Hello, and welcome to Trusting After Trauma, Season 2, Rebuilding Resiliency After Narcissistic Abuse. I'm your host, Pivenus Winslow. This informative interview series will provide valuable insights from experts who are dedicated to helping others heal from childhood trauma and narcissistic abuse so they can lead joyful, powerful and fulfilling lives.
Many of these professionals specialize in medicine, science, psychology, abuse recovery, energy work and much more. I am very, very excited to have Sam Vaknin here with us today. Sam Vaknin is the author of Malignant Self-Love: Narcissism Revisited, as well as many other books and e-books about topics in psychology, relationship, philosophy, international affairs and award-winning short fiction. He is visiting professor of psychology, Southern Federal University, Rostov-On-Don, Russia and professor of finance and psychology in SIAS CIAPS, Center for International Advanced and Professional Studies.
Welcome, Sam. It's a pleasure to have you here today. Thank you so much for joining us.
Thank you for having me.
The list of the introduction consumed half the interview. I hope we can manage into the rest.
We totally can.
Sam, you've been studying and researching narcissism for decades. Would you share a little bit about yourself and why you're so passionate about helping victims of narcissistic abuse and people who suffer from narcissistic personality disorder?
I've been diagnosed twice with narcissistic personality disorder within the space of a decade. The first time I've been diagnosed, narcissistic personality disorder just made its entry, its appearance in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. So no one knew anything about it. The second time hasn't been much better.
When I tried to find texts, help, help anything to cope with this verdict because narcissistic personality disorder is a verdict. It's akin to learning that you have a cancer, that you have cancer of pre-determinal phase or that you have COVID-19 perhaps. I don't know, but it's a verdict. It's a medical burden.
I tried to go normally. I couldn't find anything. There was nothing, absolutely nothing. I had to either cater to my own needs and become self-sufficient as I've always done throughout my life or draw.
So I took the first route. I opened the first website about narcissism online and for nine years, it's been the only website online. I owned and managed the six support groups for victims of narcissistic abuse. I coined the phrase narcissistic abuse and I coined a lot of the language in use today. Anything from flying monkeys and hoovering and narcissistic abuse, somatic narcissism, cerebral narcissism, I had to invent all this to cope with the multifarious and nefarious phenomenon that is narcissism.
I placed all my writings online early on in 1995 and I was shocked. That was the inception of the internet. I think there were two people online maybe. I mean, there was just starting, just taking off and my support groups ballooned and mushroomed into 250,000 members within a period of six years or five years. That proved conclusively, demonstrated conclusively the depth of the anguish and the distress out there.
People didn't have a voice and they didn't have a voice because they didn't have a language and they didn't have a language because they didn't have the consciousness. It's a sequence. It's a chain of being. You need to be aware that something is happening. Then you need to verbalize it. To verbalize it, you need a language.
I created all these things essentially, but it put me in an awkward position at the time because I had been a narcissist administering to the needs of victims of narcissistic abuse, solving their wounds, so to speak, providing support.
I always compared that to a concentration camp commandant who would cater to the needs of Holocaust survivors more or less. It created a lot of cognitive dissonance in the victims, very negative dynamics.
I was the only source. There was no one else. There was absolutely no one else. I was the only source. If they wanted to integrate into a social safety net or a support network, they had to go through me and that only exacerbated their Stockholm syndrome, their trauma bonding, the feeling that there's no escape.
I have a narcissist at home and if I want to get help, I have to go through another narcissistic portal online.
Gradually, starting in 2004, other people took over. Today, I am the granddaddy of the field and I'm much more in academia than online.
Thank you for sharing that, Sam.
Many people who have experienced narcissistic abuse struggle to understand why the narcissist behaves so cruelly.
Can you explain what causes narcissistic personality disorder?
Narcissistic personality disorder is the outcome of trauma and abuse in early childhood. Of course, not everyone exposed to trauma and abuse in early childhood becomes a narcissist, which probably is a pretty strong indication that narcissism has a predispositional genetic component.
In other words, there is some genetic element in narcissism exactly as there is and verified genetic component in borderline personality disorder and in antisocial personality disorder, colloquially known as psychopathy. They're all members of the same family. It's called cluster B, dramatic or erratic personality disorders.
And there is no reason why only narcissism would not have a genetic component. So probably there's genetics template, template upon which abuse and trauma act and produce this outcome.
Narcissistic narcissism is a defense, a defense against pain, against hurt. It's a firewall. And the defense is very elaborate and very creative.
Narcissism goes hand in hand, usually with high intelligence in the case of cerebral narcissists, narcissists who are intellectual.
So the defense is very elaborate. The narcissist invents as a child, a fictitious character, an imaginary friend. And that character and friend is everything the child is not. The child is helpless. The false self, it's called the false self. The false self is omnipotent, all powerful. The child doesn't know what's going to happen next minute because the mother or the father, usually the mother is capricious, arbitrary, selfish, narcissistic, self-centered, emotionally absent or depressive. We call it the dead mother. That's the term to describe this kind of mother.
So the narcissist as a child doesn't know what she's going to do next. She's manic, she's sometimes psychotic.
But the false self is omniscient, knows everything.
To cut a long story short, the false self is God. It's God. The child invents God and invents a private relationship, a private religion, I'm sorry, where the false self is the Godhead, the divinity and the child is the worshiper and it's a cult setting. And the child makes a human sacrifice to this God. The child sacrifices his true self.
And with this act, the child bonds forever with a false self. The child vanishes completely. And what remains behind is the false self coupled with an absence or an emptiness. This emptiness is an existence. It's real. It's not the, it's not absence or emptiness in the classic sense, but it's an entity.
So narcissism is very, very creepy. It's the stuff of horror movies because there is the echoing resonance of a person who used to be, used to exist and is no more and had been replaced fully, substituted fully by a fictitious entity spawned by that person who had vanished.
And this fictitious entity is God-like. It's, that's why narcissism is such an extremely powerful metaphor in all fields of life. It's an organizing principle and an explanatory principle.
When we analyze political figures, we say they are narcissists and that explains everything.
You know, when we analyze chief executive officers, when we analyze our spouses, our bosses. Narcissism is not only a buzzword. It is truly very profound explanatory power and predictive power.
Once you get to understand narcissism, you can make sense. The world is rendered meaningful when you introduce narcissism into it.
That's essentially the bedroom.
So do narcissists, since they've developed this god self, do they actually want to change? Do they realize that the way that they're living and operating is causing pain and suffering for others, but also for themselves?
The narcissist is emotionally invested. It's a process called cathexis, is emotionally invested in his disorder. He does not regard his disorder as an inadequacy or a deficiency. He regards his disorder as the next stage in the evolutionary ladder. His disorder renders him superhuman or the equivalent of Nietzsche's Superman. He is beyond morals. He's beyond society. He's beyond pain and he's beyond emotions and beyond empathy. He doesn't consider empathy as a positive thing or emotions as positive. He considers them as vulnerabilities, as weaknesses.
So he has no incentive, definitely not an internal incentive to change.
That people are hurting, they're in pain and so on.
Every human activity has collateral damage. Every human activity incurs unexpected unforeseen circumstances and costs.
And the narcissist casts himself as someone with a cosmic mission, an educator, a change agent, the brightest star in the galaxy, a genius.
In other words, he transforms himself into the kind of person who is justified in demanding sacrifices.
So like if you're a genius, you're justified in demanding the sacrifices of other people, their time, their resources, their love, their forbearance, their tolerance. You have idiosyncrasies, you're eccentric because you're a genius. So it's okay. These have to be tolerated, but it's far more profound.
When the narcissist enters an intimate relationship, he does it in a sequence of stages.
The first stages were known as grooming and love bombing. During this stage, if we discuss the heterosexual male narcissist, but the gender roles are totally reversed in case of a woman.
So just do the math in your head, change the general pronouns. In the case of heterosexual male narcissist, he would, in the grooming and love bombing phase, he would trot out, he would take out the father role, a paternal role. He would act the father, the harsh, disciplinarian, strict, tough love, but just father. The father who has the solutions for everything. The father who is protective, the father you can feel safe with and put your head on his shoulder to pry on. He would become gradually insinuate himself into your life as a father figure.
Normally narcissists target women with daddy issues. Women who have had very complex, to put it gently, relationships with their fathers, absent fathers, incestuous fathers, and so on. And he will offer, he will give them a father substitute. And then they establish together something called shared fantasy.
Within the shared fantasy, the narcissist is idealized. He's idealized and the intimate partner falls in love or gets attached or infatuated or bonds or whatever with the idealized figure, not with the real narcissist.
All the interactions are with the idealized figure. The narcissist idealizes the intimate partner.
This process is called co-idealization. Both parties idealize each other, each for his or her own disparate needs.
And then once they had idealized each other and the narcissist feels safe, he feels what we call object constancy. He feels that he is not about to be abandoned or betrayed or cheated on by his intimate partner.
At that point, the father vanishes. There's no trace of the father.
And instead, the narcissist becomes a child and tries to force the intimate partner to play the maternal role, the role of a mother, a good enough mother, the mother he has never had. And he wants her to play this role.
Of course, this has two effects.
One, sex, it creates sex aversion because the relationship becomes incestuous. It's already incestuous to start with, but it really becomes incestuous when the narcissist infantilizes. So it has a huge impact on sex and many, many victims of narcissistic abuse report sexlessness in relationships.
The second effect is the narcissist has to make sure having rendered himself a child, he has to make sure that the new mother will not be like the old mother. He has to, in other words, test her. And to test her, he abuses her.
Abuse, narcissistic abuse in the shared fantasy is his way of ascertaining that the new woman in his life is a real mother, a good enough mother, mother would love him, nevermind what he does, nevermind how he behaves, nevermind how egregiously he tortures her, abuses her, torments her.
Because a spouse abandons a spouse, a wife abandons the husband, but a mother never abandons a child. Nevermind what the child does. The mother's love is constant and unconditional.
The narcissist wants to recreate this within the shared fantasies in his only way is to push you to the limits, to push you to the boundary, to see whether you are really who you claim to be, his new loving mother, or you're faking it. Will you break up? Will you break down? Are you brittle? Are you fragile and vulnerable? Or are you really a good enough mother who would love him, nevermind what? This nevermind what is the narcissistic abuse?
So women react to this in two ways.
Many of them absent themselves. They withdraw from the relationship, either physically, they get involved with charity work, or they become workaholic, or they dedicate all the time to the children and ignore them. So they absent themselves, emotionally, sometimes physically. This is one type of reaction.
And the other type of reaction is bargaining.
Then the woman mourns the death, the broken dream, the demise of the fantasy. She wants it back.
So she begins to negotiate with the narcissist. She tries to bargain the child the way to say to the narcissist, the father is much better than the child. Can you bring the father back?
The narcissist perceives this as coercion, as coercion, as imposition.
And so in the bargaining phase, there's another round of abuse. But this time the abuse is conscious.
And the aim, the first type of abuse is compulsive and unconscious. Let's see if you can be a good mother, nevermind what I do to you.
The second type of abuse is intended to push you away, to get rid of you simply, because you've made yourself a nuisance. You're nagging, you're criticizing, you're disagreeing. You would become a source of negative narcissistic supply. I want you out of my life. I'm going to abuse you to the point that you will cheat on me ostentatiously, or just pack up your things and leave.
So there are two types of abuse, not one. Different etiology, causation, different motivation, and different behavior. One type is carried out by a spoiled British child. And one type is carried out by a harsh and malevolent father.
You see what you get yourself into when you enter a relationship with a narcissist. It's mind-boggling, literally.
So for a narcissist to want to get treatment, they clearly need to realize that they're conscious of their behaviors and say they make a choice to get treatment.
What are the core issues that make treating narcissistic personality so difficult?
Narcissists would come to treatment in two situations, or their strategies are less efficacious for some reason. They're not working anymore. And they want the therapist to teach them how to be more efficient narcissists. And they open the therapy with this statement.
I used to be, all women were all over me, and now women reject me. Can you tell me what to do?
They kind of fix me, fix me, but as a narcissist. Don't interfere with my essence. Don't change me.
That's one type.
And the second type of narcissist comes to therapy after a process known as narcissistic mortification.
Narcissistic mortification is when the narcissist is faced with humiliation, challenge to grandiosity, abuse, etc., that make it impossible for him to use the false self, destroy his defenses.
So he is like a turtle without a shell. He's skinless. Technically, by the way, he is rendered borderline because according to Brodstein and many other scholars, a borderline is an unfinished narcissist. It's a narcissist, a child who failed to become narcissist. So she remains stuck at the borderline stage.
What happens to the narcissist when he's mortified, he essentially becomes borderline. He feels suddenly, he has access to his emotions, he develops empathy, and he is in terrible pain, horrible life-ready pain.
So he refers to therapy.
In therapy, we can do two things, mortified behaviors, abrasive behaviors, antisocial behaviors, etc.
If the narcissist comes to therapy after mortification, there is a window of opportunity to get rid of the false self.
So I developed a treatment modality. I dubbed it cold therapy.
And cold therapy, to make it very telegraphic, is re-traumatizing the narcissist, causing the narcissist real trauma, not simulated, real trauma.
And then when the narcissist is mortified within clinical setting, within therapeutic setting, which is control, the control setting, the narcissist is then mortified and leveraging the mortification to get rid of the false self.
Because in the process of mortification, the narcissist is estranged from this false self. He is not in contact with the false self. False self is inactivated and very weak.
So it's an opportunity to get rid of it and of the grandiosity and of the need for narcissistic supply for attention.
And that's a maximum we can achieve.
Having done this, the narcissist will revert gradually back to all the other narcissistic structures.
The only difference being that he will not be grandiose. He will not need other people to tell him that he's a genius and brilliant and perfect and so on and so forth. He will not seek such attention and supply and feedback. He will not coerce people to collaborate with him in his fantasies. He will not become aggressive if you deny him supply.
All this is gone after cold therapy.
But all the rest is there. No empathy, no access to emotions, the entire sequence of romantic relationship that I described.
Narcissistic abuse, it's all there.
These are features of narcissism that can never be taken away. They can never be taken away for a simple reason. They work. They work for two reasons.
They worked in early childhood. These were positive adaptations. They allowed the narcissist to survive severe abuse and trauma.
So he sees great value in them. He doesn't want to get rid of them. These are weapons in his arsenal.
And second thing, society, civilization is becoming more and more narcissistic. To be a narcissist is becoming more and more a positive thing, not a negative thing.
If you're a narcissist, you're accomplished, you're rich, you're famous. You're a president, you are, I mean, if you're a narcissist, you make it far.
In July 2016, the famous academic magazine, New Scientists, published in the United Kingdom, came up with a cover story. Parents, teach your children to be narcissists.
So narcissism is glamorized in academia nowadays and psychopathy. They're glamorized. You have academics and scholars who say that narcissism is a positive thing. It helps people to function. It is the bedrock of accomplishment. It should be encouraged and taught. Psychopaths are the natural leaders, natural surgeons, natural law enforcement officers. Psychopathy should be encouraged.
Narcissism should be taught with not living anymore 20 years ago when narcissism was a dirty word.
So narcissism has survived as a dirty word, only in intimate relationships.
But narcissists outside the intimate relationships, they are making it big time, they're pillars of the community. And they justly, they correctly attribute their success to their narcissism. They're right about this. It's not counterfactual. It's the truth.
Why get rid of it? If I were asked to treat Donald Trump, what on earth could I have told him?
Don't be a narcissist. Why Mr. Vaknin? Why should I not be a narcissist? I'm president of the United States. I'm rich. I'm married to a gorgeous woman. I have loving children. Give me one good reason to give this all up.
And you know what Mr. Vaknin, everything I've ever accomplished in my life is directly and only attributable to my narcissism. I had no other advantage except this.
Yeah. So for those of us, for those watching who have loved ones with narcissistic personality disorder, I mean, obviously treatment, cold therapy treatment can resolve some issues, but as you mentioned, not all of them.
And so what would be the best advice that you could give our audience who may be struggling with a narcissist who is either reluctant to get treatment or reluctant to change?
How does somebody who loves a narcissist, what advice do you have to give them?
Let's start with the basic fact that the majority, the overwhelming vast majority of people who say that they are living with a narcissist are not living with a narcissist.
Narcissism and more particularly narcissistic personality disorder is very rare. It's extremely rare actually. Even in settings where people are captive and cannot avoid psychological evaluation like the military or prisons, the prison system, narcissists constitute something like 1% of the population.
So, and these are settings of people who are naturally narcissistic. I mean, if you are criminal, if you're criminal, you're naturally psychopathic and narcissistic. And even in these settings, depending on the study, between one to 3% are narcissists.
In the normal general population, the prevalence and the incidence of cluster B personality disorders put together is something less than 10%. So you are extremely unlikely to be living with a narcissist, but you're likely living with someone who you find to be unpleasant, abusive, counterproductive, destructive, etc. Someone you don't want to be with.
And then it raises the question, if you don't want to be with him, why with him? Why do you need this label to justify?
So there is a very, very unhealthy process among victims where they have become grandiose. They refuse to accept their contribution to the relationship. They present themselves as superhuman in some ways, for example, possessed of an ordinate amount of empathy. They call themselves empaths, super empaths, Nova empaths, and I don't know what else.
This is an attempt to reframe and use of something we call alloplastic defenses.
So they render themselves the perfect victims who were molested unknowingly and without any contribution on their part by a perfect predator.
Now this happens, of course, there are perfect victims preyed upon by perfect predators. But they are one in 100 million, not one in 100. So my advice is threefold.
Before you call anyone a narcissist, when you're not qualified and trained to do so, don't.
Number two, if you live with someone who you think or you feel is abusive, or who is veritably abusive, just leave. Go.
Abuses regardless, regardless of the mental health background, are incorrigible. They cannot be fixed. Abuse fulfills too many psychological needs and is a positive adaptation.
So if you're living with an abuser, no contact is the only strategy that has any validity whatsoever.
Number three, do not adopt the eternal professional victim role because it means you're a narcissist or being narcissistic.
If you claim that you are impeccable, that you're blemishless, that you are faultless, that you are perfect, anything, perfect genius is equal to perfect victim. Both statements are grandiose.
Try not to fall into the trap of grandiosity, narcissism, and psychopathy because studies have shown that survivors of complex trauma resemble clinically very much borderline personality disorder with secondary psychopathy.
In other words, women who had been exposed to long-term narcissistic abuse end up being highly narcissistic, highly psychopathic even, and put a line in the sense that they cannot regulate their emotions.
One more reason to get away as fast as you can.
But even if you haven't, if you're still there, be self-aware, be self-conscious. Ask yourself, do I sound like my narcissist right now? And if the answer is yes, cease and desist to quote Joe Biden.
Thank you, Sam. Thank you so much. So you also have a free gift to offer our viewers today.
You have a whole free library.
Yes, I placed seven of my books. Actually, I placed 60 of my books, but seven of these books have to do with narcissism.
So I placed seven of my books. They sell on Amazon, but you can download them for free via the free gift.
That is so generous of you, Sam. Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge and expertise with us today and your free gift with us.
Thank you. And thank you for having me.
Take care. Thank you, Sam. All right. We'll see you next time on the next episode of trusting after trauma, rebuilding resiliency after narcissistic abuse.
Thank you so much, Sam.