Recognise Me? Ken Heilbrunn's Take on the Narcissist

Uploaded 12/29/2015, approx. 14 minute read

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

In 1995, I started to study the subject of Pathological Narcissism, more precisely Narcissistic Personality Disorder. It was an uphill battle.

On the web, there was not a single website, not one page dedicated to narcissism, narcissistic personality disorder, or narcissist in general. A trip to the library produced two volumes, one dated 1974 and the other 1983.

The first one was a weighty tone, apolitical socio-economic essay about the dangers of narcissism in modern society. But it included no insights and no information about the psychology of narcissism.

The second one was a booklet, filled with errors and misstatements, and based on nothing that I could see except the convictions of the author.

So it was a wasteland, a desert. I had to study narcissism based on very old writings by Freud dating back almost a hundred years, some work by Kohut and Kernberg, and that was more or less it.

In my attempt to describe what I have been gradually learning about myself and then about other people diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder, in attempting to do this, I had to invent a whole new language when none existed before.

I coined new terms and traces such as narcissistic abuse, somatic narcissism, cerebral narcissism. I also borrowed terms from other fields of psychology and adopted them to describe and to cope with the complexities and intricacies of pathological narcissism.

So I borrowed the term narcissistic supply. I expanded and expounded on the phrases for self and true self. I invented the term called empathy to describe the kind of empathy that narcissists and psychopaths possess.

It was very difficult and for five long years I've been all alone with only one of two websites dedicated to this issue, trying as a missionary would to spread the word to inform people about this imminent danger lurking in their backyards and inside their homes.

Then in 2004, almost 10 years after I started, there was a breakthrough and narcissism became a household word and today it is a major research topic in academia and so on.

In 1999, I collected all my notes, the contents of my website and correspondence with thousands of people, family members, neighbors, colleagues, friends and narcissists, people who have been diagnosed with a disorder. I collected all these into the first edition of my book Malignant Self-Love, Narcissism Revisited, the first book ever written about narcissistic abuse.

And I considered to ask an eminent psychologist or psychotherapist to write the introduction to the book. But I couldn't think of anyone who had any knowledge or expertise about this disorder.

Today many claim to have such knowledge and expertise, but very, very few do. They just, these so-called experts and scholars, just hopped on the bandwagon in order to cash in on the narcissism phrase.

But very few know what they're talking about. It was true even then.

And so I approached a friend of mine, Ken Heilbrunn, an MD, and asked him to write from his own personal experience a description of the narcissist.

And he came up with a masterpiece that became the foreword to the first edition of my book Malignant Self-Love: Narcissism Revisited.

With my modification, it is still being reprinted in each and every subsequent edition of my book. And I would like to read it to you, because I think that there is no better, more incisive, and more insightful description of the narcissist than what Ken had written so many years ago.

Ken Heilberg says, Hello. Recognize me?


Well, you see me all the time. You read my books. You watch me on the big screen. You feast on my art. You cheer at my games. You use my inventions. You vote me into office. You follow me into battle You take notes at my lectures. You laugh at my jokes. You marvel at my successes. You admire my appearance. You listen to my stories. You discuss my politics. You enjoy my music. You excuse my faults. You envy my blessings.

No? Still doesn't ring a bell?

Well, you have seen me. Of that, I am positive. In fact, if there is one thing I'm absolutely sure of, it is that you have seen me.

Perhaps our paths crossed more privately. Perhaps I am the one who came alone and beat you up when you were down, employed you when you needed a job, showed the way when you were lost, offered confidence when you were doubting, made you laugh when you were blue, sparked your interest when you were born, listened to you and understood, saw you for what you really are, felt your pain and found the answers, made you want to be alive.

Of course, you recognize me. I am your inspiration, your role model, your savior, your leader, your best friend, the one you aspire to emulate, the one whose favor makes you glow.

But I can also be your worst nightmare.

First, I build you up because that's what you need. Your skies are blue.

Then out of this blue, I start tearing you down. You let me do it because that's what you are used to.

You are a down founder, but I was wrong to take pity on you. You really are incompetent, disrespectful, untrustworthy, immoral, ignorant, inept, egotistical, constrained, disgusting. You are a social embarrassment, an unappreciative partner, an inadequate parent, a disappointment, a sexual flop, a financial liability.

Ken Heilbrunn continues in his wonderful essay about the narcissist, and he says, I tell you this to your face. I must. It is my right because it is.

I behave at home in a way I want to. We talk of this regard for conventions, mores, or the feelings of others. It is my right because it is.

I lie to your face without a tweet or a Twitter, and there is absolutely nothing you can do about it.

In fact, my lies are not lies at all. They are the truth, my truth.

And you believe them because you do, because they do not sound or feel like lies, because to do otherwise would make you question your own sanity, which you have a tendency to do anyway, because from the very beginning of our relationship, you place your trust and hopes in me.

You derive your energy, direction, stability, and confidence from me and from your association with me.

So what's the problem if the safe haven I provide comes with a price? I am worth it, and then some.

So run to your friends. Go. See what this will get you.


People believe what they see, and what they see is the same wonderful me that you always saw and still do.

What they also see is the very mixed up person that you have obviously become.

The more you plead for understanding, the more convinced they are that the crazy one is you. The more isolated you feel and the harder you try to make things right again, not by changing me, but by accepting my criticism and by striving to improve yourself.

Could it be that you were wrong about me in the beginning? So wrong is that?

How do you think our friends will react if you insist that they are also wrong about me? After all, they know that it really is you who have thwarted my progress, tainted my reputation, and thrown me, of course.

I disappoint you? Outrageous. You are the one who have disappointed me. Look at all the frustrations you caused me.

Lucky for you, I have an escape from all this. Fortunately, my reputation provides enough insulation from the outside world so I can indulge in this escape with impunity.

What escape? Why?

Those eruptions of rage you dread and fear. Ah, it feels so good to rage. It is the expression of and the confirmation of my power over you, my absolute superiority.

Lying feels good too, for the same reason.

But nothing compares to the pleasure of exploding for no material reason and inventing my anger with total abandon. All the time, a spectator at my own show and at your helplessness. Pain, fear, frustration, and dependence.

Ken Heilbrunn, in his essay about the narcissist, continues. In fact, my raging is precisely what allows me to stay with him.

Go ahead, tell our friends about it. See if they can imagine what it's like, let alone believe it. The more outrageous the things you say about me, the more convinced they are that it is you who have taken a turn for the worse.

And don't expect much more from your therapist either. You may tell him this or that, but what he sees when I visit him is something quite different. So what's the therapist to believe? After all, it was you who came for help.

No, that's what it is all about. No, that simple two-letter word that regardless of how bad I am, you simply cannot say.

Who knows? You might even acquire some of my behavior yourself.

But you know what?

This may come as a shock, but I can also be my own worst nightmare. I can and I am.

You see, at the heart of my life is nothing more than illusion-clad confusion.

I have no idea why I do what I do, nor do I care to find out.

In fact, the mere notion of asking the question is so repulsive to me that I employ all my resources to repel them. I reconstruct facts. I fabricate illusions. I act them out and thus create my own reality.

It is a precarious state of existence indeed, so I am careful to include enough demonstrable truth in my illusions to ensure their credibility. And I am forever testing that credibility on you and on the reactions of others.

Fortunately, my real attributes and accomplishments are in sufficient abundance to fuel my illusions, seemingly forever. And, blessed or cursed, modern society values most what I do best and thus serves as my accomplice.

Even I get lost in my own illusions, swept away by my own magic.

So, not to worry if you still do not recognize me. I don't recognize me either.

In fact, I am not really sure who I am. That's probably a question you never ask of yourself. Yet I wonder about it all the time.

Perhaps I am not too different from everyone else, just better. After all, that's the feedback I get.

My admirers certainly wish they were me. They just don't have the gifts I have, or the courage I have to express these gifts.

That's what the universe is telling me. Then again, the universe, or my universe. As long as the magic of my illusions works on me too, there really is no need for distinction.

All I need is an abundant fan club to stay on top of it all. So I am constantly taking fan club inventory, testing the loyalty of present lenders with challenges of abuse, and writing off defectors with total indifference, scouting the landscape for new recruits.

Do you see my dilemma?

I use people who are dependent on me to keep my illusions alive. So really it is I who am dependent on them.

Even the rage, that orgasmic release of pain and anger, is better with an audience.

On some level I am aware of my illusions, but to admit that would spawn the magic. And I couldn't bear that.

So I proclaim that what I do is of no consequence, and no difference from what others do. And thus I create an illusion about my creating illusions.

So, no. I don't recognize me any better than you do. I wouldn't dare.

Like my fans, I marvel at my own being.

And then again, sometimes I wish that I were not the person I am.

Do you find that confusing? How do you think it makes me feel?

I need my own magic to stay afloat.

Sometimes others like me recruit me into their magic.

But that's okay. As long as we feed off each other, who is the worst for him for where?

It only confirms my illusion about my illusions that I am no different from most other people. Just a tad, a bit better.

But I am different. And we both know it, although neither of us dares to admit it.

Therein lies the root of my hostility. I tear you down because in reality I'm envious of you. And I'm envious of you because I am different.

At some haunting level, I see my magic for what it is and realize that people around me function just fine without my magic.

This terrifies me. I'm panic stricken.

I try all my old tricks, displays of my talents, unnecessary deceptions, self-deserving or self-surfing distortions, skillful seductions, ludicrous projections, frightening rages, whatever.

And normally that works. But if it fails, watch out.

Like a solar power and battery in darkness, my fire goes out and I cease to exist. Destitution sets in.

Ken Heilbrunn, on the narcissist, continues.

That is the key to understanding me.

Most people strive for goals and feel good when they approach them. They move toward something positive.

I move in the same direction, but my movement is away from something negative.

That's why I never stop. I never contend, no matter what I achieve.

That negative thing seems to follow me around like a shadow. I douse myself in light and it fades, but that's all it does. Fade. Exhausted.

I ultimately succumb to it. Again and again. This shade. This shadow.

Where did it come from? This negativity.

Probably from before I learned to talk. When you were exploring your world for the first time with the usual little toddler mishaps, your mother kept a careful eye on you, intervened when she saw you heading for danger, and comforted you when you made a mistake, even if you cried.

Well, that's not how it was for me. My mother's expectations of me were much higher.

The mistakes were mistakes and crying was not the way to get her approval.

That required being perfect.

So that's exactly what I became.

Not the little awkward toddler that I was, but my mother's model child. Not the brave and curious little person that I really was, but the fearful personification of my mother's ideal.

What you were experiencing through your little mishaps and mistakes were small doses of shame. What you were learning from your quick recoveries was shame repair.

At first, your mother did most of the repairing. Through repetition, you gradually learned how to do it by yourself. Shame repair, brain circuitry, was being laid down that would carry you for the rest of your life.

I had no such luck. I simply did not acquire that skin when nature had intended my brain to acquire it.

No one enjoys shame, but most people can deal with it. Not me. I fear it the way most people fear snakes.

How many others like me are out there? Well, more than you might think, and our numbers are increasing. Take 20 people off the street and you will find one whose mind ticks so much like mine that you could consider us clones.

Impossible, you say. It is simply not possible for that many people, highly accomplished, respected, visible people, to be out there replacing reality with illusions, each in the same way and for reasons they know not. It is simply not possible for so many shame-phobic robots of havoc and chaos, as I describe myself, to function daily amidst other educated, intelligent and experienced individuals and pass for normal. It is simply not possible for such an aberration of human cognition and behavior to infiltrate and infect the population in such numbers virtually undetected by the radar of mental health professionals. It is simply not possible for so much visible positive to contain so much concealed negative.

It is simply not possible, you protest, but it is.

That is the enlightenment of Malignant Self-Love: Narcissism Revisited by Sam Vaknin. Sam is himself one such clone.

What distinguishes him is his uncharacteristic courage to confront and his uncanny understanding of that which makes us tick, himself included. Not only does Sam dare ask and then answer the questions weak clones avoid like the plague, he does so with relentless laser-like precision.

Read his book. Take your seat at the double-headed microscope and let Sam guide you through the dissection.

Like a brain surgeon operating on himself, Sam explores and exposes the alien among us, hoping beyond hope for a respectable tumor, but finding instead each and every cell teeming with the same resistant virus.

The operation is long and insidious and at times frightening and hard to believe, but read on.

The parts exposed are as they are despite what may seem hyperbolic or far-fetched. Their validity might not hit home until later when coupled with memories of past events and experiences.

I am, as I said, my own worst nightmare.

True, the world is replete with my contributions and I'm not so fun to be around. And true, most contributions like mine are not the result of troubled souls. But many more than you might want to believe are.

And if by chance you get caught in my web, I can make your life a living hell.

But remember this. I am in that web too. The difference between you and me is that you can get out.

Ken Heilbrunn, MD, Seattle, Washington, United States.

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