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Traumatic Attachment - The Neuroscience of Narcissistic Personality Disorder - Part II

Posted Jun 23 2009 6:54pm

Oie_mans_brain       "Hidden inside modern biomedical science, there is a tale that each of us should know.  A tale of the starlight and the darkness inside, a tale of the sins of the father and the flame of spontaneous human combusion, a tale of madness and love, of faith and despair.  Wrapped up inside of that tale is a portrait of each man and woman in all our wonder, a portrait full of the intensity of life... you must take a step or two backward if you wish to see the mystery" (Callahan, 2002, p.xvii). 

While narcissism is not pathological per se, Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) certainly is, and in Part I, a definition of a personality disorder was presented.  NPD is generally acquired secondary to early childhood trauma, more specifically, a toxic family life.  There is also a heritable component.  My parents used to have a plexiglass plaque that sat proudly on display in the living room.  One could not help but notice it as soon as you walked into the room.  The plaque read "insanity is hereditary.  You get it from your children."  Very funny.  With NPD, you mostly develop it secondary to your narcissistic parent or parents.  NPD is a disorder of arousal dysregulation in that the limbic system and the neurochemicals used to communicate with one another that flow in and out of the limbic system, become so disrupted and discombobulated, that the system breaks down and what is an abnormal condition becomes the new normal.  When a young child is exposed to the callous, self-absorbed, unpredictable, angry and often rageful antics and chaotic family life that centers around a narcissistic parent or two, that young child quickly learns several very important survival-oriented skills: life is unpredictable and people can hurt you - make certain your armor is impenetrable and your forcefield stays "on"; remain in complete control at all times when dealing with others, because clearly others have no control; make absolutely certain that you have or can quickly attain at a moments notice, a ready supply of dutiful admirers from those clearly more psychologically wounded than you; and remember; never let them see you sweat.  Narcissists do not have a clearly defined identity (psychopathology notwithstanding).  They know who they are based upon the responses and feedback received from other people.  If people laugh at their jokes they must be funny.  If they are told they are smart, or good looking or talented, then it must indeed be so.  It therefore behooves them to find people who will endlessly subjugate themselves in service to the needs of the narcissist.

Individuals with NPD are rather adept at not visiting the psychological places that most of us go to, in an attempt to understand and give meaning to our behavior and our lives.  People and the world at large for that matter, are instruments for their use, fair and square, and the object is to get their needs met at all costs, each man for himself.  In fairness, it should be added at this juncture, that individuals with NPD are not sociopaths and do not have Antisocial Personality Disorder (APD).  In fact, I never met an indivudual with NPD that did not genuinely think of themselves in anything other than vainglorious and stellar terms.  Until, that is, you begin to point out the glaring inconsistencies...  But therein lies the rub.  Those with NPD do not surround themselves with individuals that pose a threat to them - it is part of their well-defined defense system.  Should you make the horrendous mistake of even appearing to do or say something to challenge a directive, appear to criticize or correct their motives, or otherwise be less than completely beneficent, they will, with stunning alacrity. let you know in no uncertain terms (so quick in fact that it may take you awhile to realize you were just speared in the gut and that gurgling sound you hear as you walk away is the sound it makes when there is a gapping hole in your belly from where you were just impaled), that you have entered dangerous territory and you will be penalized for your obviously malicious expression of whatever it was, in a loud, clear, and bill-board-sized message that will make you instantly recoil and clearly regret whatever it was you said or did to them that they perceived as threatening - which by the way, may in actuality not have been threatening at all.  In a word, get too close and you will pay the price for it.  A veritable lifetime is spent perfecting their impenetrable armor and devising their always-on forcefield, such that when someone gets close enough to where the alarm is sounded, nuclear missiles are deployed without so much as a second thought.  Should you have gotten wounded in the attack, and make no mistake, you will, (which part of "nuclear" was unclear?), then it was absolutely and positively 110% your own fault for doing or saying something to sound the alarm in the first place.  I mean, hells bells, just what were you thinking??  Someone with NPD in psychiatric treatment?  Treatment for what?  For being well-defended?  If that were all of it, the story would stop here. 

Individuals with NPD are (more often than not unbeknown to themselves) angry, rageful (expressed or repressed), resentful, and fear exposure of being "found out".  Criticism, rejection, and abandonement are their death nell - they are to be avoided at all costs.  They cannot, or better said, will not, love.  NPD is about control - something they feel they must possess at all costs and in all situations.  And therein lies the narcissists paradox.  They are usually desperate for a REAL relationship with someone they admire and respect, but anyone they admire and respect would by definition be smart enough to figure them out, something they cannot afford to have happen.  So, they attract the individuals that they do not admire and respect, and with whom they often are contemptous of, because these are the individuals not smart enough or are psychologically wounded enough themselves, not to figure them out, and hence, they pose no threat to the narcissist and are by default, ammenable to being dominated or controlled.  So what is the big attraction?  NPDs are also unusually charming, APPEAR to attach quickly and well, and are generally more often than not, rather socially facile.  For a remarkable account of narcissistic personality disorder, it would be worth your while to visit Dr. Samuel Vaknin's cite ,  or read his book Malignant Self-Love.   Dr. Vaknin is neither a psychologist nor psychiatrist, but a physicist and well-diagnosed narcissist, with an uncanny ability to recognize and describe what he himself is all too familiar with.  Is NPD heritable?

Adults with NPD were at one time otherwise normal children with a heritable (genetic) predisposition that when exposed to one or more parents with NPD, their genetic predisposition in conjunction with their toxic environment, produced the very thing they were exposed to - narcissistic pathology.  Being the child of a narcissistic parent is in and of itself a traumatic experience, and make no mistake, one that can and more often then not, does, change the neurology and biochemistry of those living under the same roof.  This is one diagnosis whereby the sins of the parent really do visit upon the children.  How does all of this acutally happen?  How can being a narcissist change your brain and biochemistry?  The best scientific explanation I have yet to come across is still Cloninger's tridemensional model.  In Cloninger, C.R. (1986).  A unified biosocial theory of personality and its role in the development of anxiety states, Psychiatric Developments, 3, 167-226, Cloninger ties 3 genetically independent but functionally related dimensions (Novelty Seeking, NS; Harm Avoidance, HA; and Reward Dependence, RD), to specific neurobiological substrates and the interaction between genes and environment.  According to Cloninger, each of these dimensions, NS, HA, and RD, are associated with the neuromodulators dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine, respectively.  Cloninger defines each personality type as follows: Novelty Seeking individuals are those with "a tendency toward frequent exploratory activity and intense exhilaration in response to novel or appetitive stimuli" and when high in this category are said to be "impulsive, exploratory, fickle, excitable, quick-tempered, extravagant, and disorderly" whereas persons low in this dimension are "reflective, rigid, loyal, stoic, slow-tempered, orderly, and persistant" (1987, p.575).  Those described as Harm Avoidance are described as having "a tendency to respond intensely to aversive stimuli and their conditioned signals, thereby facilitating learning to inhibit behavior in order to avoid punishment, novelty, and frustrative omission of expected rewards".  Those high in HA are seen as "cautious, tense, apprehensive, fearful, inhibited, shy, easily fatigable, and apprehensive worriers" while low in this dimension is characteristic of being "confident, relaxed, optimistic, carefree, uninhibited, outgoing, and energetic" (1987, p.575).  Finally, Cloninger defined Reward Dependence as "a resistance to extinction of conditioned signals of reward or relief of punishment" and those high in RD are "ambitious, sentimental, and persistent" while those low in this dimension were described as "detached, tough minded, and irresolute" (1987, p.575).  In the last installment of this series, we shall see how dopamine specifically, is implicated in this disorder and its relation to sex addiction.

When growing up in a narcissistic household, one is exposed to chaotic, irrational, inconsistent, debilitating, verbally aggressive and/or physically assaultive behavior that may or may not be aimed directly at you, and eratic, inconsistent or totally absent messages of love, concern, or attachment.  The role of the child is to be the vessel for the desires of the parent.  There is no such thing as individuality, and you are no more and no less than an absolute conduit for the demands of the parent.  There is no negotiation, no debate, no individuation.  You are to become what the parent wants you to become, and your life as you know it is in service to those dictates.  Make no mistake, the narcissistic home is a dictatorship in a completely totalitarian state.  The child either willingly fulfills these demands, wishes, and desires, and knowingly and intently, sets their sights on fulfilling the wishes of the parent without further discussion, or else willfully fights tooth and nail, but realizes that he or she is no match for the powerful parent.  The fact that you are also angry beyond measure at your parents and the fact that you can never ever measure up in the eyes of the very parent that you sacrificed your life for or fought to change, has, in your understandably but nonetheless psychologically-limited and skewed perception of the world, nothing whatsoever to do with your childhood, your family, or your parents.  You have deeply internalized and thereby deduced that you are merely a defective, angry, resentful and hollow human being who couldn't even be a good-enough child let alone adequate adult.  And besides which, what does love have to do with it...  Or, you are the invisible child.  These are horrible internalizations that significantly damage and psychologically consumme the bearer.  The narcissist has, through repeated exposure, become exquisitely sensitive to criticism and simply cannot tolerate the thought of enduring any more of it.

For those that develop a Narcissistic Personality Disorder, chaos, which is by definition, an out-of-control condition, becomes the very thing to avoid, and the only way to avoid it is to shut down the entire system.   And so, to the individual with NPD, deep emotions are the enemy, and the biggest enemy of all, is love.  Love is a two-pronged problem.  First, it means that if you are experiencing it, you are also experiencing powerlessness over it.  To be in love is to be out of control.   Second, the love-object is the equivalent of a god or goddess as the case may be, replete with the power and strength to crush you like an itty-bitty bug at but a moments notice.  The object of one's love can not only crush you, but much worse than that - it can reject and eventually abandon you.  Therein lies the rub - a paradox if ever there was one.  To the disordered narcissistic personality, the very thing you were never given but desperately wanted more than anything else, is the one thing you are, quite simply put, neuropsychologically unequipped to handle. 

The Neurochemistry of Love and Attachment...  Please stay tuned for Part III in this 3-part series

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