The Narcissist's Warped Reality and Retroactive Emotional Content
Frequently Asked Question # 39
By: Dr. Sam Vaknin
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How does a narcissist experience his own life?
As a prolonged, incomprehensible, unpredictable, frequently terrifying and deeply saddening nightmare. This is a result of the functional dichotomy fostered by the narcissist himself between his False Self and his True Self. The latter the fossilised ashes of the original, immature, personality is the one that does the experiencing.
The False Self is nothing but a concoction, a figment of the narcissist's disorder, a reflection in the narcissist's hall of mirrors. It is incapable of feeling, or experiencing. Yet, it is fully the master of the psychodynamic processes which rage within the narcissist's psyche.
This inner battle is so fierce that the True Self experiences it as a diffuse, though imminent and eminently ominous, threat. Anxiety ensues and the narcissist finds himself constantly ready for the next blow. He does things and he knows not why or wherefrom. He says things, acts and behaves in ways, which, he knows, endanger him and put him in line for punishment.
The narcissist hurts people around him, or breaks the law, or violates accepted morality. He knows that he is in the wrong and feels ill at ease on the rare moments that he does feel. He wants to stop but knows not how. Gradually, he is estranged from himself, possessed by some kind of demon, a puppet on invisible, mental strings. He resents this feeling, he wants to rebel, he is repelled by this part in him with which he is not acquainted. In his efforts to exorcise this devil from his soul, he dissociates.
An eerie sensation sets in and pervades the psyche of the narcissist. At times of crisis, of danger, of depression, of failure, and of narcissistic injury the narcissist feels that he is watching himself from the outside. This is not an out-of-body experience. The narcissist does not really "exit" his body. It is just that he assumes, involuntarily, the position of a spectator, a polite observer mildly interested in the whereabouts of one, Mr. Narcissist.
It is akin to watching a movie, the illusion is not complete, neither is it precise. This detachment continues for as long as the narcissist's ego-dystonic behaviour persists, for as long as the crisis goes on, for as long as the narcissist cannot face who he is, what he is doing and the consequences of his actions.
Since this is the case most of the time, the narcissist gets used to seeing himself in the role of the protagonist (usually the hero) of a motion picture or of a novel. It also sits well with his grandiosity and fantasies. Sometimes, he talks about himself in the third person singular. Sometimes he calls his "other", narcissistic, self by a different name.
He describes his life, its events, ups and downs, pains, elation and disappointments in the most remote, "professional" and coldly analytical voice, as though describing (though with a modicum of involvement) the life of some exotic insect (echoes of Kafka's "Metamorphosis").
The metaphor of "life as a movie", gaining control by "writing a scenario" or by "inventing a narrative" is, therefore, not a modern invention. Cavemen narcissists have, probably, done the same. But this is only the external, superficial, facet of the disorder.
The crux of the problem is that the narcissist really FEELS this way. He actually experiences his life as belonging to someone else, his body as dead weight (or as an instrument in the service of some entity), his deeds as a-moral and not immoral (he cannot be judged for something he didn't do now, can he?).
This article appears in my book "Malignant Self-love: Narcissism Revisited"
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As time passes, the narcissist accumulates a mountain of mishaps, conflicts unresolved, pains well hidden, abrupt separations and bitter disappointments. He is subjected to a constant barrage of social criticism and condemnation. He is ashamed and fearful. He knows that something is wrong but there is no correlation between his cognition and his emotions.
He prefers to run away and hide, as he did when he was a child. Only this time he hides behind another self, a false one. People reflect to him this mask of his creation, until even he believes its very existence and acknowledges its dominance, until he forgets the truth and knows no better. The narcissist is only dimly aware of the decisive battle, which rages inside him. He feels threatened, very sad, suicidal but there seems to be no outside cause of all this and it makes it even more mysteriously menacing.
This dissonance, these negative emotions, these nagging anxieties, transform the narcissist's "motion picture" solution into a permanent one. It becomes a feature of the narcissist's life. Whenever confronted by an emotional threat or by an existential one he retreats into this haven, this mode of coping.
He relegates responsibility, submissively assuming a passive role. He who is not responsible cannot be punished runs the subtext of this capitulation. The narcissist is thus conditioned to annihilate himself both in order to avoid (emotional) pain and to bask in the glow of his impossibly grandiose fasntasies.
This he does with fanatic zeal and with efficacy. Prospectively, he assigns his very life (decisions to be made, judgements to be passed, agreements to be reached) to the False Self. Retroactively, he re-interprets his past life in a manner consistent with the current needs of the False Self.
It is no wonder that there is no connection between what the narcissist did feel in a given period in his life, or in relation to a specific event and the way he sees or remembers these later on. He may describe certain occurrences or phases in his life as "tedious, painful, sad, burdening" even though he experienced them entirely differently at the time.
The same retroactive colouring occurs with regards to people. The narcissist completely distorts the way he regarded certain people and felt about them. This re-writing of his personal history is aimed to directly and fully accommodate the requirements of his False Self.
In sum, the narcissist does not occupy his own soul, nor does he inhabit his own body. He is the servant of an apparition, of a reflection, of an Ego function. To please and appease his Master, the narcissist sacrifices to it his very life. From that moment onwards, the narcissist lives vicariously, through the good offices of the False Self.
Throughout, the narcissist feels detached, alienated and estranged from his (False) Self. He constantly harbours the sensation that he is watching a movie with a plot over which he has little control. It is with a certain interest even fascination that he does the watching. Still, it is mere, passive observation.
Thus, not only does the narcissist relinquish control of his future life (the movie) he gradually loses ground to the False Self in the battle to preserve the integrity and genuineness of his past experiences. Eroded by these two processes, the narcissist gradually disappears and is replaced by his disorder to the fullest extent.
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