Was There a Need to Revisit Narcissism? An In-Depth Look At Where Sam Vaknin is Leading NPD
By Tony C. Brown
"Malignant Self Love - Narcissism Revisited," by Sam Vaknin was first published in 1997 and is now in its fourth impression. The author is a self-diagnosed "Narcissist" who reached this conclusion while incarcerated in an Israeli prison. Mr. Vaknin describes a process of examining how he came to be in prison, with his marriage over and his finances in shocking condition. It is my understanding that since this book first came into print that he has also come to describe himself as misanthrope and schizoid. Mr. Vaknin has stated that he has never attempted to work through his issues in a formal therapy, rather he believes that his writing to be his therapy. It is my understanding that since this book first came into print that he has also come to describe himself as schizoid and misanthrope.
I voluntarily entered therapy in March of 1996 and was eventually diagnosed by a licensed clinical psychologist as suffering from Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). Recently I was asked by a cross section of people diagnosed with NPD, friends and family of those so diagnosed, and those effected by possible narcissistic behavior to read Sam Vaknin's book and discuss whether I believe his views offer a realistic view of this disorder.
My first objective was to develop a better understanding of Sam. A check of the Curriculum Vitae published on Mr. Vaknin's web site as of August 11 brought forward several concerns. First, there is no listing for where Mr. Vaknin obtained his Bachelor Master's degree. Next, there is a disturbing aspect of Ph.D. that Mr. Vaknin claims from Pacific Western University. A check of the Pacific Western web site revealed, "The University is oriented to those individuals not seeking licenses or credentials requiring accredited degrees. Our programs are not designed to meet any established requirements by private or professional associations. If a license or a credential is desired, a check should be made of state, federal, association, and credential requirements before applying. Pacific Western University has not sought membership in any independent accrediting association." I am of the firm belief that for a Ph.D. to be legitimate it must be offered by an accredited university. It is for this reason that I will not be using the title of Dr. in reference to Mr. Sam Vaknin.
Mr. Vaknin's biography also claims a certificate in counseling offered through Brainbench, an online "school". As near as I can tell from examining the criteria that Brainbench lists on their web site the only requirement for receiving such a certificate is to pass an exam, which appears to be open book. There are no requirements for working in a professional counseling setting and receiving supervision on counseling techniques. It should also be noted that the link to the transcript that is included on Mr. Vaknin's site does not have his name or other readily accessible information for a visitor to confirm this is indeed Sam's transcript, so are being asked to place our trust in his word. I am very concerned that Mr. Vaknin is intentionally misleading people about his credentials in counseling with this certificate that must people will not take the time to investigate.
The best insight I have found for understanding Sam's intentions in writing "Malignant Self Love" came in an interview Bob Goodman conducted with Mr. Vaknin and was published on the Natterbox website in 2000. The following exchange helped me develop a better understanding of Mr. Vaknin's motives and agenda.
Bob Goodman writes, "I've seen ‘Malignant Self Love' described in some contexts as a self-help book. Often in this genre, we see authors who have triumphed over some personal adversity and wish to help others do the same. But your approach is quite different. You write that your discovery of your own NPD "was a painful process which led nowhere. I am no different -- and no healthier -- today than I was when I wrote this book. My disorder is here to stay, the prognosis poor and alarming." Do you see the book, then, as more a work of self-literacy than
Mr Vaknin replies, "I never described "Malignant Self Love" as a helpful work. It is not. It is a dark, hopeless tome. Narcissists have no horizons, they are doomed by their own history, by their successful adaptation to abnormal circumstances and by the uncompromising nature of their defense mechanisms. My book is a scientific observation of the beast, coupled with an effort to salvage its victims. Narcissists are absent-minded sadists and they victimize everyone around them. Those in contact with them need guidance and help. "Malignant Self Love" is a phenomenology of the predator on the one hand, and a vindication and validation of its prey on the other."
Mr. Goodman continues his interview, "You are a self-professed narcissist, and you warn your readers that narcissists are punishing, pathological, and not to be trusted. Yet hundreds of readers or customers seem to be looking to you for help and advice on how to cope with their own narcissism or their relationship with a narcissist. I'm struck by a kind of hall-of-mirrors effect here. How do you reconcile these seeming contradictions?"
Mr. Vaknin replies, "Indeed, only seeming. I may have misphrased myself. By "helpful" I meant "intended to help." The book was never intended to help anyone. Above all, it was meant to attract attention and adulation (narcissistic supply) to its author, myself. Being in a guru-like status is the ultimate narcissistic experience. Had I not also been a misanthrope and a schizoid, I might have actually enjoyed it. The book is imbued with an acerbic and vitriolic self-hatred, replete with diatribes and jeremiads and glaring warnings regarding narcissists and their despicable behavior. I refused to be "politically correct" and call the narcissist "other-challenged." Yet, I am a narcissist and the book is, therefore, a self-directed "J'accuse." This satisfies the enfant terrible in me, the part of me that seeks to be despised, abhorred, derided and, ultimately, punished by society at large."
It was with this background information that I started my journey of reading Mr. Vaknin's book, "Malignant Self Love". The introduction raised a very serious concern that the author was combining several identifiable psychological terms into one all consuming label which he calls Narcissism. I am deeply concerned that throughout this offering the author is either oblivious to, or ignores the reality of that Narcissism, Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), Anti-Social Personality Disorder, and Psychopaths are not synonymous terms. Throughout the book Sam repeatedly calls behaviors specific to all of these categories "Narcissism". Much of the behavior that the author talks about in this book would be more accurately used to describe Anti-social-Psychopathic behavior, yet is presented as "Narcissism". The message that the author is attempting to articulate to his readers is significantly reduced by the fact that in re-visiting narcissism he appears to be re-defining it to meet his agenda.
The professionals that I have worked with in my therapy and in other settings have expressed a concern that NPD has lost most of its scientific meaning because of what narcissism has come to mean in popular culture. It is for this reason that I believe we must expect anyone claiming expert status on this disorder to take great care not to add to the confusion by allowing their agenda to supercede what is commonly known and accepted regarding NPD and all other identified psychological disorders.
Mr. Vaknin appears to be of the belief that Narcissism is the root or cause of all personality disorders. This leaves me wondering again exactly how Sam defines Narcissism. In this instance he appears to be suggesting that "Narcissism" is the arrest in childhood development which is believed to be the cause of many psychological disorders. The term used by mental health professionals to describe the this early childhood trauma is narcissistic injury or narcissistic wound. A narcissistic injury is a wound inflicted on a young child's ego or true self when they experience trauma such as abuse, neglect, abandonment, death of a parent etc. Evidence appears to confirm that people respond to narcissistic wounds differently depending on a variety of environmental and biological factors which can lead to a wide range of mental illnesses. It is not accurate to suggest that Narcissism, Narcissistic Personality Disorder and Narcissistic Wounds are synonymous terms and they should not be used interchangeably.
It is interesting to me that from the beginning of his book the author makes a distinction as what he calls Narcissists or "N's" to be somehow different from other people. Throughout this book a person who is suffering from what the author calls narcissism is rarely, if ever, referred to as anything other than a narcissist. I cannot recall a place where he indicates that a Narcissist a person. The result is the establishment of an "us" vs. "them" setting which appears to work against healing and coming together as a community.
The anger, to the point of rage, that the author feels almost leaps off the pages, especially in the first couple of chapters. I find myself asking who is the author mad at and how does he feel writing this book is helping him get beyond that anger. If we are to believe that the author regards his writing as therapy than it would be logical to assume he is making an effort to resolve demons hidden deep within himself. This may be happening, though the process is obscure to the reader.
Mr.Vaknin makes several interesting wide reaching observations about the behavior of "Narcissists. One such assessment address whether Narcissists understand cause and effect thinking as it relates to their behavior . "The narcissist does not suffer from a faulty sense of causation. He is able to accurately predict the outcomes of his actions and he knows that he might be forced to pay a dear price for his deeds. But he doesn't care." No supporting scientific information is given to defend this view, so the reader is left to assume this is the opinion of the author. I find this troubling as human beings suffering from NPD often struggle with cause and affect thinking. A person with this disorder views the world through the eyes of a child and attempts to relate to others from the viewpoint much younger than their actual age. It is not that they understand that their behavior will cause a certain reaction from people and do it anyway. They lack the emotional developmental skills needed to understand how and why an adult will react to their actions. On the other hand psychopaths may be able to process how their behavior will affect someone and will make a conscious decision to engage in the behavior despite, maybe because of the affect. This is a huge difference between NPD and Psychopaths and shows how these disorders cannot be lumped into one overriding category.
One of the more revealing commentaries in this offering centers around the authors feelings about treating Narcissists in formal therapy, "his therapist in particular and to psychology in general. He seeks treatment only following a major crisis, which directly threatens his projected and perceived image. We can say that the narcissist's "pride" has to be severely hurt to motivate him to admit his need for help. Even then, the therapy sessions resemble a battleground. The narcissist is aloof and distanced, demonstrates his superiority in a myriad of ways, resents what he perceives to be an intrusion on his innermost sanctum. He is offended by any hint regarding defects or dysfunctions in his personality or in his behavior. A narcissist is a narcissist is a narcissist even when he asks for help with his world and worldview shattered."
This is an interesting assessment that is revealing in many ways. It is accurate to suggest that it often takes a major crisis before a person suffering from NPD will seek therapy, as was the case with myself. Much of what the author talks about are indeed concerns that must be worked through a therapy process. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that a person suffering from NPD can voluntarily enter therapy and work through these and the many other issues that will come out during the course of a relationship between a therapist and client. It appears that Mr. Vaknin is using this and other aspects of his writing as an excuse for himself not to enter therapy. I regard this as a classic game that is played by people suffering from a lot of the disorders that the author has lumped into the classification of Narcissism. It is unfortunate he appears to lack the insight to get beyond this dilemma as this would be more helpful than implying therapy is very difficult..
Mr. Vaknin spends a considerable amount of time discussing how a "Narcissist" reacts to intimacy. He writes, "intimacy transforms us all into unique beings. It , therefore, negates the uniqueness of those who should be judged to be truly unique even in the absence of intimacy." He goes on to suggest, "since it (intimacy) is a common pursuit, it cannot be unique." It is fascinating that intimacy transforms us into unique beings, but intimacy itself is not unique. Once again there is no scientific data given to support the idea that intimacy cannot be unique. I suspect most people will say every intimate encounter or relationship they have ever experienced has been somewhat unique to all others. Each person is different and we do bring different dynamics to every relationship. This is more evidence of a great need of the author to simplify complex dynamics and place all people into one category.
Throughout the book one gets the impression that the author is offering an indictment against himself as a form of explanation why he will never attempt to work on healing his issues. A classic example being his view of envy and a Narcissist, " narcissist's mind is pervaded by conscious and unconscious transformations of enormous amounts of aggression into envy. The more severe cases of Narcissistic Personality Disorders (NPD) display partial control of their drives, anxiety intolerance and rigid sublimatory channels. With these individuals, the magnitude of the hatred is so great, that they deny both the emotion and any awareness of it. Alternatively, aggression is converted to action or to acting out. This denial affects normal cognitive functioning as well. Such an individual would, intermittently, have bouts of arrogance, curiosity and pseudo-stupidity, all transformations of aggression taken to the extreme. It is difficult to tell envy from hatred in these cases."
There is some truth to this issue, but it is presented in such a way that one might think this cannot be overcome by working with a licensed mental health professional. I have spent a great deal of time working on issues around envy as envy has played a role in some of more serious acting out. It is difficult to talk about such intimate relationships and it is dependent upon the client to bring these raw emotions into a therapy session. Working through envy is dependent upon your specific circumstances but in most cases people suffering from NPD can indeed learn a healthy way of looking others that does not lead to envy.
Toward the end of the book the author confirms a truth about people suffering from NPD and other personality disorders, "Being a child, he feels no need to acquire adult skills or adult qualifications. Many a narcissist do not complete their studies, or even do not have a driving license. They feel that people should adore them as they are and could and should supply them with all the needs that they, as children, cannot themselves secure." This appears to explain why Mr. Vaknin has not taken the time or put forward the effort to secure the credentials which is expected of anyone claiming to hold a doctorate or a counseling certificate.
My overall impression of "Malignant Self Love" is that the author spent a lot of time talking around the issues which has labeled "Narcissism", but offered almost no insight into the emotions which drive the behavior of a person suffering from NPD. I came away with the sense that the author was trying very hard to sell the reader on the idea that he is a Narcissist, coming close to creating a whole new classification of Narcissism in the process. I believe the lasting result of this effort has been to create mass confusion among people about Narcissism, NPD, Anti-social Personality Disorder and Psychopaths.
I believe it is of great significance that Mr. Vaknin stated in the interview with Bob Goodman that "Malignant Self Love" was never intended to help anyone, rather its primary intention was to bring adulation to the author, Sam Vaknin. My honest assessment is this offering amounts to a period of acting out where the author attempted to scapegoat his lifelong behaviors on what he felt he could label an incurable disease. It is of significance that not only has Mr. Vaknin never sought therapy, and does not believe that "Narcissists" can recover, but there is no indication that he has genuine feelings of remorse or regret for his behavior.
The truly disturbing aspect of this book is that the author indicates in the interview with Bob Goodman that there is something about them which has led them to be victimized by narcissists. Sam comments that, "The victims of narcissists have rarely become victims randomly. It is very akin to an immunological response: there is a structural affinity, an inexorable attraction, an irreversible bonding and an ensuing addiction far stronger than any substance abuse. I, therefore, am doubtful not only with regards to the prognosis of a narcissist but also with regards to the healing prospects of those exposed to his poisoned charms. The inverted narcissists (a sub-species of codependent who is specifically attracted to narcissists) are narcissists -- kind of mirror narcissists. As such, they are no less doomed than the original." It is important to stress that the idea of Inverted Narcissism is not recognized by most professionals, and is an example of the author making things up as he goes through his writings. After reading this it is both fascinating and infuriating to contemplate the cult guru leader status that the author has achieved among people who consider themselves "victims of narcissists". Clearly people are not using their brains to think critically and ask themselves and Mr. Vaknin some very difficult questions.
It is widely accepted in the psychological community that a person suffering from NPD does have a conscience and the ability to express genuine remorse and regret. This is one of the significant obvious differences between NPD and what professionals classify as Antisocial-Psychopath. If we allow ourselves to look beyond the book and examine other behavior Mr. Vaknin has displayed in his work the concern regarding the accuracy of his self-diagnosis becomes dramatically magnified.
Sam lives a nomad lifestyle which he describes in the interview with Bob Goodman. Mr. Goodman asks, "I understand you're something of a nomad now, hopping from country to country and job to job. Do you ever long for a more settled existence?" Sam replies, "Never. You are describing a morgue, a cemetery. My life is colorful, adventurous, impossible, cinematic. Sure, I pay a price -- who doesn't? Is there no price to be for a sedentary, predictable, numbing existence? When one is 90 years old, all that is left is memories. You are the director of the movie of your life, a 70 years-long movie. Now, sit back and begin to watch: is it a boring film? would you have watched it had it not been yours? If the answers are negative and positive, respectively, you succeeded to live well, regardless of the price you paid."
Mr. Vaknin's nomad lifestyle is reflected in his ownership of several different support forums for "victims of narcissists". After studying the archives on a variety of forums it seems that when Nr. Vaknin becomes bored with a group or if he feels they are threatening him by moving in a direction he is not comfortable than he ceases participation, sometimes starting a new group on another list. Many people have brought forward questions and concerns to me about the behavior on these support forums. One of the major concerns is centered around Sam deleting posts on his support forums for no reason other than the author challenged his theories toward narcissism, often by suggesting that a person suffering from NPD can recover. It is clear that messages are deleted and people are banned based on the childish needs of Sam Vaknin. I regard these alleged support forums to be some of the unhealthiest such communities I have ever encountered, online or in the Real World. People are encouraged to worship Sam and his theories regarding Narcissism and are actively discouraged from critical thinking. Other concerns have been raised about the intent and behavior around these support forums but it would require a separate case study to examine everything which has taken place in the name of support from Narcissistic abuse.
What are some of the other motives which could lead Mr. Vaknin to engage in what I now firmly believe amounts to what is known as narcissistic acting out? Once again Sam offers insight to this question in an email exchange with Bob Goodman falling their interview. Sam was concerned about the status of the copyright of the article and wrote, "Regarding the copyright: I retain the copyright on everything I write - including responses to an interview. I hate Americans in general and their pusillanimous litigious minds in particular (as does most of the world) -- so, do me a favor: take it or leave it and don't waste my time with this any longer. Thank you, Sam". It is a widely accepted fact that most of the study around NPD has centered around behavior here in the United States. Could it be that Sam saw an opportunity to lash out at Americans as a class of people, perhaps thinking that he is so smart that they will accept him as an authority. It is interesting that he likes America well enough to buy a degree from one of our diploma mills, and obtain a counseling certificate from one of our online schools, thereby obtaining credentials without doing the work required of others. I guess America has its better side, isn't that right Mr. Vaknin?
In the interview with Bob Goodman the author makes it clear exactly how he feels about his own intelligence and authority on narcissism. Goodman asks, "I'm still curious, though, what your attitude is toward your "customers." It's clear you appreciate the attention from them, but do you consider them foolish for seeking advice from a narcissist such as yourself?" Mr. Vaknin replies, "I am by far the most intelligent person I know, so, the deep-seated belief that others are bumbling, ineffectual fools is a constant feature of my mental landscape. But seeking advice from a narcissist about narcissism doesn't sound foolish to me -- if the consumer applies judgement and his or her knowledge of narcissism and its distortions to the advice received." I found this answer to be amusing as it a classic example of a person suffering from a severe personality disorder to greatly exaggerate their own intelligence and importance. It is even more interesting would viewed from the perspective that this work in my opinion confirms that the author has little or no understanding of narcissism and the various other psychological disorders which are related to the topics which he addresses.
I do not believe that Sam Vaknin suffers from Narcissistic Personality Disorder. It is my opinion that if he were to be diagnosed by an impartial, licensed mental health professional who has no knowledge of what has gone on over the last six years that the diagnosis would not be NPD. I think it is very regrettable that the author has lead what I believe to be a campaign of hatred and misinformation around Narcissism and NPD. Many people who are suffering from this disorder, their friends and family, and those harmed by what they thought was narcissistic abuse have been affected by this period of acting out. It is time to reclaim the scientific meaning of NPD and reestablish the boundaries around Narcissism, NPD, Anti-social Personality Disorder and Psychopaths.
I am very concerned about the level of misinformation which now hovers over the question of NPD. Sadly much of hatred that we see is a result of this campaign of misinformation. Interestingly enough the majority of people who express the most hate toward what they call Narcissists are referring to people that they have diagnosed themselves, rather than a licensed mental health worker. I am of the firm belief that unless a person has been diagnosed by a licensed psychologist or psychiatrist than you have an opinion and that's all you have. A family member or friend is not qualified to make an impartial judgement based exclusively on the DSM criteria. The reason we have licensed professionals is because these are very complex disorders that we're talking about and it is not possible to understand them in a few sentences. The DSM was never intended to be used the way it now is by the community. It is a tool for professionals that can be a source of great information, but can also be abused, as we have seen repeatedly.
I believe that intentional misinformation and efforts to make large numbers of people hate other people because of their psychological disorders amounts to a form of psychological terrorism. Vulnerable people in considerable amounts of pain are searching for information on healing and are instead finding themselves the target of an unbelievable campaign of hate and misinformation. Once again I state emphatically that we must reclaim the scientific meaning of NPD and remain vigilant in our efforts to develop a process of healing and recovery.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder is a very complex psychological illness. People suffering from this disorder, their family and friends and victims have all will benefit if we are able to move beyond this effort to redefine Narcissism to fit the needs of one person. All human beings who have been affected by this disorder need to work side-by-side with licensed mental health professionals to get beyond the scare tactics of psychological terrorism and move to a place of healing. In short we need to reclaim NPD and redefine the distinctions of Narcissistic Injury, Narcissism, Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Antisocial Personality Disorder, and Psychopaths. It has been suggested to me that there are as many variations of NPD as there are people suffering from this disorder. A commonly accepted reality of human nature is that we all react differently to different stimuli and that no two traumas are exactly the same. Together we can et beyond the rather bizarre attitude that a Narcissist-is a Narcissist-is a Narcissist.
Given that Mr. Vaknin insists on defending his work, primairly through his old writings, it is important to clarify scientific information which he claims to base his work. As with anyone seeking to be accepted in scientific or professional terms, credentials are important. I have yet to see anything to affirm a doctorate degree awarded to Mr. Vaknin from an accredited university. Likewise, I have yet to see anything in terms of counseling skills working with directly with clients in a supervised setting. Given the continued claim of scientific research both of these questions must be addressed.
Several questions have come forward with regards to the scientific process used by Mr. Vaknin. I look forward to seeing answers to these questions that can be confirmed by a truly independent, licensed source.
With regards to those who were identified as NPD. In how many cases was the diagnosis made by a licensed mental health professional, verus self-diagnosis or diagnosis by family, friend etc...
2) With regards to family and friends who have been affected by this disorder. How many of the people involved had their loved ones diagnosed by a licensed mental health professional versus self diagnosis or family/ friend speculation.
3) What method was used by these professionals in diagnosis and whatever therapy might have been attempted.
4) How were people selected to participate in this scientific process?
5) Were motivations for participation evaluated and measured in the final analysis of this data?
6) What was the attitude toward NPD of the professionals who participated in this scientific research?
7) Has there been an independent confirmation of the scientific data and where can it be found on the Internet or elsewhere.
8) Why is the scientific data not included in the book?
Next: Can Sam answer these questions? If not, why not?