Today I would like to expand on the subject of Narcissism; a subject often misunderstood.
Franco Volpi; a philosopher and historian; wrote “Tell me who you see when you look at yourself on the mirror, and I will tell you what philosophy of life you live by”.
We all know the myth of Narcissus; a beautiful young man, whom was desired by nymphs, women and men, yet to him there was only one love….himself. There are many variations of the myth; however, the above quickly resolves the heart of it. Modernly, we use the term quite loosely and hence I thought it would be good to clarify what Narcissism actually means.
It was on the 8th century within the writings of Ovid; writings of impeccable poetry put together under the tittle “Metamorphosis” where the myth of Narcissus first became widely exposed (The Metamorphoses is an 8 AD Latin narrative poem by the Roman poet Ovid, considered his magnum opus. Comprising 11,995 lines, 15 books and over 250 myths, the poem chronicles the history of the world from its creation to the deification of Julius Caesar). However, it was Havelock Ellis; an English physician, writer and progressive intellectual; whom on 1898 introduced to psychology the concept of Narcissism in an article named “Autoeroticism: A psychological study”. Within that article he defined Narcissism as a sexual perversion; meaning the individual whose only focus is himself and who needs no one, nor desires anyone to satisfy his or her sexual needs.
Since then the “concept” of Narcissism has evolved. Sigmund Freud in 1914 within his essay “Introduction to Narcissism” better explained Narcissism dividing it into two: Primary Narcissism and Secondary Narcissism. Unfortunately due to ignorance on the subject; and at the time, out of fear towards exposing dysfunctionality within every family and individual; there was a great campaign to discredit Freud’s works…basically reducing his work on sexuality to nothing but an obsessive perversion. Thankfully however, by now we are more aware and able to open up about many challenges which back then were made to be kept silent.
Primary Narcissism refers to the time when we are babies. A baby isn’t capable of logical thinking….his whole being is based on instincts but those require energy; in other words, all his mental/physical energy is only focused in himself. A baby does not recognize neither mother nor father. Few know that babies go through a period of natural “autism” due to such inverted focus and the inability to recognize, much less understand his surroundings–this autism lasts about a week. All the baby’s energy is focused on satisfying his instinctual needs.
Then comes secondary Narcissism which is a theory of human psychological evolution. At around 18 months the toddler starts to more or less “consciously” recognize mother, father; as such, all the energy he used to focus on just himself, starts to be transferred to his parents. The child starts to discover there are things which bring him pleasure; such as sucking on mom’s nipples; and others which do not–I hope to have explained clearly the two evolutionary narcissisms.
How many types of Narcissim are there? There are three: Normal, Pathological and Malignant.
Normal Narcissism: Is a natural state/phase of love towards oneself, which when reaching adulthood will help become the main force towards a solid sense of self, and will help stablish profound relationships based on authenticity of self despite wounds beings present–In other words it is healthy self esteem…as you can see, to have a healthy self esteem one does not need to pretend to be perfect or to have everything under control–on the contrary, it is having the maturity to recognize one has wounds like everyone else and is a work in progress. This type of normal narcissism can be summarized by the famous teaching “love thy neighbor as you love yourself”–as you can see, the teaching was first focused on self then on others. Sadly over time this teaching was misconstrued and used to teach the masses to give up individuality, self love, self esteem and become sacrificial lambs to others.
Pathological Narcissism: This type of narcissism is often the result of being raised by parents who are Narcissistic. When one is raised by a narcissistic parent the result is often one of two. The first…either one learns to put others first in a desire to rebel against the ill ways taught by the narcissistic parent, or a desire for others not to experience the same pain the individual endured growing up with narcissistic parents.
The other result, is Pathological narcissism; where the individual deludes himself to be perfect. He or she always needs to be the center of attention at a gathering, and are willing to manipulate so they may be the “only” one getting attention. Their level of maturity is so low, they cannot stand anyone else being right or getting attention; rather than learning to mature, they often choose to focus on only the external…always trying to impress everyone by their looks or their so called friendly demeanor within social circles. However, up close they exhibit very little empathy for others, specially those closest to them. Their whole focus is their “reputation”….how much are they liked. They tend to be very close to the parent or parents who feed their false ego, and like them, they pretend to be always proper and perfect.
Malignant Narcissism: Unlike the pathological Narcissist who needs attention and praise to feel validated, the pathological narcissist prefers no attention. This type of individual is extremally manipulative and cold; unable to relate to anyone’s pain. Within this category is where one finds Psychopaths.
Now that you understand Narcissim a bit better, perhaps you can begin to comprehend why Narcissim has never been called an illness but a disorder–for as you now know, a healthy level of narcissim or normal narcissim is needed to develop a balanced sense of self.
Now let’s turn our focus to Narcissim in relations to parenting and its ramifications:
Abuse within families; specially originated by parents; is still a taboo subject. Almost all people have experienced pain in their childhood; some have suffered physical violence, others emotional and yet others sadly got to experience both; forever wounding them. Today however, I will focus on an abuse often undetected….parental narcissism–emotional abuse which is invisible to outsiders– it is subtle and silent and hides behind the façade of an immaculate family. I am talking about manipulation, ignorance, insults, disdain, lack of coherency and degradation.
Narcissistic parents tend to have “favorites” among their children–they often favor the one whom already shows tendency to be pathologically narcissistic; often praising them over every little thing, hiding any imperfections and always making up excuses for their child’s lack of genuine empathy for others, including his or her own siblings.
Narcissistic parents tend to use gaslighting to manipulate the sense of reality of the child being abused. Gaslighting is one of the most insidious and perfidious methods of emotional abuse. Narcissistic parents often pick on the brightest child, or the one with the most empathy–always trying to make that child feel less because they can’t stand what that child represents (real self) vs. the false ego which rules the narcissistic parent. Narcissistic parents hate empathy, so if a child is a natural empath, he or she will be the target and be tormented. Narcissistic parents protect the child whom is also narcissistic, because that child knows how to “play” the crowd–friendly with everyone but deep down couldn’t care less about who a person is unless that person is of benefit.
When children talk to others about unfair treatment and humiliation, the narcissist parent usually quickly presents a very rational explanation and later condemns the child–making sure no one else is present to watch–the parent makes sure the child emotionally or physically or both, quickly understands the severe repercussion when daring to ask for help from others.
It often happens that narcissistic parents in order to protect their reputation, often spread the impression that their child suffers from a psychiatric pathology or physical illness–in that way, they make sure the child is not taken seriously while also playing the role of savior and martyr. By using this technique, they assure limited external social contact with the child, and the child learns to live in loneliness; his sense of trust on the world eroded...”if I call for help, no one comes or cares, so it is best not to ask for help”.
The narcissistic parent will work very hard at destroying the social reputation of the child. Children who recognize the abuse and try to point it out or escape it, often grow up as the scapegoats for any discomfort or anything that goes wrong within the family.
Mothers tend to be the most prompt to being the narcissistic parent but there are also many cases within fathers. Usually all it takes is a narcissistic mother and an absentee father or a father too weak to stand up to his spouse (or the other way around).
It is often seen, that fathers who witnessed the abuse among their children, in an effort to escape their own cowardice, will alienate the child that was abused and protect the child who grow up also narcissistic…why? because that child is “easy going” and likes to praise the father…but they do so, only to manipulate a situation.
Because it is almost inconceivable by society to believe that a mother (or father) could abuse his or her own child, is very difficult for the narcissistic behavior to come to light . The narcissistic parent creates a façade of their own person that conveys an image of infallibility; any “stain” on such image by the child being abused can lead to more emotional cruelty, subtraction of affection, public defamation and even physical punishment (often using someone else to do this).
To narcissistic parents, their children become an operational extension of their lack of self-esteem and empathy. Every violation of the rules of the game that can corrupt image and reputation, will be punished with more abuse and more emotional blackmail–they hold the children responsible for the show they are portraying.
Narcissistic parents act solely in their own interests, which the child must also fulfill. The young child is made responsible for anything that goes wrong, and is taught that it is his or her responsibility to always care for the narcissistic parent, even through all the abuse–for that is supposed to be love–such contradictions with these principles will never be considered or discussed, in this way the mind of the young child becomes a constant yo-yo. Why would the child trust his or her choices when he or she is made to feel incapable of making the right ones? Because of this, the abused child often grows up feeling useless and blames himself for the narcissistic parents’ suffering.
The narcissistic parent is incapable of feeling empathy, much less love towards the child being abused; however, they will make sure to always claim “love” for “all” the children equally. Consequently, children who have been abused by narcissistic parents usually develop a passive, moldable and flexible character; others will rebel yet such internal fight will be a long and painful one. It may take many years for the person raised by narcissistic parents to understand it is okay to make choices that may be perceived as “selfish”. These people are often very empathetic, and it is said they grow up to easily identify the pain in others, but will need external help (family, friends, lovers) to help them recognize that is okay not to sacrifice oneself all the time. They don’t know how to do this without guidance and patience.
The gentleness of this empathetic children, makes them easy targets for mental blackmail; the narcissistic parent knows this and will mentally rape the child over and over again. A mental rape is no less painful than the physical one and unfortunately unlike the physical one, it is very difficult to prove.
It is very important to recognize our own contributions to this type of pathology being continued…things such as “they are your parents, they love you no matter what” is something we should not be saying to a child/young adult or even an adult who grew up with narcissistic parents, for it teaches to simply accept abuse as love.
It is also important not to promote pathological narcissism by contributing to a society that likes to over reward children for every little thing, even when no effort is being shown from their part. This has been proven to be an obsolete paradigm; it does not build healthy self esteem, it builds narcissistic personalities (subconsciously it says…“you are not good enough but I feel sorry for you, so I will give you something to shut you up”). It is sad this old paradigm, which was implemented to try to “make up” for an over authoritarian one, is still being practiced despite the results proving to be negative ones. The answer never lies within any extreme but within balance; otherwise, we are simply feeding the same illness under a different name or creating a new one.