of everyone around him - because he craves their love and admiration. It is through their reactions that he acquires a sense of distinct self. In many ways he annuls himself - only to re-invent himself through the look of others. He is the person most insensitive to his true needs.
The narcissist drains himself of mental energy in this process. This is why he has none left to dedicate to others. This fact, as well as his inability to love human beings in their many dimensions and facets, ultimately transform him into a recluse. His soul is fortified and in the solace of this fortification he guards its territory jealously and fiercely. He protects what he perceives to constitute his independence.
Why should people indulge the narcissist? And what is the "evolutionary", survival value of preferring one kind of love (directed at an image) to another (directed at one's self)?
These questions torment the narcissist. His convoluted mind comes up with the most elaborate contraptions in lieu of answers.
Why should people indulge the narcissist, divert time and energy, give him attention, love and adulation? The narcissist's answer is simple: because he is entitled to it. He feels that he deserves whatever he succeeds to extract from others and much more. Actually, he feels betrayed, discriminated against and underprivileged because he believes that he is not being treated fairly, that he should get more than he does.
There is a discrepancy between his infinite certainty that his is a special status which renders him worthy of recurrent praise and adoration, replete with special benefits and prerogatives - and the actual state of his affairs. To the narcissist, this status of uniqueness is bestowed upon him not by virtue of his achievements, but merely because he exists.
The narcissist's deems his mere existence as sufficiently unique to warrant the kind of treatment that he expects to get from the world. Herein lies a paradox, which haunts the narcissist: he derives his sense of uniqueness from the very fact that he exists and he derives his sense of existence from his belief that he is unique.
Clinical data show that there is rarely any realistic basis for these grandiose notions of greatness and uniqueness.
Some narcissists are high achievers with proven track records. Some of them are pillars of their communities. Mostly, they are dynamic and successful. Still, they are ridiculously pompous and inflated personalities, bordering on the farcical and provoking resentment.
The narcissist is forced to use other people in order to feel that he exists. It is trough their eyes and through their behaviour that he obtains proof of his uniqueness and grandeur. He is a habitual "people-junkie". With time, he comes to regard those around him as mere instruments of gratification, as two-dimensional cartoon figures with negligible lines in the script of his magnificent life.
He becomes unscrupulous, never bothered by the constant exploitation of his milieu, indifferent to the consequences of his actions, the damage and the pain that he inflicts on others and even the social condemnation and sanctions that he often has to endure.
When a person persists in a dysfunctional, maladaptive or plain useless behaviour despite grave repercussions to himself and to others, we say that his acts are compulsive. The narcissist is compulsive in his pursuit of Narcissistic Supply. This linkage between narcissism and obsessive-compulsive disorders sheds light on the mechanisms of the narcissistic psyche.
The narcissist does not suffer from a faulty sense of causation. He is not oblivious to the likely outcomes of his actions and to the price he may have to pay. But he doesn't care.
A personality whose very existence is a derivative of its reflection in other people's minds is perilously dependent on these people's perceptions. They are the Source of Narcissistic Supply (NSS). Criticism and disapproval are interpreted as a sadistic withholding of said supply and as a direct threat to the narcissist's mental house of cards.
The narcissist lives in a world of all or nothing, of a constant "to be or not be". Every discussion that he holds, every glance of every passer-by reaffirms his existence or casts it in doubt. This is why the reactions of the narcissist seem so disproportionate: he reacts to what he perceives to be a danger to the very cohesion of his self. Thus, every minor disagreement with a Source of Narcissistic Supply - another person - is interpreted as a threat to the narcissist's very self-worth.
This is such a crucial matter, that the narcissist cannot take chances. He would rather be mistaken then remain without Narcissistic Supply. He would rather discern disapproval and unjustified criticism where there are none then face the consequences of being caught off-guard.
The narcissist has to condition his human environment to refrain from expressing criticism and disapproval of him or of his actions and decisions. He has to teach people around him that these provoke him into frightful fits of temper and rage attacks and turn him into a constantly cantankerous and irascible person. His exaggerated reactions constitute a punishment for their inconsiderateness and their ignorance of his true psychological state.
The narcissist blames others for his behaviour, accuses them of provoking him into his temper tantrums and believes firmly that "they" should be punished for their "misbehaviour". Apologies - unless accompanied by verbal or other humiliation - are not enough. The fuel of the narcissist's rage is spent mainly on vitriolic verbal send-offs directed at the (often imaginary) perpetrator of the (oft innocuous) offence.
The narcissist - wittingly or not - utilises people to buttress his self-image and to regulate his sense of self-worth. As long and in as much as they are instrumental in achieving these goals, he holds them in high regard, they are valuable to him. He sees them only through this lens. This is a result of his inability to love others: he lacks empathy, he thinks utility, and, thus, he reduces others to mere instruments.
If they cease to "function", if, no matter how inadvertently, they cause him to doubt his illusory, half-baked, self-esteem - they are subjected to a reign of terror. The narcissist then proceeds to hurt these "insubordinates". He belittles and humiliates them. He displays aggression and violence in myriad forms. His behaviour metamorphoses, kaleidoscopically, from over-valuing (idealising) the useful person - to a severe devaluation of same. The narcissist abhors, almost physiologically, people judged by him to be "useless".
These rapid alterations between absolute overvaluation (idealisation) to complete devaluation make long-term interpersonal relationships with the narcissist all but impossible.
The more pathological form of narcissism - the Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) - was defined in successive versions of the American DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual published by the American Psychiatric Association) and the international ICD (Classification of Mental and Behavioural Disorders, published by the World Health Organisation). It is useful to scrutinise these geological layers of clinical observations and their interpretation.
In 1977 the DSM-III criteria included:
- An inflated valuation of oneself (exaggeration of talents and achievements, demonstration of presumptuous self-confidence);
- Interpersonal exploitation (uses others to satisfy his needs and desires, expects preferential treatment without undertaking mutual commitments);
- Possesses expansive imagination (externalises immature and non-regimented fantasies, "prevaricates to redeem self-illusions");
- Displays supercilious imperturbability (except when the narcissistic confidence is shaken), nonchalant, unimpressed and cold-blooded;
- Defective social conscience (rebels against the conventions of common social existence, does not value personal integrity and the rights of other people).
Compare the 1977 version with the one adopted 10 years later (in the DSM-III-R) and expanded upon in 1994 (in the DSM-IV) and in 2000 (the DSM-IV-TR) - click here to read the latest diagnostic criteria.
The narcissist is portrayed as a monster, a ruthless and exploitative person. Yet, inside, the narcissist suffers from a chronic lack of confidence and is fundamentally dissatisfied. This applies to all narcissists. The distinction between "compensatory" and "classic" narcissists is spurious. All narcissists are walking scar tissue, the outcomes of various forms of abuse.
On the outside, the narcissist may appear to be labile and unstable. But, this does not capture the barren landscape of misery and fears that is his soul. His brazen and reckless behaviour covers up for a depressive, anxious interior.
How can such contrasts coexist?
Freud (1915) offered a trilateral model of the human psyche, composed of the Id, the Ego, and the Superego.
According to Freud, narcissists are dominated by their Ego to such an extent that the Id and Superego are neutralised. Early in his career, Freud believed narcissism to be a normal developmental phase between autoeroticism and object-love. Later on, he concluded that linear development can be thwarted by the very efforts we all make in our infancy to evolve the capacity to love an object (another person).
Some of us, thus Freud, fail to grow beyond the phase of self-love in the development of our libido. Others refer to themselves and prefer themselves as objects of love. This choice - to concentrate on the self - is the result of an unconscious decision to give up a consistently frustrating and unrewarding effort to love others and to trust them.
The frustrated and abused child learns that the only "object" he can trust and that is always and reliably available, the only person he can love without being abandoned or hurt - is himself.
So, is pathological narcissism the outcome of verbal, sexual, physical, or psychological abuse (the overwhelming view) - or, on the contrary, the sad result of spoiling the child and idolising it (Millon, the late Freud)?
This debate is easier to resolve if one agrees to adopt a more comprehensive definition of "abuse". Overweening, smothering, spoiling, overvaluing, and idolising the child - are also forms of parental abuse.
This is because, as Horney pointed out, the smothered and spoiled child is dehumanised and instrumentalised. His parents love him not for what he really is - but for what they wish and imagine him to be: the fulfilment of their dreams and frustrated wishes. The child becomes the vessel of his parents' discontented lives, a tool, the magic airbrush with which they seek to transform their failures into successes, their humiliation into victory, their frustrations into happiness.
The child is taught to give up on reality and adopt the parental fantasies. Such an unfortunate child feels omnipotent and omniscient, perfect and brilliant, worthy of adoration and entitled to special treatment. The faculties that are honed by constantly brushing against bruising reality - empathy, compassion, a realistic assessment of one's abilities and limitations, realistic expectations of oneself and of others, personal boundaries, team work, social skills, perseverance and goal-orientation, not to mention the ability to postpone gratification and to work hard to achieve it - are all lacking or missing altogether.
This kind of child turned adult sees no reason to invest resources in his skills and education, convinced that his inherent genius should suffice. He feels entitled for merely being, rather than for actually doing (rather as the nobility in days gone by felt entitled not by virtue of its merits but as the inevitable, foreordained outcome of its birth right). The narcissist is not meritocratic - but aristocratic.
Such a mental structure is brittle, susceptible to criticism and disagreement, vulnerable to the incessant encounter with a harsh and intolerant world. Deep inside, narcissists of both kinds (those wrought by "classic" abuse and those yielded by being idolised) - feel inadequate, phoney, fake, inferior, and deserving of punishment.
This is Millon's mistake. He makes a distinction between several types of narcissists. He wrongly assumes that the "classic" narcissist is the outcome of parental overvaluation, idolisation, and spoiling and, thus, is possessed of supreme, unchallenged, self-confidence, and is devoid of all self-doubt.
According to Millon, it is the "compensatory" narcissist that falls prey to nagging self-doubts, feelings of inferiority, and a masochistic desire for self-punishment.
Yet, this distinction is both wrong and unnecessary. Psychodynamically, there is only one type of pathological narcissism - though there are two developmental paths to it. And all narcissists are besieged by deeply ingrained (though at times not conscious) feelings of inadequacy, fears of failure, masochistic desires to be penalised, a fluctuating sense of self-worth (regulated by NS), and an overwhelming sensation of fakeness.
In the early childhoods of all narcissists, meaningful others are inconsistent in their acceptance. They pay attention to the narcissist only when they wish to satisfy their needs. They tend to ignore him - or actively abuse him - when these needs are no longer pressing or existent.
The narcissist's past of abuse teaches him to avoid deeper relationships in order to escape this painful approach-avoidance pendulum. Protecting himself from hurt and from abandonment, he insulates himself from people around him. He digs in - rather than spring out.
As children go through this phase of disbelief. We all put people around us (the aforementioned objects) to recurrent tests. This is the "primary narcissistic stage". A positive relationship with one's parents or caregivers (Primary Objects) secures the smooth transition to "object love". The child forgoes his narcissism.
Giving up one's narcissism is tough. Narcissism is alluring, soothing, warm and dependable. It is always present and omnipresent. It is custom tailored to the needs of the individual. To love oneself is to have the perfect lover. Good reasons and strong forces - collectively known as "parental love" - are required to motivate the child to give its narcissism up.
The child progresses beyond its primary narcissism in order to be able to love his parents. If they are narcissists, they subject him to idealisation (over-valuation) and devaluation cycles. They do not reliably satisfy the child's needs. In other words, they frustrate him. He gradually realises that he is no more than a toy, an instrument, a means to an end - his parents' gratification.
This shocking revelation deforms the budding Ego. The child forms a strong dependence (as opposed to attachment) on his parents. This dependence is really the outcome of fear, the mirror image of aggression. In Freud-speak (psychoanalysis) we say that the child is likely to develop accentuated oral fixations and regressions. In plain terms, we are likely to see a lost, phobic, helpless, raging child.
But a child is still a child and his relationship with his parents is of ultimate importance to him.
He, therefore, resists his natural reactions to his abusive caregivers, and tries to defuse his libidinal and aggressive sensations and emotions. This way, he hopes to rehabilitate the damaged relationship with his parents (which never really existed). Hence the primordial confabulation, the mother of all future narcissistic fantasies. In his embattled mind, the child transforms the Superego into an idealised, sadistic parent-child. His Ego, in turn, becomes a hated, devalued child-parent.
The family is the mainspring of support of every kind. It mobilises psychological resources and alleviates emotional burdens. It allows for the sharing of tasks, provides material supplies coupled with cognitive training. It is the prime socialisation agent and encourages the absorption of information, most of it useful and adaptive.
This division of labour between parents and children is vital both to personal growth and to proper adaptation. The child must feel, as he does in a functional family, that he can share his experiences without being defensive and that the feedback that he is getting is open and unbiased. The only "bias" acceptable (often because it is consonant with feedback from the outside) is the family's set of beliefs, values and goals that are finally internalised by the child by way of imitation and unconscious identification.
So, the family is the first and the most important source of identity and emotional support. It is a greenhouse, where the child feels loved, cared for, accepted, and secure - the prerequisites for the development of personal resources. On the material level, the family should provide the basic necessities (and, preferably, beyond), physical care and protection, and refuge and shelter during crises.
The role of the mother (the Primary Object) has been often discussed. The father's part is mostly neglected, even in professional literature. However, recent research demonstrates his importance to the orderly and healthy development of the child.
The father participates in the day-to-day care, is an intellectual catalyst, who encourages the child to develop his interests and to satisfy his curiosity through the manipulation of various instruments and games. He is a source of authority and discipline, a boundary setter, enforcing and encouraging positive behaviours and eliminating negative ones.
The father also provides emotional support and economic security, thus stabilising the family unit. Finally, he is the prime source of masculine orientation and identification to the male child - and gives warmth and love as a male to his daughter, without exceeding the socially permissible limits.
We can safely say that the narcissist's family is as severely disordered as he is. Pathological narcissism is largely a reflection of this dysfunction. Such an environment breeds self-deception. The narcissist's internal dialogue is "I do have a relationship with my parents. It is my fault - the fault of my emotions, sensations, aggressions and passions - that this relationship is not working. It is, therefore, my responsibility to make amends. I will construct a narrative in which I am both loved and punished. In this script, I will allocate roles to myself and to my parents. This way, everything will be fine and we will all be happy."
Thus starts the cycle of over-valuation (idealisation) and devaluation. The dual roles of sadist and punished masochist (Superego and Ego), parent and child, permeate all the narcissist's interactions with other people.
The narcissist experiences a reversal of roles as his relationships progress. At the beginning of a relationship he is the child in need of attention, approval and admiration. He becomes dependent. Then, at the first sign of disapproval (real or imaginary), he is transformed into an avowed sadist, punishing and inflicting pain.
It is commonly agreed that a loss (real or perceived) at a critical junction in the psychological development of the child forces him to refer to himself for nurturing and for gratification. The child ceases to trust others and his ability to develop object love, or to idealise is hampered. He is constantly haunted by the feeling that only he can satisfy his emotional needs.
He exploits people, sometimes unintentionally, but always ruthlessly and mercilessly. He uses them to obtain confirmation of the accuracy of his grandiose self-portrait.
The narcissist is usually above treatment. He knows best. He feels superior to his therapist in particular and to the science of psychology in general. He seeks treatment only following a major life crisis, which directly threatens his projected and perceived image. Even then he only wishes to restore the previous balance.
Therapy sessions with the narcissist resemble a battlefield. He is aloof and distanced, demonstrates his superiority in a myriad ways, resents what he perceives to be an intrusion on his innermost sanctum. He is offended by any hint regarding defects or dysfunctions in his personality or in his behaviour. A narcissist is a narcissist is a narcissist - even when he asks for help with his world and worldview shattered.
Appendix: Object Relations Theories and Narcissism
Otto Kernberg (1975, 1984, 1987) disagrees with Freud. He regards the division between an "object libido" (energy directed at objects, meaningful others, people in the immediate vicinity of the infant) and a "narcissistic libido" (energy directed at the self as the most immediate and satisfying object), which precedes it - as spurious.
Whether a child develops normal or pathological narcissism depends on the relations between the representations of the self (roughly, the image of the self that the child forms in his mind) and the representations of objects (roughly, the images of other people that the child forms in his mind, based on all the emotional and objective information available to him). It is also dependent on the relationship between the representations of the self and real, external, "objective" objects.
Add to these instinctual conflicts related to both the libido and to aggression (these very strong emotions give rise to strong conflicts in the child) and a comprehensive explanation concerning the formation of pathological narcissism emerges.
Kernberg's concept of Self is closely related to Freud's concept of Ego. The self is dependent upon the unconscious, which exerts a constant influence on all mental functions. Pathological narcissism, therefore, reflects a libidinal investment in a pathologically structured self and not in a normal, integrative structure of the self.
The narcissist suffers because his self is devalued or fixated on aggression. All object relations of such a self are distorted: it detaches from real objects (because they hurt him often), dissociates, represses, or projects. Narcissism is not merely a fixation on an early developmental stage. It is not confined to the failure to develop intra-psychic structures. It is an active, libidinal investment in a deformed structure of the self.
Franz Kohut regarded narcissism as the final product of the failing efforts of parents to cope with the needs of the child to idealise and to be grandiose (for instance, to be omnipotent).
Idealisation is an important developmental path leading to narcissism. The child merges the idealised aspects of the images of his parents (Imagos, in Kohut's terminology) with those wide segments of the image of the parent which are cathected (infused) with object libido (in which the child invests the energy that he reserves for objects).
This exerts an enormous and all-important influence on the processes of re-internalisation (the processes in which the child re-introduces the objects and their images into his mind) in each of the successive phases. Through these processes, two permanent nuclei of the personality are constructed:
- The basic, neutralising texture of the psyche, and
- The ideal Superego
Both of them are characterised by an invested instinctual narcissistic cathexis (invested energy of self-love which is instinctual).
At first, the child idealises his parents. As he grows, he begins to notice their shortcomings and vices. He withdraws part of the idealising libido from the images of the parents, which is conducive to the natural development of the Superego. The narcissistic part of the child's psyche remains vulnerable throughout its development. This is largely true until the "child" re-internalises the ideal parent image.
Also, the very construction of the mental apparatus can be tampered with by traumatic deficiencies and by object losses right through the Oedipal period (and even in latency and in adolescence).
The same effect can be attributed to traumatic disappointment by objects.
Disturbances leading to the formation of NPD can be thus grouped into:
- Very early disturbances in the relationship with an ideal object. These lead to a structural weakness of the personality, which develops a deficient and/or dysfunctional stimuli-filtering mechanism. The ability of the individual to maintain a basic narcissistic homeostasis of the personality is damaged. Such a person suffers from diffusive narcissistic vulnerability.
- A disturbance occurring later in life - but still pre-Oedipally - affects the pre-Oedipal formation of the basic mechanisms for controlling, channelling, and neutralising drives and urges. The nature of the disturbance has to be a traumatic encounter with the ideal object (such as a major disappointment). The symptomatic manifestation of this structural defect is the propensity to re-sexualise drive derivatives and internal and external conflicts, either in the form of fantasies or in the form of deviant acts.
- A disturbance formed in the Oedipal or even in the early latent phases - inhibits the completion of the Superego idealisation. This is especially true of a disappointment related to an ideal object of the late pre-Oedipal and the Oedipal stages, where the partly idealised external parallel of the newly internalised object is traumatically destroyed.
Such a person possesses a set of values and standards, but he is always on the lookout for ideal external figures from whom he aspires to derive the affirmation and the leadership that he cannot get from his insufficiently idealised Superego.
Last Updated: 05 July 2018
Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD