Envy and shame in the narcissistic personality

Envy and shame in the narcissistic personality

However contradictory it may seem, the most intimate existential core of narcissism is characterized by experiences of envy and shame. The apparent self-assessment of the self, proper to these subjects, is only a compensatory tool with which the ego tries to make up for the fragile and fragmented self-esteem typical of this personality.


It would, in fact, by reason of a deprivative affective experience, suffered due to a lack of empathic recognition by the parent, that the child, who later became an adult, learned to devalue the libidinal ties with the primary object, giving the Self that primary omnipotence that was denied him in the dyadic phase. Khout (1971) imputes pathological narcissism to a deficit, therefore to an affective lack that the child had to face when he should have received a responsive security capable of nurturing in him feelings of primary omnipotence, combined with the idealization of the parent, instead of l defensive self-idealization.

The narcissistic subject feels an emotional and relational void deriving from the frustrated representation of unfulfilled expectations, or never up to the proposed standards. This leads him to seek a boasted perfection in every aspect of life, especially the aesthetic and professional one, areas in which he tries to excel not in a perspective of healthy and constructive self-satisfaction, but only to contrast the sense of inferiority and inadequacy that pursues him from inside, creating incurable experiences of shame. Shame is a feeling of global reprobation towards the self: one is ashamed of being or not being something. On the contrary in the sense of guilt, a feeling extraneous to narcissism, one feels remorse and a sense of reparation for an action committed, therefore one feels shame for what has been done.

The other indefectible component of the narcissistic personality, or envy, generates a relational dimension that sees the other as a mere object to be plundered of all the good aspects that it possesses, and which the narcissist wants to take possession of in his turn. This malignant greed, however, is not inspired by unrealistic feelings towards objects: the narcissist would not want to possess what he envies, he would rather want the other person not to possess it; and therefore also the desire for possession is justified by destructive and predatory reasons. The narcissist wishes to destroy even more than to possess.

Kernberg (1975) does not impute the origin of narcissism to an infantile affective deficit, rather deriving it from the constitutional nature of the subject, congenitally predisposed to the experimentation of experiences of envy and aggression towards the primary object, from which it denies independence and support.

Melanie Klein (1957) had affirmed, in turn, the biological root of envy, identifiable in those attitudes, typical of the schizoparanoid phase, aimed at preying on the good breast (i.e. the mother) of all the objects she possesses, to possess them and destroy them.

According to the Kleinian perspective, envy, greed and persecutory anxieties are deeply connected to each other, in a bond that leads to the growth of the others as the one grows. This vicious circle removes the child from the possibility of passing the schizoparanoid phase in adaptive function and, therefore, of abandoning sadistic and predatory experiences towards the good breast and the mother who is identified in it. He will never feel the need to protect the maternal object from his impulses, will not be able to feel guilt for his destructive ambitions, and will not be able to accept the maternal object in a syncretic and ambivalent dimension, in which the good can coexist with the bad guy without risk of destruction.

Ambivalence is that dimension which allows one to accept the positive and negative nature of the maternal object, which, on the one hand frustrates and forbids, on the other feeds and cares for conservative purposes. This failure to achieve ambivalence, and therefore the acceptance of the coexistence of opposites, pushes the narcissist to the unrealistic idealization of a flawless Self, of which nobody will ever show up. Hence the standards of perfectionism, of excellence, of relational devotion demanded by the narcissist, which will push him to emphasize in a destructive sense every slightest fault committed by those with whom he relates, pushing him to construct relational patterns based on the claim, unidirectional, strongly utilitarian , and in any case never inspired by donative or attachment ambitions.

The narcissist’s inability to attach himself to any object beyond himself therefore translates into the inability to build relational styles aimed at recognizing the other as an autonomous object, worthy of existence and affective consideration (McWilliams, 1994). The other is only someone to be envied, in a predatory attack thanks to which the subject will believe to confirm his existential perception and escape his persecutory anxieties, but that in reality will only serve to increase the intensity of the same.

Finally, envy also prevents building a full gratification of the self. And this is why, for how many successes and affirmations it achieves, the narcissist will never feel safe and satisfied, but will always tend to search for a new confrontation with subjects to be plundered to fill the affective-existential void that devastates him. Envy thus becomes a functional element for the survival of the narcissist, who, in his absence, would doubt the existence of his own self.

One of the most negative outcomes of the formation of narcissistic envy is the impediment of the construction of gratitude, that ability that allows the subject to recognize someone else to love and protect and to be treated, to finally recognize that he needs he. On the contrary, the narcissist is not able to take care of the subject, nor to protect it from his attacks. Its existential assessment is directed towards a self-referenced vision of the Self, in which the other is never recognized as an autonomous object, but as a Self object, existing only to the extent that it shows itself up to the narcissistic idealizations (Klein, 1957). And however well he may receive from this object, the narcissist will take care to project his existential dissatisfaction into him,

The egosyntonic wickedness with which he carries out this behavior is dictated by the will to deny the dependence on the envied maternal object, which has never been reworked in a depressive function (Klein, 1957): therefore, even if he receives a favor, the narcissist cannot show himself grateful, or would show that he needed the item. In the same way, even where he needs the presence of the other, he will never be able to reveal it, or would end up invalidating the omnipotence of the Self (McWilliams, 1994).

This aspect of envy and denial of dependence on the object generates relational difficulties in the social sphere as well as in the therapeutic one, in which the destructive drive of the narcissist creates a transferential function that hinders an evolutionary result. Even the therapist is therefore identified as a source to be destroyed, rather than as an instrument of knowledge and containment of the pathological Self. The idea of ​​being dependent on others is intolerable and the idea of ​​admitting having received a therapeutic benefit is seen as an affront to the Self, inadmissible as unacceptable. Indeed, it is probable that the patient indulges in denying himself, as well as the therapist, every possible improvement achieved thanks to the therapy, thus engaging not only in ignoring him, but also in avoiding its implementation (McWilliams, 1994)

But we can say, of the narcissist, that his greed serves only to impoverish him, and therefore it is precisely in the denial of addiction that it is possible to experience the latent necessity of it. For this the therapist will have to work on the resistance to attachment trying to circumvent them cautiously, in view of providing the patient with a good object to internalize and with which to appease his persecutory anxieties (Gabbard, 2015).

The therapist, especially in the early stages of therapy, will have to tolerate the inevitable envy of the patient who can express himself through larvae confessions made at the end of the session, when they can no longer be interpreted or made the subject of an interview. He will have to tolerate his disconfirmations, the more or less explicit disqualifications on his work, which in reality will only represent his fear of relational attachment; he will have to accept being destroyed, annihilated by the patient, who sees in him a potential threat to his omnipotence (Horner, 1993).

Freud believed that psychoanalysis could not be carried out with narcissists, precisely because of their inability to build a therapeutic transference (1916). In reality today we tend to believe that, with patients of this type, the apparent absence of transference is itself the transference (Gabbard, 2015).

The explanation is obvious, if we think that the transference consists in the therapeutic reproduction of the emotional relationship with the primary objects – therefore with the parents – and that the narcissistic disorder has prevented the construction of these validating object relationships: on the basis of this, the patient does not perceives in the therapist the updated figure of the father or mother, nor the reproduction of his relationship with them, but only a mere extension of the Self, both the overvalued and idealized one, and the devalued and shamed one (McWilliams, 1994). The therapist must therefore let the patient use it as a self object useful for maintaining the internal process of self-esteem, avoiding feeling diminished when narcissistic envy, to liquidate the anguish connected to shame and envy,

This will be the first step towards the construction of an authentic and non-defensive self-esteem, of the transmuting internalization which has proved to be deficient in childhood (Khout, 1971), but also the indispensable step to free the patient from the evil and predatory libidinal bonds that envy has generated, strengthened, maintained over time.