My name is Sam Vaknin, and I am the author of Malignant Self-Love: Narcissism Revisited.
The narcissist's true self is introverted. It is dysfunctional.
In healthy people, the true self, or more precisely a part of it called the ego, performs certain functions. These functions are generated from the inside, from the ego.
In narcissists, the ego being a part of the true self is dormant. It is comatose.
You could say that narcissists, ironically, have no ego, or at least no functioning ego.
The narcissist needs the input and needs feedback from the outside world, from other people, in order to perform the most basic ego functions.
What are these functions?
For example, recognizing the world, setting boundaries, forming a self-definition and an identity, differentiation, self-esteem, regulating a sense of self-worth, and many other important psychological maintenance functions. All of them are performed by the ego, which, as I said, with a narcissist, is dilapidated and decrepit and dysfunctional.
So the narcissist seeks input from the outside. He seeks feedback from other people. He seeks to be reflected in other people's eyes.
And this is what I call narcissistic supply.
But it is only the false self that gets in touch with the world.
The narcissist's true self is fossilized, isolated, ossified, repressed, unconscious. It is a shadow.
The false self, therefore, is a kind of hive self, kind of swarm self. It is a collage of reflections, a patchwork of outsourced information.
Tidbits, garnered from the narcissist's interlocutors, and laboriously cohered and assembled so as to uphold and buttress the narcissist's inflated, fantastic and grandiose self-image.
In healthy normal people, ego functions are strictly internal processes. In the narcissist, ego functions are imported from his surroundings. They are thoroughly external, not internal.
Consequently, the narcissist often confuses his inner mental psychological landscape with the outside world. He tends to fuse and merge his mind and his milieu. He regards significant others and sources of narcissistic supply as mere extensions of himself and hie appropriates them because they fulfill crucial internal roles. And as a result, are perceived by the narcissist to be sheer internal objects, devoid of an objective, external and autonomous existence.
So to recap, other people in the narcissist's life perform functions for the narcissist, which in healthy people are performed internally, are carried out by internal structures.
Because people perform for the narcissist's functions, which are normally internal, he perceives them to be internal objects. He regards them as a part of himself, as an extension, another organ.
Forcing the narcissist's false self to acknowledge and interact with his true self is not only difficult, but may also be counterproductive and even dangerously destabilizing.
The narcissist's disorder is adaptive. It's functional, although admittedly it is very rigid. The alternative to this adaptation or maladaptation would be destructive, even suicidal.
Narcissism is important in keeping the narcissist alive and functioning and more or less balanced, however precariously.
This bottled up, this self-directed venom and aggression, they are bound to resurface if the narcissist's various personality structures are coerced into making contact.
That a personality structure such as the true self is in the unconscious or preconscious does not automatically mean that it is conflict generated. It doesn't mean that it is involved in conflict or that it has the potential to provoke conflict.
As long as the true self and the false self remain out of touch in communicado, disconnected, conflict is usually excluded.
The false self pretends to be the only self. The false self denies the existence of another self, a true self. It is also, the false self is also extremely useful, it's adaptive as I said.
And so rather than risking constant conflict between the two, the narcissist opts for a solution of disengagement, repression or even dissociation.
A classical ego as proposed by Sigmund Freud is partly conscious and partly preconscious and partly unconscious. The narcissist's ego is completely unconscious. It's submerged.
The preconscious and conscious parts are detached from it by early traumas and they form the false self together with the ego ideal.
The superego is in healthy people. It constantly compares the ego to the ego ideal. The narcissist is a different psychodynamic.
The narcissist's false self serves as a buffer and as a shock absorber between the true self and the narcissist's sadistic, panic punishing and immature super ego.
The narcissist aspires to become pure ego ideal.
He has no ego. His super ego is threatening, life threatening even.
And so he ignores both of them and he sticks with the ego ideal and this becomes the false self.
The narcissist's ego cannot develop because it is deprived of contact with the outside world.
And therefore the true self, the ego, endures no growth inducing conflict.
The false self is rigid.
The result is that the narcissist is unable to respond and to adapt to threats, illnesses, other life crises and circumstances. He has no tools.
As I said, the false self is rigid. The true self is out of touch with the world. So the narcissist is clueless, helpless and impotent in the face of reality. The face of life is brittle. He is prone to be broken rather than bent by life's trials and tribulations.
What does the ego do in Freud's triadic formulation?
Well, the ego remembers. Ego evaluates, plans, responds to the world, acts in the world, acts on the world. It is the lowest of the executive functions of the personality. It integrates the inner world with the outer world or in Freud's lingo, the id with the superego.
The ego acts under a reality principle rather than a pleasure principle. This means that the ego is in charge of delaying gratification, of planning. The ego postpones pleasurable acts until they can be carried out both safely and successfully.
The ego is therefore in an ungrateful position. In one hand, unfulfilled desires, urges and drives produce unease and anxiety because they are not fulfilled.
And on the other hand, reckless fulfillment of desires is diametrically opposed to self-preservation and survival.
So the ego has to mediate these tensions. It has to acknowledge desires and urges and drives, but then postpone them until circumstances are right or indefinitely.
So in an effort to thwart anxiety, the ego invents psychological defense mechanisms.
On the one hand, the ego channels fundamental drives. It has to speak their language, just to communicate with them. It must have a primitive, infantile component.
Then on the other hand, the ego is in charge of negotiating with the outside world, of securing realistic and optimal bargains for his client. His client is the id.
These intellectual and perceptual functions are supervised by the exceptionally strict court of the superego.
Persons with a strong ego can objectively comprehend both the world and themselves.
In other words, they are possessed of insight. They are able to contemplate longer time spans, able to plan, able to focus, to schedule, to collaborate with other people to achieve goals and results, etc.
These kind of people, healthy people, with a healthy ego, they choose decisively among alternatives and they follow their result.
They are aware of the existence of their drives. They are prone to having desires and urges like everyone else, but they control them. They channel them in socially acceptable ways. They resist pressures, social pressures, other pressures. They choose their course. They pursue it.
They have an inner compass. It's called the sense of self worth. Their sense of self worth is not a means. It's stable.
The weaker the ego is, the more infantile and impulsive the owner of the ego, the more distorted he is of repossession of his self and of reality.
A week ago, he is incapable of productive work in the long run.
So the narcissist is an even more extreme case. The narcissist's ego is not weak. It's nonexistent.
The narcissist has a fake, substitute ego, the false self.
This is why the narcissist's energy is always trained, always depleted. He spends most of it on maintaining, protecting and preserving the warped, unrealistic images of his false self and his fake world.
The narcissist is a person exhausted by his own absence.
The healthy ego preserves some sense of continuity and consistency. It serves as a point of reference. It relates events of the past to actions at the present and it relates these to plans of the future. It incorporates memory, anticipation, imagination, intellect. It defines where the individual ends and where the world begins. It's an interface, flexible, wise, informed, intelligent.
Though not coextensive with the body, though it is not coextensive with the personality, the healthy ego is a close approximation of both.
In the narcissistic condition, all these functions are relegated to the false self.
The false self hollow of confabulation, the fact that it is false, not authentic, not genuine, a concoction, a piece of fiction, a narrative, an invention, a script. This fact of its philosophy, it rubs off on all the functions it carries out.
The narcissist is bound to develop false memories, a false biography, conjure up false fantasies, anticipate the unrealistic work is intellect to justify these fantasies, etc., etc., getting more and more divorced from reality, failing the reality test more and more, until finally it decouches completely. And in some extreme cases, it becomes psychotic.
The falsity of the false self is double. Not only is it not the real thing, the real McCoy because it's not, the false self also operates on false premises. It is a false and wrong gauge of the world.
It fails the narcissist. It doesn't allow the narcissist to calibrate properly. It falsely and inefficiently regulates the narcissist drives. It fails to thwart anxiety.
It's not working well most of the time because nothing which is not grounded in reality cannot cope with reality properly. And if you can't cope with reality properly, then you are dysfunctional. And if you're dysfunctional, then you're anxious. And if you're anxious, you become compulsive. And so it goes.
The false self provides a false sense of continuity and of a personal center. It weaves an enchanted and grandiose fable as a substitute to reality. The narcissist gravitates out of his self, out of his true self, out of his core and into a plot, a story, a narrative.
The narcissist continuously feels that he is a character in a movie, kind of a fraudulent invention, a con artist to be momentarily exposed and summarily socially ostracized and excluded.
Moreover, the narcissist cannot be consistent. He cannot be coherent.
His false self is preoccupied with the pursuit of narcissistic supply.
The narcissist has no boundaries because his ego is not sufficiently defined. It's not fully differentiated.
The only constancy in the narcissist world is the narcissist feelings of diffusion, of imminent annulment.
This is especially true in life crises when the false self, the false ego, ceases to function. The narcissist then has no defenses from the world. He kind of breaks apart, disintegrates, becomes a cloud of molecules.
From the developmental point of view, all of this is pretty easily accounted for.
Narcissism starts in early childhood. It may have a genetic component. It may be based on a genetic predisposition, but it is a reaction to life's circumstances, mainly a variety of forms of abuse.
So it starts in childhood and the child reacts to stimuli, both internal and external.
The child cannot, however, control, alter, or anticipate this stimuli. Instead, the child develops mechanisms to regulate the resulting tensions and anxieties and fears that this stimuli provoke.
The child's pursuit of mastery of this environment is therefore compulsive.
The child is obsessed with securing gratification and gratifying the security. Any postponement of the child's actions and responses forces the child to tolerate added tension, added anxiety.
It is very surprising that the child ultimately learns to separate stimulus and response. It is very surprising that any child ever learns to delay gratification.
This miracle of expedient self-denial has to do with the development of intellectual skills.
Intellectual skills and the socialization process, put together, they allow the child to function properly in the world, in reality, in society.
The intellect is nothing but a representation of the world. Through the intellect, the ego examines reality vicariously, without suffering the consequences of possible errors.
So the intellect is a little like a computer simulation.
The ego uses the intellect to simulate various causes of action and their consequences. And then the ego decides, how to achieve these ends and the attendant gratification, how to consequently reduce anxiety.
The intellect is what allows the child to anticipate the world, what makes the child believe in the accuracy and high probability of his predictions. It renders the world less hostile, more predictable.
It is through the intellect that the concepts of laws of nature, predictability through order, these concepts are introduced through the intellect, causality, consistency, they are all mediated through the intellect.
But the intellect is best served with an emotional compliment, the garnish of emotions.
Our picture of the world and of our place in the world emerges from experience, but experience is both cognitive and emotional.
Socialization is a verbal communicative element, but decoupled from a strong emotional component, it remains a dead letter.
Ask any psychopath.
An example, the child is likely to learn from his parents and from other adults that the world is predictable, it's law abiding, it's orderly.
However, if his primary objects, in other words, his mother, his father, adult role models, if his primary objects, caretakers, if they behave in a capricious, discriminating, unpredictable, unlawful, abusive, or indifferent manner, this always is what the child has learned to expect from the world.
It hurts and the conflict between cognition and emotion then becomes powerful, overpowering. It is bound to paralyze the ego functions of the child.
The accumulation and retention of past events is a prerequisite for both thinking and judgment. Both are impaired if one's personal history contradicts the content of the superego and the lessons of the socialization process.
Narcissists are victims of such a glaring discrepancy between what adult figures in their lives had preached and their contradictory behavior and causes of action.
Many adults let down children by saying one thing and behaving differently when the walk is not the talk.
Once victimized, the narcissist swears no more. He will not be a victim anymore. He will do the victimizing. He will become the abuser. He will be the superior figure that has the power to inflict pain on others.
As a decoy, the narcissist presents to the world his false self, but he falls prey to his own devices, internally impoverished, undernourished, emotionally isolated, cushioned to the point of suffocation.
The true self degenerates, decays. The narcissist wakes up one day to find that he is at the mercy of his false self, that he has been body snatched, that he is being abused as much as his victims are.