Narcissism FAQ: The Stripped Ego

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Question:

Sometimes you say that the Narcissist’s True Self has relegated its functions to the outside world – and sometimes you say that it is not in touch with the outside world (or that only the False Self is in touch with it). How do you settle this apparent contradiction?

Answer:

The True Self in a narcissist is introverted. It just lost all its functions. In healthy people, Ego functions are generated from the inside, from the Ego. In narcissists, the Ego is dormant, comatose. The narcissist needs the input of the outside world to perform the most basic Ego functions (e.g., “recognition” of the world, setting boundaries, differentiation, self-esteem and regulation of a sense of self-worth). Only the False Self gets in touch with the world. The True Self is isolated, repressed, unconscious, a shadow.

Forcing an encounter upon these two is, in my view, not only impossible but also counterproductive and dangerously destabilising. The Narcissistic Disorder is adaptive and functional, though rigid and self-defeating. The alternative to this (mal)adaptation would have been destructive, possibly lethal (suicidal). This bottled up poison is bound to resurface if contact is made between other structures of the personality and the Ego (True Self).

That a structure is unconscious does not automatically mean that it is conflict-generating, or that it is in conflict, nor that it has the potential to engage in conflict. The True Self and the False Self are out of touch.

One defies the very existence of the other. We must not forget that the False Self pretends to be the ONLY self. Also it is extremely useful (adaptive). Rather than risking (indeed) constant conflict – the narcissist chooses a solution of “disengagement”.

The classical Ego, the one proposed by Freud, is partly conscious and partly preconscious and unconscious. Chez-le narcissist, the Ego is completely submerged. The preconscious and conscious parts are detached (rather, torn) from it by early traumas and form the False Ego. Whereas the Ego in healthy people is constantly compared to the Ego Ideal by the Superego, the narcissist is characterised by a different type of psychodynamics. The narcissist’s False Self serves as a buffer and as a shock absorber between the True Ego and the sadistic, punishing, immature Superego.

The narcissist’s Ego cannot develop because it is deprived of contact with the outside world and, therefore, has to endure no development-inducing conflict. The False Self is rigid. The result is that the narcissist is unable to respond and to adapt to threats, illnesses, and to other life crises and circumstances. He is totally rigid and prone to be broken rather than bent by life’s trials and tribulations.

The Ego remembers, evaluates, plans, responds to the world and acts in it and on it. It is the locus of the “executive functions” of the personality. It integrates the inner world with the outer world, the Id with the Superego. It acts under a “reality principle” rather than a “pleasure principle”. This means that it is in charge of delaying satisfaction and gratification. It postpones acts intended to secure such gratification until they can be carried out both safely and successfully. The Ego is, therefore, in an ungrateful position. Unfulfilled desires produce unease and anxiety. Reckless fulfilment of desires is diametrically opposed to self-preservation. The Ego has to mediate these tensions. In an effort to thwart anxiety, the Ego invents defence mechanisms. On the one hand the Ego channels fundamental drives. It has to “speak their language”. It must have a primitive, infantile, component. On the other hand, the Ego is in charge of negotiating with the outside world and of securing the realistically best obtainable bargain for its client, the Id. These intellectual and perceptual functions are supervised by the exceptionally strict court of the Superego.

Persons with a strong Ego can objectively apprehend both the world and themselves. In other words, they are possessed of insight. They are able to contemplate longer time spans, plan, forecast and schedule. They choose decisively among alternatives and follow their resolve. They are aware of the existence of their drives, but control them and direct them to socially acceptable or socially useful channels. They resist pressures – social or other. They choose their course and pursue it. The weaker Ego is more like a child. Impulsive, immediate, its perception of self and reality distorted, it is incapable of productive work. The narcissist is an even more extreme case, that of a non-existent Ego. The narcissist has a fake, substitute “Ego”. This is why his energy is drained. He spends most of it on maintaining, protecting and preserving the warped, unrealistic images of his (False) Self and of his (fake) world. The narcissist is a person exhausted by his own absence.

The healthy Ego preserves some sense of continuity and consistency. It serves as a point of reference. It relates events of the past to the actions of the present and to the plans of the future. It incorporates memory, anticipation, imagination and intellect. It defines where the individual ends and the world begins. Though not coextensive with the body or with the personality, it is a close approximation. In the narcissistic condition, all these functions are relegated to the False Ego. Its halo of falsity attaches to all of them. The narcissist is bound to develop false memories, conjure up false fantasies, anticipate the unrealistic and work his intellect to justify them. The falsity of the False Self is dual: not only is it not “the real thing” – it also operates on false premises. It provides a false gauge and evaluation of the world. It falsely and inefficiently regulates the drives. It fails to thwart anxiety on many an occasion.

The False Self provides a false sense of continuity and of a “personal centre”. It weaves an enchanted and grandiose fable as a substitute. The narcissist, as a result, gravitates out of his self and into a plot, a narrative, a story. He continuously feels that he is a character in a film, a fraudulent invention, or a con artist to be momentarily exposed and summarily socially executed. Moreover, The narcissist cannot be consistent or coherent. His False Self is in pursuit of ulterior goals (mostly of Narcissistic Supply). The narcissist has no boundaries because his Ego is not sufficiently defined or fully differentiated. The only constancy is his feeling of diffusion or of annulment. This is especially true in life crises, when the False Ego ceases to function.

From the developmental point of view, all this is easily accounted for. The child reacts to stimuli, both internal and external. He cannot, however, control, alter, or anticipate them. He develops mechanisms for controlling the resulting tensions and anxieties. His pursuit of mastery of his environment is compulsive. He is obsessively involved in seeking means to obtain gratification. Any delay in his actions and responses forces him to tolerate added tension and anxiety. It is very surprising that the child learns to separate stimulus and response and delay the latter. This miracle has to do with the development of intellectual skills, on the one hand and with the socialisation process, on the other hand.

The intellect is a representation of the world. Through it, the Ego can examine reality vicariously and not suffer the consequences of possible errors. It can fantasise or project the consequences of various courses of action and decide on the future directions necessary to achieve its ends and the accompanying satisfaction. The intellect is what makes the child believe in the accuracy and high probability of his anticipation and predictions. It is through the intellect that the concepts of the “law of nature” and “predictability through order” are introduced. Causality and consistency are all mediated through the intellect.

But the intellect must have an emotional complement. The picture of the world emerges from experience and is not imposed upon it. Socialisation has a verbal-communicative element but if not coupled with a strong emotional component, it remains a dead letter. An example: the child is likely to learn from his parents and from other adults in his environment that the world is a predictable, law abiding place. However, if his Primary Objects (most importantly, his mother) behave in a capricious, discriminating, unpredictable, unlawful, abusive, or indifferent manner – the conflict between cognition and emotion will be powerful and is bound to paralyse the Ego functions of the child. The accumulation and retention of past events is a prerequisite for both thinking and judgement. Both are impaired if past events contradict the content of the Superego and the lessons of the socialisation process.

It is here that narcissists are victims. They suffer from a glaring discrepancy between the preaching and the acting of the adult figures in their lives. Once victimised, they swear “no more”. They are out to victimise the world. And as a decoy, they present to the world their False Self. But they fall prey to their own devices. Internally impoverished and undernourished, isolated and cushioned to the point of suffocation – the True Ego degenerates and decays. The narcissist wakes up one day to find that he is at the mercy of his False Self as much as his victims are.

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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