July 01, 2008

Denial of the Real Self

Narcissus by Michelangelo Caravaggio

I was typing a message the other day while sitting next to my kitchen window. The sunlight streaming through the glass struck the face of my watch reflecting a shiny orb onto kitchen cabinetry; which utterly fascinated two rambunctious kitties. They leapt through the air, crawled under the table, and stalked the illumination wherever it skipped, hoping to capture the mystical orb with their furry paws. Yea, it was terrific fun messin’ with the kitty cats’ unlimited energy since they were intent on capturing the illusive spotlight. 

If I had extended my arm, those kitty cats would have ignored me completely since my Timex doesn’t sparkle, it has scratches on the lens and let's face it, it's not exactly thrilling to chase an old woman’s wrist around the kitchen. Their fascination was intent on chasing a dancing piece of sunlight diverting their attention from the true source of the reflection: the nurturer’s hairy arm.

It got me thinking about narcissists and the grandiose images they mistakenly assumed to be the Self. Just like kitty cats, narcissists chase illusions, never realizing the movement of the watch is the true source of the reflection. How does a human confuse a reflected Image (lie) with a real or true self? Lowen equates the 'self' with feelings, or with the sensing of the body. If strong feelings are consistently defended against and denied, the narcissist is, in effect, denying the real self.

When we think of a narcissist, we usually say he or she only loves the self, that they are self-serving and selfish. But if they lack a sense of self, it’s probably more accurate to say narcissists only love the image, that they are image-serving and image-ish.
“The important distinction, then, is between the person who operates in terms of an image and the person who functions in terms of his or her feelings. But since feelings are a natural attribute of being human, how can one not feel?
If the image is established as the dominant force in the personality, the person will suppress any feeling that contradicts it. 
But an image can only gain this dominant position in the absence of strong feelings. I strongly believe that the absence of feeling is the basic disturbance in the narcissistic personality, and the one that allows the image to gain ascendancy. In narcissism, as opposed to the typical neuroses of earlier times, the loss of feeling is due to a special mechanism, which I call the denial of feeling.” ~Alexander Lowen (page 46)
But everyone identifies with an Image, right? And don’t we all deny certain feelings that make us feel bad about ourselves?

In a lifetime of intimate friendships, I’ve never met anyone who hasn’t eaten his or her share of humble pie when the image they believed to be themselves, was contradicted by reality. Maturation offers fat plates of Blew-it-Berry cobbler whenever we fail or fall short of achieving impossible expectations we set for ourselves. Our false Image will be consistently bombarded by truth and reality. If we deny our imperfection to the exclusion of truth, we’ll be offered second-helpings of humble pie until we hopefully accept fallibility as the state of being human.

Breaking down defenses serving the Image and not the true self, is a natural process of maturation. At least, this is how I view sacrificing my Image of the Perfect Mother (Lie) to my reality as a Good-Enough Mom (reality).

In my culture, young women identified with the Image of the Madonna and conscious or not, assumed their identity was based on being perfectly nurturing, tender and all giving. But once my first child came screaming from the womb and my dreamtime was interrupted with a red-faced infant demanding attention (even when I needed to take a shower…preferably by myself), deep and powerful emotions picked at the lifelessness of the Image.

I recall a particular experience with a friend who had a baby at the same time as myself. Her child yelled ever-bit-as-much as mine, so one day I expressed my dissatisfaction trying to sooth an infant who wouldn’t have been soothed by mother Mary herself. ”I’m so frustrated when nothing I do calm her downs. It makes me feel terrible about myself and I don’t like being a mother!” I told her.

She stared at me, shocked to hear any woman question mothering as an overwhelming role. “I don’t feel terrible about anything. I love my baby. I love being a mother. I never feel frustrated or anxious. I certainly don’t resent taking care of an innocent child."

It was the perfect chastisement from the Holy Mother herself. I went home feeling like a second-rate Madonna and thought about our conversation all night. In-between 'feedings', that is. Even not knowing a thing about narcissism, I finally concluded, “That woman sure knows how to lie to herself.”

The narcissist’s egotistically constructed Image is one of Superiority, Perfection, Power and Control. Whether in the boardroom, the bedroom or poised perfectly on a yoga mat, the narcissist is convinced of his or her superiority. Denying any feelings of powerlessness, vulnerability and weakness means they choose to live a lie rather than to live a life.

Have you ever dealt with the spiritual narcissist who views himself as the icon of incorruptible principles? The narcissist’s Image of being special, superior and good means anything ‘bad’ must be denied. If we ask them to “Tone it Down ‘cuz you’re scaring me!” the narcissist will deny reality, often blaming us for being too sensitive. We can always tell someone lacks self-awareness when they erupt in anger yet insist they aren’t upset. Yelling contradicts their Image of sanity, rationality and respect and will, as a consequence, be denied. Just like someone who insists they’re not jealous of other people's achievements & talents when it’s obvious their eyes have turned green with envy. Maybe they have painful lessons to learn in life as we all do; but if they refuse to sacrifice the Image of Perfection and accept their common humanity with the rest of us low-lifes, they’ll end up being written about on narcissism blogs.

In theory then, the narcissist denied his humanity a long time ago by relegating the unsightly, imperfect & feeling self to the dungeon of the unconscious---never to see the light of day, with no possibility of parole and living on meager prison rations. I’m guessing the narcissist’s true self is holding back a lot of rage for having been disrespected, rejected and subordinated to a lie: the Image. So if you’re hoping to break through the narcissist’s defenses and release what you believe to be an innocent child within, alls I gotta say to you is this: grab your bullet proof vest and put on your fastest Nikes. Narcissists don't "meow", they bite.



Lowen, Alexander, M.D. Narcissism: Denial of the True Self.  1997 edition


  1. Uh, if she had admitted feeling resentment and annoyance in taking care of her child, you could've easily blasted her for putting her own selfish feelings ahead of her kid. Of feeling resentment for tending to another's needs. Can anyone avoid the N-gun with you?
    And if this makes you uncomfortable, well EXCUUUUUUUUUSE MEEEEEEE!

  2. This IS a blog about narcissism which means my writings are about narcissism on a broad continuum.

    If you noticed the topic of this post, it's about 'denial of one's true feelings'. Not everyone is pathologically narcissistic, of course.

    It's good that you were able to express your true feelings about my article---which may have been slightly triggering considering the All Caps and your empathic concern about "my" discomfort. *wink*

    I don't mind criticism---it's a relief to know someone disagrees with my point of view. I <3 critical thinking.


    1. Hi CZ, I know this is an old post, but I am reading "Narcissism of the True Self" at the moment, so it was an interesting coincidence to read it. I could not agree more with the concept that narcissists have denied their own humanity by denying all their 'imperfections', so what we end up 'seeing' is the false self they created - and of course, since it is an idealized/fake version of who they are, they end up contradicting themselves constantly, unable to grasp the meaning behind the 'image' they created. However, from what I have read so far, it gives the impression that they have 'numb' all their feelings, when from what I understand is that their feelings of emptiness, shame and envy are very strong to them. They simply deal with them in unhealthy ways, resorting to all sort of mechanisms to avoid them. So my question is, is there really an absence of feelings? I saw my xN crying when he felt that emptiness, loneliness, envy..the feelings were clearly there, then of course he would find his mechanisms to 'numb' them. Is that unusual then for Ns? To recognize those feelings in them? I was just wondering, because from what I have read it seems like all narcissists suppress their feelings and that is not my experience with my xN... It would be great to read your insight on this! Lots of love, Alison :)

    2. Reading "Narcissism: DENIAL of the True Self" ;)

    3. Hi Alison! My reply is a year late (sorry for not finding your comment) and we've talked a lot on the forum and privately since posting this comment. But I'd like to add something anyway.

      Narcissists have feelings. It is bizarre to think they don't. However, people say narcissists don't have feelings because of their callous attitude and lack of empathy for others. They are still feeling something when they refuse to acknowledge another person's existence. They are feeling something when they split that person "black" and insist they are evil.

      BUT, narcissists have SHALLOW feelings. They may feel guilty but without a 'core self' to sustain their self-worth, they project guilt onto others to eliminate their pain. The capacity for emotional depth means "guilt" deepens into "remorse" and this is a pro-social emotion holding relationships together and promoting psychological growth (maturity).

      So I would say that narcissist may not have emotional nuances because this degree of emotional development requires psychological development and the capacity for true relationship with others.

      The empty feelings narcissists speak of are not so much emotional deficits as object failure...the inability to attach to others in a manner that is fulfilling, giving meaning to their lives. People remain outside themselves, external to themselves and one person is as replaceable as another. That is a meaningless life (like materialism) that would lead to depression if the only special person in the world was yourself.

      Another interesting area of study for the narcissistic personality is "Object Relations." This helps us understand their ability to perceive themselves as completely self-reliant and independent yet depending entirely on others for self-esteem.


  3. Just stumbled across this brilliant post, planning to read more of your blog when I get time. The epidemic of 'altruistic' self-denial, in the form of (as you say) image or self-concept worship (false idols anyone?) is I feel one of the great unspoken issues of our time. I have just read "Man for Himself" by erich fromm, which is a brilliant discourse on the difference between authoritarian ethics and humanistic ethics. The latter is concearned with faith in a person, and thier feelings, as being legitimate and valuable indicators of somes welfare (or lack of). The denial of feelings, the distrust of emotional content, is an illness, symptomatic of which is the conviction that one doesn't really exist. The question of ones existance or non-existance is far less interesting to me than the probably hidden motivation for nihilism. Great stuff, thanks for posting :)


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