Narcissism and The Borderline Experience
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A look at the experience and consequences of borderline narcissism prefaced by an explanation of the roots of narcissism in both Greek Mythology and Psychoanalysis. I also include a description of the difference between Borderline Personality Disorder and Narcissistic Personality Disorder. The Shadows and Echoes of Self - The False Self Born Out Of The Core Wound Of Abandonment In Borderline Personality Disorder - Ebook by A.J. Mahari © March 2007
Before getting into an explanation of the narcissism that is often a part of the Borderline Experience, a little background about the myth that is the origin of the term, narcissism.
"Narcissus is another example among several of a beautiful young man who spurned sex and died as a result. As such, his myth has much in common with those of Adonis and Hippolytus. In the Roman poet Ovid's retelling of the myth, Narcissus is the son of the river god Cephissus and the nymph Liriope. Tiresias, the seer, told his parents that the child "would live to an old age if it did not look at itself." Many nymphs and girls fell in love with him but he rejected them. One of these nymphs, Echo, was so distraught over this rejection that she withdrew into a lonely spot and faded until all that was left was a plaintive whisper. The goddess Nemesis heard the rejected girls prayers for vengeance and arranged for Narcissus to fall in love with his own reflection. He stayed watching his reflection and let himself die. It is quite possible, however, that the connection between Echo and Narcissus was entirely Ovid's own invention, for there is no earlier witness to it.
"An important and earlier variation of this tale originates in the region in Greek known as Boeotia (to the north and west of Athens). Narcissus lived in the city of Thespiae. A young man, Ameinias, was in love with Narcissus, but he rejected Ameinias' love. He grew tired of Ameinias' affections and sent him a present of a sword. Ameinias killed himself with the sword in front of Narcissus' door and as he died, he called curses upon Narcissus. One day Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection in a spring and, in desperation, killed himself. Both of these stories give an origin to the narcissus flower, which grew where Narcissus died."
(Source of the above quote: Narcissus, by Morgan Upright http://www.pantheon.org/mythica/articles/n/narcissus.html)
Narcissus was punished by Nemisis, who was the Greek Goddess of divine justice and vengeance, for his indifference which is a major and very notable characteristic of narcissism especially found in Narcissistic Personality.
Narcissim, in psychoanalytic terms is an "arrest or regression to the first stage of libidinal development in which the self is an object of erotic pleasure." (Webster's Dictionary: Third College Edition, page 901)
Sigmund Freud was the founder of classical psychoanalysis and as such laid the groundwork for what is now referred to as "Modern Ego Psychology" (Synopisis of Psychiatry - Page 181) Sigmund Freud's daughter, Anna Freud, presented a "systematic and comprehensive study of the defenses employed by the ego in her classic contribution, 'The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense'". (Synopsis of Psychiatry - Page 181)
Anxiety, both real and neurotic arouse a response in us to alert us to potential and actual danger. "In real anxiety, the threat emanates from a known danger outside of the person; neurotic anxiety is precipitated by an unknown or repressed danger. Freud distinguished two kinds of anxiety-provoking situations. In the first, for which the phenomenon of birth is the prototype, anxiety occurs as a result of excessive instinctual stimulation that the organism is unable to bind or handle. In the second, more common situation, which occurs after the defensive system has matured, anxiety arises in anticipation of danger rather than as the result of it, although the affect may be experienced as if the danger has already occurred. In these situations, the anxiety may arise because the person has learned to recognize, at a preconscious or unconscious level, aspects of a situation that were once traumatic. Anxiety serves as a signal to mobilize protective measures that avert the danger and prevent a traumatic situation from taking place. The person may use avoidance mechanisms to escape from a real or imagined [perceived] danger from without, or the ego may use psychological defenses from within to guard against or reduce the quantity of instinctual excitation.". (Synopsis of Psychiatry - Page 185)
For many borderlines anxiety is something that is experienced in the extreme. If one has performance anxiety or anticipatory anxiety or has experienced being flooded with anxiety due to the mixed-messages of those one relied on a child (poor, or lack of bonding) than anxiety or merely the inkling threat of it can lead many borderlines to have an increased and much elaborate set of mal-adaptive or primitive defense mechanisms which must be called upon often. Narcissistic Defenses include; denial; distortion; primitive idealization; projection; projective identification; and splitting. All of the above narcissistic defenses are quite prevalent in the presentation of BPD. Borderlines also rely on many of what Freud termed, immature defenses, as well as neurotic defenses.
What is the Difference Between Narcissistic Personality Disorder and Borderline Personality Disorder?
Firstly, the two can go hand in hand. That is to say that Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) can be a differential diagnosis to Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) or visa versa. The key factors that distinguish NPD from BPD are: (a) most people with NPD have considerably less anxiety than those with BPD; (b) The lives of those with NPD are also less chaotic, overall than are the lives of those diagnosed with BPD; and (c) suicide attempts are also more likely to be associated with those with BPD. ("Synopsis of Psychiatry", page 531)
Secondly, it is entirely possible for many with BPD to have narcissistic tendencies and not also have NPD. This I know based upon my own past experience with BPD and the accompanying narcissistic defenses which I had to unlearn in order to recover from BPD. I was never diagnosed with NPD, yet I did have my share of narcissistic tendencies to work through.
What is the connection between Borderline Personality Disorder and Narcissism?
According Encarta, the definition of "personality disorder" includes, "overwhelming narcissism". Encarta, online learning zone, section: Mental Illness Therefore, among the other traits that are descriptors of what BPD is made up of the presentation of BPD also includes "overwhelming narcissism".
Borderlines exhibit narcissistic traits in an effort to protect themselves against further anxiety or pain. Both (actual) real pain that could be inflicted from the outside as well as past pain that can be re-inflicted on the borderline internally by events outside of him or her which trigger the things that the original and otherwise avoided pain or anxiety is associated with.
Borderline narcissism is an overcompensation for deep-seated feelings of perceived inadequacy and for feelings of being "less than" and "incompetent", as is grandiosity and arrogance which will be the subject of my next article here.
It is that overcompensation, along with denial of their actual feelings that leads borderlines to often be so narcissistically indifferent to those with whom they are otherwise closely in relationship to or with. That sudden pulling away, that sudden coldness and acting as if there is nothing between them and someone else is a function of borderline narcissism and is designed to further the mal-adaptive defensive coping skills of the borderline who is usually trying in any way possible to not be put in touch with his/her real feelings because the anxiety and fear of those feelings remain greater than the need for them. When you are as dissociated from your "real" self, as many borderlines are, there is no real need in the here and now of that chaotic dissociative existence to know how one really feels -- especially when the pain of ever- mounting unmet needs hurts enough all by itself, and must be avoided at all costs.
Borderlines, until they can mature beyond this personality disorder, emotionally, are left, essentially, with the narcissism of a young child. They are left with the misperceived-notion that they are the centre of the universe and that things and people that in their sight exist - while things and people that are beyond the scope of that sight do not exist. Emotionally, borderlines (until they do the work in therapy to correct the damage of their early lives and successfully re-parent themselves) for whatever reasons have not been able to develop beyond more primitive levels of functioning. (Again, I stress emotionally as most borderlines are extremely intelligent intellectually)
This inability to develop, emotionally, is the very essence of BPD and the behaviour of those who have BPD which is largely driven by the control and illusion of needing to protect oneself at all costs. It is this need to protect that can keep borderlines alienated from their need to learn. If you put the need to protect ahead of the need to learn, sadly, you will continue to feel an ever-increasing sense of needing to protect which will constantly deny you chances to learn what you need to learn in order to break free from the narcissistic protections attempts you make in the first place.
The borderline experience of narcissism is very much a knee-jerk and protective one. Borderline narcissism pays homage to the personification of a the deeply-seated false-self that the borderline frantically seeks to instantly satisfy and gratify, that is not only an inauthentic self but is more accurately the absence of a true-understanding of a real, authentic self in the here and now.
It is the void of self, unknown, that the borderline narcissistically projects out onto others. (Projection is one example of a narcissistic defense mechanism) Essentially then, the borderline's world is the absence of self projected onto others with the desperate hope that what "other" mirrors back or gives back will somehow eclipse that agonizingly-empty void of a lack of self on the part of the borderline. Thus, when the borderline acts as if they are the centre of the universe and absolutely everything is about them what they are really doing is giving that power to know themselves over to others, suffering the inherent consequences of unmet expectations in so doing and then frantically exploding in a last-ditch attempt to elicit from you what they so badly need to learn do give to themselves. Borderline narcissism is the cause of many unmet needs and many over-blown and unrealistic expectations of others. It is also born and re-played out of that central conflict of not having successfully bonded or attached to a parent of care-giver, which for many borderlines is the original abandonment wound. It is the wound that has driven your defenses. To recover you must undo those defenses one by one starting with breaking through the narcissistic belief or illusion (on an emotional level) that you are the centre of the universe or that you are somehow entitled because you need. We all have needs. Needs must be met from within first. To do anything else in the seeking of fulfilling one's own needs is to set oneself up for failure and a continued pattern of getting hurt and re-damaged over and over as unmet need after unmet needs piles on top of one another. Your "real" self is buried under all of those unmet needs. If you can't reverse the pile right now, how about working to not add to that stock-pile any more?
The borderline experience of narcissism is the modern-true-to-life version of Narcissus staring in the pool of water at his own beautiful reflection so lovingly to the exclusion of all the women who wanted to love him. Borderlines are staring into a pool of people who seem to know who they are and they are desperately trying to have that mirror of someone else's "self" reflect back a discernible and meaningful sense of (acceptable) self to them. Narcissus stared into a pool of water in Greek Mythology, borderlines, in absolute angst-filled reality are staring as much away from the void of the absence of self as they are staring at the proverbial mirror representative of that pool of water. The major difference is that borderlines long to feel anything but lost, despised and their own self-hatred. Borderlines are merely the lost images that are in transit from one reflection to another. They often feel as though they are in a world of ugliness and that the love that Narcissus spurned is not even something to which they can hope to aspire to truly understand. On another level though, the love that Narcissus spurned (others) is the love that borderlines spurn from themselves - the love of a known and understood, consistent sense of self.
Before a borderline can break through this narcissism he/she must be willing to face not only his/her fears and woundedness (pain) but also the very real fact that he/she cannot find and be his/her real/authentic self without learning to live with the vulnerability that it means to be who one actually is. Learning to be vulnerable and learning how to protect oneself through the mature defenses that include boundaries, limits, and self-assertion is the only way to undo the narcissistic tendencies that living outside of your authentic self creates.
The experience of borderline narcissism is one of defense mechanisms run amuck in an illogically-overwhelming yet unceasingly-painful illusion of what can feel like an unconquerable loss of self. Many borderlines do not ever realize the extent to which they present narcissistic traits. Of the many distancing behaviours of borderlines narcissism is perhaps the most distancing, right up there with grandiosity and arrogance.
Hand in hand with borderline narcissism often goes borderline grandiosity and an unrelenting arrogance. In my next article I will talk about the role of grandiosity and arrogance in BPD and why they must be set aside in order to heal.
© Ms. A.J. Mahari - July 9, 2000
A.J. Mahari is currently writing a memoir about her life and experience as a person who had two parents with Borderline Personality Disorder, as a person who was diagnosed herself with BPD at the age of 19 and from her perspective as someone who has recovered from BPD. There is a new section on her BPD Blog called The Diary - My Borderline Years where A.J. Mahari shares snipets of experience from her own life that will give you just a small peak into what her memoir will include.
Audio Program "Preparing For Recovery From BPD" Parts 1 & 2 by A.J. Mahari
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