Narcissist's Psychological Defense Mechanisms

Uploaded 11/24/2012, approx. 10 minute read

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

According to Sigmund Freud and his followers, our psyche is a battlefield between instinctual urges and drives, the id, the constraints imposed by reality on the gratification of his impulses, ego, and the norms of society, the superego.

This constant infighting generates what Freud called neurotic anxiety, the fear of losing control, and moral anxiety, guilt, and shame.

But these two are not the only types of anxiety, there is also reality anxiety, and this is the fear of genuine threats.

Reality anxiety combines with neurotic anxiety and moral anxiety to yield a morbid and surrealistic inner landscape.

These multiple recurrent mini-panics are potentially intolerable, overwhelming, and destructive, hence the need to defend against them.

There are dozens of defense mechanisms.

Narcissism actually is a defense mechanism. The narcissist defends against the pain and hurts, against abuse and trauma by inventing a false self.

The false self is omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, almost divine, everything the narcissist is not.

So it's a defense mechanism.

But narcissists have a monopoly of other defense mechanisms, and we will describe them now.

Start with acting out.

When an inner conflict, most often frustration, translates into aggression. It involves acting with little or no insight or reflection, and in order to attract attention and disrupt other people's cozy lives.

Then there is denial.

Perhaps the most primitive and best-known defense mechanism.

People simply ignore unpleasant facts. They filter out data and content that contravene their self-image, prejudices, and preconceived notions of others and of the world.

Then there is devaluation, attributing negative or inferior traits or qualities to others or to self.

This is done in order to punish the person devalued and to mitigate his or her impact on, and importance to, the devaluer.

Narcissists often devalue.

When the self is devalued, it is a self-defeating and self-destructive act.

There is displacement. Displacement is when we cannot confront the resources of our frustration, pain, and envy, and then we tend to pick a fight with someone weaker or irrelevant and thus less menacing.

Children often do it because they perceive conflicts with parents and caregivers as life-threatening.

Instead, they go out and torment the cat or bully someone at school or lash out at their siblings.

They displace. Dissociation is a well-known defense mechanism.

Our mental existence is continuous. We maintain a seamless flow of memories, consciousness, perceptions, and representation of both inner and external worlds.

When we face horrors and unbearable truths, we sometimes disengage, detach, vanish for a minute. We lose track of space, time, and the continuum of our identity.

We become someone else, with minimal awareness of our surroundings, of incoming information, and of circumstances.

In extreme cases, some people develop a permanently rent personality, and this is known as dissociative identity disorder, DID, before it was called multiple personality disorder.

Then there is fantasy. Everyone fantasizes now and then. It helps to fend off the drieriness and drabness of everyday life and to plan for an uncertain future.

But when fantasy becomes a central feature of grappling with conflict, it is pathological.

Seeking gratification, the satisfaction of drive through desires, mainly by fantasizing, is an unhealthy defense.

Narcissists, for instance, often indulge in grandiose fantasies, which are incommensurate with their accomplishments and abilities.

Such fantasy-like retards personal growth and development because it substitutes for true coping.


Another defense mechanism in the arsenal of the narcissists that, to a lesser degree, the borderline, the histrionic, is the attribution of positive, glowing, and superior traits, both to self or, more commonly, to other people.

Again, what differentiates the healthy from the pathological is the reality test.

Imputing positive characteristics to self or others is not a bad thing, but only if the attributed qualities are real and grounded in a firm grasp of what's true and what's not.

A lesser known defense mechanism is isolation of affect.

Isolation of affect, cognition, thoughts, concepts, ideas. A cognition is never divorced from emotion. Conflict can be avoided by separating the cognitive content, for instance, a disturbing or depressing idea, from its emotional correlate.

The subject is fully aware of the facts or of the intellectual dimensions of a problematic situation, but feels numb. Casting away threatening and discomforting feelings is a potent way of coping with conflict in the short term. It is only when it becomes habitual that it is rendered self-defeating and pathological.

So separating one's thinking from one's emotions is isolation of affect.

Then there is omnipotence, when one has a pervading sense and image of oneself as incredibly powerful, superior, irresistible, intelligent and influential.

This is not an adopted affectation but an ingrained, ineradicable inner conviction, which borders on magical thinking. It is intended to fend off expected hurt in having to acknowledge one's shortcomings, inadequacies or limitations.

A very famous defense mechanism is projection.

We all have an image of how we should be.

Freud called it the ego ideal.

But sometimes we experience emotions and drives or have personal qualities which don't sit well with this idealized construct about.

Projection is when we attribute to others these unacceptable, dis-confiting and ill-fitting feelings and traits that we ourselves possess.

This way we disown these discordant features and secure the right to criticize and chastise others for having or displaying them.

When entire collectives, nations, groups, organizations, clubs, firms project, Freud calls it the narcissism of small differences.

And then there is projective identification.

Projection is unconscious. People are rarely aware that they are projecting onto others their own egosynthetic and unpleasant characteristics and feelings.

But sometimes the projected content is retained in the subject's awareness.

This creates a conflict.

On the one hand, the patient cannot admit that the emotions, traits, reactions and behaviors that he so condemns in others are really his own.

On the other hand, he can't help but being self-aware of this. He fails to erase from his consciousness the painful realization that he is merely projecting. That he is actually what he condemns in others. So instead of denying it, the subject explains unpleasant emotions and unacceptable conduct as reactions to the recipient's behavior.

Such people say, she made me do it. And that is the battle cry of projective identification of abusers.

We all have expectations regarding the world and its denizens. Some people expect to be loved and appreciated. Others expect to be feared and abused.

The latter type behave obnoxiously and thus force their nearest and dearest to hate, fear and abuse them exactly as they had expected. Thus vindicated their expectations could feel they calm down. The world is rendered once more familiar by making other people behave the way that they expect them to.

I know you would cheat on me, they say. It was clear I couldn't trust you. And having said it often enough, surely the spouse would cheat.

Rationalization or intellectualization is one of the first defense mechanisms to have been described.

To cast one's behavior after the fact in a favorable light is what rationalization or intellectualization is all about. To justify, to explain one's conduct or more often misconduct by resorting to rational, logical, socially acceptable explications and excuses.

Rationalization is also used to re-establish egosyntony, inner peace and self-acceptance.

Though not strictly a defense mechanism, cognitive dissonance may be considered a variant of rationalization. It involves speech acts which amount to the devaluation of things and people very much desire, and frustratingly, out of one's reach and control.

In a famous fable, a fox, unable to snag the luscious grave sick of it, says, these graves are probably sour anyhow. Andanyhow.

And this is an example of cognitive dissonance in action. We devalue that which we cannot attain.

Reaction formation, adopting a position and mode of conduct that defy personally acceptable thoughts or impulses by expressing diametrically opposed sentiments and convictions.

Example, a Latin closer homosexual finds his sexual preferences deplorable and acutely shameful, egosintony.

So what does he do? He resorts to homophobia. He publicly berates taunts and baits homosexuals.

Additionally, he may flaunt his heterosexuality by emphasizing his sexual prowess by prowling singles bars for easy pickups and conquests.

This way he contains and avoids his own unwelcome homosexuality.

Repression is the removal from consciousness of forbidden thoughts and wishes. The removed content does not vanish. It remains as potent as ever, fermenting in one's unconscious. It is liable to create inner conflicts of anxiety and provoke other defense mechanisms to cope with ease.

A very, very famous defense mechanism, which is often used by narcissists and other people with other personality disorders, for instance, born aligned, is splitting. Splitting is a primitive defense mechanism. In other words, it begins to operate in very early infancy.

It involves the inability to integrate contradictory qualities of the same object into a coherent picture. Mother has good qualities in bed. Sometimes she is attentive and caring. Sometimes she is distracted and cold. The baby is unable to grasp the complexities of her personality.

Instead, what the infant does, he invents two constructs, two entities. There is a bad mother and a good mother. The infant relegates everything likable about mother to the good mother and contrasts good mother with bad mother, the repository of everything he dislikes about her.

This means that whenever mother acts nicely, the baby relates to the idealized good mother. And whenever mother fails the test, whenever she disappoints the baby, the baby devalues her by interacting in its mind with bad mother.

These cycles of idealization, followed by devaluation, are common in some personality disorders, notably narcissistic personality disorders. Splitting can also apply to one's self.

Patients with personality disorders often idealize themselves fantastically and grandiosely, only to harshly devalue hate and even harm themselves when they fail or otherwise frustrated.

Sublimation is the conversion and channeling of unacceptable emotions into socially condoned behavior.

Freud described how sexual desires and urges are transformed into creative pursuits or into politics. Finally, undoing. Undoing is trying to rid oneself of knowing feelings of guilt by compensating the injured party, either symbolically or actually.

All these defense mechanisms operate within the narcissist.

What a battle film his psyche is.

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Sam Vaknin explains that the grandiosity gap between a narcissist's self-image and reality is grating on their nerves. As a result, the narcissist resorts to self-delusion, which can lead to various solutions. These include the delusional narrative solution, the antisocial solution, the paranoid schizoid solution, the paranoid aggressive or explosive solution, and the masochistic avoidance solution. Ultimately, the narcissist's pronounced and public misery and self-pity are compensatory and reinforce their self-esteem against overwhelming convictions of worthlessness.

Narcissist's Shame and Guilt

The grandiosity gap is the difference between self-image and reality, causing feelings of guilt and shame in narcissists. Narcissistic shame is the pervasive feeling of worthlessness experienced by the narcissist due to the absence or deficiency of narcissistic supply. The narcissist adopts primitive psychological defense mechanisms to counter this shame, such as addictive or impulsive behaviors. Guilt is an objectively determinable philosophical entity, while shame is the outcome of avoidable outcomes.

Narcissist's Reality Substitutes

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Narcissists: Achievers and Failures

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Adolescent Narcissist: Personal Fable, Imaginary Audience

Healthy narcissism underlines personal development and growth well into one's teenage years, and is beneficial for adolescents to mature and become adults. Adolescents go through a phase of separation individuation, where they develop object relations or relationships with objects. All adolescents develop a personal fable, have an imaginary audience, have narcissism, have depression, and have pessimism, but grow out of all these. However, if these reactions persist, they can become pathological and predispose the adolescent to develop paranoia later on in life.

Grandiosity as Cognitive Bias (Kruger-Dunning Effect)

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Narcissist's Routines

Narcissists have a series of routines that are developed through rote learning and repetitive patterns of experience. These routines are used to reduce anxiety and transform the world into a manageable and controllable one. The narcissist is a creature of habit and finds change unsettling. The narcissist's routines are often broken down when they are breached or can no longer be defended, leading to a narcissistic injury.

Narcissist: Don’t Touch My Narcissism

Narcissism is a choice that can be influenced by genetics and environmental factors, such as childhood trauma. It serves as a role play and narrative that helps individuals make sense of their lives and the world around them. In modern society, narcissism is often rewarded, making it difficult for individuals to give up their narcissistic behaviors. As a result, narcissism has become a pervasive aspect of society, functioning as an organizing principle and explanation for various aspects of human behavior.

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