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The Grandiose False Self - Well Written

Grandiose false self
At the core of the malignant narcissism syndrome is the individual’s creation of a grandiose false self in compensation for his unacceptable real self and as a way to cope with the external world. Like its namesake, the mythic Narcissus fell in love with his reflected image, the self that the narcissist loves is not his true self, but a counterfeit version that is superior and perfect. This is due to the self-loathing that is at the root of pathological narcissism. And so the narcissist rejects his real self and, instead, invests excessive love in an illusion. To call narcissists self-loving, therefore, is something of a misnomer because at the root of their narcissism is actually a kind of self-loathing. The paradox only seems, for it is his real self that the narcissist loathes, and it is his aggrandized and exalted fantasy self with which he is loves.

The narcissist’s attachment to his grandiose false self accounts for the first three attributes in the DSM-IV’s checklist for NPD: “Has a grandiose sense of self-importance”; “Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love”; and “Believes that he or she is ‘special’ and unique.” The particular basis of the grandiosity is what the narcissist fancies himself to be, which may be physical beauty, superior intellect, moral virtue, or some other facet of his persona.
Charming social mask. The narcissist strives to maintain and protect his concocted self-image at all cost. The pathological narcissistic syndrome may be likened to a wheel in which the grandiose false self is the hub, to which are affixed spokes. The spokes have a specific purpose, which is to maintain, protect, and sustain the “hub” of the grandiose false self. Attributes 3-9 of the DSM-IV checklist constitute some of the spokes.

To begin with, the pathological narcissist uses people as tools of self-aggrandizement to affirm and maintain his false self -- others are used for a perverse kind of “mirroring” to reflect the narcissist’s ostentatious self-regard. This accounts for why the narcissist “requires excessive admiration” (DSM-IV attribute 4), seeks to associate with “special or high-status people or institutions” (DSM-IV attribute 3), and is “interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his own ends” (DSM-IV attribute 6). Like a vampire who must feed on others’ blood in order to live, the narcissist basks in the admiration, love, approval, and compliments he elicits from others. If the other person ceases to provide him with “narcissistic supply,” he no longer has much use for that person and the relationship will markedly cool, if not end altogether.

To lure people into his web, the skillful narcissist puts on an attractive social mask. The narcissist not only has a counterfeit self-image, he literally dons a false façade of physical appearance and demeanor. He can be charming, gracious, and socially adept. He must also be a consummate actor, skilled at simulating the whole range of human emotions, especially those of love and kindness. The more successful he is at simulation, the greater the circle of friends and acquaintances who can be his primary and secondary feeding sources. Perhaps it is not accidental that some of the greatest villains in fiction are portrayed as charming. A good example is Dorian Gray in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray So it is with Voldemort. In Chamber of Secrets, the young Tom Riddle proudly informs Harry Potter that “I’ve always been able to charm the people I needed.”(34)

Admittedly, we all wear a public mask of some sort or another, for no human being is without any artifice or is totally honest with other people. What distinguishes the mask of the pathological narcissist is the enormity of the discrepancy between the mask and the person it conceals. Aside from using his charming social mask to attract admirers who provide him with his narcissistic supply, the mask also conceals the narcissist’s contrived false self from scrutiny and exposure. Concealment requires secrecy, evasion, dishonesty, and deception, which means that the pathological narcissist is a consummate liar who habitually lies, even about seemingly small or inconsequential matters. Riddle’s mask evidently was very effective. Indeed, before he remade himself as Voldemort and abandoned all pretenses at normalcy, Tom Riddle had impressed those who knew him to be “polite, handsome and clever,” with “no sign of outward arrogance or aggression.”(35)

To maintain his fantasies, the narcissist’s counterfeit self must be impervious to refutation, which requires him to resist self-examination and introspection. Being introspective might open the narcissist to reality checks and critical reflection -- a dangerous undertaking because the false self, by definition, is unreal. As a result, instead of the insecurities of normal human beings, the narcissist displays an impassive and uncritical acceptance of himself. He is curiously disinterested in learning about himself, and avoids and resists psychological probing, counseling or therapy.

Hypersensitivity to criticisms. Freud had described narcissists as consistently managing “to keep away from their ego anything that would diminish it.”(37) The maintenance and protection of the false self also requires the pathological narcissist to be constantly vigilant against being “attacked” by others. He reacts to any criticism, no matter how minor or unintentional, with cool indifference (symptomatic of the psychological defense mechanism of denial) or with rage and humiliation. Hitler, for example, is well known for his fits of rage. The narcissist simply will not suffer any disapprobation. He sees any criticism as a hostile attack because by the very nature of his disorder, he cannot imagine that the criticism is justified, for how can perfection be found to be wanting? Relationship problems, therefore, are never the fault of the narcissist; he blames everyone but himself. Nor does he apologize or admit that he is wrong or at fault. Instead, the narcissist subtly, if not blatantly, turns things around to blame or scapegoats others.

A way for the narcissist to fortify his armor is to get others to conform to his delusions. The narcissist may draw one person into his orbit, forming a folie á deux (literally, a madness shared by two), or he may attract many into his fantasy world, resulting in a folie à plusieurs (madness of many). Hitler exploited the German people’s sense of victimhood from having been defeated and humiliated in the First World War while, at the same time, using fanciful Nordic myths to appeal to their grandiosity. In this manner, Hitler lured the adoring masses into his madness. Voldemort, too, enticed followers and admirers -- the Death Eaters -- with his promise of power and glory.

Lack of affect. Lowen pointed out that the more narcissistic a person is, the more he is estranged from his true self. Since the self is “a body/feeling entity,” alienation from his true self means a concomitant estrangement from his body and emotions. What results is an overall lack of feelings, except for those of pride, rage, and envy. It is their lack of affect which gives narcissists an impression of unreality, a “lack of humanness” that makes them appear more like machines than people

Envy. Being hollow inside, the narcissist is jealous of anyone who appears to him to possess the qualities he desires and fantasizes for himself. It is also observed that the narcissist “inflicts damage out of envy.”
 That accounts for attribute 8 in the DSM-IV checklist: “Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him. “Greatness inspires envy, envy engenders spite, and spite spawns lies.”  In his grandiosity, the narcissist is convinced that people are envious of him, but his conviction  actually is a projection of his own envy onto others.

Inability to love. One of the most important human emotions, arguably the most important, is love. In the case of pathological narcissists, their overall lack of affect includes also an inability to love others. To begin with, since their self-love is all-consuming, as Kernberg put it, “there is not a lot left for loving others.”  But the problem goes deeper than that. It takes humility to love another because loving requires a willingness to be vulnerable. Freud had observed that love is ego-deflating because “Loving in itself, in so far as it involves longing and deprivation, lowers self-regard.”  In loving another, he has surrendered a part of his narcissism, which can only be restored by the other reciprocating his ardor. That is why Freud counseled that “in the last resort we must begin to love in order not to fall ill, and we are bound to fall ill if...we are unable to love.”(44) Unable or unwilling to love anyone outside of himself, the narcissist’s interior life is arid and empty, devoid of gratifying intimate relations.
Unable to love, malignant narcissists choose power instead, preferring being feared to being loved.
Fear of death. Another powerful human emotion is the pain of loss. It is said that only human beings are aware of and anticipate death, and that only human beings mourn and grieve for the departed.(47) That would account for the pathological narcissist’s façade of exaggerated independence, which in turn might account for his friendlessness. He dreads being dependent on others not only because his false self, being superior, needs no one, but also because he fears the anguish of loss, especially the greatest loss of all -- his own mortality.

In contrast, intent on avoiding the pain of being human, narcissists succeed in achieving a counterfeit life that is a kind of living death. In Fromm’s words, incapable of love and unwilling to suffer the pain of loss, the narcissist is entrapped “in a way of life which is so close to the way of death that the difference...may become hard to distinguish.”
The malignant narcissist is the exception to that normal human development. We have seen that the narcissist, being estranged from his true self, concomitantly is also alienated from his emotions. In addition to his inability to love and to bear the pain of loss, the narcissist is also defective in empathy -- attribute 7 in the DSM-IV checklist for NPD, that of being “unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.”

It is said that a common attribute of serial killers is that in their childhood and teen years before they graduate to killing human beings, they abuse, torture, or kill small animals. This means that those who become serial killers lacked empathy from their early years. Their lack of empathy and of emotions in general prompted Malachi Martin to identify the essence of evil to be “the opposite of all humanness.”(55)



Scapegoating. The psychological mechanism that enables the malignant narcissist’s lack of empathy is dehumanization. The other person is no longer seen as a fellow human deserving of the same respect and dignity we demand for ourselves. When we depersonalize others, we effectively consign them to the status of being animals or mere objects, and the reality is that we slaughter and eat animals for the simple reason that they are not human. When human beings are stripped of their humanity, the normal moral rules and constraints that we accord each other no longer pertain. What can and do result are some of the most horrific deeds imaginable.

Dennis Rader, the notorious serial killer who called himself “BTK” for his preferred method of “bind, torture, kill,” is a striking example of the malignant narcissist’s lack of empathy and dehumanization. Arrogant and grandiose, Rader taunted the media and police (whom he derisively called “the Keystone cops”) with cryptic messages in a cat-and-mouse game over the course of three decades. Consistent with the malignant narcissistic syndrome, Rader committed his first murders in 1974 in reaction to a narcissistic injury from losing his job, which left him, in his words, “feeling down” and “demoralized.”(57) On June 27, 2005, in Wichita, Kansas, he pled guilty to ten murders, including the hanging of an 11-year-old girl (after killing her parents and brother) and the strangling of a 62-year-old woman. Before the court, he described how he had killed in a matter-of-fact tone without a trace of emotion, even less of compassion or regret. He repeatedly referred to his victims as “projects” to which he had assigned numbers, and of killing them as “putting them down,” as if those whom he had tortured and murdered were animals to be euthanized. When the judge asked why he killed, he replied that he wanted to live out his sadistic “sexual fantasies.”(58)

Typically, before we dehumanize another, we first make that person into our scapegoat. Here, it is useful to visit psychologist Carl Jung’s concept of “the shadow.” For Jung, the shadow is a metaphor for “that dark half of our psyche” -- what we dislike and refuse to acknowledge about ourselves.(59) Since those elements are incompatible with how we like to see ourselves, they are “swept under the table” and repressed into our subconscious. From these repressed qualities, the shadow is constructed. (60) But the problem is although the shadow has been banished to our subconscious mind; it still exists and will not remain submerged. Instead, our shadow ineluctably bubbles up in the form of projection as we cast our faults onto others, accusing them of the very failings (and more) which we deny in ourselves. In this manner, by projecting our defects onto another, we preserve our self-regard as well as displace our aggression onto a convenient target. (61) This is called scapegoating.

Although psychologists maintain that all human beings engage in projection and scapegoating, narcissists and especially malignant narcissists are particularly prone. Recall that at the root of their narcissism is actually a kind of self-loathing. To compensate for that, the narcissist manufactures an aggrandized and exalted fantasy self. All of which means that the narcissist’s “shadow” must be enormous, which in turn means that the narcissist is even more inclined to scapegoat others.

The most notorious example of shadow and scapegoating was Hitler and the Nazis fantasizing themselves to be the ubermensch (super-race) and identifying Jews to be the untermensch(sub humans), an allegedly inferior and evil race. That justified and led to the “final solution” of the Holocaust, in which an estimated six million innocent Jewish men, women, and children were slaughtered between 1941 and 1945. It is George Victor’s belief that Hitler’s venomous hatred of Jews stemmed from his self-loathing because he believed his father, Alois, to be half-Jewish. Rumor had it that Alois was the illegitimate son of a Jewish man. Not only was the culture in Austria and Germany at the time quite anti-Semitic, Adolf Hitler also hated Jews because he hated his abusive father. His hatred for his half-Jewish father merged with his self-loathing (for being a quarter Jewish) to form a formidable “shadow” that he sought to exorcise through the Holocaust.


Amoralism. The pathological narcissist’s lack of empathy is a direct result of his grandiosity. Lowen had a simple definition of narcissist as someone who has an unwarranted grandiose notion about himself. (63) Grandiosity is an exaggerated conviction of being special and important; it is also considered to be a form of mental illness because it is delusional. Grandiose persons feel that they deserve special treatment and view others as objects to be manipulated. They expect to be recognized as important and talented even though their accomplishments are unremarkable, and are insulted when others fail to acknowledge or appreciate their specialness. (64) All of which would explain the narcissist’s “sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his expectations” (DSM-IV attribute 5), as well as his overall “arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes” (DSM-IV attribute 9).

For the grandiose narcissist, therefore, morality necessarily is relative, situational, and entirely subjective: “What’s good is that which serves my interest or which makes me feel good.” The narcissist himself is all that matters. Furthermore, it is in the interest of those who are evil to deny the reality and existence of evil. As an example, Charles Manson, the leader and mastermind of the 1969 Sharon Tate-LaBianca murders, was described by prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi as “totally amoral” and having “no moral boundaries.” Not surprisingly, Manson’s followers were also amoral. The examining psychiatrist of convicted murderers Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Leslie Van Houten found that they had no sense of guilt because they believed there was no right or wrong.(67) Consistent with that anomalism, N hold the belief that “There is no good and evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it.”(68)


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