Narcissism FAQ: Narcissism The Psychopathological Default

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The symptoms that you describe are common to so many people that I know… Does this mean that they are all Narcissists?


We are all narcissists at an early stage of our lives. As infants, we feel that we are the centre of the universe, omnipotent and omniscient. Our parents, those mythical figures, immortal and awesomely powerful, are there only to protect us. Both self and others are viewed immaturely, as idealisations. Inevitably, the inexorable processes and conflicts of life erode them and grind the ideal into the fine dust of the real. Disappointments follow disillusionment. If gradual and tolerable – they yield adaptation. If abrupt, capricious, arbitrary, and intense – the injuries sustained by the tender, budding, self-esteem, are irreversible. Moreover, the empathic support of the caretakers (the Primary Objects, the parents) is crucial. In its absence, the self-esteem in adulthood will tend to fluctuate, to alternate between over-valuation (idealisation) and devaluation of both the self and others. Narcissistic adults are the result of bitter disappointment, of radical disillusionment with their parents. Healthy adults accept their self-limitations (=the limitations, the boundaries, of their selves). They accept disappointments, setbacks, failures, criticism and disillusionment with grace and tolerance. Their self-esteem is constant and positive, not affected by outside events, no matter how severe.

The common view is that we go through the stages of a linear development. We are propelled forward by forces: the libido (force of life) and Thanatos (force of death) in Freud’s thinking, Meaning in Frenkel’s, socially mediated phenomena (Adler, Behaviourism), cultural context (Horney), interpersonal relations (Sullivan) and neurobiological and neurochemical forces, to mention but a few schools of developmental psychology. In an effort to gain respectability, psychologists constructed a “physics of the mind”.

These thought systems differ on many issues. Some said that personal development ends in childhood, others – during adolescence. Yet others said that development is a process which continues throughout the life of the individual. Common to all these schools of thought are the mechanics and dynamics of the process. Forces – inner or external – facilitated the development of the individual. When an obstacle to development is encountered, development is stunted or arrested – but not for long. A distorted pattern of development, a bypass appears. Hence, psychopathological conditions are the outcomes of disturbed growth. Humans can be compared to trees. When a tree encounters a physical obstacle to its growth – its branches or roots curl around it. Yet, deformed and ugly, they still reach their destination, however late and partially. Psychopathologies are adaptive mechanisms. They allow the individual to continue to grow around the disturbing factor. The personality twists and turns, deforms itself, is transformed – until it reaches a functional equilibrium, which is not too ego-dystonic. There it settles down and continues its more or less linear pattern of growth. But the thrust is clear: onwards. Adaptation above all, growth at any price, straight or deformed, it doesn’t really matter. The forces of life (as expressed in the development of the personality) are stronger than any hindrance. The roots of trees crack mighty rocks, microbes live in the most poisonous surroundings – humans form the personality structure which is best suited to their needs and outside constraints. Such a personality structure may be abnormal – but it has mostly triumphed in the delicate task of successful adaptation.

I believe that people do engage in linear growth and development and that, these are driven by both internal and external forces. I also believe that only death puts a stop to personal growth and development. Life events, crises, joys and sadness, disappointments and surprises, setbacks and successes – all contribute to the weaving of the delicate fabric called “personality”. Where I differ from customary views is in what I believe constitutes a reaction to disturbances, hindrances and obstacles to personal growth.

I think that when an individual (at any age) encounters an obstacle to the orderly progression from one stage of development to another – he retreats to the narcissistic phase rather than circumvent or “go around” the hindrance. The process is three-stepped: (1) The person encounters an obstacle; (2) The person regresses to the infantile narcissistic phase; and (3) The person recuperates and moves back from the narcissistic phase to attack the obstacle again. While in step (2), the person displays childish, immature behaviours. He feels that he is omnipotent and misjudges his powers and the powers of his opponents and opposition. He underestimates challenges facing him and pretends to be “Mr. Know-All”. His sensitivity to the needs and emotions of others and his ability to empathise with them deteriorates sharply. He becomes intolerably haughty and arrogant, with sadistic and paranoid tendencies. Above all, he then seeks unconditional admiration, even when he does not deserve it. He is preoccupied with fantastic, magical, thinking and daydreams his life away. He tends to exploit others, to envy them, to be edgy and explode with unexplained rage. People who undergo a psychological development crisis brought on by an insurmountable obstacle – mostly revert to excessive and compulsive behaviour patterns. To put it succinctly: whenever we experience a major life crisis (which hinders our personal growth and threatens it) – we suffer from a mild and transient form of the Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

This fantasy world, full of falsity and feelings hurt, serves as a springboard. It is from there that the individual can resume his progress towards the next stage of personal growth. Faced with the same obstacle, he feels (falsely) sufficiently potent to ignore it or to attack it. In most cases, success is guaranteed by the very unrealistic assessment of the fortitude and magnitude of the obstacle. The main function of the episodic or transient NPD is this: to encourage the individual to engage in magical thinking, to wish the problem away or to enchant it or to tackle and overcome it from a position of omnipotence.

A structural abnormality of personality arises only when recurrent attacks fail constantly and consistently to eliminate the obstacle, or to overcome the hindrance. The contrast between the fantastic world (temporarily) occupied by the individual and the real world in which he keeps being frustrated – is too acute to countenance for long. The dissonance gives rise to the unconscious “decision” to go on living in the world of fantasy, grandeur, grandiosity and entitlement. It is better to feel special than to feel inadequate. It is better to be omnipotent than psychologically impotent. To (ab)use others is preferable to being (ab)used by them. In short: it is better to remain a pathological narcissist than to face the harsh unyielding realities.

Not all psychopathologies are narcissistic in character and not all personality disorders are narcissistic. Yet, I think that the default (in case of growth stunted by an obstacle) is the narcissistic phase of personal development. I further believe that this is the ONLY default available to the individual: whenever he comes across an obstacle, he regresses to the narcissistic phase. How can this be reconciled with the diversity of psychopathologies/personality disorders?

We must define “narcissism” more broadly as the substitution of a False Self for the True Self. This, arguably, is the predominant feature of narcissism: the True Self is repressed and suppressed, relegated to irrelevance and obscurity, left to degenerate and fossilise. In its stead, a psychological structure is formed and projected unto the outside world – the False Self. The False Self is reflected to the narcissist by other people. This “proves” to him that the False Self has an independent existence, that it is not entirely a figment of his imagination and, therefore, that it is a legitimate heir to the True Self. It is this characteristic which unites all psychopathologies: the emergence of false psychic structures which usurp the powers and capacities of the previous, legitimate and authentic structures.

Horrified by the absence of a clearly bounded, cohesive, coherent, reliable, and self-regulating self – the mentally abnormal person resorts to one of the following solutions, all of which involve reliance upon fake or invented personality elements:

  1. The Narcissistic Solution – The substitution of the True Self with a False Self. The narcissistic solution is the subject of this book. The schizotypal personality disorder largely belongs here because of its emphasised fantastic and magical thinking. The borderline personality disorder is a case of a failed narcissistic solution. In BPD, the patient is aware (at least unconsciously) that the solution that he adopted is “not working”. This is the source of his anxiety (something is fuzzily wrong, or a foreboding sense, a premonition is present), of his fear of abandonment (by the solution). This generates his identity disturbance, his affective instability, suicidal ideation and suicidal action, chronic feelings of emptiness, rage attacks, and transient (stress related) paranoid ideation.
  2. The Appropriation Solution – This is the appropriation, the confiscation of someone else’s self in order to fill the vacuum left by the absence of a functioning Ego. While some of the Ego functions are available – the others are assumed and adopted by the “appropriating personality”. The histrionic personality disorder is an example of this solution. Mothers who “sacrifice” their lives for their children, people who live vicariously, through others – all belong to this category. So do people who dramatise their lives and their behaviour, in order to attract attention. The “appropriators” misjudge the intimacy of their relationships and the degree of commitment involved, they are easily suggestible and their whole personality seems to shift and fluctuate with input from the outside. Because they have no Self of their own (even more so then narcissists) – the “appropriators” tend to over-rate and over-emphasise their bodies. Perhaps the most striking example of this type of solution is the dependent personality disorder.
  3. The Schizoid Solution – These patients are mental zombies, trapped forever in the no-man’s land between stunted growth and the narcissistic default. They are not narcissists because they lack a False Self – nor are they fully developed adults, because their True Self is immature and dysfunctional. They prefer to avoid contact with others (they lack empathy, as the narcissist does) in order not to upset their delicate tightrope act. Withdrawing from the world is an adaptive solution because it does not expose the inadequate personality structures (especially the self) to onerous – and failure bound – tests. The schizotypal personality disorder patient is a mixture of the narcissistic and the schizoid solutions. The Avoidant Personality Disorder is a close kin.
  4. The Aggressive Destructive Solution – These people suffer from hypochondriasis, depression, suicidal ideation, dysphoria, anhedonia, compulsions and obsessions and other expressions of internalised and transformed aggression directed at a self which is perceived to be inadequate, guilty, disappointing and worthy of nothing but elimination. Many of the narcissistic elements are present in an exaggerated form. Lack of empathy becomes reckless disregard for others, irritability, deceitfulness and criminal violence. Undulating self-esteem is transformed into impulsiveness and failure to plan ahead. The antisocial personality disorder is a prime example of this solution, whose essence is: the total control of a False Self, without the mitigating presence of a shred of True Self.

Perhaps this common feature – the replacement of the original structures of the personality by new, invented, mostly false ones – is what causes one to see narcissists everywhere. This common denominator is most accentuated in the narcissistic personality disorder. The interaction, really, the battle, between the struggling original remnants of the personality and the malignant and omnivorous new structures – can be discerned in all forms of psychic abnormality. The question is: if many phenomena have one thing in common – should they be considered one and the same?

I say that the answer in the case of personality disorders should be in the affirmative. I think that all the known personality disorders are forms of malignant self-love. In each personality disorder, different attributes are differently emphasised, different weights attach to different behaviour patterns. But these, in my view, are all matters of quantity, not of quality. The myriad heads of the deformation of the reactive patterns collectively known as “personality” – all belong to the same medusa.

Sam Vaknin is the author of Malignant Self Love, and runs the website Malignant Self Love - Narcissism Revisited.Sam has served as the author of the Personality Disorders topic, Narcissistic Personality Disorder topic, the Verbal and Emotional Abuse topic, and the Spousal Abuse and Domestic Violence topic, Suite101.

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