Excerpts from the Archives of the Narcissism List - Part 61
Narcissism, Pathological Narcissism, Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), the Narcissist,
And Relationships with Abusive Narcissists and Psychopaths
Listowner: Dr. Sam Vaknin
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1. Interview with Top 25 (Russia)
A child is a universe. And the role of the family is crucial in child’s personality. Unfortunately today’s world is becoming more and more narcissistic and psychological abuse in the family is not a rare thing at all. When does a child become a Narcissist? What is the essence of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD)? How it happens that a child becomes a source of Narcissistic Supply for his parents and a mere extension of them and what should be done in order to protect children? This and many other issues are raised today in our interview with Sam Vaknin, the Author of "Malignant Self-love: Narcissism Revisited” (now in its 10th edition) and other books about personality disorders. Vaknin was diagnosed twice with NPD and then became the world’s leading expert on this disorder. His YouTube channels garnered 15 million views and c. 50,000 subscribers.
Q. What is Narcissism? The cover of your book bears the picture of Narcissus gazing at his reflection in the water. How well does this myth reveal the core of pathological narcissism?
Primary Narcissism is a psychological defense mechanism common in the formative years (6 months to 6 years old). It is intended to shield the infant and toddler from the inevitable hurt and fears involved in the individuation-separation phase of personal development, when the infant separates from his/her mother and become a distinct individual.
Secondary or pathological narcissism is a pattern of thinking and behaving in adolescence and adulthood, which involves infatuation and obsession with one's self to the exclusion of others. It manifests in the chronic pursuit of personal gratification and attention (narcissistic supply), in social dominance and personal ambition, bragging, insensitivity to others, lack of empathy and/or excessive dependence on others to meet his/her responsibilities in daily living and thinking. Pathological narcissism is at the core of narcissistic personality disorder.
The myth of Narcissus is a bit misleading: the narcissist does not love
himself. It is because he has very little True Self to love. Instead, a
monstrous, malignant construct – the False Self – encroaches upon his True Self
and devours it. The narcissist loves his reflection: an image which he
projects onto others who reflect it to the narcissist (the False Self). This process
reassures the narcissist of both the objective existence of his False Self and
of the boundaries of his Ego. It blurs all distinctions between reality and
Q. What are the hidden dangers of narcissism?
We should distinguish healthy narcissism from the pathological kind. Healthy narcissism is the foundation of self-esteem, self-confidence, self-love, and a stable sense of self-worth. Pathological narcissism is destructive, both to the narcissist and to his human environment. It is bound to adversely affect the narcissist’s family, “friends”, colleagues, community, and nation. All narcissists are abusive and many of them are also antisocial (criminalized). Socially adept and high functioning narcissists are everywhere, often in positions of authority and influence.
The narcissist naturally gravitates towards those professions which guarantee the abundant and uninterrupted provision of Narcissistic Supply. He seeks to interact with people from a position of authority, advantage, or superiority. He thus elicits their automatic admiration, adulation, and affirmation – or, failing that, their fear and obedience.
Several vocations meet these requirements: teaching, the clergy, show business, corporate management, the medical professions, the military, law enforcement agencies, politics, and sports. It is safe to predict that narcissists are over-represented in these occupations.
The cerebral narcissist is likely to emphasize his intellectual prowess and accomplishments (real and imaginary) in an attempt to solicit supply from awe-struck students, devoted parishioners, admiring voters, obsequious subordinates, or dependent patients. His somatic counterpart derives his sense of self-worth from body building, athletic achievements, tests of resilience or endurance, and sexual conquests.
The narcissistic medical doctor or mental health professional and his patients, the narcissistic guide, teacher, or mentor and his students, the narcissistic leader, guru, pundit, or psychic and his followers or admirers, and the narcissistic business tycoon, boss, or employer and his underlings – all are instances of Pathological Narcissistic Spaces.
This is a worrisome state of affairs. Narcissists are liars. They misrepresent their credentials, knowledge, talents, skills, and achievements. A narcissist medical doctor would rather let patients die than expose his ignorance. A narcissistic therapist often traumatizes his clients with his acting out, rage, exploitativeness, and lack of empathy. Narcissistic businessmen bring ruin on their firms and employees.
Moreover, even when all is "well", the narcissist's relationship with his sycophants is abusive. He perceives others as objects, mere instruments of gratification, dispensable and interchangeable. An addict, the narcissist tends to pursue an ever-larger dose of adoration, and an ever-bigger fix of attention, while gradually losing what's left of his moral constraints.
When his sources become weary, rebellious, tired, bored, disgusted, repelled, or plainly amused by the narcissist's incessant dependence, his childish craving for attention, his exaggerated or even paranoid fears which lead to obsessive-compulsive behaviours, and his "drama queen" temper tantrums - he resorts to emotional extortion, straight blackmail, abuse, or misuse of his authority, and criminal or antisocial conduct. If these fail, the narcissist devalues and discards the very people he so idealized and cherished only a short while before.
As opposed to their "normal" colleagues or peers, narcissists in authority lack empathy and ethical standards. Thus, they are prone to immorally, cynically, callously and consistently abuse their position. Their socialisation process – usually the product of problematic early relationships with Primary Objects (parents, or caregivers) – is often perturbed and results in social dysfunctioning.
Nor is the narcissist deterred by possible punishment or regards himself subject to Man-made laws. His sense of entitlement coupled with the conviction of his own superiority lead him to believe in his invincibility, invulnerability, immunity, and divinity. The narcissist holds human edicts, rules, and regulations in disdain and human penalties in disdain. He regards human needs and emotions as weaknesses to be predatorily exploited.
Q. How did it happen that an analyst and correspondent decided to dedicate most of his time not to politics and economics but to clinical psychology? What was the reason you have changed your professional trajectory? Why did you decide to concentrate especially on this subject?
A. I was diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder twice within a decade. Each time I hit rock bottom, each time I lost women I loved, money I made, collections I amassed, property I owned, and, finally, my very liberty. And each time, I met with a psychiatrist, voluntarily or not, and was told that something is wrong with me, that my personality is disordered. Yet, back in 1995, no one was able to tell me anything meaningful or useful about my alleged problem. So, I decided to take matters into my own hands. I was shocked by the dearth of relevant material. I had to invent a whole new language and a whole new theory (both of which are currently in use worldwide) to describe my inner world and what I have been learning from the 1000 diagnosed narcissists I interviewed. Within two years, 250,000 members joined my online support groups: most of them distraught family members and other victims of narcissists. The scope of the phenomenon was unprecedented.
Q. Do you have children?
A. No, luckily for them.
Q. Is Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) an inherited, inherent, or acquired disorder? What provokes this disorder in the child’s personality? When and under which circumstances does one become a Narcissist? At what age does the child create a false self? Now that you have all the knowledge about narcissism, looking back, do you remember when you had created your false self and what lead to your narcissism?
A. Pathological narcissism is a reaction to prolonged abuse and trauma in early childhood or early adolescence. The source of the abuse or trauma is immaterial - the perpetrators could be parents, teachers, other adults, or peers. Pampering, smothering, spoiling, and "engulfing" the child are also forms of abuse. Not all abused children go on to become narcissists, so there is probably a genetic component, some biological propensity involved, but we have yet to identify it.
I formed my False Self at the age of 5 or 6 as a kind of Superman to protect me from life-threatening physical and psychological abuse by my parents.
Q. After the False Self is created, does it become easier for the child to cope with his dysfunctional family?
A. The False Self is everything the
abused and humiliated child is not: omnipotent (all-powerful), omniscient (all-knowing),
brilliant, perfect, invulnerable, godlike. The False Self replaces the
narcissist’s meek, helpless, impotent, and vulnerable True Self. The False Self
is a magical shield: it deflects pain, hurt, and narcissistic injury. Throughout
his life, the narcissist pretends that his False Self is real and demands that
others affirm this confabulation.
The False Self re-interprets information in a flattering or socially-acceptable
light and also imitates and emulates normal
emotions and empathy.
So, yes, once the False Self is fully functional, the child feels superhumanly
empowered and surrounded by an invisible cloak which protects and defends him,
Harry Potter style.
Q. You wrote that "narcissism breeds narcissism". Is it possible to somehow protect a child from a narcissistic parent? If one of the parents is a narcissist, is it inevitable that the child will be abused and how does it happen? If a Narcissist is an abused child does it mean that in his own family he will also abuse his children or will the memories of his dysfunctional childhood prevent him from doing so?
A. At first, the narcissist treats his newborn children as competitors for scarce narcissistic supply (for instance, they compete for the attention of his wife or intimate partner). Gradually, though, he converts some of them into sources of attention and adulation (“golden children”). At this phase, incest is a distinct danger because the narcissist regards his children as mere extensions of himself, not as individuals with boundaries. As children grow up, they become more discerning, judgmental, and critical. The narcissist then regains his erstwhile hostility towards his offspring. His own abusive childhood only serves to justify his maltreatment of his own children: it is the way of the world, the narcissist says, it is only fair that I am not the only one who had to suffer. “Tough love” will surely render my children better prepared to face a hostile, dangerous world.
The sole way to protect the child from a true narcissist is to make sure that there is no contact between them.
As I said, the narcissist regards his children as extensions of himself, mere avatars of his inner constructs, pawns in the grand chess game that is his Life, props in the theatre of his False Self (sources of narcissistic supply), potential competitors, and bargaining chips in the inevitable showdown with a hostile world as reified by his reneging, traitorous spouse. In a custody battle, for example, all these figments of his psychodynamics need to be adroitly addressed to achieve a favourable outcome as far as the children involved are concerned.
A parent diagnosed with full-fledged Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) should be denied custody and be granted only restricted rights of visitation under supervision.
Narcissists accord the same treatment to children and adults. They regard both as sources of narcissistic supply, mere instruments of gratification - idealize them at first and then devalue them in favour of alternative, safer and more subservient, sources. Such treatment is traumatic and can have long-lasting emotional effects.
The narcissist's inability to acknowledge and abide by the
personal boundaries set by others puts the child at heightened risk of abuse -
verbal, emotional, physical, and, often, sexual. His possessiveness and panoply
of indiscriminate negative emotions - transformations of aggression, such as
rage and envy - hinder his ability to act as a "good enough" parent.
His propensities for reckless behaviour, substance abuse, and sexual deviance
endanger the child's welfare, or even his or her life.
Q. What is Narcissistic Supply and how does a child become a supply source for his dysfunctional parent?
A. Narcissistic Supply is a fancy term for attention, the reflection of the False Self back at the narcissist, feedback that affirms his grandiose, inflated view of himself. The narcissist is the mental equivalent of an alcoholic. He is insatiable. He compulsively directs his whole behaviour, in fact his life, to obtaining attention, both positive (adulation, admiration) and negative (being feared or hated). He embeds these titbits in a coherent, completely biased, fantastic picture of himself. He uses the attention to regulate his labile sense of self-worth and self-esteem. He needs narcissistic supply to carry out basic mental (ego) functions. Without it he crumbles and becomes dysfunctional.
To elicit constant interest, he projects to others a confabulated, fictitious version of himself, known as the False Self. The False Self is everything the narcissist is not: omniscient, omnipotent, charming, intelligent, rich, or well-connected. The narcissist then proceeds to harvest reactions to this projected image from his children, other family members, friends, co-workers, neighbours, business partners and from colleagues. If these – the adulation, admiration, attention, fear, respect, applause, affirmation – are not forthcoming, the narcissist demands them, or extorts them. He bullies his children, bribes them, emotionally blackmails them, and trades with them – all for the narcissistic supply that they can provide.
Q. Does a narcissistic child lack empathy from an early age or is the lack of empathy a later development? How does a young narcissist interact at school with his classmates and his teachers? Is there any hope that the problem will vanish with time? Should the parents intervene? Is it possible to "fix" the disorder in child’s personality?
A. Once the child has developed a fully functional False Self, the prognosis gets worse by the year. After the age of 21, it is impossible to heal or cure NPD. Some abrasive, antisocial, self-defeating, counterproductive, and self-destructive behaviors can be modified or even eliminated altogether. But the disordered personality itself is beyond reach. As opposed to psychopathy which ameliorates with age, NPD only gets worse.
NPD cannot be diagnosed prior to adolescence, so there is no such thing as a “narcissistic child”. But children who are in the throes of the pathological process of developing narcissism often have conduct and oppositional defiant disorders.
Children and adolescents with conduct disorder are budding psychopaths. They
repeatedly and deliberately (and joyfully) violate the rights of others and
breach age-appropriate social norms and rules. Some of them gleefully hurt and
torture people or, more frequently, animals. Others damage property. Yet others
habitually deceive, lie, and steal. These behaviors inevitably render them
socially, occupationally, and academically dysfunctional. They are poor
performers at home, in school, and in the community. As such adolescents grow
up, and beyond the age of 18, the diagnosis automatically changes from Conduct
Disorder to Antisocial Personality Disorder.
Children with Conduct Disorder are in denial. They tend to minimize their problems and blame others for their misbehavior and failures. This shifting of guilt justifies, as far as they are concerned, their invariably and pervasively aggressive, bullying, intimidating, and menacing gestures and tantrums. Adolescents with Conduct Disorder are often embroiled in fights, both verbal and physical. They frequently use weapons, purchased or improvised (e.g., broken glass) and they are cruel. Many underage muggers, extortionists, purse-snatchers, rapists, robbers, shoplifters, burglars, arsonists, vandals, and animal torturers are diagnosed with Conduct Disorder.
Conduct Disorder comes in many shapes and forms. Some adolescents are
"cerebral" rather than physical. These are likely to act as
con-artists, lie their way out of awkward situations, swindle everyone, their
parents and teachers included, and forge documents to erase debts or obtain material
Conduct-disordered children and adolescent find it difficult to abide by any rules and to honor agreements. They regard societal norms as onerous impositions. They stay late at night, run from home, are truant from school, or absent from work without good cause. Some adolescents with Conduct Disorder have been also diagnosed with Oppositional Defiant Disorder and at least one personality disorder.
Regarding empathy: I propose a tripartite model of empathy, roughly corresponding to Freud’s postulated id, ego, and superego. In this model, normal empathy is comprised of three components: instinctual-reflexive, emotional, and cognitive. Children develop empathy in three phases which correspond to these three components, constructing the emotional and cognitive tiers upon an instinctual firmament. In adults, cognitive empathy always goes hand in hand with the instinctual element and the emotional correlate/component.
Cold empathy is not the same as merely cognitive empathy, though. It is intuitive: it is the residual instinctual component coupled with cognitive empathy, but divorced from and leapfrogging the emotional constituent. Cold empathy is the ossified consequence of “arrested empathy”. It is a predator's "empathy". It is all about resonance, not about "putting yourself in other people's shoes".
Narcissists and psychopaths also appear to be “empathizing” with their possessions: objects, pets, and their sources of narcissistic supply or material benefits (often their nearest and dearest, significant others, or “friends” and associates). But this is not real empathy: it is a mere projection of the narcissist’s or psychopath’s own insecurities and fears, needs and wishes, fantasies and priorities. This kind of displayed, sometimes ostentatious “empathy” usually vanishes the minute its subject ceases to play a role in the narcissist’s or psychopath’s life and his psychodynamic processes.
Q. According you, is narcissism afflicting today’s world in general or was it always so widespread?
A. Studies are consistently demonstrating an alarming rise in narcissistic traits and behaviors among young people. Narcissism is culture-bound, it is a cultural artefact. When culture and society legitimize narcissism and uphold it, it goes rampant.
Look around you: self-absorption; greed; frivolity; social anxiety; lack of empathy; exploitation; abuse. These are not marginal phenomena. These are the defining traits of the West and its denizens. The West's is a narcissistic civilization. It upholds narcissistic values and penalizes the alternative value-systems. From an early age, children are taught to avoid self-criticism, to deceive themselves regarding their capacities and achievements, to feel entitled, to exploit others. Litigiousness is the flip side of this inane sense of entitlement. The disintegration of the very fabric of society is its outcome. It is a culture of self-delusion. People adopt grandiose fantasies, often incommensurate with their real, dreary, lives. Consumerism is built on this common and communal lie of "I can do anything I want and possess everything I desire if I only apply myself to it".
Social thinkers speculated that modern American culture - a narcissistic, self-centred one - increases the rate of incidence of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Ours is a civilization based on a carpe diem mentality of “every man for himself”, “what’s in it for me”, “out with the barely old - in with the untried new”: malignant individualism run amok and gone awry, infecting and contaminating every act and behavior. Even charitable giving has been transformed into narcissistic altruism. As their societies and value systems implode and crumble and as their skills are rendered obsolete, people suffer “anomic traumas”: deep pain and terror-filled disorientation in equal measures. They feel utterly alienated and atomized and they react with hurt-aversion and avoidance.
As empathy, emotional sustenance and communal support, solidarity, loyalty, and a sense of belonging all become relics of a fast receding past, the mass victims of anomic trauma put up primitive, stopgap and last resort narcissistic defences. These, in turn, only exacerbate the very traumatic conditions, social dislocations, and experiences that necessitated their deployment in the first place.
Moreover, the anonymity which is the inevitable outcome of life in anthill megalopolises and cities with millions of denizens – the abodes of three quarters of humanity in the wake of relentless of urbanization – is excruciating. In an effort to reassert their self-identity and to remind others of their existence as something more than a statistic, people resort to ever-escalating attention-seeking behaviors coupled with aggressive boundary-setting.
The “grab as you can and damn the consequences to yourself and to others” mentality spreads across generations and among peers. There is no refuge as collectives, large (nations, the church) and small (family, workplace, neighbourhood) are rendered dysfunctional by rapid-fire changes and commensurate enabling technology. Our very ability to self-organize, self-assemble, and act in unison is in jeopardy as is our future as a species.
From the dawn of history to the late 1950s, the collective was the organizing principle of human affairs. The pursuit of happiness was channelled via collectives and even dissidents and rebels formed collectives to express their grievances. But, this old system brought humanity to the verge of extinction. Disenchanted with mass ideologies, people switched to the opposite pole: militant individualism, which became the new battle cry and organizing principle of increasingly more narcissistic collectives and individuals alike.
Pathological narcissism is a ubiquitous phenomenon because every human being - regardless of the nature of his society and culture - develops healthy narcissism early in life. Healthy narcissism is rendered pathological by abuse - and abuse, alas, is a universal human behavior. By "abuse" we mean any refusal to acknowledge the emerging boundaries of the individual: smothering, doting, and excessive expectations are as abusive as beating and incest.
With 7 billion humans on the planet, the need to assert oneself, to be noticed, to be recognized as unique is ever more pressing. No one likes to feel a cog in a machine, an atom in an organism, or a speck among billions. Consumerism and mass communication that lead to global cultural and societal homogeneity foster the same narcissistic reactions and provoke the same narcissistic defenses in whole collectives as they do in individuals.
There are malignant narcissists among subsistence farmers in Africa, nomads in the Sinai desert, day laborers in east Europe, and intellectuals and socialites in Manhattan. Malignant narcissism is all-pervasive and independent of culture and society.
It is true, though, that the WAY pathological narcissism manifests and is experienced is dependent on the particulars of societies and cultures. In some cultures, it is encouraged, in others suppressed. In some societies it is channelled against minorities - in others it is tainted with paranoia. In collectivist societies, it may be projected onto the collective, in individualistic societies it is an individual's trait.
Q. Is there any gender aspect in NPD and who is mostly at risk - men or women?
A. Three quarters of all diagnosed narcissists are men. But this is
changing fast. By now, although there is only anecdotal evidence, we have
probably reached parity between male and female narcissists. The growing
incidence and prevalence of pathological narcissism among women proves the
cultural-societal determinant of narcissism: as women are becoming more equal
to men, they are adopting hitherto mostly male behaviors (such as having
extramarital affairs) and also male traits (such as narcissism).
Q. Are you planning to come to Russia with your seminars?
A. I hope to soon be able to give 2 seminars in Russia: one to the wider public and another to mental health practitioners (psychotherapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists).
Q. How do you feel about writing?
A. Writing good fiction is similarly a revelatory process: capturing with precision-words fleeting moods, ephemeral associations, all-pervasive emotions, the permutations of the material and the transcendence of the real. Making love to language, caressing it, coaxing, cajoling, submitting only to dominate and penetrate its depths, the sado-masochism of grammar and syntax, and the suffocating aesthetic of the newborn. And all the time, holding an abstracted reader in your mind, conducting a dialog with him or her in which the author is both the question and the answer, a delectable, overpowering solipsism, the way God must have felt like during Creation.
Good fiction replicates in the
reader the emotions experienced by the author at the time of writing. It
resonates, rendering the reader a delicate bell, vibrating and tintinnabulating
in strict synchronicity with the author. Storyteller and audience become one.
In this sense, you are absolutely right: it is the epitome of eroticism, a
merger, a union, a fusion that are typically
> accomplished only in sublime sex with a loved one.
I am embarrassed by the florid and overt expression of volcanic emotions. I cringe. I am English this way, not Russian. I prefer to let the reader learn about my emotions (or the emotions of
the protagonists in my fiction) via the subtle details of everyday life: a shade, an imperceptible motion, a mote of dust settling on a sepia curtain, the distant noise of playing children ..
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