|February 20, 2001
Dr. Vaknin is author of of the informative book, Malignant
Self Love - Narcissism Revisited. He also edits various mental
health categories on Open Directory, Suite101, Go.Com and
SearchEurope.com. While his doctorate is not in mental health,
this well-informed author clearly did his homework and writes from
experience. Dr. Vaknin's CV is published
here. His book, and much more, is available in hard copy or
download on his main
EDITED 2/09. Unfortunately, while the content itself stands on its own
in helping people understand narcissism, the writer's credibility may
For example, see here:
I love him. I cannot leave him like that. He is like a crippled
small child. My heart goes out to him. Will he ever get better? Can he
ever get better?
A Narcissistic Personality Disorder is a systemic, all-pervasive
condition, very much like pregnancy: either you have it or you don't.
Once you have it, you have it day and night, it is an inseparable part
of the personality, a recurrent set of behaviour patterns.
Recent research shows that there is a condition which might be
called "Transient or Temporary or Short Term Narcissism" as opposed to
"The Real Thing - The Narcissistic Personality Disorder, (NPD)" (Roningstam,
1996). The phenomenon of "Reactive Narcissistic Regression" is well
known: people regress to a transient narcissistic phase in reaction to
a major life crisis which threatens their mental composure.
There are narcissistic touches in every personality and in this
sense, all of us are narcissists to a certain extent. But this is a
far cry from the NPD pathology.
One bit of good news: no one knows why, but, in certain, rare,
cases, with age (in one's forties), the disorder seems to decay and,
finally, stay on in the form of a subdued mutation of itself. This
does not universally occur, though.
Should a partner stay on with a narcissist in the hope that his
disorder will be ameliorated by ripe old age? This is a matter of
value judgement, preferences, priorities, background, emotions and a
host of other "non-scientific" matters. There could be no one "right"
answer. It would seem that the only valid criterion is the partner's
well being. If he or she feels bad in a relationship (and no amount of
self-help or of professional help suffices) - then looking for the
exit sounds like a viable and healthy strategy.
This raises the second part of the question: a relationship with a
narcissist is sometimes a kind of co-dependence, even symbiosis. Read
"The Inverted Narcissist". Moreover, the narcissist is a superb
emotional manipulator and extortionist. In some cases, there is real
threat to his mental stability. Even "demonstrative" (failed) suicide
cannot be ruled out in the repertory of narcissistic reactions to
abandonment. And even a modest amount of residual love harboured by
the narcissist's partner makes the separation very difficult for him
But there is a magic formula. A narcissist is with his partner
because he regards IT as a Source of Narcissistic Supply. He values
the partner as such a source. Put differently: the minute that the
partner ceases to supply him with what he needs - he loses all
interest in IT. (I use IT judiciously - the narcissist objectifies his
partners, treats them as he would inanimate objects.)
The transition from over-valuation (bestowed upon Sources of
Narcissistic Supply) to devaluation (reserved for other mortals) is so
swift that it is likely to inflict pain upon the narcissist's partner,
even if he previously prayed for the narcissist to depart and leave
him alone. The partner is the narcissist's pusher and the drug that he
is selling to him is stronger than any other drug because it sustains
the narcissist's very essence (his False Self).
Without Narcissistic Supply the narcissist disintegrates, crumbles
and shrivels - very much as vampires do in horror movies when exposed
Here lies the partner's salvation. An advice to you: if you wish to
sever your relationship with the Narcissist, stop providing him with
what he needs. Do not adore, admire, approve, applaud, or confirm
anything that he does or says. Disagree with his views, belittle him
(or put him in perspective and proportion), compare him to others,
tell him that he is not unique, criticise him, make suggestions, offer
help. In short, deprive him of that illusion which holds his
The narcissist is a delicately attuned piece of equipment. At the
first sign of danger to his inflated, fantastic and grandiose self -
he will disappear on you.
So I repeat:
That pathological narcissism is very hard to treat successfully is
the position of clinical psychologists (which I am NOT) who bothered
to write about the subject. NPD has been recognised as a distinct
mental disorder a little more than two decades ago. There is no one
who can honestly claim expertise or even in-depth understanding of
this complex condition. My writings are limited to its phenomenology.
I deal very briefly (and unconvincingly) with its aetiology (and I
follow in this the Object-Relations school of psychodynamics for want
of a better "explanation"). So, no one knows whether therapy works.
What IS known is that therapists find narcissists repulsive,
overbearing and unnerving.
It is also known that narcissists try to co-opt, play-down or even
humiliate the therapist. To a narcissist, I would recommend a more
functional approach, perhaps along the following lines:
Know and accept thyself. This is what you are. You are highly
intelligent. You are very inquisitive. You are a narcissist. These are
facts. Narcissism is an adaptive mechanism. It is dysfunctional - but
it saves you from a LOT MORE dysfunction or even non-function.
Make a list:
what does it mean to be a narcissist in your specific case? What
are your typical behaviour patterns? Which types of behaviour are
counterproductive, irritating, self-defeating or self-destructive?
Which are productive, constructive and should be enhanced DESPITE
their pathological origin?
Decide to suppress the first and to promote the latter. Construct
lists of self-punishments, negative feedback and negative
Impose them upon yourself when you exhibit one of the behaviours in
the first list. Make a list of prizes, little indulgences, positive
feedbacks and positive reinforcements. Use them to reward yourself
when you display a behaviour of the second kind.
Keep doing this with the express intent of conditioning yourself.
Be objective, predictable and just in the administration of both
punishments and awards, positive reinforcements and feedback and
negative ones. Learn to trust your "inner court". Constrain the
sadistic, immature and ideal parts of your personality (known as
"Superego" in psychoanalytic parlance) by the application of a uniform
codex, a set of immutable and invariably applied rules.
Once sufficiently conditioned, monitor yourself incessantly.
Narcissism is sneaky and it possesses all your resources because it is
you. Your disorder is intelligent because you are. Beware and never
lose control. With time this onerous regime will become a second habit
and supplant the narcissistic (pathological) superstructure.
You might have noticed that all the above can be amply summed by
suggesting to you to become your own parent. This is what parents do
and the process is called "education" or "socialisation". If your path
to the adoption of this course is a particular therapy - go ahead. As
a metaphor, a narrative, no therapeutic approach is better or worse
than any other."
The heart of the beast is the inability of the narcissist to
distinguish true from false, posing from being, Narcissistic Supply
from genuine relationships and compulsive drives from true interests
and avocations in his life. Narcissism is about deceit. It blurs the
distinction between authentic actions, true motives, real desires,
original emotions - and the malignant forms that are the attributes of
narcissism. Narcissists are no longer capable of knowing themselves.
Terrified by their internal apparitions, paralysed by their
inauthenticity, suppressed by the weight of their repressed emotions -
they occupy a hall of mirrors. Munch-like, their elongated figures
stare at them, on the verge of THE scream, yet somehow, without sound.
Their curious, vibrant, optimistic True Self is dead. How can a False
Self be anything but false? How can anyone on a permanent diet of
reflections ever see true objects? How can the narcissist - whose
essence is the devouring of meaningful others and their transformation
into meaningless and other - ever love?
The answer is: discipline, decisiveness, clear targets,
conditioning, justice. The narcissist is the product of unjust,
capricious and cruel treatment. He is the finished product of a
production line of self-recrimination, guilt and fear. He needs to
take the antidote to counter the narcissistic poison. Unfortunately,
there is no drug I know of which can ameliorate pathological
narcissism. Confronting one's parents and childhood is a good idea if
the narcissist feels that he is ready for it. Can he take it? Can he
cope with new truths, however painful? The narcissist must be careful.
This is playing with fire. But if he feels confident that there is
nothing that can be revealed to him in such a confrontation that he
cannot withstand - it is a good and wise move in the right direction.
My advice to the narcissist would then be: just dedicate a lot of time
to rehearsing it and define well what is it exactly that you want to
ask. Do not turn this into a monodrama, group dynamics or trial. Ask
so that you shall be answered. Don't try to prove anything, to
vindicate, to take revenge, to win, to exculpate. Talk as you would
with yourself. Do not try to sound professional, mature, intelligent,
knowledgeable and distanced. There is no "problem to solve" - just a
condition to adjust yourself to. Think about it as diabetes.
At the risk of sounding heartless, I will make three concluding
The narcissist should take life in general and himself, in
particular, much less seriously. Being immersed in one's self and in
one's condition is never the right recipe to functionality, let alone
happiness. The world is a comic, absurd place. It is indeed a theatre
to be enjoyed. It is full of colours and smells and sounds to be
treasured and cherished. It is varied and it accommodates and
tolerates everyone and everything, even narcissists.
The narcissist should regard his condition as an asset. I am a
narcissist, so I write about it. My advice to the narcissist would be:
ask yourself what can you do with it? In Chinese the ideogram for
"crisis" and "opportunity" is one and the same. Why don't you
transform the curse in your life - into a blessing in other people's
lives? Why don't you tell them your story, warn them, teach them how
to avoid the same pitfalls, how to cope with the damage? Why don't you
do all this in a more institutionalised manner? For instance, you can
start a discussion group on the internet. You can establish
"Narcissists Anonymous" in some community shelter. You can open a
correspondence network, a help centre for men in your condition, for
women abused by narcissists ... the possibilities are endless. And it
will instil in you a regained sense of self-worth, a purpose,
self-confidence and reassurance. It is only by helping others that we
can help ourselves.
This is, of course, a suggestion - not a prescription. But it
demonstrates the ways in which you can derive power from adversity. It
is easy for the narcissist to think about Pathological Narcissism as
the source of all that is evil and wrong in his life. Narcissism is a
catchall phrase, a conceptual scapegoat, an evil seed. It conveniently
encapsulates the predicament of the narcissist. It introduces logic
and causal relations into his baffled, tumultuous world. But this is a
The human psyche is too complex to be captured by a single,
all-encompassing explanation, however convincing. The road to
self-help and self-betterment passes through numerous junctions and
Narcissism is the first and the foremost. But there are many other
elements in the complex dynamics that is the soul of the narcissist.
The narcissist should take responsibility for his life and not
relegate it to some hitherto rather obscure psychodynamic concept.
This is the first and most important step to healing.