The Narcissist's Object Constancy

By: Dr. Sam Vaknin

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Narcissists often carry on talking (rather, lecturing) long after their interlocutors - bored stiff and resentful - have physically departed or mentally switched off. They are shocked to discover that they have been conversing with thin air for awhile. They are equally astounded when they are abandoned or shunned by spouses, friends, colleagues, the media, their fans, or audiences.

The root of this recurrent astonishment is the narcissist's perverse object constancy.

According to the great developmental psychologist, Margaret Mahler, between the ages of 24 and 36 months of life, the infant is finally able to cope with the mother's absence (by finding appropriate substitutes to her presence). It knows that she will return and trusts her to do so time and again.

The psychic image of the mother is internalized as a stable, reliable, and predictable object. As the infant's sense of time and verbal skills evolve, it becomes more immune to delayed gratification and tolerant of inevitable separation.

Piaget, the renowned child psychologist, concurred with Mahler and coined the term "object constancy" to describe the dynamics she observed.

As opposed to Mahler, Daniel Stern, another prominent psychoanalyst, proposes that the child is born with a sense of Self:

"Infants begin to experience a sense of an emergent self from birth. They are pre-designed to be aware of self - organising processes. They never experience a period of total self / other undifferentiation. There is no confusion of self and other in the beginning or at any point during infancy.

They are pre-designed to be selectively responsive to external social events and never experience an autistic like phase.

During the period of 2 - 6 months the infant consolidates the core sense of self as a separate, cohesive, bounded, physical unit with a sense of their own agency, affectivity and continuity in time. There is no symbiotic like phase. In fact the subjective experiences of union with another can occur only after a core self and a core other exists."

But even Stern accepts the existence of a distinct and separate "other" versus the nascent "self".

Pathological narcissism is a reaction to deficient bonding and dysfunctional attachment (Bowlby). Object relations in narcissists are infantile and chaotic (Winnicott, Guntrip). Many narcissists have no psychological-object constancy at all. In other words, many of them do not feel that other people are benign, reliable, helpful, constant, predictable, and trustworthy.

To compensate for this lack in ability (or willingness) to relate to real, live people, the narcissist invents and molds substitute-objects or surrogate-objects.

These are mental representations of meaningful or significant others (Sources of Narcissistic Supply). They have little or nothing to do with reality. These imagoes - images - are confabulations, works of fiction. They respond to the narcissist's needs and fears - and do not correspond to the persons they purport to stand for.

The narcissist internalizes these pliable representations, manipulates them, and interacts with them - not with the originals. The narcissist is entirely immersed in his world, talking to these "figurines", arguing with these substitutes, contracting with these surrogates, being admired by them.

Hence his dismay when confronted with real people, their needs, feelings, preferences, and choices.

(continued below)

This article appears in my book "Malignant Self-love: Narcissism Revisited"

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Thus, the typical narcissist refrains from any meaningful discourse with his spouse and children, friends and colleagues. Instead, he spins a narrative in which these people - represented by mental avatars - admire him, find him fascinating, fervently wish to oblige him, love him, or fear him.

These "avatars" have little or nothing to do with the way his kin and kith REALLY feel about him. The protagonists in the narcissist's yarns do not incorporate veritable data about his wife, or offspring, or colleagues, or friends. They are mere projections of the narcissist's inner world. Thus, when the narcissist faces the real thing - he refuses to believe and accept the facts:

"My wife has always been so cooperative - whatever happened to her lately?"

(She was never cooperative - she was subservient or frightened into submission. But the narcissist didn't notice because he never actually "saw her".)

"My son always wanted to follow in my footsteps - I don't know what possesses him!"

(The narcissist's poor son never wanted to be a lawyer or a doctor. He always dreamed of being an actor or an artist. But the narcissist was not aware of it.)

"My friends used to listen to my stories enraptured - I have no idea why they no longer do so!"

(At first, his friends politely listened to the narcissist's interminable rants and ravings. Finally, they dropped from his social circle, one by one.)

"I was admired by the media - now I am constantly ignored!"

(At first, an object of derision and morbid fascination, the novelty wore off and the media moved on to other narcissists.)

Puzzled, hurt, and clueless, the narcissist withdraws further and further with every narcissistic injury. Finally, he is forced into choosing the delusional way out. He also seeks to restore object constancy by resorting to devaluation (thus re-establishing the balance of power with the abandoning and devalued object); by fostering dependence in the frustrating object (for instance: via conditional giving, with invisible strings attached); and by making use of anachronistic and condescending behaviours (which treat the object as though he were still a needy child or an invalid).

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