Dual Role of the False Self

Sam Vaknin, Ph.D.

"Malignant Self Love - Narcissism Revisited":

Your theories contain nothing new. You just rename theoretical constructs offered by Adler, Erikson and, above all, by Karen Horney.

I regard the question as a complement, though I hardly imagine that it was meant as such. There is nothing wrong with standing on the shoulders of giants and many of the more prominent theoreticians in psychology (no comparison intended) did so, to their advantage - and to ours.

But I beg to differ. I think that I was able to introduce new concepts and, through them, hopefully, shed new light on the pernicious condition called malignant narcissism.

To illustrate, let me consider the False Self versus the True Self . Both are old concepts. The False (Idealized) Self (-Image) was well described by Horney, for instance. Still, "my" concept of False Self is different.

I believe that once formed and functioning, the False Self stifles the growth of the True Self and paralyzes it. Henceforth, the True Self is virtually non-existent and plays no role (active or passive) in the conscious life of the Narcissist. Moreover, I do not believe in the ability to "resuscitate" it through therapy. It is not only a question of alienation, as Horney observed. She said that because the Idealized (=False) Self sets impossible goals to attain - the results are frustration and self hate which grow with every setback or failure. I assign the constant sadistic judgment, the self-berating, the suicidal ideation to another source: to an idealized, sadistic, Super Ego. There is no conflict between the True Self and the False Self. First, the True Self is much too weak to engage in any kind of activity (let alone in a conflict with the overbearing False). Second, the False Self is adaptive (though maladaptive). It helps the True Self to cope with the world. Without the False Self, the True Self will be subjected to so much hurt that it will disintegrate. This happens to Narcissists who go through a life crisis: their False Ego becomes dysfunctional and they experience a harrowing feeling of annulment.

The False Self has many functions, described at great length earlier (see: "Malignant Self Love - Narcissism Revisited"). The two most important are:

1. It serves as a decoy, it "attracts the fire". It is a proxy for the True Self. It is tough and hard and can absorb any amount of pain, hurt and negative emotions without so much as flinching. By externalizing it, the child develops immunity to the indifference, manipulation, sadism, or exploitation - in short: to the abuse - inflicted on him by his parents (or by other primary objects in his life). It is a shell, protecting him, rendering him invisible and omnipotent at the same time.

2. The False Self is represented by the Narcissist to be his True Self. The Narcissist is saying, in effect: "I am not who you think that I am. I am someone else. I am that (False) Self. Therefore, I deserve a better, painless, more considerate treatment from the world". The False Self, thus, is a contraption intended to alter the attitude of the (human) environment towards the Narcissist.

These roles are crucial to survival and to the proper psychological functioning of the Narcissist. The False Self is by far more important to the Narcissist than his dilapidated, dysfunctional, True Self. As opposed to the neo-Freudians, I do not think that the two are part of a continuum. I do not think that healthy people have a "milder" case of False self which differs from its pathological equivalent by virtue of being more realistic and closer to the True Self. I do think that even healthy people have a mask (Guffman), a persona (Jung) which they CONSCIOUSLY present to the outside world. This is a far cry from the False Self which is mostly unconscious, depends on the maintenance of an image but is not synonymous with it and iscompulsive.

I think that the False Self is a reaction to pathological circumstances (maybe even a healthy reaction). But its dynamics make it predominate, devour the psyche and prey upon both the True Self and the efficient, flexible functioning of the personality.

Narcissism Revisited 


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