FAQ #39
Warped Reality and Retroactive 
Emotional Content





by Dr. Sam Vaknin


How does a narcissist experience his own life?


As a prolonged, incomprehensible, unpredictable, frequently terrifying and deeply saddening nightmare. This is a result of the functional dichotomy – fostered by the narcissist himself – between his False Self and his True Self. The latter – the fossilised ashes of the original, immature, personality – is the one that does the experiencing.

The False Self is nothing but a concoction, a figment of the narcissist's disorder, a reflection in the narcissist's hall of mirrors. It is incapable of feeling, or experiencing. Yet, it is fully the master of the psychodynamic processes, which rage within the narcissist's psyche. The inner battle is so fierce that the True Self experiences it as a diffuse, though imminent and eminently ominous, threat. Anxiety ensues and the narcissist finds himself constantly ready for the next blow. He does things and he knows not why or wherefrom. He says things, acts and behaves in ways, which, he knows, endanger him and put him in line for punishment. Otherwise he hurts people around him, or breaks the law, or violates accepted morality. He knows that he is in the wrong and feels ill at ease on the rare moments that he does feel. He wants to stop but knows not how. Gradually, he feels estranged from himself, possessed by some kind of demon, a puppet on invisible, mental strings. He resents this feeling, he wants to rebel, he is repelled by this part in him with which he is not acquainted. In his efforts to exorcise this devil from his soul, he dissociates.

An eerie sensation sets in and pervades the psyche of the narcissist. At times of crisis, of danger, of depression, of narcissistic failure – he feels that he is watching himself from the outside. This is not a physical description of an ethereal voyage. The narcissist does not really "exit" his body. It is just that he assumes, involuntarily, the position of a spectator, a polite observer mildly interested in the whereabouts of one, Mr. Narcissist. It is akin to watching a movie, the illusion is not complete, nor is it precise. This detachment continues for as long as the unwanted behaviour persists, for as long as the crisis goes on, for as long as the narcissist cannot face who he is, what he is doing and the consequences of his deeds. Since this is the case most of the time, the narcissist gets used to seeing himself in the role of the hero of a motion picture or of a novel. It also sits well with his grandiosity and fantasies. Sometimes, he talks about himself in the third person singular. Sometimes he calls his "other", narcissistic, self by a different name. He describes his life, its events, ups and downs, pains, elation and disappointments in the most remote voice, "professional" and coldly analytical, as though describing (though with a modicum of involvement) the life of some exotic insect (yes, Kafka).

The metaphor of "life as a movie", gaining control by "writing a scenario" or by "inventing a narrative" is, therefore, not a modern invention. Cavemen narcissists have, probably, done the same. But this is only the external, superficial, facet. The problem is that the narcissist FEELS this way. He really experiences his life as belonging to someone else, his body as dead weight (or as an instrument in the service of some entity), his deeds as a-moral and not immoral (he cannot be judged for something that he hasn't done, can he?). As time passes, the narcissist accumulates a mountain of mishaps, conflicts unresolved, pains well hidden, abrupt separations and bitter disappointments. He is subjected to a constant barrage of social criticism and condemnation. He is ashamed and fearful. He knows that something is wrong but there is no correlation between his cognition and his emotions. He prefers to run away and hide, as he did when he was an infant. Only this time he hides behind another self, the false one. People reflect to him this mask of his creation, until even he believes its very existence and acknowledges its dominance, until he forgets the truth and knows no better. The narcissist is only dimly aware of the decisive battle, which rages inside him. He feels threatened, very sad, suicidal – but there seems to be no outside cause of all this and it makes it even more mysteriously ominous.

This dissonance, these negative feelings, these nagging anxieties, transform the "motion picture" solution into a permanent one. It becomes a feature of the narcissist's life. Whenever confronted by an emotional threat or by an existential one – he retreats into this haven, this mode of coping. He relegates responsibility, submissively assuming the passive role of "the one acted upon". He who is not responsible cannot be punished – runs the subtext of this capitulation. The narcissist is thus classically conditioned to annihilate himself – both in order to avoid (emotional) pain and to bask in the light of his grandiose dreams. This he does with fanatic zeal and with efficacy. Prospectively, he assigns his very life (decisions to be made, judgements to be passed, agreements to be reached) to the False Self. Retroactively, he interprets his past life in a manner consistent with the current needs of the False Self. It is no wonder that there is no connection between what the narcissist did feel in a given period in his life, or in relation to a specific event or happening – and the way he sees or remembers these later on in his life. He describes certain occurrences or periods in his life as "tedious, painful, sad, burdening" – even though he felt entirely differently at the time. The same retroactive colouring occurs with regards to people. The narcissist completely distorts the way he regarded certain people and felt towards them. His inclination is directly and fully derived from the requirements of his False Self during the process of recasting and re-writing.

In sum, the narcissist does not occupy his own soul, nor does he inhabit his own body. He is the servant of an apparition, of a reflection, of an Ego function. To please and appease his Master, the narcissist sacrifices to it his very life. From that moment onwards, the narcissist lives vicariously, through the good offices of the False Self. He feels detached, alienated and estranged from his (False) Self. He constantly harbours the sensation that he is watching a movie with a plot of which he has but little control. It is with certain interest – even bemusement, fascination – that he does the watching. Still, watching it is and only that. The narcissist also engages in permanent Orwellian alterations to the emotional content, which accompanied certain events and people in his life. He re-writes his emotional history according to instructions emanating from the False Self. Thus, not only does the narcissist lose control of his future life (the movie) – he is gradually losing ground to the False Self in the battle to preserve the integrity and genuineness of his past experiences. Eroded between these two poles, the narcissist gradually disappears and is replaced by his disorder to the most complete extent.


This information was written by:

By: Dr. Sam Vaknin
The author of Malignant Self Love -
Narcissism Revisited ORDER

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