There's a face that we hide till the nighttime appears, And what's hiding inside, behind all of our fears, Is our true self, locked inside the façade!
(From the musical Jekyll and Hyde--see link at bottom)
Behind the Facade: The "False Self" of the Narcissist
As I explained in my last post, both people with borderline disorder and narcissists lack an identity; a sense of self. In that post, I explained how people with BPD cope with this. Now it's the narcissists' turn.
To compensate, narcissists develop what's called a "false self." The severity and intensity of NPD comes from the desperate pursuit of a sense of self. NPs believe all the lies they tell themselves about who they are: as the quote says, if you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the "truth."
In their book, Help, I'm In Love with a Narcissist, authors Carter and Sokol write (p. 72)
Somewhere, most often in childhood, narcissists lost sight of who they really are. Usually, through no fault of their own, they failed to develop an authentic, durable sense of self. Instead, what they project is a false sense...[While] you see someone who is...self absorbed, self-obsessed, self-admiring, self-involved, self-ish...the real picture is this: the narcissist is someone who is consumed by a struggle to maintain an intact façade...It is a fundamental lack of self that drives the machine we call narcissism.
What is the false self?
First, let's examine the opposite: the authentic self. The authentic self is the core of whom you really are, not what people tell you you should be or the "you" defined by people who do not really know you: the doubters, critics, and others who see the part of you that you choose to show. It's the you that you talk about to the people and know you best and whom you trust to be careful with your vulnerabilities.
On her web site about narcissism, addictions, and abuse, Diane England, Ph.D. writes
The person living as the real self is into creating win-win solutions. Indeed, she wants to do things that serve all parties. She also understands how it is possible to do so. After all, when one is living as the real self, she receives inner guidance that directs her on how to take actions that benefit others as well as the self. This means she doesn't sacrifice her own needs for another, but she doesn't disregard those of others so she might benefit herself, either.
The person operating as an authentic or real self strives to always be aware of her behavior and its impact on others. She strives to take right actions that are both beneficial and non-destructive to others as well as the world in general. The authentic individual realizes that because of the connection between herself and all others, when she harms another or some aspect of the universe, she actually is harming herself as well. This, of course, is so different from the perception of the narcissist who can only see what benefits him, even if it is destroying both others as well as the world.
Narcissists can't afford to be vulnerable at all--especially not to themselves. Remember, they need to believe the lie. So they make up a fictitious false self who is everything the narcissist is not: the entitled, superior, inflated, and grandiose self fed by the narcissist's fantasies and what they can squeeze out of sources of narcissistic supply.
What is the purpose of the false self?
This mask, which the narcissist thinks is real, hides the insecure and damaged part of the NP and chases way feelings of depression, abandonment, and shame. It protects her from painful feelings. Affirmations of the false self keep the mask in good repair. If they're not forthcoming, she demands them in one way or another in the ways that make the relationship a wild ride on a rollercoaster (which no one understands besides other people who have a loved one with NPD). The NP's success in maintaining this illusion makes you continually doubt yourself since you rarely receive validation of what you are going through. Even mental health professionals miss the boat. (Remember, you didn't want to believe it either.)
Sam Vaknin, narcissist and the author of Malignant Self Love: Narcissism Revisited, says, "The false self serves as a decoy, it attracts the fire. It is a proxy for the true self. It is tough as nails and can absorb any amount of pain, hurt and negative emotions. By inventing it, the child develops immunity to the indifference, manipulation, sadism, smothering, or exploitation--in short: to the abuse--inflicted on him by his parents (or by other primary objects in his life). It is a cloak, protecting him, rendering him invisible and omnipotent at the same time. [The narcissist] thinks, "I am this false self. Therefore, I deserve a better, painless, more considerate treatment." The false self, thus, is a contraption intended to alter other people's behaviour and attitude towards the narcissist.
The problem with the false self
It takes a lot of work to keep the fragile, superficial mask in good enough shape to protect against what NPs see as "attacks" from the outside world, e.g., complaints about their self-absorbed ways--especially those from formerly preminum sources of supply like spouses and children. This destroys the illusion and might force the NP to take a closer look at themselves. That's why they protect the mask so aggressively in ways that make you continually doubt yourself. It's extremely painful to have your feelings rebuffed by someone whom you feel/felt so much love for.
Also, life is dominated by doing, achievement, and performance rather than on intimate connections with others. This is one reason why you see so many narcissists at high levels in organizations or in careers in which they get a lot of attention such as politics, entertainment, and the ministry. The job perk of being important and lauded is irresistible.
New supply sources
If it looks like you're not going to supply your NP in the same way you did in the beginning of the relationship (e.g., by criticizing their self-absorbed ways or asking for some consideration in return), the NP may find new supply sources. Do you remember the first time you met your NP partner: how he dazzled you with his charm, wit and looks and made you feel so special? It's part of the seduction of new supply and the vilification of the old one. Your beautiful or handsome princess/knight (who never met anyone as special as you) may find someone else.
While this may make you furious and angry, keep in mind, again, that the layers of defense and deception are so intense that the narcissist can't tell the difference between the lie and the truth. The narcissist truly believes his formerly reliable sources have given in the old bait and switch. If you find this ironic--even funny--you should.
You can't rip the mask over the NPs face without hurting yourself in the process. Your family member will hold on to the mask and attack back. Part of being in a relationship with a narcissist is accepting that he sees the world the way he does, and you can't change it. You can, however, change yourself and the situation.
People who get intimately involved with narcissists also often have identity issues. So start to think about whom you really are and how you feel about things.
Randi Kreger is the co-author of Stop Walking on Eggshells.