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Narcissism: Blessing or Dysfunction?

Uploaded 1/18/2012, approx. 11 minute read

My name is Sam Vaknin. I am the author of Malignant Self-Love, Narcissism Revisited.

So, is pathologic and narcissism a blessing, or is it a manifestation, a curse?

The surprising answer is, it depends.

Start with healthy narcissism.

Healthy narcissism is a mature, balanced love of oneself coupled with a stable sense of self-worth and self-esteem.

Healthy narcissism implies knowledge of one's boundaries and a proportionate and realistic appraisal of one's achievements, strong points and traits.

Pathologic narcissism is often wrongly described as too much healthy narcissism or too much self-esteem or self-confidence, but healthy pathological narcissism are two absolutely unrelated phenomena which regrettably came to bear the same name.

Confusing pathological narcissism with self-esteem or self-confidence betrays a fundamental ignorance of both.

Pathological narcissism involves an impaired, dysfunctional and immature true self coupled with a compensatory piece of fiction known as the false self.

The narcissist's sense of self-worth and self-esteem derive entirely from audience feedback. The narcissist has no self-esteem or self-worth of his own. He has no such ego functions coming from the inside.

In the absence of observers, when the audience disperses, the narcissist shrivels to non-existence. He feels dead. He feels that he is disintegrating.

Hence the narcissist's predatory habits in his constant pursuit of narcissistic supply.

Pathological narcissism therefore is also an addictive behavior, without which the whole precariously balanced house of cards known as the narcissist tumbles down.

Disfunctions are reactions to abnormal environments and abnormal situations. Abuse, trauma, even smothering and doting. All these are abnormal situations which normally produce abnormal reactions.

Paradoxically, the narcissist's dysfunction allows him to function. It compensates for lacks and efficiencies by exaggerating certain tendencies and traits.

It's a little like a blind person. When you can't see, you overcompensate through the sense of touch or through the sense of smell.

It's the same with the narcissist.

Pathological narcissism is a result of oversensitivity, the repression of overwhelming memories and experiences and the suppression of an ordinarily strong negative feeling such as hurt, envy, anger and humiliation.

Narcissism buries all these, deep inside, and then springs forth in the form of a default step to help the narcissist to function somehow.

The narcissist functions at all is because of his pathology and thanks to it, the alternative is complete decompensation and disintegration.

Anytime the narcissist learns how to leverage his pathology, how to use it to his advantage, how to deploy it in order to maximize benefits and utilities, in other words, how to transform his curse into a blessing.

Narcissists are obsessed with delusions of fantastic grandeur and superiority. As a result, they are very competitive. They are strongly compelled where others are merely motivated.

Narcissists are driven. They are relentless, tireless and often ruthless. Sometimes narcissists make it to the top, but even when they do not, they strike and they fight and they learn and they climb and they create and they think and they devise and they design and they conspire.

Faced with a challenge, a narcissist is likely to do better than non-narcissists simply because he cannot afford not to.

Yet we often find that narcissists abandon their efforts in mainstream, give up, suddenly, punish, lose interest, devalue former pursuits, fail, or slump.

Why is that? It's because narcissists are prone to self-destructive and self-defeating behaviors.

First, they are the self-punishing and guilt-courging behaviors. These are intended to inflict punishment on the narcissist and thus to instantly relieve him of overwhelming anxiety, which accumulates along the way.

This is very reminiscent of the obsessive-compulsive behavior or disorder. It starts when the narcissist feels guilty.

This could be an ancient guilt, sexual guilt as Freud thought, social guilt, whatever it is.

In early life, the narcissist internalized and introjected the voices of meaningful and authoritative others, parents, role models, even peers, that consistently and convincingly judge him to be no good, blameworthy, deserving of punishment or retaliation, bad or corrupt. They kept telling them bad and he kept believing them.

This normally fosters a sense of guilt. The narcissist's life is thus transformed into an ongoing trial, permanent trial. The constancy of this trial, the never-adjourning tribunal, the proceedings, this is the punishment. This is a Kafkaesque kind of trial. There's no meaning in it. It's undecipherable. It's never-ending. It leads to no verdict. It's subject to mysterious and fluid laws presided over by capricious and sadistic judges. The narcissist's erstwhile parents or role models.

This type of narcissist masochistically frustrates his deepest desires and drives, obstructs his own efforts, alienates his friends and sponsors, provokes figures and authority to punish him, to demote him or ignore him. Actively seeks and solicits disappointment, failure or mistreatment and relishes them, incites anger and rejection, bypasses or rejects opportunities and engages in excessive self-sacrifice.


In their seminal tome, Personality Disorders in Modern Life, Theodore Millon and Roger Davis described the diagnosis of masochistic or self-defeating personality disorder found in the appendix of the DSM-3 revised but excluded from the DSM-4.

While the narcissist is rarely a full-fledged masochist, many are narcissists to exhibit some of the traits of this masochistic personality disorder.

But this is only one group or category of self-defeating and self-destructive behaviors. There are others, for instance, the extracting behaviors.

People with personality disorders in general, and narcissists in particular, are very afraid of real, mature intimacy. Intimacy is formed not only within a couple, but also in a workplace, in a neighborhood, with friends, while collaborating on a project in myriad other circumstances.

Intimacy is another movement, which is a result of interactions in constant and predictable, safe, propinquity.

Self-destructive and self-defeating people interpret intimacy as counter-dependence, emotional strangulation, this nothing of freedom, a kind of death in installments, slavery.

They are terrorized by intimacy, and to avoid it, their self-destructive and self-defeating acts are intended to dismantle the very foundation of a successful relationship, the essentials of a career, the relevance of a project, the underlying friendships.

Masochists feel elated and relieved after they unshackle these chains, having been abandoned. They feel that they broke a siege, broke through a siege, that they are liberated, free at last.


And then there are the default behaviors.

We are all, to some degree, inertial, afraid of new situations, new opportunities, new challenges, new circumstances, new demands, and in general, afraid of the new.

Being healthy, being successful, getting married, becoming a mother, someone's boss, becoming a father, all these often entail abrupt breaks for the past.

Some self-defeating behaviors in the narcissist are intended to preserve the past, to restore it, to protect it from the winds of change, to self-deceptively skirt and avoid promising opportunities while seeming to embrace them.

Moreover, to the narcissist, a challenge or even a guaranteed eventual triumph are meaningless in the absence of onlookers. He needs observers. He needs spectators. He needs audience to render everything he does, everything he accomplishes, of some meaning.

The narcissist needs the audience to uphold, affirm, recoil, approve, admire, adore, fear, detest, in short, attend to him. He needs attention.

Narcissists crave the attention and depends on the narcissistic supply that only others can provide. The narcissist derives sustenance only from outside, is emotional innards, is in a landscape, is hollow, more evolved than dead. It's a wasteland. The narcissist's enhanced performance is predicated on the existence of a challenge, real or imaginary, and of an audience.

So this linkage north of two theoreticians since Freud is what underlies the narcissistic pathology.

Ultimately most narcissists end up failures and losers.


Three traits conspire to render the narcissist a failure and a loser.

His sense of entitlement, his haughtiness and innate conviction of his own superiority, and his aversion to routine.

Start with a sense of entitlement. The narcissist's sense of entitlement encourages his indolence, his laziness.

He firmly believes that he should be spoon-fed and that accomplishments and honors should be handed to him on a silver platter without any commendorative effort on his part.

His mere existence justifies such exceptional treatment, he says.

Many narcissists are under-qualified. They lack the skills necessary because they can't be bothered with the minutiae of obtaining an academic degree, a professional training, or passing an exam.

The narcissist's arrogance and belief that he is superior to others, or whom he typically holds in contempt.

In other words, the narcissist's grandiose fantasies hamper his ability to function in society.

The cumulative outcomes of this social dysfunction gradually transform the narcissist into a recluse and an outcast.

The narcissist is shunned by colleagues, employers, neighbors, worthwhile friends and finally even by long-suffering family members who tire of his tyrants, rants and grandiose skills which never come to nothing.

Unable to work in a team, to compromise, to give credit or due, to strive towards long-term goals, the narcissist, skilled and gifted as he may be, finds himself unemployed and unemployable.

He has bad reputation preceding him.

Even when the narcissist is offered a job or a business opportunity, he usually recoils, bught and obstructs each and every stage of negotiations or the transaction.

But this passive-aggressive, negativistic and masochistic conduct has nothing to do with the narcissist aforementioned indolence and laziness.

The narcissist is not afraid of some forms of hard work. He invests, for instance, in ordinary amounts of energy, forceful, planning, zest and sweat, in securing narcissistic supply.

So he is not innately lazy. He is just lazy in certain things and in certain directions.

The narcissist sabotage of new employment or business prospects is owing to his abhorrence of routine.

Narcissists feel trapped, shackled and enslaved by the coterie, by the pedestrian, by repetitive tasks that are inevitably involved in fulfilling one's assignments.

Narcissists hate systematic methodical, step-by-step, long-term approach.

Possessed of magical thinking, narcissists would rather wait for miracles to happen than just make them happen.

Jobs, business deals and teamwork require perseverance and tolerance of boredom, which the narcissist sorely lacks.

Life forces most narcissists into the hard slog of a steady job or a succession of jobs.

Such unfortunate narcissists, coerced into a framework that they resent, are likely to act out and to erupt in a series of self-destructing and self-defeating acts, as we have described about.


But there are other narcissists, the lucky ones, those who can afford not to work. They laze about, indulge themselves in a variety of idle and trivial pursuits, seek entertainment and thrills wherever and whenever they can, and wind their lives away.

These kind of narcissists are at once content and bitter. They are content with their lifestyle and the minimum demand that he poses on them, but they are also bitter because they haven't achieved more.

They haven't reached the pinnacle of their profession. They haven't become as rich or famous or powerful as they deserve to be. They lack the recognition which they seek.

But this is the narcissistic paradox, a life of absurdities, approach avoidance, seek and defeat yourself when you are found.

This is what it means to be a narcissist.

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Narcissist Mother's Pet: Her Child

The study of narcissism is still unresolved, with two central debates remaining undecided. The first is whether there is such a thing as healthy narcissism or if all manifestations of narcissism in adulthood are pathological. The second debate is whether pathological narcissism is the result of abuse or spoiling. Narcissism is a defense mechanism intended to shield the narcissist from an injurious world, but as they turn adult, it becomes the main source of hurt and the main generator of injuries. Some narcissists are forced to retreat into a land of delusion and fantasy, even into psychosis.


Addict Narcissists: Substance Abuse and Reckless Behaviors

Pathological narcissism is an addiction to narcissistic supply, which is the narcissist's drug of choice. Other addictive and reckless behaviors such as war-camelism, alcoholism, drug abuse, pathological gambling, compulsory shopping, reckless driving, and even compulsive lying, piggyback on this primary dependence on narcissistic supply. The narcissist's addictive behaviors take his mind off his inherent limitations and bridge the gap between his unrealistic expectations of life and his inflated self-image. There is no point in treating the dependence and recklessness of the narcissist without first treating the underlying personality disorder.


Collapsed Narcissist, Collapsed Histrionic

Pathological narcissism is a post-traumatic condition that is a result of severe abuse by primary caregivers, peers, or authority figures. Narcissists require a form of narcissistic supply, and when the supply is deficient, they resort to several adaptive solutions. These solutions include the delusional narrative solution, the antisocial solution, the paranoid schizoid solution, the paranoid, aggressive or explosive solution, and the masochistic avoidance solution. In extreme cases, the collapsed narcissist or collapsed histrionic falls apart in a process of disintegration known as decompensation, which is accompanied by acting out.


Narcissist: Drama Queen in Pathological Narcissistic Space

Narcissists have a deep-seated need for excitement and drama to alleviate their boredom and melancholy. They create an imaginary environment called the pathological narcissistic space, where they seek admiration, adoration, approval, applause, or attention. Narcissistic supply substitutes for having a real vocation or avocation and actual achievements. The narcissist's two mechanisms of establishing a morphological narcissistic space and the urge to move continuously are completely incompatible, leading to the narcissistic condition.


Compulsive Narcissist

Narcissism is an all-pervasive obsessive-compulsive disorder, with the narcissist seeking to recreate and reenact old traumas and conflicts with figures of primary importance in their life, mainly their parents. The narcissist develops a unique defense mechanism, constructing a story, a narrative, and another self, which is perfect, brilliant, omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent. The child worships this new deity, succumbing to what they perceive to be the false self's wishes and needs, making sacrifices of narcissistic supply to the false self. The narcissist's compulsive acts are merely an element in their complicated personality, and shaving them off does nothing to ameliorate the narcissist's titanic inner struggle for survival.


Narcissist: Your Pain is his Healing, Your Crucifixion - His Resurrection

Narcissists need their victims to suffer to regulate their own emotions and feel a sense of control. They keep a mental ledger of positive and negative behaviors, with negative behaviors weighing more heavily. Narcissists need counterfactual statements to maintain their delusion of being special and superior. The grandiosity gap is the major vulnerability of the narcissist, and they are often in denial about their limitations and failures.


Corporate Narcissists and Fraud

Perpetrators of financial frauds in the United States have been diagnosed as malignant, pathological narcissists. Narcissists are driven by the need to maintain a grandiose self-image and seek attention to validate their self-worth. This leads them to engage in fraudulent activities to bridge the gap between their grandiose fantasies and reality. Pathological narcissism is pervasive and independent of culture and society, but its manifestation and experience depend on the particulars of societies and cultures.


Narcissist's Routines

Narcissists have a series of routines that are developed through rote learning and repetitive patterns of experience. These routines are used to reduce anxiety and transform the world into a manageable and controllable one. The narcissist is a creature of habit and finds change unsettling. The narcissist's routines are often broken down when they are breached or can no longer be defended, leading to a narcissistic injury.


Narcissist's Pathological Space: His Kingdom

The pathological narcissistic space is a geographical area, group of people, or an abstract field of knowledge in which the narcissistic pathology reaches its full expression and effectiveness. It is a territorially expanded false self that is achieved via sources of narcissistic supply. The existence of the pathological narcissistic space is independent of the existence of sources of narcissistic supply. The pathological narcissistic space constantly consumes and drains narcissistic supply, and it generates negative narcissistic accumulation.


Narcissist as Spoiled Brat

Narcissists require attention and narcissistic supply, and when they cannot obtain it, they may experience decompensation, which can lead to acting out in various ways. Narcissists may resort to several adaptive solutions, including delusional narratives, antisocial behavior, passive-aggressive behavior, paranoid narratives, and masochistic avoidance. These behaviors are all self-generated sources of narcissistic supply. Masochistic narcissists may direct their fury inwards, punishing themselves for their failure to elicit supply, and this behavior has the added benefit of forcing those closest to them to pay attention to them.

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