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Adolescent Narcissist: Personal Fable, Imaginary Audience

Uploaded 11/27/2021, approx. 16 minute read

In an age of rampaging selfishness, egotism, narcissism, and psychopathic narcissism, the proposition of healthy narcissism is contentious.

And yet, healthy narcissism underlines personal development and growth well into one's teenage years.

Indeed, we cannot, do not, and should not diagnose narcissistic disturbances of the self, like narcissistic personality disorder, in anyone under the age of 18 and possibly 25.

Narcissism pushes the child away from his mother in a process known as separation individuation. The child becomes grandiose and takes on the world.

That's how children discover others, other people, object relations.

A good mother encourages her child's grandiosity, actually, teaches the child to be more of a narcissist, so to speak, in these early stages of development between 18 months and 24 months of life.

Similarly, during adolescence, various facets of what in adulthood would be called narcissism are very beneficial. Without these aspects of narcissism, the adolescent cannot mature, cannot righten and become an adult.

And today, I'm going to discuss several dimensions and aspects of narcissism in adolescence and why it should definitely be called healthy rather than abnormal or pathological.

And to the adolescents among you, my name is Sam Vaknin and I'm the author of Malignant Self-Love: Narcissism Revisited. I'm also a professor of psychology to the detriment of all my students all over the world.

Now it's your turn to suffer. All right, Shoshanim, let's start with something called depressive realism.

Depressive realism is a hypothesis. It was developed by Lauren Aloyand Lynn Yvonne Abramson. These two scholars suggested that depressed individuals actually are more realistic. They grasp life better and more appropriately and more correctly. They create, they generate more realistic inferences.

Non-depressed individuals are a bit detached from reality. They live a bit in fantasy. They don't really appreciate how harsh, unforgiving and possibly evil the world is.

So depressive may be actually a positive adaptation, not a negative one.

Depressed individuals do have negative cognitive bias. They do have negative automatic thoughts and these create maladaptive behaviors or dysfunctional world views.

But these are not necessarily the crucial things and they do not obstruct life in a way that we have been thinking hitherto.

Depressive realism argues that this negativity reflects a more accurate appraisal of the world and that people who are not depressed, their appraisal of the world is positively biased, which could be positively dangerous and risky.

Another very similar concept is defensive pessimism. Defensive pessimism is a cognitive strategy. It was first described by Nancy Cantor and some of her students in the mid-1980s.

People use defensive pessimism as a strategy when they are faced with an anxiety-provoking task or chore or event or performance, they develop negative defensive pessimism.

Defensive pessimism simply means that people set low expectations for their performance, regardless of how well they may have done in the past.

So past experience does not inform defensive pessimism, nor does it modify it.

Defensive pessimists believe that everything could become a negative event or a setback and that everything can adversely influence their goals and their life trajectory.

So they envision all the time negative outcomes.

In a way, they are catastrophizing.

Defensive pessimism is a more benign or healthy variant of catastrophizing because defensive pessimists do take action to avoid negative outcomes and they do prepare themselves for negative events.

People who catastrophize get paralyzed, they feel threatened and they develop a freeze response.

While people with defensive pessimism are fighters, they fight back and using this strategy, they advantageously harness the anxiety and use it, use this energy of the anxiety to improve their performance and so on.


Okay, so why do I mention defensive pessimism and depressive realism?

Because these are the ultimate stations, these are the end stations in the train of adolescence.

To understand why and how, we need to go back in time to adolescent to puberty, to adolescent years.

According to scholars like Albers, Elking, Ginsburg, etc., the adolescent has something called the personal fable. They describe the personal fable in these words. It is the corollary to the imaginary audience, thinking of himself or herself as the center of attention.

The adolescent comes to believe that it is because he or she is special and unique.

I'm going to repeat this definition because it is at the core of narcissism.

Personal fable, say Albers, Elking and Ginsburg, is the corollary to the imaginary audience which we are going to discuss in a minute. It is thinking of himself or herself as a center of attention.

The adolescent comes to believe that it is because he or she is special or unique.

In Jean Piaget's theory of personal development, there's a phrase called formal operational stage and he mentions the personal fable there in other words. It's a part of Piagetian theory of personal development.

At the same time, as the adolescent comes to regard himself as the center of attention, special, unique, unprecedented and amazing, at the same time he develops a sense of invulnerability.

Of course we all know that adolescents are very reckless. They don't consider the consequences of their actions and they are like that because they feel immune. They feel invulnerable.

David Elking, he was the first to use the phrase personal fable in 1967 and the title of his book was Egocentrism in adolescence. The word narcissism was not that well banded about as it is today. Egocentrism might well have been replaced today with the word narcissism.

So the adolescent feels unique and he feels unique because he is fascinated with himself. He finds himself amazing or inspiring, unique and special to the point that he is sui generis, one of a kind.

The adolescent regards his own thoughts to be very profound, completely novel and completely unique and unprecedented when compared to the thoughts and experiences of other people.

In other words, the adolescent puts a higher weight on his own thoughts than on the thoughts and experiences of other people.

And this belief of being a fascinating, amazing person, it is an outcome of the adolescent's failure, inability to differentiate between the concerns, their concerns and the concerns of others.

In other words, there is a failure of separation. The adolescent can't really tell the difference between himself and other people.

There is a problem of boundaries. Does it strike a bell? Does it ring a bell?

Yes, it rings a bell because this is exactly the etiology of pathological narcissism, a failure in separating from the parent.

All adolescents go through another cycle of separation individuation. Whereas the infant or the toddler between the ages of 18 months and 24 months separates from mother, develops a self, a constellated self, and thereby becomes an individual, the adolescence separates from other people.

And by separating from other people, he begins to develop object relations or relationships with objects. And objects in psychology is another word for other people.

So there are two stages of separation in infancy from mother and later in adolescence from other people.

But while this phase of separation individuation in adolescence is taking place, the adolescent finds it very difficult to tell the difference between his concerns, his thoughts, his experiences, and the concerns and thoughts of experiences of other people.

And this is called the differentiation problem.

One of the outcomes of the differentiation problem in adolescence is of course identity diffusion. If you have no boundaries, if you don't know where you end and the world begins, if you can't tell the exact difference between yourself and other people, then you don't have an identity or at least you don't have an identity core, an immutable, strong, identifiable thing somewhere inside you that is you.

And so there is identity diffusion. The identity of adolescence is like a cloud. It ever shapeshifts with every passing wind.

And so there is under differentiation between the adolescent and other people. But at the same time, there's over differentiation.

This is the irony in adolescence. On the one hand, the adolescent merges, fuses, and measures, lets himself be engulfed and engulfs other people, treats them very often as extensions of himself or herself.

But at the same time, as a counter measure in a desperate attempt to become an individual, the adolescent over differentiates.

The adolescent puts an over emphasis on her emotions, on her thoughts, on her experiences, on her concerns. It's like the adolescent says, I am one with these people. I can't tell the difference between me and others.

So I'm going to exaggerate myself. I'm going to be hyperbolic about myself. I'm going to aggrandize myself to the point that the difference will become self-evident and manifest.

Now that my feelings are unique, now that my experiences are fascinating and unprecedented, now that I'm so special, now I am. I am by virtue of my uniqueness. I can separate because I'm not like everyone else. I am one of a kind.

This is a form of narcissism that is healthy because it pushes the adolescent to create boundaries.

However, unrealistic, fantastic and wrong and inflated, but still the adolescent succeeds to create boundaries, leveraging this narcissism.

So we come across situations in clinical practice where, for example, adolescents can say, everyone is concerned with me. Everyone bothers with me. Everyone is around me. Everyone cares about me. I'm the center of attention. I'm the center of the world. My mother is worried about me. My father is worried about me. My siblings envy me.

So the adolescent renders himself or herself as the center of everyone's attention. And this is a phenomenon known as the imaginary audience. We'll talk about it in a few minutes.

And the adolescent at the same time says, all these people are concerned about me. They can't think about anything but me all the time. They're preoccupied with me.

But actually, they don't understand me. They don't understand me. I'm the only person who can possibly experience what I'm feeling.

I am inaccessible. I am so special. And I'm so unique in any given time and in any given space that actually my inner world can never be appropriately or efficaciously communicated to anyone. I'm all alone. It's existential loneliness, profound, which leads, of course, to anxiety and angst and so on.

And so we are beginning to link the adolescent state of mind to depressive realism and defensive pessimism. Because it is at this stage that many adolescents develop three types of reactions.

They become depressed or anxious. So they develop depression and anxiety disorders. Or they become pessimistic about the world. Or they become paranoid. Something we will discuss at the end of this video because it's much more rare.

This is a passing phase. This pessimism and depression are usually a passing phase.

But in a small number of adolescents, they're lifelong. These adolescents grow up to be adults and they have depression, they have anxiety, and they have, yes, narcissism. This is a form of late onset narcissism.

According to David Elkind, an adolescent's intense focus on himself as a center of attention gives rise to the belief that one is completely unique. And this gives rise to feelings of invulnerability or immunity.


And so the two marked characteristics of the personal fable are a feeling of uniqueness coupled with a conviction of invulnerability and immunity.

Let me quote David Elkind. He wrote, this complex of beliefs in the uniqueness of the adolescent's feelings and of his or her immortality might be called a personal fable, a story which he or she tells himself and which is not true.

I mentioned that when you have a personal fable as an adolescent, you also have an imaginary audience. An imaginary audience is a psychological state, a mental state.

The individual imagines, the individual believes, convinces himself, in other words, confabulates, that many, many people, everyone, they are enthusiastically focused on him, admire him, listen to him, monitor him, spy on him, watch him, etc.

And the imaginary audience is therefore a form of referential ideation or ideas of reference.

Now, all adolescents develop a personal fable. All of them display marked signs of narcissism and all of them go through a depressive phase, depressive realism, and all of them become pessimistic at some point.

Goethe describes the sorrows of young Werther, a book which led to a wave of mass suicide in the Germanic countries.

And so he described what he called the vegmas, the sorrow of the world.

This is the burden of the world's tragedies that lies upon the tender shoulders of the adolescent.

The adolescent feels that he's responsible somehow for everything that's happening, that he could fix the world.

Of course, it's a grandiose perception. It's a messiah or a God complex, but it is healthy. It helps the adolescent to finally withdraw from the world.

The pessimism and the depression teach the adolescent his limitations. They are the reason that adolescents create boundaries around themselves, defensive walls, firewalls.

And within these boundaries, they continue a healthy course or trajectory of development and they become mature adults.

It's like a cocoon, a defensive cocoon.

What happens with narcissists?

They can't transition from the personal fable phase, the depressive realism phase, the defensive pessimism phase. They can't transition from this to the adult world. They can't develop object relations because they had never come through the first phase of separation and individuation early on as infants.

So they don't know how to do separation and individuation. And because they don't know how to do separation and individuation, they never separate or individuate from anyone, including their intimate partners.

They breach other people's boundaries. They merge with them. They enmesh. They treat other people as extensions.

So the typical adolescent has a personal fable, has an imaginary audience, has narcissism, has depression, has pessimism, but grows out of all these.

In the adolescent's mind, there's an imaginary audience that is transfixed and hypnotized by the adolescent's ideas and thoughts and experiences and feelings and so on and so forth.

But this is very common to young adolescents. It's a kind of a fantasy defense.

In sociology, we use imagined audience to describe a mentally constructed idea of who the audience is without having real or complete insight into who they actually may be.

Okay, so the adolescents go through all this and he then develops a personal fable, which is essentially a form of healthy narcissism, imaginary audience, a reaction to depression, a reaction to pessimism, but there's a third reaction.

This third reaction is much more pathological and is likely to predispose the adolescent to develop paranoia later on in life. It's what we call a hostile attribution bias or hostile attribution intent.

It's the adolescent's tendency to interpret other people's behavior as having a hostile intent, as being malicious and malevolent and intentional and deliberate. Even when the behavior is innocuous, benign, or at worst ambiguous, the tendency of such adolescence would be to interpret these behaviors as threatening.

And so people with hostile attribution bias have strong ideas of reference, strong referential ideation. They interpret other people's behavior as malevolent or malicious.

So when they see two people laughing in the corner, they are mocking them. The interpretation is they are mocking me. When they see some people gossiping somewhere, they are gossiping about me because this kind of adolescent cannot exit the personal fable. He cannot get rid of the imaginary audience in itself.

An idea of reference.

Gradually, this becomes intolerable. If you constantly live in a state where you believe that other people are focused on you, spying on you, watching you, observing you, analyzing you, etc., this creates paranoid ideation and a hostile attribution bias.

And so this kind of reaction was first described in 1980 by Nasby, Haydn, and Di Polo.

These scholars noticed that there is some group of children, and these children tend to always act hostile, that these children are very defensive. They are always kind of in a flight-of-flight response. They are always with clenched fists.

So when these scholars observed this phenomenon, and together with another scholar whose name was Kenneth Dodge, they coined the phrase hostile attribution bias.

And it's a bias of social information processing. In other words, it's a form of attribution bias.

We have a whole family of attribution biases. It's a wrong way of perceiving, interpreting, and selecting responses to situations and stimuli.

Occasional bias, occasional hostile attribution bias is normative. It's pretty normal, even among adolescents.

But individuals who have this in a consistent and high level, they tend to carry it forward, to carry it on into much later stages of development, and they tend to become aggressive and even violent.

Most stalkers and most abusers actually have a hostile attribution bias, and this is called relational aggression.

Hostile attribution bias is not all bad. And again, it appears among many adolescents. It makes its appearance among many adolescents, together with depressive realism and defensive pessimism. It has its merits. It's sometimes a necessary phase because it's a pathway. It's a pathway which allows adolescents to assess, to evaluate risk factors.

One of the major risk factors in adolescence is peer rejection, another risk factor, wrong parenting, harsh parenting, selfish parenting, dead parents.

So the hostile attribution bias allows the adolescents to assess risk factors, mainly environmental risk factors, to mobilize aggression, to cope with them.

So we discovered in studies that children who are exposed to teasing and bullying in school and or child abuse at home, they're much more likely to develop hostile attribution bias, and that leads them to behave aggressively in school.

Hostile attribution bias mobilizes defenses. It is a bit like the glue or the cement behind certain defensive boundaries, behaviors that are unacceptable are rejected aggressively using hostile attribution bias.

But if it survives adolescence, it becomes paranoia. If depressive realism survives adolescence, it becomes depression. If defensive pessimism survives adolescence, it becomes anxiety. If the personal favor and the imaginary audience survive adolescence, they become narcissism.

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