The false self and narcissistic defenses - a compassionate review

To begin...

quote marks

narcissistic disorders [are] the true self’s ‘solitary confinement’ within the prison of the false self. This I see as less of an illness than as a a tragedy [...] (Miller, 1996, p. xvi)

In agreement with the spirit of that perspective, this article will not refer to a person as "a narcissist," as labeling a human being is often the first step in dehumanizing a person. Instead, a case will be made that behavior consistent with narcissism is a defense against great psychological pain and that it is both unconscious and involuntary. That it is a regression to wounds suffered near the time of infancy, the most vulnerable time of our lives.

This is not meant to minimize or trivialize the injuries that those with narcissistic defenses can cause. Those emotional injuries can be serious and long lasting.

Rather, the goal of this article is to illuminate the injuries that lead to the creation of narcissistic defenses. Hopefully, when armed with this information and insight, it will become possible to view narcissistic defenses through a more compassionate lens.

Another article on narcissism - why?

The vast majority of articles on the subject break down the population into "us" those unfortunate enough to have to interact with "them" and "them" (those who use narcissistic defenses). This article takes the position that narcissism is a spectrum and that, to some degree, it is in virtually everyone. In other words, it’s all "us."

Further, this article delves into a less well known type of narcissistic defenses (called by others as ‘vulnerable narcissism’ or by the more unfortunate name ‘covert narcissism’). This type of psychological defense will be referred to as "emotionally overwhelmed narcissistic defenses." It is when a person becomes so overwhelmed with their own emotion, pain and suffering that they are unable to acknowledge or respond to the needs/emotions of another.

A definition

Narcissistic defenses prioritize the needs of the self while minimizing or ignoring the needs of others. It is usually, though not always, accompanied by an imagined superiority whose purpose is to protect against the destructive effects of an imagined inferiority.

An overview of the types

Emotionally numbed narcissistic defenses are evident by:

  •  Verbal criticism of others and significant use of judgment when thinking of others
  •  Emotional distance and numbing
  •  Superficial confidence (and sense of superiority) that masks feelings of being "not good enough"
  •  Dismissive or unaware of the emotions of others
  •  Painful sensitivity to social rejection
  •  Preoccupation with outward appearances and social status
  •  The subtle (or obvious) use of guilt, money, power, flattery, etc. for the purpose of control in relationships
  •  A sense of entitlement (without the need for reciprocity)

Emotionally numbed narcissistic defenses are evident by the heavy use of invalidation and reliance on conditional self esteem.

All people who had to develop a false self suffer from self esteem issues. It is an inevitable consequence of having one's true self ignored or rejected. In the case of the emotionally numbed, that lack of self esteem will manifest in subtle or frequent references to traits that suggest they are "special" or superior (this goes beyond the ordinary pleasure of sharing a point of pride). Frequently, these traits are related to appearance, money, success, power and even the ability not to show emotion.

The ability to not feel emotion is a societally esteemed trait, especially for men. It is a common attribute of "heros" in the movies and no negatives or downsides are portrayed. However, just ask anyone who does couples counseling and they will tell you that one of the top issues is the inability of one partner to express emotion. A common fear is that if someone starts feeling emotion, they will be emotional all the time ("I don't want start crying all the time"). This is a myth. Becoming aware and being able to express emotion does not mean unregulated emotion. Someone can feel all their emotions and still regulate them when they want to or need to.

With that said, perhaps you can see the irony in taking pride in the ability to repress or not feel emotion. It is the equivalent of taking pride in a bleeding wound. It's not an asset - it is evidence of prior injury.

As we shall see later in the article, narcissistic defenses are the result of different types of emotional invalidation (e.g., role reversal, neglect, abuse, etc) in early childhood. So, this is not a behavior that is invented internally. It is a behavior that a person has experienced and is now visiting upon others.

Emotionally overwhelmed narcissistic defenses are evident by:

  •  Difficulty managing emotions (usually sadness or anger)
  •  A major preoccupation with self care (that minimizes or ignores the needs of others)
  •  Susceptible to self esteem collapse (superiority is not available as a defense)
  •  Significant self doubting (decision making, skills, etc)

Emotionally overwhelmed narcissistic defenses are characterized by ignoring the needs and feelings of another person in one of two ways. The first is an intense display of emotion that results in a shift of focus to the self. The second is emotional shutdown (silence, stonewalling). To reiterate, these are involuntary (likely subconscious) responses.

Some important notes for the emotionally overwhelmed narcissistic defenses:

  •  Applies when used as a technique to ignore/block honest emotional sharing by another.
  •  Does not apply to situations where it is a temporary coping technique and the feelings of the other person are addressed later.
  •  Does not apply if it is a reaction to any type of emotional abuse (yelling, name calling or emotional invalidation)

Here are some verbal examples of emotionally overwhelmed narcissistic defenses:

What is said or behavior What is implied or suggested
"I'm hurt" let's focus on my feelings (what you feel gets ignored)
"I’m such a bad person" attend to my self esteem collapse and overwhelming shame
"I always hurt you" attend to my guilt, not your feelings
prosecutorial questioning ("what are you saying!?") angrily badger into coerced agreement

Here are some non-verbal examples of emotionally overwhelmed narcissistic defenses:

Behavior What is implied or suggested
anger, becoming loud stop expressing yourself or face a fight
collapsing ("I can’t do this") come fix it for me
acting injured stop expressing yourself or face guilt
dramatic emotional display let’s all focus on me and my feelings
non-stop talking no room for your needs/feelings
active ignoring I won’t acknowledge you
physical withdrawal stop expressing yourself or face neglect

Since narcissistic defenses are a preoccupation with the self, it follows that the emotional needs of others are overshadowed. This makes sense, because, as we will see, the very early, critical emotional needs of the person with narcissistic defenses were not met. As is often the case, it is hard to give another what you have never received yourself.

How do people develop narcissistic defenses?

That is a question extending back to the late 19th century by analysts who spent large portions of their careers trying to understand it (Freud, Kernberg, Kohut, Winnicott). It is generally agreed that these defenses develop very young "According to Kernberg, such pathology is [...] due to severe, early deprivation, usually before age 2" (Tonkin M, Fine H, 1985, p 233).

*** A note to those who doubt the powerful influence of early childhood.

In my practice, I have encountered many people who express skepticism about the damaging effects of negative early childhood experiences. If you are skeptical, have a look at this 6 minute video produced by Harvard University. Alternatively, to see dramatic brain scan data that occurs from neglect, read this article from the Child Trauma Academy.


Creation of self definition

A baby sees no difference between itself and the world. Mother is something that just appears and ideally, brings food, warmth and comfort. But mother also begins the process of forming consensual reality. By mirroring back a reaction to the child (who is still is unaware of itself as a separate being), she is creating a mental image or impression of the self to the infant. Put differently, the infant has no "self definition." That will largely be created by mother.

Part of self definition is being "good" or "bad." Any living being must differentiate between what is beneficial (food, warmth,etc.) or harmful (freezing cold, burning heat, violence,etc). This mental categorization extends to the self. When treated well, an infant forms a self definition of "good." When abused or neglected, the infant cannot afford the luxury of seeing the mother as "bad." Since the infant is dependent on the mother for it’s very survival, the only person that can be considered "bad" is the infant itself.

This is the beginning of self esteem issues and shame (feeling that the core self is "bad"). In extreme cases of neglect and abuse, toxic shame is created in a processes summed up here:

quote marks

The expectation of being seen and understood as a feeling and thinking person, which is created by the attachment context, clashes violently with the brutalised person's objectification and dehumanisation. Shame is a higher order derivative of this basic affect of pain. Unbearable shame is generated through the incongruity of having one's humanity negated, exactly when one is legitimately expecting to be cherished. (Fonagy et al, 2002, p. 426)

Example scenarios

  •  In an ideal situation, the mother attunes to the infant emotions and needs and reacts appropriately.

    Mental impression – I can have needs and feelings and they will elicit a positive response, resulting in my needs being met. Mother will help me manage my emotions.

  •  In a less than ideal situation, the baby cries, the mother (who has untreated depression) cries harder. The baby quickly realizes that it’s emotions have a negative effect on the provider of all good things, so the baby stops crying

    Mental impression – I have to be careful not to upset mother and help her manage her emotions. The parent-child role is becoming inverted and the infant is learning to disassociate (or not feel) emotion. Also, the infant might feel the poor boundaries of the mother and consequently, can begin to develop an aversion to the needs of others.

  •  In another less than ideal situation, the baby cries and gets little or no response, or even an abusive response, a risk more prevalent when the mother suffers from substance abuse, depression or OCD (Chaffin, Kelleher, Hollenberg, 1996). The baby goes through a succession of reactions from protest (crying, screaming, flailing) to despair (stopping protest, falling silent) to detachment (Bowlby, 1979). For the purposes of understanding emotionally numbed narcissistic defenses, despair and detachment are very significant.

    Mental impression - My needs and emotions will be ignored or punished. I can’t count on others. I am alone.

When infancy goes well ...

The infants self definition is of I (the self) and the infant begins to gain an innate sense of itself as separate. This would be referred to as the "true self." A coherent, separate identity forms and the idea can grow that "it is me for which that I have come."***

When infancy goes wrong ...

The negative effects of role reversal, neglect or abuse are numerous.

The first effect is emotional numbing, beautifully summed up by Alice Miller:

quote marks

For a child can only experience his feelings when there is somebody there who accepts him fully, understands and supports him. If that is missing, if the child must risk losing the mother's love […] then he cannot experience these feelings secretly "just for himself" but fails to experience them at all (Miller, 1996, p.10)

Another is having dependency rage. This is anger that results from having dependency needs that cannot be independently met and are denied by a caretaker who could meet those needs. Dependency rage is one reason why a person with narcissistic defenses can be resistant to some adult responsibilites, preferring to get others to "fix" or handle those responsibilities. It may also manifest in relationship, where a partner is tasked/expected to be like a mother or father figure (instead of a peer to peer, adult relationship of interdependency).

In these less than ideal situations, the child learns that it’s true self and it’s spontaneous expression of emotion are not welcome. A clear self definition does not get created. Instead, the authentic, spontaneous self gets displaced in order to make room for the needs of others. This becomes the basis for the mask of the false self. The conclusion often becomes "I am here to meet the needs and expectations of others (in this case, mother)."

In the case of the emotionally numbed narcissistic defenses, the sense of entitlement and feelings of superiority can provide a buffer against the negative effects of this role reversal. For the emotionally overwhelmed narcissistic defenses, the result is a slightly or severely impaired ability to set boundaries. In either case, the child develops a vulnerability to manipulation via guilt, money, flattery, power, etc.

And in the most harmful scenario, it leads to disassociation.

quote marks

Indeed, for many of the maltreated children we work with, crying for "help" from a potential trauma is doomed to fail— often the parent causes the trauma. In the absence of an appropriate caretaker response to their initial alarm outcry, the child, eventually after many painful disappointments, will abandon this behavior (a defeat or surrender response). In the face of persisting threat and, depending upon the age of the child and the nature of the threat, the child will move [...] into the dissociative continuum (Perry B, et al, 1995, p. 279)


The child now realizes that mother is separate and has some notions about wanting to be in control of the supplier of all good things. A power struggle ensues. If mother holds appropriate boundaries in a reasonably consistent manner, the mental impression is "I must conform to external limits."

If, on the other hand, the child successfully employs tantrums or other disruptive techniques to get mother to yield to his/her will, an altogether different impression will be created. The child learns "limits don’t apply to me" and "others can be bent to my will." This is critical in the formation of the emotionally overwhelmed narcissistic defenses, as the unregulated display of emotion is both reinforced and rewarded.

Later development

Children exposed to role reversal, neglect or abuse can have their injuries compounded later in childhood.

Narcissistic defenses can broaden to include feelings of superiority when the consensual reality within a family is that the family is superior. This notion is often non-verbally communicated though it may include verbal assertions of superiority. One client reports that his mother often used the term "far superior" when comparing family members with people outside the family. Alexander Lowen writes:

quote marks

A boy doesn't think himself a prince through any failure of normal development. If he believes himself so be a prince, it is because he was raised in that belief. How children see themselves often reflects how their parents saw and treated them. (Lowen A, 1985, p. 21)

Families that use narcissistic defenses will pick one (or more) children to assume the role of hero (a child charged with bringing pride to the family). This child will usually develop the emotionally numbed narcissistic defenses. Another role assigned in narcissistic defensive families is scapegoat (a child charged with reinforcing superiority of family members by being assigned an inferior role). This child is often targeted with criticism, devaluation (and sometimes violence) and will often develop emotionally overwhelmed narcissistic defensives.

Why are narcissistic defenses are so hard to acknowledge?

People are generally averse to being critical of their parents and for good reason. Parenting is a demanding job that involves a lot of sacrifice and it is a position that deserves respect. However, to recover from narcissistic defenses means being able to tolerate a critical examination of negative early childhood experiences.

But it gets more complex, as the reinforcement of the narcissistic defenses often continues into adulthood. A parent with narcissistic defenses will usually create a child with narcissistic defenses and as quoted earlier, imbue that child with notions of superiority. This is what is called "narcissistic supply" and makes the adult child vulnerable to continued influence and even control by that parent. While the dynamics of family narcissistic defenses are multi-dimensional, this diagram details the relationship with the parent with narcissistic defenses:

Will those with narcissistic defenses get counseling?

Those with emotionally overwhelmed narcissistic defenses will often seek out counseling to cope with the emotional pain of their past.

Those with the emotionally numbed narcissistic defenses however, don't feel the majority of their own emotions and are bouyed by feelings of superiority. Their self perception is that of being priviledged, fortunate or lucky. The tragic loss that began in infancy is discounted or denied. The attachment relationship (diagrammed above) prevents any meaningful critical examination of their early childhood. If any dysfunction is identified, it will be minimized, explained away or otherwise invalidated.

Counseling is usually sought when the inevitable relationship problems arise and at that point, the motivation is to examine the issues of their partner. Those with emotionally numbed narcissistic defenses are confident in their relative or complete innocence and unable to see how their behavior is harming their partner. Their partners will often develop depression and anger management issues as the accumulated frustration of coping with the lack of emotional intimacy/expression/empathy and the invalidation become unmanageable. Ironically, those with emotionally numbed narcissistic defenses come to counseling seeking to help their partner with the very anger and depression issues that their behavior has aggravated or even created.

In sum, the original harmful relationship is rarely, if ever, questioned by people with emotionally numbed narcissistic defenses. Sometimes, a story is the best explanation.

Unacknowledged injuries

Three friends decide to join the military and are sent to war together. On a routine patrol, a roadside bomb detonates right next to their vehicle. All three suffer severe leg injuries and none could walk after the explosion.

A year goes by and two of the friends are ably walking, although they still suffer some pain from their wounds. These two friends meet one day and talk sadly about their other friend, knowing that he has not fared as well. As it happens, they both get an invitation to his birthday and decide to go together.

At the party, they try to demonstrate to him how rehabilitation has helped them. From his wheelchair, he laughs at them and says "I don’t see why you guys went through so much suffering. Look at me, I haven’t suffered a bit. I know that the past is the past, and I just don’t think about it. Maybe you should try the same." They looked down at his wheelchair and then at each other, with amazement and even confusion. It was clear that their friend wasn’t hearing anything they said. The night ended and as they they backed out of his driveway, they waved goodbye. At the door, they could see his parents, smiling and waving back, both in their wheelchairs.


  • Bowlby, J (1979). The Making and Breaking of Affectional Bonds. New York: Rutledge
  • Chaffin, M., Kelleher, K. and Hollenberg, J. (1996), 'Onset of physical abuse and neglect: psychiatric, substance abuse, and social risk factors from prospective community data', Child Abuse and Neglect, vol.20, no.3, pp.191 - 203.
  • Fonagy, P. György, G., Elliot, J. & Target, M. (2002). Affect Regulation, Mentalization, and the development of the Self. Other Press. New York.
  • Lowen, A (1985). Narcissism: Denial of the True Self. New York: Touchstone.
  • Miller, A (1996). The Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for the True Self. New York: Basic Books.
  • Perry, B., Pollard, R. A., Blakley, T. L., Baker, W. L., & Vigilante, D. (1995). Childhood trauma, the neurobiological adaptation, and "use-dependent" development of the brain: How "states" become "traits". Infant Mental Health Journal, 16(4), 271–291.
  • Tonkin M, Fine H (1985). Narcissism and Borderline States: Kernberg, Kohut, and Psychotherapy. Psychoanalytic Psychology 2(3) pp. 221-239.

*** derived from Gerard Manley Hopkins poem "As Kingfishers Catch Fire, Dragonflies Draw Flame"