How Narcissist, Borderline Morph Into Each Other

Uploaded 4/27/2024, approx. 22 minute read

Okay, Shoshanim, I've got some good news for you. Or maybe bad. Depends on which side of the vaccine you are. My appointment as a professor in CEOPS, Commonwealth Institute of Professional and Advanced Studies has just been extended. And this year, I'm going to teach a new topic. I'm going to be a professor of psychology as I've been in the past decade, but I'm going to add to it a new portfolio. I'm going to teach management studies. I've already given one class and I'm very excited to give the second one tomorrow. So those of you who would like to read the letter of appointment, it's available on my Instagram. There's a link in the description. And as usual with YouTube, the description is under the video. And that means, of course, that the video is over the description. If this is too complex for you, wait for the rest of the video.

So who am I?

My name is Sam Wachnin. I'm the author of Malignant Self-Love, Narcissism Revisited, a former visiting professor of psychology and still to this very day, a professor in CEOPS, Commonwealth Institute of Advanced Professional Studies, Birmingham. It's our new campus, Birmingham, United Kingdom, Cambridge United Kingdom, Ontario, Canada, and the outreach campus in Lagos, Nigeria.

Quite a mouthful.

Okay. Thank you for listening and see you tomorrow.

No, no, I'm kidding. Let's continue with the video.

The topic is not Sam Wachnin for a change. The topic is narcissism and borderline.

One of the greatest debates in modern psychology is about cluster B personality disorders and more specifically the relationship between borderline personality disorder and narcissistic personality disorder. This debate has been going on at least since the 1970s with Kohout and Könberg and others.

1970s. That's 50 years ago. That's when the last dinosaurs roamed the earth and when I was 10 years old or a bit older.

And the debate essentially boils down to two ways of looking at the relationship between narcissism and borderline phenomena or borderline personality organization.

One way to look at it is that narcissism, pathological narcissism is a progression, a progressive phase of borderline personality organization.

In other words, you start as a borderline and you end up being a narcissist.

That's one approach and its most eminent proponent is Grossstein, the famous psychoanalyst.

The other approach represented mainly by Otto Könberg, the giant of all giants.

The other approach is narcissism is a reaction to borderline personality organization.

When you have borderline traits, when you have borderline dynamics and processes going on inside your psyche, sometimes you react to these by becoming narcissistic, by becoming a narcissist.

So Könberg, to summarize, Könberg, narcissism, pathological narcissism is a reaction to borderline personality.

Grossstein and others, pathological narcissism is the next phase of borderline personality, a progression.

I never understood frankly why these two schools of thought cannot be reconciled. I have held the suspicion that maybe it's a clash of egos rather than a clash of scholarships.

I think the two can be easily put together.

What happens is the child, the traumatized child, the abused child with a certain genetic predisposition to develop personality disorders, this kind of child, at first emotionally dysregulates. This kind of child is overwhelmed by emotions, especially negative emotions known as negative effects. This kind of child has what we call negative affectivity because it is exposed constantly to negative stimuli, negative cues, negative messaging, negative signaling, and generally negativity. These children usually go through what is called ACEs, adverse childhood experiences, and their initial reaction is to lose control over their emotions. Their emotions drown them, overwhelm them, threaten to shut them off.

So this is the borderline phase, and it is common to all abused and traumatized children.

And then the child, some children, not all, but some children, progress by developing narcissistic defenses against the emotional dysregulation.

Emotional dysregulation feels so bad, the experience is so threatening, so ominous that many children develop narcissism, develop narcissistic defenses, remove themselves from the scene by becoming someone else.

And that someone else is the false self. It's as if the child says, "I'm no longer here. I'm no longer here. You cannot torture me. You cannot abuse me. You cannot traumatize me. I have now become a deity, a godhead. I've become the false self, untouchable, invulnerable, impermeable, and in general, this kind of entity, this kind of deity or divinity cannot suffer by definition from abuse and trauma because it is all-powerful and all-knowing.

So this is a narcissistic defense against the intolerable hurt and pain of early childhood abuse and trauma.

And in this sense, the reaction to borderline, the reaction to borderline dynamics, the reaction to the initial emotional dysregulation is indeed narcissism, but it's also a chronological progression.

As the child progresses from borderline dynamics, borderline personality organization, borderline emotional dysregulation, to the false self, to narcissistic defenses, as the child progresses in time, the child grows up and becomes a narcissist, the narcissism itself, the pathological narcissism, is indeed, as Kernberg suggests, a kind of defense, a kind of a firewall against the burden of the pain of having been abused and traumatized as a child, a child whose boundaries have been breached, a child who has not been allowed to separate and to become an individual.

There's a lot of shame there, a lot of anger, and the narcissistic defenses serve as a separation wall, a partition, a fortress in the face of this shame, and they kind of isolate the shame, isolate the anger, and they create reservoirs that are untouchable, buried deep under the ground in the unconscious.

So if we put together Groschwein and Kernberg, what we get is a chronology, abuse and trauma, borderline personality organization, which includes emotional dysregulation.

The child is hurt, the child is in pain, the child is ashamed, the child is enraged, and these emotions are too strong for the child. They take over the child, the dysregulated child, and then the child removes itself from the sin of the pain, from the location, from the locus of the trauma, removes itself and becomes a narcissist.

What's the main message of a narcissist?

See if I care. I don't care. I don't need anyone. I'm self-sufficient. I'm self-contained. I'm godlike. I'm untouchable. I'm invulnerable. There's nothing you can do to me.

That's a narcissist message.

But how does one explain other features of narcissism? If narcissism was only focused on invulnerability, on untouchability, on the godlike features, then we would have understood that it is indeed a reactive defense in the face of intolerable pain and hurt and the borderline reactions to this pain.

But there are other features of narcissism which are not that easily explained in terms of a reaction to borderline, in terms of a reaction to pain, in terms of a reaction to abuse and trauma.

Other features of narcissism cannot be traced linearly. We cannot find the provenance in the hurt and the pain and the trauma of early childhood.

So why do they come about?

What is their adaptive function?

Consider, for example, what I call the "othering failure" to remind those of you who were lucky enough not to watch my previous videos, "othering failure" means the inability to perceive other people as external, as separate from you.

When you are unable to perceive people in your environment as separate from you, as external to you, when you consider them to be your extensions, figments of your imaginations, internal objects in your mind, this is an "othering failure".

You're failing to recognize the otherness of others.

Why? Why does narcissism involve an "othering failure"?

If we were to apply Kernberg's framework to "othering failure", it becomes comprehensible. We suddenly understand why.

"Othering failure" is a defense against the risk of having to acknowledge the existence of other people, the superiority of other people, and the dependence on other people.

It goes like this.

The narcissist as a child has been hurt, has been traumatized, has been abused. The narcissist then developed borderline behaviors and dynamics such as emotion and dysregulation.

This is this threatened to overwhelm the child, so the child develops defenses against the borderline dynamics in the form of pathological narcissism.

But what is the main message of pathological narcissism?

I don't need anyone. I am not dependent on anyone. I am superior to everyone. I am utterly self-sufficient and self-contained.

But if you were to recognize, as a narcissist, if you were to recognize the fact that other people are external to you, that other people are separate from you, and that you are in dire need of other people for narcissistic supply, that you are actually addicted to other people, highly dependent on other people, that would shatter the narcissistic defense and would bring about or bring back the borderline dynamics.

So the narcissist needs to lie to himself. The narcissist needs to tell himself, "I don't need anyone out there because there is nobody out there. I am not dependent on anyone for anything because no one exists outside my mind. I am the only human being in the universe. Everyone else, everyone else is inside my mind, is an internal object, is an introject. Other people, what could be called other people, they don't really exist." So othering failure guarantees that the narcissistic defense of, "I don't need anyone. I am totally self-sufficient. I am not dependent on anyone." This defense remains intact and unchallenged because the narcissism, because pathological narcissism is the innate conviction that only the narcissist exists. There are no people, there are no other people out there. There's no external, there's nothing, nobody external, there's nobody separate. Everyone is an extension of a narcissist. Everyone is a character in the narcissist's narrative or story or script and that allows the narcissist to say, "I don't depend on anyone and I don't need anyone and I'm totally self-sufficient because everyone is not out there. It's inside my mind and I am the master of my mind."

Othering failure is a critical feature of the narcissistic defense against borderline. By introjecting and incorporating the idealized versions of others, the narcissist accomplishes two psychodynamic goals.

That was a mouthful. Let me translate this sentence to English. When the narcissist comes across other people and these other people can do something for the narcissist, can provide the narcissist with supply or can provide the narcissist with sex or with services or with safety, a sense of safety, whatever the case may be. When these other people have something the narcissist wants, the narcissist then snapshots them. He takes a snapshot of the relevant people. These snapshots are stored in the narcissist's mind and the clinical term for these snapshots is introject.

So these people are introjected. They are converted into still photographs in the narcissist and stored in the narcissist's mind in a vast archive.

And then the narcissist proceeds to idealize these images, these representations of people. He idealizes them. It's the same, it's the equivalent of photoshopping the snapshot.

The narcissist photoshops the snapshot. The narcissist idealizes significant or meaningful people in his life. Remember, the narcissist does not perceive these people as external. He perceives these people as internal objects, elements, figments, ingredients and components within his mind. It is within his mind that he idealizes these meaningful or significant people in his life.

So if he has an intimate partner, he would idealize her. If he has a best friend, he would idealize him or her. If he would idealize his own children, he would idealize his boss. He would idealize his employees. He would always idealize.

The first stage at least, he would idealize. And so there is a snapshot of you.

Let's take a case where you are the intimate partner. There's a snapshot of you. The narcissist photoshops the snapshot. He idealizes you. And this becomes your idealized version in the narcissist's mind.

The narcissist continues to interact with this idealized version. And this process is known as incorporation. This idealized version of you, this photograph of you that has been photoshopped and has little to do with you anymore, becomes your representation in the narcissist's mind.

And he continues to interact with this incorporated version, never with you.

But why would the narcissist do that? It's a lot of work. Moreover, why would the narcissist idealize you, admitting therefore that you may be superior to him? Isn't this dangerous? Doesn't it challenge or undermine the narcissistic defense of I am God-like, I'm superior to everyone.

If you're ideal, maybe you're as ideal as the narcissist. Isn't it dangerous to the narcissist? Doesn't he feel that he's undermining the very foundations of his own self-perception and self-image by idealizing you?

Well, the answer is no. And the answer is no, precisely because you do not exist. You exist only in the narcissist's mind.

When the narcissist idealizes your version in his mind, the version of you in his mind, the snapshot, the narcissist is actually idealizing an element inside his mind, his own mind. It's a form of self-idealization, self-idolatry, if you wish.

And this is a process that I describe as co-idealization.

Here is again, the sequence. The narcissist comes across you. The narcissist thinks there's something you can give him, something he wants. The narcissist then takes a snapshot of you, exactly like with a physical, like with a camera, he takes a snapshot of you. It's a metaphor, but it's kind of a snapshot. He then introjects the snapshot, internalizes. He then photoshops the snapshot. He idealizes you, but he idealizes you not as someone outside, not as an external object. He idealizes you as an internal object. So he's actually idealizing himself. He's idealizing his own mind and the contents of his mind, he's co-idealizing.

By idealizing you, he's also idealizing himself. So this is the first goal of the process of interjection in cooperation.

The second goal is to avoid narcissistic injuries and modifications by incorporating you in his mind, by digesting you, by assimilating you, by denying you a separate existence, an externality, by claiming that you are nothing but an element in his mind.

The narcissist actually asserts and restores a sense of control. Now he is in control. You're nothing but an internal object and he is the master, he is the undisputed master of all the internal objects inside his mind, which renders him self-sufficient. He doesn't need you because you don't exist. He doesn't need you because you're already inside his mind. He doesn't need you because he is the master of you inside his mind. He's self-contained, he's self-sufficient.

That is a solipsistic attitude, but solipsism is best served and most efficacious when you, the solipsists, are the only soul alive, which is how the narcissist views the world, believe it or not. It's hard to grasp, but this is precisely how the narcissist perceives the world. No one else is alive. The narcissist inhabits a dead planet. Everyone around him is dead. It's a giant infinite cemetery and within this cemetery there's one, one being, one entity, one existence and that's the narcissist. He wanders these wastelands of death and decimation and inanimation and he appropriates elements from this dead planet. He internalizes them and when he internalizes them they come alive within his mind.

The only time the narcissist perceives you as a live entity is when he interacts with you inside his mind. When the narcissist interacts with your external facets, he regards you as dead, as inanimate matter, as an object. He objectifies you and so the feature of narcissism which involves interjection, incorporation, idealization, internalization, all this sequence allows the narcissist to idealize himself because he's the owner of ideal objects like you and allows him to avoid narcissistic injury, to avoid notification, to avoid the reminder that he is not alone in the universe, that he is dependent on other people like you. He is avoiding all this by convincing himself that you don't exist except in his mind as some form of figment of the imagination or narrative and so this is efficacious self-regulation.

As Kernberg repeatedly said, the narcissist presents a facade of functionality, of self-regulation, of self-sufficiency, of even arrogance and hubris and but this is a facade behind it. There is an enormous fear, huge anxiety, intolerable vulnerability. The narcissist needs to kill everyone around him metaphorically. In his mind, he needs to kill everyone around him, to deanimate everyone, to take away the life of everyone and the lifeblood of everyone just in order to not be exposed to the threat of abandonment, rejection, humiliation, injury and modification.

Let me put it simply, if everyone is dead, no one can threaten the narcissist. If everyone is merely an internal object inside the narcissist's mind, then the narcissist is fully in control and does not need to be worried about injury or modification or challenges.

So this is a way of neutralizing the threat by eliminating the autonomy, independence of the threat.

What threatens the narcissist in you is that you're capable of making your own decisions, you have your own social circle, you have your family, you have your personal autonomy, you have independence, you're self-evocation, you're agentic.

The narcissist finds all these very, very threatening because that means that you could injure him, you could mortify him, you could challenge him, you could put him in touch with his own shame, you can destroy his narcissistic defenses and then he will become a borderline.

When the narcissistic defenses are eliminated or deactivated, a process known as decompensation, the narcissist regresses, goes back chronologically and becomes a borderline again.

You remember what Rochstein said? The child starts as a borderline and ends up as a narcissist.

When the narcissism is taken away, then there is a regression back to the previous stage, which is borderline personality organization.

When you humiliate the narcissist in public, when you challenge the narcissist, when you mock the narcissist, when you ridicule the narcissist, when you shame the narcissist, when you deny the narcissist his defenses in a convincing way, in a meaningful way, the narcissist then loses his ability to defend himself and he becomes this little child again.

The child was exposed to shame and to pain and to hurt and to unpredictability and to threats. This child, whose emotional reactions overwhelmed him and drowned him, this child is a nascent borderline.

Covert narcissism is a bit of a different story, but not by much. Covert narcissism is an adaptation to a relatively permanent state of collapse.

To remind you, collapse is inability to obtain narcissistic supply on a regular basis.

So, covert narcissism is a way to adapt to this situation.

If you're really bad at obtaining narcissistic supply and you are a narcissist, you are likely to become a covert narcissist, but the narcissistic defenses, the narcissistic dynamics, the narcissistic structures remain intact and they are the same in all types of narcissists.

Borderline personality disorder is a failure to develop and deploy these narcissistic defenses.

It's when the child cannot fails to develop a false self, a protector, a decoy, when the child does not regress into a world of fantasy, fantasy defense, when the child chooses self-regulation over external regulation and then of course finds himself regulating externally as well.

So, the borderline is acutely dependent on other people for self-regulation. This is called external regulation.

The borderline's moods, the borderline's emotions, they are very reactive to the outside. The borderline's intimate partner can alter her mood, regulate her mood, her moods, reduce her mood lability.

The borderline's special friend can somehow affect their emotions and regulate them. So, the borderline uses outside people, outsiders, in order to regulate her internal environment.

She outsources the regulation of her internal environment. That means that the borderline is capable of othering. The borderline is capable of perceiving other people as external and separate from her.

Actually, the borderline's external regulation and fantasy world crucially depend on the externality and separateness of her regulators. If the borderline were to believe that her intimate partner is just her imagination, just a figment, not real, not external, not separate, she would fall apart.

She would be terrified. She would panic. So, the borderline is accomplished when it comes to othering. She can tell that other people are other people. They're external. They're separate.

The narcissists cannot. That's the difference between them. And so, that's why the borderline's defenses are not actually narcissistic defenses to the maximum or to the full.

They have a lot more to do with regulation than with self-sufficiency.

The borderline, in short, admits and accepts her dependency on other people. She uses her dependency to manipulate other people, to blackmail other people. Her dependency is an instrument. She's highly Machiavellian.

While the narcissist does not regulate himself via other people, he regulates himself by pretending that no other people exist. He regulates himself by lying to himself, by deceiving himself, into believing that he is the only person alive and there's nobody else there.

And therefore, he is the world. He is self-sufficient and so on.

So, borderline and narcissism are very different to each other. And Kanberg is right when he says that narcissism, pathological narcissism, is actually a defense against borderline. It's a rejection of borderline. Whereas the borderline says, "I have an intimate partner. I have a special friend or a favorite person and I know that they're not me. I know they're not me. I know they're external. I know they're separate and I rely on them. I depend on them to regulate my moods, to control my emotions." The narcissist's message is exactly the opposite.

I am the only person in the universe. All other people are figments of my imagination, pieces of fiction, narratives, internal objects. I'm the only one because I'm the only one. I'm totally self-sufficient and I don't need anybody.

The narcissist rejects life and everyone in it. That's the observation of clickly about psychopaths, but it applies to narcissists as well.

And the borderline embraces other people, tries to merge with them, infuse with them in order to use them to regulate an internal environment that threatens to overwhelm her.

So narcissism is not a permanent state. That is the great insight, revolutionary insight, that comes naturally, emanates naturally out of Kanban's work.

Narcissism is not a permanent state. It's a defense against a permanent state. And the only permanent state is borderline personality organization.

At the core, the stable core, the dysfunction, the emptiness, the disorder is borderline.

Narcissism is merely an attempt, a desperate attempt to avoid the consequences of being borderline.

By fantasizing, by self-deceiving, by lying to yourself, these are all forms of make-belief. Let's make-belief that are not a borderline.

And that's why narcissism is very fragile, very brittle, very vulnerable. It's easy to humiliate a narcissist, to insult a narcissist, to challenge and undermine the grandiosity of a narcissist because it's not real. It's not real. It's temporary. It's transient. It's highly dependent on multiple types of input.

So when the narcissist is exposed, for example, to public humiliation, he undergoes a process called narcissistic modification. When the narcissist's grandiosity is challenged in a meaningful way, undermines somehow, there's some information that comes in that casts it in doubt. The narcissist collapses. He collapses and he gets in touch with his own shame. And the minute he gets in touch with his own shame, he becomes a borderline. He becomes a borderline.

So I agree with Könberg that the only disorder that actually exists is borderline, borderline personality disorder. And that narcissism is a later, chronologically later attempt to somehow defend against these borderline features, which are very life threatening and intolerable. They lead to suicide in 11% of cases. It's dangerous to be a borderline.

So there is this defense.

Now there is a debate nowadays, Judith Herman and many others, there's a debate where the borderline is merely emotional dysregulation. In other words, is borderline real or is it just another name for emotional dysregulation in the wake of complex trauma? It's a legitimate debate. It has its place.

But even if we were to accept that the word borderline is wrong and we should use instead emotionally dysregulated disorder, or we should use whatever it is, this is still the core feature. Emotional dysregulation in the wake of trauma, especially complex trauma, is the core feature, not narcissism, not narcissism, but emotional dysregulation.

We, as human beings, we react to emotional dysregulation in a variety of ways. Some of us commit suicide, others become narcissists, some of us become schizoid, others become paranoid, many become psychopaths. These are all reactions to the core problem.

The core problem is our inability to control and regulate our emotions and they threaten to put us under the threat to destroy us.

And so there's this variety of defenses. The borderline, exactly like the narcissist and the psychopath, by the way, and the paranoid and so on, is grandiose.

So it is also vulnerable to narcissistic injuries and mortification. That's why the borderline has tremendous separation in security, also known as abandonment anxiety. That's why the borderline has engulfment anxiety.

So because it's grandiose, it's very similar to the narcissist in this sense.

Indeed, if we look at borderline and narcissism, we see so many commonalities, so many similar traits and similar behaviors and similar psychodynamics and so on, that we should be inclined to accept Kernberg's statement that borderline and narcissism are one and the same.

And that narcissism is a kind of reaction to borderline.

The narcissist depends on other people for narcissistic supply and for other things like, sex and services and so on. But there is a dependency there, definitely in terms of narcissistic supply. The narcissist cannot survive without narcissistic supply. And the only source of narcissistic supply is human beings.

So he's dependent on other people. The borderline also depends on other people. She depends on other people for emotional regulation. Other people regulate her. She cannot do it from the inside because what she has inside is one big emptiness, a black hole exactly like the narcissist.

So she needs other people to regulate.

Both of them are dependent on other people. However, the narcissist denies it. The borderline embraces it.

Still, the outcome is the same. When other people betray the narcissist, when other people challenge the narcissist, criticize the narcissist, humiliate the narcissist, the narcissist falls apart. His defenses crumble. He suffers injury and mortification and he becomes a borderline, an emotionally dysregulated borderline.

When people betray the borderline, when they abandon her or when they engulf her or when they mistreat her, similarly, she falls apart. She also falls apart. Her dependency on other people leads her to the same bad place and bad outcome as the narcissist's dependency on other people.

But while the narcissist becomes a borderline, the borderline becomes a narcissist and that is the irony of the situation. Both of them depend on other people. When the narcissist is challenged by other people, when he's hurt by other people, he becomes a borderline. When the borderline is challenged or hurt or betrayed by other people, she becomes a narcissist.

These are transitory phases, but they are great proof that borderline evidence, that borderline and narcissism are actually on the same spectrum. They're an identical phenomenon, only with different solutions and different defenses.

The core is one and the same, inability to safely experience emotions.

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