A child who feels so gravely threatened by his own aggressive feelings (projected onto others and then internalized again as inner “monsters”) attempts to compensate himself for his experi­ences of rage and envy with fantasies of wealth, beauty, and om­nipotence. These fantasies, together with the internalized images of the good parents with which he attempts to defend himself, become the core of a “grandiose conception of the self.” A kind of “blind optimism,” according to Otto Kernberg, protects the nar­cissistic child from the dangers around and within him—par­ticularly from dependence on others, who are perceived as with­out exception undependable. “Constant projection of ‘all bad’ self and object images perpetuates a world of dangerous, threatening objects, against which the ‘all good’ self images are used defen­sively, and megalomanic ideal self images are built up.” The splitting of images determined by aggressive feelings from images that derive from libidinal impulses makes it impossible for the child to acknowledge his own aggression, to experience guilt or concern for objects invested simultaneously with aggression and libido, or to mourn for lost objects. Depression in narcissistic pa­tients takes the form not of mourning with its admixture of guilt, described by Freud in “Mourning and Melancholia,” but of impo­tent rage and “feelings of defeat by external forces.”

Because the intrapsychic world of these patients is so thinly populated—consisting only of the “grandiose self,” in Kernberg’s words, “the devalued, shadowy images of self and others, and po­tential persecutors”—they experience intense feelings of emp­tiness and inauthenticity. Although the narcissist can function in the everyday world and often charms other people (not least with his “pseudo-insight into his personality”), his devaluation of oth­ers, together with his lack of curiosity about them, impoverishes his personal life and reinforces the “subjective experience of emp­tiness.” Lacking any real intellectual engagement with the world—notwithstanding a frequently inflated estimate of his own intellectual abilities—he has little capacity for sublimation. He therefore depends on others for constant infusions of approval and admiration. He “must attach [himself] to someone, living an almost parasitic” existence. At the same time, his fear of emo­tional dependence, together with his manipulative, exploitive approach to personal relations, makes these relations bland, su­perficial, and deeply unsatisfying. “The ideal relationship to me would be a two month relationship,” said a borderline patient. “That way there’d be no commitment. At the end of the two months I’d just break it off.”