Pathological Narcissism: A Dysfunction or a Blessing?
By: Dr. Sam Vaknin
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“His genius was betrayed by lofty and indomitable traits of character which could not yield or compromise. And so his life was a tragedy of inconsequence.”
(The poetess Harriet Monroe, quoted in the book “The Devil in White City” by Erik Larson)
Is pathological narcissism a blessing or a malediction?
The answer is: it depends. Healthy narcissism is a mature, balanced love of oneself coupled with a stable sense of self-worth and self-esteem. Healthy narcissism implies knowledge of one's boundaries and a proportionate and realistic appraisal of one's achievements and traits.
Pathological narcissism is wrongly described as too much healthy narcissism (or too much self-esteem). These are two absolutely unrelated phenomena which, regrettably, came to bear the same title. Confusing pathological narcissism with self- esteem betrays a fundamental ignorance of both.
The narcissist is a
nonentity. There is no one home, just an empty (though inviting) hall of
mirrors, reflection upon reflection built to amplify, distort, and focus. The
narcissist is merely a carnival attraction.
But this nonexistence is the narcissist's fount of strength: his intimate partners enter his hall of mirrors and fall in love with their own reflections. For many of them, it is the first experience of self-love.
Loving oneself is highly addictive and the narcissist leverages the access to his hall of mirrors - threatens to withhold it - in order to blackmail his partner and manipulate her to do his bidding.
has no ego, that Freudian postulated
psychological construct that mediates between inner drives and impulses and
Instead, he outsources ego functions: he uses narcissistic supply (attention) from others to regulate critical elements in his inner environment (like his sense of self-worth)
Where there is an ego in healthy people, the narcissist has a monstrous malignant False Self that mediates between him and the world. The False Self is grandiose and godlike and subsumes the functions that Freud assigned to the superego ("conscience" as the outcome of introjection, socialization, and acculturation).
Pathological narcissism involves an impaired, dysfunctional, immature (True) Self coupled with a compensatory fiction (the False Self). The sick narcissist's sense of self-worth and self-esteem derive entirely from audience feedback. The narcissist has no self-esteem or self-worth of his own (no such ego functions). In the absence of observers, the narcissist shrivels to non-existence and feels dead. Hence the narcissist's preying habits in his constant pursuit of Narcissistic Supply. Pathological narcissism is an addictive behavior.
Still, dysfunctions are reactions to abnormal environments and situations (e.g., abuse, trauma, smothering, etc.).
Paradoxically, his dysfunction allows the narcissist to function. It compensates for lacks and deficiencies by exaggerating tendencies and traits. It is like the tactile sense of a blind person. In short: pathological narcissism is a result of over-sensitivity, the repression of overwhelming memories and experiences, and the suppression of inordinately strong negative feelings (e.g., hurt, envy, anger, or humiliation).
That the narcissist functions at all - is because of his pathology and thanks to it. The alternative is complete decompensation and disintegration.
In time, the narcissist learns how to leverage his pathology, how to use it to his advantage, how to deploy it in order to maximize benefits and utilities - in other words, how to transform his curse into a blessing.
Narcissists are obsessed by delusions of fantastic grandeur and superiority. As a result they are very competitive. They are strongly compelled - where others are merely motivated. They are driven, relentless, tireless, and ruthless. They often make it to the top. But even when they do not - they strive and fight and learn and climb and create and think and devise and design and conspire. Faced with a challenge - they are likely to do better than non-narcissists.
Yet, we often find that narcissists abandon their efforts in mid-stream, give up, vanish, lose interest, devalue former pursuits, fail, or slump. Why is that?
Narcissists are prone to self-defeating and self-destructive behaviors.
The Self-Punishing, Guilt-Purging Behaviors
These are intended to inflict punishment on the narcissist and thus instantly relieve him of his overwhelming anxiety.
This is very reminiscent of a compulsive-ritualistic behavior. The narcissist feels guilty. It could be an "ancient" guilt, a "sexual" guilt (Freud), or a "social" guilt. In early life, the narcissist internalized and introjected the voices of meaningful and authoritative others - parents, role models, peers - that consistently and convincingly judged him to be no good, blameworthy, deserving of punishment or retaliation, or corrupt.
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The narcissist's life is thus transformed into an on-going trial. The constancy of this trial, the never adjourning tribunal is the punishment. It is a Kafkaesque "trial": meaningless, undecipherable, never-ending, leading to no verdict, subject to mysterious and fluid laws and presided over by capricious judges.
Such a narcissist masochistically frustrates his deepest desires and drives, obstructs his own efforts, alienates his friends and sponsors, provokes figures in authority to punish, demote, or ignore him, actively seeks and solicits disappointment, failure, or mistreatment and relishes them, incites anger or rejection, bypasses or rejects opportunities, or engages in excessive self-sacrifice.
In their book "Personality Disorders in Modern Life", Theodore Millon and Roger Davis, describe the diagnosis of "Masochistic or Self-Defeating Personality Disorder", found in the appendix of the DSM III-R but excluded from the DSM IV. While the narcissist is rarely a full-fledged masochist, many a narcissist exhibit some of the traits of this personality disorder.
The Extracting Behaviors
People with Personality Disorders (PDs) are very afraid of real, mature, intimacy. Intimacy is formed not only within a couple, but also in a workplace, in a neighborhood, with friends, while collaborating on a project. Intimacy is another word for emotional involvement, which is the result of interactions in constant and predictable (safe) propinquity.
PDs interpret intimacy as counter-dependence, emotional strangulation, the snuffing of freedom, a kind of death in installments. They are terrorized by it. To avoid it, their self-destructive and self-defeating acts are intended to dismantle the very foundation of a successful relationship, a career, a project, or a friendship. Narcissists feel elated and relieved after they unshackle these "chains". They feel they broke a siege, that they are liberated, free at last.
The Default Behaviors
We are all, to some degree, inertial, afraid of new situations, new opportunities, new challenges, new circumstances and new demands. Being healthy, being successful, getting married, becoming a mother, or someone's boss – often entail abrupt breaks with the past. Some self-defeating behaviors are intended to preserve the past, to restore it, to protect it from the winds of change, to self-deceptively skirt promising opportunities while seeming to embrace them.
Moreover, to the narcissist, a challenge, or even a guaranteed eventual triumph, are meaningless in the absence of onlookers. The narcissist needs an audience to applaud, affirm, recoil, approve, admire, adore, fear, or even detest him. He craves the attention and depends on the Narcissistic Supply only others can provide. The narcissist derives sustenance only from the outside - his emotional innards are hollow and moribund.
The narcissist's enhanced performance is predicated on the existence of a challenge (real or imaginary) and of an audience. Baumeister usefully re-affirmed this linkage, known to theoreticians since Freud.
The Low-functioning Narcissist as a Failure and a Loser
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Narcissists are low-functioning (with a disorganized personality), high-functioning, or dysfunctional (usually when the patient’s narcissism is comorbid with other mental health problems.) High-functioning narcissists are indistinguishable from driven and ambitious alpha over-achievers. But even they tend to implode and self-destruct. Low-functioning narcissists are antisocial, sometimes schizoid, and beset by disorders of mood and affect.
Three traits conspire to render the low-functioning narcissist a failure and a loser: his sense of entitlement, his haughtiness and innate conviction of his own superiority, and his aversion to routine.
The narcissist's sense of entitlement encourages his indolence. He firmly believes that he should be spoon-fed and that accomplishments and honors should be handed to him on a silver platter, without any commensurate effort on his part. His mere existence justifies such exceptional treatment. Many narcissists are under-qualified and lack skills because they can't be bothered with the minutia of obtaining an academic degree, professional training, or exams.
The narcissist's arrogance and belief that he is superior to others, whom he typically holds in contempt - in other words: the narcissist's grandiose fantasies - hamper his ability to function in society. The cumulative outcomes of this social dysfunction gradually transform him into a recluse and an outcast. He is shunned by colleagues, employers, neighbors, erstwhile friends, and, finally, even by long-suffering family members who tire of his tirades and rants.
Unable to work in a team, to compromise, to give credit where due, and to strive towards long-term goals, the narcissist - skilled and gifted as he may be - finds himself unemployed and unemployable, his bad reputation preceding him.
Even when offered a job or a business opportunity, the narcissist recoils, bolts, and obstructs each and every stage of the negotiations or the transaction.
But this passive-aggressive (negativistic and masochistic) conduct has nothing to do with the narcissist's aforementioned indolence. The narcissist is not afraid of some forms of hard work. He invests inordinate amounts of energy, forethought, planning, zest, and sweat in securing narcissistic supply, for instance.
The narcissist's sabotage of new employment or business prospects is owing to his abhorrence of routine. Narcissists feel trapped, shackled, and enslaved by the quotidian, by the repetitive tasks that are inevitably involved in fulfilling one's assignments. They hate the methodical, step-by-step, long-term, approach. Possessed of magical thinking, they'd rather wait for miracles to happen. Jobs, business deals, and teamwork require perseverance and tolerance of boredom which the narcissist sorely lacks.
Life forces most narcissists into the hard slog of a steady job (or succession of jobs). Such "unfortunate" narcissists, coerced into a framework they resent, are likely to act out and erupt in a series of self-destructive and self-defeating acts (see above).
But there are other narcissists, the "luckier" ones, those who can afford not to work. They laze about, indulge themselves in a variety of idle and trivial pursuits, seek entertainment and thrills wherever and whenever they can, and while their lives away, at once content and bitter: content with their lifestyle and the minimum demands it imposes on them and bitter because they haven't achieved more, they haven't reached the pinnacle or their profession, they haven't become as rich or famous or powerful as they deserve to be.
We all try to
replicate and re-enact our successes. We feel comfortable and confident doing
what we do best and what we do most often. We enshrine our oft-repeated tasks
and our cumulative experiences as habits.
Asked to adopt new skills and confront unprecedented tasks, we recoil, procrastinate, or delegate (read: pass the buck). Performance anxiety is common.
Someone who keeps
failing is rendered very good at it, he becomes adept at the art of
floundering, an expert on fizzle and blunder, an artist of the slip. The more
dismal the defeats, the more familiar the terrain of losses and botched
attempts. Failure is the loser's comfort zone. He uses projective
identification to coerce people around him to help him revert to form: to fail.
Such a loser will aim to recreate time and again his only accomplishment: his spectacular downfalls, thwarted schemes, and harebrained stratagems. A slave to a repetition compulsion, the loser finds the terra incognita of success intimidating. He wraps his precious aborted flops in a mantle of an ideology: success is an evil, all successful people are crooks or the beneficiaries of quirky fortune.
To the loser, his miscarriages and deterioration are a warm blanket underneath which he hides himself from a hostile world. Failure is a powerful and addictive organizing principle which imbues life with meaning and predictability and allows the loser to make sense of his personal history. Being a loser is an identity and losers are proud of it as they recount with wonder their mishaps, misfortune, and vicissitudes.
Why do some
narcissists appear to be bumbling fools, never mind how intelligent they
actually are? Eight reasons:
1. No impulse control, no forethought, no foresight = counterproductive, self-defeating, and self-destructive decisions and actions.
2. Acting out: when narcissistic supply is deficient, narcissists decompensate and go haywire (see: collapsed narcissists). "Failed" narcissist is a clinical term coined by Grotstein to describe a phase in the formation of borderline personalities. The COLLAPSED narcissist is angered by a lack of narcissistic supply & directs some of this fury inwards, punishing himself for his "failure". This masochistic behavior has the added "benefit" of forcing the narcissist's closest to pay him the attention that he craves. (indifference.html)
to avoid the consequences of their misdeeds, narcissists pretend that they have
misunderstood something you have said or done or that you took advantage of
their good nature.
4. Gullibility: narcissists are grandiose and fantasts, so they misjudge reality (impaired reality test), their skills and limitations, and the intentions of others.
5. No empathy means that the narcissist disastrously misreads others and behaves in socially unacceptable and clownish ways.
6. His sense of entitlement renders the narcissist an overweening buffoon, the butt of mockery and derision, rather than the awe he believes that he inspires and the respect he thinks that he deserves.
7. Hypervigilance leads to disproportionate aggression directed at imaginary slights and to persecutory delusions: paranoid ideation often directed at innocent targets.
8. Finally, the narcissist uses false modesty to fish for compliments. But his attempts are so transparent and inarticulate, so fake and manipulative that people react with repulsion and seek to humiliate him.
Narcissists and people with hyperactive narcissistic defenses (such as trauma victims) substitute fantasy, daydreaming, perpetual planning, and analysis for action (action substitution) or perform activities which are irrelevant and tangential to their life and interests (action displacement). When the narcissist cheats on his partner, it is an example of action displacement
Collapsed narcissists fail repeatedly to secure narcissistic supply
(attention). Some of them withdraw from an injurious world & try to extract
supply solely from their intimate partner. They insist to become the only focus
of their mate's endless curiosity, wonder, awe, devotion, passionate desire,
jealousy, possessiveness, cognitions, & feelings. They use this constant
state of reassurance, akin to "love bombing", to regulate their moods
& emotions, self-worth, & even sense of being.
The uninterrupted flow of the partner's ministrations to them is critical: even the tiniest break, however justified, is perceived as malicious abandonment, frustrating rejection, and excoriating abuse. In the absence of this permanent and obsessive love bombing, all other aspects of the relationship - for example: sex with the "delinquent" partner - are recast as coercive, fake, & exploitative. There are entries in this collapsed narcissist's conditional mental ledger: she gives (e.g. sex or love) only if and when she had received her fix: her dose of unmitigated, rapt, unceasing, and breathless attention.
Behaviorally, this variant of collapsed narcissist is indistinguishable from the Borderline patient or certain types of codependents: they all seek merger and fusion with their significant others, cling needily to them, and display extreme separation and abandonment anxiety. They all triangulate egregiously when they feel ignored and their needs overlooked, they decompensate, act out, and engage in reckless behaviors of all kinds, which often are deeply hurtful to the partner (drinking, unprotected sex, compulsive cheating, drug use, gambling, crime, and so on).
A FAILURE is someone who
never attains success: he tries hard repeatedly and invariably misses the mark,
for a variety of reasons, some of which are beyond his control.
A LOSER is someone who fails to translate his serial successes into long-lasting beneficial outcomes. He fails to leverage accomplishments and triumphs into permanent fixtures in real life. He is not self-efficacious.
The father of modern
sociology, Emile Durkheim, coined the term "anomie" to describe the atomization
and normative decoherence of societies
owing to unsustainable population growth. In anomic states, misbehaviors such
as suicide and crime proliferate.
He neglected to mention that mentally disordered people thrive in chaos: their internal upheaval perfectly chimes in with and is optimally adapted to the external mayhem.
In eras of apocalypse, one frequently finds psychopaths gleefully contemplating the ruination of institutions and contributing to the demise of their own civilization. In decline and fall, antisocial individuals are defiantly euphoric, eerily content, and counterintuitively purposeful. No dissonance there - just resonance.
Narcissism is machine-like, a form of artificial intelligence. The narcissist's
pursuit of narcissistic supply is one track minded, relentless, and compulsive.
We are all becoming more narcissistic and therefore less human: androids, humanoids, rigid robots. We all feel a growing discomfort in each other's company ("uncanny valley"). Capitalism, materialism, and individualism are all mechanical and they have coalesced into the prevailing ethos and organizational principle of our lives and times.
I attribute the rise of
narcissism to urban overcrowding, the population bomb (overpopulation), and our
innate desire to be noticed by others (to be seen) at any cost to us and even
at the expense of others. Narcissism is, therefore, the human equivalent of the
in rats and mice.
The ethologist John B. Calhoun conducted experiments in the 1960s and 1970s on rats in "rat utopias": pens with optimal conditions for unfettered reproduction. He reproduced his alarming results with mice later in his career.
As the numbers of rodents rose in their enclosures, he observed an explosion of "social pathologies": promiscuity, miscarriages, cannibalism, maternal dysfunctions, schizoid withdrawal or its opposite, compulsive and frenetic fraternizing. The very fabric of social organization was frayed. The rodents developed what today would be called "personality disorders".
Narcissists and psychopaths
are better equipped to deal with modern life. The narcissist is adept at
manipulating symbols and narratives (starting with his own confabulated False
Self). Our technologies encourage poor impulse control.
In a society of spectacle, appearances and simulations are the only forms of reality: TV stars become presidents (from the USA to Ukraine). "Fake it till you make it" became "To fake it IS to make it". Vacuous celebrities are famous for being famous.
Fawning and media hungry academics talk about "productive narcissists" and "high-functioning psychopaths". Narcissists are happy go lucky, they expound and recommend that parents teach their children to be more narcissistic.
What used to be an extreme and obnoxious pathology has now become the de rigeur bon ton, a positive adaptation, and the organizing principle that infuses everything with meaning: from politics to business to dating and sex.
Still, the narcissist
is his own worst enemy. In an effort to
establish his superiority and sustain his grandiose view of his inflated False
Self, the narcissist often self-defeats and self-destructs: berates his boss,
cheats on his wife, circumvents the law, and, generally, cuts a clownish
pompous self-important figure as he harms his interests and undermines his
This counterproductive state of affairs is further compounded by the narcissist's impaired reality testing and myriad other cognitive, emotional, and empathy deficits.
He has overriding needs to feed his grandiosity (narcissistic supply) and to reinterpret cues - social, sexual, behavioral, and environmental - to buttress it.
The narcissist also lacks access to his positive emotions. Akin to people with extreme autism, he blunders through the world and life, dazed, baffled, and amazed by the vagaries and exigencies of existence and of human relationships and by misfortune, but blaming everyone and everything for his largely self-inflicted plight (external locus of control and alloplastic defenses).
The narcissist's problem is
that he cannot value the small things in life, the very same things that make
up 99% of it.
Even as a bon vivant, he does not really appreciate food, or fashion, or wine, or cars, or women, except as status symbols and signals of his relative positioning, buttresses of his grandiosity.
The narcissist is a demented metaphysicist: concerned with what people say than with how they live their lives; with size rather than with type; with appearances and language rather than with substance.
The aroma of his morning coffee, the birdsong outside his window, the pearly laughter of his only child, the way the clouds give way to sun and water shimmers to inaudible music - all these elude his impoverished existence. He knows no other state but misery and therefore is deluded into considering it to be unadulterated happiness.
From time to time, the Doormat Narcissist tries to fight back by conning people out of money (asserting himself by taking instead of giving). Or, he insists on sexual exclusivity at the commencement of every intimate relationship.
But even there he fails time and again: people see right through him and walk away and women cheat on him repeatedly, their needs unmet and in the hope that he will set them free and let them go once they have made him aware of their ostentatious transgressions.
Conning people is setting boundaries for and asserting NOT himself - but the fictitious character that he creates for the con. So, it defeats the purpose: again, he ends giving up everything of himself freely to ANOTHER man, albeit one that he conjures up.
Similarly, he makes women fall in love with a false apparition, an emanation, a thespian project, a role play - never with the real him. The grooming phase over, upon entering the shared fantasy, all his women discover to their dismay that he had conned them into a relationship with a complete, abusive, and mentally disabled stranger (him). Of course, their most fervent wish is to up and walk away, by any and all means necessary, including by having casual sex with strangers.
Again, by luring women into his lair, he is giving himself abundantly to ANOTHER man - albeit to a fictitious character, The Irresistible Genius. He is doing his dirty work for this fictional protagonist and satisfying his grandiose and sadistic needs: to uphold and prove his irresistibility and then to taunt, frustrate, humiliate, and despoil the women thus captivated. Those are the needs of the fictional character, not of the Doormat Narcissist and he dedicates all his resources to catering to them on the Superhero’s behalf.
Normal people get things
wrong, bungle things up, act immorally under the influence or even when sober, exploit
and abuse, and can be unpleasant. But we tend to forgive them because we can
see ourselves in them: their foibles and missteps are ours, they evoke empathy
or pity or mirth. We are all in this together, they broadcast as they misbehave
and then repent and experience shame, guilt, and remorse as they attempt to
make up for it and somehow compensate and repair. They love others, enjoy their
company, find them fascinating or desirable or funny and have a good time by
socializing. They accomplish via collaborating, get laid via courting, are
rendered happy with family and friends.
Not so the goal-focused narcissist or psychopath. They regard other people as mere instruments of gratification, objects to be milked, beasts of burden, or prey (as victims). People have something the narcissist and psychopath need (narcissistic supply) or want (money, sex, power, access, possessions), so they just take it, regardless of the consequences. They never mess up - they destroy. Their callous misconduct is profit-motivated in the relentless pursuit of self-interest. They are gregarious only when they are hunting. They hold everyone else in profound and abiding contempt and apologize only when forced to or threatened. They may act depraved, but even that it contrived, mechanical, somehow inhuman.
We recoil, feeling vaguely uncomfortable or threatened. But when we are self-destructive we seek them out - and they never fail to grant us this last wish to harm ourselves, to self-mutilate by spending time with them and by catering to their all-devouring needs.
Why do some narcissists rise to the top, are accomplished and successful while others, with an identical personality cast, fail miserably in every thing they attempt and in every dimension of their thwarted lives?
Any combination of two out of these three things distinguish the high-functioning productive narcissist from his loser brethren:
1. He is unusually gifted, endowed, skilled, or talented to the point that his unique contributions are indispensable or irreplaceable. His character flaws are attributed to his genius.
2. He tolerates people and interacts with them, even if only as passive acolytes, fans, and admirers. He somehow succeeds to collaborate with others or lead them and even inspire loyalty. He fakes normalcy and empathy and hides his cynical and misanthropic contempt or his strictly self-interested agenda.
3. He is persistent, goal-oriented, focused, one track minded, committed, invested, and a hard worker. He is as self-destructive as any narcissistic slacker - but he first builds and only then demolishes.
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