The Dual Role of the Narcissist's False Self
Frequently Asked Question # 48
The narcissist pretends that his False Self is real and demands that others affirm this confabulation.
By: Dr. Sam Vaknin
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Why does the narcissist conjure up another Self? Why not simply transform his True Self into a False one?
We often marvel at the discrepancy between the private and public lives of our idols: celebrities, statesmen, stars, writers, and other accomplished figures. It is as though they have two personalities, two selves: the "true" one which they reserve for their nearest and dearest and the "fake" or "false" or "concocted" one which they flaunt in public.
In contrast, the narcissist has no private life, no true self, no domain reserved exclusively for his nearest and dearest. His life is a spectacle, with free access to all, constantly on display, garnering narcissistic supply from his audience. In the theatre that is the narcissist's life, the actor is irrelevant. Only the show goes on. The False Self is everything the narcissist would like to be but, alas, cannot: omnipotent, omniscient, invulnerable, impregnable, brilliant, perfect, in short: godlike. Its most important role is to elicit narcissistic supply from others: admiration, adulation, awe, obedience, and, in general: unceasing attention. In Freud’s tripartite model, the False Self supplants the Ego and conforms to the narcissist’s unattainable, grandiose, and fantastic Ego Ideal.
The narcissist constructs a narrative of his life that is partly confabulated and whose purpose is to buttress, demonstrate, and prove the veracity of the fantastically grandiose and often impossible claims made by the False Self. This narrative allocates roles to significant others in the narcissist’s personal history. Inevitably, such a narrative is hard to credibly sustain for long: reality intrudes and a yawning abyss opens between the narcissist’s self-imputed divinity and his drab, pedestrian existence and attributes. I call it the Grandiosity Gap. Additionally, meaningful figures around the narcissist often refuse to play the parts allotted to them, rebel, and abandon the narcissist.
The narcissist copes with this painful and ineluctable realization of the divorce between his self-perception and this less than stellar state of affairs by first denying reality, delusionally ignoring and filtering out all inconvenient truths. Then, if this coping strategy fails, the narcissist invents a new narrative, which accommodates and incorporates the very intrusive data that served to undermine the previous, now discarded narrative. He even goes to the extent of denying that he ever had another narrative, except the current, modified one.
The narcissist’s (and the codependent’s) introjects and inner voices (assimilated representations of parents, role models, and significant peers) are mostly negative and sadistic. Rather than provide succour, motivation, and direction, they enhance his underlying ego-dystony (discontent with who he is) and the lability of his sense of self-worth. They induce in the child shame, blame, pain, guilt, rage, and a panoply of other negative emotions.
As Lidija Rangelovska notes, the paradox is that the child’s ego-dystonic shame and guilt emanate from the very primitive defenses that later comprise and underlie his False Self. Having been told repeatedly how “bad”, “worthless”, “disappointing”, and injurious he is, the child comes to believe in his self-imputed delusional ability to hurt and damage family members, for instance.
Such imaginary capacity is the logical extension of both the child’s grandiosity (omnipotence, “I have the power to hurt mommy”) and his magical thinking (“I think, I wish, I hate, I rage and, thereby, with the unlimited power of my mind, I cause real calamities out there, in the real world”). So, it is the child’s natural primary narcissistic defenses that enable him to feel so miserable! These defenses allow him to construct a narrative which corresponds to and justifies the judgemental, hateful appraisals and taunts of his abusers. In his young mind, he accepts that he is bad because he is all-powerful and magical and because he leverages his godlike attributes to act with malice or, at the very least, to bring misfortune on significant others.
To skirt this inner overwhelming negativity, the child “appropriates” precisely these defenses and bundles them into a protective shield, thus sequestering his vulnerable, fragile self. Occupied by the ongoing project of his budding pathological narcissism, the child’s defenses are no longer available to construct and buttress the narratives offered by the abusive voices of his tormentors. Moreover, by owning his fantastic grandiosity and harnessing it, the child feels as empowered as his abusers and no longer a victim.
Introjects possess a crucial role in the formation of an exegetic (interpretative) framework which allows one to decipher the world, construct a model of reality, of one’s place in it, and, consequently of who one is (self-identity). Overwhelmingly negative introjects – or introjects which are manifestly fake, fallacious, and manipulative – hamper the narcissist’s and codependent’s ability to construct a true and efficacious exegetic (interpretative) framework.
Gradually, the disharmony between one’s perception of the universe and of oneself and reality becomes unbearable and engenders pathological, maladaptive, and dysfunctional attempts to either deny the hurtful discrepancy away (delusions and fantasies); grandiosely compensate for it by eliciting positive external voices to counter the negative, inner ones (narcissism via the False Self and its narcissistic supply); attack it (antisocial/psychopathy); withdraw from the world altogether (schizoid solution); or disappear by merging and fusing with another person (codependence.)
Once formed and functioning, the False Self stifles the growth of the True Self and paralyses it. Henceforth, the ossified True Self is virtually non-existent and plays no role (active or passive) in the conscious life of the narcissist. It is difficult to "resuscitate" it, even with psychotherapy. The False Self sometimes parades the child-like, vulnerable, needy, and innocent True Self in order to capture, manipulate, and attract empathic sources of narcissistic supply. When supply is low, the False Self is emaciated and dilapidated. It is unable to contain and repress the True Self which then emerges as a petulant, self-destructive, spoiled, and codependent entity. But the True Self’s moments in the sun are very brief and, usually, inconsequential.
This substitution is not only a question of despair and alienation, as Kirkegaard and Horney observed, respectively. Following on the footsteps of the Danish proto-existentialist philosopher, Horney said that because the Idealised (=False) Self sets impossible goals to the narcissist, the results are frustration and self hate which grow with every setback or failure. But the constant sadistic judgement, the self-berating, the suicidal ideation emanate from the narcissist's idealised, sadistic, Superego regardless of the existence or functioning of a False Self.
The False Self is a kind of positive projection: the narcissist’s attributes to it all the positive and desired aspects of himself, thereby endowing it with a quasi-separate existence. The False Self fulfils the role of a divinity in the narcissist’s obsessive-compulsive private religion: the narcissist worships it and adheres to ceremonies and rituals via which he interacts with it. The True Self, on the other hand, is ignored at best and usually denigrated. This process is akin to projective splitting: when parents project onto the golden child positive traits and talents even as they attribute to the scapegoat child negative, undesirable qualities. In this sense, the narcissist a parent with two offspring: his two selves.
There is no conflict between the True Self and the False Self. First, the True Self is much too weak to do battle with the overbearing False. Second, the False Self is adaptive (though maladaptive). It helps the True Self to cope with the world. Without the False Self, the True Self would be subjected to so much hurt that it will disintegrate. This happens to narcissists who go through a life crisis: their False Ego becomes dysfunctional and they experience a harrowing feeling of annulment.
The False Self has many functions. The two most important are:
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.
These roles are crucial to survival and to the proper psychological functioning of the narcissist. The False Self is by far more important to the narcissist than his dilapidated, dysfunctional, True Self.
The two Selves are not part of a continuum, as the neo-Freudians postulated. Healthy people do not have a False Self which differs from its pathological equivalent in that it is more realistic and closer to the True Self.
It is true that even healthy people have a mask [Guffman], or a persona [Jung] which they consciously present to the world. But these are a far cry from the False Self, which is mostly subconscious, depends on outside feedback, and is compulsive.
The False Self is an adaptive reaction to pathological circumstances. But its dynamics make it predominate, devour the psyche and prey upon the True Self. Thus, it prevents the efficient, flexible functioning of the personality as a whole.
That the narcissist possesses a prominent False Self as well as a suppressed and dilapidated True Self is common knowledge. Yet, how intertwined and inseparable are these two? Do they interact? How do they influence each other? And what behaviours can be attributed squarely to one or the other of these protagonists? Moreover, does the False Self assume traits and attributes of the True Self in order to deceive the world?
This article appears in my book, "Malignant Self-love: Narcissism Revisited"
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Let's start by referring to an oft-occurring question:
Why are narcissists not prone to suicide?
The simple answer is that they died a long time ago. Narcissists are the true zombies of the world.
Many scholars and therapists tried to grapple with the void at the core of the narcissist. The common view is that the remnants of the True Self are so ossified, shredded, cowed into submission and repressed – that, for all practical purposes, the True Self is dysfunctional and useless. In treating the narcissist, the therapist often tries to construct and nurture a completely new healthy self, rather than build upon the distorted wreckage strewn across the narcissist's psyche.
But what of the rare glimpses of True Self oft reported by those who interact with the narcissist?
Pathological narcissism is frequently comorbid with other disorders. The narcissistic spectrum is made up of gradations and shades of narcissism. Narcissistic traits or style or even personality (overlay) often attach to other disorders (co-morbidity). A person may well appear to be a full-fledged narcissist – may well appear to be suffering from the Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) - but is not, in the strict, psychiatric, sense of the word. In such people, the True Self is still there and is sometimes observable.
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.
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In the film “The Beaver”, the character played by Mel Gibson suffers from depression. He latches on to a tattered puppet in the shape of a beaver and communicates exclusively through it. The Beaver is everything its ostensible master isn’t: daring, creative, exuberant, omnipotent, and omniscient, gregarious, resourceful, charismatic, and charming; a good father, good CEO, and good company all around. In short: The Beaver is the reification of the protagonist’s False Self.
When his wife (Jodi Foster) confronts him, having exposed his confabulations and the need to let go of the contraption, The Beaver rages at her and asserts its superiority, invincibility, and brilliance. The depressive Walter – the True Self - is derided by The Beaver as a dysfunctional wreck, utterly dependent on the former’s ministrations and the interference it runs on his behalf. The film ends unrealistically with Walter mutilating his body – literally - in order to rid himself of the domineering and all-pervasive appendage. “Unrealistically” because narcissists never succeed in resuscitating their dilapidated and crushed True Self. The narcissist IS his False Self: in real life, Walter should have been devoured and consumed by The Beaver – but then we would not have had a typical, syrupy Happy Ending, now, would we?
Both the True Self and the False Self depend on the gaze of others. The False Self relies on adulation and attention – narcissistic supply – for the maintenance of the precarious, confabulated, fantastic, grandiose, and counterfactual narrative that is the narcissist’s persona, his public face. Without a constant flow of such high-quality input and feedback, without the adulating gaze, the narcissist crumbles like a house of ephemeral cards and resorts to a variety of dysfunctional, self-destructive, and self-defeating behaviors and defense mechanisms.
Similarly and equally, the True Self needs a loving gaze to sustain itself. Another person’s love serves two purposes: it confirms the existence of the True Self as a lovable object and thus lays the groundwork and facilitates the necessary and sufficient conditions for self-love; and it allows the True Self to perceive the existence of a “safe”, loving, and holding other. Such insight is at the very foundation of empathy.
Do the False and True Selves ever fight it out, David vs. Goliath, Good vs. Evil, The Beaver vs. Walter?
Alas, they never do. The False Self is concocted by the narcissist to fend off hurt. It is a perfect, impenetrable, impermeable shield, a cocoon; it rewards the narcissist by flooding him with warm, fuzzy, exhilarating feelings; and it sustains the narcissist’s delusions and fantasies. The False Self is the narcissist’s dreams come true. In other words: as far as the narcissist is concerned, the False Self is adaptive and functional. The narcissist is emotionally invested in the False Self and he despises the True Self for having failed to cope with the exigencies and vicissitudes of the narcissist’s life.
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