Being There: Narcissism and Selective Memory

By: Dr. Sam Vaknin

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I am often shocked when presented with incontrovertible evidence to an event in my past, something I said, or did, a person I knew, a sentence I have written. I do not remember having done, said, or written what is attributed to me. I do not recall having met the person, having felt anything, having been there. It is not that it looks alien to me, as though it happened to someone else. I simply have no recollection whatsoever, I draw a blank. Hence my enormous and recurrent and terrifyingly helpless state of surprise. These cognitive distortions, these lapses of memory are as close as I ever get to losing control.

My terror is mixed with voyeuristic fascination. Through the writings, through the reconstructed utterances, through a careful study of what that other, previous, "Sam" has done, or said, or written - I come to learn myself. I meet myself on numerous occasions, reflections in the shattered mirrors of my dysfunctional, selective memory. These frequent occurrences of dissociative amnesia - when I repress the painful, the irrelevant, the useless - are the fabric of the punctuated being that is I.

But what are the rules determining this ruthless and automatic censorship? What governs the selection process? What events, people, writings, thoughts, emotions, hopes are cast into my oblivion - and why do others etch themselves indelibly? Is the repository of my discarded reality - my True Self, that dilapidated, immature, scared and atrophied little child inside me? Am I afraid to get in touch with memory itself, spun from the yarn of pains and disappointments? In short: is this an emotional involvement prevention mechanism?

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It's not. On introspection, I simply erase and atomize that which is no longer of use in the pursuit of Narcissistic Supply. I read books, magazines, Web pages, research papers, official memoranda, and daily papers. I then retain in accessible long term memory only the facts, the views, the news, the theories, the words that can help me elicit Narcissistic Supply. Like the proverbial squirrel, I amass intellectual assets that yield the maximum astonishment, adulation, and attention in my listeners. All the rest I discard contemptuously, though, by now, after decades of self-training, unconsciously. I, therefore, rarely remember anything I read just minutes after having read it. I cannot recall movie plots, story lines of novels, a reasoned argument in an article, the history of any nation, or things I myself have authored. No matter how many times I re-read my own essays, I find them absolutely new, none of the sentences recognizable. I then proceed to forget them instantly.

Similarly, I alter my biography at will, to suit the potential Sources of Narcissistic Supply who happen to be listening. I say things not because I believe in them, nor because I know them to be true (in truth, I know very little and ignorant of much). I say things because I am desperately trying to impress, provoke responses, bask in the glow of affirmation, extract applause. Naturally, I very soon forget what I said. Not the result of a coherent structure of deeply assimilated and integrated knowledge, or of a set of convictions - my utterances, judgements, opinions, beliefs, wishes, plans, analyses, comments, and narratives are ephemeral improvisations. Here today, gone tomorrow, unbeknownst to me.

Before I meet someone, I learn everything I can about him. I then proceed to acquire superficial knowledge that is certain to create the impression of genius bordering on omniscience. If I am to meet a politician from Turkey, whose hobby is farming, and is the author of books about ancient pottery - I will while away days and nights studying Turkish history, ancient pottery, and farming. Not an hour after the meeting - having inspired awesome admiration in my new acquaintance - all the facts I so meticulously memorized evaporate, never to return. The original views I expressed so confidently vanish from my mind. I am preoccupied with my next prey and with his predilections and interests.

My life is not a thread, it is a patchwork of chance encounters, haphazard exams, and the drug of Narcissistic Supply consumed. I feel like a series of still frames, somehow improperly animated. I know the audience is there. I crave their adulation. I try to reach out, to break the mould of the album of photographs that I became - to no avail. I am trapped in there forever. And if none of you chooses to inspect my image at a given moment, I fade, in sepia colours. Until I am no longer.


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