We often marvel at the discrepancy between the private and public lives of our idols: Celebrities, statesmen, stars, writers and other accomplished figures. It is as though they have two personalities, two selves: The “true” one which they reserve for their nearest and dearest and the “fake” or “false” or “concocted” one which they flaunt in public.
In contrast, the narcissist has no private life, no true self and no domain reserved exclusively for his nearest and dearest. His life is a spectacle, with free access to all, constantly on display, garnering narcissistic supply from his audience. In the theatre that is the narcissist’s life, the actor is irrelevant. Only the show goes on. The False Self is everything the narcissist would like to be but, alas, cannot: Omnipotent, omniscient, invulnerable, impregnable, brilliant, perfect, in short: Godlike. Its most important role is to elicit narcissistic supply from others: Admiration, adulation, awe, obedience and in general: Unceasing attention. In Freud’s tripartite model, the False Self supplants the Ego and conforms to the narcissist’s unattainable, grandiose and fantastic Ego Ideal.
The narcissist constructs a narrative of his life that is partly confabulated and whose purpose is to buttress, demonstrate and prove the veracity of the fantastically grandiose and often impossible claims made by the False Self. This narrative allocates roles to significant others in the narcissist’s personal history. Inevitably, such a narrative is hard to credibly sustain for long: Reality intrudes and a yawning abyss opens between the narcissist’s self-imputed divinity and his drab, pedestrian existence and attributes. I call it the Grandiosity Gap. Additionally, meaningful figures around the narcissist often refuse to play the parts allotted to them, rebel and abandon the narcissist.
The narcissist copes with this painful and ineluctable realization of the divorce between his self-perception and this less than stellar state of affairs by first denying reality, delusionally ignoring and filtering out all inconvenient truths. Then, if this coping strategy fails, the narcissist invents a new narrative, which accommodates and incorporates the very intrusive data that served to undermine the previous, now discarded narrative. He even goes to the extent of denying that he ever had another narrative, except the current, modified one.
The narcissist’s (and the codependent’s) introjects and inner voices (assimilated representations of parents, role models and significant peers) are mostly negative and sadistic. Rather than provide succour, motivation and direction, they enhance his underlying ego-dystony (discontent with who he is) and the lability of his sense of self-worth. They induce in the child shame, blame, pain, guilt, rage and a panoply of other negative emotions.
As Lidija Rangelovska notes, the paradox is that the child’s ego-dystonic shame and guilt emanate from the very primitive defenses that later comprise and underlie his False Self. Having been told repeatedly how “bad”, “worthless”, “disappointing” and injurious he is, the child comes to believe in his self-imputed delusional ability to hurt and damage family members, for instance.
Such imaginary capacity is the logical extension of both the child’s grandiosity (omnipotence, “I have the power to hurt mommy”) and his magical thinking (“I think, I wish, I hate, I rage and thereby, with the unlimited power of my mind, I cause real calamities out there, in the real world”). So, it is the child’s natural primary narcissistic defenses that enable him to feel so miserable! These defenses allow him to construct a narrative which corresponds to and justifies the judgemental, hateful appraisals and taunts of his abusers. In his young mind, he accepts that he is bad because he is all-powerful and magical and because he leverages his godlike attributes to act with malice or, at the very least, to bring misfortune on significant others.
To skirt this inner overwhelming negativity, the child “appropriates” precisely these defenses and bundles them into a protective shield, thus sequestering his vulnerable, fragile self. Occupied by the ongoing project of his budding pathological narcissism, the child’s defenses are no longer available to construct and buttress the narratives offered by the abusive voices of his tormentors. Moreover, by owning his fantastic grandiosity and harnessing it, the child feels as empowered as his abusers and no longer a victim.
Introjects possess a crucial role in the formation of an exegetic (interpretative) framework which allows one to decipher the world, construct a model of reality, of one’s place in it and consequently of who one is (self-identity). Overwhelmingly negative introjects-or introjects which are manifestly fake, fallacious and manipulative-hamper the narcissist’s and codependent’s ability to construct a true and efficacious exegetic (interpretative) framework.
Gradually, the disharmony between one’s perception of the universe and of oneself and reality becomes unbearable and engenders pathological, maladaptive and dysfunctional attempts to either deny the hurtful discrepancy away (delusions and fantasies); grandiosely compensate for it by eliciting positive external voices to counter the negative, inner ones (narcissism via the False Self and its narcissistic supply); attack it (antisocial/psychopathy); withdraw from the world altogether (schizoid solution); or disappear by merging and fusing with another person (codependence.)
Once formed and functioning, the False Self stifles the growth of the True Self and paralyses it. Henceforth, the ossified True Self is virtually non-existent and plays no role (active or passive) in the conscious life of the narcissist. It is difficult to “resuscitate” it, even with psychotherapy. The False Self sometimes parades the child-like, vulnerable, needy and innocent True Self in order to capture, manipulate and attract empathic sources of narcissistic supply. When supply is low, the False Self is emaciated and dilapidated. It is unable to contain and repress the True Self which then emerges as a petulant, self-destructive, spoiled and codependent entity. But the True Self’s moments in the sun are very brief and usually, inconsequential.
This substitution is not only a question of despair and alienation, as Kirkegaard and Horney observed, respectively. Following on the footsteps of the Danish proto-existentialist philosopher, Horney said that because the Idealised (=False) Self sets impossible goals to the narcissist, the results are frustration and self hate which grow with every setback or failure. But the constant sadistic judgement, the self-berating, the suicidal ideation emanate from the narcissist’s idealised, sadistic, Superego regardless of the existence or functioning of a False Self.
The False Self is a kind of positive projection: The narcissist’s attributes to it all the positive and desired aspects of himself, thereby endowing it with a quasi-separate existence. The False Self fulfils the role of a divinity in the narcissist’s obsessive-compulsive private religion: The narcissist worships it and adheres to ceremonies and rituals via which he interacts with it. The True Self, on the other hand, is ignored at best and usually denigrated. This process is akin to projective splitting: When parents project onto the golden child positive traits and talents even as they attribute to the scapegoat child negative, undesirable qualities. In this sense, the narcissist a parent with two offspring: His two selves.
There is no conflict between the True Self and the False Self. First, the True Self is much too weak to do battle with the overbearing False. Second, the False Self is adaptive (though maladaptive). It helps the True Self to cope with the world. Without the False Self, the True Self would be subjected to so much hurt that it will disintegrate. This happens to narcissists who go through a life crisis: Their False Ego becomes dysfunctional and they experience a harrowing feeling of annulment.
The False Self has many functions. The two most important are:
1. It 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.
2. The False Self is misrepresented by the narcissist as his True Self. The narcissist is saying, in effect: “I am not who you think I am. I am someone else. 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.
These roles are crucial to survival and to the proper psychological functioning of the narcissist. The False Self is by far more important to the narcissist than his dilapidated, dysfunctional, True Self.