Visit the Author Archive of Dr. Sam Vaknin in "Central Europe Review"




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"The disguises are accomplished by shifting meanings and using exaggeration and minimisation 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." [Ibid.]

The second mechanism which the narcissist employees is the active pursuit of Narcissistic 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 – notoriety would do. The narcissist is obsessed with the obtaining of Narcissistic Supply, he is addicted to it. His behaviour in its pursuit is impulsive and compulsive.

"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 labelled as being of the self (internalised) Those qualities that are undesirable are excluded from the self by denial of their existence, disavowal of related attitudes, externalisation, and negation of recent self-expressions. Persons who function as accessories to the self may also be idealised 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 minimising evil or weakness and exaggerating innocence or control. As part of these manoeuvres, the narcissistic personality may assume attitudes of contemptuous superiority toward others, emotional coldness, or even desperately charming approaches to idealised figures." [Ibid.]


Freud versus Jung

Freud must be 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 – it regresses to the previous phase, to the narcissistic phase. The first occurrence of narcissism is adaptive. It "trains" the child to love an object, albeit merely his self. It secures gratification through the availability, predictability and permanence of the loved object (=oneself). 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 his 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 fantasies to mature adult sex and daydreaming to real life achievements.

Jung had a mental picture of the psyche as a giant warehouse of archetypes (the conscious representations of adaptive behaviours). Fantasies to him are 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.

It would seem, though, that there is only a semantic difference between Freud and his disciple turned-heretic. 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 behaviours. As a by-product, it secures gratification. We are gratified when we exert reasonable control over our environment, i.e., when our behaviours are adaptive. The compensatory process has TWO results: enhanced adaptation and inevitable gratification.

Perhaps the more serious disagreement between Freud and Jung 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 psychic quest for adaptation strategies (narcissism being one of them). 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 (who habitually concentrate on their selves rather than on outside objects) from extroverts (the converse preference). According to him, not only is introversion a totally normal and natural function, it remains normal and natural even if it predominates the mental life.

This is where, to my mind, Jung missed the proverbial "narcissistic train". 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 and even the welcome is, of course, 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 recognised, neuroses form.

Freud regards narcissism as a POINT while Jung regards it as a CONTINUUM (from health to sickness).


Kohut's Approach

In a way, 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 "idealised 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 (who 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, punishment, even abuse). These responses help maintain the self-structures. Without the appropriate responses, grandiosity, for instance, cannot be transformed into adult ambitions and ideals.

So, to Kohut, grandiosity and idealisation are positive childhood development mechanisms. Even their reappearance in transference should not be considered a pathological narcissistic regression.

"You see, the actual issue is really a simple one … a simple change in classical [Freudian] theory, which states that autoeroticism 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 non-scientific value judgement … that has nothing to do with developmental psychology."

(H. Kohut. The Chicago Institute Lectures 1972-1976. Marian and Paul Tolpin (Eds.). Analytic Press, 1998)

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." [Ibid.]

This dichotomy inevitably led 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" (that is not being affirmed by objects, especially the Primary Objects, the parents) – or being regarded merely 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 recognised 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."

(Paul and Marian Tolpin (Eds.). The Preface to the "Chicago Institute Lectures 1972-1976 of H. Kohut", 1996)

One note: "constructs" or "structures" are permanent psychological patterns. This is not to say that they do not change – they are capable of slow change. Kohut and his self-psychology disciples believed that the only viable constructs are comprised of self self-object experiences and that these structures are lifelong ones. Melanie Klein believed more in archaic drives, splitting defences 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.


Karen Horney's Contributions

Horney is one of the precursors of the "object relations" school of psychodynamics. She said that the personality was shaped mostly by one's environment, society, or culture. She believed that the 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 childhood were as important a determinant as any drive. Society came in through the parental door. Biology converged with social injunctions to yield human values such as 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. Defences are developed to compensate for the intolerable and gradual realisation that adults are human: capricious, arbitrary, unpredictable, non-dependable. Defences provide both satisfaction and a sense of security. The problem still exists, but it is "one stage removed". When the defences are attacked or perceived to be attacked (such as in therapy) – anxiety is reawakened.

Karen B. Wallant in "Creating Capacity for Attachment: Treating Addictions and the Alienated Self" [Jason Aronson, 1999] wrote:

"The capacity to be alone develops out of the baby's ability to hold onto the internalisation 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 to live somewhere within the child or his environment. It is not uncommon for patients to be found on either side of an attachment pendulum. It is invariably easier to handle patients for whom the transference erupts in the idealising attachment phase than those who view the therapist as a powerful and distrusted intruder."

So, the child learns to sacrifice a part of his autonomy, of WHO he 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 the NEUROTIC personality. The submissive (or compliant) type is a fake. He hides aggression beneath a 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 postulated that 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. My outlook is much more pessimistic and deterministic. I think that childhood trauma and abuse are pretty much impossible to erase. Modern brain research tends to support this sad view – and to offer some hope. The brain seems to be more plastic than anyone thought. 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 remould the brain permanently. I believe that the patient has to accept his disorder as a given and work AROUND it rather than confront it directly. I believe that our disorders ARE adaptive and help us to function. Their removal may not always be wise or necessary to attain a full and satisfactory life. I do not believe that we should all conform to a mould and experience life the same. Idiosyncrasies are a good thing, both on the individual level and on the level of the species.


C.
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