The Malignant Optimism of the Abused
By: Dr. Sam Vaknin
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The profoundly disturbing film “We Need to Talk about Kevin” is told from the mother’s point of view. Kevin is a maladjusted kid with a conduct disorder who blooms into a full-fledged blood-curdling psychopath in his teens. His mother is one of his victims. Kevin ends up killing his entire family (his mother ends up being the sole survivor and witness to the massacre) as well as numerous schoolmates before he is apprehended.
The film ends with his mother, now reduced to a dysfunctional shell and shadow of her former self, visiting him in prison on a regular basis and hugging him for good measure.
Some victims never learn. You hear them saying:
"It is true that he is a chauvinistic narcissist and that his behaviour is unacceptable and repulsive. But all he needs is a little love and he will be straightened out. I will rescue him from his misery and misfortune. I will give him the love that he lacked as a child. Then his narcissism will vanish and we will live happily ever after."
I often come across sad examples of the powers of self-delusion that the narcissist provokes in his victims. It is what I call "malignant optimism". It is the dysfunctional antithesis of a useful coping strategy known as defensive pessimism. People refuse to believe that some questions are unsolvable, some diseases incurable, some disasters inevitable. They see a sign of hope in every fluctuation. They read meaning and patterns into every random occurrence, utterance, or slip. They are deceived by their own pressing need to believe in the ultimate victory of good over evil, health over sickness, order over disorder. Life appears otherwise so meaningless, so unjust and so arbitrary...
So, they impose upon it a design, progress, aims, and paths. This is magical thinking.
"If only he tried hard enough", "If he only really wanted to heal", "If only we found the right therapy", "If only his defences were down", "There MUST be something good and worthy under the hideous facade", "NO ONE can be that evil and destructive", "He must have meant it differently" "God, or a higher being, or the spirit, or the soul is the solution and the answer to our prayers".
This article appears in my book, "Malignant Self-love: Narcissism Revisited"
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The Pollyanna defences of the abused are aimed against the emerging and horrible understanding that humans are specks of dust in a totally indifferent universe, the playthings of evil and sadistic forces, of which the narcissist is one - as well as against the unbearable realization that their pain means nothing to anyone but themselves. Nothing whatsoever. It has all been in vain.
The narcissist holds such thinking in barely undisguised contempt. To him, it is a sign of weakness, the scent of prey, a gaping vulnerability. He uses and abuses this human need for order, good, and meaning - as he uses and abuses all other human needs. Gullibility, selective blindness, malignant optimism - these are the weapons of the beast. And the abused are hard at work to provide it with its arsenal.
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