The Narcissist’s Weapon of Language
By: Dr. Sam Vaknin
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"A sharp tongue is the only edged tool that grows keener with constant use."
(Rip van Winkle by Washington Irving)
“He spoke with deliberation, occasionally emphasizing, somewhat dramatically, with his voice or by gesture, a remark which he deemed of transcendent importance, or chuckling at the mention of some incident which he considered amusing ... He objected strenuously to the ‘continuity of his thought’ being disturbed by interruption and frequently stated so in a most imperious way, intimating that the interruption had placed in immediate jeopardy of destruction some thought of vital interest and importance to the community.”
(Contemporary news reports describing Charles Guiteau, President Garfield’s assassin)
In the narcissist's surrealistic world, even language is pathologized. It mutates into a weapon of self-defence, a verbal fortification, a medium without a message, replacing words with duplicitous and ambiguous vocables. “Conversational narcissism”, Charles Derber calls it, replete with “shift responses” (replicas that shift the attention back to the narcissist).
Narcissists (and, often, by contagion, their unfortunate victims) don't talk, or communicate. They fend off. They hide and evade and avoid and disguise. They lecture and hector and preach. In their planet of capricious and arbitrary unpredictability, of shifting semiotic and semantic dunes they perfect the ability to say nothing in lengthy, Castro-like speeches. Their speech is impregnated with first-person pronoun density: it is saturated with first person pronouns ("I", "me", "my", "mine").
The ensuing convoluted sentences are arabesques of meaninglessness, acrobatics of evasion, a lack of commitment elevated to an ideology. The narcissist prefers to wait and see what waiting brings. It is the postponement of the inevitable that leads to the inevitability of postponement as a strategy of survival.
It is often impossible to really understand a narcissist. The evasive syntax fast deteriorates into ever more labyrinthine structures. The grammar tortured to produce the verbal Doppler shifts essential to disguise the source of the information, its distance from reality, the speed of its degeneration into rigid "official" versions.
Buried under the lush flora and fauna of idioms without an end, the language erupts, like some exotic rash, an autoimmune reaction to its infection and contamination. Like vile weeds it spread throughout, strangling with absent minded persistence the ability to understand, to feel, to agree, to disagree and to debate, to present arguments, to compare notes, to learn and to teach.
Narcissists, therefore, never talk to others - rather, they talk at others. They exchange subtexts, camouflage-wrapped by elaborate, florid, texts. They read between the lines, spawning a multitude of private languages, prejudices, superstitions, conspiracy theories, rumours, phobias and hysterias. Theirs is a solipsistic world - where communication is permitted only with oneself and the aim of language is to throw others off the scent or to obtain Narcissistic Supply.
The narcissist's inability to listen and pay genuine attention stems from his overriding need to sustain his grandiosity and to rehearse his next lines, retort, or clever response while his interlocutor - really merely his audience - is talking. After all: why should the narcissist waste his precious time on listening when he is omniscient?
This has profound implications. Communication through unequivocal, unambiguous, information-rich symbol systems is such an integral and crucial part of our world - that its absence is not postulated even in the remotest galaxies which grace the skies of science fiction. In this sense, narcissists are nothing short of aliens. It is not that they employ a different language, a code to be deciphered by a new Freud. It is also not the outcome of upbringing or socio-cultural background.
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It is the fact that language is put by narcissists to a different use: not to communicate but to obscure, not to share but to abstain, not to learn but to defend and resist, not to teach but to preserve ever less tenable monopolies, to disagree without incurring wrath, to criticize without commitment, to agree without appearing to do so. Thus, an "agreement" with a narcissist is a vague expression of intent at a given moment - rather than the clear listing of long term, iron-cast and mutual commitments.
When the narcissist speaks, there is an undercurrent, a stream of occult and dual messages that permeate the overt text. A narcissistic mother may say “I love you” and mean: “I am dependent on you, don’t leave.”, or “Look how much I have sacrificed for you. You are mine now, guilt-ridden and blameworthy!” She may exclaim: “All I want is for you to be happy” and actually mean: “I hope you remain a miserable failure. That way I get to maintain my superiority over you and have you running errands for the rest of your life.”
The rules that govern the narcissist's universe are loopholed incomprehensibles, open to an exegesis so wide and so self-contradictory that it renders them meaningless. The narcissist often hangs himself by his own verbose Gordic knots, having stumbled through a minefield of logical fallacies and endured self inflicted inconsistencies. Unfinished sentences hover in the air, like vapour above a semantic swamp.
In the case of the inverted narcissist, who was suppressed and abused by overbearing caregivers, there is the strong urge not to offend. Intimacy and inter-dependence are great. Parental or peer pressures are irresistible and result in conformity and self-deprecation. Aggressive tendencies, strongly repressed in the social pressure cooker, teem under the veneer of forced civility and violent politeness. Constructive ambiguity, a non-committal "everyone is good and right", an atavistic variant of moral relativism and tolerance bred of fear and of contempt - are all at the service of this eternal vigilance against aggressive drives, at the disposal of a never ending peacekeeping mission.
With the classic narcissist, language is used cruelly and ruthlessly to ensnare one's enemies, to saw confusion and panic, to move others to emulate the narcissist ("projective identification"), to leave the listeners in doubt, in hesitation, in paralysis, to gain control, or to punish. Language is enslaved and forced to lie. The language is appropriated and expropriated. It is considered to be a weapon, an asset, a piece of lethal property, a traitorous mistress to be gang raped into submission.
With cerebral narcissists, language is a lover. The infatuation with its very sound leads to a pyrotechnic type of speech which sacrifices its meaning to its music. Its speakers pay more attention to the composition than to the content. They are swept by it, intoxicated by its perfection, inebriated by the spiralling complexity of its forms. Here, language is an inflammatory process. It attacks the very tissues of the narcissist's relationships with artistic fierceness. It invades the healthy cells of reason and logic, of cool headed argumentation and level headed debate.
Language is a leading indicator of the psychological and institutional health of social units, such as the family, or the workplace. Social capital can often be measured in cognitive (hence, verbal-lingual) terms. To monitor the level of comprehensibility and lucidity of texts is to study the degree of sanity of family members, co-workers, friends, spouses, mates, and colleagues. There can exist no hale society without unambiguous speech, without clear communications, without the traffic of idioms and content that is an inseparable part of every social contract. Our language determines how we perceive our world. It IS our mind and our consciousness. The narcissist, in this respect, is a great social menace.
The Narcissist’s Verbose and Florid Prose
The narcissist’s writing is too embellished and ornamental.
It is so cumbersome that it bothers on incomprehensible at times.
There are several reasons for such style of authorship:
1. Trying to impress and inspire awe rather than communicate and attempting to place oneself above the rest of humanity who are too inferior and stupid
to truly understand one's depth, insights, and erudition;
2. An inability to separate the wheat from the chafe, giving every bit an equal weight (in extreme cases because of vanity and grandiosity: "every idea and shred of thought of mine ought and deserves to be recorded for posterity");
3. Perfectionism and fear of the imperfect and the imprecise;
4. Underestimating the readership and feeling the need to spoon-feed them rather than leave some space for free thought and own conclusions
5. "Stream of consciousness" recording (documentation) of every passing thought process in real-time and as it unfolds.
6. Feeling uncertain about the subject matter and disguising this deficiency (or cognitive deficit) with verbiage.
of narcissists is either inward-facing (they verbalize their inner dialogs,
conversing aloud with themselves with the audience as a mere foil to their stream
of consciousness) - or outward-facing (they talk in order to impress their
interlocutors, or to evade and obfuscate)
Pay attention to several warning signs:
1. The use of indefinite pronouns and modifiers (like "this" or "someone") without specifying or clarifying any of the other parts of speech, leaving the listener guessing as to what occurred to whom, when, where, and why.
2. If the narcissist is addressing an audience or you demand the truth and accountability from the him, you can safely assume exaggeration, confabulation, reframing, and outright lying on his part. This is done partly also to cover up the narcissist's pervasive dissociation.
3. When the narcissist expostulates on his motivation for doing things, or when he recounts what had happened, he is either wrong, reframing to justify his misbehavior or to restore ego-syntony, or just lying out of self-interest. He tries to sell you on "what makes sense" rather than on the truth. If you keep reiterating the question, he often contradicts himself and comes up with conflicting versions of the same events.
Never trust what the narcissist says. Do not let his gaslighting undermine your trust in your senses, judgment, and common sense. Make sure that only what you see is what you get.
Observe the behaviors and reactions of the narcissist and everyone around him for clues as to what had really transpired. Don't let the narcissist club you on the head and don't wake up in his Platonic cave of shadows of an alternative reality.
speech is any kind of statement about facts or inner mental state that
intentionally (often) or inadvertently (rare) creates confusion and
disorientation in the listener. Gaslighting and lying are examples of crass and
malicious palindromic speech acts. Confabulation and "word salad"
(illogical, incoherent discourse) are benign variants intended to bridge
dissociative gaps in memory or to buttress grandiosity.
Palindromic speech makes use of various semantic devices:
Referential shift (when the words refer to one thing while appearing to be referencing another);
Double entendre (word or phrase open to two, sometimes mutually exclusive interpretations or meanings);
Contextual drift (subtly altering the context of the conversation and thereby the message or the reality testing);
Manipulative speech (goal oriented utterances intended to impress or to accomplish aims, not to communicate);
Misattribution (proffering the wrong connections or links between alleged or ostensible motivations and intentions and actual actions, thus deflecting blame, for example or casting one's actions in the best possible light);
Circumstantial mitigation (an external locus of control and victim stance: events conspire to yield the misconduct, abrogating personal responsibility, a passive voice); and
Logical fallacies (such as post hoc ergo propter hoc - if B followed A it means that A caused B, correlation is causation, reference to authority, ad hominem attacks, and so on)
Palindromic speech is efficacious because of the base rate cognitive bias (people automatically fully believe 95% of what they are told, sight unseen) and because it mitigates the ineluctable hurt associated with truth-telling. It colludes with psychological defense mechanisms such as denial and with behaviors such as reframing and avoidance. It has powerful psychodynamic allies, in other words.
Two other obstructive
speech patterns are: the hypothetical and counterfactual.
The narcissist, borderline, and psychopath use hypothetical speech to "test the waters", to see how their interlocutors would react to information. Sentences which start with "maybe" or "possibly" or "it could be that" or "I think that" or "I thought so, but wasn't sure" - are all forms of such exploratory excursions.
Maybe X typically means: X had actually happened or is the truth. How do you feel about it?
Counterfactual speech is a lie or misinformation disguised as either a rhetorical question or as a statement of settled and universally accepted fact. "Maybe she flirted with me at the restaurant, but she didn't come to my room later that evening, now, did she?" When, of course, she did visit his room that night.
There are three types of manipulative speech:
Entitled, demanding, dependent, transparent, whining (grievances and grudges)
Entitled, demanding, dependent, transparent, manipulative, naive-immature (fantastic)
Entitled, envious, competitive, malicious, opaque (coded: dense and multilayered)
Lying and Confabulating
If their mouths are moving, they are lying: histrionics, psychopaths, and narcissists lie all the time. Their lies may be goal-oriented (to secure sex or money), intended to regulate grandiosity or a labile sense of self-worth, to buttress a stance of victimhood, or simply because the forbidden and illicit are risky and thrilling (in the cases of lying serial cheaters, promiscuous cockteasers, and attention whores, for example). So, when communicating with these types, WHAT they say is largely irrelevant. The only relevant information is WHY they choose to say what they are saying. The SELECTION of lies is revealing, telling, and informative.
The same applies in psychotherapy. In the anamnetic (intake) phase, most patients confabulate and offer narratives that are ego-syntonic (self-justifying). WHAT they say is not nearly as crucial or edifying as the CHOICES they make in telling their stories.
Narcissists lecture, never talk; seek to impress, never to
communicate; ignore other people's input or actively suppress it rather than
The narcissist is so invested and immersed in extracting narcissistic supply from his interlocutors preferably by dazzling them with his brilliance, that he is oblivious to their body language, verbal cues, interjections, events around him, or the environment at large.
The narcissist expostulates and pontificates, opines and defines, edifies and rectifies, rants and raves and rambles for hours on end, ceaselessly and breathlessly - and always from a position of pompous self-importance and verbose superiority and faux authority.
People - his mum and numbed audience - find his exhibitionistic, delusional, and coercive grandiosity so repellent and off-putting that they shun his unilateral company altogether.
Abusing Speech Acts: Three Examples
Big Picture Evasiveness
hate details. They are too self-important and their lives too cosmically
significant to be wasted on frivolous trifles and trivia. They are above the
fray of the quotidian and concern themselves with strategy, not tactics. They
lay out in sweeping, synoptic terms the big picture and leave it to lesser
mortals to fill out the yawning gaps and iron out the glaring inconsistencies.
Any attempt to involve the narcissist in the minutia of decision-making and the give and take of human endeavor is perceived by him as a humiliating, ill-intentioned, and deliberate challenge to his grandiose self-perception (his False Self). The narcissist's unwillingness to dirty his hands with the routine, the pedestrian, and the mundane virtually guarantee that his harebrained schemes, hastily laid plans, and convoluted stratagems will go awry and end in failure.
His coercive delegation of tasks, the cascade of often contradictory instructions, the grandiosity and aggressive superiority that characterize his expectations and fantasies - all these alienate and infuriate his bosses, collaborators, partners, suppliers, customers, and employees as well as his intimate partners.
Some of them end up acting passive-aggressively and spitefully undermining the joint enterprise. Others, worn by the narcissist's aloofness and godlike detachment from reality, simply give up: they go through the motions robotically, awaiting the inevitable meltdown.
Alloplastic Defenses and Shifting Blame
Narcissists are hypervigilant and, consequently, misperceive
rejection everywhere. Not being sexually desired; not occupying the center of
attention; not garnering narcissistic supply; not being the alpha male in the
room or the most intelligent person in the group - all constitute grave
narcissistic injuries to his or her False Self.
The psychopath is goal-oriented, so he regards the very same "rejections" as mere challenges to be overcome: I am not desired? Will render myself irresistible and make her jealous by triangulating - or just move on to the next target; I am not the center of attention? If I want to, I will make sure that I am; and so on.
So, both narcissists and psychopaths are competitive and hellbent on winning and prevailing - but for different ends.
The narcissist seeks to secure an uninterrupted flow of narcissistic supply and the psychopaths aims to achieve his goals (money, sex, power, or, less commonly, fame and status).
Another facet shared by narcissists and psychopaths is their
alloplastic defenses: they are never fully responsible, accountable, to blame,
or guilty for their misconduct.
Narcissists who cheat, for example, are likely to say: "I was drunk and taken advantage of", or "You made me do it", or "I had no choice under the circumstances but to act the way I did." The psychopath will use the theory of just deserts: "They provoked or mistreated me or acted stupidly, so they had it coming", or "I deserved it, so I took it", or "This is the way of the world and I had to do what I did just in order to survive."
Nothing is more infuriating than the passive-aggressive evasiveness
or gaslighting of the narcissist and psychopath.
He denies that anything at all had happened, then he parades a kaleidoscopic array of protean contradictory versions of what may actually have occurred, then he minimizes the meaning of what finally he grudgingly acknowledges had transpired. Throughout this teeth extracting process, he implies that to dispute his claims or doubt him is a sure sign of derangement and proof positive of an impaired reality test.
Having admitted wrongdoing, he axiologically reframes the transgression: he did nothing wrong in his book, the values of the injured party are old-fashioned or plain irrational, his misconduct is common or accepted where he comes from, he could not have acted differently under the circumstances and constraints of the moment, he had no premeditated intention to act the way he did, it just happened, he was drunk or high or stressed or angry or sad or disappointed, lonely and miserable.
Finally he shifts blame (alloplastic defense with an external locus of control): the narcissist or psychopath was drunk or high, he was forced or coopted, got taken by surprise or gullibly taken advantage of and abused.
Or the perennial: it is all the victim's or hurt party's fault, she made him do it, she misbehaved, abused, pushed him to misdeeds, to the brink of insanity, to the point of no return where he could no longer recognize himself. Usurping the victim role is a surefire sign that the narcissist or psychopath has done something truly rotten or dangerous.
by narcissists and psychopaths is surreal and disorienting. They lie
reflexively, with a straight face, and without missing a beat.
The psychopath's prevarication frequently involves very convincing mimicry of other people's behaviors and affect. This engenders an alternative, almost hallucinatory or nightmarish reality.
Here are two simple rules:
1. The psychopath is never sad - and always mad (at you); and
2. When the psychopath says "I am bad" (is ostensibly repentant), he means to say "I am afraid" (of the consequences of his actions)
As Cleckley wrote in his masterpiece, "The Mask of Sanity", actions and behaviors are the psychopath's only true forms of communication, his language. We should, therefore, pay attention exclusively to what the psychopath does and utterly ignore absolutely everything he says.
Why do we often believe and trust narcissists
and borderlines when they tell us what had happened? Why do we fall for
Because they are not lies. Psychopaths prevaricate to secure goals. Narcissists and borderlines rarely do: more commonly they confabulate.
Confabulation is a desperate attempt to bridge dissociative memory gaps ("lost time" or "blackouts") by extrapolating from past experience and creatively generating a fiction, a narrative as to what probably and plausibly might have happened in the missing hours or days.
Confabulating is intended to both restore identity continuity and cohesion and to hide the missing segments in the narcissist's or borderline's personal histories.
Confabulations - effectively false recall - are irresistibly convincing and alluringly reassuring because: 1. The narcissist or borderline honestly and firmly believe them to be true; 2. They have the power of memories and therefore appear to be objective and authentic; 3. They are always very likely, plausible, and even highly probable - so easy to accept by all parties.
In many cases, there is a fourth reason: the confabulation allows everyone involved to negate and efficaciously ignore a painful reality or an uncomfortable alternative scenario or set of facts. We all - including the confabulator - want to believe the confabulation because it affords us comfort, succor, and a peace of mind.
Narcissists and borderlines dissociate and confabulate ceaselessly. It is easy to be drawn into their counterfactual alt reality, the twilight zone of their inventive probabilities, the psychotic realm of their discontinuous existence. Confirmation bias does the rest: having committed ourselves to the narcissist's or borderline's version of events, we filter out and suppress all countervailing information and contradictory or challenging facts and possibilities.
No Reasoning with the Mentally Ill
Mentally ill people cannot be reasoned with or analyzed
with any rationality. This is because they
are capable of harboring opposing, dissonant, and contradictory cognitions and
emotions at the same time (paradoxical thinking and hyperflexibility). Bateson
called it the "double bind" and Laing dubbed it the "incompatible
knot". Their speech acts and decisions need to be deconstructed, not
From the outside, persons with psychiatric or psychological problems appear to be impulsive, erratic, labile, unpredictable, antisocial, dysempathic, dangerous, heartless, mendacious, and egotistical. But the truth is that they are simply meandering along the conflicting paths of their psyche.
This fragmentation of the alienated self and cathecting of (emotionally investing in) internal rather than external objects may have to do with what Giddens called ontological insecurity.
Even in patients with milder syndromes, such as personality disorders, there is a glaring absence of order, continuity, cohesive identity, meaning, emotional stability, reduced anxiety, and consistent positivity (or negativity - the consistency matters, not the valence). Such epic fracturing impedes the evolution of a theory of mind, a worldlife and worldview, and of logic itself.
We base our perceptions and understanding of others on
intersubjectivity and empathy – mentalization, a theory of mind,
placing ourselves in other people's shoes. But it is a speculative system
founded almost entirely on trust: it is based on honest reporting by others of
their inner (mental) states and on the correlations of these self-reports to
observable actions and behaviors. Dishonest self-reporting leads to
discrepancies with observables which engender disorientation and induce our
People with Cluster B (dramatic or erratic) personality disorders consistently mislead and misrepresent their psychological self-states, emotions, and cognitions. This prevarication has to do with identity diffusion or disturbance; dissociative amnesia; confabulation; and manipulative lying and gaslighting.
Consequently, there is no point in trying to grasp, analyze, comprehend, retrodict, or predict these personalities. They do not possess a stable core. They are either subjected to and at the mercy of the labile and dysregulated whims of their moods or emotions - or no longer with us, steeped in delusions of grandeur within fantastic landscapes (pseudo-psychotic impaired reality testing) - or lying through their teeth.
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