“The basic self-state in NPD is typically that of a sense of emptiness of being alone. These patients are usually incapable of learning from others, have an intense stimulus hunger, and feel that life is meaninglessness. They characteristically feel bored when their need for admiration and success is not being gratified.” ~Otto F. Kernberg
This quote by Kernberg caught my attention while reading his essay in the book, Disorders of Narcissism, edited by Elsa Ronningstam. It caught my attention because being rejected or abandoned is something most humans defend against; and yet, we are willing to accept the fact that we are social creatures who need one another to survive. It may be distressing to admit our dependence, but we don’t resort to elaborate lies about self-reliance in order to cope with this uncomfortable truth.
Though fear of abandonment is touted as a powerful albeit unconscious fear, our ‘fear’ motivates development of pro-social skills modifying adaptable personalities to develop moral characters by empathizing with our impact on other people. We find a way to ‘fit in’ to society because isolation is a threat to our survival. (I am not referring to unhealthy pretenses or denying who we are in order avoid abandonment or rejection.) What Kernberg is referring to in his quote is likely not the fear of abandonment. I interpret his words as a reference to narcissists’ perception of aloneness.
Narcissists sense they are separate from others but the reality is that they are separated (disconnected) from their true selves. The True Self being defined as the sustaining core self that was unconditionally loved during infancy and supported during normal maturation. Without healthy attachment to those who valued the developing child, narcissists constructed a False Self, cutting them off from their essential core self. Depending on the degree of pathology, the narcissist may or may not be able to cope with archaic feelings of aloneness that have nothing to do with the present and everything to do with an unresolved past.
Because narcissists have shallow emotions and are incapable of grieving the painful loss of contact with their essential self, their inner sense of aloneness is not a conscious state of being; rather, it is a nagging emptiness leading to distorted perceptions that they are isolated from others, separate, misunderstood, rejected, perhaps even 'defective'. Some psychologists suggest narcissists defend against this inner sense of ‘defectiveness’ with compensatory defenses. Other psychologists suggest narcissists never matured beyond the King Baby grandiose stage and continue to believe they are superior, perfect, a far cry above the howling masses yearning to be free. Free from human nature, like themselves, bien sur.
Being cut off from other people evokes powerful emotions, which narcissists cannot resolve because they cannot endure the containment of these emotions. Therefore, the terrifying perception that one is separate & disconnected, leads to what psychologists call ‘compensation.’ Narcissists compensate for their aloneness/disconnection with ego defenses, such as: omnipotence, grandiosity, idealized fantasies, a perception of self-reliance masking feelings that are intolerable and therefore, irresolvable.
Narcissists create a self-protective illusion that they need no one; that they are superior to inferior others; that they have everything they need to succeed and are excluded from relying on unreliable objects to either contribute to their welfare, or to help them if a narcissist dare stoop so low as to ask for help, that is.
Narcissists believe they are superior and self-reliant: a self-aggrandizing explanation for their sense of aloneness and exclusion. The crazy-making truth is that other people do not exclude narcissists, at least not without doing their best to encourage the narcissist to drop their pretenses and get over their defenses. Narcissists exclude themselves because of the grandiose lies they tell themselves; i.e.: that they do not need anyone but themselves. They certainly don't need those emotional codependents who keep telling them to get off their high-horses and walk on the ground with the rest of us two-legged creatures.
The narcissist’s fantasy of self-reliance compensates for painful feelings of rejection and abandonment, both feelings of which narcissists are unaware. While all human beings suffer loneliness from time-to-time, narcissists compensate for their emotional intolerance of loneliness by viewing themselves as superior beings, thus devaluing the contributions and relevance of interdependence. If other people are less-than and if other people are superfluous and if other people are merely ordinary, then narcissists, in a martyr-like fashion, will steel themselves to bear the burden of their superiority. Because as everyone knows, it hurts to be extraordinary and special. People won’t like ya for being so excellent!
Ah, the cross that must be suffered by those extraordinary and excellent people!
Narcissists lie---to themselves first and foremost. They tell themselves they need no one. This is the grandiose lie silencing inner despair from rising into conscious awareness.
Narcissists need no one. Narcissists can do everything themselves. I am not referring to material needs only.
According to N. Cohen, in On Loneliness and the Ageing Process, “The narcissistic personality appears to believe that he possesses within himself all the necessary sources of goodness, wisdom, understanding, etc. and that what his objects can offer him is of little value.”
Narcissists conclude they are above ‘the fray’ and need never rely on others to sustain them. Narcissists effectively promote themselves above the ordinary state of mortal weaklings who freely admit their need for other people. To me, the preposterous notion that human beings are completely self-reliant, is hopefully categorized somewhere in the DSM-IV. Perhaps in the Axis II, Cluster B category; perhaps as a God Complex.
But wait a minute! Isn’t self-reliance a good thing?
Certainly. As with other values in a society, the narcissist perverts social values because of their pathological self-absorption, lack of remorse and gratitude, inability to tolerate dependence, or value other people’s contributions. Just remind narcissists that they did not create their empires by themselves and you will suffer the wrath of narcissistic rage for having threatened their illusions of self-reliance.
Narcissists’ grandiose pretenses of self-reliance precipitate a devaluation process that diminishes other people’s contributions. Contributions that narcissists do not take notice of, so preoccupied are they with defending against ‘dependence’. Narcissists deny their dependence, even with the smallest of needs. Like devaluing their connection to whoever it was that grew coffee beans on a South American hillside, hired a crew to pick them one-by-one, carried those beans to the market and sold them to a company that roasted, packaged and shipped them to stores where nice people brewed them in exactly the way customers wanted their coffee to be served.
“A triple non-fat grandee with two equal latte and extra room for cream please. And do it exactly the way I want it, or you’ll hear from my lawyers this afternoon! Snap to it! My time is valuable!”
Who made the cups? Who fabricated the holders? Who keeps track of receipts so we can slurp that fine cup of Joe in the morning? Who is setting up the store at three in the morning so Madame Narcissist can purchase her cup of low-fat extra cream latte?
REALITY CHECK: People are dependent on one another, which requires an element of trust (something narcissists are short of) that store managers will stock their backroom with extra beans and jugs of cream and pretty plastic stir sticks. Pretending we are alone and self-sufficient is one of the most grandiose ideas the American culture has ever heralded as an achievable and desirable goal. The only way to pretend we are self-reliant is to ignore, devalue, and deny our true state of inter-dependence. Congratulating ourselves for having done everything on our own is a narcissistic illusion.
Narcissists’ grandiosity means they honestly believe they are superior beings---entitled to be served by the grubbing minions. Because narcissists cannot tolerate conscious awareness of their inner disconnect, they maintain an aloof perception of themselves as unique, thus abrogating themselves from social responsibility. What a childish perception to protect one’s self-esteem and pride by avoiding feelings of dependency and vulnerability! This defensive maneuver reminds me of two-year olds who in their narcissistic oblivion are ignorant to how little they do for themselves. “I don’t need anybody! I can do everything myself!”
Thus, narcissists go about pathologically validating themselves with pompous lies about self-sufficiency, continually reaffirming to themselves that they don’t need anybody. Just themselves. In narcissists' eyes, their self-sufficiency and competence evokes other people's envy and this is why, in the narcissist's distorted perceptions, they feel alone.
Occasionally, narcissists sense the nagging emptiness of their aloneness, an emptiness frequently arising at midlife when becoming 'older and more dependent' haunts most of us. Rather than tolerating their 'original disconnect' long enough to gain insight and heal this narcissistic injury, narcissists reinforce their superior status with self-aggrandizing lies. They sooth themselves with the belief that envious people cannot possibly understand the isolation of the self-reliant. It is their burden to bear.
Narcissists epicize the self-made man of a romanticized yesteryear.
Drawn to loner-type cowboys, freedom fighters, sexy jet airplane pilots on missions to save the planet from certain doom, I was attracted to the self-made man. Which is funny when you think about the kind of girl I am: homebound, feminine, connected to every person, place, and thing I touch, see, taste, hear, and smell. I often joke that even a coffee pot ‘means’ something to me, so grateful am I for the contribution of percolating aromas in the morning. In fact, I am so ‘connected’ to others, that the ability to extricate one's self from familial relationships (and responsibilities, yikes!), appeared to be a Strength.
A loner, a maverick, a self-made man embodied an independence that was impossible for me to fathom. So I admit my admiration for the self-made man's symbolic independence because I didn’t know how to think of myself as separate. I didn't know how to escape living UP to my good family's reputation, nor separate myself from relatives watching like hawks if I veered outside painted lines of a crosswalk, or ignore my children's pleas for homemade cookies when I what I really wanted to do was seclude myself in a room of my own. I was and am connected within an elaborate relational web and grateful for those who loved me enough that I could trust my dependence on others AND bear the responsibility of their dependence on me.
As I thought about Kernberg’s quote at the top of this essay, I recognized my privilege to live a life without deeply entrenched narcissistic defenses. I empathize with narcissists’ inner state of being. It would be insufferable to be disconnected from my true self, the one that was loved into being by a good-enough family. While narcissists deny themselves the joy of being cared for by trustworthy others who recognize vulnerability and compassionately respond, I could not understand the despair of a loneliness so profound as to evoke compensatory lies of self-reliance.
That does not mean this desktop cowgirl will keep the home fires burning while mountain men settle the wild frontier. I need the kind of people in my life who can tolerate the angst of knowing they need me back.
Otto F. Kernberg, ‘Pathological Narcissism and Narcissistic Personality Disorder’ in the book Disorders of Narcissism edited by Elsa Ronningstam, page 37.
N.A. Cohen, On Loneliness and The Ageing Process. 1982. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis http://www.pep-web.org/document.php?id=IJP.063.0149A