Equivalence of Core Narcissistic and Borderline Personality Dynamics
Narcissistic and borderline personalities are variants of the same underlying core dynamics. While their superficial presentations differ, both the narcissistic and the borderline personality have the same underlying core structures.
Narcissistic and borderline personality structures represent the coalesced product of the “internal working models,” or “schemas,” of the attachment system.
The attachment system creates “internal working models” regarding expectations for self-in-relationship and other-in-relationship. Within the attachment system for both the narcissistic and borderline personality structures, the internal working model for self-in-relationship is “I am fundamentally inadequate as a person” and the other-in-relationship expectation is that “I will be abandoned by the other because of my fundamental inadequacy.”
The difference between the narcissistic and borderline personalities is that the borderline personality experiences these core beliefs directly and continually, resulting in continually disorganized emotions and relationships, whereas the narcissistic personality is able to develop a psychological defense of narcissistic self-inflation that prevents the direct experience of self-inadequacy and fears of abandonment. Instead, the narcissistic personality projects the self-inadequacy onto others, who the narcissist then devalues and rejects for their inadequacy. Puncture the narcissistic defense, however, and the underlying borderline emotional disorganization becomes evident in hostile tirades of venom and vitriol.
Kernberg, O.F. (1975). Borderline conditions and pathological narcissism.. New York: Aronson.
“One subgroup of borderline patients, namely, the narcissistic personalities… seem to have a defensive organization similar to borderline conditions, and yet many of them function on a much better psychosocial level.” (p. xiii)
For the narcissistic-borderline personality structure, truth and reality are fluid constructs that are subject to the ever changing emotional needs of the moment.
For both the narcissistic and borderline personality structure, regulating their intense emotional distress originating from their core sense of primal self-inadequacy and fear of abandonment takes precedence over external restrictions, even the external restrictions placed on them by truth and reality. If they need truth or reality to be different in order to regulate their emotions, then they simply assert a different truth, a different reality.
“Narcissists are neither disposed to stick to objective facts or to restrict their actions within the boundaries of social custom or cooperative living… Free to wander in their private world of fiction, narcissists may lose touch with reality, lose their sense of proportion, and begin to think along peculiar and deviant lines.” (Millon, 2011, p. 415)
For the narcissistic/borderline personality, there is no objectivity to reality or truth. Reality and truth are subjective experiences that can change as the subjectivity of the narcissistic or borderline personality requires. If the narcissistic/borderline personality requires the sky to be red, they simply assert the sky is red, and that becomes reality. If 10 minutes later they need the sky to be green, they simply assert that the sky is green and that becomes reality.
For the narcissistic and borderline personality structure, “truth and reality are what I assert them to be.”
If we try to hold them accountable to a set and verifiable reality, the narcissistic/borderline personality will unleash a hostile assault of accusations, creating communication chaos with unrelated accusations, fabricated distortions, and flat denial of reality that follow so rapidly upon one another that the factual accuracy of any accusation or denial can’t be addressed.
The ability to assert whatever truth and reality is required in the moment thrives in chaos and dies in clarity. As long as chaos reigns, the narcissistic/borderline personality is free to assert and change reality and truth as needed.
Theodore Millon, one of the premier experts in personality disorders, describes the narcissistic propensity to dissolve into idiosyncratic thinking that is unconnected to reality,
“Were narcissists able to respect others, allow themselves to value others’ opinions, or see the world through others’ eyes, their tendency toward illusion and unreality might be checked or curtailed. Unfortunately, narcissists have learned to devalue others, not to trust their judgments, and to think of them as naïve and simpleminded. Thus, rather than question the correctness of their own beliefs they assume that the views of others are at fault. Hence, the more disagreement they have with others, the more convinced they are of their own superiority and the more isolated and alienated they are likely to become. These ideational difficulties are magnified further by their inability to participate skillfully in the give-and-take of shared social life… They are increasingly unable to assess situations objectively, thereby failing further to grasp why they have been rebuffed and misunderstood. Distressed by these repeated and perplexing social failures, they’re likely, at first, to become depressed and morose. However, true to their fashion, they will begin to elaborate new and fantastic rationales to account for their fate. But the more they conjecture and ruminate, the more they lose touch, distort, and perceive things that are not there. They may begin to be suspicious of others, to question their intentions, and to criticize them for ostensive deceptions…
“Deficient in social controls and self-discipline, the tendency of CEN narcissists to fantasize and distort may speed up. The air of grandiosity may become more flagrant. They may find hidden and deprecatory meanings in the incidental behavior of others, becoming convinced of others malicious motives, claims upon them, and attempts to undo them. As their behaviors and thoughts transgress the line of reality, their alienation will mount, and they may seek to protect their phantom image of superiority more vigorously and vigilantly than ever. Trapped by the consequences of their own actions, they may become bewildered and frightened as the downward spiral progresses through its inexorable course. No longer in touch with reality, they begin to accuse others and hold them responsible for their own shame and failures. They may build a “logic” based on the irrelevant and entirely circumstantial evidence and ultimately construct a delusion system to protect themselves from unbearable reality.” (p. 415)
Yet the narcissistic/borderline personality can superficially present well, so that the extent of their psychopathology goes unnoticed, even by mental health professionals. According to Cohen (1998),
“The perception [of narcissism in a patient] is hampered by the fact that narcissistic individuals may well be intelligent, charming, and sometimes creative people who function effectively in their professional lives and in a range of social situations (Akhtar, 1992; Hendler, 1975)… While narcissism is recognized as a serious mental disorder, its manifestations may not be immediately recognized as pathological, even by persons in the helping professions, and its implications may remain unattended to. (p. 197)
Beck et al., (2004) note that narcissists can display “a deceptively warm demeanor” (p. 241) and Millon (2011) describes that “when not faced with humiliating or stressful situations, CENs [confident-egoistic-narcissists] convey a calm and self-assured quality in their social behavior. Their untroubled and self-satisfied air is viewed by some as a sign of confident equanimity” (p. 388-389).
The borderline personality can also present well superficially. The borderline style will present as a victim of cruelty from others that elicits a nurturing/protective response from unsophisticated mental health professionals. As long as these mental health professionals do not challenge the constructed “reality” presented by the borderline personality, then these mental health professionals will be co-opted into becoming allies within the splitting dynamic of the borderline personality, and will be rewarded with displays of gratitude as the all-good wonderfully understanding and protective other within the borderline’s splitting dynamic.
Being the idealized, all-wonderful, perfectly understanding and protective other can be quite seductive for the naive and unsophisticated mental health professional, who is by nature a helpng person. But it represents a failure of professional knowledge and understanding in favor of the personal ego-gratification of the mental health professional.
The borderline personality is quite adept at presenting in the victim role to elicit protective nuturance from others. A leading figure in personality disorders, Aaron Beck, notes that is is often difficult even in his own clinic to recognize the borderline personality presentation,
“Underdiagnosis constitutes a big problem that results in insufficient treatment. In many cases we saw, it took years of fruitless attempts to treat these patients before it became clear they were in fact suffering from BPD [borderline personality disorder].” (Beck et al., 2004, p. 196)
The children and families evidencing attachment-based “parental alienation” represent a “special population” requiring specialized professional knowledge, training, and expertise to professionally diagnose and treat.
Among the domains of knowledge necessary is a professional level of expertise regarding the presentation features and underlying dynamics of narcissistic and borderline personality structures. Expertise in narcissistic and borderline personalities is not typical for most child and family therapists since personality disorders are an extremely rare presentation in children, and a rare presentation in parents.
Child and family therapists tend to focus on the common disorders of childhood, child oppositional-defiant behavior, attention deficits and hyperactivity, autism-spectrum problems. A professional level of expertise in narcissistic and borderline personality characteristic presentations and dynamics is typically not something most child and family mental health professionals possess.
In most, if not nearly all, cases of typical child and family issues the therapist can trust that the reports of parents are within an acceptable range of truth and reality. This assumption is not necessarily accurate when interacting with narcissistic and borderline personalities. Mental health professionals working with this “special population” of children and families require specialized professional knowledge, training, and expertise related to narcissistic and borderline personality characteristics and dynamics so that they may be alert for the profound distortions of truth and reality associated with narcissistic/borderline personality processes.
In addition, narcissistic and borderline personality dynamics are not necessarily easily recognizable. However, narcissistic and borderline personality dynamics are DIRECTLY RELEVANT to the diagnosis and treatment of attachment-based “parental alienation” so that these personality dynamics are directly relevant to professional competence with this “special population” of children and families.
Professionals who are diagnosing and treating attachment-based “parental alienation” require specialized professional knowledge, training, and expertise for professional competence with this “special population” of children and families, and one of the most important domains of specialized expertise is in the recognition of narcissistic and borderline personality dynamics within the family.
Craig Childress, Psy.D.
Clinical Psychologist, PSY 18857
Beck, A.T., Freeman, A., Davis, D.D., & Associates (2004). Cognitive therapy of personality disorders. (2nd edition). New York: Guilford.
Cohen, O. (1998). Parental narcissism and the disengagement of the non-custodial father after divorce. Clinical Social Work Journal, 26, 195-215
Millon. T. (2011). Disorders of personality: introducing a DSM/ICD spectrum from normal to abnormal. Hoboken: Wiley.