The Nature of Narcissism with Sam Vaknin, PhD

Narcissus by Caravaggio depicts Narcissus gazing at his own reflection (public domain)By Glen Fahs

At the November 2018 Resiliency Summit held in São Paolo, Brazil, Sam Vaknin, PhD, presented on the nature of narcissism and what works and doesn't work in dealing with narcissists.

Sam has studied 1500 narcissists over 23 years and is one himself. His work has generated 50 references in Psychology Today, yet he still feels clunky in dealing with people. He views the inner world as hard to access, especially in others, since we rely on fuzzy communication and unreliable perceptions. 

For the narcissist, being seen is necessary to feel alive; being ignored is like death — or worse, an empty existence. Narcissists need validation or feel annihilated. 

Freud first drew attention to narcissism in 1915, as did Kohl later in the century, by viewing it as a kind of personality, one that indicates defensiveness and regression. Sam views narcissism as an intractable form of post-traumatic pathology that can only be influenced superficially. Therapists who claim they can change the narcissist are scamming. We know how to treat PTSD and other forms of trauma, but only child therapy techniques make progress with narcissists since they are similar to dysfunctional children: very self-centered and lacking empathy.


Most abuse of children doesn't involve verbal or sexual violations as much as spoiling the child or using them to fulfill parental needs such as when "stage mothers" push their child to dress older than they are, win awards and become famous. They idolize the child so much the child feels like an object whose worthiness to be loved is dependent on external success.

Narcissism is a kind of arrested development fashioned as a defense that doesn't allow healthy attachments. Narcissists are full of pain linked to their perception of imminent death or abandonment. 


Narcissists live in the present without long-term commitments. They are quick to desert their partners when they don't get what they need. They succeed through self-promotion. The cultural shift from community gatherings to drive-in theaters to smaller and smaller screens separate us from others, and self-promotion is a way to connect with followers.  Both narcissists and their followers are related to the 31% increase in teen suicides1

Due to their "conduct disorder," Narcissists usually become psychopaths-the type of person who loves to pull the wings off butterflies. Psychopaths leave their targets alone once they get what they want (think of "The Cookie Monster") while malignant narcissists manipulate in a more consuming way, slowly undermining the confidence and independence of their victims. In contrast, those exhibiting borderline syndrome are overwhelmed by fight-flight emotions and feel guilty when realizing the damage they have done.

Narcissists intuit that acting like a child prevents criticism since we are much more reluctant to hurt children.

Narcissism and co-dependence are two sides of the same coin. Clinging drama queens (usually women) are also addicted to attention and adulation and have physical withdrawal symptoms when the feeding process is cut off.


Piaget studied narcissism as object impermanence, normal in six to nine month-olds. Babies cry when mother leaves the room since they can't imagine her and expect her to be visible.  Similarly, narcissists don't really interact with people except as if they're photographs. They value this sort of interaction since photos never change or disappear, and can supply a constant source of energy. Narcissists have no emotional intelligence, in depth perception of others, nor emotional empathy.

Empathy has three levels:

  1. Reflexive - as when a baby returns a parent's smile.
  2. Cognitive - figuring out what works, such as sending flowers.
  3. Emotional - viewing others in a caring way, feeling similarly when something significant affects them.

The narcissist can only function on the first two levels. Narcissists can employ empathetic behaviors but don't feel them.

Narcissists inner landscapes are like a storm while the outer landscape seems a mirage. In contrast to resilient people, they have an external locus of control and avoid taking responsibility. They feel helplessly adrift with an inferiority complex that may be covered by bragging or the drive to appear as someone else.

They abuse and control with no sense of guilt, but instead with the fundamental concern that they reduce their own anxiety. (Note clergy members who abuse children or financially manipulate their followers.) Typically narcissists have dissociative identity with a true self and one or more false selves. Thus, under the worst conditions, they may form multiple personalities. If one is a frustrated personality, it may lead to aggression.

Some tendencies of narcissists: they cheat more in college and gravitate toward professions such as police, clergy and teaching. Teachers are 82% more likely to be narcissists. On a scale 1-5, 85% rate themselves at the top professionally. Ns attract spouses who enjoy catering to them since they see narcissists as strong and admirable.  CEOs are 35 times more likely to be diagnosed as psychopaths than the average person. Presidents of the USA are 250 times more likely to adopt a narcissistic style. Narcissists attract followers who are easy to manipulate.

Since in the information age image may replace a results orientation, there exists a social and cultural confluence of factors that now breeds narcissism and narcissist followers.

The narcissist's inner world is very hard to access except through fuzzy language that may constantly shift. While they can't risk vulnerability, they may see themselves as God, albeit, the cruel god of the Old Testament. They lack the ability to connect in a human way even with a spouse. They feel judged and hated for the tiniest of transgressions and do the same in reverse. They blame others for their problems.


All narcissists remain children in a form of arrested development. They can't have healthy attachments due to their fear of abandonment. Any claims by a therapist that a narcissist can be cured by traditional methods are false and probably involve ignorance or phony claims. Sam and his partners claim to have cured 40 narcissists to date using a treatment known as Cold Therapy. At its basic form it is a linguistic analysis of the source of the narcissism and strong, unpleasant confrontations in order to change language and perception. It is a form of isolation of the narcissist's defenses against social pain and then rebuilding the personality that is very difficult and expensive to arrange.

Big Picture Perspective

We are all refugees from the most lethal age of human history (the 1930s and 1940s) and we are again on a downward trajectory. Distrust of immigrants and minorities, nationalism and violent references are indicative of attitudes conducive to war.

Designer babies and AI (artificial intelligence) are coming. Just as injured veterans are filled with up to 50% of metal, we replace what is defective and that will include parts of the brain. How those patterns will increase or decrease narcissism is unclear.

Sam is optimistic that Americans will continue to displace elites in government (Trump being the exception), corporations and communities. He sees sharing of power as an evolutionary force that will overcome manipulation and control. Wide access to information and democratic forces will allow the masses to exert power and keep narcissists from ruling with iron hands.

Mistakes of Narcissists and Their Victims

  • They don't see themselves as responsible for abuse or being abused.
  • Their partners have "malignant optimism," the illusion that loving the person is a cure all.
  • Their victims apologize to and for them.
  • Victims view abusers as "top notch."
  • "Doomed" victims lose hope, rather than realizing after a grieving process, they will emerge and likely become obsessed with learning about narcissism.

Why Narcissists Succeed

Having some narcissistic traits is actually efficient and functional, especially in modern society. In the past, the bulk of workers were in farming and manufacturing where they were judged on hard work, reliability and results. Narcissists are more like entertainers who feed off their audiences. The emotional reactions they generate are barriers to assessing facts and tracking results.

Narcissists are not sadists. They don't plan to hurt and commonly don't know they hurt someone. Sam shared the Mafioso hit man's reassurance: "Usually I kill someone for $30,000, but you are my friend, so I'll kill you for free."

Another implied view of the narcissist: "If I want your opinion, I'll give it to you." Or even better, "I'll give you the answer, and you provide the question."

Followers are impressed with the strength and self-confidence of the narcissists. Sam noted: "If you go into the jungle, you want a leader such as a Sylvester Stallone or a World Wrestling character."  Sam called such followers "inverted narcissists" who use the narcissist to exert more influence. 

It is common for many of us to have been a narcissist as a teen when competition and social pressure are intense. Adolescents emerge from the selfish "Mean Girl" culture when they have constructive role models and eventually escape manipulative parents. They find more benefits by being empathetic and group-oriented.

Types of narcissists include:

  1. Grandiose who play to the crowd.
  2. Histrionic who use drama and/or sexual enticements.
  3. Malignant who see no boundaries such as attacking criticism, guilt trips, and emotional blackmail.

Strategies - When a Narcissist is Doing Damage to Your Life: 

  • Create a support network (as thousands have) to realize: 
    1. "you were part of the problem" and
    2. playing the victim is counter-productive.
  • Fight back, not by just achieving and moving on, but by attacking the infection.
  • Commit to ensure "No one will abuse me again."
  • Realize to forgive is not to forget; to remind oneself is not to re-experience.
  • Avoid the biggest mistake: staying friends with the abusive narcissist.
  • Diagnose the source of the trauma by analyzing language. Put the narcissist in an isolated situation where trained therapists meanly punish use of such language.

Sadly, the most common pattern is denial and tuning out or forgetting.

A key to protecting oneself from a narcissist is knowing what to expect because one is most disturbed by the unanticipated shocks. Avoid terms such as "evil" since they disguise the mix of strengths and weaknesses of the person.


Narcissists are incapable of creating caring and moral relationships. They are in desperate need to address their fears and pain and so use others as tools in their never-ending quest for security. In dealing with narcissists, it is critical to have realistic expectations of their patterns and to minimize the destructive effects of their abuse. Instead of letting them victimize others and misuse their power, we need to protect ourselves and others. It is a very difficult process since narcissists are experts at gaining power.



Glen Fahs, PhD, has been a coach and leader for decades in the fields of training, resiliency, continuing education, change and transition. He has high-level training experience in government, nonprofit and the private sector and has taught for 12 colleges and universities. He has served on several boards, including currently on the Al Siebert Resiliency Center board. If you would like a resiliency coach, speaker or trainer, call Glen at 971-570-0159. To become certified for resiliency work, please see the guidelines on the Al Siebert Resiliency Center website: © Al Siebert Resiliency Center
PO Box 505
Portland, Oregon 97207 USA

Contact Us