The birth of a Narcissistic Personality Disorder
The birth edition, Issue 02
Text by: Tatiana Mogileva
Visuals: Veda ‘V’ Thomas
Alissa was a child when this happened the first time. She couldn’t make sense of what had happened because, well, she was too young and what do children know about physical intimacy? To be more exact, this happened back in the 90s, when children’s education about abuse was non-existent. Perhaps, if this happened these days, this story of the ordeal would have ended sooner because she would have been able to call it abuse and speak up.
For her, the first experience of abuse was confusing; she knew something was off, but she didn’t know exactly what was off and why. Her child self described it as “off”, but didn’t put the abuse label on it. She recalls making a conscious effort to remove the experience out of her consciousness; something which is called suppression in psychology. She desperately wanted to stay with the family at all costs as she knew that her chances of having a decent life in an orphanage in Bulgaria were slim. She had to suppress the abuse to live “normally” with the family she was with, and to be fair, how can a child deal with such circumstances after all? Years later—in her last year of school— it happened again. Once again, she was very confused because the abuser was her foster “father”. “My father can’t be attracted to me—he’s my father!”. “This can’t be happening”. “I must be wrong; I am wrong”. This is what her thoughts were like back then. This created confusion in her mind; a part of her couldn’t comprehend it because she was abused by her “father” and, usually, children blindly trust parental figures. The other part knew it was sexual abuse because now she was older and more knowledgable about life in general.
She described this confusion as “mind-tearing”, and from what I could gather, this created a dissonance in her mind. She was either going to interpret things one way or another; her father was either abusive or not. A lot of years had to pass before she was able to come to terms with the fact that it was indeed sexual abuse. After her initial denial, she started feeling ashamed. She somehow thought that it was her fault; she “was always getting into trouble” so she must have gotten into trouble this time again. She rationalized the fact that she was always getting into trouble because her parents had abandoned her which made her believe that she must have done something wrong; she blamed herself. Self-blame is seen quite often in people who go through trauma; they quite simply feel responsible for bad things that happen to them. Next up in the emotional rollercoaster that was her life was anger. She realised the abuse wasn’t her fault and felt angry at her “father” because he had manipulated her into it saying that he’s going to give her a lesson about sexual education. Not long after that, she recalls feelings of deep sadness because now she had to live with the accepted reality of abuse and that her “father” didn’t fulfil his paternal role; not only was she sad about her circumstances, she was also grieving the loss of paternal figure at the age of seventeen, for the second time. With nowhere to go, she had to live under the same roof as the abuser, thus anxiety followed. She was scared—to say the least—that it would happen again, scared that someone would find out about the abuse and that consequently, she would be sent back to Bulgaria, a land which once was home, but now, a foreign place where she knows no one. She wanted to speak up but a myriad of thoughts started creeping into her mind as to why no one would believe her. In her mind, if she did indeed speak up, people would go directly to the stereotype about how Bulgarian women are promiscuous and that somehow she asked for it, or even worse, she provoked him.
In the years that followed, amidst the trauma surrounding her life and the mayhem, she started falling for someone. She goes on to explain how she didn’t exactly fall in love—she didn’t like his personality—but rather, developed feelings of love with time. Given that she felt worthless because of the abuse and neglect in her past, she aspired to be perfect in the hope to find acceptance, affection and ultimately love. Little did she know how this was going to backfire in the long run. She lost her sense of self in the pursuit of perfection. Deliberately dismissing every negative feeling—suppressing it—because to her, being angry was far from perfection. She stopped being angry at her “father” and everyone else. Not because she had healed, but simply because she suppressed her anger, kept it inside and ended up with a lot of unexpressed, bottled-up emotion. This need for perfection sprawled across all the areas of her life; she had to be perfect, she must do everything perfect. This is how she developed a highly refined, “perfect” persona. This caused her to struggle with anxiety when doing her work; nothing was ever good-enough for her. Being a perfectionist is one of the traits which is closely associated with narcissistic personality disorder. She described that the more worthless she felt, the higher her need for perfection. Inevitably, the highly developed persona was not her true authentic self, but rather her idea of perfection, which did not match what she felt on the inside. This created great incongruence inside of her; she was projecting one thing to the outside world, but feeling completely different on the inside.
Alissa wholeheartedly believed that no one would believe her abuse story or even worse blame her for it and this led to her constantly thinking about what other people thought of her, which is another trait of narcissistic personality disorder; caring too strongly about what others think of them. These traits are closely associated with narcissistic personality disorder, but they are not used in the diagnosis itself. They are comorbid, which means, they go hand in hand with it. Therefore, a person who is a perfectionist doesn’t necessarily have narcissistic personality disorder, but a person who has narcissistic personality disorder is likely to suffer from perfectionism. The hallmark traits of narcissistic personality disorder are grandiosity, a lack of empathy and an excessive need for admiration.
Alissa insists that following the sexual abuse, she didn’t experience any of the traits described; it was after the bitter break-up with her cheating boyfriend that they all manifested. She felt even more worthless. This was a level of worthlessness she hadn’t yet experienced, and the more she felt this way, the harder she tried to project an image of grandiosity as a defence mechanism. Alissa explains that, “if you feel one way, you try to project the opposite because the way you feel is unacceptable to you”. The lack of self-worth made her project even more grandiosity. She also developed a lack of empathy as a consequence of all that had happened to her. Her reasoning at the time was, “I went through a lot, and people keep complaining about their insignificant problems. This didn’t make sense to me at all, so I stopped feeling sorry for them. It was always about what I had been through, because I had been through a lot and nothing felt as heavy in comparison”. Alissa explains that it took years of therapy with a psychologist to deal with her traumas and feel empathy towards people again. She describes being able to empathize with people as the best way to connect to other individuals; something she hadn’t done for a very long time. The need for excessive admiration developed in reaction to the worthlessness she had experienced. Alissa explains that the main problem people have when dealing with narcissistic personality disorder is that, albeit feeling worthless on the inside, they portray the complete opposite to the outside world.
So, what now? Well, Alissa has finally dealt with her traumatic past through the process of self reflection; something that is only possible through a heightened awareness of the self. She started observing her thoughts and noticing the ones that were self-sabotaging, thoughts which were limiting to her and she started ignoring them and not giving them importance until she got to a place where those damaging thoughts faded away and new thoughts started to flourish; genuinely self-loving ones as opposed to the narcissistic ones she used to have for a very long time. She also described the internal struggle to distinguish between her own thoughts and other people’s thoughts which she had internalised throughout her life. I can’t help but rationalize this as something very much related to the death of the narcissistic self and the birthing of the new authentic self. Is this what Jung called the psychological death? Maybe, yes. Alissa also emphasized that change doesn’t happen overnight. It is a process, but recognizing thought patterns and ignoring the ones that do you no good will lead to brighter days on the horizon.
In conclusion, as a writer and someone who is reading for a Bachelor of Psychology degree, I find this story fascinating because, for me, it is a clear example of how circumstances and thoughts can lead to the birth of a personality disorder in an individual. On top of that, it also shows how this can be reversed by observing and changing our thought patterns to alleviate depression and anxiety associated with narcissistic personality disorder. The horrible reality of Alissa, can’t be changed, but the way Alissa makes sense of her reality, can be changed. She wasn’t abandoned by her parents because she was worthless—no matter how people treat us we are all worthwhile—and she wasn’t abused because she asked for it—she just happened to be in that situation—and it’s not her fault her boyfriend cheated on her—it had nothing to do with her, but rather him.
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