Excerpts from the Archives of the Narcissism List - Part 7

Listowner: Dr. Sam Vaknin


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1. Can Narcissists be Cured?

Narcissists can rarely be cured. A fact. In the early 1980's therapists thought otherwise (Lowen, 1983). They were wrong. Now we have epidemiology and statistics. Therapists have been fooled by smart narcissists and most narcissists are smart and chameleon- or Zelig-like, so they learn how to deceive the therapist. You can see it very often in prison.

Why fight windmills? As in Judo, I use my weaknesses and the enemy's strengths against it.

I am saying: "I have tendencies that hurt people. Very bad. I will find ways to use these very tendencies to help people. Very good".

2. My Shame

I envy you for being able to identify the exact sources and realms of your shame.

My shame was all-pervasive. I virtually drowned in it, suffocating, suffused by it. I was not only ashamed at my incompetence (athletic, social). I was ashamed at my body, deficiencies, lack of social skills. I was ashamed at my parents, my neighbourhood, my ethnic background, my socio-economic status, the quality of my possessions. I was pathologically envious as a result and I started on my way to full blown NPD because of this shame (and abuse/trauma).

I remember the exact moments and dynamics of overcoming my shame. I consciously developed my personality disorder, it seems to me in retrospect. My grandiose fantasies were first elaborated cognitively and then assimilated (emotionally?). I invested a great effort at mimicking others to the point of becoming indistinguishable from them. Like a Trojan horse my aim was first to penetrate the walls of shame, so that later I would be able to feed my entitlement, my grandiosity and to impose my idiosyncrasies on others from the inside.

I still am a believer in the transforming power of shame and in its central role in the formation of personality disorders. I think it is not only an integral but a crucial part of any childhood abuse.

I can't discuss the sociological dimensions much. But from corresponding with literally thousands of self-designated and expertly-diagnosed narcissists and with their victims I can safely identify the role of shame in the psychodynamics of pathological narcissism.

3. Luring a Narcissist

Narcissists are drug addicts and the name of the drug is Narcissistic Supply (NS). Give a narcissist NS and he will do ANYTHING for it. Now, you must be creative and think HOW and WHAT can you offer to him. Also, can you fake, WILL you fake? You can tell him you need him, for instance. This is very pure NS, it is gratifying. In the personal, fantastic mythology of the narcissist, this is olympic victory over the bad, humiliating guy (you). You can make him a collaborator in a "conspiracy". There is any number of ways to make a deal with a narcissist. Your currency in the transaction is his NS.

4. The Enemy

Narcissism is partly a reactive formation, a complex of intertwined defense mechanisms, a network of survival tactics. One develops narcissism because the alternative is death (slow or fast). Death from emotional starvation, pain, abuse, and trauma. These negative emotions coupled with the negative events that fostered them sink and accumulate in one's spiritual veins, a sediment leading to the emotional infarct called "narcissism".

Without my narcissism, I am not only naked - I am a fetus. I am exposed to bursts of hurt that stand an excellent chance of eliminating me altogether, emotionally, perhaps physically. My narcissism is functional, it is adaptive, it helps me breathe. By denying and repressing my SELF, I deny and suppress my biggest enemy.

I have seen the enemy - and it is I.

5. Victim or Survivor?

Although the prognosis is encouraging, the appropriate term is "victim" and not anything else. Or maybe "surviving victim". Living with a narcissist is the equivalent of enduring a natural catastrophe (like a hurricane). Leaving him is surviving a natural catastrophe. But the narcissist has a mind, a consciousness, intentions. He can control many of his behaviours. So, he victimizes and the survivors are also victims. The narcissist victimizes by contempt, humiliates by indifference, subjugates by fear, and conditions by alternating between idealisation and devaluation.

Did you see "Good Will Hunting"? Robin Williams, the therapist, clasps Will's shoulders, looks him in the eyes, and repeats a mantra of healing, ever softly but firmly: "You are not guilty" (until Will breaks into tears).

6. Narcissists as Drug Addicts

Narcissists are drug addicts. Their drug is called Narcissistic Supply. They will do ANYTHING to obtain it, both morally acceptable and morally reprehensible. Give him his supply and he will read about narcissism enthusiastically and incessantly. Be creative. For instance: tell him that you NEED him to EXPLAIN to you about narcissism. You have been trying to understand this complex concept by yourself and failed. Think of other ways to boost his supply. Believe me, with the proper inducement he will become a world expert on pathological narcissism and I will be out of a job... :o((

7. Alexander Lowen

I do distinguish between cerebral and somatic narcissists and in my FAQ "Narcissism - The Psychopathological Default" I use a typology very close to Lowen's. Let me state that I regard Lowen's book as superb but not my cup of tea for a few reasons:

1.     I am much less interested in the narcissist - and much more in his victims. My book is chiefly and primarily intended to assist those who have been inadvertently exposed to this hurricane known as the narcissist.

2.     I think the fad of classifying (DSM style) is fast dying all over the world. It started in order to assist mental health professionals in their dealings with insurance companies. Psychiatry tried to resemble Medicine in  which everything has a name and there are clear syndromes, signs and symptoms. I think it has been a wrong, reductionist, approach in medicine and led to an impasse. But it was doubly and triply wrong in psychiatry. The result of this alien imposition was "multiple diagnoses (co-morbidity)" and absolute confusion in new fields of knowledge (such as personality disorders).

I believe that there is a continuum between families of mental health disorders. I believe that HPD is a form of NPD where the narcissistic supply is sex or physique. I think that BPD is another form of NPD. I think that all AsPD are NPDs with a twist. I think that pathological narcissism underlies all these - wrongly distinguished - disorders. This is why my book is entitled NARCISSISM revisited and not NPD.

Lowen is a magnificent taxonomist of narcissism but I think his fine tuning is much too fine. I think that people are much less precise than Lowen would have us believe.

I think Lowen is wrong in implying that not all narcissists are pathological liars. He simply does not attribute too much importance to this fact. Virtually all the big names in PD research regard pathological lying as a trait of narcissists. Even the DSM defines NPD using words such as "fantasy", "grandiose" and "exploit" which imply the usage of half truths, inaccuracies and lies on a regular basis. Kernberg and others coined the term "False Self" not in vain.

Of course narcissists love to have an audience. But they love an audience only because and while it provides them with narcissistic supply. Otherwise, they are not interested in human beings (they lack empathy which makes other humans much less fascinating than they are to empathic people).

Narcissists are terrified of introspection. Not of intellectualization or rationalization or simple application of their intelligence - this would not constitute introspection. Proper introspection must include an emotional element, an insight and the ability to emotionally integrate the insight so that it affects behaviour. Some psychologists are narcissists and they KNOW it (cognitively). They even think about it from time to time - is this introspection? Not in my book. Narcissists do engage in real introspection following a life crisis, though. They attend therapy at such time.

8. NPDs and Other PDs

NPDs are afraid of abandonment and do everything they can to bring it about (and thus "control" it). BPDs are terrified of abandonment and they do everything they can either to avoid relationships in the first place - or to prevent abandonment (cling to the partner or emotionally extort him) once in a relationship.

But I think that these distinctions are pretty artificial and this is why we always have multiple diagnoses.

I think that the differential diagnoses between the Cluster B Disorders are pretty artificial. It is true that some traits are much more pronounced (or even qualitatively different) in any given disorder. For example: the grandiose fantasies typical to a narcissist (their pervasiveness, their influence on the most minute behaviour, their tendency to inflate and so on) - are rather unique in both severity and character to NPD.

But I think that all Cluster B Disorders lie on a continuum. HPD, to me, is an NPD whose Source of Narcissistic Supply is bodily/sexual. There is a mild variant of this in NPD: the somatic narcissist. The diagnostic criteria seem to overlap.

It used to be thought that NPDs are ego-syntonic ALL the time. That they do not have reactive psychoses and do not suffer from psychotic microepisodes under stress. Recent research has disproved these "differential diagnoses criteria". NPDs are so much like BPDs in so many respects that the likes of  Kernberg suggested to abolish the distinction. All Cluster B PDs seem to arise from pathological narcissism.

NPD rarely comes in its "pure" form. It joins forces with other disorders (OCD, BPD, HPD, AsPD).

9. Incest without Sex?

Not in the legal sense but surely in the theological and philosophical ones. Incest can be a product of the mind or the spirit as well as of the flesh. We still attribute magical qualities to words and letters. A thought can be as destructive (and often more) as an act. The Church (mainly the Catholic but also others) always maintained that such "intellectual" sins (heresy, for instance) should be dealt with with no less severity than acts.

(continued below)

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More pragmatically:

The main problem with incest in today's world is not genetically defective progeny or problems with the rules of inheritance. These were the original (pretty good) reasons to prohibit incest. A good quality condom can take care of that. The problem is the ensuing disruption to the relationships among the family members and the dysfunction of the whole family unit which follows. The prevention of this disruption is a good enough justification for observing the incest taboo (to my mind).

10. NPD and DID

I say that the narcissist vanishes and is replaced by a False Self. There is NO True Self in there. It's gone. The narcissist is a hall of mirrors - but the hall itself is an optical illusion created by the mirrors ... This is a little like the paintings of Escher.

MPD (Multiple Personality Disorder or DID - Dissociative Identity Disorder) is more common than believed. In DID, the emotions are segregated. The notion of "unique separate multiple whole personalities" is primitive and untrue. DID is a continuum. The inner language breaks down into a polyglot chaos. Emotions cannot communicate with each other for fear of the resulting pain (and its fatal outcomes). So, they are kept apart by various mechanisms (a host or birth personality, a facilitator, a moderator, and so on).

All PDs - except NPD - suffer from a modicum of DID, or incorporate it. Only narcissists don't. This is because the narcissistic solution is to emotionally disappear so thoroughly that not one personality/emotion is left. Hence, the tremendous, insatiable need of the narcissist for external approval. He exists ONLY as a reflection. Since he is forbidden from loving his self - he chooses to have no self at all. It is not dissociation - it is a vanishing act.

This is why I regard pathological narcissism as THE source of all PDs. The total, "pure" solution is NPD: self-extinguishing, self-abolishing, totally fake. Then come variations on the self-hate and perpetuated self abuse theme: HPD (NPD with sex/body as the Source of the Narcissistic Supply), BPD (lability, movement between poles of life wish and death wish), and so on.

Why are narcissists not prone to suicide? Simple: they died a long time ago. They are the true zombies of the world. Read vampire and zombie legends and you will see how narcissistic these creatures are.

11. Plasticity

You are assuming that brains are rigid. But recent research shows that brains are more plastic than we imagined. So, genetic predisposition, abuse, trauma, and neglect mould the brain at an early stage. But some of it seems to be reversible. I was subjected to abuse. I did turn out to be a monster. Then I had a life crisis of all-pervasive proportions.  And now, I am the same BUT I channel my propensities positively. I am looking for Narcissistic Supply by helping others. I am empathizing through my overpowering (malignant) intellect. PDs are VESSELS, bottles and pots -  you can fill them with any wine or food you want.

Take a psychopath: he can put his disorder at the service of a higher cause (military, secret service, fighting the bad guys). Take a narcissist: he can obtain Narcissistic Supply by helping others and thus securing their praise.

12. A Core of Values?

I, for one, DO share the BELIEF that there is a core of values, inalienable and universal, culture independent, period independent, and society independent.

This is a highly disputable contention in modern moral philosophy.

But even if we accept it, the problem, of course, is to AGREE what values belong to this core. I think "Thou shalt not kill" belongs to it. I believe almost everyone will agree with me. Admittedly, the "almost" is there but it is very negligible.

I don't think one can claim the same universal status for incest. There have been many cultures in which it has been the norm (within certain classes). There is a substantial minority who believe that, in this day and age, with contraceptives, if two consenting adults who happen to share 50% of their genetic material, wish to engage in sex, they should not be condemned, or at least not stopped. I think otherwise (for very pragmatic reasons) - but there ARE those who think differently.

13. Licensing Parents (continued)

I once suggested half-jokingly that parents should not be allowed to become parents unless and until they are:

a.      Educated by professionals to become parents;

b.     Tested and get some "on the job" training under supervision (an internship);

c.      Tested for medical (and mental health) eligibility;

d.     Licensed with the licence renewed periodically.

We licence people to drive lorries and sell groceries. Presumably there is nothing more important (socially and morally) than child rearing, yet this field of human life and endeavour is wide open to anyone, regardless of the consequences to the off-spring.

Of course this opens up a can of moral, ethical  and philosophical worms (in whom or what shall the authority to licence parents be vested? What moral criteria should be applied? Is the right to breed inalienable? and so on). But the idea is intriguing and not entirely without merit. After all, it is society that bears the cost of parental incompetence.

I wholeheartedly agree that ONLY parents are to BLAME for abuse and neglect. I take back my unfortunate use of the words "genetic propensity" or disposition of the infant not to attach. This would be a highly unlikely event (counter-survival, as it were). I modify this and now talk about "warm" or "detached or cold" babies (or social and asocial ones).

But I never intended to apportion blame. I wanted to discuss TRIGGERS, not who is guilty, WHY - not WHO. I offered an OBSERVATION that some babies do not attach, not an idea that they are to be blamed for their own abuse. Mothers consistently and insistently claim that their babies have a "character" almost immediately after being born. They probably are projecting (this has never been proven, to the best of my limited knowledge, though). OR, they might be on to something. Whatever it is - it might trigger abuse and neglect if there is incompatibility between mother and child.

I was NOT referring to innate differences in children, or even to the perception of such differences (if they do exist and are not merely projective in nature). I was talking about the perception of these differences as a TRIGGER to abuse and neglect. And I was not talking about theorizing but about research, experimentation, "hard" "facts".

14. Nations as Patients

Sometimes I think that a new branch of psychology should be created: "geopsychology". I believe that nations and ethnic groups react as individuals do. Having been subjected to abuse/trauma, a nation or an ethnic group is likely to develop a personality disorder. This is NOT stereotypizing. To stereotypize is to believe that you know everything about an individual from his/her national, or racial, or ethnic, or social, or cultural affiliation. I reject this. Each of us is a universe unto itself. Only some of us have black holes in our midst, or a nebula. I believe that the application of individual-orientated psychological theories and treatment methods to nations and ethnic groups should not be ruled out.

15. Narcissistic Myths

I have to dispel two hidden assumptions. The first is that there is such thing as a typical narcissist. Well, there is, but one must specify whether we are dealing with a cerebral narcissist or a somatic one.

A cerebral narcissist uses his intelligence to obtain Narcissistic Supply. A somatic narcissist uses his body, his looks and his sexuality to do likewise. Inevitably, each type is likely to react very differently to a narcissistic injury brought about by an accident.

Somatic narcissists are a variation upon the HPD theme. They are seductive, provocative and  obsessive-compulsive when it comes to their bodies, their sexual activities, their health (they are likely to be hypochondriacs as well).

The second "myth" is that narcissism is an isolated phenomenon that can be distilled and dealt with in purity in the laboratories of the mind. This is not the case. Actually, due to the fuzziness of the whole field, diagnosticians are both forced AND encouraged to render multiple diagnoses ("co-morbidity"). NPD usually appears in tandem with some other Cluster B Disorder (such as AsPD, HPD or, most often, BPD).

Narcissists VERY rarely commit suicide. It runs against the grain. They have suicidal ideation and reactive psychoses under severe stress - but to commit suicide runs against the grain of narcissism. This is more a BPD trait. A differential diagnosis of NPD actually almost rests on the absence of attempted suicide and self-mutilation.

In response to a life crisis (divorce, disgrace, imprisonment, accident, and severe narcissistic injuries) the narcissist is likely to adopt either of two reactions:


a.      To finally refer himself to therapy, realizing that something is very wrong or dangerously wrong with him. Statistics show that all types of therapies are very ineffective when it comes to narcissists. Soon enough, the therapist is bored, fed up or actively repelled by the grandiose fantasies and open contempt of the narcissist. The therapeutic alliance crumbles and the narcissist emerges "triumphant" having depleted the therapist's energy.


b.     To frantically grope for alternative sources of narcissistic supply.

Narcissists are very creative. If all else fails, they exhibitionistically make use of their own misery (as I do). Or they lie, create a fantasy, invent stories, harp on other people's emotions, forge a medical condition, pull a stunt, fall in ideal love with the chief nurse, make a provocative move or a crime. The narcissist is bound to come up with a surprising angle.

Experience shows that most narcissists go through (a) and then through (b).

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