Prof. Sam Vaknin is the author of Malignant Self-love: Narcissism Revisited (Amazon) as well as many other books and ebooks about topics in psychology, relationships, philosophy, economics, international affairs, and award-winning short fiction. He is Visiting Professor of Psychology, Southern Federal University, Rostov-on-Don, Russia (September, 2017 to present) and Professor of Finance and Psychology in SIAS-CIAPS (Centre for International Advanced and Professional Studies) (April, 2012 to present). Here we talk briefly about his work on narcissism, generally.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Your raison d’être is narcissism. “Narcissism” is rooted in the Greek myth of Narcissus. Narcissus rejected a nymph, Echo. His punishment: eternal love with his reflection in water. Narcissists, as you state, love their reflection, not themselves. This raises the distinction between the False Self and the True Self. What distinguishes the False Self from the True Self?
Professor Sam Vaknin: The True Self in the unconstellated (unintegrated) precursor to the Self. It includes introjected object-representation (voices and inner objects – “avatars” – which represent caregivers, such as parental figures).
Abuse during the formative years disrupts the integration of the True Self and its replacement by a False Self: a godlike construct that performs several functions.
1. It serves as a decoy, it “attracts the fire”. It is a proxy for the True Self. It is tough as nails and can absorb any amount of pain, hurt and negative emotions. By inventing it, the child develops immunity to the indifference, manipulation, sadism, smothering, or exploitation – in short: to the abuse – inflicted on him by his parents (or by other Primary Objects in his life). It is a cloak, 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 I am. I am someone else. I am this (False) Self. Therefore, I deserve a better, painless, more considerate treatment.” The False Self, thus, is a contraption intended to alter other people’s behaviour and attitude towards the narcissist.
In a full-fledged narcissist, the False Self imitates the True Self. To do so artfully, it deploys two mechanisms:
It causes the narcissist to re-interpret certain emotions and reactions in a flattering, socially acceptable, light. The 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 commendation and understanding (narcissistic supply).
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 empathy.
This capacity is coupled with the narcissist’s eerie ability to imitate emotions and their attendant behaviours (affect). 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 accurate renditions of emotional behaviour. This can be enormously deceiving.
Jacobsen: Why does the narcissist love their “reflected-Self,” as in the myth of Narcissus, rather than their True Self?
Vaknin: Because it provides all the above-mentioned functions. For the same reason that people love god. It is a proxy ideal parental figure and it renders the narcissist divine-by-association: omniscient, omnipotent, brilliant, perfect, infallible, and so on. Gradually, the narcissist comes to identify himself (or herself) with the False Self (which started off as a fantastic imaginary friend in a paracosm). Looking at it this way, narcissism is a private religion: the False Self is the deity, the narcissist is the worshipper, and the True Self is the human sacrifice.
Jacobsen: What differentiates the Ego, the Superego, and the Self? What is the nature of narcissism regarding these, in general?
Vaknin: I regard the trilateral model as metaphorical, not as “real” or “objective” in any sense.
The False Self pretends to be the only self and denies the existence of a True Self. It is also extremely useful (adaptive). Rather than risking constant conflict, the narcissist opts for a solution of “disengagement”.
The classical Ego, proposed by Freud, is partly conscious and partly preconscious and unconscious. The narcissist’s Ego is completely submerged. The preconscious and conscious parts are detached from it by early traumas and form the False Ego.
The Superego in healthy people constantly compares the Ego to the Ego Ideal. The narcissist has a different psychodynamic. The narcissist’s False Self serves as a buffer and as a shock absorber between the True Ego and the narcissist’s sadistic, punishing, immature Superego. The narcissist aspires to become pure Ideal Ego.
The narcissist’s Ego cannot develop because it is deprived of contact with the outside world and, therefore, endures no growth-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 brittle 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 the Ego is in charge of delaying gratification. It postpones pleasurable acts 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 psychological 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 a realistic and optimal “bargains” for its “client”, the Id. These intellectual and perceptual functions are supervised by the exceptionally strict court of the Superego.
Jacobsen: How do narcissists manage the balance between their sadistic superego and False Self?
Vaknin: The irony is that narcissists are “self-less”. The narcissist’s True Self is introverted and utterly dysfunctional. 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 and feedback from the outside world (from others) in order to perform the most basic Ego functions (e.g., “recognizing” of the world, setting boundaries, forming a self-definition or identity, differentiation, self-esteem, and regulating his sense of self-worth). This input or feedback is known as narcissistic supply” .Only the False Self gets in touch with the world. The True Self is isolated, repressed, unconscious, a shadow.
The False Self is, therefore, a kind of “hive self” or “swarm self”. It is a collage of reflections, a patchwork of outsourced information, titbits garnered from the narcissist’s interlocutors and laboriously cohered and assembled so as to uphold and buttress the narcissist’s inflated, fantastic, and grandiose self-image. This discontinuity accounts for the dissociative nature of pathological narcissism as well as for the narcissist’s seeming inability to learn from the errors of his ways.
In healthy, normal people ego functions are strictly internal processes. In the narcissist, ego functions are imported from the surroundings, they are thoroughly external. Consequently, the narcissist often confuses his inner mental-psychological landscape with the outside world. He tends to fuse and merge his mind and his milieu. He regards significant others and sources of supply as mere extensions of himself and he appropriates them because they fulfil crucial internal roles and, as a result, are perceived by him to be sheer internal objects, devoid of an objective, external, and autonomous existence.
The narcissist is an even more extreme case. His Ego is non-existent. 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 actions at present and to plans for 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 confabulation rubs off on 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 is a false and wrong gauge of the world. It falsely and inefficiently regulates the drives. It fails to thwart anxiety.
The False Self provides a false sense of continuity and of a “personal centre”. It weaves an enchanted and grandiose fable as a substitute to reality. The narcissist 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 excluded.
Moreover, the narcissist cannot be consistent or coherent. His False Self is preoccupied with the pursuit of Narcissistic Supply. The narcissist has no boundaries because his Ego is not sufficiently defined or fully differentiated. The only constancy is the narcissist’s feelings of diffusion or annulment. This is especially true in life crises, when the False Ego ceases to function.
The narcissist’s superego is comprised of infantile, harsh, sadistic introjects. It is frozen in time, in an early stage of personal development, devoid of reflective self-awareness. It is much closer to the Id and leverages its aggression against the self.
The narcissist is besieged and tormented by a sadistic Superego which sits in constant judgement. It is an amalgamation of negative evaluations, criticisms, angry or disappointed voices, and disparagement meted out in the narcissist’s formative years and adolescence by parents, peers, role models, and authority figures.
These harsh and repeated comments reverberate throughout the narcissist’s inner landscape, berating him for failing to conform to his unattainable ideals, fantastic goals, and grandiose or impractical plans. The narcissist’s sense of self-worth is, therefore, catapulted from one pole to another: from an inflated view of himself (incommensurate with real life accomplishments) to utter despair and self-denigration.
Hence the narcissist’s need for Narcissistic Supply to regulate this wild pendulum. People’s adulation, admiration, affirmation, and attention restore the narcissist’s self-esteem and self-confidence.
The narcissist’s sadistic and uncompromising Superego affects three facets of his personality:
1. His sense of self-worth and worthiness (the deeply ingrained conviction that one deserves love, compassion, care, and empathy regardless of what one achieves). The narcissist feels worthless without Narcissistic Supply.
2. His self-esteem (self-knowledge, the deeply ingrained and realistic appraisal of one’s capacities, skills, limitations, and shortcomings). The narcissist lacks clear boundaries and, therefore, is not sure of his abilities and weaknesses. Hence his grandiose fantasies.
3. His self-confidence (the deeply ingrained belief, based on lifelong experience, that one can set realistic goals and accomplish them). The narcissist knows that he is a fake and a fraud. He, therefore, does not trust his ability to manage his own affairs and to set practical aims and realize them.
By becoming a success (or at least by appearing to have become one) the narcissist hopes to quell the voices inside him that constantly question his veracity and aptitude. The narcissist’s whole life is a two-fold attempt to both satisfy the inexorable demands of his inner tribunal and to prove wrong its harsh and merciless criticism.
It is this dual and self-contradictory mission, to conform to the edicts of his internal enemies and to prove their very judgement wrong, that is at the root of the narcissist’s unresolved conflicts.
On the one hand, the narcissist accepts the authority of his introjected (internalised) critics and disregards the fact that they hate him and wish him dead. He sacrifices his life to them, hoping that his successes and accomplishments (real or perceived) will ameliorate their rage.
On the other hand, he confronts these very gods with proofs of their fallibility. “You claim that I am worthless and incapable” – he cries – “Well, guess what? You are dead wrong! Look how famous I am, look how rich, how revered, and accomplished!”
But then much rehearsed self-doubt sets in and the narcissist feels yet again compelled to falsify the claims of his trenchant and indefatigable detractors by conquering another woman, giving one more interview, taking over yet another firm, making an extra million, or getting re-elected one more time.
To no avail. The narcissist is his own worst foe. Ironically, it is only when incapacitated that the narcissist gains a modicum of peace of mind. When terminally ill, incarcerated, or inebriated the narcissist can shift the blame for his failures and predicaments to outside agents and objective forces over which he has no control. “It’s not my fault” – he gleefully informs his mental tormentors – “There was nothing I could do about it! Now, go away and leave me be.”
And then – with the narcissist defeated and broken – they do and he is free at last.
In the patient with a personality disorder, the sadistic and disparaging inner voices that constitute the Superego (in Freud’s parlance) are implacable. If the patient is successful these introjects, or inner representations (of narcissistic parents, for example), become virulently envious and punitive. If the patient fails in his endeavours, these internalized avatars feel vindicated, elated, euphoric and morally justified in their quest to inflict pain and castigation on the patient.
But why does the patient not resist? Why doesn’t s/he rebel against these embedded tormentors, at least by doubting their omniscience, infallibility, and veracity? Because it feels good to satisfy them (it feels good to cater to mother’s emotional needs and thereby to be a “good boy”, for example). It is a masochistic Stockholm Syndrome, a shared psychosis (follies a plusieurs). The patient doesn’t experiences these harsh juries sitting in judgement over him, his traits, skills, and actions as alien, but as an integral part of himself. Their gratification at his self-immolation is also his.
Jacobsen: What is the fundamental difference between individuals with low to moderate narcissistic tendencies and individuals with a formal diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD)?
Vaknin: Len Sperry distinguished between narcissistic style and narcissist disorder. Millon contributed the mezzanine level: narcissistic personality. These are gradations. The differences between these three reflect a higher intensity, all-pervasiveness (effects on all realms of life) and the escalation of the effects of the various narcissistic behaviors and traits on the individual and on his human environment.
Jacobsen: Narcissism comes with internal processes and externalized behaviours, including abusive. What is the internal landscape, or matrix of cognitive and emotional processes, of a narcissist? What are the externalizing behaviours of narcissism, the signifiers?
Vaknin: Both types of narcissists – overt and covert (fragile, shy, vulnerable, inverted) – are invested in extracting narcissistic supply to regulate their fluctuating sense of self-worth. They also lack empathy.
The fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM, 2013) includes a dimensional model of NPD.
The DSM V re-defines personality disorders thus:
According to the Alternative DSM V Model for Personality Disorders (p.767), the following criteria must be met to diagnose Narcissistic Personality Disorder (in parentheses my comments):
Moderate or greater impairment in personality functioning in either identity, or self-direction (should be: in both.)
The narcissist keeps referring to others excessively in order to regulate his self-esteem (really, sense of self-worth) and for “self-definition” (to define his identity.) His self-appraisal is exaggerated, whether it is inflated, deflated, or fluctuating between these two poles and his emotional regulation reflects these vacillations.
(Finally, the DSM V accepted what I have been saying for decades: that narcissists can have an “inferiority complex” and feel worthless and bad; that they go through cycles of ups and downs in their self-evaluation; and that this cycling influences their mood and affect).
The narcissist sets goals in order to gain approval from others (narcissistic supply; the DSM V ignores the fact that the narcissist finds disapproval equally rewarding as long as it places him firmly in the limelight.) The narcissist lacks self-awareness as far as his motivation goes (and as far as everything else besides.)
The narcissist’s personal standards and benchmarks are either too high (which supports his grandiosity), or too low (buttresses his sense of entitlement, which is incommensurate with his real-life performance.)
The narcissist finds it difficult to identify with the emotions and needs of others, but is very attuned to their reactions when they are relevant to himself (cold empathy.) Consequently, he overestimates the effect he has on others or underestimates it (the classic narcissist never underestimates the effect he has on others – but the inverted narcissist does.)
The narcissist’s relationships are self-serving and, therefore shallow and superficial. They are centred around and geared at the regulation of his self-esteem (obtaining narcissistic supply for the regulation of his labile sense of self-worth.)
The narcissist is not “genuinely” interested in his intimate partner’s experiences (implying that he does fake such interest convincingly.) The narcissist emphasizes his need for personal gain (by using the word “need”, the DSM V acknowledges the compulsive and addictive nature of narcissistic supply). These twin fixtures of the narcissist’s relationships render them one-sided: no mutuality or reciprocity (no intimacy).
Pathological personality traits
Antagonism characterized by grandiosity and attention-seeking
The aforementioned feeling of entitlement. The DSM V adds that it can be either overt or covert (which corresponds to my taxonomy of classic and inverted narcissist.)
Grandiosity is characterized by self-centredness; a firmly-held conviction of superiority (arrogance or haughtiness); and condescending or patronizing attitudes.
The narcissist puts inordinate effort, time, and resources into attracting others (sources of narcissistic supply) and placing himself at the focus and centre of attention. He seeks admiration (the DSM V gets it completely wrong here: the narcissist does prefer to be admired and adulated, but, failing that, any kind of attention would do, even if it is negative.)
The diagnostic criteria end with disclaimers and differential diagnoses, which reflect years of accumulated research and newly-gained knowledge:
The above enumerated impairments should be “stable across time and consistent across situations … not better understood as normative for the individual’s developmental stage or socio-cultural environment … are not solely due to the direct physiological effects of a substance (e.g., a drug of abuse, medication) or a general medical condition (e.g., severe head trauma).”
It is important to note that the DSM is used mostly in North America. The rest of the world uses local variants of the ICD.
There is a revolutionary paradigm shift regarding personality disorders in the 11th edition of the ICD (International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems), published by the WHO (World Health Organization). Watch this video for more: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eZB0JE4mzaw
Jacobsen: Those externalized behaviours can be abusive, e.g., narcissistic abuse. What is narcissistic abuse?
Vaknin: In 1995, I coined the phrase “narcissistic abuse” to describe a subtype of abusive behavior that was all-pervasive (across multiple areas of life) and involved a plethora of behaviors and manipulative or coercive techniques.
Narcissistic abuse differed from all other types of abuse in its range, sophistication, duration, versatility, and express and premeditated intention to negate and vitiate the victim’s personal autonomy, agency, self-efficacy, and wellbeing.
The victims of narcissistic abuse appeared to present a clinical picture substantially different to victims of other, more pinpointed and goal-oriented types of abuse. They were more depressed and anxious, disoriented, aggressive (defiant reactance), dissociative, and trapped or hopeless owing to learned (intermittently reinforced or operant conditioned) helplessness. In short: they were in the throes of trauma bonding (Stockholm syndrome), a kind of cultish shared psychosis (folies a deux).
Repeated abuse has long lasting pernicious and traumatic effects such as panic attacks, hypervigilance, sleep disturbances, flashbacks (intrusive memories), suicidal ideation, and psychosomatic symptoms. The victims experience shame, depression, anxiety, embarrassment, guilt, humiliation, abandonment, and an enhanced sense of vulnerability.
C-PTSD (Complex PTSD) has been proposed as a new mental health diagnosis by Dr. Judith Herman of Harvard University to account for the impact of extended periods of trauma and abuse.
Jacobsen: For the most extreme cases of narcissism to the most minute, what are the principles for dealing with them if one cannot enact the no contact rule
Vaknin: Here is a video that describes all the techniques I know: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=euGhNMifaw8
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Professor Vaknin.
Vaknin: Thank you again for your patience and perseverance!
Image Credit: Sam Vaknin.