Narcissists are these amazing beings, fascinating, intriguing creatures, at least to the professional psychologists. I mean, just look at me. On three hours of sleep a day, I'm thriving, I'm energetic, I'm flourishing, I'm even growing orange hair.
So, when you observe outliers, exceptions, freaks of nature, or freaks of psychology, you learn a lot about healthy people. You learn a lot about other abnormalities.
Narcissism is like a compendium of mental illnesses, but also by way of contradistinction, it teaches us a lot about the healthy state, mental health, the healthy state of the human mind.
And today, I'm going to explore these disconnects, this disjointedness at the core of narcissism and what we can learn from it, these disparities.
And I'm going to start by citing one of the most prominent psychological authorities in recent history, Marilyn Monroe.
Marilyn Monroe said, if you can't handle me at my worst, then you're sure as hell don't deserve me at my best.
Marilyn Monroe was, of course, borderline, but borderlines are grandiose.
And this is the first interface, the first tangential connection between other mental health disorders and narcissism.
So why do I say that narcissists are amazing?
The thing that amazes me most about narcissism is, as I said before, the fact that there are segments of the personality, there are constructs, there are pieces of the narcissist, there are fragments of the narcissist, which don't fit together.
It's like two jigsaw puzzles, two giant jigsaw puzzles, who had been flung into the air, and then all the pieces descended, fell back down to earth by force of gravity, but they intermixed.
And so now we have two jigsaw puzzles, but we can't put them back together like Humpty Dumpty.
So narcissists display traits, behaviors, cognitions that are incompatible with each other. And they do this simultaneously. It's exceedingly disconcerting. It's like watching a shape-shifting person.
You know, there's these images in horror movies where the face moves very, very fast and it's very frightening. That's a narcissist.
Consider, for example, the narcissist's self-awareness.
Most narcissists are self-aware, actually. Most narcissists are aware of their behaviors. Most narcissists can detail everything they had done to other people and brag about it and be proud of it.
Narcissists consider their narcissism as an evolutionary advantage. Their narcissism renders them superior to other people. Other people are inferior because they are not narcissists.
So narcissists refrain, their own narcissism, but they're fully aware, at least of the behaviors. They're not aware of motivation, but who is?
People who are not psychologists are not aware of motivations most of the time.
And yes, I am a psychologist, or at least a professor of psychology. My name is Sam Vaknin, and I'm the author of Malignant Self-Love: Narcissism Revisited, and a professor of psychology.
And so narcissists are self-aware.
But at the same time, they have an utter lack of transformative insight.
Let me explain what I'm saying.
They may be self-aware. They may even confront themselves from time to time, look at themselves in the mirror. This is called mortification. They may gain knowledge about the way they function, and even about why they function the way they function.
But none of it leads anywhere. None of this information, none of the gleaned knowledge and wisdom, no input from other people, no feedback, no amount of therapy, no amount of intervention, no number of circumstances, nothing transforms in a narcissist.
This is the only case, the only case where learning something, acquiring new knowledge, acquiring data, has zero impact on the acquirer.
So you can come across a narcissist who knows a lot about narcissism, here, here. You don't have to go far.
And yet none of this knowledge had any impact on him, and he remained basically the same.
That's the first disconnect. It's as though the narcissist compartmentalizes his cognition, puts his cognition in a drawer, doesn't allow his cognition to seep into, via osmosis, to seep into other parts of his personality.
It's like his personality is this enormous chest of drawers, this enormous cupboard, with various doors and drawers, and shelves, and none of them touching each other.
And so the narcissist's personality, therefore, is not integrated. There are no pathways leading from construct A to construct B, from emotion A to emotion B, from cognition A to cognition B, and from cognition to emotion, and from emotion to internal logic, from internal logic to construct, etc. Everything is disjointed, separated. Everything is compartmentalized. Everything is up in the air, so to speak, levitating out of the reach of everything else.
It's like a circus show. It's like Hocus Tocus. It's like numerous numerous balls suspended in the air, in mid juggling. The narcissist is like the famous painting by Dalí, Galatea, a series of round molecules, just somehow, intangibly, tenaciously, tenuously holding together, but just almost.
And so this is the first disconnect.
The second disconnect is between the intelligence of a narcissist and his ubiquitous pseudo-stupidity.
Many narcissists are intelligent, and there are even narcissists who are hyper-intelligent.
I know one of them intimately and personally. And yet, this intelligence does not affect, is not reflected in day-to-day decision-making, in life choices, in mate selection, in career progress and path. This intelligence remains abstract, disembodied. It does not interact with anything, nor does it influence anything.
It's like the narcissist has this artificial intelligence program that deciphers everything perfectly, catalogs everything impeccably.
There's a taxonomy. There's a lot of data at the disposal of the narcissist, and there is the intelligence to process this data and put it in new ways together, what we call synoptic intelligence.
Narcissist has all this, as long as he doesn't pertain to himself.
So the narcissist can be highly intelligent and yet appear to be unbelievably stupid. And this is called pseudo-stupidity, because he's not really stupid.
But his actions, his choices, his decisions, the way he manages or mismanages his life and other people's lives, his lack of emotional maturity, his cognitive deficits and impairments and deficiencies, all these put together create a seriously inane, sometimes even insane, but always dumb person.
And yet this dumb person can have a 190 IQ.
How do you put the two together? How do you reconcile this?
We measure intelligence in IQ tests. In other ways, we measure intelligence because we believe that intelligence is the way we interact with the environment.
Intelligence is a mode of interacting with the environment that guarantees favorable outcomes.
So the more intelligent you are, the more favorable your life would look, the more benign, and the better the outcomes you would derive from your human and physical environment.
Intelligence is a guarantee of success. Definitely academic success.
Intelligence is highly correlated with higher lifetime earnings. Intelligence is a good predictor of college performance, for example.
And yet in the case of the narcissist, none of these things, none of these things is guaranteed. Nevermind how intelligent the narcissist is, he's likely to drop out. He's likely to not complete anything. He's likely to to have very dysfunctional relationships. He's likely to be a psychologist and yet have the worst relationships with his wife and children and friends. And he wouldn't be able to implement or apply his intelligence to these problems.
It's like the narcissist has two personalities, hyper intelligent and total idiot.
Another disconnect is between the sagacious wisdom which many narcissists possess, many narcissists display, and the aforementioned inanity and stupidity.
Sometimes you see gurus, public intellectuals, experts, coaches, you see people who are supposed to be wise, sagacious, knowledgeable, guides, people who are supposed to impart the wisdom of life to you. People who are supposed to provide you with sign posts and supposed to affect your behavior and structure it so that you're more self efficacious and definitely more happy. These are wise people, these are sages, and yet they're narcissists and many of them possess and display at the same time enormous extreme wisdom coupled with total total imbecility and idiocy.
It's very hard to reconcile. You could have a guru whose words transform your life who brings light and life into the world, who contributes to your understanding of reality and how to relate, helps you to better relate to other people. And yet this very person is going to be promiscuous or it's going to be reckless or it's going to say in private stupid things. He's going to antagonize and alienate people in his private circle, in private life. He's going to be an a-hole or a jerk.
So it's like there's a private persona and public persona. The private person, not persona, the private person is actually a typical narcissist, disempathic, exploitative, grandiose with cognitive deficits, impaired reality testing, that's a private person, but the public persona is the exact opposite of all these things. It's a person well grounded in the reality of human relationships, a person who understands the world, the universe much better than anyone else, a person whose wisdom, knowledge and guidance are indispensable to millions.
How to put these two together? Are we talking about multiple personality? Not really because there's no wall of dissociation between these. These are self-states but in most cases these self-states do not involve dissociation, they involve a transition.
Sometimes a conscious transition is like the narcissist sheds, like a snake sheds his public skin and becomes himself. It's a little like the reptilians who body snatch.
Now narcissists, like borderlines, like schizoids, like paranoids, they have self-states and when they are under stress, for example, when the borderline is rejected and humiliated and abandoned, when the narcissist is challenged or mortified, when they are under normal stress, there's a dissociative wall between these self-states.
Another self-state comes to the fore, the narcissist changes and there's dissociation. It doesn't remember how we used to be before, but this is not what I'm talking about.
I'm talking about someone who in the daily course of life and without any stress and any distress simply transitions from the most amazing religious figure into the most corrupt and decrepit lowlife scum and he does this within the hour knowingly and consciously.
Again, it's like an actor, actor taking off his disguise and uniform. It's like a snake shedding its skin.
It's like the narcissist is acting the guru, pretending to be a sage, playing the role of a public intellectual and then when it's all over, when the limelight is gone and the projectors and cameras are turned off, he can be himself and himself is the utter opposite of the role that he had played hitherto.
So narcissists, for example, are goal-oriented. Exactly like psychopaths, they're goal-oriented. Their goal is to obtain narcissistic supply and yet they always fail. They are ineluctable failures. Even if they are successful for a limited period of time, they always end in calamity, catastrophe, disaster and failure.
If a narcissist attains a position of power, if he becomes an authority on some topic, if he reaches the upper echelons of the corporate world, if he becomes a pillar of the community and of his church, if the narcissist does secure, does display, does show some accomplishments, it's guaranteed that he will destroy all of it, that he will eff it up.
Narcissists live behind scorched earth, they burn all the bridges, they alienate everyone, they end up miserable, they end up lonely alone, they end up in prison, they end up in bad shape, this reputable shape.
So how can one explain that the narcissist is so intelligent, so possessed of all the right advice and tips which he doles out to others as a guru, so goal-oriented, knows exactly what he wants and yet unable to put all these things together to guarantee success?
How can we explain this disconnect? This is what renders narcissism amazing.
This utter schism and rupture and split between some aspects, some traits, some behaviors, some cognitions, some emotions and others in the same person, sometimes simultaneously or at least in rapid succession.
Take for example the fact that narcissists have no positive emotions, they cannot experience positive, they have positive emotions but they are repressed, they're denied, so they cannot experience positive emotions, they never experience for example love. They experience other things which they mislabel as love, they experience dependency for example, in the love bombing and grooming phase of the shared fantasy they would tell you that they love you but they're incapable of experiencing any positive emotion let alone an overwhelming positive emotion like love.
So at the same time they are capable of experiencing the most extreme radical dramatic dysregulated negative emotions. While they can experience not positive emotions they are emotionally numb when it comes to emotional positivity. When it comes to emotional negativity they're all over the place, they externalize very often, they become aggressive. So hatred, envy, rage, anger, vindictiveness, all these the narcissist experiences is consumed by all these negative emotions.
Now we believe in psychology that the capacity to experience emotions, the capacity to emote is what we call an extensive property. In other words if you can emote positively you can also emote negatively. If you can emote in general you will experience both positive and negative emotions. You will not be selective, you can't be selective. Either you can emote or you can't emote. If you cannot emote it's a pathology.
Maybe you experienced some trauma in early childhood and you had numbed your capacity to emote.
So but if you are unable to experience emotions you are unable to experience any emotion negative and positive, we call this flat affect or reduced affect display.
There are people who show no emotion, schizoids for example, trauma victims, even people with DID with dissociative identity disorder. Some of the authors show no emotion but they don't show any emotion, not positive nor negative.
The narcissist is the only case we know who is capable when the narcissist is capable to emote but only selectively, only negatively.
We have no explanation for this. We don't know how this is happening.
The psychopath for example has flat affect so we understand that. The psychopath does not express emotions, positive or negative. That's a classic case. We know everything about emotional numbing, reduced affect display and so on but we don't know to explain how someone can at will so to speak be extremely emotional.
One minute and then totally emotionally absent the next with flat affect. We have no idea how this this could be done, how this is happening.
It challenges our models of emotionality and the connection between emotions and cognitions.
And consider another disconnect for example.
The narcissist's innate emptiness.
The narcissist has a schizoid empty core similar to the borderline. This schizoid empty core simply means that the narcissist does not experience his own existence.
The narcissist experiences feedback regarding his own existence but not ever his own existence. Where a person should have been, where a human being should have been, there is a huge void. There is a black hole which consumes everything that comes near it.
This is the innate emptiness of the narcissist to borrow a phrase from Otto Könberg.
And yet many narcissists are prodigiously creative, precautiously creative sometimes, proficient and prolific in their creativity.
How can someone who doesn't exist, how can an absence, how can an empty void, how can deep space, how can a black hole create anything, how can these people, how could these people have created the most beautiful music, the most amazing paintings, Picasso for example. How could they have done this? Where did this creativity come from? Where did it emanate from?
If there is no core, no core identity, no regulatory mechanisms, no memories because there's a lot of dissociation. If there's nobody home, there's nobody there, who is the one doing the creation? Who is creating?
It would be safe to say that a lot of the treasures of human arts and human cultures, many of these treasures were created by narcissists. It would be safe to say this.
And yet we cannot explain the disconnect between the narcissist's arid wasteland of an inner landscape and his technicolor, spectacular accomplishments in the arts and sciences. We can't explain this.
There's no transition, there's no pathway, there's no trajectory, there's no psychodynamic that we know of that can bridge this gap.
It challenges our perceptions of psychology regarding creativity.
How do you explain that the narcissists can emulate love, imitate love, provide a mimicry of love, simulacrum that is very convincing. So convincing that people fall for it. They take it to be the real thing.
And on the one hand, and on the other hand, he's unable to consummate his love, sometimes even sexually. How do you explain that the narcissist does a great rendition of love and yet cannot carry to the end ever? Why not carry it to the end?
Something is missing. Some element, some catalyst is missing in this chemical reaction.
In other words, the narcissist can emulate and imitate only the first phases and stages of love, but never the last ones.
Why set? What sets apart consummated love from initiated love?
What's the difference between loving and love bombing? We are not quite sure. We don't know why the narcissist stops in mid-track. We don't understand how the narcissist can at first, convincingly, love, or at least give a great thespian production of love.
And then, suddenly lose all capacity to carry through and continue to imitate it. Why doesn't he continue to imitate? We are not quite sure. We have hypotheses and so on, but we are not quite sure.
It's another mind-boggling disconnect.
Narcissists are supposed to be self-sufficient and they are unmitigatedly self-sufficient. They are self-contained. And yet, they're totally dependent on others.
Even as the narcissist brags, I don't need anyone. I don't need anyone. I'm self-sufficient. I'm enough for myself.
Even as he brags, he is actually the most extreme form of dependence. Narcissism is the most extreme form of dependency.
You could easily say that narcissism is a special case of dependent personality disorder. Narcissists depend on other people for narcissistic supply. Without narcissistic supply, they fall apart. They crumble to dust.
The whole house of cards, cards that is precariously balanced, falls.
So narcissistic supply is a synaquana. It is the precondition, sufficient and necessary condition for self-regulation.
The narcissist's inner landscape is generated and regenerated and regulated via other people. So narcissist depends on other people to exist.
When the narcissist does not get supply, when supply is deficient, the narcissist feels that he is dead. He comes alive with supply the same way plants or flowers come alive when you water them.
So it's extreme dependency and if the narcissist would deny it, he would say, I'm not dependent at all. I'm the most autonomous, independent, self-sufficient person I know.
But narcissists rely on other people not only for narcissistic supply. For example, they convert people into parental figures in a shared fantasy. People fulfill all the ego functions of the narcissist. The narcissist outsources his inner world to other people and they become internal objects.
From now on, these people around him constitute his psyche, his mind, his soul. The narcissist is a hive mind. He is an agglomeration, an accumulation, a kaleidoscopic collage of everyone around him.
And in this sense, he doesn't exist at all.
Should all these people disperse, so will the narcissist. It's a disconnect.
The narcissist has the cognitive, linguistic and analytical capacity of a brilliant man or woman. Same as the psychopath, by the way.
Not all psychopaths are brilliant. They're not all narcissist or geniuses, of course. But generally speaking, narcissists are proficient. They're well versed in cognitive, linguistic and analytical capacity. Or at least there are no disabilities as far as cognitive, linguistic and analytical capacities go. Not like in autism spectrum disorders, for example.
It's the same for psychopaths.
So when you come across a narcissist, he appears to be totally normal. His cognition is okay. He analyzes things sometimes brilliantly. His use of language is fine or beyond fine.
And so you say to yourself, that's a brilliant man or a bright woman.
But at the same time, this overlay of adulthood, this veneer of maturity hides unboundaried emotional immaturity.
The narcissist is impulsive. There is reactance. There is pseudo naivety. His mental emotional age is anywhere between eight and 11. And that is the most high functioning evolved narcissist.
The majority of narcissists, the mental age is two years old. And yet these two years old, these two years old emotionally, these children who are immature, impulsive, reckless, defiant, pseudo naive, pseudo stupid, these children also have all the cognitive capacity, the linguistic abilities and the analytical wherewithal of a top university professor at an Ivy League university.
How do you put the two together? How can a child of two years old possess all these skills?
You see, it again challenges psychology. We believe that all these elements inform each other, rely on each other and build upon each other. We believe that these elements are inextricable. They are parts of a whole.
There's a whole which comprises a totality, which comprises all these elements into completion.
Between the narcissist is like there's a divorce, a divorce between these.
On the one hand is a sage, intelligent, mature, analytic, cognitive, linguistic genius. On the other hand is a two year old, immature, petulant, stupid person.
Harvey Blackley called it the mask of sanity and his masterpiece, eponymous masterpiece, same title of masterpiece. He describes people who today we call narcissists, he called them psychopaths, but actually they were narcissists. He described narcissists or psychopathic narcissists.
He wrote a book of 400 and something pages wondering at these incongruities, at these incongruences, at these discrepancies, at these divorces and disconnects and disjointedness at the narcissist core. He was amazed at how these people who have all the gifts, all the opportunities, all the help, promising careers, brilliant minds, how can they reject life, a life unlived as Jeffrey Seinfeld called it. How can they give up on so much, so flippantly, off-handedly, absent-mindedly, give up on everything, give their bodies away to strangers, give their life savings, do the most crazy self-destructive, self-defeating things, unthinkingly, on whim. He couldn't understand it. It mind boggled him.
You can see a man tormented and tortured by his exposure to these psychopathic narcissists and he didn't, he doesn't have the answer.
Harvey Kletley wrote his book in 1942, that's 80 years ago. Nothing has changed since.
Narcissists, be narcissists, be narcissists.
This is the biggest lesson we can learn that narcissism is immutable, non-transformative, unchanging precisely because it is imminently and immanently contradictory.