by Dr Sam Vaknin Author of "Malignant Self Love - Narcissism Revisited" The presence of pets activates in us two primitive psychological defense mechanisms: projection and narcissism. Projection is a defense mechanism intended to cope with internal or external stressors and emotional conflict by attributing, usually falsely, to another person or object (such as a pet) thoughts, feelings, wishes, impulses, needs, and hopes deemed forbidden or unacceptable by the projecting party. In the case of pets, projection works through anthropomorphism: we attribute to animals our traits, behavior patterns, needs, wishes, emotions, and cognitive processes. This perceived similarity endears them to us and motivates us to care for our pets and cherish them. But, why do people become pet-owners in the first place? Caring for pets comprises equal measures of satisfaction and frustration. Pet-owners often employ a psychological defense mechanism known as "cognitive dissonance" to suppress the negative aspects of having pets and to deny the unpalatable fact that raising pets and caring for them may be time consuming, exhausting, and strains otherwise pleasurable and tranquil relationships to their limits. Pet-ownership is possibly an irrational vocation, but humanity keeps keeping pets. It may well be the call of nature. All living species reproduce and most of them parent. Pets sometimes serve as surrogate children and friends. Is this maternity (and paternity) by proxy proof that, beneath the ephemeral veneer of civilization, we are still merely a kind of beast, subject to the impulses and hard-wired behavior that permeate the rest of the animal kingdom? Is our existential loneliness so extreme that it crosses the species barrier? There is no denying that most people want their pets and love them. They are attached to them and experience grief and bereavement when they die, depart, or are sick. Most pet-owners find keeping pets emotionally fulfilling, happiness-inducing, and highly satisfying. This pertains even to unplanned and initially unwanted new arrivals. Could this be the missing link? Does pet-ownership revolve around self-gratification? Does it all boil down to the pleasure principle? Pet-keeping may, indeed, be habit forming. Months of raising pups and cubs and a host of social positive reinforcements and expectations condition pet-owners to do the job. Still, a living pet is nothing like the abstract concept. Pets wail, soil themselves and their environment, stink, and severely disrupt the lives of their owners. Nothing too enticing here. If you eliminate the impossible, what is left - however improbable - must be the truth. People keep pets because it provides them with narcissistic supply. A Narcissist is a person who projects a (false) image unto others and uses the interest this generates to regulate a labile (unstable; liable to change) and grandiose sense of self-worth. The reactions garnered by the narcissist - attention, unconditional acceptance, adulation, admiration, affirmation - are collectively known as "narcissistic supply". The narcissist treats pets as mere instruments of gratification. Infants go through a phase of unbridled fantasy, tyrannical behaviour, and perceived omnipotence. An adult narcissist, in other words, is still stuck in his "terrible twos" and is possessed with the emotional maturity of a toddler. To some degree, we are all narcissists. Yet, as we grow, we learn to empathize and to love ourselves and others. This edifice of maturity is severely tested by pet-ownership. Pets evoke in their keepers the most primordial drives, protective, animalistic instincts, the desire to merge with the pet and a sense of terror generated by such a desire (a fear of vanishing and of being assimilated). Pets engender in their owners an emotional regression. The owners find themselves revisiting their own childhood even as they are caring for their pets. The crumbling of decades and layers of personal growth is accompanied by a resurgence of the aforementioned early infancy narcissistic defenses. Pet-keepers, especially new ones, are gradually transformed into narcissists by this encounter and find in their pets the perfect sources of narcissistic supply, euphemistically known as love. Really it is a form of symbiotic co-dependence of both parties. Even the most balanced, most mature, most psychodynamically stable of pet-owners finds such a flood of narcissistic supply irresistible and addictive. It enhances his or her self-confidence, buttresses self esteem, regulates the sense of self-worth, and projects a complimentary image of the parent to himself or herself. It fast becomes indispensable. The key to our determination to have pets is our wish to experience the same unconditional love that we received from our mothers, this intoxicating feeling of being adored without caveats, for what we are, with no limits, reservations, or calculations. This is the most powerful, crystallized form of narcissistic supply. It nourishes our self-love, self worth and self-confidence. It infuses us with feelings of omnipotence and omniscience. In these, and other respects, pet-ownership is a return to infancy. ----o0o---- Sam Vaknin ( ) is the author of Malignant Self Love - Narcissism Revisited and After the Rain - How the West Lost the East. He served as a columnist for Global Politician, Central Europe Review, PopMatters, Bellaonline, and eBookWeb, a United Press International (UPI) Senior Business Correspondent, and the editor of mental health and Central East Europe categories in The Open Directory and Suite101. Visit Sam's Web site at