INTRODUCTION:

THE SOUL OF A NARCISSIST
THE STATE OF THE ART


The introduction 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 punished by the nymph Echo. 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 is the dependence on the very existence and availability of a reflection to produce the emotion of self-love.

The other is the absence of a "compass", an "objective and realistic yardstick", by which to judge the authenticity of the reflection and to measure its isomorphic attributes. 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 second hand impressions of themselves in the eyes of beholders. He who loves only impressions is not acquainted with the emotion of loving humans and is, therefore, incapable of loving them. He loves no humans – and, first and foremost, he does not love himself.

But the narcissist does possess the in-bred desire to love and to be loved. If he cannot love himself – he has to 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 grossly preoccupied with projecting a loveable image of himself unto others. This image has to be compatible with his self-image (the way he “sees” himself).

It has to be maintained through the investment of a reasonable proportion of the resources and energy of the narcissist. An image, which would take most of the narcissist's time and energy to preserve, would be highly ineffective because it would render him vulnerable to external threats.

But the most important characteristic of such an image should be its loveability.

To a narcissist, love is interchangeable with other emotions, such as awe, respect, admiration, or even mere attention. An image, which provokes these reactions in others – is both "loveable and loved", as far as the narcissist is concerned. It satisfies his basic requirement: that it should give him something to love which would feel like self-love.

The more successful this image (or series of successive images) – 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 this central nucleus of a "self". All I am saying is that he prefers his image – with which he identifies himself unreservedly – to his self. A hierarchy is formed. The self becomes serf to the Image.

This is exactly the opposite of the common notions concerning narcissists. The narcissist is not selfish – his self is paralysed.

He is not tuned exclusively to his needs. On the contrary: he ignores them because many of them conflict with his omnipotent and omniscient image. 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 consumes his mental energy incessantly in this process. He drains himself. This is why he has no energy to dedicate to others. This fact as well as his inability to love human beings in their many dimensions and facets – transform him into a mental recluse. His soul is fortified and in the solace of this newly found 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 a symbol, 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. The narcissist has an inflated sense of entitlement. 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 always feels that he is not getting enough, that he should get more than he does. There is a discrepancy between his infinite certainty that his is a special status worthy of eternally recurrent praise and adoration, replete with special benefits and prerogatives – and the actual state of his affairs. This is the prima causa of the psychodynamics of the narcissist's mind. To the narcissist, this status of uniqueness is bestowed upon him not by virtue of his achievements, but merely because he exists. His mere existence is 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 this notion of greatness and uniqueness.

Narcissists do hold high positions and, at times, are achievers with proven track records. Some of them are respected members of their communities, some of them even leaders. Mostly, they are dynamic and successful. Still, one thing separates them from persons of similar circumstance: the pomp.

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 for his satisfaction, as two-dimensional cartoon figures with negligible lines in the script of his magnificent life. He becomes unscrupulous and suppresses all inconvenience that he might have felt in the past concerning his conduct. He seems never to be bothered by the constant use he makes of his milieu. He seems not to mind the consequences of his acts: 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 his surroundings – we say that his acts are compulsive.

It would, indeed, be safe to say that the narcissist is compulsive in his behaviour. This linkage between narcissism and obsessive-compulsive disorders sheds light on the mechanisms of the narcissistic soul.

The narcissist does not suffer from a faulty sense of causation. He is able to accurately predict the outcomes of his actions and he knows that he might be forced to pay a dear price for his deeds. But he cannot help it.

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 its NARCISSISTIC SUPPLY. Every shred of criticism and disapproval is interpreted as a withholding of this supply and as a direct threat to the very mental existence of the narcissist. 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 doubt upon it. This is why the reactions of the narcissist seem so disproportionate: he reacts to what he perceives to be threats to the very cohesion of his self. Thus, a minor disagreement is transformed in his harried mind into an ominous sign that he is going to remain devoid of his sources of self-definition. This is such a crucial matter, that the narcissist cannot take chances. He would rather be mistaken – then null and void. He would rather discern disapproval and unjustified criticism where there is 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 will provoke him into frightful fits of temper and rage attacks and turn him into a constantly cantankerous and irascible person. The disproportion of his reactions constitutes a punishment for their lack of consideration and their ignorance of his true psychological state. In a curious reversal of roles – the narcissist blames others for his behaviour, accuses them of provoking him and believes firmly that "they" should be penalised accordingly. There is no way to dissuade the narcissist once he has embarked on one of his temper tantrums. Apologies – unless accompanied by verbal or other humiliation – are not enough. The fuel of his rage is consumed mainly by vitriolic verbal send-offs directed at the (often imaginary) perpetrator of the (oft imaginary) offence.

A coherent picture emerges:

The narcissist – wittingly or not – utilises people to buttress his self-image and self-worth. As long and 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 humans: he lacks empathy, he thinks utility, and he reduces others to mere instruments. If they cease to "function", if – no matter how inadvertently – they cause him to doubt this illusory, half-baked, self-esteem – they become the subject of a reign of terror. The narcissist then proceeds to hurt these "insubordinate wretches". He belittles and humiliates them. He displays aggression and violence in myriad forms. His behaviour metamorphesises, kaleidoscopically, from over-valuation of the useful other – to a severe under – and devaluation of same.

The narcissist abhors, almost physiologically, others who are judged by him to be "useless".

These rapid alterations between absolute overvaluation to complete devaluation of others make the maintenance of long term interpersonal relationships all but impossible.

The more pathological form of narcissism – the Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) – was defined in the successive versions of the American DSM and the European ICD. It is useful to scrutinise these geological layers of clinical observations and their interpretation. In 1977 the DSM-III criteria included (the following texts are adaptations of the original ones):

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):

An all-pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or in behaviour), a need for admiration and a marked lack of empathy which starts at early adulthood and is present in a variety of contexts.

At least 5 of the following should be present for a person to be diagnosed as suffering from NPD:

There emerges a portrait of a monster, a ruthless and exploitative person. But this is only the phenomenological side. Inside, the narcissist suffers from a chronic lack of confidence and is fundamentally dissatisfied.

On the outside, his is a vicissitudinal nature. This is far from reflecting the barren landscape of misery and fears that constitutes his soul. His tumultuous behaviour covers up for a submissive, depressed 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, the 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 the development cycle can be thwarted by the very efforts we all make in our infancy to develop the capacity to love an object. Some of us, thus Freud, fail to grow beyond the phase of self-love in the development of the libido. Others refer to themselves and prefer themselves as THE objects of love (instead of preferring their mothers).

This choice – to concentrate on the self – is the result of an unconscious decision to give up an unrewarding effort to love others and to trust them.

The child learns that the only one he can trust to always and reliably be available – is he. Therefore, the only one he can love without being abandoned or hurt – is again he. Other meaningful others were inconsistent in their acceptance of the child and the only times they paid attention to him were when they wished to satisfy their needs. They tended to ignore him when these needs were no longer pressing or existent. So, the child learned to side-step longer and deeper relationships – in order to avoid this approach-avoidance pendulum. Protecting himself from hurt and from abandonment, he would rather not have anything to do with people around him. He digs in – rather than spring out.

As children, all of us go through this phase of disbelief. We all put people around us (=the objects) to a test. 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. This is tough: narcissism is alluring. It is very soothing, warm and dependable. It never lets one down. 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 a strong force are required to motivate the child to give it up. This force is called "Parental Love". The child progresses in order to be able to love his parents. If they are narcissists – they go through the idealisation (over-valuation) and devaluation cycle. They do not reliably satisfy the ever-present needs of the Child. In other words, they frustrate him. He gradually develops the sensation that he is no more than a toy, a tool to provide his parents with satisfaction, means to an end. This deforms the budding Ego. The Child forms a strong dependence (as opposed to attachment) on his parents. This dependence is really a reflection of fear, the mirror image of aggression, as we shall see later. 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, fights himself and tries to defuse his libidinal and aggressive sensations and emotions. This way, he hopes to rehabilitate the damaged relationship (which never really existed – hence the primordial prevarication, the mother of all future fantasies). In his embattled mind, he transforms the Superego into an idealised, sadistic parent-child. His Ego becomes the complementing part in this imaginary play of invented roles: a hated, devalued child-parent.

The family is the mainspring of support of every kind. It mobilizes psychological resources and alleviates emotional burdens. It allows for the sharing of tasks, provides material supplies coupled with cognitive training. It is the prime socialization 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 development and to proper adaptation. The child must feel, in a functional family, that he can share his experiences without being defensive and that the feedback that he is likely to get will be open and unbiased. The only "bias" acceptable (often because it is consistent with constant outside feedback) is the set of beliefs, values and goals that are finally internalized by the child by way of imitation and unconscious identification. So, the family is the first and the most important source of identity and of emotional support. It is a greenhouse where a child feels loved, accepted and secured - 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 and dissected. 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.

He 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. He also provides emotional support and economic security, thus stabilizing 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. He is largely a reflection of its dysfunction. One or more (usually, many more) of the functions aforementioned are improperly fulfilled.

The two most important mechanisms are:

First, the mechanism of 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."

Second is the mechanism of over-valuation (idealization) and devaluation. The dual roles of sadist and punished masochist (Superego and Ego), parent and child - permeate, then invade and then pervade all the of the narcissist’s interactions with others.

The narcissist experiences a reversal of roles as his relationships progress.

At the beginning of every 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 becomes an avowed sadist, punishing and inflicting pain.

Another school of psychology is represented by Otto Kernberg (1975, 1984, 1987).

Kernberg is a senior member of the "Object Relations" school in Psychology (Kohut, Kernberg, Klein, Winnicott).

Kernberg disagrees with Freud. He regards the division between an Object Libido (=energy directed at Objects, people in the immediate vicinity of the infant and who are meaningful to him) and a Narcissistic Libido (=energy directed at the Self as the most immediate and satisfying Object), which precedes it - as artificial.

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 he forms in his mind) and the representations of Objects (=roughly, the images of the Objects that he forms in his mind, based on all the information available to him, including emotional data). It is also dependent on the relationship between the representations of the Self and real, external, "objective" Objects. Add to this instinctual conflicts related both to 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 from a Self, which is devalued or fixated on aggression.

All object relations of such a Self are distorted: it detaches from the 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.

Kohut, as we said, regarded Narcissism as the final product of the failing efforts of parents to cope with the needs of the child to idealize and to be grandiose (for instance, to be omnipotent).

Idealization is an important developmental path leading to Narcissism. The child merges the idealized aspects of the images of the parent (Imago 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 re-internalization processes (=the processes in which the child re-introduced the Objects and their images into his mind) which are right for each of the successive phases. Through these processes, two permanent nuclei of the personality are constructed:

  1. The basic, neutralizing texture of the psyche and
  2. The ideal Superego

Both of them are characterized by an invested instinctual Narcissistic cathexis (=invested energy of self-love which is instinctual).

At first, the child idealizes his parents. As he grows, he begins to notice their shortcomings and vices. He withdraws part of the idealizing 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-internalizes 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:

  1. 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.
  1. A disturbance occurring later in life - but still pre-Oedipally - affects the pre-Oedipal formation of the basic fabric of the control, channeling and neutralizing of 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 - sexualize drive derivatives and internal and external conflicts either in the form of fantasies or in the form of deviant acts.
  1. A disturbance formed in the Oedipal or even in the early latent phases - inhibits the completion of the Superego idealization. This is especially true of a disappointment related to an ideal object of the late Pre-Oedipal and the Oedipal stages, where the partly idealized external parallel of the newly internalized object is traumatically destroyed.

Such a person possesses a set of values and standards - but he forever looks for ideal external figures from whom he aspires to derive the affirmation and the leadership that his insufficiently idealized Superego cannot supply.

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 idealize is hampered. He is constantly shadowed 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. His superiority extends to his therapist in particular and to psychology in general. He seeks treatment only following a major crisis, which directly threatens his projected and perceived image. We can say that the narcissist's "pride" has to be severely hurt to motivate him to admit his need for help. Even then, the therapy sessions resemble a battleground. The narcissist is aloof and distanced, demonstrates his superiority in a myriad of 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.



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