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Narcissists and The False Self

Updated on February 20, 2018
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The Little Shaman is a spiritual counselor, hypnotherapy practitioner, and a specialist in Cluster B personality disorders.

The overwhelming majority of pathologically narcissistic people are the adult victims of childhood abuse, often from a narcissistic parent. They experience all of the same things that victims of narcissistic abuse are familiar with. As a child, it is very difficult for them to psychologically defend against this abuse or to develop normally. Their mind is too preoccupied with just surviving. As a result of that, there are certain key steps in development that seem to be missed. The earlier the abuse or neglect occurs, the worse the problems will be. The ability to separate the self from external objects is probably the biggest missed step. Failure in this area is what results in narcissism, and in the lack of formation of identity. The ability to acknowledge, understand, control and process emotions is another big one. Empathy is not nurtured and does not develop, healthy boundaries don't form, there are problems with schema and object permanance... Basically, we could say their mind does not develop beyond the emotional equivalent of a toddler. They cannot handle their own emotions, they cannot tolerate frustration and they believe that their well-being is the responsibility of other people.

It's very like the way toddlers are. It is the parent's job to assume responsibility for the toddler's emotions and emotional well-being because a child that young cannot do it themselves. It is their job to soothe and comfort the baby because the baby cannot comfort or soothe themselves. Pathologically narcissistic people cannot do this either. They have primitive defense mechanisms in place instead. One of them - the main one - is the false self.

It's all a very technical explanation in some ways involving the narcissist's inability to separate the self from external objects - particularly idealized or deified objects and dealing with selfobject transference - but you don't need a technical explanation to understand that when a child is abused, they end up feeling badly about themselves. Their feelings become what they've been told. Essentially, they see themselves the way other people see them, namely their parents. The adult pathological narcissist has never grown out of this immature way of functioning. As a child, they were abused and ended up with horrible feelings of self-hatred and shame. Many people who were abused as children struggle with this but as they grow they are able to mature beyond this and develop independent self-esteem. Narcissists are not able to do this successfully. They have no way to challenge their pathologically abusive and negative inner dialogue. It comes through as absolute truth to them, something they have believed their entire lives. Nearly everything they do is an exercise in trying to shut that inner voice up.

As children, because they were unable to create true self-esteem and self-worth to counteract this negativity, they created pretend self-esteem and self-worth. The child does not feel safe, and as a reaction to the devaluation and emotional neglect they are subjected to, they begin to focus solely and intensely on themselves, in an attempt to deal with the hurt. They begin to overvalue themselves in self-defense, to try to balance out the completely negative with the completely positive. "They say I'm wothless but I'm not. In fact, I'm the most important thing in the world!" This becomes a continuous dialogue with themselves, a war between what they are told and what they are trying to believe in self-defense. Because the abuse usually continues for their entire childhood, this creates a pattern that becomes a way of being. Adult narcissists practice this exact same primitive defense mechanism. They grew into it instead of out of it. Because of their inability to validate their own self-worth and create actual self-esteem, they have no other way to defend themselves.

This is where the false self comes in. As the child grows, these beliefs about how horrible and awful they are do not go away. If anything, they are strengthened. Everything bad that happens reinforces it, no matter how silly or even delusional it may seem. Children engage in magical thinking. That means they believe that things happen because of them. Most children grow out of this when they mature, but people who are pathologically narcissistic do not. Even as adults, they still believe everything happens because of them or what they believe or something they did. The pre-narcissistic child wants what all children want: to be loved, to be accepted, to be liked and valued. They find that they cannot achieve these things in their home, and since the parents are idealized, the child believes it is not the parents who are wrong or defective but themselves. In the movie The Crow, the main character said, "Mother is the name for God in the lips and hearts of little children." This is actually a quote from Thackery, a British novelist and author. But regardless of where you heard it, it remains true. Parents are seen as perfect and infallible to small children, so if there is a failing, the child will perceive it to be on their own part. If your parents do not love you, you must be very vile. This is what the child believes.

Because of this and because they lack a true identity, the child creates a mask that they believe is all the things they are not. This is who they will attempt to present themselves as in order to receive the things they are desperately seeking from other people. It becomes a way of being, a way to circumvent their inability to achieve what they need. No one will love them as they are. They are too horrible, too disgusting, too despicable. But if they can hide that, they might have a chance. Thus, the false self is born.

This is who you met when you met the narcissist. This is who shows up in public or with people that don't know the narcissist very well. This is who you've spent all your time chasing to try to find. When you said, "I know there is good in this person because I've seen it," this is who you were talking about. A mask. It's a person that does not exist. Once you see behind it, the narcissist knows the jig is up and they believe they will be abandoned. They feel betrayed and angry. Remember, the false self is not a performance for you, or other people in general. The false self is for the narcissist. It's the narcissist's protection against their own feelings. It's their way of trying to "walk the walk" and convince themselves once and for all that they are not all the horrible things they believe themselves to be. They need you to believe it because it helps them believe it. They also believe they will not receive the things they need from people unless they are "a good person." This probably goes back to their belief that they were not nurtured or loved by their parents because they could never be good enough.

Unfortunately, their definition of a good person is totally unreasonable and they can never achieve it. Everybody makes mistakes and has flaws. Nobody is perfect. Because of how they were raised, pathologically narcissistic people believe - as all victims of narcissistic abuse are told - that being a regular human being is wrong and not good enough. You can't have feelings. Can't have needs. Can't make mistakes. Can't have any flaws. Any failure to adhere to this ridiculous belief is seen as an enormous failure on their part. Even small or unimportant mistakes cause the narcissist's negative feelings to pour through, cracking their false facade in half. Their feelings overwhelm them and this is when they engage in abuse, projection, gaslighting, manipulation and all manner of things designed to help them deny to themselves they did anything which proved they weren't perfect and therefore not a good person.

The biggest problem with the false self is that the narcissist knows it is not real. They are resentful of it, and of other people forcing them to use it. They are paranoid someone will see behind it and they fear the consequences if that happens. They believe they will be abandoned and not only do they have a pathological fear of rejection and abandonment, but with no one around to validate their self-worth, they will no longer have a way to defend against the bad feelings. They are desperate to prevent that from happening. That's why a lot of their abuse and manipulation is designed to divert other people's attention away from the narcissist and onto themselves. It's a way of saying, "Hey, don't look over here! Look over there!" Anything that threatens this false self with exposure is reacted to as life-threatening, because without it the narcissist cannot get what they need and will decompensate. It's a knee-jerk reaction in self-defense, because they believe they are being viciously attacked.

To people who don't understand the personality structure of the narcissist, this is very confusing and even frightening. What in the world are they so mad about?? They're more than just angry. They are filled with shame and self-hatred that they can't confront. You dared suggest they weren't perfect, which means that you have validated the belief that they are bad, that they don't deserve anything and that they are worthless. This is why people are accused of saying things they didn't say.

"Hey, you forgot to take the trash out again."

"That doesn't make me less than you! But you're right, I'm a loser and I never do anything right!"

It doesn't make any sense to you, but it doesn't have to. Narcissists believe feelings are facts. They feel that way and that means it's true. Their denial makes them unable to see that they are actually projecting their own feelings onto you. You don't think they are a loser and can't do anything right just for forgetting to put the garbage out. They feel that way because any flaw or mistake on their part is seen as a monumental failure. Anyone who has been through narcissistic abuse understands having that feeling. It just goes around and around and around.

The false self is the desperate effort of an immature, childish mind to heal itself from abuse. Their only defense against this is to create a pretend world where it's not true and force everyone else to go along with it. Because of the way they developed, they are not capable of caring about the feelings of others, nor are they capable of seeing others as human beings who matter. They are also often very angry and looking for people to take it out on because this helps them feel powerful which boosts their nonexistent self-esteem. It's a tragic situation all around, and for all the explaining that has been done here, one phrase probably sums it up the best: Hurt people hurt people.

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