Narcissism, a Relational Aspect of Dissociation


Narcissism (Photo credit: Gwenaël Piaser)

by Elizabeth F Howell

Journal of Trauma Dissociation (2003)
Volume: 4, Issue: 773512528, Pages: 51-71.


Pathological narcissism is an inevitable result of trauma-generated dissociation. It is also a relational aspect of dissociation, for in dissociative psychopathology the mutuality of relationships, both interpersonal and intrapsychic, has collapsed in significant ways.

Dissociation of both aggression and dependency characterizes the “closed system.” While an open system allows interaction with the outside and transformation of the individual through interactive interchange with another, a closed system precludes transformation and intersubjectivity. Grandiose, domineering self-states may be understood as procedural, somatoform, dyadic enactments.

These working models of attachment are at the core of much of the narcissistic entitlement, grandiosity, domination, and self-sufficiency that are so often found in dissociative disorders and in narcissism. It is possible to have a real impact on the closed system of narcissistic psychopathology by providing a safe attachment within the therapeutic relationship, and empathizing with the expression of self-protective aggression while containing its destructiveness. As a safe attachment figure with expertise, the therapist has the opportunity to facilitate positive transformation.


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  1. avalon111

     /  03/22/2012

    Elizabeth Howell starts with an interesting statement: Pathological narcissism is an inevitable result of trauma-generated dissociation.

    this though could be perhaps be accurqately turned around to ‘Dissociation is some;times a result of panthological narcissism’.

    Which comes first, the chicken or the egg? A feature of most ‘multiples’ is their neediness – their wish for attention, displayed so routinely in modern times on YouTube. This isn’t like any other mental condiition seen before; with MPD the sufferer is more than happy to discuss their story – indeed is positively frantic to announce to the world that they are a multiple.

    Way back in 1993, Gloria Steinem, who was then and still is, enthusiastically advocating for MPD and her desire for American women to have more than one menstrual cycle (apparently one just isn’t enough) narrated ‘Multiple Personalities: The Search for Deadly Memories’ on PBS. We were given an insight into three ‘multiples’ but it was the last one – ‘Barb’ who was the least convincing, and who somewhat obviously displayed the narcissistic nature of those who claim to be ‘survivors’ and multiples.

    The trauma states of those who are genuinely abused, particularly as children, and have the expected injuries associated with such abuse, don’t match anything like Howell’s ‘Grandiose, domineering self-states’. Rather, such folk are permanently hamstrung by their memories, which they cannot conveniently forget like ‘multiples’ and they present as anything but confident or domineering.

    That conflict – between those who claim MPD caused by severe childhood trauma (such as satanic ritual abuse) and those who were genuinely abused in childhood is an intractable problem. A game of ‘opposites’ applies here; those with the injuries and the verifiable past don’t have MPD or repressed memories – not least because the MPD regime demands that the ‘survivor’ drum-up a story sufficiently horrible to explain MPD, and the therapists invariably demand stories that go way beyond accounts of childhood physical and/or sexual abuse . Those with no injuries or verifiable past (such as membership of a satanic cult now apparently wound-up) apparently manage to repress their memories and develop multiple personalities. The very people that could be expected to develop MPD and repress memory are the very people who can’t. Narcissism though may explain why those least expected to be ‘multiple’ or to have ‘repressed memories’ do claim such conditions.


    • I’ve asked many times why we don’t see soldiers burdened with multiple personalities. I’m sure some of them assume a “role” if you will to help them cope with an inhumane situation. I won’t speak for them because I’ve never been in combat. I think the criterion of severe, repeated trauma is met in this situation. The problem is not remembering – it’s forgetting.

      Your comments give me the impression that some people fake MPD. As I see it many women develop symptoms and when believe themselves – especially when reinforced by therapists and others who hae similar belief systems.

      I don’t find others with mental illness engaging in self-exploitation as those who believe they hae multiple personalities. There are hundreds of YouTube videos of people confessing and blaming someone else for their condition.


  2. Hey Jeanette,

    having lived with my wife for almost 24 years, at least in her case, I wouldn’t say she is narcissistic (at least in the popular sense of the word). I always thought she was extremely “selfish” in our marriage relationship as I tried so hard to love her and meet her needs and she rarely would reciprocate even though I saw her be extremely giving to our son and others outside of our marriage.

    But the d.i.d. helped make sense of this dichotomy. Because of the abuse and lack of affection from her parents she grew up feeling unsafe in an intimate (emotionally/sexually) relationship and the little girls were “desperately” needy for love and safety. They weren’t “narcissistic” at all, but they were desperate to be loved and to feel safe.



  3. In my wife’s case I’m not sure I would call it narcissitic because she doesn’t really even love herself. What it seems to be is that she was so needy as a child that it caused her to be selfish: desperate for any affection and yet her desperation for love and her fear of intimacy emotional/sexual etc kept her from being able to reciprocate that love no matter how much I gave her.

    Therapists are NOT safe attachment figures, as I have dealt with on my blog. Any relationship that is predicated upon the transfer of money is NOT a safe attachment relationship. That doesn’t mean I’m anti-therapist, but they should NOT be attachment figures except in the case of last resort.



    • Hi Sam,

      I agree with you that Therapists are Not safe attachment figures. They stick around only until the prestige or money runs out. I’m not anti-therapy either just a realist.

      What I wonder Sam, is at what point in a person’s life does the – I’m like this because of my parents – get shed?

      It seems to me that how you define your relationship with your wife is that of one person being narcissitic and the other being giving. Narcissitic, in how I am using it at this moment, is someone demanding all the attention but believing they have no responsiblity to step out of themselves to see that their caregiver has needs just as they do. Best.



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