Chapter 4, The Soul of a Narcissist, The State of the Art

The Tortured Self

The Inner World of the Narcissist

Chapter 4

We dealt until now only with appearances. The narcissist's behaviour is indicative of a severe pathology which lies at the heart of his psyche and which deforms almost all his mental processes. A permanent dysfunction permeates and pervades all the strata of his mind and all his interactions with others and with himself.

What makes a narcissist tick? What is his hidden psychodynamic landscape like?

It is a terrain guarded zealously by defence mechanisms as old as the narcissist himself. More than to others, entrance to this territory is barred to the narcissist himself. Yet, to heal, however marginally, he needs this access most.

Narcissists are bred by other narcissists. To treat others as objects, one must first be treated as such. To become a narcissist, one must feel that one is nothing but an instrument used to satisfy the needs of a meaningful (maybe the most meaningful) figure in his life. One must feel that the only source of reliable, unconditional, total love is himself. One must, thus, lose faith in the existence or in the availability of other sources of emotional gratification.

This is a sorry state to which the narcissist is driven by long years of denial of his separate existence and his boundaries, by a volatile, or arbitrary milieu, and by constant emotional self-reliance. The narcissist - not daring to face the imperfection of the frustrating figure (usually, his mother), not able to direct his aggression at it - resorts to destroying himself.

The narcissist thus catches two birds with one stone of self-directed aggression: he vindicates the meaningful figure and her negative judgement of himself and he relieves his anxiety. Narcissistic parents tend to perniciously mould their offspring in the formative years of early infanthood, well into the sixth year of age.

An adolescent, while still applying the finishing touches to his or to her personality, is already out of harm's way. The 10 year olds are more susceptible to narcissistic pathology, but not in the subtle irreversible manner which is the precondition for the formation of a Narcissistic Personality Disorder. The seed of pathological narcissism is planted earlier than that.

It often happens that children are exposed to only one narcissistic parent. If you are the other parent, you would do well to simply be yourself. Do not directly confront or counteract the narcissistic parent. This will transform him or her into a martyr or a role model (especially to rebellious teenagers). Simply show them that there is another way. They will make the right choice. All people do - except narcissists.

Narcissists are born to narcissistic, depressive, obsessive-compulsive, alcoholic, drug addicted, hypochondriac, passive-aggressive and, in general, mentally disturbed parents. Alternatively, they may be born into chaotic circumstances. Delinquent parents are not the exclusive vehicle of deprivation. War, disease, famine, a particularly nasty divorce, or sadistic peers and role models (teachers, for instance) can do the job as efficiently.

It is not the quantity of deprivation but its quality that breeds narcissism. The most important questions are: is the child accepted and loved as he is, unconditionally? Is his treatment consistent, predictable and just? Capricious behaviour and arbitrary judgement, contradicting directives, or emotional absence are the elements which constitute the narcissist's menacing, whimsically unexpected, dangerously cruel world.

In such a world, emotions are negatively rewarded. The development of emotions requires long-term, repeated, and safe interactions. Such interactions call for stability, predictability and a lot of goodwill. When these prerequisites are absent, the child prefers to escape into a world of his own making to minimise the hurt. Such a world combines an "analytical ratio" coupled with repressed emotions.

The narcissist, out of touch with his emotions, finds it impossible to communicate them. He disavows their very existence and the existence or prevalence or incidence of emotions in others. He finds the task of emoting so daunting, that he repudiates his feelings and their content and denies that he is capable of feeling at all.

When forced to communicate his emotions - usually by some kind of threat to his image or to his imaginary world, or by a looming abandonment - the narcissist uses an alienating and alienated, "objective" language. He makes profligate use of this emotionless speech also in therapy sessions, where direct contact is made with his feelings.

The narcissist does everything not to express directly and in plain language what he feels. He generalises, compares, analyses, justifies, uses objective or objective-looking data, theorises, intellectualises, rationalises, hypothesises - anything but acknowledge his emotions.

Even when genuinely attempting to convey his feelings, the narcissist, who is normally verbally adept, sounds mechanic, hollow, disingenuous, or as though he is referring to someone else. This "observer stance" is favoured by narcissists. In an attempt to help the inquirer (the therapist, for instance) they assume a detached, "scientific" poise and talk about themselves in the third person.

Some of them even go to the extent of getting acquainted with psychological jargon to sound more convincing (though a few actually go to the trouble of studying psychology in-depth). Another narcissistic ploy is to pretend to be a "tourist" in one's own internal landscape: politely and mildly interested in the geography and history of the place, sometimes amazed, at times amused - but always uninvolved.


All this makes it difficult to penetrate the impregnable: the narcissist's inner world.

The narcissist himself has limited access to it. Humans rely on communication to get to know each other and they empathise through comparison. Communication absent or lacking, we cannot truly feel the "humanness" of the narcissist.

The narcissist is, thus, often described by others as "robotic", "machine-like", "inhuman", "emotionless", "android", "vampire", "alien", "automatic", "artificial", and so on. People are deterred by the narcissist's emotional absence. They are wary of him and keep their guard up at all times.

Certain narcissists are good at simulating emotions and can easily mislead people around them. Yet, their true colours are exposed when they lose interest in someone because he no longer serves a narcissistic (or other) purpose. Then they no longer invest energy in what, to others, comes naturally: emotional communication.

This is the essence of the narcissist's exploitativeness. To a certain degree, we all exploit each other. But, the narcissist abuses people. He misleads them into believing that they mean something to him, that they are special and dear to him, and that he cares about them. When they discover that it was all a sham and a charade, they are devastated.

The narcissist's problem is exacerbated by being constantly abandoned. It is a vicious cycle: the narcissist alienates people and they leave him. This, in turn, convinces him that he was always right in thinking that people are selfish and always prefer their self-interest to his welfare. His antisocial and asocial behaviours are, thus, amplified, leading to yet more serious emotional ruptures with his closest, nearest, and dearest.


next: Chapter 5, The Soul of a Narcissist, The State of the Art

APA Reference
Vaknin, S. (2008, November 6). Chapter 4, The Soul of a Narcissist, The State of the Art, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, June 24 from

Last Updated: July 5, 2018

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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