Excerpts from the Archives of the Narcissism List - Part 8

Listowner: Dr. Sam Vaknin


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1. Do Infants Trigger Their Own Abuse?

It is conceivable that certain infants are born with a genetic propensity NOT to attach to the mother (I won't use "caregiver" or "primary object"). Could it be that this PROVOKES abuse/neglect by the mother?

Other infants are born DIFFERENT. For instance, how would a mother cope emotionally with an exceptionally gifted or handicapped child? What about physical defects? These children are "alien", threatening - especially to teen mothers or inexperienced ones (or culturally conditioned ones).

Perhaps children TRIGGER the treatment that they receive in certain cases?

This sounds a lot like shifting the blame to the victim (a classic with rape victims).

I am NOT trying to justify abuse or neglect. There is no justification or mitigating circumstances for abuse, even in the case of the abuser's mental illness.

But we are very far from deciphering the delicate and intricate mechanisms that bind infants to objects and later, to meaningful others. Attachment is still mysterious.

Over the years I had the chance to hear from HUNDREDS of mothers the following:

  1. Children are BORN with distinct "characters" (they mostly used the term "personalities" which is going too far, of course). Many mothers insist that - from the third or fourth postnatal day - they could tell if a child is obstinate, temperamental, mentally alert or intelligent, possessive and envious (and many other traits).
  1. As a result, these mothers concluded that children are IMMEDIATELY distinguishable from one another.
  1. This leads to different treatment and emotional investment accorded to each child, even in the same family and by the same mother and under similar social, cultural and economic circumstances.

There are two possibilities to relate to this common claim:

  1. (Cultural, societal, or personal) prejudice and bias (of the mothers)
  2. Part truth. In which case, it is interesting why this very important observation by mothers has been largely ignored hitherto.

2. Narcissism, Wife Beating and Alcoholism

Issue number one: is narcissism equivalent to alcoholism, wife beating and stealing?

Absolutely not. Narcissism is a personality structure. Wife beating and stealing are specific behaviours. "Personality" is a MUCH wider concept.

Issue number two: does this absolve the narcissist of responsibility?

The narcissist is responsible for most of his actions because he can tell right from wrong. He simply doesn't care enough about other people to restrain or modify his behaviour. There's more in the archives and in my FAQs.

It is true that the narcissist intellectualises and rationalises his actions. But he does so to justify the specific action, not its overall nature. For instance: a narcissist berates and demeans his wife in public. He knows that GENERALLY speaking it is wrong to berate and demean anyone, let alone one's spouse. But he has an excellent explanation why the WRONG, unfortunate, and usually regrettable act had, IN THIS CASE, to be done. He would say:

"Demeaning one's spouse in public is wrong,


In this case, the circumstances were such that I was left with no choice but to demean and berate her in public."

3. Disinterested Narcissists

Narcissists are like all other humans. BUT, there is a difference. They do not COMPARE.... He is both incapable AND disinterested in your predicament, personality, emotions, in YOU.

They cannot fathom love. But they can definitely fathom anger, indignation, or envy.

Meta language means a language common to us both. Thus, there isn't your meta language or mine, only ours. You can never KNOW if I am hurt. You can assume, guess, deduce, learn that I am hurt from what I tell you, from a similarity of circumstances, from some safe assumptions you are making.

If you call me "idiot" I can PRETEND to be hurt and you would think that I am hurt - irrespective of whether I am truly hurt or not. We cannot KNOW the internal states of anything but ourselves (cogito, ergo sum). We can only INFER them.

4. Superego

The Ego Ideal is not "subsumed by the Superego". It is simply the earlier name given to the Superego in Freud's writings. He then changed it to Superego.

The Superego IS the conscience (in psychodynamic theories). There is no separate conscience. BUT it is true that if the primary caregivers were not "good enough" (Winnicott) the Superego turns out to be idealistic, sadistic,  makes unrealistic demands on the Ego, etc.

A conscience can, therefore, be realistic and impose a realistic test of right and wrong - or ideal and sadistic and torment the Ego with its taunting, unrealistic demands. If one grew up in a restrictive, religious environment, chances are that one has a conscience - only "too much" of it, making impossible demands upon one and torturing one with moral self-flagellation and doubts.

5. Emotional Daltonism

By philosophical and logical definition I CANNOT know how is it to be you.   You can describe it to me. You can say to me: "this hurts". Then I remember MY pain and I ASSUME that you are having the same thing. Can we PROVE that your pain=my pain, your love=my love? Never. Ours are PRIVATE languages. We are limited to our META-language: we can talk ABOUT our selves, our emotions, our thoughts. We can never be SURE that we share the same experiences or emotions - because there is no WAY to objectively measure, test, evaluate, analyze or compare them.

Narcissists, in this sense, are like all other humans. BUT, there is a difference. They do not COMPARE. When you say: "it hurts (emotionally)", the narcissist has nothing to compare it to. He is an emotional Daltonist. He, therefore, stares at you blankly. You say: "it hurts" (physically) - and to him it is simply a superfluous and rather boring bit of information. He is both incapable AND disinterested in your predicament, personality, emotions, in YOU.

Unless, of course, you represent a potential Source of Narcissistic Supply.

You can never "know" a person. We are all locked within impenetrable walls, speaking incomprehensible private languages, communicating through distant echoes, often misinterpreted by others. We can KNOW only actions. We can GUESS or ASSUME that what is happening inside another human being is SIMILAR/IDENTICAL to what is happening inside us (this is empathy). Tastes and preferences unless expressed remain unknown. If expressed - they are no different to actions. We are all blind to each other. Hence our existential pain.

If a computer were programmed to behave in strict accordance with all ten commandments + Asimov's three laws of robotics + all the legal codex of the USA - would it have possessed a conscience?

Don't people engage in moral activities on strictly utilitarian grounds?

See my "Philosophical Musings":  http://samvak.tripod.com/culture.html

6. Atheism

I am NOT an atheist. No one can make any logically rigorous statement about God. We can only state our beliefs concerning Him. No statement about God can have a truth value (can be assigned a value of "true" or "false", logically speaking).

This is because we can devise no test to falsify the predictions emanating from such a statement (see Karl Popper and the Concept of Falsification).

Thus, an atheist cannot say that God does not exist (this is a statement which MUST be substantiated by yielding a falsifiable prediction concerning the non-existence of God).

An atheist is, therefore, limited to saying that he BELIEVES that God does not exist.

So, an atheist is a BELIEVING person and his RELIGION is atheism.

I am an AGNOSTIC. I say that I DON'T KNOW if God exists or not because I cannot say anything logically-rigorous about His existence (or non-existence).

I presume that "The Written Word of God" is the assemblage of ancient texts known as the scriptures. Religion is a powerful "outer conscience", a substitute for an inner conscience (also known as Superego in psychoanalysis).

Like any state of suspension of disbelief (example: drug addiction) it provides an agenda (goal), a daily routine (outer skeleton when an inner one is missing), a sublimation and assimilation of obsessions and compulsions (through prayer and compulsive acts). It is no different, nor inferior, in my view, to psychotherapy. It is a narrative with rules of conduct. For further treatment, see my: http://narcissism.cjb.net/meta1.html

7. The Human Machine

Never declare a victory over a narcissist. Like that legendary phoenix, they keep springing from the ashes of their immolated arguments, strengthened and reinvigorated.

To know what is an NPD - does not take an NPD, only an erudite psychotherapist. Or the right computer software. Humans are pretty basic machines. Feed the right texts to any intelligent agent, he will be able to predict human behaviour pretty well. This is ESPECIALLY true of PDs. They are even more basic than normal people. Their personalities are on a lower level of organisation. Their reactions are rigid, boringly predictable. Normal people are much more varied, unpredictable and interesting.

(continued below)

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8. Conscience

Narcissists can - and have - discussed conscience. Same way as a blind man can discuss colour, I guess ... Freud seems to have been a narcissist. In any case, there can be no "authority" about conscience because it is a figment of our private language. We can judge only derivative behaviours, not underlying emotions. We cannot communicate our inner world. We can only discuss, analyze and dissect only the language that we use to discuss our inner world.

I grant you that maybe you behave morally. That does not make you a conscientious person. I can decide to behave morally for the rest of my life - and not have an ounce of conscience. As, in this group, I am empathic and helpful (to the best of my ability), patient and accepting - but I am devoid of empathy.

Behaviour can be simulated. We cannot infer about inner truths from outer ones. This is why "mens rea" (a criminal motive) is so difficult to establish and the courts prefer to go by one's actions and circumstances.

9. BPD and NPD

The DSM thinks that BPD is not that different than NPD. Borderlines are as manipulative and don't have a conscience. I think each PD has its own Narcissistic Supply:

HPD - Sex, seduction, flirtation, romance, body;
NPD - Adulation, admiration, attention, fame, celebrity;
BPD - Presence (they are terrified of abandonment);
AsPD - Money, power, control, fun.

BPDs seem to me to be NPDs who are scared of being abandoned. They know that if they hurt people, they might abandon them. So, they are very careful. They DO care deeply not to hurt others - but this is selfish: they don't want to lose those others, they are dependent on them. If you are a drug addict, you are not likely to pick up a fight with your pusher.

10.  The Personality Disordered

They are mortified by the increasing probability of abandonment following their behaviour.

Each PD has its own "story", a "narrative" (see my: http://samvak.tripod.com/meta1.html ). The way to healing is replete with the residues of these narratives. To heal, a PD MUST break through his or her narrative and OUT into the world while assuming personal responsibility.

All PDs engage in scapegoating and bag-punching. To the personality disordered, their parents, abusers, the world, God, or history are responsible for what they are and for what they do DECADES after the original abuse. Research shows that the brain is more plastic than many thought. I can CHOOSE to heal. If I don't - it is because I gain from my infirmity. The same is true for BPDs, AsPDs and every other PD.

11. Robert Hare

Robert Hare is considered to be a heretic in DSM-IV terms. His PCL-R was severely criticised by the compilers of DSM-IV (especially after he insisted that they muddled up the definition of AsPD...).

In this case, I think the DSM may be right. The overlap between AsPD and psychopath is too great to justify a separate clinical category. In any case, Hare is absolutely NOT the orthodoxy. The DSM is clear: AsPD in, psychopaths out.

A distinction exists between NPDs and AsPDs.

The differences between PDs and neuroses have been more sharply defined. In a nutshell, PDs have ALLOPLASTIC defenses (react to stress by attempting to change the external environment or by shifting blame to it) while neurotics have AUTOPLASTIC defenses (react to stress by attempting to change their internal processes). The second important difference is that PDs TEND to be ego-syntonic (perceived by the patient to be acceptable, unobjectionable and part of the self) while neurotics tend to be ego-dystonic (the opposite).

This is exactly why "PD Clusters" were invented in 1987. I believe that there is a continuum BPD-HPD-NPD-AsPD.

Grandiosity in its typical narcissistic form is UNIQUE to narcissists. It cannot be found in ANY OTHER PD. A sense of entitlement is common to ALL Cluster B Disorders, though. Narcissists almost never act on their suicidal ideation - BPDs do so incessantly (cutting - Self Injury - or mutilation).

And so it goes. The differential diagnosis is nowhere near where it should be ideally but is sufficient and developing by the day. At this stage, as long as they don't have DSM-V (actually DSM-IV-TR was published), diagnosticians are in the habit of diagnosing multiple PDs. It is extremely rare to diagnose a single pure PD. This is called, as you know, "co-morbidity". I have textbooks at home which URGE diagnosticians NEVER to render a single diagnosis.

NPDs can suffer from brief reactive psychoses exactly as BPDs suffer from psychotic microepisodes. Actually, there is a whole sub-field in psychodynamic theories of narcissism which tries to explain the dynamics of reactive psychoses in pathological narcissism.

NPDs are different from BPDs in these areas:

  1. Less impulsive behaviours (FAR less);
  2. Less self-destructiveness, almost no self-mutilation, practically no suicide attempts;
  3. Less instability (emotional lability, in interpersonal relationships, and so on).

Psychopaths, or Sociopaths, are the old names for the antisocial PD. They are no longer in use, generally. But, the line between NPD and AsPD is very thin. I, personally, believe that AsPD is simply an exaggerated form of NPD and that having two diagnoses in such cases is superfluous.

12. Accusing the Victims

I would never DREAM to accuse the victim!

I just meant to distinguish between those victims who don't know better and get burnt - and those who KNOWINGLY, WILLINGLY, sometimes for the fun of it (risk/adventure), sometimes due to vanity (I will be the one to break him or to save him) - go near narcissists.

The first class of victims are real victims. But I refuse to accept victimology. I think it is degrading and scientifically wrong to assume - as a working hypothesis - that victims WANT to be victimised.

13. Multiple Diagnoses and NPD

NPD rarely appears in isolation. It is not in vain that BPD, NPD, HPD and AsPD constitute members of a Cluster (B) of disorders in the DSM.

Pathological narcissism is what the DSM says it is simply because the DSM (and the ICD) define our terminology. It would have been very difficult to communicate meaningfully otherwise. We can stretch the definition of narcissism somewhat but we cannot include in it traits which are the absolute opposite of narcissism. A new title would then be called for (Maybe "Inverted Narcissism"?).

Narcissists do try to merge with an idealised but badly internalised object. They do so by "digesting" the meaningful others in their lives and transforming them into extensions of their selves. They employ various techniques to achieve this. To the "digested" this is the crux of the harrowing experience called "living with a narcissist".

The narcissist has a badly regulated sense of self-worth. However this is not conscious. He goes through cycles of self-devaluation (and experiences them as dysphorias).

Narcissism MUST include a component of active and conscious grandiose self-image. Some narcissists punish themselves by self-defeating and self-destructive behaviors - but if they actively avoid Narcissistic Supply, they are not narcissists. There is a host of other PDs which incorporate this criterion (social phobia, schizoid PD and many others), though.

The narcissistic dissonance exists on two levels:

  1. Between the UNCONSCIOUS feeling of lack of stable self worth and the grandiose fantasies
  2. Between the grandiose fantasies and reality (the Grandiosity Gap).

If someone thinks that he is not unique - then he can never be defined as a narcissist. The word "narcissist" is taken - a new word must be found. But a sense of worthlessness is typical of many other PDs (AND the feeling that no one could ever understand them).

Narcissists are never empathic. They are attuned to others in order to optimise the extraction of Narcissistic Supply from them.

Because narcissists are unwilling to change - they are take it or leave it propositions. There is little point in trying to "convert" them through the application of love, compassion, or empathy.

Those who are attracted to narcissists must suffer from an underlying mental problem (though I do not think that two narcissists are likely to get along well together).

But there is no denying that some people do get attracted to narcissists - even if they are warned IN GREAT DETAIL as to what is a narcissist and what it is to share a life with one.

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