Excerpts from the Archives of the Narcissism List - Part 43
Listowner: Dr. Sam Vaknin
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Everyone learns from experience. The question is WHAT is learned.
The narcissist has alloplastic defenses. In other words, he tends to blame the world for failures, mishaps, problems, and defeats.
Because he has a preconceived notion of a hostile, menacing Universe - his experience only serves to fortify his prejudices. The narcissist learns nothing, forgets nothing, and forgives nothing.
A post-mortem of a relationship conducted with a narcissist is very frustrating because it never achieves closure. The narcissist is interested exclusively in allocating blame and generating guilt - not in progressing, developing, atoning, soothing, or concluding anything.
Such exercises in futility are best avoided.
2. The Narcissist's Body
Lowen in his 1983 book "Narcissism: Denial of the True Self" wrote: "Narcissists lack a sense of self derived from bodily feelings ... (T)hey deny feelings that contradict the image they seek."
The Self first coalesces around physical sensations confined to one's body, excretions, and contact with other physical entities (mainly, the mother). Freud believed that narcissists fail to learn how to shift their attentions and, later, emotions, onto external "objects" (people). Instead, their "Libido" (life and sex drive) is directed at their own body, both sexually (auto-eroticism, masturbation) and emotionally. This failure at "Object Relations" also leads to difficulties in recognizing and accepting the separateness of other people, their boundaries, and their independent emotions and needs.
I think that both Lowen and Freud are right.
However, to my mind, Freud is referring to the SOMATIC narcissist - while Lowen deals with the CEREBRAL one. Cerebral narcissists indeed loathe their body as a source of decay, decrepitude, disease, uncontrollable urges, and death.
3. Narcissists and Age
The Narcissistic and Antisocial Personality Disorders are so similar that many scholars and, more so, clinicians, suggested to abolish the distinction altogether. Yet, in some respects, there are differences.
Age is one of them.
This article appears in my book, "Malignant Self-love: Narcissism Revisited"
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The DSM-IV-TR (2000) has this to say (page 704):
"By definition, Antisocial Personality Disorder cannot be diagnosed before age 18 years ... (It) has a chronic course but may become less evident or remit as the individual grows older, particularly by the fourth decade of life. Although this remission tends to be particularly evident with respect to engaging in criminal behavior, there is likely to be a decrease in the full spectrum of antisocial behaviors and substance use."
And about the Narcissistic Personality Disorder (page 716):
"Narcissistic traits may be particularly common in adolescents and do not necessarily indicate that the individual will go on to have Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). Individuals with NPD may have special difficulties adjusting to the onset of physical and occupational limitations that are inherent in the aging process."
The antisocial personality ameliorates with age and, very often, vanishes completely in midlife. Not so pathological narcissism. Many narcissists do get better as they mature, battered by life crises and faced with new responsibilities and new, sometimes painful, lessons.
But other narcissists only get worse. Age seems to accentuate the worst in them. I wrote about this deterioration here.
4. An Object Relations Approach to Understanding Unusual Behaviors and Disturbances
This essay by Kathi Stringer surveys Object Relations Theory (mainly Mahler's work). I fully agree with her that this branch of psychodynamics possesses the strongest explanatory powers as far as childhood development and the emergence of psychopathology go.
The main problems with the limited versions of object relations are the neglect of all early infancy influences, bar the mother's - and the proliferation of postulated psychic structures, none of them directly observable. There isn't an agreement even as to basic terminology. Klein's "bad object" is "out thee" - Winnicott's is internalized.
Additionally, the various phases and transitions - such as Separation-Individuation - are "smooth" and do not "leave psychological traces". Melanie Klein's work with its life-long "positions" (paranoid-schizoid and, later, depressive) partly saw to that - but, even so, some scholars (Daniel Stern) dispute the entire edifice based on clinical research.
It is not even agreed that the awareness of separate objects is not an innate, born, ability. Klein - a pillar of Object Relations Theory - thought that infants are born with an Ego and the immediate ability to split the world into bad and good objects. Kohut suggested that narcissism and object-love co-exist throughout life and are born - not learned - qualities. And, as many a mother would attest, most children are aware of outside object long before they are 30 days old, the end of the Autistic Phase, according to Mahler.
Classic Object Relations Theory also fails to explain the Rapprochement sub-phase of the Separation-Individuation phase. What brings about the separation anxiety that drives the child back into his mother's arms and provokes in it an acute sense of object inconstancy? How does the child transit from the symbiotic omnipotent dyad, in which the mother is a mere extension - into a state of quivering hysteria? Where does the realization of separateness emanate from? The development of language skills reflect this mysterious process - they do not induce it.
Aware of these weaknesses in Mahler's work, Object Relations theorists suggested that primary narcissism has numerous roots. The omnipotence attributed to the mother-extension in the symbiotic phase is only one of them. More about this in my Primer on Narcissism.
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