Can the Narcissist Have a Meaningful Life?
Frequently Asked Question # 1
The introjected voices of parents, peers, and other adult role models in his abusive and traumatized early childhood.
By: Dr. Sam Vaknin
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We all have a scenario of our life. We invent, adopt, are led by and measure ourselves against our personal narratives. These are, normally, commensurate with our personal histories, our predilections, our abilities, limitations, and our skills. We are not likely to invent a narrative which is wildly out of synch with our selves.
We rarely judge ourselves by a narrative which is not somehow correlated to what we can reasonably expect to achieve. In other words, we are not likely to frustrate and punish ourselves knowingly. As we grow older, our narrative changes. Parts of it are realized and this increases our self-confidence, sense of self-worth and self-esteem and makes us feel fulfilled, satisfied, and at peace with ourselves.
The narcissist differs from normal people in that his is a HIGHLY unrealistic personal narrative. This choice could be imposed and inculcated by a sadistic and hateful Primary Object (a narcissistic, domineering mother, for instance) – or it could be the product of the narcissist's own tortured psyche. Instead of realistic expectations of himself, the narcissist has grandiose fantasies. The latter cannot be effectively pursued. They are elusive, ever receding targets.
This constant failure (the Grandiosity Gap) leads to dysphorias (bouts of sadness) and to losses. Observed from the outside, the narcissist is perceived to be odd, prone to illusions and self-delusions and, therefore, lacking in judgement.
The dysphorias – the bitter fruits of the narcissist's impossible demands of himself – are painful. Gradually the narcissist learns to avoid them by eschewing a structured narrative altogether. Life's disappointments and setbacks condition him to understand that his specific "brand" of unrealistic narrative inevitably leads to frustration, sadness and agony and is a form of self-punishment (inflicted on him by his sadistic, rigid Superego).
This incessant punishment serves another purpose: to support and confirm the negative judgement meted out by the narcissist's Primary Objects (usually, by his parents or caregivers) in his early childhood (now, an inseparable part of his Superego).
The narcissist's mother, for instance, may have consistently insisted that the narcissist is bad, rotten, or useless. Surely, she could not have been wrong, goes the narcissist's internal dialog. Even raising the possibility that she may have been wrong proves her right! The narcissist feels compelled to validate her verdict by making sure that he indeed BECOMES bad, rotten and useless.
Yet, no human being – however deformed – can live without a narrative. The narcissist develops circular, ad-hoc, circumstantial, and fantastic "life-stories" (the Contingent Narratives). Their role is to avoid confrontation with (the often disappointing and disillusioning) reality. He thus reduces the number of dysphorias and their strength, though he usually fails to avoid the Narcissistic Cycle (see FAQ 43).
The narcissist pays a heavy price for accommodating his dysfunctional narratives:
Emptiness, existential loneliness (he shares no common psychic ground with other humans), sadness, drifting, emotional absence, emotional platitude, mechanisation/robotisation (lack of anima, excess persona in Jung's terms) and meaninglessness. This fuels his envy and the resulting rage and amplifies the EIPM (Emotional Involvement Preventive Measures) – see Chapter Eight of the Essay.
The narcissist develop a "Zu Leicht – Zu Schwer" ("Too Easy – Too difficult") syndrome:
On the one hand, the narcissist's life is unbearably difficult. The few real achievements he does have should normally have mitigated this perceived harshness. But, in order to preserve his sense of omnipotence, he is forced to “downgrade” these accomplishments by labelling them as “too easy”.
The narcissist cannot admit that he had toiled to achieve something and, with this confession, shatter his grandiose False Self. He must belittle every achievement of his and make it appear to be a routine triviality. This is intended to support the dreamland quality of his fragmented personality. But it also prevents him from deriving the psychological benefits which usually accrue to goal attainment: an enhancement of self-confidence, a more realistic self-assessment of one's capabilities and abilities, a strengthening sense of self-worth.
The narcissist is doomed to roam a circular labyrinth. When he does achieve something – he demotes it in order to enhance his own sense of omnipotence, perfection, and brilliance. When he fails, he dares not face reality. He escapes to the land of no narratives where life is nothing but a meaningless wasteland. The narcissist whiles his life away.
But what is it like being a narcissist?
The narcissist is often anxious. It is usually unconscious, like a nagging pain, a permanence, like being immersed in a gelatinous liquid, trapped and helpless, or as the DSM puts it, narcissism is "all-pervasive". Still, these anxieties are never diffuse. The narcissist worries about specific people, or possible events, or more or less plausible scenarios. He seems to constantly conjure up some reason or another to be worried or offended.
Positive past experiences do not ameliorate this preoccupation. The narcissist believes that the world is hostile, a cruelly arbitrary, ominously contrarian, contrivingly cunning and indifferently crushing place. The narcissist simply "knows" it will all end badly and for no good reason. Life is too good to be true and too bad to endure. Civilization is an ideal and the deviations from it are what we call "history". The narcissist is incurably pessimistic, an ignoramus by choice and incorrigibly blind to any evidence to the contrary.
Underneath all this, there is a Generalised Anxiety. The narcissist fears life and what people do to each other. He fears his fear and what it does to him. He knows that he is a participant in a game whose rules he will never master and in which his very existence is at stake. He trusts no one, believes in nothing, knows only two certainties: evil exists and life is meaningless. He is convinced that no one cares.
This existential angst that permeates his every cell is atavistic and irrational. It has no name or likeness. It is like the monsters in every child's bedroom with the lights turned off. But being the rationalising and intellectualising creatures that cerebral narcissists are – they instantly label this unease, explain it away, analyse it and attempt to predict its onset.
They attribute this poisonous presence to some external cause. They set it in a pattern, embed it in a context, transform it into a link in the great chain of being. Hence, they transform diffuse anxiety into focused worries. Worries are known and measurable quantities. They have reasons which can be tackled and eliminated. They have a beginning and an end. They are linked to names, to places, faces and to people. Worries are human.
Thus, the narcissist transforms his demons into compulsive notations in his real or mental diary: check this, do that, apply preventive measures, do not allow, pursue, attack, avoid. The narcissist ritualizes both his discomfort and his attempts to cope with it.
But such excessive worrying – whose sole intent is to convert irrational anxiety into the mundane and tangible – is the stuff of paranoia.
For what is paranoia if not the attribution of inner disintegration to external persecution, the assignment of malevolent agents from the outside to the figments of turmoil inside? The paranoid seeks to alleviate his own voiding by irrationally clinging to rationality. Things are so bad, he says, mainly to himself, because I am a victim, because "they" are after me and I am hunted by the juggernaut of state, or by the Freemasons, or by the Jews, or by the neighbourhood librarian. This is the path that leads from the cloud of anxiety, through the lamp-posts of worry to the consuming darkness of paranoia.
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Paranoia is a defence against anxiety and against aggression. In the paranoid state, the latter is projected outwards, upon imaginary others, the instruments of one's crucifixion.
Anxiety is also a defence against aggressive impulses. Therefore, anxiety and paranoia are sisters, the latter merely a focused form of the former. The mentally disordered defend against their own aggressive propensities by either being anxious or by becoming paranoid.
Yet, aggression has numerous guises, not only anxiety and paranoia. One of its favourite disguises is boredom. Like its relation, depression, boredom is aggression directed inwards. It threatens to drown the bored person in a primordial soup of inaction and energy depletion. It is anhedonic (pleasure depriving) and dysphoric (leads to profound sadness). But it is also threatening, perhaps because it is so reminiscent of death.
Not surprisingly, the narcissist is most worried when bored. The narcissist is aggressive. He channels his aggression and internalises it. He experiences his bottled wrath as boredom.
When the narcissist is bored, he feels threatened by his ennui in a vague, mysterious way. Anxiety ensues. He rushes to construct an intellectual edifice to accommodate all these primitive emotions and their transubstantiations. He identifies reasons, causes, effects and possibilities in the outer world. He builds scenarios. He spins narratives. As a result, he feels no more anxiety. He has identified the enemy (or so he thinks). And now, instead of being anxious, he is simply worried. Or paranoid.
The narcissist often strikes people as "laid back" – or, less charitably: lazy, parasitic, spoiled, and self-indulgent. But, as usual with narcissists, appearances deceive. Narcissists are either compulsively driven over-achievers – or chronic under-achieving wastrels. Most of them fail to make full and productive use of their potential and capacities. Many avoid even the now standard paths of an academic degree, a career, or family life.
The disparity between the accomplishments of the narcissist and his grandiose fantasies and inflated self image – the Grandiosity Gap – is staggering and, in the long run, unsustainable. It imposes onerous exigencies on the narcissist's grasp of reality and on his meagre social skills. It pushes him either to reclusion or to a frenzy of "acquisitions" – cars, women, wealth, power.
Yet, no matter how successful the narcissist is – many of them end up being abject failures – the Grandiosity Gap can never be bridged. The narcissist's False Self is so unrealistic and his Superego so sadistic that there is nothing the narcissist can do to extricate himself from the Kafkaesque trial that is his life.
The narcissist is a slave to his own inertia. Some narcissists are forever accelerating on the way to ever higher peaks and ever greener pastures. Others succumb to numbing routines, the expenditure of minimal energy, and to preying on the vulnerable. But either way, the narcissist's life is out of control, at the mercy of pitiless inner voices and internal forces.
Narcissists are one-state machines, programmed to extract Narcissistic Supply from others. To do so, they develop early on a set of immutable routines. This propensity for repetition, inability to change and rigidity confine the narcissist, stunt his development, and limit his horizons. Add to this his overpowering sense of entitlement, his visceral fear of failure, and his invariable need to both feel unique and be perceived as such – and one often ends up with a recipe for inaction.
The under-achieving narcissist dodges challenges, eludes tests, shirks competition, sidesteps expectations, ducks responsibilities, evades authority – because he is afraid to fail and because doing something everyone else does endangers his sense of uniqueness. Hence the narcissist's apparent "laziness" and "parasitism". His sense of entitlement – with no commensurate accomplishments or investment – irritates his social milieu. People tend to regard such narcissists as "spoiled brats".
In specious contrast, the over-achieving narcissist seeks challenges and risks, provokes competition, embellishes expectations, aggressively bids for responsibilities and authority and seems to be possessed with an eerie self-confidence. People tend to regard such specimen as "entrepreneurial", "daring", "visionary", or "tyrannical". Yet, these narcissists too are mortified by potential failure, driven by a strong conviction of entitlement, and strive to be unique and be perceived as such.
Their hyperactivity is merely the flip side of the under-achiever's inactivity: it is as fallacious and as empty and as doomed to miscarriage and disgrace. It is often sterile or illusory, all smoke and mirrors rather than substance. The precarious "achievements" of such narcissists invariably unravel. They often act outside the law or social norms. Their industriousness, workaholism, ambition, and commitment are intended to disguise their essential inability to produce and build. Theirs is a whistle in the dark, a pretension, a Potemkin life, all make-belief and thunder.
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Ironically, guilty people
experience guilt because they have had the power to make a different choice.
One cannot feel guilty when one is powerless or impotent and therefore not
responsible for events, circumstances, and decisions.
So, guilt goes with empowerment. Helpless people feel shame, not guilt.
This is why pathological narcissism is associated with shame, not with guilt.
The Grandiosity Gap is the difference between self-image - the way the narcissist perceives himself - and contravening cues from reality. The greater the conflict between grandiosity and reality, the bigger the gap and the greater the narcissist's feelings of shame and guilt.
There are two varieties of shame:
Narcissistic Shame – which is the narcissist's experience of the Grandiosity Gap (and its affective correlate). Subjectively it is experienced as a pervasive feeling of worthlessness (the dysfunctional regulation of self-worth is the crux of pathological narcissism), "invisibleness" and ridiculousness. The patient feels pathetic and foolish, deserving of mockery and humiliation.
Narcissists adopt all kinds of defences to counter narcissistic shame. They develop addictive, reckless, or impulsive behaviours. They deny, withdraw, rage, or engage in the compulsive pursuit of some kind of (unattainable, of course) perfection. They display haughtiness and exhibitionism and so on. All these defences are primitive and involve splitting, projection, projective identification, and intellectualization.
The second type of shame is Self-Related. It is a result of the gap between the narcissist's grandiose Ego Ideal and his Self or Ego. This is a well-known concept of shame and it has been explored widely in the works of Freud , Reich , Jacobson , Kohut , Kingston , Spero  and Morrison .
One must draw a clear distinction between guilt (or control)–related shame and conformity-related shame.
Guilt is an "objectively" determinable philosophical entity (given relevant knowledge regarding the society and culture in question). It is context-dependent. It is the derivative of an underlying assumption by OTHERS that a Moral Agent exerts control over certain aspects of the world. This assumed control by the agent imputes guilt to it, if it acts in a manner incommensurate with prevailing morals, or refrains from acting in a manner commensurate with them.
Shame, in this case, here is an outcome of the ACTUAL occurrence of AVOIDABLE outcomes - events which impute guilt to a Moral Agent who acted wrongly or refrained from acting.
We must distinguish GUILT from GUILT FEELINGS, though. Guilt follows events. Guilt feelings can precede them.
Guilt feelings (and the attaching shame) can be ANTICIPATORY. Moral Agents assume that they control certain aspects of the world. This makes them able to predict the outcomes of their INTENTIONS and feels guilt and shame as a result - even if nothing happened!
Guilt Feelings are composed of a component of Fear and a component of Anxiety. Fear is related to the external, objective, observable consequences of actions or inaction by the Moral Agent. Anxiety has to do with INNER consequences. It is ego-dystonic and threatens the identity of the Moral Agent because being Moral is an important part of it. The internalisation of guilt feelings leads to a shame reaction.
Thus, shame has to do with guilty feelings, not with GUILT, per se. To reiterate, guilt is determined by the reactions and anticipated reactions of others to external outcomes such as avoidable waste or preventable failure (the FEAR component). Guilty feelings are the reactions and anticipated reactions of the Moral Agent itself to internal outcomes (helplessness or loss of presumed control, narcissistic injuries – the ANXIETY component).
There is also conformity-related shame. It has to do with the narcissist's feeling of "otherness". It similarly involves a component of fear (of the reactions of others to one's otherness) and of anxiety (of the reactions of oneself to one's otherness).
Guilt-related shame is connected to self-related shame (perhaps through a psychic construct akin to the Superego). Conformity-related shame is more akin to narcissistic shame.
Lidija Rangelovska’s View of Shame
Lidija Rangelovska advanced the idea that some children subjected to abuse in dysfunctional families – objectified, dehumanized, their boundaries breached, and their growth stunted – develop intense feelings of shame. They turn out to be codependents or narcissists owing to their genetic makeup and innate character. According to her, children who turned out to be codependents as adults are resilient, while the more fragile narcissists seek to evade shame by concocting and then deploying the False Self.
As Lidija Rangelovska observes, shame motivates "normal" people and those suffering from Cluster B personality disorders differently. It constitutes a threat to the former's True Self and to the latter's False Self. Owing to the disparate functionality and psychodynamics of the True and False selves, the ways shame affects behavior and manifests in both populations differ. Additionally, pervasive, constant shame fosters anxiety and even fears or phobias. These can have either an inhibitory effect – or, on the contrary, disinhibitory functions (motivate to action.) Both narcissists and codependents compensate for their shame, the former by developing a “need to be needed” and the latter by developing a “need to deny their neediness”.
The True Self involves an accurate reality test with minimal and marginal cognitive deficits as well as the capacity to empathize on all levels, including and especially the emotional level. People whose True Self is intact, mature, and operational are capable of relating to others deeply (for example, by loving them). Their sense of self-worth is stable and grounded in a true and tested assessment of who they are. Maintaining a distinction between what we really are and what we dream of becoming, knowing our limits, our advantages and faults and having a sense of realistic accomplishments in our life are of paramount importance in the establishment and maintenance of our self-esteem, sense of self-worth and self-confidence.
Shame threatens the True Self by challenging the affected person's ego-syntony: by forcing her to "feel bad" about something she has said or done. The solution is usually facile and at hand: reverse the situation by apologizing or by making amends.
In contrast, the False Self leads to false assumptions and to a contorted personal narrative, to a fantastic worldview, and to a grandiose, inflated sense of being. The latter is rarely grounded in real achievements or merit. The narcissist's feeling of entitlement is all-pervasive, demanding and aggressive. It easily deteriorates into the open verbal, psychological and physical abuse of others.
When the patient with the False Self feels shame it is because his grandiosity, the fantastic narrative that underpins his False Self, is challenged, usually - but not necessarily - publicly. There is no easy solution to such a predicament. The situation cannot be reversed and the psychological damage is done. The patient urgently needs to reassert his grandiosity by devaluing or even destroying the frustrating, threatening object, the source of his misery. Another option is to reframe the situation by delusionally ignoring it or recasting it in new terms.
So, while shame motivates normal people to conduct themselves pro-socially and realistically, it pushes the disordered patient in the exact opposite direction: to antisocial or delusional reactions.
Shame is founded on empathy. The normal person empathizes with others. The disordered patient empathizes with himself. But, empathy and shame have little to do with the person with whom we empathize (the empathee). They may simply be the result of conditioning and socialization. In other words, when we hurt someone, we don't experience his or her pain. We experience our pain. Hurting somebody - hurts US. The reaction of pain is provoked in us by our own actions. We have been taught a learned response: to feel pain when we hurt someone.
We attribute feelings, sensations and experiences to the object of our actions. It is the psychological defence mechanism of projection. Unable to conceive of inflicting pain upon ourselves - we displace the source. It is the other's pain that we are feeling, we keep telling ourselves, not our own.
Additionally, we have been taught to feel responsible for our fellow beings and to develop guilt and shame when we fail to do so. So, we also experience pain whenever another person claims to be anguished. We feel guilty owing to his or her condition, we feel somehow accountable even if we had nothing to do with the whole affair. We feel ashamed that we haven't been able to end the other's agony.
Narcissistic Mortification, Shame, and Fear
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Narcissistic mortification is “intense fear associated with narcissistic injury and humiliation ... the shocking reaction when individuals face the discrepancy between an endorsed or ideal view of the self and a drastically contrasting realization” (Freud in Ronningstam, 2013). Rothstein (ibid.): “... fear of falling short of ideals with the loss of perfection and accompanying humiliation”. This fear extends to intimacy in interpersonal relationships (Fiscalini), unrealized or forbidden wishes and related defenses (Horowitz), and, as Kohut so aptly summarized it: “fear associated with rejection, isolation, and loss of contact with reality, and loss of admiration, equilibrium, and important objects.” Kernberg augmented this list by adding: “fear of dependency and destroying the relationship with the analyst, fear of retaliation, of one’s own aggression and destructiveness, and fear of death.”
Narcissistic mortification, is, therefore, a sudden sense of defeat and loss of control over internal or external objects or realities, caused by an aggressing person or a compulsive trait or behavior. It produces disorientation, terror (distinct from anticipatory fear), and a “damming up of narcissistic (ego-)libido or destrudo (mortido) is created” (Eidelberg, 1957, 1959). The entire personality is overwhelmed by impotent ineluctability and a lack of alternatives (inability to force objects to conform or to rely on their goodwill). Mortification reflects the activity of infantile strategies of coping with frustration or repression (such as grandiosity) and their attendant psychological defense mechanisms (for example, splitting, denial, or magical thinking).
Early childhood events of mortification are crucial in teaching the baby to distinguish between the external and the internal, establish ego boundaries, recognize his limitations, delay gratification, and select among options. Of course, it is possible to be overtaken by multiple internal and external mortifications (“traumas”) to the point that repression and dissociation become indispensable as well as compensatory cognitive deficits (omnipotent or omniscient grandiosity, entitlement, invincibility, paranoid projection, and so on). Bergler and Maldonado reminds us that pathological (secondary) narcissism is a reaction to the loss of infantile omnipotent delusions and of a good and meaningful object, associated in the child’s mind with ideals, a loss which threatens “continuity, stability, coherence, and wellbeing” of the self.
In adulthood, a self-inflicted internal mortification, usually founded on these distortions of reality, compensates for an external one and disguises it and vice versa: an internal mortification such as an autoplastic defense (“It is all my fault, I made it happen”) restores a grandiose illusion of control over an external mortification while a persecutory delusion (an external mortification) replaces an internal mortification (“I have evil and hateful thoughts towards people”). But, the only true solution to a mortification is the regaining of control and, even then, it is only partial as control had clearly been lost at some point and this cataclysm can never be forgotten, forgiven, or effectively dealt with.
The need to reframe narcissistic mortification is because – as an extreme and intolerably painful form of shame-induced traumatic depressive anxiety – it threatens the integrity of the self, following a sudden awareness of one’s limitations and defects (Lansky, 2000 and Libbey, 2006). When they are faced with their own hopeless “unlovability, badness, and worthlessness”, mortified people experience shock, exposure, and intense humiliation, often converted to somatic symptoms. It feels like annihilation and disintegration.
Hurvich (1989) described it as: “a virtually intolerable intolerable experience of terror, fright, or dread related to a sense of ‘overwhelmed helplessness, reminiscent of the overwhelmed helplessness of infancy ... annihilation anxiety ... ‘Fear of the Disintegration of the Self or of Identity’” (Libbey, 2006). Libbey postulates that narcissistic mortification is a “sudden loss of the psychic sense of self, which occurs simultaneously with a perception that the tie to a self-object (Kohut, 1971) is threatened.” Kohut added: “if the grandiosity of the narcissistic self has been insufficiently modified...then the adult ego will tend to vacillate between an irrational overestimation of the self and feelings of inferiority and will react with narcissistic mortification to the thwarting of its ambitions.” Object relations theorists concurred: Bion’s “nameless dread”, Winnicott’s “original agonies” of the collapse of childish consciousness as it evolves and mature into an adult’s.
This may have to do with a lack of evocative constancy: “The capacity to maintain positively toned images of self and others with which to dispel feelings of self-doubt (Adler and Buie, 1979). Self-reflexivity – “the ability to oscillate easily among varying perspectives on the self” (Libbey, 2006) crucially relies on the smooth operation of evocative constancy (Bach, 1978, Broucek, 1982).
Libbey describes two strategies that narcissists use to restore a modicum of cohesiveness to the self. The “deflated” narcissist debases the self and inflates or idealizes “the object in order to reacquire it ... It can include, for example, atonement, aggrandizement of the other, self-punishment, and self-flagellation ... designed to appease and hold on to selfobjects." Anna Freud presaged this with her concept of “altruistic surrender” (self-sacrificial and, therefore, self-disparaging altruism).
Another strategy, of “inflated” narcissists and revenge seekers, involves “debasement of the object ... attacking the other, in order to aggrandize and re-stabilize the self. There is always a winner and a loser. Such narcissists 'fight fire with fire' or 'take an eye for an eye' ... 'arighting the scales of justice.' There are only winners and losers, and they must be the winners ... (Shamers) are also adept at short-circuiting the plunge into mortification altogether, preemptively expelling impending feelings of shame and defectiveness by humiliating the other ... Whichever route is taken, the individual cannot recover from mortification until a tolerable, familiar self-state is re-acquired, either by re-establishing the other as an approving object, or by destroying the other, temporarily or permanently ... narcissistic conceit, designed to project the defective self-experiences onto self-objects.”
Some narcissists are attracted to promiscuous, labile, and dysregulated women also because of their potential to cause mortification. In their homemaker phase, these women make the narcissist feel dead. But in their “borderline” stage, these intimate partners guarantee mortification and only mortification restores freedom from commitment and the adventure of the next shared fantasy.
Only mortification makes the narcissist feel alive and sexually aroused: sadism, masochism, and libido maximized and a recreation of the primary unresolved conflict. In the mortification crisis, the narcissist sees himself through other people’s eyes and stands a chance to free himself of the shackles of his taskmaster, the False Self, via re-traumatization.
These women are the narcissist’s pawns: he selects them in order to fulfil roles in both the shared fantasy and the liberating antifantasy mortification. They need to integrate in the shared psychosis, retraumatize the narcissist (reenact the unresolved conflict with his mother and mortify him), and free him to move on to the next shared fantasy. These women often protest: "We cheated on you because we felt that this is what you wanted, to please you, to prove you right". The narcissist does not push them away - he cajoles them to push him away!
This could lead to finally force the narcissist to accept and to internalize the insight that he is "very sick": in itself a mortification, it is the first step in a therapeutic process of healing - or of giving up on himself and on life.
Treatment should focus on converting mortification to shame “which includes the capacity to tolerate it and to use it as a signal ... Both defensive styles require continued dependence on selfobjects and must be mounted again and again. Tolerating bearable shame can make self-appraisal and self-tolerance possible, ultimately leading to psychic separation and self-reliance.”
Mortification in Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)
The False Self in Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is akin to the host personality in Dissociative Identity Disorder: to moderate and to switch between self-states is a secondary psychopath and to regulate the resulting repression, denial, splitting, dissociation, and other infantile defenses in an attempt to maintain self-constancy rather than object constancy.
Consequently, the Borderline patient seeks mortification in order to feel alive, not free: she seeks to introduce novelty, thrills, and reckless risk taking into her life via chaotic drama. It is the only way she can experience transformation and also the only method open to her when she feels like self trashing, self-punishment, or self-mutilation). Mortification in Borderlines is self-inflicted in preemptive abandonment and the Borderline then copes by becoming dissociative (disappearing) or by displaying traits and behaviors of a secondary psychopath (making others disappear), or, more commonly, both.
Intermediate Case Study 1
A patient craves love and intimacy (also as reified by sex), but he hates himself for this life-threatening vulnerability. He uses projective identification and projective introjection coupled with persecutory paranoia: he egregiously misbehaves and so forces others to hate him and to act against him or perceives them as hateful with some justification. This way, he prevents the formation of love and intimacy as well as sexual relations. He kills two birds with one stone: he avoids acknowledging his own suicidal self-hatred and he sidesteps being vulnerable to a dangerous level (again: suicidal).
Intermediate Case Study 2
The patient idealizes a potential partner, but rejects, verbally abuses, withholds, and humiliates him. He reacts by picking up another partner.
This challenges her omnipotence (she feels helpless, humiliated), omniscience (failed to spot his “conspiracies”, gullibly trusted his “lies” about himself and about their interactions), perfection (he rejected her), superiority (he chose an inferior or superior alternative over her), brilliance (the incident proved that he regards her as a damaged fool), and self-perception as loved and protected child (everyone involved envied and hated her).
She repressed the intolerable external narcissistic mortification (the public exposure of her glaring unfixable inadequacies, limitations, and defects) under an internal one (It is all my fault, I made her misbehave) in a failed attempt to restore her grandiose omnipotence.
She then reverted to paranoia, replacing one external mortification with another (Evil people were out to hurt her) in a failed attempt to not feel hopelessly damaged and evil (to restore ego syntony and assuage her pain and desperation: I am OK, They are Evil).
She remained in touch with him in order to support with evidence both these two alternative mortifications.
She ghosted him only once she succeeded to integrate the two alternative mortifications, thereby fully accounting for all the events in a realistic and satisfying manner (My misbehavior did cause him to overreact, but his egregious, disproportional, and unjustified misconduct is because he is a psychopath and evil, his new partner is an envious opportunist, and the witnesses are malicious haters) AND restoring grandiosity by vindictively punishing everyone involved.
My favorite films involve a
protagonist who poignantly fails to realise that he is a ghost. It is a perfect
metaphor for the life-threatening but inevitable process of narcissistic
mortification: when the narcissist’s
grandiose defenses crumble under a sustained attack.
Stripped of his reified ideal ego (False Self), the narcissist is then reduced to an obnoxious, but terrified child, rendered a veritable zero from an imagined hero. He can no longer sustain his delusional view of himself as irresistible, a winner, or a genius. Instead, he comes face to face with his own weird creepiness, gaping inadequacies, and history of failures. He realizes he is a ghost: a long dead and unrequited apparition of a howling void.
Moreover: finally face to face with reality, he becomes aware that, ultimately, he has fooled no one and everyone sees right through his pathetic facade: abandonment - his overwhelming horror - is imminent.
Mortification occurs most commonly - though not exclusively - when the narcissist’s intimate partner abruptly or cruelly bails out of their shared fantasy: the only illusory space which lets the narcissist maintain his counterfactual paracosm.
On rare occasions, moved by his evident distress and disintegration, the narcissist’s intimate partner is reduced to such profound pity that she may even sacrifice herself and remain by his crippled side.
Social media present a contradiction and, therefore, are engines of dissonance: they are mortification by a thousand paper cuts. They constitute perfect sources of narcissistic supply but amount to constant generators of narcissistic injuries. Long exposure to these platforms makes it difficult for the narcissist to idealize his False Self and may lead to recurrent mortification.
The narcissist’s only way
out of a narcissistic mortification
is to forcefully re-establish his grandiosity and revive the False Self. He
accomplishes this resurrection by reframing the mortifying events and by
fleeing the scene.
At first, the narcissist constructs a narrative that absolves him of guilt and shame. He attributes his disgrace and downfall either to the envious malevolence of others - or to his own cunning and iron will (cognitive dissonance: “I actually wanted all this to happen”).
He then proceeds to discard his erstwhile Pathological Narcissistic Space (his physical hunting grounds) as well as everyone in it, now all indelibly imprinted with the unbearable memories of the traumatic mortification and are, therefore, transmogrified into triggers.
Unable to subsist and survive for long without narcissistic supply, he lovebombs and grooms his way into new sources in a new location only to restart the cycle of idealization-devaluation or mortification-discard-and replace.
The pandemic has rendered all this maneuvering impossible. Forced into immobility and a virtual existence, many narcissists are driven to psychotic decompensation and life threatening, potentially suicidal acting out. Attempts to compensate via social media and a cyber presence only backfire as the narcissist is exposed to multiple repeated narcissistic injuries every minute of every day.
often confuse mood LABILITY and emotional DYSREGULATION with INTENSITY. Some people need intensity because they cannot feel
anything otherwise. They conflate and confuse the intense and the sentimental
with the emotional, mistaking drama with feelings.
Real, true POSITIVE emotions are NOT dramatic OR sentimental OR intense. Positive emotions are just THERE: deep, rooted, profound, all-pervasive.
Pain is dramatic, sentimental, and intense. PAIN. ANGER. ENVY. HATRED. Negative emotions. Positive emotions don't require intense dramatics. They are cheapened by such theatrics.
Relationships with narcissists are founded on NEGATIVE emotions: fear, anxiety, envy, anger, control, etc. The pain is caused by withdrawal, rejection, and betrayal. Both parties experience it.
When the relationship is founded only on negative emotions, it gives rise to anxieties and insecurities.
the narcissist truly needs and wants something or someone, it is experienced by
him as a challenge to his omnipotent self-sufficiency and as a profound
narcissistic injury. He then rejects and abuses the very things and people he
so craves and, inevitably, ends up experiencing recurrent losses and
mortifications. He convinces himself that people are evil and envious and that
the world is a hostile jungle, undeserving of him.
The narcissist's reactions are misperceived as self-destructive and self-defeating when in effect they are meant to preserve his grandiosity and the inner equilibrium that it affords him: "I need no one and nothing! Look I willingly discard and trash you, my inferior mediocres, hood dear and essential!"
Such overt contempt is tinged with a form of mild, taunting sadism: "Easy come, easy go! I accomplish all things effortlessly and this facility renders everyone and everything worthless, dispensable, and interchangeable: intimacy, sex, money, career, family, or celebrity. I just couldn't care less about what you care most! I am burning it all to the ground to communicate to you that you are slaves to society while I am a master of my life! I am my best source of self-supply! You have no hold over me because I do not need or want anything you can possibly possess or wish to share with me!"
Of course, these are mere defensive and compensatory projections and a desperate attempt by the narcissist to pretend that he is in control of his own decline, collapse, and defeat.
But it is also a rigid, immutable ideology, akin to the mores of the hereditary aristocracies in times bygone. Noblemen in previous centuries held in abiding disdain commoners and their existence: their labor, thrift, sexual exclusivity, and commitment to family and church. Leisurely hedonistic idleness (slacking) was elevated and normative. The ideal among these grandiose and entitled circles was to become a childless bachelor "gentleman of leisure", or "gifted amateur".
Only the narcissist's
delusions (shared fantasies)
constitute mental illness because they impair reality testing and are
self-defeating. They involve severe cognitive and emotional deficits and result
in egregious misconduct (like stalking) with dire consequences, psychological
(mortification) or physical (prison, divorce, banktrupcy).
The delusions are attempts to resolve the jarring dissonance between the narcissist's defiantly grandiose essence and his socialization by withdrawing into an imaginary space where he conforms to others' expectations even as he pursues his agenda of self-gratification. To reconcile the irreconcilable.
The "my way or the highway" attitude, Peter Pan "syndrome", absence of ambition, self-indulgence, slacker indolence, ludic preferences, commitmentphobia, lack of perseverance, boredom, dramatic seeking of novelty, misanthropy, and misogyny are either culture-bound value judgments (not clinical entities at all) - or actually adaptive coping strategies that optimize favorable outcomes under the constraints of the narcissist's immutable core identity.
Dysfunctionality arises only when self-efficacy is compromised and goals are forfeited. If agency is preserved and one's life and lifestyle fully reflect one's preferences and aims, all is well, no matter how many disagree, criticize, mock, or get hurt in the process.
Like the optimal toilet
paper, men should be both strong and soft. It is here that narcissists fail: they are brittle
and aggressive rather than soft and strong. There is no balance - only an
The narcissist's personality is precariously poised, his access to and intimations of his positive emotions restricted and ambiguous, and his overpowering negative emotions so rampant that he needs to compensate for his vulnerabilities with a pyrotechnic display of dominance and abuse ("alpha male" and bullying). But such antisocial maltreatment of others - especially of his "nearest and dearest" - does not render the narcissist strong either in reality or in the eyes of others. It does however endow him with a reputation for obnoxiousness and even repellent clownishness.
Similarly, when the narcissist does his thwarted imitation of "being soft", the thespian effort strains the seams of his affected conduct. He becomes maudlin, exaggerates, goes over the top with demonstrations of gratuitous and smarmy courtesy or feigned pity, goal-oriented charity, and his version of deformed pseudo-empathy.
The narcissist comes across as a badly programmed humanoid robot with an insufficient table of data on how to act human. He immediately fosters unease and trepidation in people around him (the uncanny valley). He is incapable of true intimacy and emoting because deep inside, where a human being should have been, the abode is empty, the flag at half mast. The narcissist walks and talks, but otherwise he is long dead, like the zombies and vampires of yore.
narcissist (same as the psychopath)
values his unbridled freedom above all else. He owes nobody anything, no one
has any power over him or claim on any of his resources, no one has the right
to make any demands of any kind or to expect any kind of behavior or reciprocity
Freedom is closely allied with defiant and contumacious self-sufficiency: he doesn't need a thing from anybody and he depends on nothing and no one. He abhors authority and constraints and is a law unto himself: my way or the highway, the fuck-off factor his greatest pride and joy and the foundation of his inflated False Self.
Women are the antithesis of this mindset: they give a lot but expect to receive in return; they use their sexuality to manipulate; they make demands, challenge, and negotiate. The psychopathic narcissist interprets all their assertive behaviors and any hint of separateness (personal autonomy) as a disrespectful and humiliating frontal attack on his grandiosity, an attempt to subjugate and enslave him, or, conversely, a form of pernicious passive-aggression. He feels cornered and threatened. The result is misogyny: a rabid heartfelt hatred of women.
Over the years, numerous traumatic failed relationships had taught the malignant narcissist that people - and especially women - would either avoid him altogether as a dangerous creep, mock and shun him as a freakish loser, or break up with him punitively after a while (for example: by ostentatiously cheating on him or by plagiarizing his work). This hurtful realization only enhances his "lone wolf" mentality and aversion to all manner of meaningful intercourse with others.
Many psychopathic narcissists finish off their chaotic and shambolic lives as schizoid and paranoid recluses. Like junkies, they may still function seamlessly in their jobs and chosen - usually solitary - professions. But what remains of their existence is ossified and rigidly ritualized.
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