The Narcissism of Differences Big and Small
Freud coined the phrase "narcissism of small differences" in a paper titled "The Taboo of Virginity" that he published in 1917.
Referring to earlier work by British anthropologist Ernest Crawley, he said that we reserve our most virulent emotions - aggression, hatred, envy - towards those who resemble us the most. We feel threatened not by the Other with whom we have little in common - but by the "nearly-we", who mirror and reflect us.
The "nearly-he" imperils the narcissist's selfhood and challenges his uniqueness, perfection, and superiority - the fundaments of the narcissist's sense of self-worth. It provokes in him primitive narcissistic defenses and leads him to adopt desperate measures to protect, preserve, and restore his balance. I call it the Gulliver Array of Defense Mechanisms.
The very existence of the "nearly-he" constitutes a narcissistic injury. The narcissist feels humiliated, shamed, and embarrassed not to be special after all - and he reacts with envy and aggression towards this source of frustration.
In doing so, he resorts to splitting, projection, and projective identification. He attributes to other people personal traits that he dislikes in himself and he forces them to behave in conformity with his expectations. In other words, the narcissist sees in others those parts of himself that he cannot countenance and deny. He forces people around him to become him and to reflect his shameful behaviours, hidden fears, and forbidden wishes.
But how does the narcissist avoid the realization that what he loudly decries and derides is actually part of him? By exaggerating, or even dreaming up and creatively inventing, differences between his qualities and conduct and other people's. The more hostile he becomes towards the "nearly-he", the easier it is to distinguish himself from "the Other".
To maintain this self-differentiating aggression, the narcissist stokes the fires of hostility by obsessively and vengefully nurturing grudges and hurts (some of them imagined). He dwells on injustice and pain inflicted on him by these stereotypically "bad or unworthy" people. He devalues and dehumanizes them and plots revenge to achieve closure. In the process, he indulges in grandiose fantasies, aimed to boost his feelings of omnipotence and magical immunity.
In the process of acquiring an adversary, the narcissist blocks out information that threatens to undermine his emerging self-perception as righteous and offended. He begins to base his whole identity on the brewing conflict which is by now a major preoccupation and a defining or even all-pervasive dimension of his existence.
Very much the same dynamic applies to coping with major differences between the narcissist and others. He emphasizes the large disparities while transforming even the most minor ones into decisive and unbridgeable.
Deep inside, the narcissist is continuously subject to a gnawing suspicion that his self-perception as omnipotent, omniscient, and irresistible is flawed, confabulated, and unrealistic. When criticized, the narcissist actually agrees with the critic. In other words, there are only minor differences between the narcissist and his detractors. But this threatens the narcissist's internal cohesion. Hence the wild rage at any hint of disagreement, resistance, or debate.
Similarly, intimacy brings people closer together - it makes them more similar. There are only minor differences between intimate partners. The narcissist perceives this as a threat to his sense of uniqueness. He reacts by devaluing the source of his fears: the mate, spouse, lover, or partner. He re-establishes the boundaries and the distinctions that were removed by intimacy. Thus restored, he is emotionally ready to embark on another round of idealization (the approach-avoidance repetition complex).