Narcissism – The Psychopathological Default

Frequently Asked Question # 40

Abuse and trauma in early childhood perpetuate primary narcissistic defenses into adulthood.

Pathological narcissism wears many forms: classic or malignant narcissism; appropriative (e.g., Histrionic); schizoid; and aggressive-destructive.

Pathological narcissism is, therefore, at the roots of most personality disorders.

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The symptoms that you describe are common to so many people that I know… Does this mean that they are all narcissists?


The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) is linear, descriptive (phenomenological), and bureaucratic. It is "medical", "mechanic-dynamic", and "physical" and, thus, reminiscent of the old taxonomies in Botany and Zoology. It glosses over the patient's idiosyncratic life circumstances, biological and psychological processes, and offers no overarching conceptual and exegetic framework. Moreover, the DSM is heavily influenced by cultural fashions, prevailing social lore and ethos, and by the legal and business environment.

We are all narcissists at an early stage of our lives. As infants, we feel that we are the centre of the universe, omnipotent and omniscient. Our parents, those mythical figures, immortal and awesomely powerful, are there only to protect and serve us. Both self and others are viewed immaturely, as idealisations.

Inevitably, the inexorable processes and conflicts of life grind these ideals into the fine dust of the real. Disappointments follow disillusionment. When these are gradual and tolerable, they are adaptive. If abrupt, capricious, arbitrary, and intense, the injuries sustained by the tender, budding self-esteem, are irreversible.

Moreover, the empathic support of the caretakers (the Primary Objects, the parents) is crucial. In its absence, self-esteem in adulthood tends to fluctuate, to alternate between over-valuation (idealisation) and devaluation of both self and others.

Narcissistic adults are the result of bitter disappointments, of radical disillusionment with parents, role models, or peers. Healthy adults accept their limitations (the boundaries of their selves). They accept disappointments, setbacks, failures, criticism and disillusionment with grace and tolerance. Their sense of self-worth is constant and positive, minimally affected by outside events, no matter how severe.

The common view is that we go through the stages of a linear development. We are propelled forward by various forces: the Libido (force of life) and the Thanatos (force of death) in Freud's tripartite model, Meaning in Frenkel's work, socially mediated phenomena (in both Adler's thinking and in Behaviourism), our cultural context (in Horney's opera), interpersonal relations (Sullivan) and neurobiological and neurochemical processes, to mention but a few schools of developmental psychology.

In an effort to gain respectability, many scholars attempted to propose a "physics of the mind". But these thought systems differ on many issues. Some say that personal development ends in childhood, others – during adolescence. Yet others say that development is a process which continues throughout the life of the individual.

Common to all these schools of thought are the mechanics and dynamics of the process of personal growth. Forces – inner or external – facilitate the development of the individual. When an obstacle to development is encountered, development is stunted or arrested – but not for long. A distorted pattern of development, a bypass appears.

Psychopathology is the outcome of perturbed growth. Humans can be compared to trees. When a tree encounters a physical obstacle to its expansion, its branches or roots curl around it. Deformed and ugly, they still reach their destination, however late and partially.

Psychopathologies are, therefore, adaptive mechanisms. They allow the individual to continue to grow around obstacles. The nascent personality twists and turns, deforms itself, is transformed – until it reaches a functional equilibrium, which is not too ego-dystonic.

Having reached that point, it settles down and continues its more or less linear pattern of growth. The forces of life (as expressed in the development of the personality) are stronger than any hindrance. The roots of trees crack mighty rocks, microbes live in the most poisonous surroundings.

Similarly, humans form those personality structures which are optimally suited to their needs and outside constraints. Such personality configurations may be abnormal – but their mere existence proves that they have triumphed in the delicate task of successful adaptation.

Only death puts a stop to personal growth and development. Life's events, crises, joys and sadness, disappointments and surprises, setbacks and successes – all contribute to the weaving of the delicate fabric called "personality".

When an individual (at any age) encounters an obstacle to the orderly progression from one stage of development to another – he retreats at first to his early childhood's narcissistic phase rather than circumvent or "go around" the hindrance.

The process is three-phased:

(1) The person encounters an obstacle

(2) The person regresses to the infantile narcissistic phase

(3) Thus recuperated, the person confronts the obstacle again.

While in step (2), the person displays childish, immature behaviours. He feels that he is omnipotent and misjudges his powers and the might of the opposition. He underestimates challenges facing him and pretends to be "Mr. Know-All". His sensitivity to the needs and emotions of others and his ability to empathise with them deteriorates sharply. He becomes intolerably haughty with sadistic and paranoid tendencies.

Above all, he then demands unconditional admiration, even when he does not deserve it. He is preoccupied with fantastic, magical, thinking and daydreams his life away. He tends to exploit others, to envy them, to be edgy and explode with unexplained rage.

People whose psychological development is obstructed by a formidable obstacle – mostly revert to excessive and compulsive behaviour patterns. To put it succinctly: whenever we experience a major life crisis (which hinders our personal growth and threatens it) – we suffer from a mild and transient form of Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

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This fantasy world, full of falsity and hurt feelings, serves as a springboard from which the rejuvenated individual resumes his progress towards the next stage of personal growth. This time around, faced with the same obstacle, he feels sufficiently potent to ignore it or to attack it.

In most cases, the success of this second onslaught is guaranteed by the delusional assessment that the obstacle's fortitude and magnitude are diminished. This, indeed, is the main function of this reactive, episodic, and transient narcissism: to encourage magical thinking, to wish the problem away or to enchant it or to tackle and overcome it from a position of omnipotence.

A structural abnormality of personality arises only when recurrent attacks fail constantly and consistently to eliminate the obstacle, or to overcome the hindrance. The contrast between the fantastic world (temporarily) occupied by the individual and the real world in which he keeps being frustrated – is too acute to countenance for long without a resulting deformity.

This dissonance - the gap between grandiose fantasy and frustrating reality - gives rise to the unconscious "decision" to go on living in the world of fantasy, grandiosity and entitlement. It is better to feel special than to feel inadequate. It is better to be omnipotent than psychologically impotent. To (ab)use others is preferable to being (ab)used by them. In short: it is better to remain a pathological narcissist than to face harsh, unyielding reality.

Not all personality disorders are fundamentally narcissistic. Yet, I think that the default, when growth is stunted by the existence of a persistent obstacle, is remission to the narcissistic phase of early personal development. I further believe that this is the ONLY default available to the individual: whenever he comes across an obstacle, he regresses to the narcissistic phase. How can this be reconciled with the diversity of mental illnesses?

"Narcissism" is the substitution of a False Self for the True Self. This, arguably, is the predominant feature of narcissism: the True Self is repressed, relegated to irrelevance and obscurity, left to degenerate and decay. In its stead, a psychological structure is formed and projected unto the outside world – the False Self.

The narcissist's False Self is reflected at him by other people. This "proves" to the narcissist that the False Self indeed exists independently, that it is not entirely a figment of the narcissist's imagination and, therefore, that it is a legitimate successor to the True Self. It is this characteristic which is common to all psychopathologies: the emergence of false psychic structures which usurp the powers and capacities of the previous, legitimate and authentic ones.

Horrified by the absence of a clearly bounded, cohesive, coherent, reliable, and self-regulating self – the mentally abnormal person resorts to one of the following solutions, all of which involve reliance upon fake or invented personality constructs:

  1. The Narcissistic Solution – The True Self is replaced by a False Self. The Schizotypal Personality Disorder also largely belongs here because of its emphasis on fantastic and magical thinking. The Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is a case of a failed narcissistic solution. In BPD, the patient is aware that the solution that she opted for is "not working". This is the source of her separation anxiety (fear of abandonment). This generates her identity disturbance, her affective and emotional lability, suicidal ideation and suicidal action, chronic feelings of emptiness, rage attacks, and transient (stress related) paranoid ideation.
  1. The Appropriation Solution – This is the appropriation, or the confiscation of someone else's self in order to fill the vacuum left by the absence of a functioning Ego. While some Ego functions are available internally – others are adopted by the "appropriating personality". The Histrionic Personality Disorder is an example of this solution. Mothers who "sacrifice" their lives for their children, people who live vicariously, through others – all belong to this category. So do people who dramatise their lives and their behaviour, in order to attract attention. The "appropriators" misjudge the intimacy of their relationships and the degree of commitment involved, they are easily suggestible and their whole personality seems to shift and fluctuate with input from the outside. Because they have no Self of their own (even less so than "classical" narcissists) – the "appropriators" tend to over-rate and over-emphasise their bodies. Perhaps the most striking example of this type of solution is the Dependent Personality Disorder.
  1. The Schizoid Solution – These patients are mental zombies, trapped forever in the no-man's land between stunted growth and the narcissistic default. They are not narcissists because they lack a False Self – nor are they fully developed adults, because their True Self is immature and dysfunctional. They prefer to avoid contact with others (they lack empathy, as does the narcissist) in order not to upset their delicate tightrope act. Withdrawing from the world is an adaptive solution because it does not expose the patient's inadequate personality structures (especially his self) to onerous – and failure bound – tests. The Schizotypal Personality Disorder is a mixture of the narcissistic and the schizoid solutions. The Avoidant Personality Disorder is a close kin.
  1. The Aggressive Destructive Solution – These people suffer from hypochondriasis, depression, suicidal ideation, dysphoria, anhedonia, compulsions and obsessions and other expressions of internalised and transformed aggression directed at a self which is perceived to be inadequate, guilty, disappointing and worthy of nothing but elimination. Many of the narcissistic elements are present in an exaggerated form. Lack of empathy becomes reckless disregard for others, irritability, deceitfulness and criminal violence. Undulating self-esteem is transformed into impulsiveness and failure to plan ahead. The Antisocial Personality Disorder is a prime example of this solution, whose essence is: the total control of a False Self, without the mitigating presence of a shred of True Self.

Perhaps this common feature – the replacement of the original structures of the personality by new, invented, mostly false ones – is what causes one to see narcissists everywhere. This common denominator is most accentuated in Narcissistic Personality Disorder. It also entails a confusion between internal and external objects (some persecutory), and a fragmentation of the self accompanied by pervasive dissociation and confabulation

The interaction, really, the battle, between the struggling original remnants of the personality and the malignant and omnivorous new structures – can be discerned in all forms of psychic abnormality. The question is: if many phenomena have one thing in common – should they be considered one and the same, or, at least, caused by the same?

I say that the answer in the case of personality disorders should be in the affirmative. I think that all the known personality disorders are forms of malignant self-love. In each personality disorder, different attributes are differently emphasised, different weights attach to different behaviour patterns. But these, in my view, are all matters of quantity, not of quality. The myriad deformations of the reactive patterns collectively known as "personality" all belong to the same family.

Also Read

The Stripped Ego

The Split Off Ego

The Dual Role of the False Self

Transformations of Aggression

Acquired Situational Narcissism

The Inverted Narcissist

Narcissists, Inverted Narcissists and Schizoids

Misdiagnosing Narcissism - The Bipolar I Disorder

Misdiagnosing Narcissism - Asperger's Disorder

 Narcissism with Other Mental Health Disorders

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