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Dissociation (Amnesia) & Confabulation in Narcissism (Intl. Conf. Clinical Counseling Psychology)

Uploaded 2/25/2019, approx. 26 minute read

My dear colleagues, my name is Sam Vaknin, I am the author of Malignant Self-Love, Narcissism Revisited, and a series of other books about personality disorders. I am a visiting professor of psychology in Southern Federal University in Rostov-on-Don, the Russian Federation, and a professor of finance and a professor of psychology in CIAS-CIAPS, the Centre for International Advanced and Professional Studies. Welcome to the fourth international conference on clinical and counseling psychology held in August 2019 in Tokyo, Japan.

The topic of my video presentation is dissociation in narcissistic disturbances of the self.

Feedback from other people regulates the narcissist's sense of identity, sense of self-worth, boundaries and even his reality test, his correct awareness of the world around him.

The narcissist needs this constant input to maintain a sense of continuity.

Thus, the narcissist's nearest and dearest is sources of secondary narcissistic supply. They serve as external memories and as flux regulators.

Their function is to maintain a regular stable flow of affirming data which leads to coherence.

The narcissist was conditioned from an early age of abuse and trauma to expect the unexpected. His was a world in motion where sometimes sadistically capricious caretakers and peers often engage in arbitrary behaviour.

The narcissist was trained to deny his true self and to nurture a false self. We will discuss it a bit later.

Having invented himself, the narcissist sees no problem in reinventing that which he had designed in the first place.

The narcissist is his own creator, his own God, hence his God-like grandiosity.

Moreover, the narcissist is a man for all seasons, forever adaptable, malleable, constantly imitating, constantly emulating a human sponge, a perfect mirror, a non-entity that is at the same time all entities combined, a chameleon or in Woody Allen's language, a zelly.

The narcissist is best described by Sartre's phrase, being and nothingness.

Into this reflective vacuum, this sucking black hole, the narcissist attracts the sources of his narcissistic supply.

To an observer, the narcissist appears to be fractured or discontinuous.

Pathological narcissism had been compared, not the least by me, to dissociative identity disorder, formerly multiple personality disorder.

By definition, the narcissist has at least two selves. His personality is very primitive, disorganized.

Living with a narcissist is a nauseating experience, not only because of what he is, but because of what he is not.

He is not a fully formed human, but a dizzyingly kaleidoscopic gallery of mercurial images, which melt into each other seamlessly.

It is incredibly disorienting, a shapeshifting experience. It is also exceedingly problematic.

Promises made by the narcissist are easily disowned by him. His plans are ephemeral, his emotional ties a simulacrum.

Most narcissists have one island of stability in their lives. For example, a spouse, family, their career, a hobby, their religion, country, idol, whatever, pounded by the turbulent currents of a disheveled existence.

Thus, to invest in a narcissist is a purposeless, futile and meaningless activity.

To the narcissist every day is a new beginning. Every day is a hunt, a new cycle of idealization or devaluation, a newly invented self.

There is no accumulation of credits or goodwill because the narcissist has no past and he has no future. He is eternally present.

The narcissist occupies an eternal and timeless present. He is a fossil caught in the frozen lava of a volcanic childhood.

The narcissist does not keep agreements, does not adhere to laws and regards consistency and predictability as demeaning traits.

The narcissist hates something one day and devours it passionately the next.

Let's talk about dissociative gaps and confabulation.

Narcissists and psychopaths dissociate. They erase memories and they do it a lot.

They are in some ways amnesia because their contact with the world and with others is via a fictitious construct, the false self.

Narcissists never experience reality directly but through a distorting lens, darkly.

They get rid of any information that challenges their grandiose self-perception and the narrative they had constructed to explicate, excuse and legitimize their antisocial, self-centered and exploitative behaviors, choices and idiosyncrasies.

Narcissists are one-man silos, one-man confirmation bias bubbles.

In an attempt to compensate for the yawning gaps in memory, narcissists and psychopaths confabulate. They invent plausible plug-ins and scenarios of how things might, could or should have plausibly occurred.

To outsiders, these fictional stop-gaps appear to be lies but the narcissist fervently believes in the reality of these concoctions, these pieces of fiction.

He may not actually remember what had happened but surely it could not have happened any other way. He tells himself and others.

These tenuous concocted fillers are subject to frequent revision as the narcissist's inner world and external circumstances evolve.

This is why narcissists and psychopaths often contradict themselves.

Tomorrow's confabulation often negates yesterday's.

The narcissist and psychopaths do not remember their previous tales because they are not invested with the emotions and cognitions that are integral parts of real memories.

There is no confexist, they are not affected to use psychodynamic or psychoanalytic language.

But what is this false self and what is this true self?

We often marvel at the discrepancy between the private and public lives of our idols, celebrities, statesmen, writers, stars, writers and other accomplished figures. It is as though they have two personalities, two selves, the true one which they reserve for their nearest and dearest and the fake one or false or concocted one which they flaunt in public.

In contrast, the narcissist has no private life, no true self, no domain reserved exclusively for his nearest and dearest. His life is a spectacle with free access to all, constantly on display, garnering narcissistic supply from his audience.

In the theatre that is the narcissist's life, the actor is irrelevant. Only the show goes on.

The fourth self is everything the narcissist would have liked to be, but alas, cannot. It is omnipotent, it is omniscient, invulnerable, impregnable, brilliant, perfect, in short, godlike. Its most important role is to elicit narcissistic supply from others.

The fourth self is there to obtain admiration, adulation or obedience and in general, unceasing attention.

In Freud's three-partite model, the fourth self supplants the ego and conforms to the narcissist's unobtainable, grandiose and fantastic ego ideal.

The narcissist constructs a narrative of his life that is partly confabulated, as we have mentioned before, and whose purpose is to buttress, demonstrate and prove the veracity of the fantastically grandiose and often impossible claims made by the fourth self.

This narrative allocates roles to significant others in the narcissist's personal history.

Inevitably, such a narrative is hard to credibly sustain for long. Reality intrudes on it and a yawning abyss opens between the narcissist's self-imputed divinity and his drab, pedestrian existence and attributes.

I call this abyss, this gap, the grandiosity gap.

Additionally, meaningful figures around the narcissist often refuse to play the parts allotted to them. They rebel, they abandon the narcissist.

The narcissist copes with this painful and ineluctable realization of the divorce between his self-perception and this less than stellar state of affairs by first denying reality, delusionally ignoring and filtering out all inconvenient truths.

Then, if this coping mechanism, if this coping strategy of denial fails, the narcissist invents a new narrative which accommodates and incorporates the very intrusive data that serves to undermine the previous discarded narrative.

It even goes to the extent of denying that he ever had another narrative, except the current modified one, or that he ever denied countervailing information.

The narcissist, and by the way the co-defendants, introjects and inner voices assimilated representations of parents, role models and significant fears, a core motivation and direction, this inner critic enhances the narcissist's underlying egodystony, discontent with who he is, and the lability of his sense of self-worth.

These voices induce in the child shame, blame, pain, guilt, rage, and a panoply of other negative emotions which he carries forward into adulthood, not the least of which is envy.

As Ligia Rangelovska notes, the paradox is that the child's egodystonic shame and guilt emanate from the very primitive defenses that later comprise and underlie his false self.

Having been told repeatedly how bad, worthless, disappointing and injurious he is, the child comes to believe in his self-imputed delusional ability to hurt and damage family members, for instance. Such imaginary capacity is the logical extension of both the child's grandiosity, omnipotence, I have the power to hurt money, and his magical thinking, I think, I wish, I hate, I rage, I envy, and thereby, with the unlimited power of my mind, I cause real calamities out there in the real world.

So it is the child's natural primary narcissistic defenses that enable the child to feel so miserable in the first place.

These defenses allow the child to construct a narrative which corresponds to and justifies the judgmental, hateful appraisance and taunts of his abusers.

In the child's young mind, he accepts that he is bad because he is all powerful and magical, and because he leverages his godlike attributes to act with malice, or at the very least to bring misfortune on significant others.

To skirt to avoid this inner overwhelming negativity, the child appropriates precisely these defenses. He bundles them into a protective shield, thus sequestering his vulnerable fragile self from reality.

Occupied by the ongoing project of his budding pathological narcissism, the child's defenses are no longer available to construct and buttress the narratives offered by the abusive voices of his tormentors.

Moreover, by owning his fantastic grandiosity and harnessing it, the child feels as empowered as his abusers, no longer a victim.

Introjects, as we all know, possess a crucial role in the formation of an exegetic interpretative framework which allows one to decipher the world, construct a model of reality of one's place in it, and consequently of who one's is.

Self-identity, hermeneutics is identity.

Overwhelmingly negative introjects, or introjects which are manifestly fake, fallacious and manipulative, hamper the narcissist's and codependent civility to construct a true and efficacious interpretative framework.

Gradually, the disharmony between one's perception of the universe and of oneself and reality becomes unbearable and engenders pathological, monoductive and dysfunctional attempts to either deny the hurtful discrepancy away by using delusions or fantasies, to gradually compensate for it by eliciting positive external forces to counter the negative inner ones, which is a narcissism via the false self and its narcissistic supply, or attacking directly by becoming a psychopath, adopting antisocial behaviors.

Another option is to withdraw from the world altogether, it's a schismic solution, or disappear by merging and fusing with another person, which is of course codependency.

It's important to understand that once it is formed and functioning, the false self stifles the growth of the true self and paralyzes it.

Henceforth, the ossified true self is virtually non-existent and plays no role, active or passive, in the conscious life of the narcissist.

It is difficult to resuscitate the true self even with psychotherapy.

The false self sometimes parades the childlike, vulnerable, needy and innocent true self in order to capture, to manipulate and attract empathic sources of narcissistic supply.

When supply is low, the false self is emaciated and dilapidated. It is unable to contain and repress the true self, with which then emerges as a petulant, self-destructive, spoiled and codependent entity, childlike entity.

But the true self's moments in the sun are very brief and usually inconsequential.

This substitution is not only a question of despair and alienation, as Kierkegaard and Honei observed, respectively.

Following the footsteps of the Danish trotter existentialist philosopher, Honei said that because the idealized false self sets impossible goals to the narcissist, the results of frustration and self-hate which grow with every setback of failure.

But the constant sadistic judgment, the self-irritating, the suicidal ideation emanate from the narcissist's idealized sadistic superego, regardless of the existence of or functioning of the false self.

The false self is a kind of positive projection. The narcissist attributes to it all the positive and desired aspects of himself, thereby endowing the false self with a quasi-separate existence.

The false self fulfills the role of a divinity in the narcissist's obsessive-compulsive private religion. The narcissist worships the false self and adheres to ceremonies and rituals via which the narcissist interacts with the false self.

In a way, the narcissist sacrifices his true self to the false self.

The true self, on the other hand, is ignored at best and usually denigrated.

This process is akin to projective splitting.

When parents project onto the golden child positive traits and talents, even as they attribute to the scapegoat child negative undesirable qualities.

In this sense, the narcissist is a parent with two offspring.

The true self is a scapegoat, the false self is a golden child.

There is no conflict between the true self and the false self.

To start with, the true self is much too weak to do battle with the overbearing false self.

Secondly, the false self is adaptive, though it is maladaptive, it's still adaptive. It helps the true self to cope with the world.

Without the false self, the true self would be subjected to so much hurt, so much pain, that it will disintegrate, to compensate and disintegrate.

This happens to narcissists who go through a life crisis. Their false ego becomes dysfunctional and they experience a harrowing feeling of annulment.

The false self has many functions.

The two most important are to serve as a decoy. It attracts the fire. It is a proxy for the true self. It is tough as nails. It can absorb any amount of pain, hurt and negative emotions. It's like the host personality in multiple personality disorder.

By inventing it, the child develops immunity to the indifference, manipulation, sadism, smobbery or exploitation, in other words to be abused, inflicted on him by his parents or other primary objects in his life.

The false self is a cloak protecting the child, rendering him invisible and omnipotent at the same time.

The false self is also misrepresented by the narcissist as his true self.

The narcissist says in effect, I am not who you think I am and someone else. I am this false self. Therefore, I deserve a better, painless, more considerate treatment.

The false self thus is a contraption intended to alter other people's behavior and attitude towards the narcissist.

These roles are crucial to survival and to the proper psychological functioning of the narcissist.

The false self is by far more important to the narcissist than his dilapidated dysfunctional true self.

The two cells are not part of a continuum as the new fragrance postulate.

Healthy people do not have a false self at all and they definitely don't have a construct which differs from the orthological equivalent that is more realistic and closer to the true self.

It is true that even healthy people have a mask, they have a persona, Jung said it, which they consciously present to the world.

But these are a far cry from the false self, which is mostly unconscious and depends on outside feeling.

The false self is compulsive. I repeat again, the false, the two selves are not part of a continuum.

Healthy people do not have a false self which differs from its pathological equivalent in that it is more realistic and closer to the true self.

The false self is an adaptive reaction to pathological circumstances, but its dynamics make it predominant, devour the psyche and prey upon the true self.

Thus, it prevents the efficient, flexible functioning of the personality as a whole.

That the narcissist possesses a prominent false self as well as a suppressed and dilapidated true self is common knowledge.

Yet how intertwined and inseparable are these two? Do they interact? How do they influence each other and what behaviors can be attributed squarely to one or the other of these protagonists?

Moreover, does the false self assume traits and attributes of the true self in order to deceive the world?


Let's start by referring to the oft-occurring question.

Why are narcissists actually not thrown to suicide?

The simple answer is that narcissists have died a long time ago. Narcissists are the true zombies of the world.

Many scholars and therapists try to grapple with the void at the core of the narcissist, the emptiness.

The common view is that the remnants of the true self are so ossified, shredded, carved into submission and repressed, that for all practical purposes the true self is dysfunctional and useless.

In treating the narcissist, the therapist often tries to construct and nurture a completely new healthy self rather than build upon the distorted wreckage strewn across the narcissist's psyche.

But what are the rare glimpses of the true self oft reported by those who interact with the narcissist?

Pathological narcissism is frequently co-morbid with other disorders. The narcissistic spectrum is made up of gradations and shades of narcissism.

Narcissistic traits or style or even personality or overlay often attached to other disorders, co-morbidity.

A person may well appear to be a full-fledged narcissist, may well appear to be suffering from narcissistic personality disorder, but is not in the strict psychiatric sense of the word such.

In such people the true self is still there and is sometimes observable.

In a full-fledged narcissist the false self imitates the true self. To do so artfully and successfully the false self deploys two mechanisms.

The first one is reinterpretation.

The false self causes the narcissist to reinterpret certain emotions and reactions in a flattering socially acceptable light.

The narcissist may for instance interpret fear as compassion. If the narcissist hurts someone whom he fears, for example, an authority figure, he may feel bad afterwards and interpret his discomfort as empathy and compassion.

To be afraid is humiliating. To be compassionate is commendable and earns the narcissist's social commendation in understanding narcissistic supply.

The second mechanism is emulation.

The narcissist is possessed of an uncanny ability to psychologically penetrate other people. I call it cold empathy.

Often this gift is abused and put in the service of the narcissist's control freakery and sadism.

The narcissist uses this cold empathy liberally to annihilate the natural defenses of his victims by faking empathy.

This capacity is coupled with the narcissist's eerie ability to imitate emotions and their attendant behaviors, affect.

The narcissist possesses emotional resonance tables. He keeps records of every action and reaction, every utterance and consequence, every datum provided by others regarding their state of mind and emotional makeup.

From these he then constructs a set of formulas which often result in impeccably accurate transitions of emotional behavior and this can be enormously disorienting and deceiving.

The narcissist's true self is introverted and dysfunctional.

In healthy people ego functions are generated from the inside, from the ego. In narcissists the ego is dormant, comatose.

The narcissist needs the input of and feedback from the outside world, from others in order to perform the most basic ego functions.

For example, recognize the world, set boundaries, form a self-definition or identity, differentiate oneself, regulate self-esteem and sense of self force etc.

These are all ego functions.

This input of feedback from the outside is what I call narcissistic supply.

Only the false self gets in touch with the world. The true self is isolated, repressed, unconscious, a shadow. The false self therefore is a kind of hive self or swarm self. It is a collage of reflections, a patchwork of outsourced information.

Tick bits garnered from the narcissist's interlocutors and anecdotes laboriously cohered and assembled so as to uphold and buttress the narcissist, inflated, fantastic in grandeur self-image.

This discontinuity accounts for the dissociative nature of pathological narcissism as well as for the narcissist's seeming inability to learn from the errors and mistakes of his ways and of his life.


Another interesting question is how the narcissist experiences life? What is the inner experience of such a shattered discontinuous existence? Does the narcissist feel that he is one person, one entity? Does he consider himself discontinuous like a broken mirror with numerous shards?

The narcissist experiences his own life as a prolonged, incomprehensible, unpredictable, frequently terrifying and deeply saddening nightmare.

This is a result of the functional dichotomy fostered by the narcissist himself between his false self and his true self.

The latter, the fossilized ashes of the original immature personality, is the one that does the experiencing.

The false self is nothing but a concoction, a figment of the narcissist's disorder, a reflection in the narcissist's wall of mirrors. It is incapable of feeling emoting experience, yet it is fully the master of the psychodynamic processes which reach within the narcissist's psyche.

This inner battle is so fierce that the true self experiences it as a diffuse, though imminent and eminently ominous threat. Anxiety ensues, the narcissist finds himself constantly ready for the next blow, flight, fight or freeze.

The narcissist does things and he knows not what he does them or where from. He says things, he acts and behaves in ways which he knows endanger him and put him in line for punishment, but he cannot control them.

The narcissist hurts people around him, breaks the law, violates accepted morality. He knows that he is in the wrong and thinks if it is on the rare moments that he does feel at all. He wants to stop, but he doesn't know how.

Gradually, the narcissist is estranged from himself. He feels alienated from himself. He is possessed by some kind of a demon to use more ancient terminology. He is like a puppet on an invisible mental string. He resets this ring.

He wants to reveal. He is repelled by this part in him with which he is not acquainted.

In his efforts to exercise this devil from his soul, the narcissist dissociates.

An eerie sensation sets in and pervades the psyche of the narcissist.

At times of crisis, of danger, of depression, of failure and of narcissistic injury, the narcissist feels that he is watching himself from the outside. This is not an outer body or astral experience.

The narcissist does not really exit his body. It is just that he assumes involuntarily the position of a spectator, an observer, a polite observer, mildly interested in the whereabouts of one Mr. Narcissist.

It is akin to watching a movie. The illusion is not complete. Neither is it precise.

This dissociation, this detachment, continues for as long as the narcissist's egodystonic behavior persists, for as long as the crisis goes on, for as long as the narcissist cannot face who he is, what he is doing and the consequences of his actions.

Since this is the case most of the time, the narcissist gets used to seeing himself in the role of a protagonist, usually the hero, of a motion picture. The main character in some novel.

It also sits well with his grandiosity and fantasies. Sometimes the narcissist talks about himself in the third person singular. Sometimes he calls his other narcissistic self by a different name altogether.

The narcissist describes his life, the events in his life, ups and downs, pains, elation, disappointments, in the most remote, clinical, professional and coldly analytical voice. As though he were describing, though with a model come of involvement, the life of some exotic insect.

And this of course echoes Kafka's metamorphosis. The metaphor of life as a movie gaining control by writing a scenario or by inventing a narrative is therefore not a modern invention. Cavemen narcissists have probably done the same.

But this is only the external, superficial facet of the disorder.

The crux of the problem is that a narcissist really feels this way. He actually experiences his life as belonging to someone else as not his own. He doesn't own his life. He experiences his body as a dead weight or as an instrument in the service of some entity. His deeds as amoral and not immoral. He cannot be judged for something he didn't do, can he?

As time passes, the narcissist accumulates a mountain of mishaps, conflicts, unresolved, pains well hidden, abrupt separations, bitter disappointments. He is subjected to a constant barrage of social criticism and condemnation. He's ashamed. He feels guilty sometimes. He's fearful.

Narcissist knows that something is wrong, if not with him, then with the world.

But there is no correlation between his cognition and his emotions. The narcissist prefers to run away, to hide as he did when he was a child.

Only this time, he hides behind another self, a false one.

People reflect to the narcissist this mask of his creation, the false self, until even the narcissist begins to believe his very existence and acknowledges his dominance.

Until the narcissist forgets the truth, he knows no better about himself.

The narcissist is only dimly aware of the decisive battle which rages inside him. He feels somehow threatened, very sad, suicidal, but there seems to be no outside cause for all this, and it makes it even more mysteriously menacing.

This dissonance, these negative emotions, these nagging anxieties, transform the narcissist's motion picture solution into a permanent one. It becomes a feature of the narcissist's life and a fixture.

Whenever confronted by an emotional threat or by an existential one, the narcissist retreats into this haven, this mode of coping. It relegates responsibility, submissively assuming passive role.

He, who is not responsible, cannot be punished, runs the subtext of this capitulation.

The narcissist is thus conditioned to annihilate himself, both in order to avoid emotional pain and to bask in the glow of his impossibly grandiose fantasies.

This he does with fantastic, with fanatic zeal and with efficacy.

Prospectively, he assigns his very life, decisions he had made, judgments to be passed, agreements to be reached, to the fourth cell.

Retroactively, he reinterprets his past life in a manner consistent with the current piece of the fourth cell.

It is no wonder, therefore, that there is no connection between what the narcissist did feel in a given period of his life or in relation to a specific event, and the way he sees or remembers these later on.

The narcissist may describe certain occurrences, certain phases in his life, as tedious, painful, sad, and burgling, even though he experienced them entirely differently at that time.

The same retroactive coloring occurs with regards to people. The narcissist completely distorts the way he regarded certain people and felt about them.

This rewriting of his personal history is aimed to directly and fully accommodate the requirements of his fourth cell.


In sum, the narcissist does not occupy his own soul, nor does he inhabit his own body. He is the servant of an apparition, of a reflection, of an ego function.

To please and appease his master, the fourth cell, the narcissist sacrifices to eat his very life, his very cell.

From that moment onwards, the narcissist lives vicariously through the good offices of the fourth cell, exclusively.

Throughout all this, the narcissist feels detached, alienated, and estranged from his fourth cell. He constantly harbors the sensation that he is watching a movie with a plot over which he has little control.

It is with a certain interest, even fascination, that he does the watching of the movie.

Still, it is mere passive observation. There's an external locus of control, who, consequently, out of plastic defenses, blaming the world for everything that happens to the narcissist.

The perception that the narcissist's life is ruled and controlled from the outside.

Thus, not only does the narcissist relinquish control of his future life, the movie, he gradually loses ground to the fourth cell in the battle to preserve the integrity and genuineness of his past experiences.

Eroded by these two processes, the narcissist gradually disappears, vanishes, and is replaced by his disorder to the fullest possible extent.

Thank you for listening.

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