Narcissism, Narcissists, and Abusive Relationships - Epistolary Dialog

Letter I

Letter II

Letter III

Letter IV

Letter V

Letter VI

Letter VII

Letter VIII

Letter IX

Letter X

Letter XI

Letter XII

©Stephen McDonnell and Sam Vaknin

All text is copyrighted and is published here with the permission of the authors.

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Letter no 3 November 1, 2004

Dear Sam,

We had agreed to keep out any personal experiences in our exchanges, but it is very hard to intellectualize, at least for me, my interactions with narcissistic people and NPDs. So I hope you will allow me to temporize, to talk about two experiences that illustrate how difficult it is to communicate with other people, especially NPDs. Not being a psychiatrist I cannot make a legitimate diagnosis.


Don't worry about it. You are in good company. Though first proposed by Freud in 1915, the construct of pathological narcissism didn't make it into the DSM - the bible of the psychiatric profession in North America - until 1980! Even now, the ICD-10, published by the World Health Organization (WHO), and used throughout the rest of the world, contains no separate mental health diagnosis of narcissism! As far as Europe, Asia, and Africa are concerned, NPD still does not exist!

Moreover, narcissism is still very difficult to diagnose, even by seasoned professionals. In many cases, it is comorbid with other mental health disorders. Often, Asperger's Disorder and Bipolar I are misdiagnosed as NPD!!!


Now I have no idea if the two people I am going to mention suffer from Narcissistic Personality Disorder, or not. They may have been having a bad day, week or year. As they were women, it could be blamed on PMS or the moon, but I hate to dismiss women in that manner, and think they are equal to men, and equally responsible for their actions.

The first incident took place years ago. I was a student and this woman and I socialized in class. I thought there was a Platonic relationship developing, or at least camaraderie, but instead she told me she could tell by my "non-verbal" communication that I liked her, and even more. After inviting her to my home for a party of friends, so that she could meet my wife and son, she persisted in this strange obsession with me. I finally told her where to get off, and essentially told her she was a liar.

Now, years later, she has published a book on how to tell if people are lying. I have not read it, but during a TV interview she read parts of it, and in the final pages she had written that people begin lying by lying to themselves.

How true. It gave me some satisfaction that I might have inspired the book, though I doubt it, and that maybe she had gained some 'self-reflexivity".

For all I know, she may be following the same behaviors with other people.

Now in her case, and with some hindsight, I wonder if she did not suffer from 'border line personality' disorder. Such cases tend to be self-disillusioned; they think people who are kind to them are in reality in love with them. They then reject people they are involved with. They play a sort of love-hate dance, with the refrain playing in the background of, "I love you, go away." The actress Glen Close played a 'border line' in the 1987 movie, Fatal Attraction.


Narcissists are often self-delusional.

Don't get me wrong, I think that confabulations are an important part of life. They serve to heal emotional wounds or to prevent ones from being inflicted in the first place. They prop-up the confabulator's self-esteem, regulate his (or her) sense of self-worth, and buttress his (or her) self-image. They serve as organizing principles in social interactions.

Father's wartime heroism, mother's youthful good looks, one's oft-recounted exploits, erstwhile alleged brilliance, and past purported sexual irresistibility - are typical examples of white, fuzzy, heart-warming lies wrapped around a shriveled kernel of truth.

But the distinction between reality and fantasy is rarely completely lost. Deep inside, the healthy confabulator knows where facts end and wishful thinking takes over. Father acknowledges he was no war hero, though he did his share of fighting. Mother understands she was no ravishing beauty, though she may have been attractive. The confabulator realizes that his recounted exploits are overblown, his brilliance exaggerated, and his sexual irresistibility a myth.

Such distinctions never rise to the surface because everyone - the confabulator and his audience alike - have a common interest to maintain the confabulation. To challenge the integrity of the confabulator or the veracity of his confabulations is to threaten the very fabric of family and society. Human intercourse is built around such entertaining deviations from the truth.

This is where the narcissist differs from others (from "normal" people).

His very self is a piece of fiction concocted to fend off hurt and to nurture the narcissist's grandiosity. He fails in his "reality test" - the ability to distinguish the actual from the imagined. The narcissist fervently believes in his own infallibility, brilliance, omnipotence, heroism, and perfection. He doesn't dare confront the truth and admit it even to himself.

Moreover, he imposes his personal mythology on his nearest and dearest. Spouse, children, colleagues, friends, neighbors - sometimes even perfect strangers - must abide by the narcissist's narrative or face his wrath. The narcissist countenances no disagreement, alternative points of view, or criticism. To him, confabulation IS reality.

The coherence of the narcissist's dysfunctional and precariously-balanced personality depends on the plausibility of his stories and on their acceptance by his Sources of Narcissistic Supply. The narcissist invests an inordinate time in substantiating his tales, collecting "evidence", defending his version of events, and in re-interpreting reality to fit his scenario. As a result, most narcissists are self-delusional, obstinate, opinionated, and argumentative.

The narcissist's lies are not goal-orientated. This is what makes his constant dishonesty both disconcerting and incomprehensible. The narcissist lies at the drop of a hat, needlessly, and almost ceaselessly. He lies in order to avoid the Grandiosity Gap - when the abyss between fact and (narcissistic) fiction becomes too gaping to ignore.

The narcissist lies in order to preserve appearances, uphold fantasies, support the tall (and impossible) tales of his False Self and extract Narcissistic Supply from unsuspecting sources, who are not yet on to him. To the narcissist, confabulation is not merely a way of life - but life itself.

We are all conditioned to let other indulge in pet delusions and get away with white, not too egregious, lies. The narcissist makes use of our socialization. We dare not confront or expose him, despite the outlandishness of his claims, the improbability of his stories, the implausibility of his alleged accomplishments and conquests. We simply turn the other cheek, or meekly avert our eyes, often embarrassed.

(continued below)

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Moreover, the narcissist makes clear, from the very beginning, that it is his way or the highway. His aggression - even violent streak - are close to the surface. He may be charming in a first encounter - but even then there are telltale signs of pent-up abuse. His interlocutors sense this impending threat and avoid conflict by acquiescing with the narcissist's fairy tales. Thus he imposes his private universe and virtual reality on his milieu - sometimes with disastrous consequences.

There is another possibility. She may be an erotomaniac. If I am right and she is, you are one lucky target. It often takes years to shake off an erotomanic stalker. Telling them off is never enough.

On the other hand, maybe she isn't so pathological. Simply a lonely, narcissistic, and self-deluded personality. As you correctly observe, in my view, Borderline is also a strong possibility.

The erotomanic stalker believes that she is in love with you. To show her keen interest, she keeps calling you, dropping by, writing e-mails, doing unsolicited errands "on your behalf", talking to your friends, co-workers, and family, and, in general, making herself available at all times. The erotomaniac feels free to make for you legal, financial, and emotional decisions and to commit you without your express consent or even knowledge.

The erotomaniac intrudes on your privacy, does not respect your express wishes and personal boundaries and ignores your emotions, needs, and preferences. To her, "love" means enmeshment and clinging coupled with an overpowering separation anxiety (fear of being abandoned). She may even force herself upon you sexually.

Moreover, no amount of denials, chastising, threats, and even outright hostile actions will convince the erotomaniac that you are not in love with her. This is why I am not sure about your case.

The erotomaniac knows better and will make you see the light as well. You are simply unaware of what is good for you, divorced as you are from your emotions. The erotomaniac determinedly sees it as her task to bring life and happiness into your dreary existence.

Thus, regardless of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the erotomaniac is convinced that her feelings are  reciprocated - in other words, that you are equally in love with her. The erotomanic stalker interprets everything you do (or refrain from doing) as coded messages confessing to and conveying your eternal devotion to her and to your "relationship".

Erotomaniacs are socially-inapt, awkward, schizoid, and suffer from a host of mood and anxiety disorders. They may also be people with whom you have been involved romantically (e.g., your former spouse, a former boyfriend, a one night stand) - or otherwise (for instance, colleagues or co-workers). They are driven by their all-consuming loneliness and all-pervasive fantasies.

Consequently, erotomaniacs react badly to any perceived rejection by their victims. They turn on a dime and become dangerously vindictive, out to destroy the source of their mounting frustration - you. When the "relationship" looks hopeless, many erotomaniacs turn to violence in a spree of self-destruction. This hasn't been the case here.


One comment on a message board about the character she plays goes like this:

Jeez Alex why would you want a sleaze like him anyway? LOL.

Obviously she was suffering from some mental disorder because there is no other way to explain such extreme behavior after just a weekend fling. I mean, I could almost see how she could become attached if she was sleeping with him for years and there was some emotional involvement but after 2 days?

I do believe the character had borderline personality disorder in that she displayed all the obvious characteristics like over reaction to rejection and the "I hate you- don't leave me" personality type. Even though she was a mess, I felt sorry for her in that I don't think she could control her reaction to him dumping her after the fling.

Myself personally, I could never pursue someone who didn't want me. It's just so pathetic. I cringed every time she called his house and stalked him because it was just making her look worse and worse to him. She should have realized he was "happily" married and didn't want to be with her and she should have walked away- but hey- she was psychotic. It was not something she could control.

If I had a quarter for every married man that hit on me in bar I'd be rich. LOL.

From L. (identity reserved)

My question to you is how can one differentiate between say a NPD, a Borderline and an Inverted Narcissist? The Axis II disorders, according to one of your web pages, are very much alike? But how so, and to what degree? Should we put them all into the same kettle of fish?


This is one case where discarding the fish together with the kettle may be a great idea (laughing).

Seriously now: the classification of Axis II personality disorders - deeply ingrained, maladaptive, lifelong behavior patterns - in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, fourth edition, text revision [American Psychiatric Association. DSM-IV-TR, Washington, 2000] - or the DSM-IV-TR for