A covert narcissist talks about her covert narcissist mom’s abuse and why she developed a false self in response. This woman is in recovery and has a Youtube channel with many other videos.
I started taking the natural hormonal supplement melatonin to help control my SAD symptoms. I wrote about that in this post. One thing taking melatonin has done is give me very vivid and strange dreams (I know all dreams are strange, but the ones I’m having are stranger than usual and I’m remembering more of them.
Most of the dreams I haven’t bothered to write down, and I can’t remember them anymore. But one in particular, which I had a couple of nights ago seemed important and relevant enough to my recovery that, half-asleep, I scribbled it down in a noteback I’ve been keeping next to my bed. The feeling of the dream (which was unpleasant and frustrating–though not really nightmarish) is almost lost to me now, but the details are still clear.
I was traveling by myself to some kind of camp in the wilderness–like a summer camp, only for adults. I would be staying there for several months to several years. It was in a region I was completely unfamiliar with, and I knew I had to arrive there before it began to get dark so I could find my way.
When I arrived in the town bordering the wilderness area where the camp was located, I suddenly realized I had forgotten to bring my makeup, my hairbrush, my hair straightener, any good looking clothing–basically, anything that made me “look good.” i was hundreds or thousands of miles from home and could not go back to get these things.
Frantic, I searched up and down all the streets of the town I was in for a store that sold these things. I still had my makeup on for the day, but knew that once it washed or wore off, I would feel that shame of “nakedness,” of looking my worst. It was growing dark, and every store I stopped in told me they did not sell such items. The people were very friendly and pleasant, but no one could help, or knew of anywhere I could buy such items. I remember feeling panicked and very frustrated.
When I woke up, I realized almost immediately what this meant. The cosmetic items represent my “aluminum foil false self”–the thin narcissistic defense layer I’ve developed over time to protect myself from the ravages of my underlying BPD and C-PTSD. It’s a thin layer and easily torn, since it was developed pretty late in life, and it could just be narcissistic “fleas” but it’s caused me a lot of problems since it’s a barrier to real connection with both my own emotions and meaningful, deep relationships with others. It’s mostly caused me to avoid other people and situations that make me feel to vulnerable, because of fear I will be hated or shamed for being my real, vulnerable self (which I’m constantly fully conscious of).
The mysterious camp represents where I’m going in my life–a place of learning and adventure, and a place where I also have no idea what is going to happen. The store owners in the area didn’t sell the things I desired because those things (narcissistic defenses) would hinder and hold me back during my “camping experience.” These things were not necessary but it scared me that i would have to enter this camp “naked”–as my real, genuine self, not dolled up to “look” better than I actually do or hide behind a kind of mask.
For as long as I can remember, envy was always a huge problem for me. This is one of the reasons I think I probably have covert narcissism. Envy isn’t something usually associated with BPD (borderlines are much more likely to become codependent to those they see as “superior”). Of course, it’s possible to be both.
Envy is associated with a sense of entitlement. For a covert narcissist, the emotion of envy is a lot more complicated than it is for an grandiose narcissist. A grandiose narcissist, believing they are better than others (but only the false self actually believes this), feels entitled to be treated accordingly. They are filled with anger and resentment when they see someone else who has something they want and if they are malignant, they may try to sabotage the other person’s good fortune. They don’t try to hide behind a facade of deference to others.
Covert narcissists also have problems with entitlement, but it’s a lot more hidden. They normally do not think of themselves as superior, at least not in the overt, in your face way a grandiose narcissist does. They may even consciously suffer from low self esteem and feel worthless. Being a victim often becomes a way to obtain supply, in the form of sympathy or attention. Not all covert narcissists are like this, but many of them are. But at the same time they feel worthless, they also feel a sense of superiority or entitlement.
The dynamics of how this works are complicated, but try to stay with me here.
Emotions at war.
Covert narcissists, as opposed to grandiose narcissists, tend to be low functioning (though not always). If, let’s say, a covert narcissist is the outcast in a group or ignored (and they are often introverted and sometimes socially awkward too, though not always), they feel victimized or unappreciated. To resolve the cognitive dissonance caused by wanting to feel superior to others but their reality indicating anything but, they take on a kind of “sour grapes” attitude. So, for example, they might pretend (or even convince themselves) their introversion or social awkwardness makes them somehow “better” than others who are more extroverted or popular. They tell themselves the reason they’re ignored, rejected, or unappreciated is because they are actually more intelligent, more insightful, or have more “depth” than the extroverted or more popular “peons” who are ignoring or rejecting them. They tell themselves others just don’t appreciate their superior mind (or whatever) because they are too stupid (or shallow, or whatever). They believe they deserve better and resent others for treating them like they’re less. They might even go so far as to tell themselves others are jealous of them! This is actually projection, because the reality is, no one is jealous of them–they are actually deeply envious of others. Of course they will never tell you they think they’re better than you, because that would make them grandiose. They keep the feelings of superiority and entitlement to themselves and it’s still mixed with feelings of worthlessness and self hatred.
Unfortunately, as ugly (and confusing) as this description is, I can identify all too well with it, because I’ve been this way since adolescence. Telling myself I was really better than others made the fact I was usually an outcast (or deliberately isolated myself, assuming I would be cast out) more bearable. But the truth was never far away, and the truth was: I felt absolutely worthless and hated myself.
Life as a zero-sum game.
Until very recently, it was hard for me to feel any joy when something good happened to someone else (unless there was something in it for me) because somehow another’s good fortune made me feel diminished. It was as if I regarded life as a zero-sum game. If you win, that means I must lose. I’ve been aware of this trait for many years. I always hated this about myself and tried not to be this way, but it was nearly impossible to drum up any joy for others. It was so difficult to fake being happy for someone that I compensated by changing the subject or ignoring the good news of someone else. Or sometimes, even throwing subtle barbs into a compliment or congratulations. Yes, it was very narcissistic and I’m ashamed of that.
It got so bad that when I was married, when my husband got a promotion (even though the extra money we’d have DID affect me positively), I was overcome with envy and all I could do was change the subject because I found myself unable to even fake happiness. I remember thinking, “why don’t I ever get promoted? I deserve to be recognized for my hard work too.” Somehow his achievement made me feel like a failure in comparison, and I felt bitter and miserable for days after that. I tried to hide these feelings because I knew they were wrong and filled me with shame. But I couldn’t make my emotions obey my mind (which told me his promotion–or anyone else’s good news–had nothing to do with me). Because this isn’t a BPD trait, I think I developed a thin sheet of narcissism on top of my BPD.
Fortunately, this awful trait never extended to my kids. Even when I was at my worst, I always felt happy when my kids succeeded in something or were happy. I always felt sad when they were sad or hurt. I had a lot of empathy for my kids, even when that didn’t really extend to anyone else.
Learning to love your real self.
I’m happy to say that this is changing, and my empathy is starting to extend way beyond my children. I’m no longer so envious of others (though I can’t say it’s completely gone–I do have relapses, especially when triggered). I don’t always feel diminished or resentful when someone tells me their good news. More and more often, I’m actually able to feel happy for others when they tell me something good happened to them–even when there’s nothing in it for me. It sure is a lot nicer to feel happy for someone than to resent them!
I’ve written about this recently, but lately I’ve been feeling a kind of softening inside, more tender and loving emotions, like something inside me has shifted. I think this is because in therapy (and because of my faith too), I’m learning how to accept my inner child (true self). This basically means replacing shame and dislike with love and empathy for that child. When you begin to stop feeling ashamed of who you really are, and begin to see the gifts your inner child was born with but you were blind to because shame was always in the way, you begin to stop rejecting that child and allow your real self to come out more often and shine (and in so doing, you no longer have a need for a fake, false self as a shoddy replacement).
In my case, I always tried to hide my inner child’s positive traits — high sensitivity, emotionality, desire for connection, appreciation of beauty, and wanting to love and be loved — because I was programmed at an early age to believe all these traits were “weak” and that emotional vulnerability and everything that goes with it was something to be ashamed of. It was the narrative I lived that my parents (and later, bullies at school) drummed into me at a very early age. I tried to cover that over with a tough exterior for awhile, but when that didn’t work (grandiose narcissism was a very bad fit for my temperament!), I turned inward and began to isolate myself and at the same time, resent everyone else. I wouldn’t let anyone get to know the real me, and isolating myself was the easiest way for me to hide.
Fortunately I never developed full-blown NPD (just a lot of N traits as a way to protect myself from the emotional ravages of BPD–I call this my “aluminum foil” false self because it’s so thin and easily torn), so it may be taking less time for me to be able to access my real self, and begin to replace shame with acceptance and real self-love. I’ve only been in therapy for 10 months and I can’t believe how far I’ve come already. Of course it also helps to have a therapist who is highly empathetic and skilled in getting someone like me to be able to see themselves from a different vantage point and teach me how to empathize with my inner child (and in so doing, learn to re-parent myself). I also had a head start because I was blogging about my mental and emotional state for about a year before I started therapy, and that helped me gain a high degree of insight into myself (and temperamentally, I’ve always been analytical). Prayer and meditation have helped enormously too.
I’m also highly motivated. I don’t like these traits in myself at all. I hate them so much that if I were offered a choice between being rid of them for good and a million dollars, I would choose to forgo the money but be emotionally free. I still have a long way to go, but I feel like I really am going to win this fight.
I’ve always aimed to be completely honest on this blog and hold back nothing, but there’s something I’ve been avoiding talking about for about a week. Now is the time, and I doubt (and hope!) no one judges me negatively for it.
As most of you probably know, I started this blog because I decided I had NPD (covert, fragile type). It was self-diagnosed and I set about a nutty regimen of self therapy (some of the stuff worked, some did not). I got stuck and stopped progressing, and decided to see a therapist. I found a very good trauma and attachment therapist, who works with people with personality disorders and Complex PTSD (C-PTSD). Still, he hates labels and refused to give me one. He prefers treating symptoms over “disorders.”
When I told him I thought I had NPD he said there was no way and he even doubted I had BPD anymore or if I even ever had it at all (I beg to differ and have an official diagnosis for that). He based this on the fact that I don’t play mind games with him, I don’t manipulate him, and I’m not “difficult.” I don’t overstep his boundaries or act high maintenance or entitled. In fact, he’s told me several times that he looks forward to our sessions. I realize there may be a little counter-transference on his part (which is pretty normal as long as it’s not acted on by the therapist), but I also think I do present myself as someone who’s fairly easy to get along with (and truth be told, I am easy to get along with these days and most people seem to like me, even if I still avoid close contact or deep relationships with anyone).
Finally, insisting on having SOME kind of diagnosis (for some reason, this helps me feel less crazy), he toted out his never-used looking copy of the DSM and we looked through it together. He told me I didn’t fit the criteria for any personality disorder, but PTSD might be a good fit. He wasn’t aware of Complex PTSD because it’s not a recognized diagnosis, but when I explained what it was, he said that sounded like what I probably had. So I got a kind of/sort of diagnosis. I let him borrow my copy of Pete Walker’s wonderful book about C-PTSD, which he is reading now. (For the record, Walker believes personality disorders are complications of C-PTSD, which provides a kind of template for their development).
That was several months ago.
During our last session, he told me something that sent me back down the rabbit hole, at least for a few days. As long as I’ve had this blog, I’ve suspected I have covert narcissism, because I feel like there’s this very thin false self I’ve developed–a false self as thin as a piece of aluminum foil, as a friend of mine put it–over my BPD. This thin veneer of narcissism kept my BPD rages and lack of control at bay, and also kept me emotionally numb. Of course, mindfulness training helped me maintain control, but I suspected my lack of being able to feel much of anything and this way I have of shutting people out or even rejecting them when they try to get too close was definitely pathological and indicated something a bit worse than PTSD. Like all cluster B people, I’m all too aware of this vast black hole inside that I’ve built many layers of defense over to avoid having to confront.
So we were talking about my “many layers of defenses” and I asked him again if he had changed his mind and did he think I really had NPD. This time, he didn’t laugh or deny it. My heart started to hammer away and felt like it was stuck in my throat. He stayed silent for a few moments, and finally said something that rocked me to my core. What he said was he didn’t think I qualified for NPD, but because he knew me better now and had a clearer idea of the defensive structures I’d built over time, he thought the top layer was a narcissistic defense developed to protect myself from the pain of BPD craziness.
He went on to explain the difference between healthy narcissism and pathological narcissism. While he thinks my healthy narcissism (self esteem) has increased (which is definitely good), he thinks my pathological narcissism is beginning to disappear. That was good news (and I think he’s right), but his admission that I did in fact have a narcissistic defense (and therefore am on the N spectrum) just confirmed what I already knew. Even though I’ve known it all along. hearing him say it still upset me so much I burst into tears (this was the first and only time I actually shed more than a few tears in session). Even though I’ve come to realize not all people with narcissism–even NPD– are terrible, unredeemable people, I still can’t help but associate the term “narcissism” with something bad and evil. The stigma is pervasive. Even “healthy narcissism” has a pejorative feel to it.
I tearfully asked him if he was saying this because he thought less of me than he used to and did he think I was a bad, terrible, evil person. Was this his way of rejecting me? Did he think I was hopeless and incurable? My abandonment terror was definitely triggered.
He smiled sympathetically, and then assured me he absolutely did not think any of those things and his feelings toward me had not changed. He just knew me better now and could see the way my defensive structures were arranged, which was actually a good thing because it meant he had a better idea of how to conduct our sessions. He also told me he’d seen a lot of progress in me in the year I’ve been seeing him and that I was one of the most motivated and courageous patients he’s ever had. “Whatever kind of defenses you have,” he told me, “it’s not a judgment against you. I have no doubt you are going to be successful in working through them, no matter how painful things might get, because I can see that you don’t give up easily and I can see how much you desire to reconnect with your authentic self, and i can see you are already doing so.” He also told me that he saw no problems with my level of empathy, and probably even had an excess of it.
That made me feel better, but I spent a few days depressed anyway, mostly because he no longer thought I was “perfect” (as in not having a personality disorder) and even placed me on the N spectrum. I guess that in itself shows my narcissism, because one thing I’ve noticed about myself in therapy (and that might hinder it to some degree) is that I’m always trying to “impress” my therapist with my good behavior and easy to get along with personality (charm).
I hope no one judges me for this, but I’ve never regretted being truthful here, and this is no exception.
At the end of the day, the labels are just labels and don’t define an entire person or their ability to become whole, if they want to badly enough and don’t give up the fight for wellness.
This graphic I made shows that BPD and NPD are really the same disorder. Both have their roots in childhood trauma and fear of abandonment, even though the symptoms may not be evident until later childhood or adolescence. The primary difference is the outer layer–the narcissist develops a nearly impermeable and rigid false self or mask (usually of grandiosity, but sometimes can present as do-gooder or even a victim). This mask remains stable unless narcissistic supply is removed, which causes it to atrophy, revealing the rage, fear, and hurt beneath that.
The borderline develops a highly permeable, chameleon-like outer layer. In the diagram, it looks like a flower. This outer layer of “petals” is analogous to the false self, but is not rigid and not even always present. It is easily penetrated and does not require narcissistic fuel from others to keep it intact. It changes and morphs its shape and form like a Lava lamp. Since it’s so easily broken through and is so changeable, Borderlines seem to be “crazier” and seem to have more intense mood swings than narcissists. They are also skilled in adapting to different situations and people in a chameleon-like way: this usually manifests as codependency. Sometimes they don’t seem to have minds of their own and take on the behaviors and belief systems of whoever they happen to be with. Borderlines seem more emotionally unstable than narcissists because the second layer of rage/hurt/fear is often on the surface, causing the Borderline to act out in frequent rages, panic attacks or crying jags.
Beneath these outer layers, NPD and BPD have the same structure: a layer of rage, hurt and fear when they are triggered, hiding the emptiness and grief under that (which is what both–especially the NPD–are so afraid of confronting and take such desperate measures to avoid feeling). When this part of the personality structure is finally reached, the NPD/BPD feels as if they don’t exist and that is excruciating for them. NPDs in therapy may quit at this point. Hidden deep within the “emptiness” (which really isn’t empty at all) is the diminished and damaged true self (inner child).
The goal in therapy is to break through all those outer layers and finally reach the true self, then give him or her the nurturing and validation they should have received in the hopes that he or she can become a whole person. It can take a very long time for this to happen, if it ever happens at all.
Borderlines, although they might seem crazier than narcissists, are more easily cured because the permeable chameleon-like outer layer is so much more easily broken through. In contrast, the NPD false self can take months or years to even crack. It’s a thick and stable structure, not given to weakening easily, but even the strongest concrete building has hairline cracks somewhere in its structure. A tornado can reduce the strongest building to rubble.
The key to breaking a narcissist is to find those cracks and weaken the false self. This is usually done by removing narcissistic supply, which serves as a psychological tornado to the narcissistic defensive structure. Sometimes this has already happened; and in this more vulnerable state, with the false self temporarily disabled, a narcissist is more likely to enter therapy. Unfortunately the narcissistic defense mechanism is so ingrained they will soon find a way to get supply again and rebuild the false self. The therapist must work to permanently disable it but the narcissist must also be willing for this to happen.
In a low spectrum narcissist, the false self may be rather weak or thin to begin with, and for them, a cure may be more likely or happen sooner. In low spectrum narcissists, the false self is more like a cheaply constructed trailer than a stone castle. It will only take a weak tornado to smash it to smithereens.
When an NPD’s mask begins to fall away, they will begin to act a lot more like a Borderline–raging, dissociating, experiencing crying jags, and showing their underlying inability to regulate overwhelming emotions. At this point the treatment for NPD should be much the same as for BPD–empathically penetrating the “void” to reach and begin to nurture the diminished real self.
How a child develops BPD or NPD.
These disorders begin when a young child or toddler is hurt or rejected by their parents, especially the mother. This hurt may not even be intentional–sometimes the illness, death, or absence of a non-disordered parent can set things into motion, because the child can’t discern the difference between deliberate abuse or neglect and something that cannot be helped. Many, if not most, children who live in orphanages or are moved from foster home to foster home develop some form of Cluster B disorder.
Because a toddler or very young child has not yet completely separated their sense of self from their parents’, when they don’t receive the mirroring and unconditional acceptance they need, they feel as if they’ve been annihilated, and that feeling of annihilation becomes the black void that now surrounds the hurt or abused child.
But because the void is too painful and frightening to cope with, something else must cover that over too, and also protect and hide the inner child. So the defensive emotions (anger, paranoia, fear, and rage) develop over the void because even though they feel unpleasant, they’re still better than the horrible feeling of having been annihilated, and they also protect the inner child from ever being hurt again.
And over that, for a narcissist, to attract people who could provide the attention and validation they never got as children, they develop a fake self, which is usually “nice” but is only a mask so it isn’t real. If they feel that the mask is under threat of exposure, they fight tooth and nail to retain the image they want the world to see.
For the borderline, instead of developing a false self to cover the rage and other defensive emotions, they learn to adapt depending on the situation or the people, and that is why they so often become codependent. Also, because they are closer to the void than the narcissist is, they tend to have dissociative episodes and may engage in self destructive actions like cutting to make them feel like they exist. Or they may engage in other risky behaviors or taking drugs or drinking too much in an effort to self-medicate.
DISCLAIMER: I am not a mental health professional, but I’m well read on these disorders and these are from my observations and opinions.
I’ve been deeply interested in NPD and the possibility of their healing for a while now, because I believe some of them can heal under the right circumstances (they must be both self aware and willing). NPD is usually the result of early trauma, rejection or neglect by one or more caregivers. The narcissist constructs a false self as a stand-in for their real self, which they send into exile. Narcisists were almost always extremely sensitive children who couldn’t find other, less extreme ways, to cope with hurt and rejection. Being exposed as vulnerable is their greatest fear, and they act in abusive or manipulative ways toward others to make sure their false self stays intact. They feed off of other’s emotions for a steady source of “food” to keep their false self alive. They learn to project their own problems and faults onto others, since they cannot tolerate being anything less than perfect. If they suffer a sudden loss of narcissistic supply, their false self atrophies and they are likely to become extremely depressed and anxious. Only then will they consider getting help.
Following is a fictional account of a narcissist, David, who has been in therapy for several years, following his divorce and the loss of his two children to their mother. He is allowed no contact with them, due to his abusive behavior. Following the divorce, he was so depressed by the sudden loss of narcissistic supply that his attendance at work suffered, and he began to become abusive toward his colleagues when he was at work. This led to his firing. Today he is employed, but in a position that pays much less and which has a lot less status than his old job. He struggles financially and although isn’t poor, his living standard is much lower than his previous one. He lives alone in an apartment in town now that his wife won their McMansion in the divorce. He has no hobbies or any real interests. He became so depressed he finally decided to enter therapy.
David is exceptionally bright, and is aware he is a narcissist. He hates it because he knows his narcissism has prevented him from being able to love and accept love from another woman–or from anyone. He is lonely and starved for affection but has difficulty admitting this, even to his therapist. He desperately wants to change, he wants to know what it feels like to really love someone and be able to feel all his emotions, which he knows are hidden behind his tough, emotionless exterior. He is willing to do the work, but there are often setbacks due to his powerful defenses against his own vulnerability.
David was fortunate to find a therapist who is experienced and successful at treating people with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, and who is extremely empathetic. Of all qualities a therapist must have to successfully treat a NPD patient, besides knowledge of this disorder, one must have a great deal of empathy. At the same time they must not enable the NPD patient or give them the supply they so crave. It’s a delicate balance.
It took two years for David’s narcissistic defenses to begin to break down, but they still come out when he is feeling threatened or vulnerable. Until now, whenever his therapist has attempted to connect events in his life with his childhood trauma of being cruelly rejected by his mother at the age of 6, David has deflected attention away from that event by either denying there was any abuse, becoming angry with the therapist, or changing the subject, often with humor and sarcasm. He has threatened to leave therapy when this happens, but never has.
Today was different. David’s therapist wouldn’t allow him to walk out, and took a “tough love” approach, barring him from leaving the session and forcing him to confront his original trauma. Cracks in David’s false self are showing and his true self sometimes peeks through, even though he tries hard to cover the cracks with fake bravado and aggression. What happened next is described in this story.
The story is from my own imagination, but the techniques Maria (the therapist) uses are the same techniques often used on people with Cluster B disorders, C-PTSD and NPD.
Maria (therapist): Hello, David. How was your week?
David (smiling): Oh, it was great! I may be transferred to another division where they’ll give me the responsibility I deserve. I’m really getting fed up with being treated as just another drone because I have so much more experience and intelligence than the rest of the plebians there.
Maria: That’s wonderful! How will you feel if it doesn’t happen?
David: Oh, but it will happen. They wouldn’t dare overlook me for this transfer. I’m the best thing they’ve got and they know it!
Maria: You certainly do have a lot of confidence.
David: Well, why shouldn’t I? They’re lucky to have me. Without me, that company would fall apart.
Maria: I sense some uncertainty…
David (on the defensive): what do you mean?
Maria: I don’t mean you’re not deserving. But I saw a look cross your face. For a moment you looked uncertain and worried.
David: No, I don’t think so. You need to stop reading things into every breath I take, every time I pick my nose or scratch my head. I’m just tired, that’s all.
Maria: It’s my job to read things into your body language and facial expressions. What were you feeling a minute ago?
David (angry): Nothing. I wasn’t feeling anything!
Maria: I see I have angered you. What about what I said made you angry?
David: You therapists are all the same. (mocking tone of voice) “What do you feel? What made you angry? What color is your parachute? What is your heart made of? Green cheese?” You pry and ask ridiculous, irrelevant, annoying questions. No wonder it’s a dying profession. It’s all smoke and mirrors and hocus pocus and not even based on real science. You’re no better than witch doctors.
Maria: Let’s get back to talking about David. Think about this anger. Why is David angry? Who is he really angry with?
David (rolling eyes): God! My mother always asked me those same absurd questions.
Maria: She did? You never told me this before. In fact, you never talk about your mother and when you have, you have never been critical of her.
David: Fine. Alright, fine. My mother…she was a bitch. Alright? Are you satisfied? That’s what all you therapists want to hear. (sarcastic) “Oh, my mother was so terrible, she hurt me so bad! She didn’t love me! Waaaahhh!”
Maria: Tell me about this questioning she did of you. I sense I triggered something.
David: It’s all about you, isn’t it? You therapists think you’re so important, have all the answers. You triggered nothing! You don’t have that much power over me!
Maria: You’re deflecting…I asked you about your mother, not about me.
David (sighs): My mother…alright, fine. My mother never wanted me. She told me I ruined her life, she told me I ruined her plans for a career as a singer. I was an accident. She always told me that.
Maria: I see. I’m sorry she said those things. What about the anger? You said she always asked you why you were angry.
David: Right. I was angry because I knew she was full of shit. I knew her “love” was bullshit. She loved her stupid birds more than me. One time I was so angry I choked one of her stupid birds to death. I didn’t regret it either. I felt no remorse. I do now, sort of. It wasn’t the stupid bird’s fault. But I was so angry at her because she didn’t come to the school play I was starring in and she didn’t get why that made me mad. Those birds always came first with her. Then my dad. Then my sister. Then her friends. Last, me. She hated me. She locked me in a closet for choking her bird. I guess I deserved it, but the way she treated me didn’t stop after that. She punished me for showing any emotion, ever. My anger got on her nerves, she punished me for it. She punished me for being angry, for being sarcastic, for laughing. She punished me when I cried—
Maria: –When you cried?
David (nervous, fidgeting, looking frantically around the room as if looking for an escape): I mean–when I whined or complained…I didn’t cry. Well, not when she could see it anyway.
Maria: All young children cry, David. Her dismissal and disapproval of your feelings must have been very painful for you. It would be natural and normal for you to have tears over that.
David: Listen…I don’t feel well. I have to leave. (Gets up to leave).
Maria gets up and blocks the door, leads David back to his seat. David stares at Maria, dumbfounded but seemingly over his rage.
David (confused): Why did you do that?
Maria: Because you’re paying me to help you get to the bottom of your narcissism, and it means a lot to me to help you do that. I want to help you do that. And I know that’s what you want, otherwise you wouldn’t be here.
David (puffing up): I could sue you for “false imprisonment”–blocking my way out of here.
Maria: Yes, you probably could. But you won’t.
David (challenging): Oh, no? Why wouldn’t I?
Maria: Because you want to feel. You want to love. You want to heal.
David: How do you know what the hell I want?
Maria: Because you told me yourself.
David: And you really think you can help me do that?
Maria: Yes, I do.
(To be continued)
Part 2 will be posted later tonight.
In recent years, BPD has earned a very disagreeable stigma, so disagreeable that people who have a BPD diagnosis are refused treatment, being told they cannot get better or feared by professionals who might treat them. NPD too, hasn’t always been as demonized as it is right now. NPD and BPD have become almost interchangeable in the narc-abuse community. I don’t recall it being that way in 1996 when I got my BPD diagnosis, and I don’t remember ever being told I was hopeless or unredeemable or evil or anything like that. I was treated pretty much like any other psychiatric patient, and was given therapy and put on antidepressants. I was obliged to take a DBT class, which at the time I blew off. (DBT is like CBT but exclusive to Borderlines–and it does work. The fact it worked for me makes me think maybe I *did* have BPD but no longer do!)
BPD was always classified as a Cluster B disorder, ever since its introduction into the DSM in 1980 (it was recognized, however, for much longer than that, and popularized as a disorder in the 1960s because of the research of Otto Kernberg, a German psychologist who studied “the narcissistic and borderline personalities,” and other “disorders of the self.”).* All “Cluster B” means really is the person has a weak, fragmented or nonexistent sense of self. Not being able to access a “true self” means they become either cut off from or cannot regulate their emotions. One of the results of this is a lack of empathy (but BPDs are the most empathetic of all the B’s, and some have normal levels of empathy). In NPD, a strong false self takes the place of the true one, which is a very dissociative symptom. In BPD, there’s not a strong false self like with NPD, but there is a weak and unstable one, and the person isn’t ALWAYS showing that false self. Some BPDs act quite a bit like over-emotional or unstable narcissists (or narcissists in the midst of a breakdown due to loss of supply). Others act like covert narcissists or just act neurotic and insecure but are otherwise nice people. Some feel their emotions too much, including empathy. A few are antisocial. I’m not sure why BPD (and maybe NPD) isn’t classified as a dissociative disorder, because essentially the person is cut off from their “self” in some form or another and that is what dissociation means. I’m not sure what the mechanics are in ASPD (antisocial personality disorder) but they are very different from either Borderlines or narcissists because they aren’t dependent on others to boost their weak egos. They are psychopathic and just do what they want.
So the Cluster B’s, including BPD, were already around, but until the mid-1990s, no one thought of them as anything but mental illnesses or for ASPD, a kind of “adult conduct disorder.” They were psychiatric labels and nothing more. The narc abuse community started in 1995 or so, and Sam Vaknin was pretty much the first one online who wrote about it. Of course, he has NPD but even so, he first called attention to the “evil”-ness of NPD/narcissism (actually it was M. Scott Peck but at the time he wrote “People of the Lie” in 1983, the term “malignant narcissism” wasn’t in vogue yet and there was no connection of “evil people” to people with NPD. There was also no Internet to spread Peck’s concepts like wildfire the way they could have been in 1995 and later. But over time, M. Scott Peck’s book has become one of the most popular in the narc-abuse community) After Vaknin established his online narcissistic abuse community and wrote his popular book “Malignant Self-Love,” more narc-abuse sites got established (many or most of them started by victims, who were understandably angry at the narcissists who had abused them). Soon “narcs are evil” became a sort of meme, and by association, so did all the Cluster B disorders earn a “evil” reputation.
There are benefits to this, of course. Victims are being more heard than ever before. People are paying attention and avoiding narcissistic abusers. But some people who carry a Cluster B label are being hurt too, especially Borderlines (or people–usually women–who were erroneously diagnosed with it). Some experts want to get rid of BPD and just re-label BPD as Complex PTSD (probably not a bad idea). There are MANY similarities. The vast majority of BPDs are not anything like malignant narcissists and are not sociopathic at all. Most just act extremely insecure, needy, and maybe “high maintenance.” They can be manipulative or act out to avoid rejection. They may collude with people with NPD, however. But it’s possible to find these same types of behaviors in many people with Complex PTSD. Are they actually the same thing?
Another reason for the BPD stigma could be the tendency for narcissists and borderlines to form partnerships or be attracted to each other. In such a pairing, the Borderline is almost always the abused or codependent partner. In several “couple killings,” one of the criminal partners, usually the female, has had a BPD diagnosis. But they may have been so brainwashed by their abusers they were coerced into colluding with them against others (a form of Stockholm Syndrome).
Finally, a number of high profile criminals and serial killers have labels of NPD or BPD. But they almost always also have a comorbid ASPD diagnosis. Media icons like Joan Crawford who were known to scapegoat their children also had a BPD diagnosis. In Crawford’s case, she was also diagnosed with HPD (Histrionic Personality Disorder). It wouldn’t surprise me at all if she had NPD (malignant) or ASPD as well, as her behavior was very sociopathic behind closed doors.
Why am I “defending” people with BPD if I don’t have it? Several reasons:
- I was diagnosed with it and carried that diagnosis for two decades. I have personally experienced being rejected by therapists once they saw my “red letter” on paper.
- Just because my current therapist thinks I don’t have it doesn’t mean I don’t. Or maybe I did have it and no longer do. If I no longer have it, that means BPDs are not “hopeless.”
- Maybe BPD isn’t a valid diagnosis.
- Many people I have cared about who were slapped with “BPD” have been hurt by it.
These are just my rambling thoughts about this matter; I’d be interested in hearing your opinions.
On my other blog, Lucky Otter’s Haven, I used a Superman meme showing Christopher Reeve as “Superman” from the movie — his red cape flowing in the wind as he looked over the ant-like humans far below, as he declared, “…and I’m in awe. I’m in such awe of you, all of you.”
I was curious about what this quote referred to, so as I do with a lot of things these days (thank God for the Internet), I consulted Google.
What I found immediately struck me as apropos for this blog because to me, in this comic, Superman serves as a metaphor for a narcissistic (or any person otherwise disconnected from the Self) individual dawning into self-awareness and personal transformation (even though Superman is not a narcissist and has plenty of empathy). The superpowers and red cape represent the Ego, or the False Self, meant to set him above everyone else (and in his case, they really do set him apart). These trappings turn him into a fantasy creature. But his difference–his superiority–has a downside. It makes him feel empty and lonely inside.
In this strip, Superman has lost his powers (narcissistic crisis), and as his True Self (Clark Kent) he realizes what it feels like to be cold, alone, and vulnerable. He reflects about his feelings of emotional distance and difference from others. He looks upon the human race (denying that he is in fact one of them), in all their frailty, smallness, and vulnerability, and realizes that in spite of these drawbacks, he’s in awe of them — their ability to survive and even thrive in spite of their fragility, and (although it’s not said here) probably their ability to connect with, support, and love one another as well. Superman’s awe is tinged with envy, but what he doesn’t realize is he is one of them too. He could have pitied them, but no: instead, he’s in awe of them because he realizes their vulnerability is actually their greatest strength. For some reason, I found this incredibly moving.
Last week I had a bad dream which I described in this post. I typed it out when I was still half asleep because I knew it was important and didn’t want any of it to fade away. I emailed it to my therapist and asked him to print out a copy for our session tonight because I don’t have a printer.
I didn’t hear back from him and wondered if he had got the email, but tonight I saw a copy sitting on my chair in his office, and he had printed out a second copy for himself too. We spent the next hour talking about it. It’s funny the way a dream can seem to make almost no sense, but therapy can bring so much clarity to it. How did I not recognize what was so obvious?
I’ll go through it here, one paragraph at a time, and explain what we found out.
I am waiting to see my therapist. But my therapist isn’t my therapist. He is my old therapist (the one I had when I was 22, the one who I fell madly in love with and had to leave because my emotions were too painful). But he is still my current therapist. (I know, but it made sense in the dream.)
This part I already knew. At age 22, I had another therapist I experienced a strong transference with, and spent 2 years with him. I quit out of frustration because I couldn’t handle my powerful romantic feelings and at the time, I had almost zero insight. But his manner, in many ways, reminds me of my current therapist. They are both attractive men of approximately the same age (at the time of my seeing them). In my dream, they both represent a Hero/Parental archetype.
Someone is talking to me and I’m crying. It’s not a bad cry or a painful cry. I think I’m crying in empathy. I don’t know what I’ve been told or what emotion I’m feeling, but my head is thrown back and tears are streaming from the sides of my eyes and down into my hair. My lashes stick together. I’m wearing non waterproof mascara; I’m vaguely aware the black tear tracks will be visible to my therapist even after they’ve dried. I leave them there, almost proudly, intending for him to see. We’ve been working on getting me to cry in session. I need for him to see the evidence of my tears.
He was touched by this and told me so. He kept wanting to go back and talk about it, but this is the part that was most awkward/uncomfortable for me to talk about because it’s me at my most vulnerable/open/unguarded (which means it’s very important NOT to avoid!). He pointed out that the woman who wept with someone else in the dream was the “real me” and therefore I do have the capacity to empathize with and connect with others. He wanted me to remember some times in my real life I actually felt this way. I tried to remember; it was hard because there have been so few times. Most of the time when someone opens up to me I find myself pulling away. The last time I felt really open and emotional with another adult was in 1986. But that was with my ex, who betrayed my trust and wasn’t at all who he seemed to be. Still, I want to feel that way again because I want to be able to connect on a deep and meaningful level. In the dream, I was open and vulnerable, but not in emotional pain at this point.
His office is in some kind of art complex. Outside, patrons are walking around looking at and purchasing art. My handsome therapist comes out, as he always does in real life, to ask me kindly to give him another five minutes. But this time, his face worries me. He looks worried or concerned. He tells me there is something he needs to tell me. I feel the blood drain from my face and my heart curls up into a tight ball as if to protect itself from whatever’s coming.
The art complex represents creativity and vision. But this is destroyed by what my therapist says which triggers familiar feelings of “the other shoe is about to drop because the world is dangerous and people are untrustworthy.” I have opened up to my Hero and made myself vulnerable and tapped into my creativity but my Hero is about to drop a bomb that will destroy all of that and destroy me.
“It might disturb you, but don’t worry,” he says. And then he walks away.
Mind games. Playing with my emotions. Tormenting, goading, sadistic teasing. This is exactly the sort of thing my narcissists did to me all the time. In the dream, my Hero becomes someone else out to destroy me. No one can be trusted.
Of course I worry. In fact, I panic. I go back out into the art complex and walk around, pretending to look at the art. There seems to be a party going on. People are dressing in costumes. I think about what my therapist has to tell me. Is he sick? Going to dump me? Leaving town? Is he going to die? Dread and my old friend, Fear of Abandonment, holds me fast. I can’t escape. My breathing quickens and becomes shallow. My tears have dried and I can’t make anymore even as I will them to come
The costume party represents the fakeness I see in everyone around me. No one is who they appear to be. I’m not a part of it; I’m left out. I can’t cry because to protect myself, I’ve shut off my emotions again. The wall is back up.
Soon I see my therapist laughing with a woman, a beautiful woman. I wonder if that’s his wife.
My therapist turns, approaches me. I freeze in place, almost drop the raku vase I’m holding.
I start to cry when our eyes meet.
But pride takes over.
“You’re an asshole,” I say, rubbing my eyes with my fists like a spoiled child. I no longer want him to see me cry. I don’t want him to have the satisfaction.
The raku vase is probably a minor detail, but could represents the creative urge I’m trying to hold onto (I almost drop/lose it). I call him an asshole because he has played with my emotions and seems to be doing it deliberately by refusing to fully explain what he meant but making me wonder and worry. The crying is angry, hurt crying, in contrast with the tears of openness and empathy early in the dream. I attempt to hide this because I no longer feel safe being vulnerable.
He looks angry.
“I’m not going to see you when you talk to me that way,” he says. I look at him dumbly, stunned into silence.
“But what about–?”
“I’ll see you next time,” he says, and turns on his heel and walks away.
My Hero has become a disapproving, narcissistic, uncaring parent who is only concerned with his own feelings and is punishing me because I criticized him, and finally abandons me. This is what my parents did to me and is at the center of my mental illness.
He might as well have just stabbed me in the stomach. I feel as if I could collapse onto the floor. I want to disappear. The shame and anger is overwhelming. And I have to wait to find out whatever horrible news he has to tell me. I think he’s trying to torture me.
Shame of who “I” am and for expressing my feelings. Being abandoned makes me feel like I don’t exist.
I’m still in the art complex and people are walking around as if the world didn’t just end. All the therapists in the office are milling around too, drinking out of cocktail glasses with ridiculous little plastic umbrellas and other doodads sticking out of them. Someone has set up a cash bar at the far end. My therapist is over there, laughing with the other therapists. I feel like I don’t exist.
Everything is a sham, fake and cheap. My Hero, who I trusted, doesn’t care. He’s abandoned me and has joined with all the other fake and cheap people. He betrayed me, just like everyone else. Abandonment and betrayal makes me feel dead.
One of the therapists gets up on a podium and says we are having an animal costume contest. We will be dancing to “Old McDonald Had a Farm” in our animal suits. I don’t want to be there, but I feel obligated to participate. A huge box is pulled out from somewhere and everyone rushes over and starts pulling out costumes. All I can find is a chicken head and a silly cowprint suit. Somehow it seems familiar to me, as if someone in my past had worn this same costume before. I put it on and feel like I can be invisible in it. I just want to die.
Self protection; defense mechanisms come into play. To protect myself from feelings of nonexistence, shame, and abandonment, I become fake too, to fit in with the fake world and all its fake people. The ridiculous costume would be my “false self,” ridiculous because it’s not me at all. It’s familiar because I’ve seen it before, on the people who raised me. I still want to die because inside I still feel as empty and abandoned.
None of this was really new to me, but I feel liked everything’s been spelled out for me now through this dream and I have a better idea of the issues I need to work on the most. It would be natural for me to trust no one since the people who were supposed to love me unconditionally were untrustworthy. I also feel like I’m no longer alone in figuring all this out.
A friend and I were talking about where exactly different levels of narcissism would fall on the N-spectrum. Of course narcissism (or any psychological topic) isn’t an exact science so giving the different levels numerical values seems a little silly, but in my mind this is how I view the different levels on the spectrum, starting with a Baseline of O (on most narcissism spectrums, “healthy” narcissism is at baseline) and the transition to NPD at around 5, which is smack dab in the middle. Narcissism becomes pathological (causing the person or others problems) at around 4.
Please note these are just my own subjective ideas. I’m a geek who likes to classify things.
The Narcissistic Spectrum according to Lucky Otter
Sociopathy: A person at this level is almost indistinguishable from someone with ASPD (antisocial personality disorder), but an NPD sociopath is more concerned about image or obtaining supply than a pure ASPDer. Most cult leaders fall here. (Psychopathy appears similar to sociopathy in behaviors, but describes a condition that a person is born with instead of one that was acquired; many psychopaths were never abused and were always like that, but sociopaths were made).
Malignant Narcissism: A person at this level has severe NPD with antisocial traits. A person at this level will show more emotion (usually rage) than a narcissistic sociopath. Usually fits all the DSM criteria or most of them.
Severe NPD: Not malignant because there is no sadism present, but person is still highly dangerous and manipulative. Fits most or all of the 9 criteria and symptoms are severe.
Moderate NPD: A person at this level may be barely tolerable, if contact with them is casual or seldom. Fits more than 5 of the 9 criteria.
Mild NPD: A person at this level fits 5 of the 9 DSM criteria for NPD but symptoms are not too severe and they may have moments of acting like a decent human being. NPDers at this level may occasionally respond well to therapy or seek it out.
Narcissistic Personality (Destructive Narcissistic Pattern disorder or DNP): A person here fits fewer than 5 of the 9 NPD criteria in the DSM but has at least three. Symptoms may not be that severe and the person at this level is more in touch with their true self and may seek therapy. They usually have the capacity to feel empathy but it’s limited.
Non-Pathological Narcissistic Personality: Your garden variety self-centered jerk but may genuinely care about those they love. Not particularly dangerous. Has moments of insight into themselves or empathy for others, especially their loved ones.
“Healthy” narcissism. Most normal people can be found here.
O (Baseline) and lower:
People down in the negative digits might as well be wearing a “KICK ME” sign. They are almost always victims of narcissists and sometimes even normal people give them a hard time or take advantage of them.
Covert (“fragile”) narcissists may be found anywhere on the spectrum, but because their narcissism is more hidden and arrogance and grandiosity may be absent, a covert narcissist at any level is harder to identify. They may appear to have BPD, Avoidant PD, or Aspergers Syndrome instead (these are the three disorders most often confused with Covert Narcissism).
High-functioning (successful) narcissists are more likely to be found high on the spectrum, and sociopaths are often extremely high-functioning. There are many sociopaths (and psychopaths, who were generally born with a different brain structure and may not have been abused) in politics, religion, and heading huge corporations. Sociopathic traits and most NPD traits are generally sought after in the higher echelons of business, politics and entertainment. A person with just the “right” combination of antisocial behavior and arrogance, entitlement, grandiosity, and fake confidence can be a devastating adversary or competitor, and they will have no scruples about crushing you into the ground to achieve their goals.
Most high-functioning narcissists tend to be the Grandiose (classic, or overt) type that best fits the DSM criteria.
Covert and overt narcissists all have the same disorder, but for most, one form or the other is dominant. That said, they can and do switch back and forth in the same person. I think temperament is partly to do with whether someone is overt or covert (the more timid or fearful types leaning toward covert narcissism), but I also think circumstances (such as a sudden loss or gain of supply) can cause a switch from overt to covert or vice versa.
Low-functioning narcissists are much more likely to be covert. They tend to receive less supply than overt narcissists, so their false self is weaker (the “deflated” false self, according to Masterson). Because of their discontent with their lives and general lack of success, covert narcissists are more likely than overt ones to seek help. If a covert narcissist suddenly begins to receive a lot of supply, they can become much more overt-acting (grandiose, entitled and arrogant). If an overt/grandiose narcissist suffers a huge loss of supply, they can sink into depression and become covert (at which point they are more likely to seek help).