Narcissism & Narcissists seems to be a popular search subject for people that come to visit my blog. I’ve not written much about it recently, mainly because I no longer hold with the concept of a defined category of Narcissism. In fact I no longer hold with the concept of a defined category of anything within the field of behaviours associated with mental illness. I believe we develop categories to simplify complexity to aid understanding, but in doing so we fall in to our own trap of insecurities because when these categories are questioned, or seem to want to break out of the boxes we put them in, we respond with primitive fears because what we thought we understood simply and did not need to fear, suddenly threatens to fall in to an area outside our understanding, where we don’t know whether we need to fear it or not, and that creates a fear within itself. The feeling that we don’t understand something provoked feelings of not being in control and the feeling of not being in control provokes feelings of a lack of safety (So controlling people try to control others to compensate for feelings of not being safe).

I would argue that our habit of creating labels and categories in order to aid our sense of control over our world is promoted by an innate insecurity that blinkers us and limits our ability to develop a true understanding of ourselves.

It’s important not to focus too much on which unconscious fears motivate narcissism. It is more important to understand that it is a general oversensitivity to danger and threat due to an enlarged amygdala and a weakened regulating system that is the underlying cause for narcissistic behaviour. The specific fears could follow a pattern that reflects an early traumatic experience or they could be imagined or magnified fears brought on by a state of hypersensitivity to explain, or put form to , or justify, indistinct and formless feelings of dread and the behaviours that stem from that feeling. If it is the former, and a traumatic experience set up that fear, then it is of utmost importance to be and remain conscious of that fear in order to be able to effectively regulate it because the non-conscious regulation has not formed properly. Consciousness of the fears that trigger destructive behaviour dissolve the destructive impulses, but consciousness of the mechanisms involved is also very important.

Moderate narcissism is both normal and healthy, but it becomes destructive when over stimulated. When a raised state of stress due to a nagging, but perhaps non-specific perception of threat, stimulates destructive patterns of behaviour, it is important to understand the mechanisms involved. A sequence of events is set in motion;

  1. Arousal or hyperarousal ( a sudden or prolonged state of stress) stimulates the release of adrenaline and cortisol from the Adrenal Gland. Adrenaline provides energy to respond to the stressor and cortisol focuses that energy towards the amygdala by signalling other areas to shut down to save energy. Our susceptibility to arousal varies from individual to individual.
  2. Stress weakens the blood brain barrier and cortisol in the blood can pass in to the brain. Research in the effects of cortisol on the brain has shown that it destroys brain cells and inhibits dopamine and serotonin (the feel good chemicals!!)
  3. The body and limbic system react to stress prior to cognitive awareness of a source of stress.
  4. The “cognitive brain” seeks out a cause for the stress.
  5. Research has shown that cortisol can have the effect of turning off or turning down the higher thought functions (the cognitive brain) by reducing supply of energy and neurotransmitters and interfering with receptors in the PFC (prefrontal cortex)
  6. Energy and resources are redirected towards the lower brain (limbic system) to enable a quick and efficient response to the threat or danger that has caused stress.
  7. The “primitive brain” takes charge and reacts by motivating us to tackle the threat or danger by applying the 2 programmed responses to danger; fight, or flight.
  8. The danger is effectively dealt with and the system begins work to return to normal.
  9. Research is showing that the chemical “oxytocin” plays a role in inhibiting the release of cortisol, but that conversely, cortisol inhibits the release of oxytocin.

Neuropsychology is now beginning to paint a picture of a connection between dysregulation of theses mechanisms (i.e. the above mechanisms not functioning correctly) and the symptoms of virtually all mental health issues. In other words; The symptoms of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, Schizophrenia, various Attachment Disorders, and so on, and even some of the symptoms of Autism, are directly related to the above mechanisms, the responses to stress, not functioning correctly. The intercommunications of the brain between the primitive limbic system and the prefrontal cortex are impaired and not functioning optimally and the destructive symptoms of the above “disorders” are due to an unstable stress response that either is inappropriately triggered, or/and unable to effectively turn itself off.

  1. If the stress response is inappropriately triggered, the brain will try and make sense of what the body is telling it, it is feeling, and the brain will look to deal with the stress by first associating the stress to a given cause. It will do this in one of 2 ways. It will either magnify small stressful experiences way out of proportion causing hypersensitivity to small stressful experiences and seeing them as major sources of threat, or it will totally imagine a threat and respond to the imagined threat as if real.
  2. If the stress response is unable to effectively be turned off, then a state of permanent bodily stress is the result (hyperarousal), this results in a constant vigilance for threatening signals (hypervigilance) and a seeking out  and overreaction, once again, to small stressors.

Many of the “disorders” above share a common symptom; high incidents of relational conflicts. This has been connected to an either a single intensely stressful event, or a sequence of stressful events in early life interfering with the optimal development of human behaviour regulators throwing the regulatory system in to state of instability. John Bowlby was one of the pioneers in the study of how early life traumatic events involving the primary caregiver (in most cases the mother) reflected upon later behaviour associated with perceiving emotional attachments and relations as a source of threat if they are allowed to get close. His work was later carried on by Allan N Shore. Thus behaviour associated with Attachment Disorders, destructive Borderline behaviour, Bipolar behaviour, Dissociative Disorders and to a lesser extent, destructive Narcissistic behaviour, follow a pattern of seeking out emotional comfort and closeness and then destroying that comfort and closeness because unconsciously it is perceived as a threat to survival. This is because deep in their unconscious mind they have a buried emotional memory of nearly being destroyed by the first and most important person in their life that they were emotionally close to, whether through abuse, neglect or abandonment. It was this first trauma that set up the instability in the regulatory system of the brain in response to stress so you have a twofold effect;

  1. An early, non conscious memory of trauma associated with emotional intimacy. So an unconscious fear of emotional intimacy that is triggered by emotional closeness.
  2. A heightened sensitivity to perceived danger and threat. So small stressors in later relationships trigger the above fear, leading to conflicts or running away (fight or flight).

Essentially, being emotionally close to someone is unconsciously perceived as a threat to survival and the destructive symptoms associated with the above are motivated by an unconscious impulse to respond to that threat to survival.