Can the Narcissist Have a Meaningful Life?
Frequently Asked Question # 1
The introjected voices of parents, peers, and other adult role models in his abusive and traumatized early childhood.
By: Dr. Sam Vaknin
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We all have a scenario of our life. We invent, adopt, are led by and measure ourselves against our personal narratives. These are, normally, commensurate with our personal histories, our predilections, our abilities, limitations, and our skills. We are not likely to invent a narrative which is wildly out of synch with our selves.
We rarely judge ourselves by a narrative which is not somehow correlated to what we can reasonably expect to achieve. In other words, we are not likely to frustrate and punish ourselves knowingly. As we grow older, our narrative changes. Parts of it are realized and this increases our self-confidence, sense of self-worth and self-esteem and makes us feel fulfilled, satisfied, and at peace with ourselves.
The narcissist differs from normal people in that his is a HIGHLY unrealistic personal narrative. This choice could be imposed and inculcated by a sadistic and hateful Primary Object (a narcissistic, domineering mother, for instance) – or it could be the product of the narcissist's own tortured psyche. Instead of realistic expectations of himself, the narcissist has grandiose fantasies. The latter cannot be effectively pursued. They are elusive, ever receding targets.
This constant failure (the Grandiosity Gap) leads to dysphorias (bouts of sadness) and to losses. Observed from the outside, the narcissist is perceived to be odd, prone to illusions and self-delusions and, therefore, lacking in judgement.
The dysphorias – the bitter fruits of the narcissist's impossible demands of himself – are painful. Gradually the narcissist learns to avoid them by eschewing a structured narrative altogether. Life's disappointments and setbacks condition him to understand that his specific "brand" of unrealistic narrative inevitably leads to frustration, sadness and agony and is a form of self-punishment (inflicted on him by his sadistic, rigid Superego).
This incessant punishment serves another purpose: to support and confirm the negative judgement meted out by the narcissist's Primary Objects (usually, by his parents or caregivers) in his early childhood (now, an inseparable part of his Superego).
The narcissist's mother, for instance, may have consistently insisted that the narcissist is bad, rotten, or useless. Surely, she could not have been wrong, goes the narcissist's internal dialog. Even raising the possibility that she may have been wrong proves her right! The narcissist feels compelled to validate her verdict by making sure that he indeed BECOMES bad, rotten and useless.
Yet, no human being – however deformed – can live without a narrative. The narcissist develops circular, ad-hoc, circumstantial, and fantastic "life-stories" (the Contingent Narratives). Their role is to avoid confrontation with (the often disappointing and disillusioning) reality. He thus reduces the number of dysphorias and their strength, though he usually fails to avoid the Narcissistic Cycle (see FAQ 43).
The narcissist pays a heavy price for accommodating his dysfunctional narratives:
Emptiness, existential loneliness (he shares no common psychic ground with other humans), sadness, drifting, emotional absence, emotional platitude, mechanisation/robotisation (lack of anima, excess persona in Jung's terms) and meaninglessness. This fuels his envy and the resulting rage and amplifies the EIPM (Emotional Involvement Preventive Measures) – see Chapter Eight of the Essay.
The narcissist develop a "Zu Leicht – Zu Schwer" ("Too Easy – Too difficult") syndrome:
On the one hand, the narcissist's life is unbearably difficult. The few real achievements he does have should normally have mitigated this perceived harshness. But, in order to preserve his sense of omnipotence, he is forced to “downgrade” these accomplishments by labelling them as “too easy”.
The narcissist cannot admit that he had toiled to achieve something and, with this confession, shatter his grandiose False Self. He must belittle every achievement of his and make it appear to be a routine triviality. This is intended to support the dreamland quality of his fragmented personality. But it also prevents him from deriving the psychological benefits which usually accrue to goal attainment: an enhancement of self-confidence, a more realistic self-assessment of one's capabilities and abilities, a strengthening sense of self-worth.
The narcissist is doomed to roam a circular labyrinth. When he does achieve something – he demotes it in order to enhance his own sense of omnipotence, perfection, and brilliance. When he fails, he dares not face reality. He escapes to the land of no narratives where life is nothing but a meaningless wasteland. The narcissist whiles his life away.
But what is it like being a narcissist?
The narcissist is often anxious. It is usually unconscious, like a nagging pain, a permanence, like being immersed in a gelatinous liquid, trapped and helpless, or as the DSM puts it, narcissism is "all-pervasive". Still, these anxieties are never diffuse. The narcissist worries about specific people, or possible events, or more or less plausible scenarios. He seems to constantly conjure up some reason or another to be worried or offended.
Positive past experiences do not ameliorate this preoccupation. The narcissist believes that the world is hostile, a cruelly arbitrary, ominously contrarian, contrivingly cunning and indifferently crushing place. The narcissist simply "knows" it will all end badly and for no good reason. Life is too good to be true and too bad to endure. Civilization is an ideal and the deviations from it are what we call "history". The narcissist is incurably pessimistic, an ignoramus by choice and incorrigibly blind to any evidence to the contrary.
Underneath all this, there is a Generalised Anxiety. The narcissist fears life and what people do to each other. He fears his fear and what it does to him. He knows that he is a participant in a game whose rules he will never master and in which his very existence is at stake. He trusts no one, believes in nothing, knows only two certainties: evil exists and life is meaningless. He is convinced that no one cares.
This existential angst that permeates his every cell is atavistic and irrational. It has no name or likeness. It is like the monsters in every child's bedroom with the lights turned off. But being the rationalising and intellectualising creatures that cerebral narcissists are – they instantly label this unease, explain it away, analyse it and attempt to predict its onset.
They attribute this poisonous presence to some external cause. They set it in a pattern, embed it in a context, transform it into a link in the great chain of being. Hence, they transform diffuse anxiety into focused worries. Worries are known and measurable quantities. They have reasons which can be tackled and eliminated. They have a beginning and an end. They are linked to names, to places, faces and to people. Worries are human.
Thus, the narcissist transforms his demons into compulsive notations in his real or mental diary: check this, do that, apply preventive measures, do not allow, pursue, attack, avoid. The narcissist ritualizes both his discomfort and his attempts to cope with it.
But such excessive worrying – whose sole intent is to convert irrational anxiety into the mundane and tangible – is the stuff of paranoia.
For what is paranoia if not the attribution of inner disintegration to external persecution, the assignment of malevolent agents from the outside to the figments of turmoil inside? The paranoid seeks to alleviate his own voiding by irrationally clinging to rationality. Things are so bad, he says, mainly to himself, because I am a victim, because "they" are after me and I am hunted by the juggernaut of state, or by the Freemasons, or by the Jews, or by the neighbourhood librarian. This is the path that leads from the cloud of anxiety, through the lamp-posts of worry to the consuming darkness of paranoia.
This article appears in my book "Malignant Self-love: Narcissism Revisited"
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Paranoia is a defence against anxiety and against aggression. In the paranoid state, the latter is projected outwards, upon imaginary others, the instruments of one's crucifixion.
Anxiety is also a defence against aggressive impulses. Therefore, anxiety and paranoia are sisters, the latter merely a focused form of the former. The mentally disordered defend against their own aggressive propensities by either being anxious or by becoming paranoid.
Yet, aggression has numerous guises, not only anxiety and paranoia. One of its favourite disguises is boredom. Like its relation, depression, boredom is aggression directed inwards. It threatens to drown the bored person in a primordial soup of inaction and energy depletion. It is anhedonic (pleasure depriving) and dysphoric (leads to profound sadness). But it is also threatening, perhaps because it is so reminiscent of death.
Not surprisingly, the narcissist is most worried when bored. The narcissist is aggressive. He channels his aggression and internalises it. He experiences his bottled wrath as boredom.
When the narcissist is bored, he feels threatened by his ennui in a vague, mysterious way. Anxiety ensues. He rushes to construct an intellectual edifice to accommodate all these primitive emotions and their transubstantiations. He identifies reasons, causes, effects and possibilities in the outer world. He builds scenarios. He spins narratives. As a result, he feels no more anxiety. He has identified the enemy (or so he thinks). And now, instead of being anxious, he is simply worried. Or paranoid.
The narcissist often strikes people as "laid back" – or, less charitably: lazy, parasitic, spoiled, and self-indulgent. But, as usual with narcissists, appearances deceive. Narcissists are either compulsively driven over-achievers – or chronic under-achieving wastrels. Most of them fail to make full and productive use of their potential and capacities. Many avoid even the now standard paths of an academic degree, a career, or family life.
The disparity between the accomplishments of the narcissist and his grandiose fantasies and inflated self image – the Grandiosity Gap – is staggering and, in the long run, unsustainable. It imposes onerous exigencies on the narcissist's grasp of reality and on his meagre social skills. It pushes him either to reclusion or to a frenzy of "acquisitions" – cars, women, wealth, power.
Yet, no matter how successful the narcissist is – many of them end up being abject failures – the Grandiosity Gap can never be bridged. The narcissist's False Self is so unrealistic and his Superego so sadistic that there is nothing the narcissist can do to extricate himself from the Kafkaesque trial that is his life.
The narcissist is a slave to his own inertia. Some narcissists are forever accelerating on the way to ever higher peaks and ever greener pastures. Others succumb to numbing routines, the expenditure of minimal energy, and to preying on the vulnerable. But either way, the narcissist's life is out of control, at the mercy of pitiless inner voices and internal forces.
Narcissists are one-state machines, programmed to extract Narcissistic Supply from others. To do so, they develop early on a set of immutable routines. This propensity for repetition, inability to change and rigidity confine the narcissist, stunt his development, and limit his horizons. Add to this his overpowering sense of entitlement, his visceral fear of failure, and his invariable need to both feel unique and be perceived as such – and one often ends up with a recipe for inaction.
The under-achieving narcissist dodges challenges, eludes tests, shirks competition, sidesteps expectations, ducks responsibilities, evades authority – because he is afraid to fail and because doing something everyone else does endangers his sense of uniqueness. Hence the narcissist's apparent "laziness" and "parasitism". His sense of entitlement – with no commensurate accomplishments or investment – irritates his social milieu. People tend to regard such narcissists as "spoiled brats".
In specious contrast, the over-achieving narcissist seeks challenges and risks, provokes competition, embellishes expectations, aggressively bids for responsibilities and authority and seems to be possessed with an eerie self-confidence. People tend to regard such specimen as "entrepreneurial", "daring", "visionary", or "tyrannical". Yet, these narcissists too are mortified by potential failure, driven by a strong conviction of entitlement, and strive to be unique and be perceived as such.
Their hyperactivity is merely the flip side of the under-achiever's inactivity: it is as fallacious and as empty and as doomed to miscarriage and disgrace. It is often sterile or illusory, all smoke and mirrors rather than substance. The precarious "achievements" of such narcissists invariably unravel. They often act outside the law or social norms. Their industriousness, workaholism, ambition, and commitment are intended to disguise their essential inability to produce and build. Theirs is a whistle in the dark, a pretension, a Potemkin life, all make-belief and thunder.
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The Grandiosity Gap is the difference between self-image - the way the narcissist perceives himself - and contravening cues from reality. The greater the conflict between grandiosity and reality, the bigger the gap and the greater the narcissist's feelings of shame and guilt.
There are two varieties of shame:
Narcissistic Shame – which is the narcissist's experience of the Grandiosity Gap (and its affective correlate). Subjectively it is experienced as a pervasive feeling of worthlessness (the dysfunctional regulation of self-worth is the crux of pathological narcissism), "invisibleness" and ridiculousness. The patient feels pathetic and foolish, deserving of mockery and humiliation.
Narcissists adopt all kinds of defences to counter narcissistic shame. They develop addictive, reckless, or impulsive behaviours. They deny, withdraw, rage, or engage in the compulsive pursuit of some kind of (unattainable, of course) perfection. They display haughtiness and exhibitionism and so on. All these defences are primitive and involve splitting, projection, projective identification, and intellectualization.
The second type of shame is Self-Related. It is a result of the gap between the narcissist's grandiose Ego Ideal and his Self or Ego. This is a well-known concept of shame and it has been explored widely in the works of Freud , Reich , Jacobson , Kohut , Kingston , Spero  and Morrison .
One must draw a clear distinction between guilt (or control)–related shame and conformity-related shame.
Guilt is an "objectively" determinable philosophical entity (given relevant knowledge regarding the society and culture in question). It is context-dependent. It is the derivative of an underlying assumption by OTHERS that a Moral Agent exerts control over certain aspects of the world. This assumed control by the agent imputes guilt to it, if it acts in a manner incommensurate with prevailing morals, or refrains from acting in a manner commensurate with them.
Shame, in this case, here is an outcome of the ACTUAL occurrence of AVOIDABLE outcomes - events which impute guilt to a Moral Agent who acted wrongly or refrained from acting.
We must distinguish GUILT from GUILT FEELINGS, though. Guilt follows events. Guilt feelings can precede them.
Guilt feelings (and the attaching shame) can be ANTICIPATORY. Moral Agents assume that they control certain aspects of the world. This makes them able to predict the outcomes of their INTENTIONS and feels guilt and shame as a result - even if nothing happened!
Guilt Feelings are composed of a component of Fear and a component of Anxiety. Fear is related to the external, objective, observable consequences of actions or inaction by the Moral Agent. Anxiety has to do with INNER consequences. It is ego-dystonic and threatens the identity of the Moral Agent because being Moral is an important part of it. The internalisation of guilt feelings leads to a shame reaction.
Thus, shame has to do with guilty feelings, not with GUILT, per se. To reiterate, guilt is determined by the reactions and anticipated reactions of others to external outcomes such as avoidable waste or preventable failure (the FEAR component). Guilty feelings are the reactions and anticipated reactions of the Moral Agent itself to internal outcomes (helplessness or loss of presumed control, narcissistic injuries – the ANXIETY component).
There is also conformity-related shame. It has to do with the narcissist's feeling of "otherness". It similarly involves a component of fear (of the reactions of others to one's otherness) and of anxiety (of the reactions of oneself to one's otherness).
Guilt-related shame is connected to self-related shame (perhaps through a psychic construct akin to the Superego). Conformity-related shame is more akin to narcissistic shame.
Lidija Rangelovska’s View of Shame
Lidija Rangelovska advanced the idea that some children subjected to abuse in dysfunctional families – objectified, dehumanized, their boundaries breached, and their growth stunted – develop intense feelings of shame. They turn out to be codependents or narcissists owing to their genetic makeup and innate character. According to her, children who turned out to be codependents as adults are resilient, while the more fragile narcissists seek to evade shame by concocting and then deploying the False Self.
As Lidija Rangelovska observes, shame motivates "normal" people and those suffering from Cluster B personality disorders differently. It constitutes a threat to the former's True Self and to the latter's False Self. Owing to the disparate functionality and psychodynamics of the True and False selves, the ways shame affects behavior and manifests in both populations differ. Additionally, pervasive, constant shame fosters anxiety and even fears or phobias. These can have either an inhibitory effect – or, on the contrary, disinhibitory functions (motivate to action.) Both narcissists and codependents compensate for their shame, the former by developing a “need to be needed” and the latter by developing a “need to deny their neediness”.
The True Self involves an accurate reality test with minimal and marginal cognitive deficits as well as the capacity to empathize on all levels, including and especially the emotional level. People whose True Self is intact, mature, and operational are capable of relating to others deeply (for example, by loving them). Their sense of self-worth is stable and grounded in a true and tested assessment of who they are. Maintaining a distinction between what we really are and what we dream of becoming, knowing our limits, our advantages and faults and having a sense of realistic accomplishments in our life are of paramount importance in the establishment and maintenance of our self-esteem, sense of self-worth and self-confidence.
Shame threatens the True Self by challenging the affected person's ego-syntony: by forcing her to "feel bad" about something she has said or done. The solution is usually facile and at hand: reverse the situation by apologizing or by making amends.
In contrast, the False Self leads to false assumptions and to a contorted personal narrative, to a fantastic worldview, and to a grandiose, inflated sense of being. The latter is rarely grounded in real achievements or merit. The narcissist's feeling of entitlement is all-pervasive, demanding and aggressive. It easily deteriorates into the open verbal, psychological and physical abuse of others.
When the patient with the False Self feels shame it is because his grandiosity, the fantastic narrative that underpins his False Self, is challenged, usually - but not necessarily - publicly. There is no easy solution to such a predicament. The situation cannot be reversed and the psychological damage is done. The patient urgently needs to reassert his grandiosity by devaluing or even destroying the frustrating, threatening object, the source of his misery. Another option is to reframe the situation by delusionally ignoring it or recasting it in new terms.
So, while shame motivates normal people to conduct themselves pro-socially and realistically, it pushes the disordered patient in the exact opposite direction: to antisocial or delusional reactions.
Shame is founded on empathy. The normal person empathizes with others. The disordered patient empathizes with himself. But, empathy and shame have little to do with the person with whom we empathize (the empathee). They may simply be the result of conditioning and socialization. In other words, when we hurt someone, we don't experience his or her pain. We experience our pain. Hurting somebody - hurts US. The reaction of pain is provoked in us by our own actions. We have been taught a learned response: to feel pain when we hurt someone.
We attribute feelings, sensations and experiences to the object of our actions. It is the psychological defence mechanism of projection. Unable to conceive of inflicting pain upon ourselves - we displace the source. It is the other's pain that we are feeling, we keep telling ourselves, not our own.
Additionally, we have been taught to feel responsible for our fellow beings and to develop guilt and shame when we fail to do so. So, we also experience pain whenever another person claims to be anguished. We feel guilty owing to his or her condition, we feel somehow accountable even if we had nothing to do with the whole affair. We feel ashamed that we haven't been able to end the other's agony.
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