Narcissism of Small Differences

Uploaded 2/23/2011, approx. 5 minute read

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

It is a common belief that the more marked and pronounced the differences between newcomers and citizens, the stronger the resultant racism and xenophobia. After all, white Frenchmen, American and Dutch hotheads, attack black folks, white versus black, the ultimate difference.

The self-proclaimed liberal white often harbor averse racism, unconscious racist attitudes. But this is only half the truth. The ugliest manifestations of racism up to genocide are reserved to immigrants who look, act and talk like us. The more they try to emulate and imitate us, the harder they attempt to belong, the more ferocious our rejection of them.

Sigmund Freud coined the phrase, Narcissism of Small Differences, in a paper titled, The Taboo of Virginity that he published in 1917. Referring to earlier work by British anthropologist, Ernst Erpmann, Freud said that we reserve our most virulent emotions, aggression, hatred, envy, towards those who resemble us the most. We feel threatened not by the other with whom we have little in common, but by the nearly we who mirror and reflect us. The nearly we imperil our selfhood and challenge our uniqueness, perfection and superiority.

And these are of course the fundamentals of the narcissist sense of self-worth.

So someone who is very much like the narcissist provokes in him primitive narcissistic defenses and leads him to adopt desperate measures to protect, preserve and restore the appropriate balance where the narcissist has the upper hand and the newcomer is an inferior life form. I call it the Galiver Array of Defense Mechanisms.

The very existence of the nearly he constitutes a narcissistic injury. The narcissist feels humiliated, shamed and embarrassed not to be special. And he reacts with envy and aggression towards this source of frustration.

The more reminiscent the newcomer is of the narcissist, the more aggressively the narcissist reacts. In doing so, the narcissist resorts to splitting, projection and projective identification. All of these are primitive psychological defense mechanisms typical of infants.

The narcissist attributes to other people personal traits that he dislikes in himself and he forces them to behave in conformity with his expectations. In other words, the narcissist sees in others those parts of himself that he cannot accountenance and cannot deny. He forces people around him to become him and to reflect his shameful behaviors, hidden fears, frailties and forbidden wishes.

But how does a narcissist avoid the realization that what he loudly decries and derides is actually a part of himself?

Well, he avoids this painful truth by exaggerating or even dreaming up and creatively inventing differences between his qualities in conduct and other people's. The more hostile he becomes towards the nearly him, the easier it is to distinguish himself from the other.

To maintain this self-differentiating aggression, the narcissist stokes the fires of hostility by obsessively and vengefully nurturing grudges and hurts, many of them imagined. It dwells on injustice and pain inflicted on him by these stereotypically bad or unworthy people. He devalues and dehumanizes them and plots revenge to achieve closure.

In the process, he indulges in grandiose fantasies aimed to boost his feelings of inflated omnipotence and magical immunity. In the process of acquiring an adversary, the narcissist blocks out information that threatens to undermine his emerging self-perception as righteous and the offended party.

He begins to base his own identity on the brewing conflict that is by now a major preoccupation and a defining or even all pervasive dimension of his existence.

Consider, for instance, the conflict between Nazis or Germans and Jews. This became the defining dimension and axis and pivot of the Third Reich.

Very much the same dynamic applies to coping with major differences between the narcissist and others. He emphasizes the large disparities while transforming even the most minor ones into decisive and unbridgeable.

Deep inside, the narcissist is continuously subject to a knowing suspicion that his self-perception as omnipotent, omniscient and irresistible is indeed dubious or flawed. He knows that it is confabulated and unrealistic. When criticized, the narcissist actually agrees with the critique. That's the source of his rage.

In other words, there are only minor differences between the narcissist and his detractors. They are in consensus with regards to the narcissist and his deficiencies.

But this consensus threatens the narcissist's internal cohesion. Hence, the wild wrath and rage at any hint of disagreement, resistance or debate, precisely because the narcissist agrees with his detractors that he attacks them so viciously.

Similarly, intimacy brings people close together, makes them more similar. There are only minor differences between intimate partners.

The narcissist perceives this as a threat to his sense of uniqueness. He reacts to intimacy or to attempts at intimacy or to intimations of intimacy by devaluing the source of his fears. His maid, his spouse, his lover, his partner, or in society, the immigrant who tries very hard to belong. The narcissist reestablishes the boundaries and the distinctions that were removed by intimacy.

As restored, he is emotionally ready to embark on another round of idealization, and this is called the Approach Avoidance Repetition Complex.

In a study titled War and Relativeness published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, the authors, Enrico Sponza Orwe, Romain Vaccia, concluded, the degree of genealogical relatedness between populations has a positive effect on their conflict propensities. In other words, the more related two populations are, the more they are in conflict. Because more closely related populations, on average, tend to interact more and develop more disputes over a set of common issues, populations that are genetically closer are more prone to go to war with each other, even after controlling for a wide set of measures of geographic distance and other factors that affect conflict, including measures of trade and democracy. The more similar you are to someone, the more you want to distance yourself, the more you want to render yourself unique, the more aggressive and violent and vicious you are likely to be towards him or her.

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