Narcissists and Introspection


Are narcissists capable of introspection? Can they distinguish their False Self from who they really are? Can this help them in the therapeutic process?


A passage by Nathan Salant-Schwartz from "Narcissism and Character Transformation" [pp. 90-91. Inner City Books, 1985]:

"Psychologically, the shadow or reflection carries the image of the self - not the Ego. It is interesting and even psychotherapeutically useful to have persons suffering from NPD study their face in a mirror. Often they will see someone of great power and effectiveness, precisely the qualities they feel a lack of. For even though they may overwhelm others with their energy and personal qualities, they themselves feel ineffective.

Narcissus must possess his idealised image; he cannot allow its otherness for that would be too threatening to his basic design, to be mirrored himself. Hence, the sudden switch: 'Shall I be wooed or woo?'. Narcissus' libido quickly changes from an idealisation into a mirror form, showing how his unredeemed inflation, in psychoanalytic terms, his grandiose-exhibitionistic self, gains control."

Jungian parlance aside, the author seems to be describing - rather poetically - the basic relationship between the True Self and the False Self. No theoretician has ignored this dichotomy, most basic to malignant narcissism.

The True Self is synonymous with the [Freudian] Ego. It is shrivelled, dilapidated, stifled and marginalised by the False Self. The narcissist draws no distinction between his Ego and his Self. He is incapable of doing so. He relegates his Ego functions to the outside world. His False Self is an invention and the reflection of an invention.

Narcissists, therefore, do not "exist". The narcissist is a loose coalition, based on a balance of terror, between a sadistic, idealised Superego and a grandiose and manipulative False Ego. These two interact only mechanically. Narcissists are Narcissistic Supply seeking androids. No robot is capable of introspection, not even with the help of mirroring.

Narcissists often think of themselves as machines (the "automata metaphor"). They say things like "I have an amazing brain" or "I am not functioning today, my efficiency is low." They measure things, constantly compare performance. They are acutely aware of time and its use. There is a meter in the narcissist's head, it ticks and tocks, a metronome of self-reproach and grandiose, unattainable, fantasies.

The narcissist likes to think about himself in terms of automata because he finds them to be aesthetically compelling in their precision, in their impartiality, in their harmonious embodiment of the abstract. Machines are so powerful and so emotionless, not prone to be hurting weaklings.

The narcissist often talks to himself in third person singular. He feels that it lends objectivity to his thoughts, making them appear to be emanating from an external source. The narcissist's self-esteem is so low that, to be trusted, he has to disguise himself, to hide himself from himself. It is the narcissist's pernicious and all-pervasive art of un-being.

Thus, the narcissist carries within him his metal constitution, his robot countenance, his superhuman knowledge, his inner timekeeper, his theory of morality and his very own divinity - himself.

Sometimes the narcissist does gain self-awareness and knowledge of his predicament - typically in the wake of a life crisis (divorce, bankruptcy, incarceration, accident, serious illness, or the death of a loved one). But, in the absence of an emotional correlate, of feelings, such merely cognitive awakening is useless. It does not gel into an insight. The dry facts alone cannot bring about any transformation, let alone healing.

Narcissists often go through "soul searching". But they do so only in order to optimize their performance, to maximize the number of sources of narcissistic supply, and to better manipulate their environment. They regard introspection as an inevitable and intellectually enjoyable maintenance chore.

The introspection of the narcissist is emotionless, akin to an inventory of his "good" and "bad" sides and without any commitment to change. It does not enhance his ability to empathize, nor does it inhibit his propensity to exploit others and discard them when their usefulness is over. It does not tamper his overpowering and raging sense of entitlement, nor does it deflate his grandiose fantasies.

The narcissist's introspection is a futile and arid exercise at bookkeeping, a soulless bureaucracy of the psyche and, in its own way, even more chilling that the alternative: a narcissist blissfully unaware of his own disorder.


next: The Narcissist's Stripped Ego

APA Reference
Vaknin, S. (2008, November 21). Narcissists and Introspection, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 13 from

Last Updated: July 4, 2018

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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