Thursday, 7 August 2008




1. Introduction

2. Cultural Narcissism

The Confusion in the Concept of Narcissism
Our Changing Mental Health
Criticisms and Rebuttals

3. Pathological Narcissism


3.1 The Psychoanalytic Approach to Pathological Narcissism

The Unconscious
Bion’s Emotional Unconscious
Normal Forms of Projective Identification
Pathological Forms of Projective Identification in the Absence of External Feedback/Others
Pathological Forms of Projective Identification in the Presence of External Feedback/Others
The Debate over the Nature of Narcissistic Personality
Kernberg’s Model of Destructive Narcissism
Kohut’s Model of Healthy Narcissism
Implications for Psychotherapy
Development of Narcissistic Disturbance
Failure to Establish the Triadic Position
Criticism and Rebuttals

3.2 The Existential Approach to Pathological Narcissism

Sartre’s Ontological Structures
A Sartrean Perspective on the Development of Narcissism
Ontological Insecurity and Narcissistic Disturbance

3.3 Comparing and Contrasting Psychoanalytic vs. Existential Views

An Overview So Far

4. Discussion


4.1 The Psychological View

The Narcissistic Personality
Narcissistic Dynamism of Difficulty in Interpersonal Living
Sartre’s Being-for-others
Empathic Connectedness

4.2 Cultural Views

Our Changing Mental Health
‘Engulfing’ and ‘Implosive’ Envy
Coping with Envy

4.3 Conclusion

Extract from the Tao Te Ching




Ever since the mid-nineteen seventies, sociologists have deployed the psychological term narcissism to depict the prevailing culture of our time in urban Western society. The usage of the concept of narcissism in this way however has led not only to confusion, but is also a contradiction in terms. As such, contemporary narcissism must be considered as separate entities, both as a modern-day socio-cultural phenomenon and a psychopathological condition.

The aim of this work is to distinguish cultural narcissism from narcissistic personality disorder. The thrust of this work is an attempt to investigate our obsession with status (or the illusion of social status) and the unhappiness it can bring - so poignantly exemplified in both pathological as well as cultural narcissism.

The essence of this paper is a first attempt to create an original synthesis from the existential and psychoanalytic frameworks regarding clinical narcissism. In addition, the various differences and similarities between cultural and pathological narcissism are also discussed, with the aim of initiating an untangling of the various themes and traits of the two from contemporary confusion.

Finally, an initial attempt at analysis is presented as to the reasons for the high prevalence of cultural narcissism in today’s society and its relation to specific societal factors such as the decline of the family unit.

1. Introduction

The decline of the importance of the family, the fundamental building block and fabric of our society, over the last century has seen a gradual lessening in our sense of community and belonging. Christopher Lasch (1979) observes, ‘Schools, peer groups, mass media, and the “helping professions” had challenged parental authority and taken over many of the family’s child-rearing functions.’ (page 238) The traditionalist culture of previous generations is no longer recognizable in our progressive Western society of today, as many of the shared family and community values that helped bind us together in the past, have all but broken down. Over time, we have learned to endure the consequent numbing experience of our own ineffectualness and powerlessness to make a difference with a ‘novel’ sense of autonomy, an ‘attitude of independence’ as it were, hitherto unfamiliar.

This change evolved over decades and came to be known as the ‘inner revolution’ of the seventies, or the ‘me decade’, soon earned a reputation for self-absorption and political retreat. Indeed, since that time sociologists have employed the idea of narcissism in critiquing this movement so loosely that it retains little of its psychological content. Lasch (1979) for example deemed The Culture of Narcissism a fitting title for his national bestseller: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations. Draining the term of its clinical meaning in this way however makes a mockery of the anguish and despair suffered by the pathologically disturbed narcissistic individual and their family. Moreover, the use of the term narcissism in its socio-cultural diluted form denigrates the very social change it proclaims to describe. Modern society has managed to free itself from many of the inhibitions imposed by the conventional morality and self-righteousness of the past. Albeit, this newly discovered ‘inner freedom’ does have its downside - we live in an increasingly self-centred culture of individuals rather than societies.

The term ‘narcissism’ comes from the Greek myth of Narcissus.(1) It was Havelock Ellis, the late 19th-century sexologist, who was first to make the connection between the classical Narcissus myth and the psychological condition. An important contribution to psychoanalysis, Freud first employed the term in the paper On Narcissism (1914).(2) Today, the term has become one of the more common expressions to come from psychoanalysis. Branding someone ‘narcissistic’ is now commonplace and on every body’s lips used disparagingly to describe someone behaving in a self-centred or self-important way. Moreover, the psychoanalytic community itself is split into two camps over the nature of narcissistic personality. This may have also added to some of the confusion in the concept. Over time, the term narcissism has acquired many meanings, not least the one described by Lasch and characterized by self-absorption or ‘self-defeat’ from a closed view of the universe. Consequently it has become necessary to consider contemporary narcissism not only as a psychological or clinical condition, but as a modern-day social and cultural phenomenon as well.

Today, narcissism in the socio-cultural sense of the word serves as a metaphoric term that denigrates a certain kind of self-absorption that seems to have infiltrated our culture in modern times. In the author’s view, this development arose partly in response to the loosening of social structure and boundaries. We live in a ‘no-blame’ culture of political correctness that is fuelled by envy and issues of social status, where everybody must be equal and no one is allowed to lose. By implication no one is allowed to win either, unless you are someone to be idolized like a celebrity or a powerful figure. Over time self-absorption has come to characterize our susceptibility to shrink from the world and withdraw into our individual ‘comfort zone’, as a coping mechanism against being vulnerable to feelings of inadequacy. That ‘I am not right as I am’, or ‘not good enough’, that ‘I don’t look good’ or ‘perform well’. However, this vulnerability may be temporary, often arising in reaction to the socio-economic conditions we live in. In other words, the self-absorbed individual, or ‘cultural narcissist’ as he or she will be referred to throughout this paper to distinguish them from the ‘pathological narcissist’, may have other things going for them and can therefore self-sustain in their ‘comfort zone’. Gendlin (1987) observes that there is a danger of confusing cultural with pathological narcissism, and contends that such confusion will inevitably lead to a contradiction in terms.

Gendlin’s argument is based on the premise that the kind of self-absorption that has permeated modern Western society often implies ‘inner freedom’ or internal complexity, intricacy and experience. This is quite the opposite from pathological narcissism as described by Kohut (1971) that is distinguished by a lack of interiority or deficit. It is a phenomenon that can best be characterized as a kind of ‘switching off’ triggered by a self-loathing and sense of rejection that manifests as ‘coldness’ - or devoidness in ‘inner warmth’. This in turn may be understood as unwillingness or inability to give oneself warmth or helpful/constructive feedback, resulting in a lack of a solid sense of self. Warmth and feedback therefore must be, and can only be, solicited from others outside the self, since the pathological narcissist is unable to show a continuity of personal identity or maintain any real (as in to do with reality) or constructive internal dialogue; hence their lack of interiority. Like the shopkeeper who depends on his clientele to make a living, the pathological narcissist is dependent on others for their very sense of psychological balance and continuity of identity.

Wrapped by a cold and vindictive persona, the pathological narcissist is unable to afford his or herself any warmth, let alone sustain others emotionally. Hence, they suffer from a constant and incessant need to feed off others in order to sustain their lack of self—albeit, sadly in vain. They have no regard for others and are parasitic in their relationship because no amount of warmth or feedback can ever be trusted or relied upon. Just like the barrel without a bottom – however much is poured in dumps straight out – the pathological narcissist would sooner eject and reject all warmth on offer so that nothing is retained. Nothing external is good enough. The pathological narcissist suffers from a chronic sense of dissatisfaction that is internal and which cannot be appeased by external means. Additionally, the giving or receiving of warmth might betray a neediness that may be construed as weakness to be exploited and used against the pathological narcissist by way of rejection that is matched by an equivalent self-loathing and sense of rejection. Indeed, neediness is inadmissible, and must be denied, disowned and disavowed at all costs, just as their own needs may have been rejected in infancy—such is the cruel and horrific nature, root, and origin of their narcissistic injury.

The interpersonal origins of psychological distress and developing the sense of self in the childhood of the pathological narcissist primarily derive from a failure originating in the infant’s search for feedback to make him or her feel visible. Severe deprivation of warmth and feedback in the beginning of life will inevitably lead to enduring difficulties in adulthood such as the development of so-called ‘narcissistic personality’. Narcissism as identified by Kohut is rigidly established therefore and can be said to constitute a ‘disorder’; and the individual is never afforded any comfort zone.

For the purposes of this MA dissertation, which focuses on two broad and competing models of pathological narcissism from the existential and psychoanalytic perspective, the author has used both primary and secondary sources. From the existential perspective, primary sources have been generally relied on because so little exists in the literature on this topic, whereas in the psychoanalytic perspective where there is an abundance of material, the author has relied more on respected contemporary secondary sources. Additionally, it is vital to point out that throughout this dissertation the author will only be examining the psychoanalytic and existential views. The author is aware that there are other theorists who have contributed to this field, such as Jung and Jacoby. For example, in Individuation & Narcissism, the Jungian analyst Mario Jacoby (1990) explores the works of Jung and Kohut regarding the psychology of the self. However, other positions such as these will be excluded not for lack of validity but simply because they extend the boundaries of this dissertation.

The paper is comprised of four parts, an introduction (Part One), and another three main sections. Part Two is about the prevailing culture of narcissism in modern Western society. The section begins by drawing on the writings of Eugene Gendlin (1987), in an attempt to show that cultural and pathological narcissism must be considered as two separate and distinct entities. It appears that sociologists may have confused self-absorption with the clinical condition of ‘narcissistic personality disorder’. The section then later explores our changing mental health and the decline of the importance of the family in recent decades in relation to our present-day culture of narcissism, as it has come to be generally accepted.

Part Three deals from a clinical standpoint with the history and development of the concept of pathological narcissism - dynamism of difficulty in interpersonal living that has come to be known as ‘narcissistic personality organisation’. An overview of the main concepts/theories from both psychoanalytic (Part 3.1), and existential (Part 3.2) disciplines are presented by the various authors and their respective orientation. In addition, the theoretical and logical limitations/dilemmas connected with such views will be examined. Part 3.3 concludes by comparing and contrasting one perspective to the other.

Part Four, Discussion, is comprised of three sub-sections. Part 4.1 brings together diverse ideas from psychoanalytic and existential frameworks, as presented in Part Three, regarding pathological narcissism and attempts to provide an original synthesis of these ideas.

Part 4.2 is an attempt at analysis or reinterpretation of the cultural views presented in Part Two. The section examines our sense of belonging in current society and its disintegration in recent times. We all have inherent but conflicting needs to bond as well as to excel. However, our ability to reconcile the two seems to have gone awry in recent decades resulting in the prevailing culture of narcissism of our time. The section then later examines the concept of envy in terms of existential-phenomenology, and the unhappiness that can result form our failure to adequately cope with our natural and inherent disposition to feel such envy.

Part 4.3 concludes this dissertation by discussing the various differences and similarities between cultural and pathological narcissism, so that a new elaboration on the concept of narcissism can be presented devoid of any confusions or contradictions. Additionally, an initial presentation is given as to the reasons for the increasing rate of cultural narcissism in today’s society due to various societal factors.

The author’s motivation for writing this dissertation not only stems from an academic interest in the subject but also from personal life experiences. Subsequently, what is presented here is a unique undertaking based on relevant psychological theory and literature in addition to personal long-term association and experience of the disturbing aspects of pathological narcissism. This paper attempts to draw together psychoanalytic and existential frameworks on pathological narcissism. The author believes this has not been attempted before, and therefore, serves as his creative and original contribution to the ongoing debate.

2. Cultural Narcissism


The steady decline of the importance of the family over the last hundred years has seen a gradual diminution in our sense of values and traditions. We no longer have clearly defined lines between what may be considered personal or familial, and what belongs in the public arena. Richard Sennett (1977), in The Fall of Public Man, has observed that in our own time it is common for people to expose their most private secrets to total strangers, where ‘Conversation takes on the quality of confession’ leaving nothing to the imagination by way of prospective playful encounter (Lasch 1979). This was unheard of in eighteenth-century London or Paris when ‘sociability did not depend on intimacy.’(Lasch, 1979, p. 28) It appears that we are no longer able to find sufficient comfort within the extended family or unit, and must seek solace from without. Lasch (1979) goes on to say, ‘The romantic cult of sincerity and authenticity tore away the masks that people once had worn in public and eroded the boundary between public and private life’. (page 28)

Moreover, with the decline of the class system in recent decades, downtrodden people have been left with only themselves to blame. They are forced to perceive any decline in their social status as being purely down to their own personal defects. In other words, people today no longer accept a hierarchical place in society. Indeed, the concept of competition, once considered vital for our very psychological health and well being, is now frowned upon as a ‘dirty word’, replaced by deceitful and treacherous ‘back-stabbing’ attitudes of envy and ill will.

Additionally, we have become increasingly indifferent to our past traditions, and therefore no longer have anything to carry forward into the future. As a result, we live only for the moment, facing a future without a sense of progression or hope:

To live for the moment is the prevailing passion - to live for yourself, not for your predecessors or posterity. We are fast losing the sense of historical continuity, the sense of belonging to a succession of generations originating in the past and stretching into the future. (Lasch, 1979, p. 5)

Such generic apathy may be attributed in part to the failure of our ‘inner’ shared values, and without shared values we have little in common and hence no sense of community. May (1970) argues that violent behaviour is one step away from such apathy: ‘for no human being can stand the perpetually numbing experience of his own powerlessness.’ (page 14) We could of course resign ourselves to living like the leopard, a solitary animal except when it mates, and even then the male father-to-be is soon sent away packing unceremoniously. Are we not heading that way too? The growing incidence of divorce speaks volumes. Are we becoming ‘solitary animals’ in a jungle of people? Can our ‘self-imposed isolation’, or self-absorption even, prevent us from ultimately annihilating one another? What happens when we are compelled to encounter others through work for example, what then? Lasch (1979) argues that the cutthroat nature of modern society and the collapse of personal life originate in ‘the war of all against all’. (page 26) This then begs the question as to why now, and what is at the heart of such destructiveness or unhappiness? In September 2005, it was reported on a radio news broadcast that as many as 40,000 children were on anti-depressants in Britain today, some as young as 5 years old, and one in ten children had mental health problems. Health Authorities urged doctors only to prescribe drugs as a means of last resort, and not before exploring the possibility of other therapeutic interventions such as counselling.

Modern Western society can of course also be seen in a positive light. We have managed to free ourselves from many of the unhealthy inhibitions imposed by the conventional morality and quasi-religious self-righteousness of the past. Today we enjoy a newly discovered, unburdened, ‘inner’ freedom hitherto unfamiliar. However, as we have seen, such freedom does have a downside; we live in an increasingly self-centred culture of individuals rather than societies. Have we not merely substituted one form of inadequate interpersonal social co-existence, with another; free of guilt but plagued by anxiety instead? Is it simply a matter of yet another more modern type of perceived sense of personal inadequacy or a fear of non-conformity that is fuelling the current so-called war of all against all?

This section is about the culture of narcissism of our time. Specifically, it attempts to illustrate that in describing the culture as ‘narcissistic’, sociologists may have mistakenly confused and therefore equated cultural with pathological narcissism. Drawing on the writings of Eugene Gendlin (1987), this section attempts to abolish the confusion and contradiction surrounding the term narcissism. Additionally, the changing state of our psychological well being over recent decades is examined.

The Confusion in the Concept of Narcissism

There has only recently been a concerted effort at eradicating the confusion surrounding the concept of narcissism, most notably by Gendlin (1987). His endeavour to clarify the concept of narcissism will be further amplified by examining how his theory can be described in terms of existential-phenomenology, in Part Four of this dissertation. On pathological narcissism, Gendlin (1987) observes:

Kohut(3) described “narcissistic” people as lacking inner experience. They must look to another person’s reaction to gain any sense of themselves. They have few feelings and reactions. To help these people sense themselves, Kohut said one must hold a mirror up to them. Like Narcissus, in the myth, they have no inward access to themselves. Only another person’s perception of them enables them to feel anything inside. (page 16)

Almaas (1996) is somewhat less sympathetic. He states that the pathological narcissist feels an ‘inner’ emptiness; so much so that he or she are envious, and hate anyone who seems to have a rich ‘inner’ life.

Nowadays, however, narcissism also serves as a metaphoric term for self-absorption. Sociologist and psychoanalytic thinkers are critical because, they say, people’s inner preoccupation with the state of their psychic health interferes with their social bonding. Gendlin observes that a major social change is talking place, and he attributes this in part to the influence of psychoanalysis and its offshoots, unlocking a new depth to our understanding of the human reality. This understanding in turn unlocked the language that made it possible to articulate and therefore acknowledge certain truths about human feeling and interaction, hitherto unreachable:

People call their entry into the current change “getting in touch with my feelings.” The phrase says that they look back on a time when they lived without sensing certain events they now sense, and prize. These so-called “feelings” are not simple emotions or desires, but complexities that give rise to new aspects of living, and create new troubles. (Gendlin, 1987, p. 1)

Gendlin goes on to say that the critics see a devaluation of personal life not so much to do with people’s self-love or self-importance, but more to do with an inability to make connection with others. Furthermore, it is not that the critics are happy with the old forms, but they see that normal people today exhibited many of the same dispositions that appeared more intensely in pathological narcissism. Gendlin (1987) accepts that ‘unstable interaction, regression, breakdown, and loss of “self”’ have become even more common. (page 4) But he argues that the critics confuse cause and affect. Certain developments of self-absorption, or cultural narcissism, may be temporary, since they derive from the socio-economic conditions in which individuals must live. Pathological narcissism, on the other hand, is rigidly established.

Gendlin (1987) goes on to argue that by calling the currently common introspective complexity ‘narcissistic,’ the critics make the assumption that the individual’s failure to identify fully with prevailing roles must be ‘narcissism’, regression to infantilism. This assumption leads to a contradiction. Kohut’s narcissistic type is not the same as the cultural narcissist. The latter are described ‘narcissistic’ because they are self-absorbed with so much feeling, they even seem unconcerned with superficial impressions they make on others; while in contrast Kohut’s patients feel barren and do not have excessive inner preoccupation with the self, they are obsessively social. In fact, they are quite the opposite. ‘Therefore, the term “Narcissism” is applied to more interior development as well as to the lack of interiority.’ (Gendlin, 1987, p. 16)

Kohut’s psychoanalytic notion of ‘interiority’, or lack of it, as discussed above can be adequately understood if seen as being inter-relational and existential, as will be later explored in Part Four. This forthcoming exploration, which the author believes has not been attempted before, will be an original contribution in an effort to further the understanding of the concept of narcissism.

Our Changing Mental Health

Freud’s classical neuroses can be found only in remote, rural areas - ‘Today it seems “everybody has personality problems”.’ (Gendlin, 1987, p. 18) It can be argued that with the current climate of political freedom, people no longer know how to behave. Instead, people today act out their conflicts instead of repressing them. In the author’s view, ‘traditional people’, who obtained a sense of comfort and security from being categorisedbecause it takes away the anguish of freedomconsequently developed judgmental attitudes towards individuals who strayed away from the social norms. As such, ‘traditional people’ accepted their social status in society without question. Today, however, society has moved on. Unthinking, judgmental attitudes are no longer very much in fashionpeople today have more care for the sensitivity of others. They reject the traditional social forms and associate with an ‘inner freedom’ and complexity (Gendlin, 1987).

The change that has been happening to Western society, in the wake of the steady decline of the importance of the family in recent decades invites the following pertinent questions. Have we merely substituted our consequent sense of shame, which derives from a failure to live up to the traditional norms, with dilemmas of freedom? Or, are we adopting an attitude of hate or indifference in an attempt to avoid others? Or maybe, we have evolved, and are simply trying to adopt an attitude of what Sartre calls ‘Being-for-others’.(4) That is, ‘if I embrace you as you are and vice versa, and be open to the possibility of being influenced by you and the possibility of relationship we may find a way out’.

In other words, whereas during the time of Freud, morality was externally grounded in that ‘I needed others to act as authority so I can be sure I do the right thing; now I am my own authority’. The problem with society today however is that one is dependent on the recognition of the other. The missing of the other is the problem.

Criticisms and Rebuttals

Lasch (1979) argues:

On the principle that pathology represents a heightened version of normality, the “pathological narcissism” found in character disorders of this type should tell us something about narcissism as a social phenomenon. Studies of personality disorders that occupy the border line between neurosis and psychosis, though written for clinicians and making no claims to shed light on social or cultural issues, depict a personality that ought to be immediately recognisable, in a more subdued form, to observers of the contemporary cultural scene: facile at managing the impressions he gives to others, ravenous for admiration but contemptuous of those he manipulates into providing it; unappeasably hungry for emotional experiences with which to fill an inner void; terrified of ageing and death. (page 38)

The author concurs with Gendlin, and is of the view that Lasch is probably mistaken to equate cultural with pathological narcissism. Based on Freud’s assertion that there is continuity between the normal and abnormal, Lasch (1979) argues that cultural narcissism, to a lesser degree, displayed ‘many of the same personality traits that appeared, in more extreme form, in pathological narcissism.’ (page 239) However, cultural and pathological narcissism often betray quite the opposite personality distinctions. For example, we have seen that the pathological narcissist can be highly social and is compulsively charismatic, which is quite the opposite from being self-preoccupied or self-absorbed.

It is perhaps not surprising that such confusion may have occurred. An important similarity between cultural and pathological narcissism is both are fuelled by issues arising from and expressive of our sense of social status in the world. That is they centre upon a perceived sense of personal inadequacy or a fear of non-conformity, driven by a sense of deprivation that manifests as envy. This notion of status and of feeling ‘different’ can be described in the following way - ‘I/they do not measure up’ or ‘I/they should know better’. This is how Sartre (1969) captures it: ‘The Other’s Look reveals another subject because it reveals to me my own object status beneath the gaze of that subject’ (Cannon, 1991, p. 49). Indeed, there must be a part of our brain that is conscious moment by moment about status. Any comparison in ‘differences’ between self and others that ignores the ‘totality’ of the self and others is likely lead to a perceived sense of personal inadequacy or a fear of non-conformity, which may underpin all human unhappiness. We are all unique and special yet insignificant and nothing at the same time, as well as the entire spectrum in-between.

An initial analysis of the main views of cultural narcissism has now been completed. A more comprehensive analysis of the differences and similarities between pathological and cultural narcissism, and the reasons for the high prevalence of cultural narcissism in today’s society will be discussed in Part Four of this dissertation. The main views of pathological narcissism will now be examined in the following section.

3. Pathological Narcissism


This section is subdivided into three parts. The psychoanalytic and existential views on pathological narcissism are examined in Parts 3.1 and 3.2 respectively. Part 3.3 concludes with a summary that compares and contrasts one to the other.

3.1 The Psychoanalytic Approach to Pathological Narcissism


It can be argued that the human infant is born too early. We come into the world utterly unable to provide for both our physical and emotional needs, and therefore are totally dependent on those who take care of us. We readily recognize of course that one would be hard pressed to treat the individual whose physical needs may have been severely frustrated at the beginning life. Severe malnutrition early in life, for such example, impairs the growth and development of the infant’s immune system, leading to a host of chronic illnesses later in life. By way of contrast, do we really understand the true significance of the emotional needs of the infant? The discovery of the need for authentic contact between infants and parents, and the realization that the development of the personality depends on the existence of a mind outside of itself capable of receiving it had to wait until the latter half of the twentieth century.

Wilfred Bion (1962) argues that the development of personality depends on the existence of an object similar to the breast, the ‘thinking breast’. This is capable of containing and modifying the infant’s projected anxiety and of recognizing his or her true self. Bion calls this experience reverie. A mother who is adequately composed and capable of optimal responsiveness will be able to contain such feelings and convert them into tolerable forms that the infant can re-introject. This experience can be positive and communicative as the child learns from its interaction with the mother. However, the absence of such an object can lead to disastrous consequences for the personality. Failure to introject a ‘good internal object’, or internalize the ‘alpha-function’that symbolizes and deciphers emotions can distort the growth and development of our underlying sense of existence:

"Alpha function" is the one which translates what is absorbed by the baby through the senses in a pre-verbal form into words, dreams, expression of feeling and dialogue. Alpha function does the transformation from thoughts which cannot be thought to thoughts which can be thought. First the mother does this function for the baby. She translates the baby's distresses for it, gives names to its hardships and anxieties and thus calms and contains it. Later, when it [the baby] already has concepts, it learns how to carry out this transformation for itself. (Biran, 1997, p. 1)

Failure to introject a ‘good internal object’ can lead to the formation of an explosive mind lacking emotional resonance and the ability to maintain the adequate constancy for self-observation that takes responsibility for behaviour, particularly in interpersonal situations of anxiety or conflict. This is characteristic of borderline and narcissistic personality, two of the most common character disorders. They may be understood as a level of character organization that is more disturbed than the neurotic and less disturbed than the psychotic (Yontef, 1993).

These disturbances are not unlike their biological or physical correlates in that they are enduring and quite difficult to treat. It is not surprising therefore that most major developments in psychoanalytic theory have emerged in the field of personality disorder, ‘addressing the problem of severe, enduring but predominantly not overtly psychotic states of mind’. (Fonagy, 2002, p. 3)(5)

This section examines Bion’s enterprise in the advancement of Klein’s study on projective identification(6) and his own development of the concept of the emotional unconscious distinguishing it from Freud’s (repressed) unconscious. Bion and Freud also differ in their understanding of the concept of ‘dream work’. These important concepts play a key role in the characterisation of the narcissistic condition, since communication primarily occurs through projective identification supported by an unconscious phantasy, whereby hated parts of the self are evacuated into the object/other. It is the ‘emotional unconscious’, the wellspring of phantasy and powerhouse of communication that makes relations (or ‘non-relations’ as the case maybe with pathological narcissism) with others and the world possible, through its functioning capacity to symbolise/decipher emotions or ‘dream work’.

A clear understanding of what is occurring for the pathological narcissist in phantasy is absolutely crucial as he or she attempts to interpret the world in the process of generating anew their psychic reality. This understanding potentially enables the therapist to predetermine the most precise attitude he or she may adopt in the psychotherapeutic treatment of this clinical disorder. The goal in the therapy must be for the client to establish the development of the capacity for emotional resonance and the comprehension of consensual reality.

This section then later explores the controversy over the nature of narcissistic personality in relation to Kernberg’s ‘destructive’ and Kohut’s ‘healthy’ model of narcissism, and the implications their ideas may have for psychotherapy. Additionally, the development of narcissistic disturbance together with the underlining of certain rebuttals and criticisms are examined.

The Unconscious: Repressed, Unaware and Unknowable

Before undertaking a consideration of Bion’s development of the concept of the emotional unconscious, the following example may be useful in clarifying a threefold distinction between repressed, unaware and unknowable aspects of our minds. The functioning capacity of the emotional unconscious may be likened to that of riding a bicycle, a skill one learns but does seemingly naturally. These are deeply rooted ways of being, unique to each person, containing instructive, emotional and bodily constituents to them. The unaware memory of riding a bicycle is unknowable; we are only conscious of the fact that we just do it. In contrast, Freud’s concept of the repressed unconscious can be made conscious. De Masi, (2002) elucidates:

In Bion, the unconscious loses the ontic connotation of place: it is a function of mind and not a space for depositing the repressed. Thus, when walking, we are conscious of doing so but unaware of how we perform the walking function. If we were so aware, our minds would be clogged up with perceptions and we should not be able to walk. (pages 115-116)

The unaware memory of emotional experience is responsible for providing knowledge, constructing our sense of identity, making relations with others and the world possible, and determining the unaware consciousness of the selfwhich is at the very heart of our being (De Masi, 2002).

Bion’s Emotional Unconscious: A Function of Mind and not a Space for Depositing the Repressed; A Functioning Capacity and not a Structure

A distinction is drawn here between Bion’s concept of ‘dream work’ and Freud’s. Bion (1992) saw dreams as being generated by the need for a new meaning. Initiated by the perception of a lived emotional experience, dreams may be seen as the generating matrix of psychic reality, the way the psyche works during waking hours. At the beginning of life this function was performed by the mother through her capacity for reverie, her alpha-function. The unconscious, through the alpha-function or dreaming, provides the alpha-elements, the new supplies of symbols and images that re-process sensory data into thought. Dreams are intrapsychic and inter-subjective communications between objects, and not creations to be interpreted. Subsequently, dreams can be seen as the playing out of different scenarios and possibilities in the cyberspace of the mind - with the undesirable events being repressed. Indeed, according to Heaton (2000), ‘Wittgenstein … left open the possibility of phenomena that only indicate meaning without saying anything in particular. So a dream can show but cannot say; it can be contemplated and not interpreted’. (page 23) Far from being the outcome of repression, the dream is a basic symbolic function that shapes and registers emotions an unaware daytime activity, that provides knowledge but is unknowable, that operates without interruption on the subconscious level, through which psychic reality will be continuously generated.

In other words, the sense experiences, the first-stage of thoughts derived from lived emotional experience, must constantly be subjected to the alpha-function or ‘dream work’. That is the process of transforming the unrefined, preverbal, pre-symbolic, unconscious sensory experience into dream-thoughts, which function outside of consciousness. De Masi (2002) elaborates further by linking Bion’s dream work with Klein’s notion of the paranoid-schizoid(7) and depressive positions (8):

The dream is not only the process whereby the unconscious is made conscious, but also the means of transformation into material suitable for storage; the subject moves on from the paranoid-schizoid position (expulsion) to the depressive position (assimilation). (page 116)

Additionally, it appears that Freud conceived the notion of dreams completely the other way round. It is not the repressed unconscious that is the creator of dreams, but dreams the creator of the repressed unconscious; it is dreams that make psychic life possible. Dreams are like the gatekeeper, in all but name, that separates and maintains the unconscious part of the psychic experience through the use of its repressing power. The censorship and resistance belonging to dreams act as mechanisms that continuously differentiate the conscious from the repressed, dynamic unconscious. For Bion, there is no contradiction between the conscious and repressed dynamic unconscious, which therefore can no longer be regarded as two psychic domains. They are instead temporary and in a constant state of flux.

Additionally, the emotional unconscious, which makes emotional life possible, may be regarded as the container of the dynamic unconscious. Indeed, if the emotional unconscious is impaired, the dynamic unconscious is also affected. Kohut (1971) describes the pathological narcissist as lacking ‘inner’ experience as well as having few feelings and reactions; he or she looks to the other, as a mirror of the self, in order to gain a sense of their selves. The pathological narcissist feels invisible to him/herself as well as to others. It can be argued that the conditions for the formation of their emotional unconscious, which makes emotional life possible, may have been altered or made inappropriate at the beginning of life, leading to the failure of the capacity to process and therefore repress much material during the ‘dream work’. Such disturbances fall into the realm of deficit rather than the realm of conflict. The pathological narcissist is not so much concerned with conflict and relational wishes, as he or she may be concerned with having their existence validated and confirmed by others. They want to be noticed or understood and have their feelings acknowledged and mirrored moment by moment since their psychological balance and continuity of identity depends on receiving such visibility and feedback.

Normal Forms of Projective Identification: An Unaware Function of Emotional Awareness - As Communication, and as Generating Psychic Reality

Bion recognized that projective identification is an important form of communication. For example, babies or small children use it before they can talk in order to evoke a response from the mother. Such communication can be constructive and communicative as well as violent and negative, ranging from empathy to attack. There is therefore an implicit assumption of the existence of two emotional unconsciouses communicating to each other on a subconscious level. Indeed, the neuroscientists’ recent discovery of the mirror neurons, whose level of development in childhood may go some way in explaining certain psychological as well as psychopathological phenomena, will be later discussed in Part 3.2. De Masi (2002) elucidates:

This unaware perception bears witness to the ability to grasp correctly one’s own and the other’s mental state through the emotional unconscious, an unconscious that has eyes and can see. It is surely this kind of unconscious perception, when not detected and brought into awareness by an appropriate interpretation or even, on occasion, actually distorted by the analyst that underlies the psychoanalytic impasse. (page 119)

In other words, the analytic session has a parallel with the model of mother-infant interactions, and may be described as a space sharing the same dream-like quality, having a similar potential for generating a new psychic reality. The analyst uses his or her alpha-function to promote the process for transforming the client’s sensory experience into thought, supplying the alpha-elements through which psychic reality will be generated.

It is in just such individuals, who lacked a suitable emotional container in their primary objects and are unable to make use of their emotional unconscious, that projective identification takes on pathological forms. These individuals are stuck, like a broken record, as a consequence of having re-introjected the bad object in its heightened form; the anxieties provoked in their primary objects are reactivated and hence their paranoia. In other words, a re-introjection of the ‘bad’ object in its frightening and unbearable form, referred to as counter-projective identification, only serves to reinforce the patient’s own madness. It is felt to be an invasion or a re-contamination by the object’s, or ‘Other’s’, own mental instability, and is at the very heart of paranoia. It can be argued, therefore, that paranoia must be an intrinsic characteristic of narcissistic personality causing the pathological narcissist to be suspicious of any positive reception.

For the purposes of this dissertation, pathological forms of projective identification and the impact thereof on the pathological narcissist will be discussed separately, both in the ‘presence’ as well as ‘absence’ of another human being.

Pathological Forms of Projective Identification in the Absence of External Feedback/Others: An Unaware Function of the Emotional Unconscious Lacking Ability to Generate/Update Psychic Reality and Resulting in the Psychotic State

De Masi (2002) observes:

As the metaboliser of psychic experiences, the unconscious must function satisfactorily if the mind is to produce thoughts.

… In psychotic states [however] thoughts lack a thinker owing to the damage sustained by the alpha function [the incapacity to decipher emotions] for the psychotic ‘thinking’ coincides with ‘dreaming.’ (page 116)

In other words, the pathological narcissist is incapable of discriminating between waking life and dreams during the psychotic state. This can happen when the feedback they so desperately seek from others is not forthcoming for any extended period of time, resulting not only in the disintegration of the illusion of his or her sense of grandiosity, but more importantly of their very sense of self. Under these circumstances, the pathological narcissist is not only ‘split’, but also has no ‘place’ or others to evacuate those hated parts of the self. In other words, in the psychotic state, the pathological narcissist who may feel rejected, excluded or invisible is locked in the processing mode of ‘dream work’, unable to decipher or assimilate their emotions in order to move on to the depressive position, and his or her psychological balance threatened.

Klein’s notions of the paranoid-schizoid, the depressive positions and projective identification appear inextricably linked with one another - vis-à-vis the cognitive as well as emotional systems of the thinking process. These may be likened to the updating of computer files, a process that involves the expulsion or deletion of old unwanted files, as if ‘in the paranoid-schizoid position’, followed by the assimilation, integration and storing of new, more relevant data, as if ‘in the depressive position’. However, if the data is incomprehensible or too large and it cannot be stored, the computer will ‘crash’, unable to update itself. In this sense, Klein not only intuited the CPU’s (central processing unit) modus operandi decades before its invention, but more importantly that of the mind itself. This is true with regard to the generating and updating of the psychic reality in the human mind, the equivalent of updating computer files, a process involving the expulsion of unwanted material and the assimilation of the new in the paranoid-schizoid and depressive positions respectively.

Clearly a certain emotional investment will be served when psychic reality is updated. First, that ‘my’ psychic reality itself is ‘okay’, and second, that ‘my’ self-esteem is ‘okay’. We want to be noticed or understood, because psychic reality can then be confirmed and updated. However, in the case of the pathological narcissist, he or she cannot sustain solitude for any length of time because of their inability to generate or update psychic reality without external feedback, since any self-generated feedback is invariably cold and vengeful and can find no outlet for expulsion.

Pathological Forms of Projective Identification in the Presence of External Feedback/Others: An Unaware Function of the Emotional Unconscious Lacking the Understanding for Consensual Reality and Resulting in the Need to Insinuate the Self on Everything

There are two possible avenues that deserve consideration. Firstly, when the pathological narcissist, in the ‘presence’ of another human being, feels challenged, cornered or threatened by others. And secondly, when he or she is coping well with others. The latter is quite straightforward in that the pathological narcissist will attempt to maintain the illusion of their sense of grandiosity regardless of whether feedback is positive or negative. Positive feedback of course is no problem initially since it will serve to reinforce the illusion of their sense of grandiosity. When feedback is negative, however, the pathological narcissist can be quite lethal at devaluing the contributions of others. He or she can do this by ‘ambush’, ‘paralysing’ or attacking the thinking of the other, through violent and aggressive projective identification. This may be performed with such stealth that the recipient might never perceive its approach, ‘see it coming’, and then is at once rendered speechless.

However, if this first line of defence does not produce the necessary result, the pathological narcissist will invariably feel cornered or threatened. And whilst he or she would never deliberately seek out provocation, they will defend their sense of identity/status and autonomy, which in effect is their very sense of self or existence even, as if their life depended on it by way of regressing to the paranoid-schizoid position. This is how Julia Segal (1992) captures it:

In general, the anxieties of the paranoid-schizoid position are life and death anxieties: you or me; my life or yours. . . . Underlying this is a sense of total lack of love; there may be no conscious sense of loss and no awareness of a different way of functioning, except in terms of mockery or bitter triumph or cynicism. (pages 35-36)

David L. Smith (1999) makes a point of stressing how regression to the paranoid-schizoid position is an important defence against entry into the depressive position, something which is anxiety provoking and emotionally distressing:

Depressive anxiety can be fended off by paranoid defences: a regression to the paranoid-schizoid mode of splitting and projection. Depressive anxiety can also be defended against by means of what Klein (1935) called the “manic defence”. The manic defence is an attitude that denies dependence, guilt, and concern. It is characterized by the “manic triad” of triumph, control, and contempt. (page 131)

Projective identification is a process by which reality, internal or external may be tested for the purpose of carrying forward and updating psychic reality. It is a tool for dialogue and engagement, in that we want to be noticed or understood, ‘Am I going to understand him?’ and vice versa, ‘Will it or will it not be comprehensible or familiar to me?’ Pathological forms of projective identification, however, can feel like persistent and incessant testing and re-testing of reality for the recipient. It is used by the pathological narcissist as a defence, in phantasy, against threats to autonomy and identity/statusa ‘testing of one’s patience’ as it were, inducing a sense of mental paralysis in the recipient of such attacks. It can feel like testing for its own sake, wanton and gratuitous, in that ‘I will not take what you say for granted’, but ‘I will teach you about my psychic reality’, with the double benefit of perceiving both ‘my’ psychic reality and ‘my’ self-esteem to be ‘okay’. Such individuals feel the need to incessantly test others to gauge their own emotional reality that may be inaccessible to them. The pathological narcissist’s strongest line of defence is to insinuate his or her self on everything to propagate the illusion there is nothing but ‘myself’. It can be seen as avoidance or running away from reality by overwhelming it, by insinuating ‘my’ self on everything so there is nothing but ‘me’. An emotional investment will be served in making or causing reality to fit better with psychic reality because ‘reality’ is incomprehensible as it is.

The tragedy for the pathological narcissist is that even when he or she is receiving positive feedback, deep down they cannot believe it since they have almost zero self-esteem. And so, ultimately, the tests of such reality will invariably come back negative and will further add to their sense of depersonalization, persecutory anxiety, paranoia, the confirmation of their worst fears, as well as loss of contact with their self. Having said this, the pathological narcissist can deal with perceiving his or her self as worthless so long as feedback, good or bad, is constantly forthcoming. They will ‘happily’ oscillate between feeling self-important and worthless so long as they do not feel rejected, excluded or invisible. For as one middle-aged Jewish client, who saw himself as unappealing to women, said to me: ‘I have more of a relationship with Hitler than with the “Elvis Mob”. At least Hitler noticed us. But good-looking people like the Elvis mob who had ‘money for nothing and sex for free’ were indifferent to the likes of me’. In some sense, as this client’s statement suggests, our enemies make us feel special because we are worthy of their attention. They are almost jealous of us. In spite of the great difficulties and problems arising from one’s enemies, there remains the paradoxical possibility that at least some people like to have enemies. It reinforces their sense of self.

As we have seen, when in the psychotic state the only way out for the pathological narcissist is to insinuate his or her own fanciful wish-fulfilment and authority at the expense of noticing reality as it is. The result is the formation of an unstable mind onto which all-powerful psychotic defences are implied. These involve altered states that destroy awareness, making the psychotic phenomena extremely difficult to treat: ‘In psychosis, the [emotional] unconscious is blinded.’ ‘The patient is conscious but unaware of what is happening to him.’ (De Masi, 2002, pages 124-5)

The Debate Over the Nature of Narcissistic Personality

According to Symington (1993), the French philosopher Henri Bergson in Creative Evolution (1919) considers the Mason wasp. Bergson states that the Mason wasp stings a caterpillar at a precise point on its body paralyzing it. The wasp subsequently lays its eggs in the living yet paralyzed flesh, which will serve as food for the little grubs when the eggs hatch some three days later. Bergson goes on to say that if the Mason wasp were to sting one millimeter away from the right point, it would kill the caterpillar, and the exercise would not work. Symington (1993) argues that there must be communication taking place between the wasp and the caterpillar, a kind of seduction or coercion on the part of the wasp perhaps intimidating the caterpillar to collude with it, thus enabling the wasp to ‘feel’ where to sting.

The ‘Mason wasp’ model fits well with Kernberg’s view of the destructive and ‘power-to-control-another’ aspect of narcissism, in which the pathological narcissist actively seeks to destroy the object/other. Some of the adjectives that have been used to describe Kernberg’s narcissistic patients are, ‘classic’, pathologically grandiose, self-centred, charismatic, inflated, envious, oblivious and thick-skinned. They are exploitative without guilt, and parasitic in their relationship with others. All of which serve the function of masking a frail self-concept.

Kernberg’s model, however, could not be more at odds than with that of Kohut. Some of the adjectives that have been used to describe Kohut’s narcissistic patients are, shy, inhibited, fragile, depleted, deflated, defensive, avoidant, thin-skinned, ‘echoic’ and secretive (closet type). They generally suffer from a fear of rejection, and feelings of loneliness and depression, resulting from the repression of the ‘normal grandiose self’. Kohut (1971) states that such people often perceive threats to their self-esteem and have feelings of emptiness and deadness. It is as though Kohut and Kernberg were writing about different groups of patients (Mollon 2001). Hence it should come as no surprise that they each advocate a different approach to the treatment of narcissistic patients.

It is likely that such contrasting and divergent attitudes by the therapist might impact on the patient as well as on the therapy. This raises the question, where Kernberg and Kohut are concerned, as to whether the nature of narcissistic personality was determined by events outside, or inside the therapeutic hour? In other words, how the therapist reacts to the pathological narcissist may determine or reveal a multiplicity of levels of narcissistic personality, which can often appear bipolar and quite opposite in nature, since they often represent two sides of the same coin, as will later be discussed.

Kernberg’s Model of Destructive Narcissism

Karl Abraham, and later Herbert Rosenfeld and Otto Kernberg of the Kleinian School, emphasise the destructive aspects of narcissism. For Rosenfeld, the narcissistic patient wishes to maintain a state of omnipotent superiority and prevent the experience of dependence and envy. Rosenfeld (1965) insists that the pathological narcissist individual may be enveloped by envy only able to love himself he desperately envies people who can genuinely relate to others. Because the narcissist is unable to exist in a balanced relationship, he relies on domination to maintain some sort of relationship with others. The narcissistic individual ridicules and rubbishes others in their jealousy – devalued objects are not as enviable. Rosenfeld recognizes the difference between ‘thick-skinned’ and ‘thin-skinned’ narcissists, highlighting the fragility of the ‘thin-skinned’ individual.

According to Holmes (2001), Rosenfeld’s ‘thick-’ and thin-skinned’ narcissists become, in Glenn Gabbard’s (1996) terminology, the ‘oblivious’ and the ‘hypervigilant’. ‘Oblivious’ narcissists experience little empathy for the feelings of others, whilst ‘hypervigilants’ are shy, inhibited, and self-centred in their sensitivity to being rebuffed.

In terms of Bowlby’s (1988) ‘attachment theory’ and the secure base - the ‘thick-skinned’ oblivious becomes the ‘avoidant’ pattern of insecurity, and the ‘thin-skinned’ hypervigilant becomes the ‘ambivalent’ (clinging) pattern. Finally, Narcissus and Echo could be seen as typifying the avoidant and ambivalent strategies respectively, in terms of the Greek legend, the ‘Myth of Narcissus’ (Holmes, 2001).

Kernberg (1975) focuses on the pathological aspects of narcissism. Here he proposes the notion of a grandiose self, comprising an combination of images of the actual self, the ideal self, and the ideal object - leading to an idealised self-sufficiency, making the individual reluctant to forge relationships. Kernberg continues by giving the notion that the narcissistic personality can also function well in social situations. Both Kernberg and Kohut talk about the ‘grandiose self’, but each with his own idea of what it means. For Kohut, the grandiose self is a normal and inherent line of development of narcissism, rather like Winnicott’s ‘true-self’.

Kohut’s Model of Healthy Narcissism

Another approach to narcissism is associated with the self-psychology school of Heinz Kohut (1971). Kohut saw narcissism as self-love and object-love following natural development as the child attempted to replace the original experience of perfection. Mollon (1993) sums this up rather succinctly, ‘In the first position, it is as if the child says “I am perfect”; in the second position, the child says “You are perfect and I am part of you,” ’ both positions are reliant on the empathic and responsive self-object caregiver. (page 80) In the first position, ‘the early grandiose self’ is watered down by gradual disappointment so that in maturity good self-esteem and realistic goals are perpetuated. The second, the idealised parent imago is metamorphosized into internal ideals, appreciation for others and a keen sense of enthusiasm (Mollon, 1993).

According to Holmes (2001), Kohut additionally stressed the healthy aspect of narcissism. Parental pride of their children, a child’s bliss in its environment, aspirations, desires etc all reflect a keen framework of healthy positive narcissism. ‘Secondary narcissism’, the incapability to adhere to the beneficial aspects of moderate self-love, result from a ‘narcissistic wound’, probably due to lack of parental warmth, neglect or actual abuse. The inability to reinforce the child’s narcissism (‘we do not find you loveable’) could possibly coerce the individual to sink in to self-love to prevent the spirit of the inner self from disintegrating.

Implications for Psychotherapy

A Kohutian technical methodology to the therapeutic treatment of narcissistic problems would stress supreme acceptance, and would be very cautious in swift interpretations. Dominant therapists who interpret these defences ‘too early and too crashingly’ will intensify the pathological narcissist’s ‘narcissistic wound’ (Holmes, 2001, p. 65). It can be argued that such an approach to therapy would reveal the fragile side of the narcissistic personality, as will later be discussed.

Kernberg, however, warns against indulging the patient and emphasises the significance of dealing with negative transference. Kernberg warns against gratifying the pathological needs of the patient. He urges therapists to help make the patient aware of their destructiveness, of how he or she uses people so callously. At the same time, Kernberg does acknowledge that for some patients a more understanding and empathic approach may be necessary (Holmes 2001). It can be argued that dealing with negative transference in this way will clearly bring out the destructive side of narcissistic personality, as will be later discussed.

Development of Narcissistic Disturbance: Failure of Communication; the Non-Mirroring Mother

Failures in mirroring might lead to disturbances particularly in the sense of self and the sense of competence, based on the capacity to evoke a thoughtful emotional response in the early caregiver. For example, if the mirror is ‘blank and unresponsive’, it may lead to the ‘avoidant’ pattern of insecurity in the child and eventually pathological narcissism in the adult (Holmes, 2001).(10) However, if the mother is neither responsive nor encouraging of the infant, but instead imposes an agenda of her own, then this may lead to the ‘ambivalent’, clinging pattern of insecurity in the infant (Holmes, 2001). In the latter, Winnicott (1960) argues that roles are reversed and the child is required to affirm the mother, instead of the other way around, and develops a ‘false self’ (Mollon, 1993). A normal healthy mother instinctively knows to respond with a smile when her baby is smiling, and with an empathic frown when her baby is crying or distressed, precisely mirroring the child’s emotional state. According to Mollon (1993), Winnicott (1967) gave the formula ‘I look, I am seen, so I exist’.

Failure to Establish the Triadic Position: the Exclusion of the Paternal Dimension

Mollon (1993) proposes a comprehensive model of narcissistic disturbance, based not only on a failure in mirroring (discussed above), but also on a failure of oedipal triangulation, where the role of the father is of vital importance. Mollon’s (1993) clinical observations suggest that there is a further aspect to the development of the narcissistic disorders. He sees this is a failure to progress from the dyadic (narcissistic) position with the mother to the triadic or oedipal position, which allows a place for the father. However, according to Mollon (1993), Kohut argues that disturbances of the self are entirely non-oedipal.

On the fundamental notion that for both males and females the primary oedipal desire is to be close to the mother and exclude the rival father (Freud, 1923), Mollon argues that the father’s role may be essential in granting the child his own position in the context of two parents. Two parents who have a sexual relationship. Mollon also insists that inability to enter the triadic position could also be due to the mother’s desire to ridicule the role of the father, which is precisely what the child wants. This spiteful unconscious plot to exclude the father can snare the child in a developmental recession.

Mollon (1993) continues by insinuating a further dilemma for the child who has been too close to the mother and may encounter significant claustro-agoraphobic anxieties in relation to the mother, ‘an oscillation between the twin dangers of fusion with the other and isolation.’ (page 111) Winnicott (1968) suggests that the role of the father is to shield the child from the mother, and the mother from the child.

Finally, Lacan (1957) demonstrates how approach into the oedipal position may be associated with approach into the symbolic order - the father being viewed as a delegate of the outside world, the ‘law’ and the social order. Lacan upholds that the essential need to subject our needs to the law (of society, kinship, family etc) is at the core of our human predicament (Mollon, 1993).

Criticisms and Rebuttals

Mollon (2001) writes:

Probably Kernberg’s clinical and theoretical account corresponds more closely to the popular image of a ‘narcissistic’ character. Certainly, the malignant narcissism of criminal psychopaths, manifest in profound egocentricity, attitudes of entitlement and arrogance, often seems to reflect the grossly pathological grandiose-self described by Kernberg. (page 38)

The author’s experience however is at odds with Mollon’s account. Kernberg’s is most likely not just a popular image but a fair and accurate portrayal of what is more likely than not a commonplace phenomenon. But so is Kohut’s for that matter. These bipolar aspects of narcissistic personality are simply two opposite sides of the same coin. These depend on whether the illusion of their grandiosity is being over-challenged or indulged or colluded with (ultimately both ‘destructive’) or, neutral, that is, neither over-challenged nor indulged/colluded with, as in neutral (‘fragile’). This will explored further in ‘Discussion’ (Part Four).

Furthermore, the pathological narcissist would not deliberately seek provocation. He or she, however, is more likely to regress to the paranoid-schizoid position or resort to what Klein calls the ‘manic defence’, discussed earlier, in order to defend their psychological balance and continuity of identity. Consequently, the pathological narcissist is often accused of being unfeeling. The pathological narcissist only appears to be unfeeling because all feelings of shame and guilt become invariably overshadowed by the dominating fear of psychological disintegration. In this sense, the pathological narcissist cannot afford the luxury of feeling for others since it is generally a matter of ‘life and death’ for his or her psyche.


According to Holmes (2001), there is general agreement amongst psychoanalysts today that beneath the grandiosity and sense of self-importance of the pathological narcissist lurks a chronically frail self-concept characterized by loneliness and despair, (below), with the need to be loved. Nonetheless, in the main there are two bipolar opposite groups of narcissistic personality: Kernberg’s destructive, thick-skinned, oblivious, avoidant, ‘Classic’ type, and Kohut’s fragile, thin-skinned, hypervigilant, ambivalent, ‘Echoic’ type. Both groups exhibited illusions of self-sufficiency, and grandiosity, (below), with overwhelming feelings of indignation, fury and envy, and revealed beneath that an unfulfilled longing to be loved.

Kohut describes his patients as lacking in a sense of competence, and have a propensity to breakdown in their sense of the self. Kernberg and Rosenfeld, on the other hand, give prominence to narcissism as a defence against envy. Hence, Kohut emphasizes the pathological narcissist’s need for a mirroring responsiveness from the analyst, but Kernberg sees dangers in collusion and the gratifying of pathological needs in the patient (Mollon, 1993).

An initial analysis of the psychoanalytic approach to pathological narcissism has now been completed in this section. The ensuing section attempts to deal with the existential approach to pathological narcissism, Part 3.2. This will be followed by a summary, Part 3.3 that compares and contrasts one to the other.

3.2 The Existential Approach to Pathological Narcissism


The Hungarian-born American philosopher, psychiatrist and libertarian Thomas Szasz became an international figure of fame and controversy when he published his classic, The Myth of Mental Illness (1961). Szasz begins by stating that his aim in this essay is to ask the question, ‘Is there such a thing as a mental illness?’ And he argues that there is not, since illness can only be organic, physical, biological, structural or bodily in nature. Szasz observes that the so-called mentally ill have problems associated with living and feel alienated from society. He then goes even further to claim that such persons merely speak in a ‘foreign language’ such as Spanish, French or Chinese. So what is this ‘foreign language’ of the so-called ‘narcissistically disordered’? As a therapist, if I can communicate in his or her language, then I may be able to establish successful communication. Society of course does not speak this language, and as such, the pathological narcissist invariably finds him/herself alienated through no fault or choice of their own. Indeed, the pathological narcissist is caught up in a vicious circle of a social environment that is felt to be alienating, and must in turn alienate back to defend him/herself.

This section begins with an endeavor to encapsulate key ideas and terminology discussed in Sartre’s (1969) ontology, Being and Nothingness. This is followed by an attempt to provide, in Sartrean/Laingian language, an alternative perspective on the interpersonal origins of psychological distress and developing the sense of self in the childhood of the pathological narcissist. As a consequence of his or her attempts to preserve autonomy and identity/status, the pathological narcissist’s wretched and tortured existence is caught up in a vicious circle of a social environment that is felt to be dehumanising, and which must in turn be dehumanised as a means of neutralising such threats. However, such reaction, retaliation and revenge - this notion of ‘poetic justice’ and ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ - may not just be restricted to the ‘disturbed/psychotic’. But rather that it expresses a primordial psychological tendency of the human mindset, particularly when in a state of extreme anger or rage, as will be later discussed.

Sartre’s Ontological Structures

Sartre’s ontological description of interpersonal relationships and the perpetual presence of human conflicts are to be understood in terms of a sadomasochistic power struggle which arises from a conflict over who will be objectified and who will be the free subject. Each one of us experiences conflicts of ‘freedom’, or ‘Being-for-itself’, as well as conflicts of ‘faciticity’, or ‘Being-in-itself’.

Being-for-itself, or human consciousness, is Sartre’s notion of freedom not as ‘we are free to choose’, but that ‘we are condemned to choose’. We avoid dilemmas of freedom, which are at the heart of human conflicts, because of their painful, distressing qualities. The psychoanalytic concept of resistance may be understood as a fear of facing the anguish of our freedom and uncertainty associated with it. Our possibilities are not infinite, but nonetheless there is a possibility that makes a mockery of any attempt to define or capture our ‘actuality’ as it were, or Being-for-itself.

Being-in-itself, or the material world serves as a counterpoint to that possible freedom in that ‘We are not free. We are capturable, a thing - there is meaning, identity, self.’ The upside of our ‘facticity’, or Being-in-itself, is that it takes away the anguish of freedom, but the downside is that we feel a sense of shame, being less for ourselves than we know we are capable of being. ‘There is more to me than that’.

Dilemmas of freedom and our sense of shame are a consequence of our struggle with Being-in-itself versus Being-for-itself. Psychoanalysts would argue that the source of the struggle comes from within. Sartre on the other hand, would say ‘Hell is other people’,(11) that people provoke conflict over who gets to have mastery over the other. The temptation is either in trying to adopt the position of a kind of ‘masochist’. That is ‘You give me what you want to give me, and if I let you do that you will look at me better than if I struggled against you.’ The other temptation is to adopt the position of kind of ‘sadist’. That is, ‘The only way I can get you off my back is by having so much power over you that you abdicate.’ Each of these attempts is doomed, since others also want to use me for the same ends; to get what we cannot both have.

A few other attitudes are also possible. For example, adopting an attitude of ‘indifference’ implies the avoidance of others, whilst adopting an attitude of ‘hate’ implies making others the subject of my hate. In both cases, such ‘Others’ still present as powerful a force as ever and indeed more so; once again, each one of these attempts is doomed to fail, and our struggle for freedom must continue.

Following Heidegger‘s insights regarding the ‘Other’, Sartre calls the third ontological structure Being-for-others, or my awareness of myself as an object for another consciousness. Cannon (1991) writes:

Sartre says that it is through an experience which he calls the “Look” that I come to be aware of the Other not simply as an object like other objects in the world but as a consciousness like my own. The Other’s Look reveals another subject because it reveals to me my own object status beneath the gaze of that subject. (page 49)

Cannon (1991) writes, ‘Being-for-others’ is extremely important to the existential approach, in that it gives me fresh hope of recapturing substantive freedom. That is, ‘maybe if I can embrace your way of being as it is, and vice versa, we find a way out’. In other words, the basic human aim, the self as value, of wanting to have both identity and freedom, this paradox of ‘Being-in-itself-for-itself’ may be possible if I realise and accept that it is unachievable. Whilst at the same time not losing heart and staying committed to the value-making process of self-creation. Sartre, here, is giving us a sense of a meaningless universe, upon which the individual must impose meaning, ‘we are nothing pretending to be something’.

A Sartrean Perspective on the Development of Narcissism

Freud’s concept of primary objectless narcissism has been strongly contested as psychoanalysis has come to be viewed more from an interpersonal standpoint. Cannon (1991) states that since the discovery of new relational needs in earliest infancy, such as touching, mirroring, self-esteem, positive regard, and emotional and physical responsiveness from original significant others, post-Freudian theorists have argued that we are object related from the beginning of life. Sartre would say that the infant is ‘world-conscious’ from the beginning of life. For Sartre, relational needs can be better understood as a part of the infant’s attempt, beneath the mother’s prerequisite gaze, to create a reflective view and to build a bodily sense of self out of the reactions (the ‘Look’,) one gets from the earliest powerful ‘Others’. The ‘Look’, which includes touching ‘the physical touch’, verbal responses ‘the word’, as well as actual looking, ‘the look’, can alienate me from myself and from my body as well as make me acquainted with myself and with my body. Laing (1990) gives a detailed description of the consequent experience of the embodied and ‘unembodied’ or disembodied self resulting from the ‘Look’, whether positive or negative regard or simply indifference.

This alienation from, or lack of acquaintance with one’s self-body can have devastating effects on the child who experiences his or her parent’s ‘Look’, in all its three forms, as a narcissistic wound. Cannon (1991) states that Sartre discusses the child’s need for validation and valorisation, ‘This is not a matter of conjecture: a child must have a mandate to live, the parents are the authorities who issue that mandate,’ [as cited from Sartre’s first volume of the Flaubert biography]. (page 102) For Sartre, the mandate to live is a necessary deception, and is not in ‘bad faith’, as the truth of the meaninglessness of existence must be revealed slowly. Failure to validate the child leads to ‘the lack of a real future combined with a sense of meaninglessness and emptiness’, which is characteristic of the borderline and narcissistic patients, as described by post-Freudian theorists (Cannon, 1991, p. 103).

Ontological Insecurity and Narcissistic Disturbance

Sartre’s brilliant description of the experience of the ‘Look’, and how it reveals to me my own object status beneath the gaze of the ‘Other’, is perfectly complemented by R.D. Laing’s description of consequent attempts to deal with anxieties and dangers resulting from such a ‘Look’, or lack of it. Laing (1990) discusses the deep ontological insecurity that lies at the heart of narcissistic as well as other disturbances, an anxiety of being in the world: in one’s relation to oneself, and with others, and the world. For Laing, clinical disorders are not solely organic, but can be as adequately understood if seen as being inter-relational and existential. There is a difference of intensity between us, disturbed and not disturbed, and not in the sense of type or quality. Laing lists three ways of experiencing the uncertainty being experienced by these various disturbed people: ‘Engulfment’, ‘Implosion’ and ‘Petrification’.

1) Engulfment

A pathological narcissist’s threshold of basic security can be so low that practically any relationship threatens to engulf and overwhelm him. Laing (1990) writes:

Engulfment is felt as a risk in being understood (thus grasped, or comprehended), in being loved, or even simply in being seen. To be hated may be feared for other reasons, but to ebe hated as such is often less disturbing than to be destroyed, as it felt, through being engulfed by love. (page 44)

Psychoanalytic theory might say that the pathological narcissist dreads relatedness, and therefore rejects his or her desires and impulses to maintain the illusion of self-sufficiency. Laing, however, might say that the pathological narcissist is so terrified of being engulfed that he or she abdicates, and ‘plays dead’. ‘Engulfment’ may be closely associated with a sense of self-loathing, rejection and inadequacy, which makes being loved intolerably painful, and can be experienced as ‘engulfing’ on the part of the pathological narcissist. In the author’s view, ‘engulfment’ is frequently associated with a fear of non-conformity (‘you’re not okay’).

Laing’s notion of ‘engulfment’ may be closely linked with Sartre’s idea around the masochist’s role in the relationship. That is, ‘If I am nice to you, you may look at me or treat me better’. The pathological narcissist does not particularly want to give others the satisfaction of feeling better since his or her strong sense of inadequacy does not allow them that luxury of feeling satisfied. Consequently, granting others the satisfaction of a meeting of minds or consensus will only serve to emphasise the pathological narcissist’s extreme sense of inadequacy, making the possibility of such a reality unbearably painful to withstand.

2. Implosion

Implosion is similar to ‘engulfment’ but the danger that threatens to take hold comes from within the self. One of the principal aspects of narcissism is that self-knowledge is to be avoided at all costs. There is a fundamental terror of looking in, and the possibilities that open out can obliterate the vacuum or emptiness in the narcissist may be experienced as an ‘implosive’ force. The possibility of self-knowledge is too close to reality for comfort. The reality of perceiving his or her self as having almost zero self-worth is unbearably painful and may be felt as ‘implosive’ on the part of the pathological narcissist, and is experienced as a sense of inadequacy (‘I’m not okay’).

Laing’s notion of ‘implosion’ may be closely linked with Sartre’s idea around the sadist’s role in relationship, in that ‘if I have power over you, I can force you to change by telling you how bad, unworthy and wrong you are’. The pathological narcissist does not want to hear criticism, as in self-knowledge, regardless of whether it may be justified or not, since this will only serve to emphasise his or her strong sense of inadequacy. Once again, the possibility of such a reality is unbearably ‘implosively’ painful and must be avoided at al costs.

3. Petrification

The dread of petrification is the possibility of turning, or being turned, from a live person into a dead object, of becoming dehumanised or depersonalised. Depersonalisation is an every day occurrence, and is used as a way of dealing with others when they become too tiresome or distressing. For the pathological narcissist, however, any other person may be a threat to his or her sense of autonomy and identity/status by reason of his or her very existence. The risk being the possibility of experiencing myself as an object to be objectified and depersonalised, were I to experience the other as a free agent. As such, such ‘Others’ must in turn be ambushed, and consequently depersonalised and rendered naked and defenceless, literally petrified, ‘decapitated’, or ‘beheaded’ even in utter stealth as the subject stood and never ‘saw it coming’.

In the author’s view, Laing’s notion of ‘petrification’ may be intimately linked with a strong sense of rage. The recipient of such rage will invariably get ambushed as a consequence. This can happen when experiences of uncertainty such as ‘engulfment’ or ‘implosion’ persist, when the others will not yield or back down. This may be felt as Sartre’s notion of ‘hate’ in relationship, towards the pathological narcissist, who in effect is cornered with an ultimatum of having to yield to consensual reality. Once again, the pathological narcissist’s low sense of self-worth makes it intolerably painful to face anything that may emphasise the reality of his or her strong sense of inadequacy. In essence, escaping such reality becomes a matter of ‘life and death’ for the pathological narcissist. He or she can become extremely rageful and destructive and lose control. In other words, when the experience of ‘engulfment’ and ‘implosion’ cannot be coped with adequately the result is ‘petrification’.

To Laing’s three, the author adds a fourth way of experiencing uncertainty that may be felt by the pathological narcissist – the concept of ‘falling’.

4. Falling

The dread of ‘falling’ has to do with ‘sensing of no ground under one’s feet’. An example of this: a pathologically narcissistic client sitting close to the first floor railing in a library reading for several hours suddenly felt as though she were falling, sensing no ground under her feet. She said she felt unbalanced because she had not had any contact with anyone for a while. When asked how she coped with this, she said she had to move further in and away from the railing.

In the author’s view, ‘falling’ may be closely associated with feeling excluded or invisible, as if treated with what Sartre might describe as ‘indifference’ in the relationship. The pathological narcissist, who is ignored and treated with indifference by others, may feel ‘invisible’ and his or her very psychological balance, existence and continuity of identity threatened, and subsequently impose a self-directed aggression from within. In other words, if and when the pathological narcissist experiences ‘petrification’ and is unable to defend their autonomy by engaging back in ‘petrification’ because there is no one there to ‘petrify’, their psychological balance and sense of identity are likely to disintegrate (‘falling’).

Laing (1990) concludes by saying that the disturbed individual defends with a counter-attack of his or her own,

It seems also that the preferred method of attack on the other is based on the same principle as the attack felt to be implicit in the other’s relationship to oneself. Thus, the man who is frightened of his own subjectivity being swamped, impinged upon, or congealed by the other is frequently found attempting to swamp, to impinging upon, or to kill the other person’s subjectivity. The process involves a vicious circle. The more one attempts to preserve autonomy and identity by nullifying the specific human individuality of the other, the more it is felt to be necessary to continue to do so, because with each denial of the other person’s ontological status, one’s own ontological security is decreased [as a result of becoming even more separated and isolated], the threat to the self from the other is potentiated and hence has to be even more desperately negated. (pages 51-52)

This is how the psychoanalyst Robert Caper (2000) captures Laing’s notion of the preferred method of counter-attack on the part of the disturbed/psychotic:

These attacks on the analyst’s thinking are paralleled by similar attacks [my italics] made by the destructive, psychotic part of the schizophrenic’s [or narcissist and borderline] personality on his own ability to think. The analyst’s understanding of projective identification and his experiencing its effect on himself gives him insight into similar processes occurring within the patient… (page 109)

Existentially speaking, one might simply say that the notion of ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ and ‘poetic justice’ is ontological and primordial when in situations of extreme stress or anger. Indeed, neuroscientists have recently discovered a link between our experience of our own bodies and that of others. Thus, the mirror neuron matching systems enable us to directly intuit knowledge about others through mentally mimicking their actions. The scientists have identified mirror neurons as the agents behind this phenomenon. The mirror neurons exist within the circuitry of our minds. They match the actions of others with our own experiences and vice versa. Once matched observational experiences are then translated into expected accompanying sensations, as if he or she would be doing a similar action or experiencing a similar emotion or experience. Thus through mental mimicry of someone the observer can begin to understand what the person he observes feels when he performs a certain action. These neural underpinnings may go some way in explaining certain psychopathological states and phenomena such as our tendency to mimic the people we like and react with an equal and equivalent measure against those we find threatening or posing a threat when under stress.

3.3 Comparing and Contrasting Psychoanalyic vs Existential Views

Initial analyses of the psychoanalytic and existential views on pathological narcissism have now been looked at in Parts 3.1 and 3.2 respectively. The major differences between them may be understood as follows. First, psychoanalytic therapy gives prominence to narcissism as a defence against the experience of dependence and envy. The pathological narcissist, who wishes to maintain a state of omnipotent superiority, is enviously depreciative and devaluing of others, because a devalued object has less quality and will not be envied as much. In her revision of the definition of projective identification, Klein (1957) in Envy and Gratitude suggested that envy was strongly ingrained in projective identification. A process by which the ego, being enviously disparaging and devaluing of others, drives itself into the psychic reality of the object/other in order to annihilate its good qualities.

Existentially speaking, one would simply say that our concern with status is an ontological given, fuelled by a sense of deprivation that manifests itself as envy. Laing (existential) would probably say that the pathological narcissist’s strong sense of inadequacy makes him or her more vulnerable to feelings of being utterly dehumanised, and as such they depersonalise others back in reaction, retaliation and revenge. Laing described three ways of experiencing uncertainty namely ‘engulfment’, ‘implosion’ and ‘petrification’. Laing’s bodily felt experiences of ontological insecurity together with the author’s addition of ‘falling’, will be further examined in relation to the psychoanalytic use of the concept of envy, in Part Four of this thesis.

Second, psychoanalytic therapy give credence to the power of the unconscious and the therapeutic leverage provided by the transference. However, psychoanalytic psychotherapists would probably refrain from making hasty interpretations, where the pathological narcissist is concerned during the initial stages of the therapy. Working existentially, on the other hand, implies working intuitively with reflective spontaneity, putting aside all notions of technique. Additionally, the existential framework of therapy does not advocate formal assessment of clients. Instead a more natural scenario is preferred, where the worldview or life story of the client may be elicited naturally and spontaneously. According to Barton Evan III (1996), Harry Stack Sullivan argues that the state of being with the client, emotionally attuned, should help facilitate an atmosphere of both interpersonal security and interpersonal learning. Emotional attunement may be understood as empathic connectedness, that requires both empathic and somatic resonance. Certain empathic relational qualities essential in the psychotherapeutic treatment of pathological narcissism, as espoused by Sullivan, Kohut and Rogers will be later discussed in Part 4.1.

Finally, the existential discipline does not advocate diagnosis and labeling. In some sense, this is unhelpful because existentialists run the risk of ignoring a wealth of psychoanalytic literature that exists on pathological narcissism. Subsequently, they may leave open the possibility of jeopardising the therapy.

An Overview So Far

Initial analyses of the main views of both cultural and pathological narcissism, Parts Two and Three respectively, have now been completed. An examination of the differences and similarities between the two can now begin to be considered in greater depth, in the ensuing section under ‘Discussion’ (Part Four).

4. Discussion


This section is subdivided into three main parts. Part 4.1 is the author’s attempt to formulate an original amalgamation from the existential and psychoanalytic perspectives regarding pathological narcissism.

Part 4.2 discusses the various cultural views on narcissism in relation to the unhappiness that can result from the illusion of social status. Specifically the author attempts to link Laing’s three existential ways of experiencing uncertainty, namely ‘engulfment’, ‘implosion’, ‘petrification’ plus the author’s addition of ‘falling’ with the psychoanalytic use of the concept of envy. We all have natural and inherent tendencies to feel envy. However, it appears that our capacity to adequately cope with such envy has been lacking of late, resulting in the widespread culture of narcissism we see today.

Part 4.3 concludes this dissertation by discussing the various differences and similarities between cultural and pathological narcissism so that a new and original elaboration on the concept of narcissism can be presented, in terms of existential phenomenology, devoid of any confusions or contradictions. Additionally, the author attempts an initial analysis based on the discussion of Part 4.2 as to the reasons for the high prevalence of cultural narcissism in modern society.

4.1 The Psychological View


The author draws on Sartre’s ontological description of interpersonal relationships to elucidate some of the key ideas around ‘narcissistic’ problems associated with living. Sartre’s notion of ‘Hell is other people’, that people provoke conflict over who gets mastery over the other, can be understood in terms of a sadomasochistic power struggle which arises from a conflict over who will be objectified and who will be the free subject. Such enduring patterns of interpersonal transactions that characterize the pathological narcissist are provided in terms of existential-phenomenology.

The author’s primary aim here is to ask the question, ‘Is there such a thing as a language of the narcissistically disordered?’ and to argue that there is. Such a language or framework for communication needs to reach rather than alienate or cause the pathological narcissist to feel ‘engulfed’, ‘impinged upon’ or ‘petrified’, to use R.D. Laing’s terminology, plus the author’s addition of ‘falling’. In sum, many specific measures must be taken when communicating verbally as well as non-verbally, Sartre’s ‘Look’, to avoid presenting the pathological narcissist with unnecessary threats, perceived or otherwise, to autonomy and identity/status. Such threats may push the pathological narcissist to take flight away from the phenomenon of the moment, the pain of their reality. An attempt as it were to put an end to the on-going, never-ending circle of reaction, retaliation and revenge experienced by pathological narcissists and their close ones - many a war began over such misunderstandings. The ultimate aim of their therapy is to establish successful communication with the pathological narcissist with a view to facilitating him or her to experience their pain and to develop the capacity to stay in their real world. This requires nothing less than their development of the capacity for the understanding of consensual reality and emotional resonance. In other words, an openness to an alternate way to view and deal with their emotions, thereby relationships as well as in general.

The Narcissistic Personality

The desert imposes as a first condition of existence-nomadism. It is not for pleasure that the Bedouin is always travelling, but from stern necessity…(page 18)

But seldom can the Bedouin satisfy his hunger; he has everything to fear from nature and from man. Like a wild beast, he lives in a state of perpetual watchfullness. He relies chiefly upon robbery…(page 19)

… His faculty for observation have been developed at the expense of his imagination, and without imagination no progress is possible. It is this that explains the stagnation of the Bedouin over whom centuries pass without in any way changing his mode of life. (page 26)

André Servier

Like the desert, the pathological narcissist is barren and lacks interiority. Similar to the Bedouin, he or she is also ‘nomadic’ when it comes to their human connections and can only manage to maintain shallow relationships. They are in a permanent state of watchfulness because the slightest occurrence may aggravate their open ‘narcissistic’ wounds.

As we have seen, the pathological narcissist is charismatic because he or she depends on the ‘presence’ of another human being for their very psychological existence. Hence, the pathological narcissist is highly loyal and will not deliberately abandon friends or relatives, not even a ‘bad’ therapist, or anyone for that matter, who is willing to put up with their ‘strange behaviour’. The pathological narcissist however is able to take, but not to ‘give and take’ other than manufactured charisma, since to ‘give and take’ involves trusting the ‘Other’ which may leave him or her vulnerable to disappointments - this can be extremely painful.

Narcissistic Dynamism of Difficulty in Interpersonal Living

The author presents four distinct scenarios crucial to the understanding of narcissistic dynamism. Namely, Sartre’s ideas of ‘sadomasochistic’ roles in relationship which are closely linked with ‘implosion’ and ‘engulfment’, and ‘hate’ and ‘indifference’ which relate to ‘petrification’ and ‘falling’.

A ‘fifth’ and final scenario may be introduced as a kind of ‘exit’ from the perpetual presence of human conflicts. This in part is based on Sartre’s ontological structure of ‘Being-for-others’. ‘If I embrace your way of being and vice versa, we may find a way out’. Sartre’s ‘Being-for-others’, when adopted by the therapist, will be expanded and elaborated on as a possible way out of the vicious circle of potential conflicts and power struggles between the narcissistic client and therapist/other, opening up the possibility of a new language or framework of communication. This task will be undertaken by way of attempting to answer a series of questions starting with the most fundamental of all the questions. What is it that provokes or disturbs the pathological narcissist’s psychological balance or homeostasis?

The pathological narcissist suffers from extremely low self-esteem - almost zero or an entirely non-existent sense of self-worth. As such, he or she is constantly disturbed by the presence of negative thoughts and feeling unwanted. Any self-generated feedback is invariably cold and unforgiving. Indeed, the pathological narcissist’s extremely low sense of self-esteem is too horrific to even contemplate. The paradox is such that the pathological narcissist hates as well as needs others simultaneously. As such the pathological narcissist has developed ‘malingering’ behaviour and ‘playing the victim’ to an art form. In this way they can retain control over the existence of others without necessarily having to exclude them too far or lose them forever.

We deal with life’s experience and its correlated emotional constituents by taking nourishment from positive energy, yet we still have to contend with the negative as well. The pathological narcissist is unable to look at let alone deal with their negative thoughts or emotions. In a sense, they have to carry their ‘poison’ around with them at all times. This raises the following question: ‘Is there such a thing as a metaphorical laxative that will help the pathological narcissist expel, dump or even tease out some of their poison?’

Kohut (1971) states that the pathological narcissist is charismatic and responds to feedback, which often makes him or her amenable to the ‘talking cure’ of psychotherapy, depending on the intensity of their loss of contact with reality. It is feasible for the pathological narcissist to expel some of their negative thoughts, feelings and phantasies. However, this is only possible in the presence of another human being. This ‘Other’ will act as a vehicle facilitating the evacuation of such ‘poison’ (negativity). Indeed, as we have seen, the pathological narcissist wants to be noticed, understood and have their feelings acknowledged moment by moment to attain a sense of psychological equilibrium. The illusion of their sense of self-esteem and grandiosity may be raised by way of soliciting feedback or visibility from others. So when in the presence of other people, they are really asking, ‘am I all right, do I really exist, can you like me or love me?’ and so on. Of course, the type and quality of feedback received may not always be positive, in turn raising the question:

1. ‘Implosive’ Scenario: How Does The Pathological narcissist React When Challenged Or Criticised?

The perceived reality of being challenged or criticised may be experienced as ‘implosive’ for the pathological narcissist. It is in effect a confirmation and consequent stark realisation of how they see themselves, as rubbish. The pathological narcissist may perceive the ‘Other’ as trying to adopt a position of what Sartre’s calls the ‘sadist’ role in relationships, in that ‘I have so much power over you that you abdicate’. The pathological narcissist of course cannot tolerate relinquishing power to the ‘Other’, as this will only serve to confirm his or her extremely low sense of status. Being challenged is perceived as negative and will invariably cause the pathological narcissist to devalue and rubbish the contributions of others. In this way they can maintain the illusion of superiority, grandiosity and self-worth regardless by escaping into a world of their imaginings. Indeed, the pathological narcissist has very little regard for others, since their psychological balance and continuity of indentity, which is threatened from within, depends on using others as a vehicle for facilitating the evacuation of such ‘poison’, or negative thoughts, feelings and reactions. Being challenged in the manner described above is frequently experienced as ‘implosive’.

2. ‘Engulfing’ - Scenario 2: How Does The Pathological Narcissist React When Encouraged Or Colluded With?

The reality of being indulged or colluded with is paralleled by what Sartre calls the ‘masochist’ role in relationship, in that ‘I’ll be nice to you so you look at me better than if I struggled against you’. Once again, the pathological narcissist’s extremely low sense of self-worth and consequent self-rejection does not afford them the luxury of treating the other in a more amiable way despite the fact that they are being indulged. The pathological narcissist is constantly suspicious of any positive reception, as they cannot allow themselves to trust or rely on anyone. Since fundamentally they do not believe they are ‘okay’, they continually sabotage good intentions. Additionally, the pathological narcissistic cannot bear to see anyone happy because an individual in a state of elation is not helpless or disarmed; whereas, a defenceless person whose ‘wings are clipped’ cannot cause them harm through abandonment or otherwise since they can be manipulated, ‘petrified’ and therefore subdued.

In other words, while positive feedback may initially and momentarily inflate the pathological narcissist’s sense of self-worth, their extremely low self-esteem does not allow them the satisfaction of believing this positive feedback, hence their paranoia. This will cause them to test the ‘Other’ ad infinitum, that is to continually harass the ‘Other’ until they break and admonish the narcissist, thus confirming the narcissist’s worst fears that they are rubbish – essentially a self fulfilling prophecy. The experience of being indulged is frequently felt as ‘engulfing’ for the pathological narcissist.

3. ‘Petrifying’ - Scenario 3: What Happens When The Pathological Narcissist’s First Line of Defence As Described In Scenarios 1 & 2 Fails?

Unresolved ‘power struggles’ as discussed in scenarios one and two can turn into what Sartre calls ‘hate’ in relationship. This can be felt as dehumanising and depersonalising by the pathological narcissist. In others words, when feelings of ‘engulfment’ and ‘implosion’ persist, this may turn into ‘petrification’. At times like these, the pathological narcissist comes into a class of his or her own and is able to attack the other person’s ‘thinking’ (to ‘petrify’) in retaliation. The pathological narcissist becomes paranoid, rageful and wounded, unable to maintain an adequate constancy for self-observation that takes responsibility for behaviour, and will lash out in order to defend autonomy and identity/status. At times like these, the pathological narcissist can become highly venomous and destructive as the illusion of their sense of grandiosity, self worth and identity is challenged without respite.

4. ‘Falling’ - Scenario 4: What happens when feedback is not forthcoming?

This is the worst possible case scenario as far as the pathological narcissist is concerned. If feedback is withheld or is not forthcoming for any length of time he or she is likely to feel that nobody is thinking about them. This may cause them to fragment and lose all sense of cohesion, which may be experienced as ‘falling’. In fact feelings of ‘engulfment’, ‘implosion’, and ‘petrification’ are psychologically less damaging because the pathological narcissist can find relief through reaction, retaliation and revenge. Because, with ‘falling’ the illusion of their sense of self-esteem and grandiosity, which is the belt and braces of their very psychological existence, becomes untenable as they are deprived of the feedback they so desperately seek from others. The reason for this is that the pathological narcissist feels unwanted and therefore any self-generated feedback is invariably negative, cold and spiteful. It is at the very core of their psychological distress, ultimately manifesting in the psychotic state, and a subsequent self-directed aggression from within (‘falling’).

In sum, therefore, we can say that the pathological narcissist can maintain the illusion of grandiosity and self-worth by devaluing and rubbishing the contributions of others. This occurs whether they are negatively perceived or otherwise, since ultimately everything will be perceived as negative. In other words, one would not readily recognise a pathological narcissist because of his or her ability to mobilise a ‘false-self’ bravado by instantly evacuating their negative energy onto another human vessel. The pathological narcissist can probe weaknesses unconsciously allowing them to render others defenceless. Subsequently, the recipient of such attacks are frequently unaware that such an assault has taken place as they might genuinely believe that it is due to their own shortcomings. Hence, the pathological narcissist is principally not openly psychotic, as they are able to hide their lack of a solid sense of self even from themselves when in the presence of others. As has been mentioned earlier, they can do this by employing what Melanie Klein calls the ‘manic defence’, which is an attitude that denies dependence, guilt, and concern and is characterised by the ‘manic triad’ of triumph, control, and contempt. However, it is important to remember that the pathological narcissist never sets out to provoke aggression but merely to seek visibility and confirmation of their existence. If they are not validated, it becomes a question of ‘life and death’ to them in the psychological sense (falling).

Sartre’s ‘Being-for-others’: How To Establish Successful Communication With The Pathological Narcissist

I must be nothing more than the mirror in which my reader sees his own thinking with all its deformities & with this assistance can set it in order

Ludwig Wittgenstein(12)

The pathological narcissist wants to be validated and have their feelings acknowledged moment by moment. His or her extremely low self-esteem does not afford them the capacity for understanding consensual reality since such reality will only serve to highlight their strong sense of inadequacy. The implication of this for psychotherapy is one of having to walk a very fine line, neither over-indulging, nor being too critical:

Witness, verify and authenticate the patient’s experience at each moment. Do not try to move the patient to better awareness or better contact, be very slow to defend a position, but rather follow the patient’s awareness continuum. (Yontef, 1994, p. 444)

The pathological narcissist does not have a solid sense of self and seeks others as a mirror of the self, preferably an ‘untarnished mirror’, to get the balance they so desperately need for their psychological existence. The ultimate aim is one of giving the pathological narcissistic client a sense of being understood, which should result in the consequent demobilisation of their ‘false-self’ bravado, to enable them touch their true pain. This would be something that the pathological narcissist may never have experienced before (Yontef, 1994).

The pathological narcissist is cold and will twist words and meanings to avoid touching the pain of their reality. Hence, the goal in therapy must be to facilitate an adequate environment for the expression of how awful a narcissistic client may feel since ‘lamenting’ means they are on the path to exploring their feelings. This is an exercise in ‘warming up’ as it were, because one has to warm up in order to feel, with the ultimate aim of retaining instead of rejecting some semblance of warmth. It is only when warmth can be retained that the pathological narcissist can self-sustain emotionally. The preservation of warmth on the part of the pathological narcissist must therefore be the quintessential aim in the psychotherapeutic treatment of this clinical condition.

It is worthwhile noting that adopting the role of an ‘untarnished’ mirror is in itself challenging. The therapist will invariably bring to the attention of the pathological narcissist, in his or her very own (recent) words preferably, any discrepancies, paradoxes and inconsistencies that may be revealed. In other words, the therapist not need not make an extra special effort to be over-challenging during the early stages of the therapy, which may cause the pathological narcissist to escape into the unreality and damage the therapeutic process.

It is also important to acknowledge that it is very easy to be deceived by the pathological narcissist since they have developed ‘deception’, ‘malingering’ and ‘playing the victim’ to an art form. The therapist therefore must be hypervigilant to subtext and nuances of meaning in order to avoid ‘rising to the bait’, getting upset and in turn upsetting the client. The therapist should aim to be demonstrably emotionally unaffected at all times, otherwise the pathological narcissistic will play on this perceived weakness, once again causing damage the therapeutic process.

Empathic Connectedness

In closing, both Carl Rogers and Heinz Kohut have probably contributed more to the awareness of empathic engagement than any other therapist, this is so crucial to the understanding of how to interact with the narcissistic personality. However, F. Barton Evans III argues that Harry Stack Sullivan has superceded both Rogers/Kohut and is the ‘master of complex empathy’. A full narrative of how F. Barton Evans III (1996) describes Sullivan’s style of working is quoted in the notes at the end of this dissertation.(13)

Barton Evans III (1996) argues that the notion of maximal empathic acceptance/engagement as advocated by Carl Rogers and sensitivity to how the client experiences the therapist as advocated by Heinz Kohut are in themselves not sufficient and must be complimented with a mastery of complex empathy. Mastery of complex empathy, as opposed to empathic engagement, may be understood as a type of emotional attunement, or empathic connectedness, between therapist and client. The onus however should be on the therapist to tune in (passive/listening, as in being) and tune out (active/making interventions, as in doing). Indeed, it can be argued that one cannot do therapy without emotional attunement since it is that which facilitates interpersonal learning. The author concurs with Sullivan that it is up to the therapist, who is ostensibly the ‘professional’, to maintain an atmosphere of interpersonal security and of facilitating interpersonal learning. This can be achieved through understanding and being with the client, which should result in a spontaneous eliciting of the client’s worldview.

4.2 Cultural Views


This section explores issues with status, and the unhappiness that can result from a perceived sense of personal inadequacy (‘I’m not okay unless I have it/you, I feel as though I'm going to "implode" from within'); or a fear of non-conformity (you’re not okay, I don't want you, I feel engulfed by you'), which are frequently experienced as ‘implosive’ and ‘engulfing’ respectively. Our sense of status however seems to have gone awry, and has begun to fuel the prevailing culture of narcissism of our time. We have inherent but contrasting needs to bond others as well as to excel. This begs the question - Are we able to reconcile the two in our modern-day culture of political freedom? In other words, can two separate and conflicting entities be reconciled without the social norms, rules, traditions, etc. of previous generations?

Based on the premise that human society cannot survive without structure, nor for that matter can its individuals live in a culture that does not carry body-life (so that we can both bond as well as excel) and subsequently provide a sense of belonging, as opposed to merely ‘existing’. The author attempts to compare and contrast the way in which society functioned before and now. As we have seen, Lasch (1979) observes that the collapse of personal life in our time originates in ‘the war of all against all’, which begs the question - Why now, and what is at the heart of such destructiveness?

Our Changing Mental Health

Human society clearly struggles without structure, as it needs order to survive. At the same time a sense of belonging and community, or kinship and similitude is imperative to give us that feeling of being able to make a difference, which keeps apathy and aggression at bay. During the time of Freud, it was the family and community that furnished society with both structure and a sense of belonging. However this was contingent on the individual conforming to the social norms of the time. The individual who failed to adhere to societal values ran the risk of being cast out from society. Indeed, public services such as schools etc. aligned themselves with the family or community and vice versa in order to maintain the status quo. Since that time, however, many of the shared family and community values that helped bind us together in the past have all but broken down, making it almost impossible for the community to continue providing much in the way of structure or sense of belonging. In fact, nowadays, it is the state, mass media and peer groups that has taken up the mantle, albeit it in a different form. Unlike the family and community, however, the state cannot provide an adequate sense of belonging or community. Instead, the state relies on the threat of penalty to maintain structure and conformity.

In the author’s view, previous cultures carried body-life because the family and community simultaneously provided both structure as well as a sense of belonging and community. In return, the individual had to comply with society’s norms. Failure to conform ran the risk of being cast out from the community. Today, however, everybody is an ‘outcast’! Yet ostensibly we are all ‘citizens’ of the entire world and the universe, not withstanding any differences we may have.

The societal structure provided by the state today is wanting because it is not complemented with a sense of belonging and community. Today, the individual has to find his or her niche and sense of belonging and community somewhere, somehow but this is increasingly difficult. Self-absorption provides some relief, a sense of belonging to oneself as it were, since today we are mostly outsiders living on the fringes of a culture of individuals rather than societies. The outcome is such that many of us are no longer able to deal or cope with envy, which is invariably experienced by most of us frequently. Because of these factors we live in a world which is the ideal breeding ground for ‘narcissistic’ tendencies such as self-absorption to develop.

‘Engulfing’ and ‘Implosive’ Envy

In the author’s view, envy can best be divided into two distinct categories. The first type of envy is frequently experienced as ‘implosive’ (‘I’m not okay’, hence ‘implosion’ from within) which the author further divides into ‘blatant’ and ‘temporal’ envy. The second form of envy is often experienced as ‘engulfment’ (‘you’re not okay’, hence ‘engulfment’ from without), or ‘trigger’ envy.

The standard case of ‘blatant’ envy, where ‘I want to have what you have or to be able to do what you can’, can take the form: ‘I am not okay, weak and needy, therefore I must be inadequate, flawed and incomplete’. For example, ‘I envy you because I am not as good-looking or as successful as you are with the opposite sex’.

‘Temporal’ envy has to do with loss and bereavement and can take the form: ‘I want back what I once had and lost’, envying a time when I was ‘okay’. For example, ‘I would like to have my youthfulness and good looks back’, envying a time when my body was younger, firmer and fitter. Or, envying a time when ‘I’ should have known better and could have behaved differently and done something about ‘it’, but it is too late now!

‘Trigger’ envy, on the other hand, is less obvious, and can take place when a person sees someone doing something ‘wrong/bad’ that he or she may not like, probably because they had always been told it was wrong/bad and were not allowed to do it themselves. Such feelings can be quite strong and take the form, ‘You can’t to do that! It’s wrong, it’s outrageous!’ However, these feelings may have been triggered by an unaware memory of an old inhibition due to parental or cultural conditioning. ‘How could you so shamelessly do that and get away with it, when I was never allowed to do it.’ Hence, ‘I’ envy of your uninhibitedness.

A simple and basic example of this is someone belching rather loudly in a public place. Am I really annoyed with him because he was rude, or because his belching triggered an old unaware memory in me as a child, when I myself was told off for belching? This kind of envy, where ‘I must have my way, because someone else had to have their way with me’, but cannot, is greatly underestimated. This is because ‘I do not own it - it is always you who is the bad one, in the wrong, and not me’. In fact, ‘trigger’ envy gives the illusion that it is ‘I who should be envied because I am better than you’ or ‘you should know better’, when in fact it is quite the opposite. This is yet another example that adds to the illusion of status, which manifests as envy.

As with pathological narcissism, the illusion of social status which manifests as envy is key to the development of cultural narcissism. Envy of all forms causes a fear of being judged as well as revulsion associated with judging others who are perceived as not worthy of our attention, hence self-absorption and inevitable ‘narcissistic’ traits.

Coping with Envy

In the author’s view, the prevailing culture of narcissism of our time is fuelled by our present failure as individuals to deal adequately with our inherent disposition to feel envy. The reason for such a shortcoming may have to do with the fact that we are no longer able to reconcile our inherent but opposing relational need to connect with others and the need to excel. Indeed, we have lost our sense of community, kinship and similitude that went hand in hand with a sense of fitting in and belonging of previous generations.

For example, ‘Blatant’ envy is exacerbated by loneliness. Loneliness, however, has been endemic in modern Western society since the steady decline of the importance of the family over the last one hundred years or so; and without a sense of community and belonging, ‘I’ am nothing, a nobody, and all my ‘faults’ and ‘weaknesses’ get magnified one-thousand-fold. In modern times, such envy must be swallowed whole. This negative emotion gets stuck and festers because it is not allowed airing or afforded the family support system that may have been available to previous generations to mollify it, and to tell me that ‘I’ am ‘okay’. Many cultures in the East, for example, still place a high value not only on the marital unit but also the extended family. Furthermore, in promoting a culture of healthy competitiveness - where I might say ‘good luck to him or her’, I have other things going for me - much more focus is placed on the self-injuriousness of envy, and how to cope with it. Today, competition has become a dirty word, since we are all meant to be equal and then blame ourselves for our failures, hence the envy.

Similarly, in the case of ‘temporal’ envy, the support of the family is absolutely crucial; for without a sense of family and a sense of belonging, my sense of loss and bereavement once again gets magnified one-thousand-fold; leading to a sense of annihilation or destructiveness (self- or otherwise).

Finally, in the case of ‘trigger’ envy, we live today in a ‘no-blame’ culture of political freedom; and as such we are no longer encouraged to express anger, protest or complain about something or someone. Making a fuss is no longer cool, not the done thing. Expressing anger became unfashionable and led to accusations of ‘acting out’. During Freud’s time, however, people identified firmly with their social roles, the traditional or the ‘bourgeois-capitalist’ ego and everyone knew and followed their place or role in society. Such expressions of anger were deemed fit and appropriate, and were even encouraged by society as they served the purpose of maintaining a standard of morality, values and attitudes, and a semblance of authority and of right and wrong. Today, with the pervasive distrust of those in power and with the collapse of authority and ‘right and wrong’ vis-à-vis traditional values, kinship and similitude have all but disappeared. In the absence of traditional values, ‘I have become my own authority and no one can tell me what to do’. By implication, ‘nor can I tell others what to do’; hence ‘trigger’ envy.

In the author’s view, failure to adequately reconcile the experience of ‘engulfing’ and ‘implosive’ envy may lead to ‘petrification’, which will be discussed in the following section together with the key difference between cultural and pathological narcissism, expressed in terms of existential-phenomenology.

4.3 Conclusion

The limitations of this dissertation are twofold. Firstly, the author has not included all the views on narcissism but has attempted to focus on major ideas and respected theories within the psychological and sociological frameworks. Secondly, no research investigation has been undertaken to supplement this dissertation. Instead, the author brings together diverse ideas from psychoanalytic and existential frameworks of pathological narcissism and attempts to provide a creative and original amalgamation of these ideas. The author also presents an initial analysis as to the reasons for the high prevalence of cultural narcissism in today’s society and its relation to specific societal factors such as the decline of the family unit.

It can be argued that whilst on the whole we celebrate kinship and similitude, we generally revile difference, or ‘rank’ of self and other. The pathological narcissist however rejoices in neither. He or she dislikes both difference and similitude between their selves and others. They detest another individual’s difference because of a chronic, inner sense of inferiority and inadequacy with their sense of self. The pathological narcissist always feels utter dissatisfaction with him/herself. The existence of ‘differing’ others disrupts their phantastical perception of their individual sense of self worth in their social environment. Others make the pathological narcissist feel threatened in this way, and inferior. Equally, the similitude of others is detested by the pathological narcissist. He or she resents the scenario of a mutual consensus with another individual, because they are unable to enjoy the fruits of a consensual reality, a meeting of minds, whilst the other party can. The utter self-loathing and feelings of inadequacy mean the pathological narcissist is unable to believe the implied validation process of consensual reality; he or she does not believe they are ‘okay’ and ‘equal’.

Yet despite the narcissist’s inability to co-exist successfully with others, he or she is unable or unwilling to leave the company of others or to allow them to leave the pathological narcissist’s ‘presence’. For their psychological balance and existence, the narcissist plays ‘cat and mouse’, not wanting to kill the mouse and end the relationship with others, but neither allowing for a successful appreciative co-existence with him or her. The pathological narcissist plays a malingering game with his or her subject in the ensuing ‘see-sawing’ of rejectionist exclusion and needy, vulnerable requirement. Such is the social dilemma and bi-polarising tendency of the pathological narcissist. Therefore, it is impossible to maintain a healthy relationship with a pathological narcissist.

Both cultural and pathological narcissism are fuelled by issues arising from and expressive of social status, of feeling ‘different’. That is, they centre upon the perceived sense of personal inadequacy (‘I am not okay’) or a fear of non-conformity (‘you are not okay’), which are frequently experienced as ‘implosive’ envy (from within) and ‘engulfing’ envy (from without) respectively, albeit to varying intensity. In Sartrean language, ‘implosion’/‘engulfment’ (Laing’s) can frequently represent a sado/masochistic power struggle in relationship. The person who is concerned about his own subjectivity being ‘engulfed’ or ‘encroached upon’ is likely to be found trying to ‘engulf’ or to ‘encroach upon’ the other in retaliation. However, if this first line of defence proves to be inadequate, the anger and rage associated with such a failure is likely to turn into Sartre’s notion of ‘hate’ in relationship. This may be felt as ‘petrification’ for the subject, who in turn is likely to be found trying to ‘petrify’, or kill the other’s subjectivity in defence. In other words, both cultural and pathological narcissists would feel ‘Engulfment’, ‘Implosion’ and ‘Petrification’. The most glaring difference between the two is that whereas the cultural narcissist can find a sense of belonging in his or her self as a place of last resort, the pathological narcissist cannot. This can happen when there is no one for the pathological narcissist to ‘petrify’ back, to evacuate his/her ‘poison’ into. Subsequently, the experience of that will be felt as ‘falling’, Sartre’s notion of ‘indifference’ (toward the pathological narcissist) in relationship. In other words, the cultural narcissist does not suffer the anxiety associated with ‘falling’ whereas the pathological narcissist does – This is the key distinguishing trait between the two. Gendlin (1987), on the other hand, would say that the pathological narcissist suffers from a lack of ‘interiority’ whilst the cultural narcissist does not.

It should be pointed out, however, that not every so-called self-absorbed, cultural narcissist as he or she may be described nowadays, is necessarily in distress, especially if they can avoid difficult situations with others, for example if they are self employed and are subsequently cocooned. Such an individual may feel generally good about him/herself and are happily abstemious in their relationships with others, as opposed to being people-addicts. They may have found their niche with just one good friend and are at peace with themselves. On the other hand, there will be those self-absorbed, cultural narcissists who are not able to avoid difficult situations with others. Cultural narcissists who are forced to attend the workplace will often exhibit anger, which can manifest itself into hatred. This is due to their self-absorption and subsequent inability to function in the company of others. This anger often results in workplace sabotage such as petty theft, tardiness and rebellion against colleagues and authority figures. Such unhappy individuals can probably derive much benefit from having counselling and psychotherapy. However, such counselling is very individual and should bear little or no resemblance to the one advocated by Heinz Kohut, as discussed in greater depth in Part 4.1. Kohut’s model, whose healing legacy has been hugely significant to both the understanding and the psychotherapeutic treatment of pathological narcissism, would encourage maximal empathic attunement (an untarnished-mirror-of-a-therapist) in the early stages of the psychotherapeutic process/treatment of the disturbed pathological narcissist. In terms of Sartre’s ontological structures, an untarnished-mirror-of-a-therapist would represent Being-for-others.

As for cultural narcissism, Gendlin argues that the assumption that the right way to behave is the way of the group, and everything else is nonego experience is untenable. The way of the group is just one ‘social reality’, while intricate experience is a new and higher level of human development that must not be confused with pathological narcissism. The term narcissism in the cultural sense of the word is backward looking. Its use belittles the current social change, and stands in the way of the fresh hope that experiential intricacy may yet prove to have in store for society in the future. We just do not know.

Having said this, it can be argued that never before, since the dawn of human civilisation and written language, has the importance of the family sunk to such low ebb. Surely, this cannot bode well for society or the psychological wellbeing of its individuals. Or, can it? New generations are naturally oblivious to the old social norms and do not know any different. The days of strong emotional family ties have ceased to exist. We look more to the state, mass media and peer groups to provide us with structure. Nevertheless, this absence of a sense of kinship and similitude, of fitting in and of belonging, hence of self-worth is not an insignificant problem.

The challenge that faces society today is - can we as individuals find our very own idiosyncratic niche or sense of fitting in and belonging in a world of political freedom? Can we manage to reconcile our inherent but conflicting needs to bond as well as to excel in order to cope better with envy and ensure a healthy self-esteem? This is an undertaking that should be realised deliberately and independently by the majority of society’s individuals today. Clearly, not a very efficient way of doing things in a world whose hallmark has become one where everything seems to be catered for on a massive scale. From mass-production to mass-farming, -fishing, -travel, -communication, -education, -hyper-market-shopping and so on and so forth. It seems that, on the face of it, there is no way around this difficulty. Today, most of us must find our own sense of fitting in and belonging separately and individually somehow, somewhere. It is no longer provided on a plate. Indeed, once found, there may be no permanence to this sense of belonging either. Hence, the necessity to belong in oneself as a place of last resort in times of famine.

Extract from the Tao Te Ching

Stop thinking, and end your problems.
What difference between yes and no?
What difference between success and failure?
Must you value what others value,
avoid what others avoid?
How ridiculous!

Other people are excited,
as though they were at a parade.
I alone don't care,
I alone am expressionless,
like an infant before it can smile.

Other people have what they need;
I alone possess nothing.
I alone drift about,
like someone without a home.
I am like an idiot, my mind is so empty.

Other people are bright;
I alone am dark.
Other people are sharper;
I alone am dull.
Other people have a purpose;
I alone don't know.
I drift like a wave on the ocean,
I blow as aimless as the wind.

I am different from ordinary people.
I drink from the Great Mother's breasts.

Written by Lao-Tzu - Chapter 20
From a translation by S. Mitchell


(1) The Greek myth of Narcissus is about a beautiful young man that becomes so fixated by an image of himself that he shuns all other possible relationships. As the tale unfolds Narcissus becomes more unhappy as his dream to possess the image continues to elude him. In the end he becomes so distraught by his failure to capture his visage he kills himself.

(2) Hinshelwood (1999) writes:

Narcissism is a normal stage of infancy. In building its ego (the ‘I’) the infant searches for its mirror-self. Normally the infantile narcissistic libido is transferred to objects, that is, to people. (p. 131)

But what happens if the libido is withdrawn from the world and directed back on the self? An attachment to the ego occurs. And this regression to infantile narcissism can lead to severe psychotic illnesses. (p. 133)

(3) Gendlin (1987) Writes:

In 'The Analysis of the Self', Heinz Kohut, an American psychoanalyst, revises psychoanalysis by marking out a distinction between psychosis and narcissism. Psychosis is thus no longer merges with all other nonego experience.

… Kohut introduced one important distinction: he defined a range of people who are “treatable” despite the fact that their difficulties concern nonego experience rather than Oedipal issues. He classified these people as “narcissistic”. (p. 16)

(5) Sartre’s ontological description of relationships, and the perpetual presence of human conflicts (in Being and Nothingness) are to be understood in terms of a sadomasochistic power struggle, which arises from a conflict over who will be objectified and who will be the free subject. Each one of us experiences conflicts of actuality (freedom), or Being-for-itself, as well as conflicts of facticity (necessity), or Being-in-itself. The notion of freedom actually has painful, disturbing, and unwanted elements to it: ‘We are condemned to chose.’ Whilst facticity takes away the anguish of freedom, but the downside is a sense of shame, being less for ourselves than we know we are capable of. Dilemmas of freedom, and our sense of shame are a consequence of our struggle with our actuality and our sense of facticity. Sartre would say, ‘Hell is other people’, or people provoke conflict over who gets to have mastery over the other. Sartre’s “Being-for-others” may be described as a possible way out from the perpetual presence of human conflict: Maybe if I embrace your way of being as it is, and vice versa, we find a way out.

(6) In his introduction to Key Papers On Borderline Disorders (2002), Peter Fonagy writes:

The psychoanalytic model of the so-called neurotic psychopathology has changed relatively little since Freud’s original description. It is still presumed by psychoanalysts to originate in later childhood at a time when all agree that there is self-other differentiation and when the various agencies of the mind (id, ego, superego) have been firmly established.

Personality or character disorders . . . are most commonly looked at in frameworks developed subsequent to structural theory. (p. 2)

(6) On projective identification, Hinshelwood (1999) writes:

In this process of “splitting the ego”. Additional support may be gained from projection or introjection – but particularly the former. In that case the person does not believe himself to be aggressive; rather, he believes that se is wholly harmless, and some other person is picked out as the aggressive one. (p. 126)

(7) On the Paranoid-schizoid position, Hinshelwood (1999) writes:

In the paranoid-schizoid position, the earliest experiences of the infant are split between wholly good ones with “good” objects. This contrast with the ambivalence of the depressive position. The very early ego protects itself from the bad ones by a mechanism which splits the ego itself. (p. 173 – Little Dictionary and Index)

(8) On the depressive position, Hinshelwood (1999) writes:

A developmental stage in the first year allows the infant to begin to integrate his objects, which take on both good and bad aspects, In particular, the internalization of objects that attract ambivalent emotions creates a deeply troubling internal world, dominated by various forms of guilt feelings and attempts to repair them. (p. 171 - Little Dictionary and Index)

(10) Holmes (2001) writes:

Attachment theory makes a clear distinction between healthy and sub-optimal developmental line, which it sees as being established quite early in the course of psychological growth, so that by one year, children can be divided into those with secure and those with insecure attachment patterns. Insecure attachment is seen as a defensive response to sub-optimal parenting – a way of maintaining contact with a supposedly ‘secure’ base that is in fact rejecting, inconsistent or psychologically confused and unavailable. This produces the characteristic patterns of insecurity: avoidant, ambivalent (clinging), and disorganised. (pages 48-49)

(11) Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit was first performed at the Vieux-Colombier in May 1944, just before the liberation of Paris. His one act play contains essential gems of existentialist thought such as “HELL IS – OTHER PEOPLE!”

(12) As cited in Heaton (2000), p. 7

(13) F. Barton Evans III (1996) writes:

Sullivan, Kohut and Rogers believed that certain empathic relational qualities of the psychotherapist were necessary factors in treatment – for Sullivan, respectful, empathic engagement; for Kohut (1971, 1977), empathic sensitivity to the subjective experience of the client, especially the client’s experience of the psychotherapist; and, for Rogers, the empathic connectedness of the psychotherapist constituted what Rogers (1957: 95) called “the necessary and sufficient conditions of the therapeutic personality change.” Yet, Havens’ (1986) analysis of empathic statements, in which he drew considerably his understanding of Sullivan’s work, provided a broader perspective. While simple empathic statements, so well represented in the work of Rogers, are a basic and necessary aspect of therapy, Havens (1986: 53) remarked: “These stand helpless before the great mass of complex and contradictory feelings that are present in most cases,” which call for complex empathic statements. Such statements, which may seem even critical or sarcastic on their face [an untarnished mirror is challenging, and reveals discrepancies], can be powerfully empathic and can be heard by damaged individuals who otherwise would reject direct warmth and empathy. It is clear that Havens believed Sullivan to be a master of complex empathy. (p. 170-171)

... Similarly Kohut’s empathic sensitivity to the subjective experience of the patient was elaborated on as a technical stance in treatment of narcissistic disorders which is a parameter from classic psychoanalytic technique. … Sullivan never presented empathy as a technique or even discussed it much in writing on psychotherapy. His empathic connectedness to his clients grew more from an existential position arising from his belief that we were simply more human than otherwise and that we shared the same existential conditions of anxiety and isolation in our interpersonal relations. For Sullivan, empathy was a state of being with the client, which could be seen indirectly, but powerfully, from his effort to truly and deeply understand the fundamental trouble of the person who sat across from him. (p. 171)


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