The thing about the narcissist is that it's like an assemblage of personalities in one body.
You think that you get the hang of it, you think you got the narcissist figured out, you think you had finally realized what makes him tick or what makes her tick, and then back to square one, starting from scratch, as though you had learned nothing and the narcissist had learned nothing.
There's no learning process, because there's nothing to learn.
The narcissist is actually a very simple, rather binary machine, and today I'm going to provide you with yet another rule on how to decode and decipher the narcissist's behavior to your own benefit.
My name is Sam Vaknin, I'm the author of Malignant Self-Love: Narcissism Revisited, and a professor of psychology.
As I said, narcissists appear to be unpredictable, they appear to be capricious, unfathomable, amazingly complex.
But actually in reality, they're pretty simple machines.
The narcissist is a two-year-old. Yes, the mental or emotional age of the narcissist very frequently is two years old.
And this two-year-old is forever trapped in the no man's land between mommy and the big world out there.
Let's retrace a bit. Take one step back.
All narcissists start off as babies and infants. Yes, I know it's shocking. I know it's incredible. I know you find it hard to believe, but some narcissists are actually human. And like all humans, they start off as babies, innocent babies to a large extent.
Right now, there's no proof and no evidence of any brain abnormalities which are directly connected to narcissism. Unlike psychopathy, narcissism seems to be the outcome of improper nurturing.
Nurture, not nature, upbringing, familial environment, peer interactions, parental interventions, these form the narcissists.
So the narcissist starts off like each and every one of you, a baby, an infant, and he goes through the same phases in the same stages that all of you had gone through.
And one of the most important stages is known as separation individuation. It's when mother allows the baby to become an individual divided from her.
Now, there are two such stages, actually. Around age six months, the baby undergoes a major trauma. The baby realizes that he and mother are two distinct entities, two separate and distinguished beings.
And this is a major trauma because up until age six months, the baby cannot make the distinction between himself and the world.
The baby has something which is very similar to hyper reflection in psychotic disorders.
The baby kind of expands forward, expands outward in a kind of big bang. The baby becomes a universe.
And so as far as the baby is concerned, mother is an inseparable part from himself. And he is just an extension of mother. Mother and the baby are one.
Around age six months, the baby begins to understand that mother is not the same as him, that there are two, two creatures in operation here.
He experiences frustration when mother withholds, for example, food, breastfeeding, when mother leaves the room, when mother is not available or does not respond to his signals like crying.
At that stage, the baby becomes frustrated.
But how can you be frustrated with yourself? Frustration comes from an external source.
So at that point, the baby begins to understand that something out there is frustrating him.
And at that moment, the world breaks. There's a schism. Out, in, external, internal.
Much later at age two months, the baby starts to explore the world. He lets go of mommy's legs.
Until that time, he clutches mommy's legs whenever they go out. Now he lets go of her legs and ventures forth. He walks three steps.
These are the three most crucial steps in life. These are the steps away from mommy. These are the steps into the world. These are the steps towards other people. These are the steps that lead to what we call object relations. These are the steps that allow the child to explore the world grandiosely.
This is when healthy narcissism, healthy, not the pathological kind, primary narcissism kicks in, allows the child to take on this enormity, this vastness, this world.
A good enough mother allows her child to separate from her, encourages the child to walk away, pushes the child away if he's not brave enough or if he's too dependent or if he's too attached and too clinging and too needy. A good mother pushes her child away, encourages, eggs on the child, allows the child to take on reality, rewards the child when the child experiences the world out there. A good enough mother lets the child individuate, become an individual divided from her.
And at the same time, a good enough mother helps the child to maintain object constancy. She is the object and she is constant. She acts as a safe base. The child walks one step forward, looks back, mommy is still there so he dares to take the next step. And having taken the next step, he looks back again and mommy is still there. She is safe, she is constant, so he dares to take the third step, these three crucial steps into autonomy, agency, independence and self-efficacy. Mommy is a safe base.
The narcissist's mother refuses to let him go. She does not allow him to develop boundaries. She does not permit him to separate from her. She treats him as an extension of herself as yet another organ because she is insecure, she is selfish, she is depressed, she is parentifying or she is dependent. Something is wrong with her.
And consequently, the adult narcissist, this child who had not been allowed to separate, to become boundaried, to walk away, to explore the world, this child grows up, yes, narcissists grow up and they become adults. And the adult narcissist pendulates, vacillates, oscillates between a maternal figure in a shared fantasy and a pathological narcissistic space, his fantastic paracosm, the stand-in, the substitute for the world.
Let's go back one step.
As a child, as a baby, as an infant, the narcissist's mother does not allow him to separate and to individuate, does not allow him, does not let his boundaries emerge. She forces herself upon the child, she imposes, she intrudes, she invades. The child's nascent space of autonomy and agency is constantly interrupted and there cannot coalesce, it cannot become firm.
So there's identity disturbance.
And so the narcissist is forever trapped in this dynamic between mummy and the world.
On one hand, he wants to be with mummy, mummy is safe, mummy is constant, he has abandonment anxiety, he has object inconstancy or object impermanence and only mummy can resolve this, only mummy can solve this wound, allay this fear, mitigate the anxiety.
On the other hand, the narcissist wants to explore the world because remember, he is still two years old, even as an adult, he is emotional and mental age, he is two years old, so he wants to explore the world.
But he doesn't dare to explore the real world because if he were to explore the real world, he stands to lose mummy.
So what the narcissist does, he creates two fantastic spaces, two spaces of fantasy. Fantasy is a defense, psychological defense mechanism taken to extreme. Fantasy is pathological and the narcissist has a pathological, fantastic life.
Indeed, narcissism, pathological narcissism, is, in its totality, a fantasy defense writ large, a fantasy defense gone awry. It has elements of fantasy like grandiosity and it impairs reality testing.
So the narcissist creates two fantasies.
One is the shared fantasy with an intimate partner and this intimate partner becomes his mother in the shared fantasy. She stands for his mother. She is a mother substitute. He treats her as a mother. That's why many of these unions deteriorate, degenerate into sexlessness to avoid incest.
So there's a shared fantasy with a maternal figure and then there is a pathological narcissistic space, which is usually a physical space where the narcissist derives narcissistic supply. It's a physical space with people who provide the narcissist with narcissistic supply. It's like a mine, the narcissist mines narcissistic supply, extracts it.
It's a fantastic paracosm. The narcissist imposes a fantasy on the physical location and by doing so he converts the physical location into pathological narcissistic space.
But the narcissist is unhappy in both situations, in both fantastic spaces. When the narcissist is in the shared fantasy, he misses the world. And when the narcissist is in the pathological narcissistic space, he misses mommy.
So he constantly moves between these two. He transitions from the shared fantasy to the pathological narcissistic space and back again. This creates the impression of unpredictability. This gives the wrong signal that the narcissist is unreliable, that he is unpredictable, that he's capricious, that his conduct is arbitrary.
Actually this simple principle governs the totality of the narcissist's behavior. The narcissist is either in one state, the shared fantasy, or in another state, the pathological narcissistic space, or in a third state, transitioning between one and another, between the shared fantasy and the pathological narcissistic space.
Shared fantasy, pathological narcissistic space, transition between these two.
When the narcissist is in transition between the shared fantasy and the pathological narcissistic space or backward, in this state of transition, the narcissist is exactly a child, a baby, an infant. He sort of reverts to the same condition when he had let go of mommy's legs and ventured out into the world.
He is catapulted. He's projected backwards. He regresses into this age, two years old, when he had to make a choice between mommy and his own life, between mommy and the world, between mommy and autonomy, independence and self-efficacy. It was a difficult choice. It was a terrifying choice. It was a traumatic choice. It meant letting go of mommy.
And when the narcissist transitions from the shared fantasy to the pathological narcissistic space, he is transitioning from mommy, from a maternal figure in the shared fantasy to the world represented by the pathological narcissistic space.
And he experiences this same trauma, the same anxiety. He feels helpless. He experiences infantile helplessness. He feels old and terrified. He's anxious. He doesn't know what's going to happen. He is kind of trying to control the situation desperately.
And so the shared fantasy is mommy. Letting go of mommy in the shared fantasy allows the narcissist to explore the world, to transition into the world.
But when the narcissist is in either of these two states, when the narcissist is in the shared fantasy and or when the narcissist is in the pathological narcissistic space, the narcissist feels good. He feels manic. He feels grandiose to start with.
Well, you could say, those of you who had been paying attention and listening, the tiny minority, you could say, but Vaknin. Vaknin is me. Vaknin, there's a contradiction in what you are saying, which would be nothing new. There's a contradiction in what you're saying, because if the narcissist feels so great, if he feels so grandiose, if he feels so manic and elated and euphoric, why would the narcissist transition from one state to another? He has no incentive to do so.
Why doesn't he simply remain stuck in the shared fantasy or embedded in the pathological narcissistic space? Why does he feel the need to transition, to pendulate, to vacillate, to oscillate? What makes him move away from a condition or a state where all his fantastic needs are fully gratified?
Well, it's an interesting dynamic. When the narcissist is in a shared fantasy or when the narcissist is in a pathological narcissistic space, he starts off by being happy, content, gratified, satisfied, manic, euphoric, joyful, cheerful. Got a picture?
When the narcissist is in the shared fantasy and when the narcissist is in the pathological narcissistic space, all goes well. He's happy, but only for a while. Gradually, the fantasy wears off. Both the shared fantasy and the pathological narcissistic space involve other people.
And where there are other people, there is friction, there is conflict, there's disagreement, there's criticism, there are demands, there's bargaining going on, transactional.
So, the narcissist, when he's in the shared fantasy, gradually becomes disenchanted with a maternal figure in the shared fantasy.
In other words, with his intimate partner.
He goes from idealization to devaluation.
Similarly, when the narcissist is in the pathological narcissistic space, he becomes disillusioned and angry at people around him because they won't comply 100% with his expectations.
Remember, the narcissist creates snapshots of people around him and he continues to interact with the snapshots, not with the real people.
When the real people diverge from the snapshots.
Sorry, allow me just to. The wonders of technology. Apologies for this. Now you know that I have two phones.
So, when the narcissist snapshots people, he continues to interact with the snapshot, not with the real people.
Inevitably, people diverge from the snapshot. They learn new things, they evolve, they make decisions, they disagree, they criticize.
And this drives the narcissist insane because it threatens the integrity and the functioning of the snapshot.
And so, in the shared fantasy and in the pathological narcissistic space, there is inevitably, always, invariably a process of devaluation.
The narcissist idealizes his intimate partner in the maternal role, in the role of a mother, and then devalues her because she no longer conforms 100% to the snapshot.
And he idealizes people in the pathological narcissistic space, co-workers, friends. And then he devalues them because equally they no longer conform to the snapshot. They no longer fulfill his expectations. They no longer mesh in seamlessly with the dialogue that he is having with the internal objects that represent them with the avatars.
So, the narcissist lives inside his mind, inhabits his mind. The fantastic space is inside his mind.
And when reality and other people, as agents of reality, impinge upon this fantastic space, challenge these internal objects, rip apart the avatars, tear, tear to pieces with snapshot. The narcissist becomes agitated, irritated, annoyed, rageful, and he wants to walk away.
So, at the beginning, at the inception of every shared fantasy, the beginning of every narcissistic pathological space, the first few months, the first few years, it's a honeymoon phase.
The narcissist feels great, grandiose, manic, euphoric, and elated. But all the time, always, he ends up feeling constricted, dysregulated, and aggressive. He ends up devaluing everyone around him, and he just wants to exit. He wants to exit the shared fantasy and move on to a pathological narcissistic space, or he wants to exit the pathological narcissistic space and revert to a shared fantasy.
Each one is a sanctuary, a refuge to the other.
When the narcissist becomes disappointed, heartbroken, angry in a shared fantasy, he devalues his intimate partner, discards her, and moves out into the world for a while.
He establishes pathological narcissistic space, and there, he thrives as a man of the world. He takes on the universe, society, challenges.
Then, he grows disenchanted with friends, colleagues, peers, etc. And he says, I need an intimate partner. I can't continue like this. I need someone to love me.
And he goes looking for an intimate partner. He love bombs her, he grooms her, and they establish a shared fantasy together.
And gradually, he pushes her to become a maternal figure, a mother figure.
To revert from one state to another, the narcissist uses four stratagems. Everything in narcissism comes in four.
So when the narcissist transitions from a shared fantasy to a pathological narcissistic space, or backward, back from pathological narcissistic space to a shared fantasy, he does it in four ways.
He uses four strategies or stratagems.
Number one, termination. He terminates the shared fantasy, or he terminates the pathological narcissistic space. Divorce, breakup, a huge fight, relocation, resigning from a job. Termination strategies.
Number two, deception. For example, cheating, extramarital affairs, faking, corn artistry. So deception is another strategy to transition from shared fantasy to pathological narcissistic space.
The third strategy, undermining intimacy, destroying trust, including by withholding, by an indifference, ostentatious indifference, including by being sadistically abusive.
So the narcissist undermines intimacy and trust in order to legitimize his own misconduct and to make sure that the partner, for example, in the shared fantasy will never come back or attempt to come back.
And the same in a pathological narcissistic space. The narcissist will destroy the goodwill of people around him by misbehaving egregiously, openly, in your face, defiantly, recklessly.
The fourth strategy is more complex and it is what is called persecretary object fantasies.
At some point, in order to de-cathect, in order to detach emotionally from the shared fantasy or from the pathological narcissistic space, the narcissist creates a surrogate fantasy, another fantasy, an auxiliary or secondary fantasy where people around him are persecretary objects, they are persecuting.
It becomes a bit paranoid, his paranoid ideation or even schizotypal thinking. He begins to see people around him as his enemies, adversaries or wardens, wardens in the sense that they keep him imprisoned, incarcerated, shackled, impinged and inhibit his freedom and liberty.
So he begins to see people in a very negative light, which makes it easier for him to say goodbye without any compunction, without any regret or remorse and without any contrition.
He feels that he is justified in cheating or in just walking away or in cutting things off or in dumping the partner or in betraying his friends or in undermining the company he works for.
Because they are all against him. All of them are conspiring maliciously and malevolently to undermine him, to challenge him, to demote him, to minimize him, to prevent him from obtaining his full potential. They are bad people. They deserve what he is doing to them.
So this is the narcissist in the no man's land, in the no man's land between shared fantasy with the mother figure, pathological narcissistic space as a mini cosmos, a mini world, a tiny universe within which the narcissist can function and thrive on infinite dollops of narcissistic supply.
It's exactly like a baby or an infant letting go of mummy to explore the world and then running back to mummy in panic that he might not find her there.
And sometimes he really doesn't.