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

Sam Vaknin, Ph.D.

NARCISSISM (n. sing.)

A pattern of traits and behaviours which signify infatuation and obsession with one's self to the exclusion of all others and the egotistic and ruthless pursuit of one's gratification, dominance and ambition.

Narcissism is named after the ancient Greek myth of Narcissus who was a handsome Greek youth who rejected the desperate advances of the nymph Echo. In punishment of his cruelty, he was doomed to fall in love with his own reflection in a pool of water. Unable to consummate his love, he pined away and changed into the flower that bears his name to this very day.

WHAT IS NPD (Narcissistic Personality Disorder)?

The Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) has been recognized as a seperate mental health disorder in the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistics Manual (DSM) in 1980. Its diagnostic criteria and their interpretation have undergone a major revision in the DSM III-R (1987) and were substantially revamped in the DSM IV in 1994. The European ICD-10 basically contains identical language.

An all-pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behaviour), need for admiration or adulation and lack of empathy, usually beginning by early adulthood and present in various contexts. Five (or more) of the following criteria must be met:

  1. Feels grandiose and self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents to the point of lying, demands to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)
  2. Is obsessed with fantasies of unlimited success, fame, fearsome power or omnipotence, unequalled brilliance (the cerebral narcissist), bodily beauty or sexual performance (the somatic narcissist), or ideal, everlasting, all-conquering love or passion
  3. Firmaly convinced that he or she is unique and, being special, can only be understood by, should only be treated by, or associate with, other special or unique, or high-status people (or institutions)
  4. Requires excessive admiration, adulation, attention and affirmation -or, failing that, wishes to be feared and to be notorious (narcissistic supply).
  5. Feels entitled. Expects unreasonable or special and favourable priority treatment. Demands automatic and full compliance with his or her expectations
  6. Is "interpersonally exploitative", i.e., uses others to achieve his or her own ends
  7. Devoid of empathy. Is unable or unwilling to identify with or acknowledge the feelings and needs of others
  8. Constantly envious of others or believes that they feel the same about him or her
  9. Arrogant, haughty behaviours or attitudes coupled with rage when frustrated, contradicted, or confronted.

The language in the criteria above is based on or summarized from:

American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, fourth edition (DSM IV). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.

Sam Vaknin. (1999). Malignant Self Love - Narcissism Revisited, first edition. Prague and Skopje: Narcissus Publication. ("Malignant Self Love - Narcissism Revisited" http://www.geocities.com/vaksam/faq1.html )

More Data About Pathological Narcissists

  • Most narcissists (75%) are men.
  • NPD (=the Narcissistic Personality Disorder) is one of a "family" of personality disorders (formerly known as "Cluster B"). Other members: Borderline PD, Antisocial PD and Histrionic PD.
  • NPD is often diagnosed with other mental health disorders ("co-morbidity") - or with substance abuse, or impulsive and reckless behaviours ("dual diagnosis").
  • NPD is new (1980) mental health category in the Diagnostic and Statistics Manual (DSM).
  • There is only scant research regarding narcissism. But what there is has not demonstrated any ethnic, social, cultural, economic, genetic, or professional predilection to NPD.
  • It is estimated that 0.7-1% of the general population suffer from NPD.
  • Pathological narcissism was first described in detail by Freud. Other major contributors are: Klein, Horney, Kohut, Kernberg, Millon, Roningstam, Gunderson, Hare.
  • The onset of narcissism is in infancy, childhood and early adolescence. It is commonly attributed to childhood abuse and trauma inflicted by parents, authority figures, or even peers.
  • There is a whole range of narcissistic reactions - from the mild, reactive and transient to the permanent personality disorder.
  • Narcissists are either "Cerebral" (derive their narcissistic supply from their intelligence or academic achievements) - or "Somatic" (derive their narcissistic supply from their physique, exercise, physical or sexual prowess and "conquests").
  • Narcissists are either "Classic" - see definition below - or they are "Compensatory", or "Inverted" - see definitions here: "The Inverted Narcissist" - http://www.geocities.com/vaksam/faq66.html
  • NPD is treated in talk therapy (psychodynamic or cognitive-behavioural). The prognosis for an adult narcissist is poor, though his adaptation to life and to others can improve with treatment. Medication is applied to side-effects and behaviours (such as mood or affect disorders and obsession-compulsion) - usually with some success.

To learn more, go here:

Malignant Self Love - Narcissism Revisited (link: http://www.geocities.com/vaksam/faq1.html )

Narcissistic Personality Disorder (link: http://www.suite101.com/welcome.cfm/npd )

I. Pathological Narcissism Overview

Whether narcissism and its pathology are the results of genetic programming (see Anthony Benis and others) or of dysfunctional families and faulty upbringing or of anomic societies and disruptive socialization processes - is still an unresolved debate. The scarcity of scientific research, the fuzziness of the diagnosic criteria and the differential diagnoses make it unlikely that this will be settled soon one way or the other.

It is the psychoanalytic belief that we are all Narcissists at an early stage of our lives. As infants and toddlers we all feel that we are the center of the Universe, the most import ant, omnipotent and omniscient beings. At that phase of our development, our parents are perceived by us to be mythical figures, immortal and awesomely powerful, there solely to cater to our needs, to protect and nourish us. Both Self and others are viewed immaturely, as idealizations. This, in the psychodynamic models, is called the phase of "primary" narcissism.

Inevitably, the inexorable processes and conflicts of life erode these perceptions and reduce the ideal into the the real. Adaptation is a process of disillusionment. If this process is abrupt, inconsistent, unpredictable, capricious, arbitrary and intense - the injuries sustained by the infant's tender, budding, self-esteem, are severe and, often, irreversible. Moreover, the empathic support of our caretakers (the Primary Objects, the parents) is crucial. In its absence, our sense of self-worth and self-esteem in adulthood tends to fluctuate, to alternate between over-valuation (idealization) and devaluation of both Self and others.

Narcissistic adults are widely thought to be the result of bitter disappointment, of radical disillusionment in the significant others in their infancy. Healthy adults accept their self-limitations (the boundaries and limitations of their selves). They accept disappointments, setbacks, failures, criticism and disillusionment with grace and tolerance. Their self-esteem is constant and positive, not substantially affected by outside events, no matter how severe.

II. Pathological Narcissim: Schools of Thought

The common view is that we go through the stages of a linear development. We are propelled forward by forces. Various psychoanalytic and psychodynamic models incorporate the libido (force of life) and Thanatos (force of death) in Freud's thinking, Meaning in Frenkel's, socially mediated phenomena (Adler, Behaviourism), cultural context (Horney), interpersonal relations (Sullivan) and neurobiological and neurochemical forces, to mention but a few schools.

These thought systems differ on many issues. Some postulate the cessation of personal development during childhood, others - during adolescence. Yet others claim that development is a process which continues throughout a person's life. Common to all these schools of thought are the mechanics and dynamics of the psychic process. Forces - inner or external - facilitate the development of the individual. When an obstacle to development is encountered, development is stunted or arrested - but not for long. A distorted pattern of development, a bypass appears. Hence, psychopathological conditions are the outcomes of disturbed growth. Humans can be compared to trees. When a tree encounters a physical obstacle to its growth - its branches or roots curl around it. Yet, deformed and ugly, they still reach their destination, however late and partially. Psychopathologies are adaptive mechanisms. They allow the individual to continue to grow around the disturbing factor. The personality twists and turns, deforms itself, is transformed - until it reaches a functional equilibrium, which is not too ego-dystonic. There it settles down and continues its more or less linear pattern of growth. But the thrust is clear: onwards. Adaptation above all, growth at any price, straight or deformed. The forces of life (as expressed in the development of the personality) are stronger than any hindrance. The roots of trees crack mighty rocks, microbes live in the most poisonous surroundings - humans form the personality structure which is best suited to their needs and outside constraints. Such a personality structure may be abnormal - but it has triumphed in the delicate task of successful adaptation.

III. Narcissistic Regression and the Formation of Secondary Narcissism

Research shows that (Gunderson-Roningstam, 1996) when an individual (at any age) encounters an obstacle to his orderly progression from one stage of development to another - he retreats to his infantile-Narcissistic phase rather than circumvent the hindrance. The process is three-stepped: (1) The person encounters an obstacle, (2) The person regresses to the primary Narcissistic phase, and (3) The person recuperates and moves back from the primary Narcissistic phase to attack the obstacle again. While in step (2), the person displays childish, immature behaviours. He feels that he is omnipotent and misjudges his power and the power of his opponents and opposition. He underestimates challenges facing him and pretends to be "Mr. Know-All". His sensitivity to the needs and emotions of others and his ability to empathize with them deteriorates sharply. He becomes intolerably haughty and arrogant, with sadistic and paranoid tendencies. Above all, he then seeks unconditional admiration, even when he does not deserve it. He is preoccupied with fantastic, magical, thinking and daydreams his life away. He tends to exploit others, to envy them, to be edgy and explode with unexplained rage. A person undergoing a psychological development crisis brought on by an insurmountable obstacle - will, mostly, revert to excessive and compulsive behaviour patterns. To put it succinctly: whenever we experience a major life crisis (which hinders our personal growth and threatens it) - we suffer from a mild and transient form of the Narcissistic Personality Disorder (see further in this article).

This fantasy world, full of falsity and feelings hurt, serves as a springboard. It is from there that the individual can resume his progress towards the next stage of personal growth. Faced with the same obstacle, he feels (falsely) sufficiently potent to ignore it or to attack it. In most cases, success is guaranteed by the very unrealistic assessment of the fortitude and magnitude of the obstacle. The main function of the episodic NPD is this: to encourage the individual to engage in magical thinking, to wish the problem away or to enchant it or to tackle and overcome it from a position of omnipotence.

A structural abnormality of personality arises only when recurrent attacks fail constantly and consistently to eliminate the obstacle, or to overcome the hindrance - especially if this failure happens during the formative years (0-4 years of age). The contrast between the fantastic world (temporarily) occupied by the individual and the real world in which he keeps being frustrated - is too acute to countenance for long. The dissonance gives rise to the unconscious "decision" to go on living in the world of fantasy, grandiosity and entitlement. It is better to feel special than to feel inadequate. It is better to be omnipotent than psychologically impotent. To (ab)use others is preferable to being (ab)used by them. In short: it is better to remain a pathological Narcissist than to face the harsh unyielding realities. This phase of permanent narcissism is often called "secondary" narcissism.

IV. The Dynamics of Narcissism - The Mother-Child Bond

Narcissism and its pathologies are commonly tackled by the application of the various psychodynamic models.

According to these models, parents ("Primary Objects") and, more specifically, mothers are the first agents of socialization. It is through his mother that the child explores the most important questions, the answers to which will shape his entire life. How loved one is, how lovable, how independent can one become, how guilty one should feel for wanting to become autonomous, how predictable is the world, how much abuse should one expect in life and so on. The mother, to the infant, is not only an object of dependence (survival is at stake), love and adoration. It is a representation of the Universe itself. It is through her that the child first exercises his senses: the tactile, the olfactory, and the visual. Later on, she is the subject of his nascent sexual cravings (if the child is a male) - a diffuse sense of wanting to merge, physically, as well as spiritually. This object of love is idealized and internalized and becomes part of our conscience ("superego" in the psychoanalytic model).

Growing up (attaining maturity and adulthood) entails the gradual detachment from the mother. At first, the child begins to shape a more realistic view of her and incorporates the mother's shortcomings and disadvantages in this modified version. The more ideal, less realistic and earlier picture of the mother is stored and becomes part of the child's psyche. The later, less cheerful, more realistic view enables the infant to define his own identity and gender identity and to "go out to the world". Partly abandoning mother is the key to an independent exploration of the world, to personal autonomy and to a strong sense of self. Resolving the sexual complex and the resulting conflict of being attracted to a forbidden figure - is the second, determining, step. The (male) child must realize that his mother is "off limits" to him sexually (and emotionally, or psychosexually) and that she "belongs" to his father. He must thereafter choose to imitate his father in order to win, in the future, someone like his mother. This is an oversimplified description of the very intricate psychodynamic processes involved - but this, still, is the gist of it all. The third (and final) stage of letting go of the mother should be reached during the delicate period of adolescence. The person then seriously ventures out and, finally, builds and secures his own universe, replete and complete with a new "mother-lover". If any of these phases is thwarted - the process of differentiation is not successfully completed, no autonomy or coherent self is achieved and dependence and "infantilism" characterize the person.

What determines the success or failure of these developments in one's personal history? Mostly, the mother herself. If she does not "let go" - the child will not go. If the mother herself is the dependent, Narcissistic type - the growth prospects of the child are, indeed, dim.

There are numerous mechanisms, which mothers use to ensure the continued presence and emotional dependence of their offspring (of both sexes).

The mother can cast herself in the role of the eternal victim, a sacrificial figure, who dedicated her life to the child (with the implicit or explicit proviso of reciprocity: that the child will dedicate his life to her). Another strategy is to treat the child as an extension of the mother or, conversely, to treat herself as an extension of the child. Yet another tactic is to create a situation of "follies a deux" (the mother and child united against external threats), or an atmosphere suffused with sexual and erotic insinuations, leading to an illicit psychosexual bonding between mother and child. In the latter case, the adult's ability to interact with members of the opposite sex is gravely impaired and the mother is perceived as envious of any feminine influence other than hers. The mother will criticize the women in her offspring's life pretending to do so in order to protect him from dangerous liaisons or from ones which are "beneath him" ("you deserve more"). Other mothers exaggerate their neediness: they emphasize their financial dependence and lack of resources, their health problems, their emotional barrenness without the soothing presence of the child, their need to be protected against this or that (mostly imaginary) enemy. The latter tactic is a pernicious variant of the guilt-related species. Guilt is a prime mover in the perverted relationships of such mothers and their children.

V. The Dynamics of Narcissism - Primitive Defence Mechanisms

"When the habitual narcissistic gratifications that come from being adored, given special treatment, and admiring the self are threatened, the results may be depression, hypochondriasis, anxiety, shame, self destructiveness, or rage directed toward any other person who can be blamed for the troubled situation. The child can learn to avoid these painful emotional states by acquiring a narcissistic mode of information processing. Such learning may be by trial-and-error methods, or it may be internalized by identification with parental modes of dealing with stressful information." (Jon Mardi Horowitz - "Stress Response Syndromes: PTSD, Grief, and Adjustment Disorders", Third Edition)

Narcissism is fundamentally an advanced version of the splitting defense mechanism. The Narcissist cannot regard humans, situations, entities (political parties, countries, races, his workplace) as a compound of good and bad elements. He is an "all or nothing" primitive "machine" (a common self metaphor among narcissists). He either idealizes his object - or devalues it. The object is either all good or all bad. The bad attributes are always projected, displaced, or otherwise externalized. The good ones are internalized in order to support the inflated ("grandiose") self-concepts of the narcissist and his grandiose fantasies - and to avoid the pain of deflation and disillusionment. The Narcissist's earnestness and his (apparent) sincerity make people wonder whether he is simply detached from reality, unable to appraise it properly - or willingly and knowingly distorts reality and reinterprets it, subjecting it to his self-imposed censorship. It would seem that the Narcissist is dimly aware of the implausibility of his own constructions. He has not lost touch with reality. He is just less scrupulous in reshaping it, remolding its curvatures and ignoring the uncomfortable angles.

"The disguises are accomplished by shifting meanings and using exaggeration and minimization of bits of reality as a nidus for fantasy elaboration. The narcissistic personality is especially vulnerable to regression to damaged or defective self-concepts on the occasions of loss of those who have functioned as self-objects. When the individual is faced with such stress events as criticism, withdrawal of praise, or humiliation, the information involved may be denied, disavowed, negated, or shifted in meaning to prevent a reactive state of rage, depression, or shame." (Jon Mardi Horowitz - ibid)

The second mechanism which the narcissist employes is the active pursuit of "Narcisstic Supply". The Narcissist actively seeks to furnish himself with an endless supply of admiration, adulation, affirmation and attention.As opposed to common opinion (which infiltrated literature) - the narcissist is content to have ANY kind of attention. If fame cannot be had - infamy and notoriety will do. The narcissist is obsessed with the obtaining of narcissistic supply, he is addicted to it. His behavior in its pursuit is impulsive.

"The hazard is not simply guilt because ideals have not been met. Rather, any loss of a good and coherent self-feeling is associated with intensely experienced emotions such as shame and depression, plus an anguished sense of helplessness and disorientation. To prevent this state, the narcissistic personality slides the meanings of events in order to place the self in a better light. What is good is labeled as being of the self (internalized) Those qualities that are undesirable are excluded from the self by denial of their existence, disavowal of related attitudes, externalization, and negation of recent self-expressions. Persons who function as accessories to the self may also be idealized by exaggeration of their attributes. Those who counter the self are depreciated; ambiguous attributions of blame and a tendency to self-righteous rage states are a conspicuous aspect of this pattern.

Such fluid shifts in meanings permit the narcissistic personality to maintain apparent logical consistency while minimizing evil or weakness and exaggerating innocence or control. As part of these maneuvers, the narcissistic personality may assume attitudes of contemptuous superiority toward others, emotional coldness, or even desperately charming approaches to idealized figures." (Jon Mardi Horwitz, ibid)

VI. Narcissism - Freud versus Jung

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) is credited with the promulgation and presentation of a first coherent theory of narcissism. He described transitions from subject-directed libido to object-directed libido through the intermediation and agency of the parents. To be healthy and functional, the transitions must be smooth and unperturbed. Neuroses are the results of such perturbations.

Freud conceived of each stage as the default (or fallback) of the next one. Thus, if a child reaches out to his objects of desire and fails to attract their love and attention - the child will regress to the previous phase, to the narcissistic phase. The first occurrence of narcissism is adaptive. It "trains" the child to love an object. It ensures gratification through availability, predictability and permanence. But regressing to "secondary narcissism" is mal-adaptive. It is an indication of failure to direct the libido to the "right" targets (to objects, such as the child's parents).

If this pattern of regression persists and prevails, a "narcissistic neurosis" is formed. The narcissist stimulates his self habitually in order to derive pleasure and gratification. He prefers this mode of deriving gratification to others. He is "lazy" because he takes the "easy" route of resorting to his self and reinvesting his libidinal resources "in-house" rather than making an effort (and risking failure) to seek out libidinal objects other than his self. The narcissist prefers fantasyland to reality, grandiose self-conception to realistic appraisal, masturbation and sexual fantasies to mature adult sex and daydreaming to real life achievements.

Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961) had a mental picture of the psyche as a giant warehouse of archetypes (the conscious representations of adaptive behaviors). Fantasies to him were just a way of accessing these archetypes and releasing them. Almost ex definitio, regression cannot be entertained by Jungian psychology. Any reversion to earlier phases of mental life, to earlier coping strategies, to earlier choices - in other words, any default - is interpreted as simply the psyche's way of using yet another, hitherto untapped, adaptation strategy. Regressions are compensatory processes intended to enhance adaptation and not methods of obtaining or securing a steady flow of gratification.

Actually, there is little difference between Freud and his disciple turned-heretic, Jung. They seem to be sparring in a linguistic field. In other words, it is a matter of semantics. When libido investment in objects (esp. the Primary Object) fails to produce gratification, maladaptation results. This is dangerous. A default option is activated: secondary narcissism. This default enhances adaptation, it is functional and adaptive and triggers adaptive behaviors. As a by-product, it secures gratification. We are gratified when we are at peace with our model of our environment. We are at such peace when we exert reasonable control over our environment, i.e., when our behaviors are adaptive. The compensatory process has TWO results: enhanced adaptation and inevitable gratification.

Perhaps the more serious division between them is with regards to introversion. Freud regards introversion as an instrument in the service of a pathology (introversion is indispensable to narcissism, as opposed to extroversion which is a necessary condition for libidinal object-orientation).

As opposed to Freud, Jung regards introversion as a useful tool in the service of the endless psychic quest for adaptation strategies (narcissism being one such strategy). The Jungian adaptation repertoire does not discriminate against narcissism. To Jung it is as legitimate a choice as any. But even Jung acknowledged that the very need to look for a new adaptation strategy means that adaptation has failed. In other words, the search itself is indicative of a pathological state of affairs. It does seem that introversion per se IS NOT pathological (because no psychological mechanism is pathological PER SE). Only the use made of it CAN be pathological. One would tend to agree with Freud, though, that when introversion becomes a permanent feature of the psychic landscape of a person - it facilitates pathological narcissism.

Jung distinguished introverts (those who habitually concentrate on their selves rather than on outside objects) from extroverts (the convese preference). Not only was introversion a totally normal and natural function in childhood, it remains normal and natural even if it predominates the mental life.

Yet, the habitual and predominant focussing of attention upon one's self, to the exclusion of others is THE definition of pathological narcissism. What differentiates the pathological from the normal is degree. Pathological narcissism is ex-clusive and all-pervasive. Other forms of narcissism are not. So, although there is no healthy state of habitual, predominant introversion, it remains a question of form and degree of introversion. Often a healthy, adaptive mechanism goes awry. When it does, as Jung himself recognized, neuroses form. Freud regards Narcissism as a POINT while Jung regards it as a CONTINUUM (from health to sickness).

VII. Narcissism - Kohut's Approach

In a way, Heinz Kohut took Jung a step further. He said that pathological narcissism is not the result of excessive narcissism, libido or aggression. It is the result of defective, deformed or incomplete narcissistic (self) structures. Kohut postulated the existence of core constructs which he named: the Grandiose Exhibitionistic Self and the Idealized Parent Imago (see below). Children entertain notions of greatness (primitive or naive grandiosity) mingled with magical thinking, feelings of omnipotence and omniscience and a belief in their immunity to the consequences of their actions. These elements and the child's feelings regarding its parents (which are also painted by it with a brush of omnipotence and grandiosity) - coagulate and form these constructs.

The child's feelings towards its parents are reactions to their responses (affirmation, buffering, modulation or disapproval, punisment, even abuse). These responses help maintain the self-structures. Without the appropriate responses, grandiosity, for instance, cannot be transformed into adult ambitions and ideals.

Continued on Page 2


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