In previous articles, we've noted a few similarities between narcissism and Multiple Personality Disorder, which we now call Dissociative Identity Disorder. Most of us know what DID is. It's where a person has more than one personality living in the same body. These are true personalities in every sense of the word, most of the time. They have their own features, hobbies, likes, dislikes, memories... everything. It would be kind of like if you and your best friend shared the same body. Your mind would not be their mind. You could not speak for them. You would not share memories.
This is how multiple personalities work. It is even reported sometimes by clinicians and doctors assessing multiple personalities that, depending on which personality was standing "at the front," so to speak, the patient would actually look different or take on different characteristics, as if it really were another person speaking. That makes sense. So much of what we look like and how we present ourselves is due to our personalities.
Multiple personalities are created by trauma. The way this happens is a very complicated and complex process, but as a very basic explanation, we could say that abusing a child is like hitting a mirror with a hammer. The harder you hit it, the worse it breaks. The reflection you see is still the same person, but it is fractured and no longer whole. The trauma that creates narcissism works much the same way. The breaks may not be as severe as what creates actual multiple personalities, but these breaks are very much there. Narcissists, like people with multiple personalities, are different personas stemming from a fractured identity. They are a dysfunctional piecing-together of what was once - or could once have been - the original expression of the true identity. In a very real way, they have a "split personality." That's what creates the Jekyll/Hyde dynamic we often see.
In the narcissist there is usually at least a vulnerable self and a protective self, though there may be other sides as well. Depending on the person, you may never see the vulnerable self because the protective self, which usually holds all the more overtly narcissistic qualities, is standing in front of the vulnerable one all the time, protecting it. Narcissism as a whole is a defense mechanism. Everything the narcissist does is a means to that end. Either they are trying to defend themselves, or sustain themselves. Always.
Contrary to what people may believe, the vulnerable self is no less narcissistic than the protective self. It simply reacts to things differently. Even though the execution is different than the protective self, their goals are basically the same: advancement and protection of self. Therefore, the vulnerable self is just as narcissistic. This is the side you may see more of in covert narcissists, especially Borderline Personality Disordered narcissists. The vulnerable self is an immature victim. Everything is an emergency to the vulnerable self. Everything is a catastrophe, everything is painful. This self usually holds the pain and sadness for the narcissist, and there is a lot of it. The protective self is not burdened by these qualities, because being so overtly narcissistic, it has no feelings. That's why it's a good protector. It has no regret, no conscience, no remorse and no mercy. We will often see these types of "protector selves" in multiple personality structures as well. The vulnerable self wants to love and be loved but has no actual capacity for either, no understanding of these things and is pathologically terrified of intimacy besides. Anytime these intimate feelings are felt too strongly, this inevitably triggers a fear response which brings the protective self to the forefront. Every time the vulnerable self becomes too upset or afraid, the protective self will take over in reaction, and for some narcissists, the vulnerable self is so damaged and traumatized, it is afraid all the time.
When you deal with a pathologically narcissistic person, you are dealing with at least these two masks or false personas - all the time. You are not dealing with the true self of the narcissist. Many people make the mistake of believing the vulnerable self is the true self. This is not so. The true self of most narcissists is not accessible, even to the narcissist. For all intents and purposes, it does not exist. The personality has fractured because the identity was shattered and broken before it had a chance to develop fully and there is no way to fix that. That is why we say narcissists cannot be treated or healed. The personality cannot be put back together again, because it has grown into its dysfunction and established itself. What we are left with are the pieces of this original identity walking around trying to cope with life and feeling very unable to do so.
As the personality is not integrated or whole, it cannot process past traumas, nor can it grow or heal. It is simply stuck in a time warp of emotion where it feels the trauma and pain of the past, every day as if it were happening now. These false selves were created as a way to cope with that. Unfortunately, that is all they are really able to do. They cannot relate to other people. They cannot grow or move on. There is no room in there. There is no room for anything but the self.