Narcissism FAQ: The Dual Role of the False Self

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Question:

Your theories contain nothing new. You just rename theoretical constructs offered by Adler, Erikson and, above all, by Karen Horney.

Answer:

I beg to differ. I think that I was able to introduce new concepts and, through them, hopefully, shed new light on the pernicious condition called malignant narcissism.

To illustrate, let me consider the False Self versus the True Self. Both are old concepts. The False (Idealised) Self (-Image) was well described by Horney, for instance. Still, “my” concept of False Self is different.

I believe that 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. Moreover, I do not believe in the ability to “resuscitate” it through therapy. It is not only a question of alienation, as Horney observed. She said that because the Idealised (=False) Self sets impossible goals to attain – the results are frustration and self hate which grow with every setback or failure. I assign the constant sadistic judgement, the self-berating, the suicidal ideation to another source: to an idealised, sadistic, Superego. There is no conflict between the True Self and the False Self. First, the True Self is much too weak to engage in any kind of activity (let alone be in conflict 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, described at great length below. The two most important are:

  1. It serves as a decoy, it “attracts the fire”. It is a proxy for the True Self. It is tough and hard and can absorb any amount of pain, hurt and negative emotions without so much as flinching. By externalising it, the child develops immunity to the indifference, manipulation, sadism, or exploitation – in short: to the abuse – inflicted on him by his parents (or by other Primary Objects in his life). It is a shell, protecting him, rendering him invisible and omnipotent at the same time.
  2. The False Self is misrepresented by the narcissist as his True Self. The narcissist is saying, in effect: “I am not who you think that I am. I am someone else. I am that (False) Self. Therefore, I deserve a better, painless, more considerate treatment.” The False Self, thus, is a contraption intended to alter the attitude of the (human) environment 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. As opposed to the neo-Freudians, I do not think that the two are part of a continuum. I do not think that healthy people have a “milder” case of False Self which differs from its pathological equivalent in that it is more realistic and closer to the True Self. I do think that even healthy people have a mask (Guffman), a persona (Jung) which they CONSCIOUSLY present to the outside world. This is a far cry from the False Self which is mostly unconscious, depends on the maintenance of an image but is not synonymous with it and is compulsive.

I think that the False Self is a reaction to pathological circumstances (maybe even a healthy reaction). But its dynamics make it predominate, devour the psyche and prey upon both the True Self and the efficient, flexible functioning of the personality.

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?

Let’s start by referring to an oft-occurring question:

Why are narcissists not prone to suicide? Simple: they died a long time ago. They are the true zombies of the world.

Many researchers and 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, they are functionless and useless. In treating the Narcissist, the therapist often tries to invent a healthy self, rather than build upon the distorted wreckage strewn across the Narcissist’s psyche.

But what of the rare glimpses of True Self that those who interact with Narcissists keep reporting?

If the pathological narcissistic element is but one of many other disorders – the True Self may well have survived. Gradations and shades of narcissism make up the narcissistic spectrum. Narcissistic traits (overlay) are often co-diagnosed with other disorders (co-morbidity).

Some people have a narcissistic personality – but NOT NPD! These distinctions are important. A person may well appear to be a narcissist – but is not, in the strict, psychiatric, sense of the word.

In a full-fledged Narcissist, the False Self IMITATES the True Self.

To do so artfully, it deploys two mechanisms:

RE-INTERPRETATION

It causes the Narcissist to re-interpret certain emotions and reactions in a flattering, True Self-compatible, light. A 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 acceptance and understanding.

EMULATION

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 unprecedented, almost inhuman, empathy.

This capacity is coupled with the Narcissist’s ability to frighteningly imitate emotions and their attendant behaviours. 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 and eerily accurate renditions of emotional behaviour. This can be enormously deceiving.

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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  1. Pingback: Narcissistic Rage and Injury: Intermittent Explosive Narcissist

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