This is a huge mindset “trap” that people dealing with narcissists long term can fall into. Despite all their obnoxious, abusive behavior, it’s hard not to wonder whether there is still a real person trapped inside the narcissist somewhere, a “real self” or “inner child” that’s still crying for attention and love. Is this true with a narcissist? Is there a real self still there? Is it possible to find and “reach” this real person?
This is actually a crucial question to answer, because some people caught up with narcissists spend years or even decades clinging to this stubborn belief that there is a real person in there, and that they are the ones to “reach” them.
However, the reality on this is harsh and difficult, but ultimately liberating for people caught in false optimism about the real person they think is still inside the narcissist:
If a person has full blown narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), then by definition, to have reached that point, their “real self” or “inner child” had to have died inside them a long time ago. Their childhood was too traumatic so their real self went into hiding, was hidden inside a false “shell” self, and eventually atrophied and died. This process is not reversible and once they reach adulthood, and there is no “real self” or “real person” left inside them any more.
Put differently, full blown narcissists are simply manipulative, exploitative robots acting from a series of cravings and defense mechanisms, with no real, authentic “self” or engagement with others as normal human beings understand the term. They can appear to be more or less normal at times, but there’s no “real person” left inside a narcissist that can be “rescued” or “brought out”, not even in therapy.
Let’s look in more detail the formation of full blown narcissism to explain why, plus some caveats as well, since narcissism can also run on a scale and not every person who’s referred to as a “narcissist” actually fits that description in the clinical sense.
Understanding How Full Blown Narcissism (NPD) Forms (The Death Of The Real Self)
Probably the best way to answer this question is to explain how full blown narcissism (also known as narcissistic personality disorder – NPD) is thought to form. It’s fair to say there are different interpretations on this, but a plenty good enough explanation for our purposes is given by the Sam Vaknin/Richard Grannon school of thought on NPD (Vaknin in particular is an authority on this, having been diagnosed as a narcissist twice, and has huge knowledge of personality disorders in general).
Let’s run through some general steps, emphasizing some points relevant to this topic:
- Narcissism is often thought to originate from excessive un-boundaried spoiling and objectification in childhood, or else from an alternating pattern where one parent berates and abuses, whilst the other spoils the child to try and compensate.
- Common motifs here are a message of “you’re special” (in excess), “you’re important”, “you’re superior”. Sometimes there may be over the top messianic talk of the child’s “mission” or “purpose”, or of being “sent by God”.
- If this happens over a prolonged period of time, it will crush the real self and identity of the child. An image is being projected onto them that isn’t real.
- The common factor here is objectification – whether being abused or idealized, the child is treated not as a real human being but as an object to be used for the parent’s gratification.
- Over time the child’s real self is discarded, and a “narcissistic shell” self is presented to the world in it’s place (crucial point here – the child cannot handle that it isn’t being loved authentically for itself, but only loved conditionally or objectified).
- The real human emotions of the child are also hidden away inside the narcissistic shell.
- Over time, these authentic emotions atrophy and die inside the shell (this is the death of the “real person” or “real self”. From this point on, you give up hope. The “real them” is long gone once you are dealing with them in adulthood.
- From this point on, you have full blown NPD, where the person can engage and interact with others in a seemingly normal way on the surface, but where there are no real human emotions left.
- NPDs are then simply robots operating from a series of defense mechanisms designed to prop up their false, grandiose, shell self. They are constantly seeking “supply” from others to do this. There is no real self left.
- The corollary of this is that they are psychologically allergic to any kind of real, authentic emotions or human engagement. As Vaknin himself points out, narcissism can be seen as a denial of the true self.
One common sign you are dealing with this kind of psychologically “self-murdered” person that people often overlook at the time, but realize in hindsight, is a distinct feeling sometimes that there wasn’t a “real person” actually there, truly present, when interacting with the narcissist. With two normal people, however dysfunctional, there’s still a sense of two people, two REAL people, actually there and present, even if arguing. With a narcissist, that sense will often be lacking, though exe’s often only have this insight much later on when they have something more authentic to compare it to again.
One good quote that I remember reading that captures this is from a biography of Tiger Woods, who we’ve covered elsewhere on this site as almost certainly being a narcissist. One extremely skilled interview, normally great at “opening up” guarded people and getting interesting things out of them, recalls interviewing him, and yet essentially finding nothing there in terms of any kind of real person. Here’s how they put it:
“Even at thirty years old, he was frozen and undeveloped as a person, isolated in many ways. There was no “there” there. To be fair, I don’t think Tiger was trying to hide anything from us. I think he was doing what he had programmed himself to do. There was something weird, and we couldn’t unravel it”
Ed Bradley, quoted by Armen & Keteyian in Tiger Woods
I would strongly suggest that “something weird” was the narcissism of Woods, where his real self was long gone, so any interviewer looking for a “real person” behind the protective “shell” self is wasting their time, because there’s nothing there to find any more.
For more on this topic, as with so many, I’ll also quote Richard Grannon, who addressed this issue at length in a recent livestream (embedded below).
His insights, and his precision of vocabulary, continues to get better and better over time, and this is why I quote him so much on this website, because he “nails” so many issues perfectly with his knowledge of the topic, including this one about whether there is a real person or “inner child” deep inside the narcissist that can be “reached”.
The bottom line answer for him is no. Whatever inner child or real self that might have been inside the narcissist, died a long time ago.
With a Narcissist, the damage is already done (Timestamp 24:40 – 40:00 – essential viewing)
And then some crucial quotes pulled from the video:
“I’m sorry to tell you, but for a lot of things, the damage is done…..The narcissist didn’t get what they needed (in childhood), and a part of them died. The narcissistic personality disordered individual never knew true authentic love when they needed to.
In order to survive this (traumatic) scenario, the child builds a shell around themselves…..
And you come along ….. and you pour love into them, and you think ‘this poor soul, their childhood was terrible, they must be a bit weird, maybe they’re a bit autistic. Maybe they’re brain damaged. Maybe they have PTSD….I’ll love them better’.
All that love, all that sacrifice, the time, the attention, the money, was taken and given to the (narcissistic, grandiose, shell) false self…..Inside that shell, that person died. They’re dead – if it’s narcissistic personality disorder.
There is no reaching that person. There is no person to reach“.
There are some important conclusions to draw from this (or to put it differently pitfalls and traps to avoid when dealing with narcissists)
- There is no helping, “reaching” or saving them. Whatever “inner child” or real self that was inside them died a long time ago, way back in childhood.
- Therefore any therapy work, even deep level C-PTSD work, will not “reach” them or touch their disorder. Their real self is gone.
- There is no combination of words or thing to say that can break through their shell self and reach the real person inside them. Firstly, this shell is in-penetrable anyway, and secondly, there would be nothing inside there anyway even if you did. Whichever way you slice the issue, you’re wasting your time trying to “find” the real person or inner child inside a narcissist.
- Any investment you made into a relationship with a narcissist was directed towards their false, shell self. Nothing you ever did or said “reached” their real self, because there isn’t a real self there any more to reach.
As hard as it may be to face, especially if you’ve been entangled with a narcissist for many years, all of your efforts to find and reach the “real person” you thought was buried deep inside the narcissist, was a waste of time. Their real self is unfortunately long gone.
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The Benefits Of Realizing There Is No “Real Self” Within A Narcissist
However, once you grind this “no ‘there‘ there” understanding into your mindset, it can be very therapeutic and liberating, because you don’t necessarily need to take their obnoxious, abusive behavior so personally. Here are some insights I arrived at in this area:
- There’s no point getting angry or rageful at their behavior, because effectively, there’s no one there to get angry and rageful at. There’s just a series of defense mechanisms and reaction formations that operates like an algorithm.
- There’s no point in taking their insults and barbs so seriously, because there’s no one there who’s really insulting you. Just a psychological “robot”. When you see it like this, it’s effectively like being insulted by a robot or by your Alexa – meaningless!
- There’s less need to naively hope and wait for apologies and remorse, because there’s no real person there who could ever feel remorse or guilt. You move on more easily without needing any of this from them anymore.
- There’s no point in even thinking or ruminating about them, because there’s no one there to think or ruminate about. They’re meaningless, nobody, nothing, a black void. Would you ruminate over a rock or a Siri?
Therefore arriving at this insight that their real self is long gone, and you’re effectively dealing with a manipulative robot at this point, is ultimately very healing, even if it may be initially painful if you’ve invested a lot of time in them.
The Narcissist Traits vs Full Blown Narcissism Issue Applied To This Topic
Now we’ve covered the brutal reality on full blown narcissists that will be hard to stomach for some readers who may have over-invested in one, let’s pull back a bit and qualify the issue. Not everyone who is casually referred to as “narcissist” in a throwaway context actually qualifies as truly being a full blown narcissist – as having narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).
Some people just have strong narcissistic tendencies/traits. And this distinction does affect the answer to this question as to whether there’s a “real person” inside someone who might causally (but incorrectly) be referred to as a “narcissist”. Let’s provide two examples to explain this.
Scenario #1 – Someone with narcissistic traits – It’s fair to say the the term “narcissist” is probably too liberally applied simply to people who are a bit egotistical, vain, or just someone who upset you. If a person possesses some narcissistic traits, but doesn’t cross the threshold to be classed as a full blown narcissist (see below), then yes, this person can still be “reached”. Underneath the ego/brashness/vanity, there is still a real person there, and these people can change as they grow older. They probably won’t ever be the most sensitive person that’s ever existed, but they can still slowly mature and grow and “tone down” their narcissistic traits as they move forward in life. Yes, these people do still have some kind of “real self” that can be reached. They aren’t full blown narcissists.
Scenario #2 – Someone with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) – If a person possesses enough narcissistic traits and behaves in a consistently entitled, exploitative and manipulative fashion over many years, then they are likely a full blown narcissist and cannot ever be “reached”. More technically, they must possess at least 5 of the 9 DSM traits of NPD (grandiosity, self-fantasizing, sense of specialness, needing admiration, entitlement, exploitative, lacks empathy, envious, arrogant/haughty) and demonstrate these traits across time and contexts. Such people can be said to have gone through the “death of the real self” process described above, and are therefore beyond “help” or “saving”. There is no “real person” inside them to “reach” anymore – any real self they had died a long time ago as a result of the trauma they experienced.
Of course, applying the correct diagnosis to someone can only really be done by a clinician, and if someone falsely labels someone who’s merely a bit annoying/brash/egotistical/vain as a “narcissist” when they’re not (or vice versa), then that’s an error on their part.
For someone to truly be “beyond help” and have no real person inside them anymore, they do need to have full blown NPD, which requires quite a stringent diagnosis. Therefore, it’s important to not remain in denial about the obvious, but also important to not jump the gun, and carefully assess the traits a person displays over time before making a diagnosis of full blown narcissism.
Upgrading Your Understanding Of Narcissism (Overcoming Malignant Optimism)
I added this section because a very common trap that well intentioned victims caught up with narcissists fall into is stubbornly clinging onto the hope that deep inside the narcissist, there IS still a “real person” or “real self” or “inner child” that CAN be reached if they just find the right words, get them into therapy or “love” them the right way.
This well meaning but false assumption needs debunking and overcoming to finally give up hope and drop the narcissist for good. And the best way of doing this is to upgrade your understanding of the narcissistic personality disorder, especially how it’s formed and the (very poor) prognosis for it.
Here are some resources to help with this:
- Sam Vaknin short video on the Malignant Optimism of victims of narcissists (continuing to delude themselves).
- Richard Grannon 2015 Seminar – 10 hours of material, including detailed presentations on the formation of the narcissistic personality, including the false “shell” self, within which the real self dies.
- Manage Contact With Narcissist course that also covers this aspect of never being able to “reach” a narcissist, in a way that allows you to drop the naivety when dealing with them.
- Our article on not wasting time reasoning with a narcissist, plus why they cannot process facts/logic/reason.