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Ironic Rebound in Narcissism, Borderline, Psychopathy

Uploaded 2/18/2023, approx. 25 minute read

I have a riddle for you. Who is the greatest psychologist to have ever lived?

Wrong! Not Zigmund Freud! Try again!

Wrong again! I'm happy to say! Not Jacques Lacan!

One last chance, I give only three! If you fail, you're banished!

No way! Not even Sam Vaknin!

The greatest psychologist to have ever lived was Fyodor Dostoevsky.

I agree. Fyodor Dostoevsky is not known as a psychologist. He is actually known as a pretty dead Russian author.

But he was. There is no body of work more penetrative, more insightful of the human psyche than Fyodor Dostoevsky's opus.

And in one of his essays, he has written this.

Try to pose for yourself this task.

Not to think of a polar bear.

Polar bear. Don't think of a polar bear.

And, says Dostoevsky, you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every single minute.

This he wrote in his "Winter Notes on Summer Impressions" 1863. Almost a century later, someone put to the test his theory and came up with what is known as ironic process theory.

Ironic rebound or the white bear problem.

And this is the topic of today's video.


My name is Sam Vaknin. I'm the author of Malignant Self-Love: Narcissism Revisited. And I'm a professor of psychology in several universities on several continents. Yes, that's me. Spread thin. Think deep. And you could ask Sam, what's the connection between polar bears and narcissists or even psychopaths?

Well, all three are predators, but there is a more profound connection.

Narcissism is a post-traumatic condition.

Narcissists in early childhood had endured trauma and abuse by the end of the day. And it was abused by parental figures, role models, primary caregivers, or even peers.

To fend off the pain and the hurt involved in trauma and abuse, the humiliation and the shame, the child develops a false self.

So narcissism is a fantasy defense, writ large and gone. It's a defense intended to suppress thinking, to suppress specific thoughts. It's a cognitive suppression disorder.

The narcissist and even the psychopath, the borderline, suppress cognitions which are ecocognitions, cognitions which threaten the inner balance of the narcissist.

Cognitions are, it's a fancy word for faults.

The narcissist, of course, suppresses emotions equally.


And today we know, or at least we teach in university, that emotions are a variant, a sub-variant of cognitions. They are thoughts coupled with actions, internal or external.

So even here, the narcissist suppresses his positive emotions. It means that he's suppressing thoughts. Thoughts which are coupled with actions and memories in highly specific schema, but still we are talking about cognitions. We're talking about thoughts.

Cognitive suppression is at the core of narcissism.

Pathological narcissism is an attempt to avoid dysregulation and to avoid disintegration by suppressing thoughts which are perceived as internally threatening. Thoughts which are perceived as menacing and likely to cause the narcissist to decompensate, get injured or get mortified.

Similarly, currently we know recent research, cutting-edge, leading-edge research shows that psychopathy, the extreme end of the antisocial personality disorder spectrum, psychopathy is intimately linked and associated with anxiety.

Psychopaths are actually anxious. They act out on their anxieties the same way borderlines do.

And both borderlines and psychopaths suppress their anxieties. They suppress their anxieties behaviorally. They suppress their anxieties through emotional dysregulation and in a variety of other ways, cognitively as well.

But suppression of cognitions, anxiety-inducing cognitions, is at the core of psychopathy and borderline. And suppression of shame and pain and hurt-inducing cognitions is at the core of narcissism.

So if it's all about suppressing cognitions, then ironic processes are very relevant to both narcissism and borderline and possibly to psychopathy as well.


But what is an ironic process or ironic rebound?

It is a process where we deliberately attempt to suppress certain thoughts in order to make them less likely to surface.

So when we try to suppress certain thoughts, we hope to never come across these thoughts, to not have to endure or entertain these thoughts.

Ironically, the very act of suppressing thoughts brings them to the surface, makes them more likely to surface rather than less likely to surface.

Try it at home. Try to not think of something. Here, red wine. Try to not think about red wine right now and for the rest of the day. See what happens to you. The more you try, the more you attempt to suppress the thought of red wine, the image of red wine, even emotions associated with red wine, memories, the more you will end up thinking about red wine, recalling red wine, imagining red wine, and finally, in despair, probably drinking red wine.

When someone is actively trying to not think about a white bear, they actually end up imagining a white bear more often than not.

The phenomenon was first identified in what became known as suppression studies in the nascent and budding field of experimental psychology, which took off after the demise of behaviorism in the 40s, 50s, and 60s.

In experimental psychology, there was a psychologist called Daniel Wegener, and Wegener was the first to study ironic process theory in a laboratory in 1987.

Now, I mentioned that ironic mental processes are involved in a variety of situations, and they are created, engendered, fostered, and worsened by other internal processes.

For example, we know that ironic processes are enhanced by stress, anxiety, and depression. That's why they're very dominant in cluster B personality disorders, because many patients with cluster B disorders also have anxiety and depression. These dual diagnoses are very common.

And so, to remind you, ironic processes involve failed attempts to suppress specific thoughts.

The more you try to suppress the thought, the more you think about it, and that is the irony.

In extreme cases, ironic mental processes result in what is known as intrusive thoughts. Intrusive thoughts are very common in obsessive compulsive disorders.

But some intrusive thoughts are really, really dangerous. For example, I'm going to crash my car, or I'm going to do something immoral, or I'm going to do this even though it's out of character. It's not me.

So, these kind of intrusive thoughts can become alienated, or estranged, troubling, very unsettling, very upsetting, because the individual feels that these thoughts do not represent him or her. These thoughts are alien. They're coming from the outside somehow.

If the person is prone to magical thinking, they may talk about demons or similar things. Religious people are likely to do this. They may talk about the devil.

And so, these thoughts, these intrusive thoughts, are usually the outcome of ironic processes.

There is a forbidden cognition. There is something you should never contemplate, something you should never think about, something you should not dare to consider.

And so, you try to suppress it very hard, and then the very act of suppression endows this forbidden thought with energy, and it comes to the surface and floods you. Floods you in an unwanted way, disregulates you, drowns you, overwhelms you, and this is the intrusive character of such thoughts involved in ironic mental processes.

Now, we are not quite sure what causes ironic mental processes. Why can't we simply suppress a thought? Why can't we say, "I'm not going to think about a white polar bear drinking red wine. I'm not going to do it." Why can't we just say it and get it over with and suppress the thoughts and banish it to the outer resources of our minds for good, buried in the unconscious somehow?

Why do we fail to do this?

And the current belief, it's a belief, it's not been substantiated, well, not rigorously or well substantiated, shall we say.

So, the current belief is that we have a dual process in the brain, in the mind, and this is known as the dual process theory.

We believe that there are two types of processes taking place in the mind. One of them, one type, one kind of processes is monitoring, has to do with monitoring.

Unconsciously, automatically, we monitor for occurrences of unwanted, forbidden, dangerous, intrusive, unsettling, upsetting, risky thoughts. We constantly monitor for these thoughts.

And then when we find such a thought, we call upon another class of processes. They're known as conscious operating processes.

So, we monitor and monitor and monitor, and then we come across a polar bear, a white bear, drinking red wine. And that's the thought we should not be thinking.

So, the monitoring process rings an alarm, and the alarm summons forth, hails, interpolates a conscious operating process.

The role of the conscious operating process is actually to suppress the unwanted thought.

But if unwanted thoughts flood your mind, if they're intrusive, if you're obsessive compulsive about it, if you're, for example, a people pleaser, and you tend to view or you tend to adopt other people's expectations as yours, in other words, you tend to adopt other people's cognitions as your own cognitions, you will experience something known as cognitive overload. You will be overloaded cognitively.

When you're overloaded cognitively, when there is a massive cognitive effort to suppress your own cognitions and other people's cognitions, for example, if you are a people pleaser or a paranoid, what in this case, the conscious operating processes become very inefficient. They don't have sufficient resources to function. There is an allocation of energy in the mind, and there is a limited amount of fuel.

And so the monitoring processes consume a certain proportion of the energy. If there is a cognitive overload, there isn't enough energy for the cognitive operating processes.

And then all that's left are the monitoring processes.

So cognitive overload shuts off the many cognitive operating processes. And then the only processes in operation are the monitoring processes.

So in order for thoughts to be effective, there should be a balance between monitoring and conscious operating processes.

The cognitive demand on your resources should not be so great as to let the monitoring processes disrupt the conscious processes.


There was a 2006 study, and they found out that people have different equilibria. Each person has his own point of equilibrium between monitoring and conscious operating processes.

And so this is very it's variable. We can't cut. We can't cut off, pinpoint or establish a standard.

Everyone should and does try to find their own balance.

Cognitive overload, as I said, inhibits the effective and successful activation of operating processes. And it leaves only the monitoring processes.

And then what the monitoring processes do, they note, they monitor and they note, they pay attention to all the forbidden thoughts, all the intrusive thoughts, all the alien cognitions. And these come to the surface because the monitoring processes point a finger at the white bear, which is drinking red wine.

And the monitoring processes say, hey, you have a white bear drinking red wine in your mind right now. And then, of course, it comes to the surface and you become aware of it.

Normally, what would happen if your cognitive load is well balanced is the monitoring process would point a finger at the white bearand the conscious operating process will suppress the white bear buried in the snow of your unconscious.

We can induce actually cognitive overload in experimental settings. And this has been done quite a few timeswhen individuals try or attempt to aggressively suppress intrusive thoughts by distracting themselves.

We tell them to focus on environmental objects or to think of anything but the intrusive thoughts.

When we instruct them this way, we generate artificial cognitive overloadand then they can't help it. They're flooded. They're flooded with the threatening, intrusive, upsetting, unsettling, egodystonic, uncomfortable thoughts. They just can't help it.

So we can create cognitive overload artificially.

And for example, abuse does exactly thisin an abusive environment, coercive abuse or other forms of abuse involving intermittent reinforcement, for example, trauma bonding in all this complex trauma, CPTSD, in all these situations, in all these situations.

There is an artificially induced cognitive overload. Actually, that's the main aim. That's the main purpose of entraining, which is an integral part of verbal abuse.

So cognitive overload renders the victim defenseless because it suppresses her conscious operating processes. And then all she has left are her monitoring processesand her monitoring processes are attuned to the abuse.

They look for the abuse. They absorb and enhance the abuse.

Actually, the victim becomes a helpless and helpless colluder and collaborator in her own abuse.

Overload occurs not only in experimental settings and not only in abusive relationships. Overload occurs in daily life as a result of mental pressures, anxieties, stresses, and so on.

The monitoring process is supposed to alert the individual to an unwanted thought that is about to become salient, that is about to intrude on consciousness.

And the monitoring process keeps finding instances of the unwanted thought. And it creates what we call hyperaccessibility.

But thenonce these thoughts are easily accessible because they've been identified by the monitoring thoughts, the controlled cognitive processes should take over.

And what abusers do, they suppress these processes in a nutshell.

Abuse is actually an ironic process disrupted by the abuser, a lopsided ironic processwhere the abuser diminishes the operating conscious control of the victim, rendering her amenable to the monitoring output.

In other words, to the abuse.

Individuals have the capacity to successfully suppress thoughts by focusing on specifically prepared distractions or objects.

We have shown this in laboratory experiments and thought suppression experiments.

These are known as focused distraction experiments.

Distraction with an A.

Experiments.

But this is exceedingly difficult and very, very inefficient.

Trying to fight off, trying to fend off intrusive and unwanted cognitions is an onerous task. It requires enormous mental resources. If these resources are consumed, for example, by an abusive and training environment, the victim is much more vulnerable to the vanacious, deleteriousand dangerous messages of the abuse.


So let's go a bit deeper into the Vaknin experiments.

Vaknin actually read Dostoevsky's essay. Don't ask me why.

And then he said to himself, wow, that's a great psychological experiment.

Let's test Dostoevsky's premise in an experimental way, in a laboratory.

You remember what Dostoevsky said in his 1863 essay.

Try to pose for yourself this task, not to think of a polar bear. And you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.

So Vaknin said, let's see if this is true.

And Vaknin said, I need to design an experiment where people are presented with an intrusive thought, a thought that could intrude.

And then they are told to suppress this thought the hardest they can.

And so the experiment was not as simple as it appears to be. It was actually it's actually one of the most complex experiments ever conducted in psychology.

First, Vaknin asked a group of participants to sit down and say aloud their stream of consciousness for five minutes.

He told them, verbalize everything you're thinking, everything that passes through your mindfor five minutes. Just say anything that comes to your mind for five minutes.

While they were at it, while they were verbalizing their stream of consciousness, Vaknin told them, don't think of a white bear. Whatever you do, do not think of a white polar bear.

And every time they thought of a white bear in contravention of this injunction, they were supposed to ring a belllike this one.

Yes, Wagner, I just thought of a polar bear, a white bear.

In this phase of the experiment, Wagner found that participants thought of a white bear more than once per minute, even though they were told explicitly to not do so.


Now, how many times normally would you thinkin a typical day, how many times would you visualize or think of a white bear?

Zero.

But when you're told to not think of a white bear, it comes to your mind once a minute.

That's how powerful and overpowering the ironic process is.

Now, imagine the narcissist or the borderline.

The entire personality disorder is constructed around suppressing sentences, statements, beliefsand thoughts that are very threatening to the coherence, cohesionand functioning of the disorganized personality of these individuals.

The precariously balanced personality.

Should these thoughts come to the surface and intrudethe narcissist and the borderline are likely to decompensate, act out, disintegrate.

So the suppression of thoughts in cluster B personality disorder is very critical.

And here we have an experiment where people are told to not think of a white bear, which normally people never think ofunless they're watching National Geographic.

And then they end up thinking about the white bear once a minute.

Shocking, isn't it?

And after these five minutes, because remember, they were told to verbalize their stream of consciousness for five minutes, we're told his participants to once again speak aloud their stream of consciousnessonce again, say everything that comes to the minds.

Once again, verbalize their cognitions as they stream across their consciousness.

This time, however, he told them to try to think of a white bear.

Remember the previous injunction was, do not, whatever you do, do not think of a white bear.

And now the injunction was reversed. Whatever you do, try to think of a white bear and ring the bell every time that you do.


There was a second group in Wagner's study.

This group was given the same task to speak aloud their stream of consciousness.

But they were told from the beginning to think of a white bear.

So let's summarize the structure of the experiment.

There were two groups.

Both groups were told to verbalize the stream of consciousness.

The first group was told, do not think of a white bear. Whatever you do, do not think of a polar bear.

After five minutes, this first group were given the opposite instruction.

Think of a white bear.

Think of a polar bear.

Whatever you do, try to introduce a polar bear into the equation, into the picture.

The second group was told from the beginning to think of a white bear.

The second group was never told, do not think of a white bear.

So these were the two groups.

The results showed that in the first group, the group that had been initially told not to think of white bears, this group, participants in this group, thought of white bears more in the second part of the experiment than the second group which had been told to think of a white bear.

So the first group, people in the first group, ended up thinking about a white bear much more and much more often than people in the second group.

What can we learn from this?

People in the first group were subjected to intermittent reinforcement.

They were told to do A for five minutes and be rewarded.

And then they were told to do the opposite of A, minus A, anti A, and then be rewarded.

So it's exactly like hot and cold. I love you, I hate you. I cherish you. I abuse you. Intermittent reinforcement.

The mother and the foundation of trauma bonding.

Clinically, the first group developed miniecho of trauma because they were given conflicting instructions within a very short period of time. And these instructions were linked to reinforcements, pleasing the psychologist in charge or getting some reward.

The second group was not subjected to intermittent reinforcement but only to reinforcement, positive reinforcement.

So the first group ended up doing the wrong thing much more often than the second group. The first group ended up developing intrusive thoughts.

The first group lost control of their thinking processes. The first group ended up misbehaving, thinking about the white bear every minute.

In other words, they decompensated, they acted out.

The first group developed behaviors and cognitions which are classical, typical of survivors and victims of abuse.

The second group did not.

And this is how ironic process theory gets intimately linked to post-traumatic conditions, personality disorders and abusive relationships.

Vaknin taught us that the more you attempt to suppress a thought, the more likely it is that the thought will come up later with much more prevalence.

Vaknin found that while one part of the brain works in order to keep a thought locked away, there is another part that checks to ensure that the thought is locked away.

But this is the irony, because making sure that the thought is locked away brings the thought to your consciousness, brings it to the surface.

And this is the ironic part.

People struggling with serious mental health issues or with abuse, anxiety, depression, they try all the time to suppress troubling thoughts, to make some thoughts, some cognitions go away.

An anxious person tries to lock the anxious thoughts, to ignore them somehow.

But this makes them come up even more frequently and more forcefully.

A person with depression, for example, tries to suppress thoughts about suicide, suicidal ideation.

But that makes the suicidal ideation only stronger.

A victim of abuse tries to suppress the invective and humiliation and attacks and verbal castigation and entraining by the abuser.

But the more the victim tries to suppress these thoughts, the more the victim is exposed to these thoughts.

The more they come up, the more they surface, the more they take over, the more they become intrusive.

This is the main weapon of the abuser, entraining via ironic processes.

And so ironically, both abusers, both the abusers and their victims are subject to ironic processes.

And that's ironic.

The abuser, typically a narcissist or a borderline or a psychopath or a paranoid, the abuser tries to cope with intrusive unwanted thoughts that threaten the inner homeostasis and equilibrium.

And by doing this, he actually exposes himself to much higher frequency and much higher potency of these very thoughts that he's trying to suppress.

So he externalizes them. He uses these forbidden thoughts, dangerous thoughts, intrusive thoughts, unwanted thoughts, threatening thoughts, troubling thoughts. He uses these thoughts and projects them on his victim or her victim.

And then the victim goes through an identical process.

The victim tries to suppress this input, this abusive input, this intermittent reinforcement, this bullying, this harassment, this victim tries to suppress all this.

And by doing so, the victim actually amplifies and magnifies the abuse.

Because the abuse reverberates and resonates within the victim's consciousness.

The stronger, the more the victim tries to suppress it.

It's all about irony, really.

The abuser and his victim are locked in an ironic dance macabre where they both amplify and magnify each other's forbidden, troubling, dangerous thoughts.

No wonder that cycles of abuse sometimes end in violence or aggression of some kind and always lead to severe long-term mental damage.

We are talking about an interference in the deepest strata of the human mind.

Thank you for listening.

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