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Secondary Narcissism as a Temporary State

Part 1: Isolation, grandiosity, and love toward the self for healing purposes.

by Chloe Barron
Source: by Chloe Barron

I was blindsided. After 40 years at my job, and I was a dedicated worker, I was let go. The anxiety about how to support my family. I couldn’t even tell them. The fear of what others would think of me. I know this happens to people all the time but I just couldn’t handle it, so I literally packed a suitcase and left. First I stayed in a motel, then at my friend's apartment, then at my cousin’s cabin. I watched superhero shows, drank beer, doom-scrolled, and daydreamed. I always did a lot of that, daydreaming, as a kid, wandering around in the woods by myself. Porn, I admit, too, in the motel, ‘cause well you know, that's common. I went back after my friend confronted me and my cousin wanted his cabin back. Still, I just can’t seem to face anyone. I’d give anything to move somewhere else or be someone else or just be alone. With a dog and a fishing pole and no phone calls to return or emails to answer or texts to deal with. I sent an email that I shouldn’t have and I think it did me in. At the job. I just wasn’t able to muster in that moment and offended someone.

Sometimes reality is too much to bear and a vulnerable person retreats into what has been described as secondary narcissism. Though classic thinkers such as Freud and Winnicott wrote about it, it is not often included in current descriptions of varieties of narcissism. Perhaps it could use another look as it may reflect a more temporary and treatable version of this illness. Secondary narcissism involves escape after a massive ego injury. There are two forms of disassociation or escape—physical disconnection from others and mental disconnection from realities that feel unbearable. It also involves turning love towards the self and away from others. Freud defined secondary narcissism as a withdrawal of libido or loving feelings from objects (other people), and an upsurge of "megalomania," a form of delusional grandiosity.

Breaking Down Before Getting Better

Secondary narcissism may have a better prognosis than primary which is usually considered entrenched and hard to treat. (The traits may be there in both cases, but perhaps more malleable and circumstance-dependent in the secondary sort. DSM-5 list: grandiosity, fantasies of brilliance, superiority and ideal love, entitlement, envy, exploitative behaviors, and a craving for constant admiration.) The idea that a breakdown is sometimes a necessary step on the path to recovery is described in the literature. Ernst Kris developed the concept of "regression in service of the ego”. Psychoanalyst and pediatrician D.W. Winnicott wrote, “It is helpful to think of the withdrawal as a condition in which the person concerned (child or adult) holds a regressed part of the self and nurses it, at the expense of external relationships." Carl Jung had a several-year collapse which he later described as a creative illness, as it led to some of his innovations.

Hopelessness and Flight Into Fantasy

Psychoanalyst Laura Colombi suggests that certain people are vulnerable to delusion as a coping mechanism. She juxtaposes flight into fantasy with healthy imagination. According to Colombi, people who have little hope in object relations ( loving connections to others) due to childhood ego trauma are susceptible to flights into fantasy and grandiose delusions, The hopelessness that leads to the flights can be based on early experiences of helplessness such as insecure attachment, authoritarian parents, physical abuse and empathic flaws involving humiliation, shame, degradation, exploitation or neglect. Arbitrary and unpredictable rules can also interfere with a holding environment and cause hopelessness.

Parents may be good providers and mean well, but be oblivious to the intelligence, aesthetics, sensitivities, heart, and soul of the child. Spontaneous, authentic expression can be squelched or even punished. Not being in touch with one's own inclinations, tastes, desires, and preferences can lead to painful identity disturbance and an as if, not-me, chameleon-like personality with its accompanying confusions. The sense of helplessness can lead to grand dreams and delusions in which the child is omniscient, invulnerable, all-knowing, and omnipotent. The false self, based on these fantasies, may be comforting and adaptive during childhood, but a liability later.

In secondary narcissism, the isolation may be necessary to carry out the self-soothing grandiose fantasies as well as the focus on love for the self. They may not want to be around others who are reality-based as reality can actually feel like an assault.


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