Perspectives - Vol. 6, No. 1 - A Primer on Narcissism - Page 2 of 3

Sam Vaknin, Ph.D.

Continued from Page 1

To Kohut, grandiosity and idealization were positive childhood development mechanisms. Even their reappearance in transference should not be considered a pathological narcissistic regression.

In his "Chicago Lectures 1972-1976" he says:

"You see, the actual issue is really a simple one . . . a simple change in classical [Freudian] theory, which states that auto-erotism develops into narcissism and that narcissism develops into object love . . . there is a contrast and opposition between narcissism and object love. The[forward] movement toward maturation was toward object love. The movement from object love toward narcissism is a [backward]regressive movement toward a fixation point. To my mind [this] viewpoint is a theory built into a nonscientific value judgment . . . that has nothing to do with developmental psychology [pp.277-278].

Kohut's contention is nothing less than revolutionary. He says that narcissism (subject-love) and object-love coexist and interact throughout life. True, they wear different guises with age and maturation - but they always cohabitate.

Kohut: "It is not that the self-experiences are given up and replaced by... a more mature or developmentally more advanced experience of objects."

This dichotomy inevitably led to to a dichotomy of disorders. Kohut agreed with Freud that neuroses are conglomerates of defence mechanisms, formations, symptoms, and unconscious conflicts. He even did not object to identifying unresolved Oedipal conflicts (ungratified unconscious wishes and their objects) as the root of neuroses. But he identified a whole new class of disorders: the self-disorders. These were the result of the perturbed development of narcissism.

It was not a cosmetic or superficial distinction. Self disorders were the results of childhood traumas very much different to Freud's Oedipal, castration and other conflicts and fears. These are the traumas of the child either not being "seen" (an existence, a presence which are not affirmed by objects, especially the Primary Objects, the parents) - or being regarded as an object for gratification or abuse. Such children develop to become adults who are not sure that they do exist (lack a sense of self-continuity) or that they are worth anything (lack of self-worth, or self-esteem). They suffer depressions, as neurotics do. But the source of these depressions is existential (a gnawing sensation of emptiness) as opposed to the "guilty-conscious" depressions of neurotics.

Such depressions: "... are interrupted by rages because things are not going their way, because responses are not forthcoming in the way they expected and needed. Some of them may even search for conflict to relieve the pain and intense suffering of the poorly established self, the pain of the discontinuous, fragmenting, undercathected self of the child not seen or responded to as a unit of its own, not recognized as an independent self who wants to feel like somebody, who wants to go its own way (see Lecture 22). They are individuals whose disorders can be understood and treated only by taking into consideration the formative experiences in childhood of the total body-mind-self and its self-object environment - for instance, the experiences of joy of the total self feeling confirmed, which leads to pride, self-esteem, zest, and initiative; or the experiences of shame,loss of vitality, deadness, and depression of the self who does not have the feeling of being included, welcomed, and enjoyed." (From: The Preface to the "Chicago Lectures 1972-1976 of H. Kohut, by: Paul and Marian Tolpin)

One note: "Constructs" or "Structures" are permanent psychological patterns. This is not to say that they do not change - rather, that they are capable only of slow change. Kohut and his Self-psychology disciples believed that the only viable constructs are comprised of self-selfobject experiences and that these structures are lifelong ones. Melanie Klein belived more in archaic drives, splitting defenses and archaic internal objects and part objects. Winnicott (and Balint and other, mainly British researchers) as well as other ego-psychologists thought that only infantile drive wishes and hallucinated oneness with archaic objects qualify as structures.

VIII. Narcissism - Karen Horney's Contributions

Horney is one of the precursors of the "Object Relations" school of psychodynamics. She said that personality was shaped mostly by environmental issues, social or cultural. She believed that relationships with other humans in one's childhood determine both the shape and functioning of one's personality. She expanded the psychoanalytic repertoire. She added needs to drives. Where Freud believed in the exclusivity of the sex drive as an agent of transformation (later he added other drives) - Horney believed that people (children) needed to feel secure, to be loved, protected, emotionally nourished and so on. She believed that the satisfaction of these needs or their frustration early in chlildhood were as important a determinant as any drive. Society was introduced through the parental door. Biology converged with social injunction to yield human values such the nurturance of children.

Horney's great contribution was the concept of anxiety. Freudian anxiety was a rather primitive mechanism, a reaction to imaginary threats arising from early childhood sexual conflicts. Horney argued convincingly that anxiety is a primary reaction to the very dependence of the child on adults for his survival. Children are uncertain (of love, protection, nourishment, nurturance) - so they become anxious. Defenses are developed to compensate for the intolerable and gradual realization that adults are human: capricious, arbitrary, unpredictable, non-dependable. Defenses provide both satisfaction and a sense of security. The problem still exists, even as the anxiety does, but they are "one stage removed". When the defenses are attacked or perceived to be attacked (such as in therapy) - anxiety is reawakened.

Karen B. Wallant in "Treating Addictions and the Alienated Self":

"The capacity to be alone develops out of the baby's ability to hold onto the internalization of his mother, even during her absences. It is not just an image of mother that he retains but also her loving devotion to him. Thus, when alone, he can feel confident and secure as he continues to infuse himself with her love. The addict has had so few loving attachments in his life that when alone he is returned to his detached, alienated self. This feeling-state can be compared to a young child's fear of monsters without a powerful other to help him, the monsters continue live somewhere within child or his environment. It is not uncommon for patients be found on either side of an attachment pendulum. invariably easier handle whom transference erupts in idealizing phase than those who view therapist as and distrusted intruder."

So, the child learns to sacrifice a part of his autonomy, of WHO is is, in order to feel secure. Horney identified three NEUROTIC strategies: submission, aggression and detachment. The choice of strategy determines the type of personality, or rather of NEUROTIC personality. The submissive (or compliant) type is fake. He hides aggression beneath the facade of friendliness. The aggressive type is fake as well: at heart he is submissive. The detached neurotic withdraws from people. This cannot be considered an adaptive strategy.

Horney's is an optimistic outlook.Because she believes biology is only ONE of the forces shaping our adulthood - culture and society being the predominant ones - she believes in reversibility and in the power of insight to heal. She believes that if an adult were to understand his problem (his anxiety) - he would be able to eliminate it altogether. Other theoreticians are much more pessimistic and deteriministic. They think that childhood trauma and abuse are pretty much impossible to reprogramm, let alone erase. Modern brain research tends both to support this sad view - and to offer some hope. The brain seems to be plastic. It is physically impressed with abuse and trauma. But no one knows when this "window of plasticity" shuts. It is conceivable that this plasticity continues well into adulthood and that later "reprogramming" (by loving, caring, compassionate and empathic experiences) can remold the brain permanently. Yet others believe that the patient has to accept his disorder as a given and work AROUND it rather than attack it directly. Our disorders were adaptive and helped us to function. Their removal may not always be wise or necessary to attain a full and satisfactory life. additionally, we should not all conform to a mold and experience life the same. Idiosyncracies are a good thing, both on the individual level and on the level of the species.

IX. The Issue of Separation and Individuation

It is by no means universally accepted that children go through a phase of separation from their parents and through the consequent individuation. Most psychodynamic theories (especially Klein, Mahler) are virtually constructed upon this foundation. The child is considered to be merged with his parents until it differentiates itself (through object-relations). But researchers like Daniel Stern dispute this hypothesis. Based on many studies it appears that what seems intuitively right is not necessarily right. In "The Interpersonal World of the Infant" (1985) Stern seems to, inadvertently, support Kohut by concluding that children possess selves and are separated from their caregivers from the very start. In effect, he says that the picture of the child, as depicted by psychodynamic theories, is influenced by the way adults see children and childhood in retrospect. Adult disorders (for instance, the pathological need to merge) are attributed to children and to childhood.

This view is in stark contrast to the belief that children will accept any kind of parents (even abusive) because they depend on them for their self-definition. Attachment to and dependence on significant others is the result of the non-separateness of the child, go the classical psychodynamic/object-relations theories. The Self is a construct (within a social context, some add), an assimilation of the oft-imitated and idealized parents plus the internalization of the way others perceive the child within social interactions. The self is, therefore, an internalized reflection, an immitation, a series of internalized idealizations. This sounds close to pathological narcissism. Perhaps pathological narcissism is really a matter of quantity rather than of quality.

X. Childhood Traumas and the Development of the Narcissistic Personality

Traumas are inevitable. They are an inseparable part of life. But in early childhood - especially in the formative years of infancy (ages 0 to 4 years) they acquire an ominous aura, an evil, irreversible meaning. No matter how innocuous the event and the surrounding circumstances the child's vivid imagination is likely to embed it in the framework of a highly idiosyncratic horror story.

Parents sometimes have to go away due to medical or economic conditions. They may be too preoocupied to stay attuned at all times to the child's emotional needs. The family unit itself may be disintegrating with looming divorce or separation. The values of the parent may stand in radical contrast to those of society.

To adults, such traumas are very different to abuse. Verbal and psychological-emotional abuse or neglect are judged by us to be more serious "offenses". But this distinction is lost on the child. To him, all traumas are of equal standing, though their severity may differ together with the permanence of their emotional outcomes. Moreover, such abuse and neglect could well be the result of circumstances beyond the abusive or negligent parent's control. A parent can be physically or mentally handicapped, for instance. But the child cannot see this as a mitigating circumstance because he cannot appreciate it or even plainly understand the causal linkage.

Where even the child itself can tell the difference is with physical and sexual abuse. Here is a cooperative effort at concealment, strong emotions of shame and guilt, repressed to the point of producing anxiety and "neurosis". Sometimes the child perceives even the injustice of the situation, though it rarely dares to express its views, lest it be abandoned by its abusers. This type of trauma which involves the child actively or passively is qualitatively different and is bound to yield long term effects such as dissociation or severe personality disorders. These are violent, active traumas, not traumas by default and the reaction is bound to be violent and active. The child becomes a reflection of its dysfunctional family - it represses emotions, denies reality, resorts to violence and escapism, disintegrates.

One of the coping strategies is to withdraw inwards, to seek gratification from a secure, reliable and permanently-available source: from the Self. The child, fearful of further rejection and abuse, refrains from further interaction. Instead, it builds its own kingdom of grandiose fantasies wherein it is always loved and self-sufficient. This is the narcissistic strategy which leads to the development of a narcissistic personality.

XI. The Dyfunctional Family

The family is the mainspring of support of every kind. It mobilizes psychological resources and alleviates emotional burdens. It allows for the sharing of tasks, provides material supplies coupled with cognitive training. It is the prime socialization agent and encourages the absorption of information, most of it useful and adaptive.

This division of labour between parents and children is vital both to development and to proper adaptation. The child must feel, in a functional family, that he can share his experiences without being defensive and that the feedback that he is likely to get will be open and unbiased. The only "bias" acceptable (because it is consistent with constant outside feedback) is the set of beliefs, values and goals that will finally be internalized via imitation and unconscious identification. So, the family is the first and the most important source of identity and of emotional support. It is a greenhouse wherein a child feels loved, accepted and secured - the prerequisites for the development of personal resources. On the material level, the family should provide the basic necessities (and, preferably, beyond), physical care and protection and refuge and shelter during crises.

The role of the mother (the Primary Object) has been often discussed and dissected. The father's part is mostly neglected, even in professional literature. However, recent research demonstrates his importance to the orderly and healthy development of the child.

He participates in the day to day care, is an intellectual catalyst, who encourages the child to develop his interests and to satisfy his curiosity through the manipulation of various instruments and games. He is a source of authority and discipline, a boundary setter, enforcing and encouraging positive behaviours and eliminating negative ones. He also provides emotional support and economic security, thus stabilizing the family unit. Finally, he is the prime source of masculine orientation and identification to the male child - and gives warmth and love as a male to his daughter, without exceeding the socially permissible limits.

We can safely say that the Narcissist's family is as severely disturbed as he is. He is nothing but a reflection of its dysfunction. One or more (usually, many more) of the functions aforementioned are improperly carried out. The narcissist is the "emergent" pathology of his family, he embodies this pathology.

In a dysfunctional family, two important mechanisms operate:

First, the mechanism of self-deception: "I do have a relationship with my parents. It is my fault - the fault of my emotions, sensations, aggressions and passions - that this relationship is not working. It is, therefore, my responsibility to make amends. I will write a play in which I am both loved and punished. In this play, I will allocate roles to myself and to my parents. This way, everything will be fine and we will all be happy."

Second is the mechanism of over-valuation and devaluation. The dual roles of sadist and punished masochist (Superego and Ego in the psychoanalytic model), parent and child - permeate, then invade and then pervade all the interactions that a Narcissist has with his fellow humans. He experiences a reversal of roles as his relationships progress.

At the beginning of every relationship he is the child in need of attention, approval and admiration. He becomes dependent.

Then, at the first sign of disapproval (real or imaginary), he is revealed as an avowed sadist, punishing and inflicting pain.

XII. Narcissism - Otto Kernberg

Another school of psychology is represented by Otto Kernberg (1975, 1984, 1987).

Kernberg is a senior member of the "Object Relations" school in Psychology (Kohut, Kernberg, Klein, Winnicott).

Kernberg disagrees with Freud. He regards the division between an Object Libido (=energy directed at Objects, people in the immediate vicinity of the infant and who are meaningful to him) and a Narcissistic Libido (=energy directed at the Self as the most immediate and satisfying Object), which precedes it - as artificial.

Whether a Child develops a normal or a pathological form of Narcissism depends on the relations between the representations of the Self (=roughly, the image of the Self that he forms in his mind) and the representations of Objects (=roughly, the images of the Objects that he forms in his mind, based on all the information available to him, including emotional data). It is also dependent on the relationship between the representations of the Self and real, external, "objective" Objects. Add to this instinctual conflicts related both to the Libido and to aggression (these very strong emotions give rise to strong conflicts in the child) and a comprehensive explanation concerning the formation of pathological Narcissism emerges.

Kernberg's concept of Self is closely related to Freud's concept of Ego. The Self is dependent upon the unconscious, which exerts a constant influence on all mental functions. Pathological Narcissism, therefore, reflects a libidinal investment in a pathologically structured Self and not in a normal, integrative structure of the Self. The Narcissist suffers from a Self, which is devalued or fixated on aggression.

All object relations of such a Self are distorted: it detaches these relations from the real Objects (because they often hurt), it dissociates, represses, or projects them unto other objects. Narcissism is not merely a fixation on an early developmental stage. It is not confined to the failure to develop intra-psychic structures. It is an active, libidinal investment in a deformed structure of the Self.

XIII. The Narcissist and his Family - An Integrative Framework

"For very young children, self-esteem is probably best thought to consist of deep feelings of being loved, accepted, and valued by significant others rather than of feelings derived from evaluating oneself against some external criteria, as in the case of older children. Indeed, the only criterion appropriate for accepting and loving a newborn or infant is that he or she has been born. The unconditional love and acceptance experienced in the first year or two of life lay the foundation for later self-esteem, and probably make it possible for the preschooler and older child to withstand occasional criticism and negative evaluations that usually accompany socialization into the larger community.

As children grow beyond the preschool years, the larger society imposes criteria and conditions upon love and acceptance. If the very early feelings of love and acceptance are deep enough, the child can most likely weather the rebuffs and scoldings of the later years without undue debilitation. With increasing age, however, children begin to internalize criteria of self-worth and a sense of the standards to be attained on the criteria from the larger community they observe and in which they are beginning to participate. The issue of criteria of self-esteem is examined more closely below.

Cassidy's (1988) study of the relationship between self-esteem at age five and six years and the quality of early mother-child attachment supports Bowlby's theory that construction of the self is derived from early daily experience with attachment figures. The results of the study support Bowlby's conception of the process through which continuity in development occurs, and of the way early child-mother attachment continues to influence the child's conception and estimation of the self across many years. The working models of the self derived from early mother-child inter-action organize and help mold the child's environment "by seeking particular kinds of people and by eliciting particular behavior from them" (Cassidy, 1988, p. 133). Cassidy points out that very young children have few means of learning about themselves other than through experience with attachment figures. She suggests that if infants are valued and given comfort when required, they come to feel valuable; conversely, if they are neglected or rejected, they come to feel worthless and of little value.

In an examination of developmental considerations, Bednar, Wells, and Peterson (1989) suggest that feelings of competence and the self-esteem associated with them are enhanced in children when their parents provide an optimum mixture of acceptance, affection, rational limits and controls, and high expectations. In a similar way, teachers are likely to engender positive feelings when they provide such a combination of acceptance, limits, and meaningful and realistic expectations concerning behavior and effort (Lamborn et al., 1991). Similarly, teachers can provide contexts for such an optimum mixture of acceptance, limits, and meaningful effort in the course of project work as described by Katz and Chard (1989)." (Distinctions between Self-Esteem and Narcissism: Implications for Practice - ERIC database)

Kohut, as we said, regarded Narcissism as the final product of the failing efforts of parents to cope with the needs of the child to idealize and to be grandiose (for instance, to be omnipotent).

Idealization is an important developmental path leading to Narcissism. The child merges the idealized aspects of the images of the parent (Imago in Kohut's terminology) with those parts of the image of the parent which are cathected (infused) with object libido (=in which the child invests the energy that he reserves to Objects). This exerts a great and important influence on the re-internalization processes (=the processes in which the child re-introduced the Objects and their images into his mind) which are right for each of the successive phases.

Through these processes, two permanent nuclei of the personality are constructed:

  • a. The basic, neutralizing texture of the psyche
  • b. The ideal Superego

Both of them are characterized by an invested instinctual Narcissistic cathexis (=invested energy of self-love which is instinctual in its nature).

At first, the child idealizes his parents. As he grows, he begins to notice their shortcomings and vices. He withdraws part of the idealizing libido from the images of the parents, which is conducive to the natural development of the Superego. The Narcissistic sector in the child's psyche remains vulnerable throughout its development. This is largely true until the Child re-internalizes the ideal parent image. Also, the very construction of the mental apparatus can be tampered with by traumatic deficiencies and by object losses right through the Oedipal period (and even in latency and in adolescence).

The same effect can be attributed to traumatic disappointment by objects.

Disturbances leading to the formation of NPD can be thus grouped thus:

  1. Very early disturbances in the relationship with an ideal object. These lead to structural weakness of the personality which develops a deficient and/or dysfunctional stimuli filtering mechanism. The ability of the individual to maintain a basic Narcissistic homeostasis of the personality is damaged. Such a person will suffer from diffusive Narcissistic vulnerability.
  2. A disturbance occurring later in life - but still pre-Oedipally - will effect the pre-Oedipal formation of the basic fabric of the control, channeling and neutralizing of drives and urges. The nature of the disturbance has to be a traumatic encounter with the ideal object (such as a major disappointment). The symptomatic manifestation of this structural defect is the propensity to re - sexualize drive derivatives and internal and external conflicts either in the form of fantasies or in the form of deviant acts.
  3. A disturbance formed in the Oedipal or even in the early latent phases - inhibits the completion of the Superego idealization. This is especially true of a disappointment related to an ideal object of the late Pre-Oedipal and the Oedipal stages, where the partly idealized external parallel of the newly internalized object is traumatically destroyed.

Such a person will possess a set of values and standards - but he will forever look for ideal external figures from whom he will aspire to derive the affirmation and the leadership that his insufficiently idealized Superego cannot supply.

Everyone agrees that a loss (real or perceived) at a critical junction in the psychological development of the Child - forces him to refer to himself for nurturing and for gratification. The Child ceases to trust others and his ability to develop object love or to idealize is hampered. He is constantly shadowed by the feeling that only he can satisfy his emotional needs and he regards.

The Narcissist is born into a dysfunctional family. It is characterized by massive denials, both internal ("you do not have a real problem, you are only pretending") and external ("you must never tell the secrets of the family to anyone"). The whole family unit suffers from an affective dysfunction. It leads to affective and other personality disorders displayed by all the members of the family and ranging from obsessive - compulsive disorders to hypochondriasis and depression. Such families are reclusive and autarkic. They actively reject and encourage the rejection of social contacts.

This inevitably leads to defective or partial socialization and differentiation and to problems with sexual identity.

This attitude is sometimes applied even to other members of the extended family. The nuclear family feels emotionally or financially deprived or threatened by them. It reacts with envy, rejection, self-isolation and rage.

Constant aggression and violence are permanent features of such families. The violence can be from verbal (degradation, humiliation) and up to severe cases of psychological, physical and sexual abuse.

Trying to rationalize and intellectualize its unique position and to justify it, the family resorts to emphasizing logic, cost effectiveness, and calculations of feasibility. It is a transactional approach to life and it regards knowledge as an expression of superiority and as an advantage. These families encourage excellence - mainly cerebral and academic - but only as means to an end. The end is usually highly Narcissistic ("to be famous/rich/to live well, etc.").

Some Narcissists react by creatively escaping into rich, imagined worlds in which they exercise total physical and emotional control over their environment. But all of them react by diverting libido, which should have been object-oriented to their own Self.

The source of all the Narcissist's problems is the foreboding sensation that human relationships invariably end in humiliation, betrayal and abandonment. This belief is embedded in them during their very early childhood by their parents and by their experiences with peers.

But the Narcissist always generalizes. To him, any emotional interaction and any interaction with an emotional component is bound to end this way. Getting attached to a place, a job, an asset, an idea, an initiative, a business, or a pleasure is bound to end as badly as getting attached to a human being. This is why the Narcissist avoids intimacy, real friendships, love, other emotions, commitment, attachment, dedication, perseverance, planning, emotional or other investment. Narcissists are unable to empathize and have little morale or conscience (which are only meaningful if there is a future to consider). They never develope a sense of security, or pleasure.

The Narcissist emotionally invests only in things which he feels that he is in full, unmitigated control of: himself and, at times, not even that.

Continued on Page 3


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