To the global virtual meet on stress management, stress webinar 2021, organized by expert Meet Private Limited. We are very proud to host it today.
Just before we get started, I would like to express my gratitude to our organizing committee members, Sam Vaknin, Visiting Professor of Psychology at Southern Federal University, Russia.
Mr. Sander Kumar, Professor at the Department of Psychology in Panaas Hindu University, Varanasi, India, who have so generously helped us make this event happening. Along with these, I would also like to thank you all for taking your time and joining us today. We could not have made this day without you all.
Moving forward, I would like to call Dr. Sam Vaknin for the presentation.
Thank you very much for having me and for your kind words.
We are at the beginning of this conference. I'm delighted and proud to be here. And I apologize to Dr. Vidhi. Normally, I would have deferred my spot, but I have other prior obligations based on the agenda. So, you have my apologies.
My name is Sam Vaknin. I'm Visiting Professor of Psychology at Southern Federal University. I'm a professor of finance and a professor of psychology in the outreach program of SIAS-CIAPS, CIAPS' Center for International Advanced and Professional Studies.
And I apologize that I have to inflict this introduction on you. It's in my contract. I have to identify myself this way.
Today, I would like to discuss the issue of self-awareness and narcissism.
Is the narcissist self-aware?
Now, in this presentation, narcissist is anyone diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder by a qualified diagnostician.
And so, I would like to open with a quote from the book, Scriptures, Jeremiah chapter 13, verse 23.
Can the Ethiopian change his skin? Can the leopard change his spots? Can the narcissist, therefore, change himself? Doesn't change require self-awareness, awareness that something needs to change.
If the narcissist becomes self-aware, if he accepts that he's a narcissist, isn't this the first important step towards healing?
Well, regrettably, not really.
Narcissism defines the narcissist's waking moments, his nocturnal dreams, his every being. It is all pervasive as the diagnostic and statistical manual kindly reminds us.
Everything the narcissist does is motivated by his narcissism. Everything he avoids is the outcome of his narcissism. Every utterance, decision, his very body language, the old manifestations of narcissism. It's a little like being abducted by an alien and ruthlessly indoctrinated ever since.
The alien is the narcissist's false self, a defense mechanism first described by Donald Winnicott, constructed in order to shield the narcissist's true self from pain, from hurt, from inevitable abandonment.
So, cognitive understanding of this disorder does not constitute a transforming insight.
In other words, cognitive understanding, knowledge of the disorder has no emotional correlate. The narcissist does not internalize what he had learned about his disorder. This new gained knowledge does not become a motivating part of the narcissist. It remains an inert, indifferent object, piece of information with minor influence on the narcissist's psyche.
Moreover, the narcissist may grow aware of certain behaviors of his that are abrasive, antisocial, ontological, dysfunctional and self-defeating. The narcissist may even label these behaviors as such, but he never grasps the psychodynamic significance of his misconduct, the deeper layers of motivation, the relentless and inexorable engine at the convoluted and tormented core of his being.
So, the narcissist may say, I really like attention, or he may even self-deprecate or disparage himself, but the narcissist will not be able to fully account for why it is that he is addicted to narcissistic supply, attention.
What role this supply plays in his psychology, interpersonal relationships, life itself.
The narcissist may realize belatedly that he is ticking, but never what makes him tick.
Sometimes when the narcissist first learns about narcissistic personality disorder, he is elated. He really believes that he could change.
Following a period of violent projection of the charges against him, he accepts that there's something wrong. I have seen it in clinical settings many times, and he fervently wants to change.
And this is especially true when his whole world is collapsing, falling around his ears in shambles, when the narcissist had hit rock bottom, when he's in prison undergoing a divorce, a bankruptcy, the death of a major source of narcissistic supply.
All these are life-transforming crises, and the narcissist is transformed by them. He undergoes a process called narcissistic modification.
The narcissist admits to a problem only when he's abandoned, when he's destitute, and when he's devastated.
That much is true, but he does admit to problems in certain points in his life. And he feels that he doesn't want any more of this. He feels that he wants to change.
And there are often misleading signs that he is changing. Everyone around him becomes so optimistic, especially his therapist.
And then it all fades. It all reverts. It all disappears. He reverts to all form.
The progress that the narcissist had made evaporates virtually overnight.
Many narcissists report the same process of progression, followed by recidivism, remission, and relapse.
And many therapists refuse to treat narcissists because of the Sisyphian frustration involved in it, pushing the narcissistic stone up the mountain only for it to come down tumbling again to the foothills.
I never said that in my work that narcissists cannot change. I did say that they cannot heal.
There is a huge difference between behavior modification and a permanent alteration of the psychodynamic landscape. Narcissistic behavior can be modified using a combination of talk therapy, conditioning, and sometimes medication.
Same with obsessive compulsive features. But I have yet to encounter a healed narcissist, or as they call them online, recovered narcissist.
The emphasis in therapy is on accommodating the needs of the narcissist's nearest and dearest. His suffering, spouse, children, colleagues, friends, there's no point actually in so-called treating the narcissist.
If the narcissist's abrasiveness, rage, mood swings, impulsiveness, recklessness, if these are modified, people around the narcissist benefit the most.
And this is a form of benevolent social engineering. Narcissism does, especially antisocial narcissism, psychopathic or malignant narcissism, does tend to ameliorate with age.
And many forms of pathological narcissism are reactive and transient.
And I refer you to work by Millman, Millman, Ronningstam and Gunderson on these forms of narcissism, acquire situational narcissism.
But the bulk or the vast majority of narcissistic disorders are for life.
So how can the narcissist introspect? Can the narcissist ever see himself in the mirror? Are narcissists capable of introspection? Can they distinguish their false self from who they really are? Is there such a distinction?
If you take away the false self, is anything left at all? Can we say that the narcissist has a false self? Or should we say that the false self has a narcissist and can always help them introspection? Can it help them in the therapeutic process?
I would like to read to you a passage by Nathan Salant Schwartz from his article, Narcissism and Character Transformation.
It's a book as well published by Inner City Books in 1985. And he had written, psychologically, the shadow of reflection carries the image of the self, not the ego.
It is interesting and even psychotherapeutically useful to have persons suffering from narcissistic personality disorder study their face in the mirror.
Often when they look at the mirror, they will see someone of great power and effectiveness precisely the qualities they feel a lack of.
For even though they may overwhelm others with their energy and personal qualities, they themselves feel ineffective, inefficacious.
Narcissus says, Schwartz Salant Schwartz, Narcissus must possess his idealized image. He cannot allow his otherness for that would be too threatening to his basic design. He cannot allow to be mirrored himself.
And so the sudden switch, shall I be would or shall I woo?
The limit of Narcissus quickly changes from an idealization into a mirror for showing how he's unredeemed, in psychotherapy terms, his grandiose exhibitionistic self had gained control over him.
Put aside the Jungian zhaogon, the authors is describing rather poetically the basic relationship between the true self and the false self.
No theoretician had ignored this dichotomy. Most basic to narcissism of logical narcissism.
So what is the true self? And what is the false self? And how, how, what is their relationship?
The true self is synonymous with what Freud used to call ego.
But in the narcissist, it is suppressed, shriveled, dilapidated, stifled, marginalized, atrophied.
Because the false self had taken over most of the ego functions.
In early childhood, narcissism is a catastrophe of early childhood. Children exposed to abuse and trauma and breaching of the boundaries and parentifying and being instrumentalized.
This kind of children develop narcissism, of course, luckily for us, not all of them, but some of them. It's an early childhood calamity.
The narcissist draws no distinction between his ego and his self. He is incapable of doing so.
He relegates his ego functions, partly to the false self and in huge part to the outside world.
That's why he keeps seeking feedback. Feedback from the outside world, feedback from others, help him, helps him regulate his internal environment.
The false self is an invention. And then it is the reflection of an invention.
Narcissists therefore do not exist in any meaningful sense of the word.
They have an empty schizoid core. They are a void. They're an emptiness.
I refer you to work by Kernberg, Steinfeld, Gantry, Fairburn, Winnicott, numerous other scholars. They've all noted the same thing.
At the core of the narcissist, where an identity should have been, where a person should have been, there is nothing, nothing but deep space with howling winds, a hole of mirrors.
The narcissist is a loose coalition, a hive mind based on a balance of terror between a sadistic idealized super ego inner critic and a grandiose and manipulative false ego.
And these two entities, essentially malevolent entities, interact only mechanically.
Narcissists are androids who seek narcissistic supply.
When I say androids, I mean they are devoid of the essentials that make us human. They're devoid of empathy. They have no access to positive emotionality. They do not have the basic human experience. They don't know what it means to be human. They don't feel it and they don't go through it.
No robot is capable of true introspection, not even with the help of mirroring or proper programming.
Narcissists often think of themselves as machines. They describe themselves as automata, the automata metaphor. I'm an automaton. I'm a robot.
They say things like I have an amazing brain or I'm not functioning today. My efficiency is low. They measure things, constantly compare performance. They are actually aware of time and its use. There is a meter in the narcissist's head and this meter ticks and talks, ticks and talks, a metronome of self-reproach and grandiose unattainable fantasies.
The narcissist likes to think of himself in terms of automata and robots because he finds them to be aesthetically compelling in their precision, in their impartiality, in their harmonious embodiment of the abstract.
Machines are powerful. Machines are emotionless. Machines are not hurting weaklings. Machines are not wounded children.
The narcissist often talks to himself in the third-person singular. He says, he doesn't say I, he says he.
The narcissist feels that using the third-person singular lends objectivity to his thinking, making his thoughts appear to be emanating from an external source.
The narcissist's self-esteem is so low that to be trusted he has to disguise himself. He has to hide himself from himself.
It is the narcissist's pernicious and all-pervasive art of unbeing. The narcissist undoes himself.
And so the narcissist carries within himself his metal constitution, his robotic countenance, the metal of his superhuman knowledge, his inner timekeeper, his theory of morality and his very own divinity. He worships himself.
The false self is an idol and the narcissist is a one-man religion or a one-man cult where he is both God, he is both the divinity and the worshiper.
Sometimes the narcissist does gain self-awareness. Sometimes he does reach some kind of knowledge of his predicament.
Typically, as I said, in the life, in the wake of a life crisis. But in the absence of an emotional correlate of feelings, mere cognitive awakening is useless. It does not congeal into an insight.
The dry facts alone cannot bring about any transformation, let alone healing.
Narcissists often go through soul-searching, but they do so only in order to optimize their performance, to maximize the number of sources of narcissistic supply and to better manipulate their environment.
They regard introspection as an inevitable and intellectually enjoyable maintenance chore. Introspection is supposed to enhance the efficacy and agency of the narcissist, not reduce it.
The introspection of the narcissist is emotionless. It's akin to an inventory of his good and bad sides and without any commitment to change.
This introspection does not enhance the narcissist's ability to empathize, nor does introspection inhibit the narcissist's propensity to exploit other people. His proclivity to discard people when their usefulness is over.
This introspection does not temper the narcissist's overpowering and raging sense of entitlement. It does not deflate his grandiose fantasies.
In short, it has zero impact on him.
The narcissist's introspection is a futile and arid exercise at bookkeeping, a soul-less bureaucracy of the psyche.
In its own way, this introspection is even more chilling than the alternative.
A narcissist is blissfully unaware of his disorder.
But how does the narcissist experience himself? What is the inner experience of the narcissist?
The narcissist experiences himself as a prolonged, incomprehensible, unpredictable, frequently terrifying and deeply saddening dissociative nightmare.
This is a result of the functional dichotomy fostered by the narcissist himself, between his false self and his true self.
The true self, the fossilized ashes of the original immature personality, this is the self that does the experiencing. This is the self that maintains continuity and retains the core identity.
And when it's defunct, when it's disabled, when it's dead, the narcissist is dead inside. There's nobody home.
The false self is nothing but a concoction, a figment of the narcissist's disorder, a reflection in the narcissist's hall of mirrors. The false self is incapable of feeling, incapable of experiencing, yet it is fully the master, the master of the psychodynamic processes which rage within the narcissist's psyche.
The inner battle, this war, civil war inside the narcissist is so fierce that the true self experiences it as a diffuse, though imminent and eminently ominous threat.
The outcome is constant anxiety. Narcissism can be reconceived as an anxiety disorder in a post-traumatic condition.
Anxiety ensues and the narcissist finds himself constantly ready for the next blow, fight or flight.
The narcissist does things and he doesn't know why, he doesn't know where from.
The narcissist says something, acts, behaves in ways which he knows, put him in danger at risk, put him in line for punishment, and yet he doesn't know why, and he cannot control his impulses in many cases.
This is the interface between narcissism and psychopathy. The narcissist hurts people, he inflicts pain on people around him, he breaks the law, he violates accepted morality, he knows that he is in the wrong, and he feels ill at ease on the rare moments that he does feel.
Some narcissists want to stop, but they don't know how.
Gradually the narcissist is estranged from himself, possessed by some kind of metaphorical demon, a puppet on invisible mental strings.
The narcissist resents this feeling, he wants to rebel, he becomes defiant, he develops reactance, he is repelled by this part in him with which he is not acquainted and with which owns him, controls him, and in his effort to exorcize this metaphorical devil from his soul, the narcissist of course dissociates.
And so, most of the life of a narcissist, there is an eerie sensation that pervades the psyche of the narcissist.
At times of crisis, danger, depression, failure, defeat, narcissistic injury, and of course, mortification, the narcissist feels that he is watching himself from the outside.
This is not an out of body experience, the narcissist does not really exit his body. It is just that he assumes involuntarily the position of an observer, a spectator, politely and mildly interested in the whereabouts of one Mr. Narcissist.
So, the narcissist spends his life watching a movie. The illusion is not complete, neither it is precise, but it is close enough to cinema.
This detachment continues for as long as the narcissist's ego-dystonic 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.
And since this is the case most of the time, the narcissist gets used to seeing himself in the role of the protagonist, the hero, the main character, the star of a motion picture, or a novel.
It also sits well with the grandiosity and the fantasies inhabiting the narcissist's mind haunting him.
Sometimes the narcissist talks about himself in the third person singular, precisely in order to put distance, this kind of distance.
Sometimes he calls his other narcissistic self by a different name.
It is very reminiscent of dissociative identity disorder, which used to be known as multiple personality disorder.
The narcissist describes his life, the events in his life, ups and downs, pains, elation, disappointments. He describes all these things in the most remote, objective, professional, coldly analytical voice, as though he were describing the life of some exotic insect.
You remember Kafka's famous story Metamorphosis, where the hero of the story, the protagonist, wakes up to discover that he had turned into a cockroach.
This is the narcissistic condition throughout his life.
The metaphor of life as a movie, life as a movie, gaining control by scripting, writing a scenario to borrow a term from transactional analysis, by inventing a narrative.
That's not a modern invention. Cavemen narcissists probably had done the same, but this is only the external, superficial facet of the disorder.
The crux of the problem is that the narcissist really feels this way. He actually experiences his life as belonging to someone else.
His body is a dead weight or is an instrument in the service of some entity. His deeds he experiences as amoral, not immoral. He cannot be judged for something he didn't do now, can he?
The dissociation creates multiple versions of himself, each one leading its own life consecutively.
As time passes, the narcissist accumulates a mountain of mishaps, conflicts unresolved, pains well hidden, abrupt separations, bitter disappointments. He is buried under these. He is subjected to a constant barrage of social criticism and condemnation. He is ashamed. He is fearful. He is humiliated. He knows that something is wrong, but there is no correlation between this cognition and his emotions.
So he doesn't know where is the locus of the problem. And he experiences everything as an external locus of control.
His life, his being is determined from the outside mysteriously.
So the narcissist prefers to run away. He prefers to hide as he did when he were a child.
Only this time he hides behind a mother self, a false one.
People reflect to him this mask of his own creation.
Until ultimately he comes to believe the very existence and veracity of the false self. He acknowledges the dominance of the false self. He forgets the truth. He knows no better.
Remember that many of these processes take place very early in childhood, for example, age two before separation and individuation. The narcissist is only dimly aware of the decisive battle which rages inside him. He feels threatened somehow. He feels very sad, very suicidal sometimes.
But there seems to be no outside cause for all this. And it makes it even more mysteriously menacing.
And the dissonance, these dissonances, these negative emotions, these nagging anxieties, they transform the narcissist's motion picture solution into a permanent one and into a horror movie. It becomes a feature of the narcissist's life.
Whenever he's confronted by an emotional threat or by an existential threat, he retreats into this haven, this mode of coping. He relegates responsibility submissively, assuming a passive role. He who is not responsible cannot be punished.
This is the subtext of the narcissist's capitulation to his multiple self-states and pseudo-identities for most among which is the false self, the coordinating organizing principle.
The narcissist is conditioned to annihilate himself, to eradicate himself in order to avoid emotional pain and to bask in the glow and glory of his impossibly grandiose fantasies. And this he does with zeal, fanatic zeal, and with efficacy.
Prospectively, the narcissist had assigned his very life decisions to be made, judgments to be passed, agreements to be reached, tasks to be accomplished. He had assigned all his life to the false self. He had surrendered to the false self total submission to the point of vanishing.
Retroactively, he reinterprets his past life in a manner consistent with the current needs of the false self. He subjugates his own needs to the needs of the false self.
It is no wonder that there is no connection between what the narcissist did feel in any given period of his life or in relation to a specific event and the way that he remembers or he sees these emotions later on.
He may describe certain occurrences, certain events, certain phases in his life as tedious, painful, sad, burdening, even though originally at the time he had experienced them entirely differently.
The same retroactive coloring, retroactive emotional content occurs with regards to people. The narcissist completely distorts the way he had regarded certain people, the way he had felt about them.
This rewriting of his personal history is aimed to directly and fully accommodate the requirements of his tyrannical false self.
It's like living in a dictatorship. You rewrite history, you retouche certain people out of photographs. In some, the narcissist does not occupy his own soul. He does not inhabit his own body. He is the servant of an apparition, of a reflection, of a ghost, of an ego function, gun or eye.
To please and appease his master, the false self, the narcissist sacrifices his very life to it. This is the human sacrifice at the core of the narcissistic religion.
From this moment onward, from that moment onward, the narcissist lives vicariously, by proxy, through the good offices of the false self and only that way.
Throughout, the narcissist feels detached, alienated and estranged from his false self. He constantly harbors the sensation that he is watching a movie with a plot over which he has little control. He cannot direct this movie.
It is with a certain interest or even fascination that he does this observation.
He does the observing and still it is merely passive observation.
And so, not only does the narcissist relinquish control of his future life, this movie, he gradually loses ground to the false self in the battle to preserve the integrity and genuineness of his past experiences and his identity, whatever is left of it.
Eroded by these processes, the narcissist gradually disappears and is replaced by his disorder to the fullest extent.
Ethological narcissism is a defense mechanism and a positive adaptation. It had allowed the child to survive. It is intended to isolate the narcissist from his environment in a schizoid manner and to shield the narcissist from hurt and from injury, both real, anticipated and imagined.
And so, the false self and all pervasive psychological construct gradually displaces the narcissist's true self. It takes over. It's a work of fiction intended to elicit praise and deflect and firewall criticism.
The unintended consequence of this fictitious existence is a diminishing ability to grasp reality correctly and impaired reality testing. The narcissist cannot cope with reality effectively.
Narcissistic supply, attention, replaces genuine veritable and tested feedback. Analysis, disagreement, criticism, uncomfortable facts, they all screamed out in a kind of confirmation bias. Layers of bias and prejudice distort the narcissist experience.
Yet, deep inside, the narcissist is aware that his life is an artifact, a confabulated sham, a vulnerable cocoon. The world inexorably and repeatedly intrudes upon these ramshackle battlements, invades his fortress, breaches his firewall, reminding the narcissist of the fantastic and feeble nature of his grandiosity.
And this is the much dreaded grandiosity gap.
And to avoid the agonizing realization of his failed defeat strewn biography, a horrible biography of missed opportunities, wasted potentials and broken dreams, the narcissist resorts to reality substitutes.
The dynamics are simple. As the narcissist grows older, his sources of supply dwindle and become scarce. His grandiosity gap yawns wider. He is mortified by the prospect of facing actuality, facing reality as it is, looking at himself in the mirror without the good agency or the bad agency of the false self through the veil.
The narcissist withdraws ever deeper into a dreamland of concocted accomplishments, feigned omnipotence and omniscience and bratish entitlement. The narcissist's reality substitutes fulfill two functions.
They help the narcissist rationally ignore painful realities with impunity. And they prefer an alternative universe in which he reigns supreme and emerges victorious every single time.
And the most common form of denial involves persecutory delusions. I described persecutory delusions in my book, Malignant Self-Love: Narcissism Revisited, this way.
The narcissist perceives slides and insults where none were intended. He becomes subject to referential ideation, ideas of reference. He believes that people are gossiping about him, mocking him, prying into his affairs, cracking his emails, you name it. He's convinced that he's the center of malign and malintentioned attention. People are conspiring to humiliate him, punish him, abscond with his property, delude him, betray him, impoverish him, cheat on him, confine him physically or intellectually, censor him, impose on his time, force him into action, force him into inaction, frighten him, coerce him, surround and besiege him, change his mind, part with his values, even murder him.
Gradually, the narcissist slips into paranoia. Paranoia is a form of grandiose narcissism, of course. It means you're the center of a conspiracy and therefore you're the center of attention, malign attention, but attention all the same. And the narcissist's paranoid narrative serves as an organizing principle. It structures the here and now. It gives meaning and direction to his life.
Paranoia aggrandizes the narcissist as worthy of being persecuted. The mere battle with his demons, inner demons, is an achievement not to be sniggered by overcoming his enemies. The narcissist emerges victorious and powerful, restored.
The narcissist's self-inflicted paranoia, projections of threatening internal objects and threatening internal processes, this self-inflicted paranoia legitimizes, justifies and explains his abrupt, comprehensive and rude withdrawal from an ominous and unappreciating world.
The narcissist's pronounced misanthropy and misogyny if he's a male. They are fortified by these oppressive thoughts. They render him a schizoid, a recluse, a loner, devoid of all social contact except the most necessary.
But even then, as the narcissist had divorced his environment, said goodbye to the world, suspended his reality testing, he still remains aggressive, he still remains even violent.
The final phase of narcissism involves verbal, psychological, situational and sometimes more rarely physical abuse, abuse, abuse directed at his foes, at his inferiors, at his critics, at his detractors, at everyone who had betrayed him. He is vengeful.
It is a culmination of a creeping mode of essentially psychosis. The sad and unavoidable outcomes of a choice made so long ago to forego the real in favor of the surreal.
Thank you for listening.