My name is Sam Vaknin. I am the author of Malignant Self-Love, Narcissism Revisited.
Puer aetemus, the eternal adolescent, the Sempiternal Peter Pembro.
It is a phenomenon often associated with pathological narcissism, this refusal to grow up.
People who won't grow up strike others as self-centered and aloof, petulant and brattish, haughty and demanding, in short as childish and infantile.
The narcissist is a partial adult. He seeks to avoid adulthood. Infantilization is the discrepancy between one's advanced chronological age and one's retarded behavior, cognition and emotional development.
And this is the narcissist's staple, his favorite art form. Some narcissists even use a childish tone of voice on certain occasions or adopt a toddlers body language.
But most narcissists resort to more subtle means. They reject or avoid adult chores and functions. They refrain from acquiring adult skills such as driving or an adult's formal education.
These narcissists evade adult responsibilities towards others, including and especially towards the nearest and dearest. They hold no steady jobs. They never get married. They raise no family. They cultivate no roots. They are deadbeat fathers. They maintain no real friendships or meaningful relationships. This way they avoid entering the realm of adulthood, the adult world.
Many narcissists remain attached to his or her family of origin. By clinging to his parents, the narcissist continues to act in the role of a child. He thus avoids the need to make adult decisions and potentially painful choices. He transfers all other chores and responsibilities from laundry to babysitting to his parents, to his siblings, to his spouse, to other relatives.
Such a narcissist feels unshackled, a free spirit, ready to take on the world.
In other words, omnipotent or powerful, an omniscient or knowing. Such delayed adulthood is very common in many poor and developing countries, especially those with patriarchal societies. In there, it may not necessarily be connected to narcissism. It may be a cultural thing. But in Western society, this delayed adulthood and pathological narcissism go hand in hand.
Some narcissists act as surrogate caregivers to their siblings or parents. And in this way, the narcissist displaces his adulthood into a fuzzier, less demanding territory.
The social expectations from the husband and the father are clear cut, not so from a substitute mock or a results parent. By investing his efforts, resources and emotions in his family of origin, the narcissist avoids having to establish a new family of his own and face the world as an adult.
By constantly giving care to his parents or disabled siblings or poor relations, this narcissist avoids going out into the world, getting married, having a family, finding a job, competing.
The adulthood of such a narcissist is adulthood by proxy of a vicarious imitation of the real thing.
The ultimate in dodging adulthood is finding God. God is long recognized as a father substitute.
When the narcissist commits himself to God or to some other higher cause, he allows the doctrine and the social institutions that enforce this doctrine to make decisions for him and thus relieve him of responsibility. He succumbs the narcissist to the parental power of the collective and surrenders his personal autonomy.
In other words, he is a child once more.
Hence the allure of faith in the lure of dogmas such as nationalism or communism. They provide substitute adulthood, replacement adulthood. The narcissist can relegate, farm out, outsource his adult chores and responsibilities to someone or something else.
God, the church, the army, the nation, the police force.
But why does the narcissist refuse to grow up? Why does he postpone the inevitable and regards adulthood as a painful experience to be avoided at a great cost to personal growth and self-realization?
Why this fear?
Because remaining essentially a toddler caters to all his narcissistic needs and defenses and nicely tallies with a narcissist's inner psychodynamic landscape.
Let me explain.
Autological narcissism is an infantile defense against abuse and trauma usually occurring in early childhood or early adolescence.
Thus, narcissism is inextricably intertwined with the abused child's or adolescent's emotional makeup, cognitive deficits and worldview.
To say narcissism is to say thwarted, tortured child.
It is important to remember that over-winning, smothering, spoiling, over-valuing, doting and idolizing the child, they are all forms of parental abuse.
There is nothing more narcissistically gratified than the admiration and adulation garnered by precocious child prodigies.
Parents live through these children vicariously by proxy as it were.
Narcissists who have the said outcomes of excessive pampering and sheltering become a dictitude.
And by refusing to grow up, they try to preserve and maintain their status as a child who is entitled to further pampering, sheltering, spoiling.
In a paper published in Quadrant in 1980 entitled Puer Aeternus: The Narcissistic Relation to the Self, Jeffrey Satinover, a Jungian analyst, offers these astute observations.
The individual, narcissistically bound to the image or archetype of the divine child, can experience satisfaction from a concrete achievement only if it matches the grandeur of his archetypal image.
It must have the qualities this achievement must have the qualities of greatness, absolute uniqueness, of being the best and prodigiously precautious.
This latter quality explains the enormous fascination of child prodigies and also explains why even a great success yields no permanent satisfaction from the puer.
Being an adult, no accomplishment is precautious unless he stays artificially young or equates his accomplishments with those of old age.
The simple truth is that children get away with narcissistic traits and behaviors while adults don't.
Narcissists know that. They envy children. They hate them. They try to emulate them and thus compete with them for scarce narcissistic supply.
Children are forgiven for feeling grandiose and self-important. They are even encouraged to develop such emotions as part of building up the self-esteem.
Kids frequently exaggerate with impunity. There are accomplishments, the talents, the skills, the contacts, the personality traits. And that's exactly the kind of conduct that narcissists are criticized for and chastised for.
So the narcissist says to himself, if I remain a child, I can indulge in these behaviors, perpetuate my misconduct and not be punished for it.
As part of a normal and healthy development trajectory, young children are as obsessed as narcissists are with fantasies of unlimited success, fame, fearsome power, or omnipotence, and unequal brilliance.
Adolescents are expected to be preoccupied with bodily beauty or sexual performance, as is the adult somatic narcissist.
Adolescents are also expected to be preoccupied with ideal, everlasting, uncultured love or passion.
What is normal in the first 16 years of life is labeled a pathology.
Later on, children are firmly convinced that they are unique and being special can only be understood by, should only be treated by, or associate with other special or unique or high status people.
In time, through the process of socialization, young adults learn the benefits of collaboration and acknowledge the innate value of each and every person.
Narcissists never do. Their socialization process is defective. They remain fixated in this earlier stage. Preteens in teenagers require excessive admiration, adulation, attention and affirmation. It is a transient phase that gives place to the self-regulation of one's sense of inner worth.
Narcissists, however, remain dependent on others for their self-esteem and self-confidence. They are fragile and fragmented and disorganized and thus very susceptible to criticism, even if it is merely implied or imagined.
Well into pubescence, children feel entitled. As toddlers, they demand automatic and true compliance with their unreasonable expectations for special, favorable priority treatment. They grow out of it as they develop empathy and respect for the boundaries, needs and wishes of other people.
Again, narcissists never mature in this sense. Children, like adult narcissists, are interpersonally exploitative. In other words, they use others to achieve their own ends. In other words, they use others to achieve their own ends.
During the formative years, zero to six, children are devoid of empathy. They are unable to identify with, acknowledge or accept the feelings, needs, preferences, priorities and choices of others.
And in this sense, they are narcissists.
Both adult narcissists and young children are envious of others, sometimes seek to hurt or destroy the causes of their frustration. Both types of people, children and narcissists, behave arrogantly and haughtily, feel superior, omnipotent, uninitiated, invincible, immune, above the law and omnipresent. This is called magical thinking. Both narcissists and children rage when frustrated, when contradicted, challenged or confronted.
The narcissist seeks to legitimize his childlike conduct and his infantile mental world by actually remaining a child, by refusing to mature and to grow up, by avoiding the hallmarks of adulthood, and by forcing others to accept him as the poor and the eternal youth, a worry-free, unbounded Peter Pan.
If I remain a child, the narcissist says to himself, and if others accept me as a child, I could indulge myself in childish behaviors and be accepted and not punished, exactly as I am, unchanged forever, adore and great.