Narcissism FAQ: The Narcissist’s Mother

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A. The Loved Enemies – An Introduction

An oft-overlooked fact is that the child is not sure that it exists. It avidly absorbs cues from its human environment. “Am I present?”, “Am I separate?”, “Can I be noticed?” – these are the questions that compete in his mind with his need to merge, to become a part of his caregivers. Granted, the infant (ages 0 to 2) does not engage in a verbal formulation of these “thoughts” (which are part cognitive, part instinctual). This nagging uncertainty is more akin to a discomfort, like being thirsty or wet. The infant is torn between its need to differentiate and distinguish its SELF – and its no less urgent need to assimilate and integrate by being assimilated and integrated.

H. Kohut: “Just as we know, from the point of view of the physiologist, that a child needs to be given certain foods, that he needs to be protected against extreme temperatures, and that the atmosphere he breathes has to contain sufficient oxygen, if his body is to become strong and resilient, so do we also know, from the point of view of the depth-psychologist, that he requires an empathic environment, specifically, an environment that responds (a) to his need to have his presence confirmed by the glow of parental pleasure and (b) to his need to merge into the reassuring calmness of the powerful adult, if he is to acquire a firm and resilient self.”
(From: “The Dynamics and Treatment of Alcoholism”)

The child’s nascent self must first overcome its feelings of diffusiveness, of being an extension of its caregivers (to include parents, in this text), or a part of them. Kohut says that parents perform the functions of the self for their child. More likely, a battle is joined from the first breath of the child: a battle to gain autonomy, to usurp the power of the parents, to become a distinct unit. The child refuses to let the parents be its self for him. It rebels and seeks to depose them and take over their functions. The better the parents serve as self-objects (in lieu of the child’s self) – the stronger the child’s self becomes, the more vigorously it fights for its independence. The parents, in this sense, are like a benign, benevolent and enlightened colonial power, which performs the tasks of governance on behalf of the uneducated and uninitiated natives. The more lenient the colonial regime – the more likely it is to be abolished in a popular uprising.

Kohut: “The crucial question then is whether the parents are able to reflect with approval at least some of the child’s proudly exhibited attributes and functions, whether they are able to respond with genuine enjoyment to his budding skills, whether they are able to remain in touch with him throughout his trials and errors. And, furthermore, we must determine whether they are able to provide the child with a reliable embodiment of calmness and strength into which he can merge and with a focus for his need to find a target for his admiration. Or, stated in the obverse, it will be of crucial importance to ascertain the fact that a child could find neither confirmation of his own worthwhileness nor a target for a merger with the idealised strength of the parent and that he, therefore, remained deprived of the opportunity for the gradual transformation of these external sources of narcissistic sustenance into endopsychic resources, that is, specifically into sustaining self-esteem and into a sustaining relationship to internal ideals.”
(From: “The Dynamics and Treatment of Alcoholism”)

B. Born Aliens

Neonates have no psychology. If operated upon, for instance, they are not supposed to show signs of trauma later on in life. Birth, according to this school of thought is of no psychological consequence to the newborn baby. It is immeasurably more important to his “primary caregiver” (mother) and to her supporters (read: father and other members of the family). It is through them that the baby is, supposedly, effected. This effect is evident in his (I will use the male form only for convenience’s sake) ability to bond. The late Karl Sagan professed to possess the diametrically opposed view when he compared the process of death to that of being born. He was commenting upon the numerous testimonials of people brought back to life following their confirmed, clinical death. Most of them shared an experience of traversing a dark tunnel. A combination of soft light and soothing voices and the figures of their deceased nearest and dearest awaited them at the end of this tunnel. All those who experienced it described the light as the manifestation of an omnipotent, benevolent being. The tunnel – suggested Sagan – is a rendition of the mother’s tract. The process of birth involves gradual exposure to light and to the figures of humans. Clinical death experiences only recreate birth experiences.

The womb is a self-contained though open (not self-sufficient) ecosystem. The Baby’s Planet is spatially confined, almost devoid of light and homeostatic. The fetus breathes liquid oxygen, rather than the gaseous variant. He is subjected to an unending barrage of noises, most of them rhythmical. Otherwise, there are very few stimuli to elicit any of his fixed action responses. There, dependent and protected, his world lacks the most evident features of ours. There are no dimensions where there is no light. There is no “inside” and “outside”, “self” and “others”, “extension” and “main body”, “here” and “there”. Our Planet is exactly converse. There could be no greater disparity. In this sense – and it is not a restricted sense at all – the baby is an alien. He has to train himself and to learn to become human. Kittens, whose eyes were tied immediately after birth – could not “see” straight lines and kept tumbling over tightly strung cords. Even sense data involve some modicum and modes of conceptualization.

Even lower animals (worms) avoid unpleasant corners in mazes in the wake of nasty experiences. To suggest that a human neonate, equipped with hundreds of neural cubic feet does not recall migrating from one planet to another, from one extreme to its total opposition – stretches credulity. Babies may be asleep 16-20 hours a day because they are shocked and depressed. These abnormal spans of sleep are more typical of major depressive episodes than of vigorous, vivacious, vibrant growth. Taking into consideration the mind-boggling amounts of information that the baby has to absorb just in order to stay alive – sleeping through most of it seems like an inordinately inane strategy. The baby seems to be awake in the womb more than he is outside it. Cast into the outer light, the baby tries, at first, to ignore reality.

This is our first defense line. It stays with us as we grow up.

It has long been noted that pregnancy continues outside the womb. The brain develops and reaches 75% of adult size by the age of 2 years. It is completed only by the age of 10. It takes, therefore, ten years to complete the development of this indispensable organ – almost wholly outside the womb. And this “external pregnancy” is not limited to the brain only. The baby grows by 25 cm and by 6 kilos in the first year alone. He doubles his weight by his fourth month and triples it by his first birthday. The development process is not smooth but by fits and starts. Not only do the parameters of the body change – but its proportions do as well. In the first two years, for instance, the head is larger in order to accommodate the rapid growth of the Central Nervous System. This changes drastically later on as the growth of the head is dwarfed by the growth of the extremities of the body. The transformation is so fundamental, the plasticity of the body so pronounced – that in most likelihood this is the reason why no operative sense of identity emerges until after the fourth year of childhood. It calls to mind Kafka’s Gregor Samsa (who woke up to find that he is a giant cockroach). It is identity shattering. It must engender in the baby a sense of self-estrangement and loss of control over who is and what the is. The motor development of the baby is heavily influenced both by the lack of sufficient neural equipment and by the ever-changing dimensions and proportions of the body. While all other animal cubs are fully motoric in their first few weeks of life – the human baby is woefully slow and hesitant. The motor development is proximodistal. The baby moves in ever widening concentric circles from itself to the outside world. First the whole arm, grasping, then the useful fingers (especially the thumb and forefinger combination), first batting at random, then reaching accurately. The inflation of its body must give the baby the impression that he is in the process of devouring the world. Right up to his second year the baby tries to assimilate the world through his mouth (which is the prima causa of his own growth). He divides the world into “suckable” and “insuckable” (as well as to “stimuli-generating” and “not generating stimuli”). His mind expands even faster than his body. He must feel that he is all-encompassing, all-inclusive, all-engulfing, all-pervasive.

This is why a baby has no object permanence. In other words, a baby finds it hard to believe the existence of other objects if he does not see them (=if they are not IN his eyes). They all exist in his outlandishly exploding mind and only there. The universe cannot accommodate a creature, which doubles itself physically every 4 months as well as objects outside the perimeter of such an inflationary being, the baby “believes”. The inflation of the body has a correlate in the inflation of consciousness. These two processes overwhelm the baby into a passive absorption and inclusion mode.

To assume that the child is born a “tabula rasa” is superstition. Cerebral processes and responses have been observed in utero. Sounds condition the EEG of fetuses. They startle at loud, sudden noises. This means that they can hear and interpret what they hear. Fetuses even remember stories read to them while in the womb. They prefer these stories to others after they are born.

This means that they can tell auditory patterns and parameters apart. They tilt their head at the direction sounds are coming from. They do so even in the absence of visual cues (e.g., in a dark room). They can tell the mother’s voice apart (perhaps because it is high pitched and thus recalled by them). In general, babies are tuned to human speech and can distinguish sounds better than adults do. Chinese and Japanese babies react differently to “pa” and to “ba”, to “ra” and to “la”. Adults do not – which is the source of numerous jokes.The equipment of the newborn is not limited to the auditory. He has clear smell and taste preferences (he likes sweet things a lot). He sees the world in three dimensions with a perspective (a skill which he could not have acquired in the dark womb). Depth perception is well developed by the sixth month of life. Expectedly, it is vague in the first four months of life. When presented with depth, the baby realizes that something is different – but not what. Babies are born with their eyes open as opposed to most other animal young ones. Moreover, their eyes are immediately fully functional. It is the interpretation mechanism that is lacking and this is why the world looks fuzzy to them. They tend to concentrate on very distant or on very close objects (their own hand getting closer to their face). They see very clearly objects 20-25 cm away. But visual acuity and focusing improve in a matter of days. By the time the baby is 6 to 8 months old, he sees as well as many adults do, though the visual system – from the neurological point of view – is fully developed only at the age of 3 or 4 years. The neonate discerns some colors in the first few days of his life: yellow, red, green, orange, gray – and all of them by the age of four months. He shows clear preferences regarding visual stimuli: he is bored by repeated stimuli and prefers sharp contours and contrasts, big objects to small ones, black and white to colored (because of the sharper contrast), curved lines to straight ones (this is why babies prefer human faces to abstract paintings). They prefer their mother to strangers. It is not clear how they come to recognize the mother so quickly. To say that they collect mental images which they then arrange into a prototypical scheme is to say nothing (the question is not “what” they do but “how” they do it). This ability is a clue to the complexity of the internal mental world of the neonate, which far exceeds our learned assumptions and theories. It is inconceivable that a human is born with all this exquisite equipment while incapable of experiencing the birth trauma or the even the bigger trauma of his own inflation, mental and physical.

As early as the end of the third month of pregnancy, the fetus moves, his heart beats, his head is enormous relative to his size. His size, though, is less than 3 cm. Ensconced in the placenta, the fetus is fed by substances transmitted through the mother’s blood vessels (he has no contact with her blood, though). The waste that he produces is carried away in the same venue. The composition of the mother’s food and drink, what she inhales and injects – all are communicated to the embryo. There is no clear relationship between sensory inputs during pregnancy and later life development. The levels of maternal hormones do effect the baby’s subsequent physical development but only to a negligible extent. Far more important is the general state of health of the mother, a trauma, or a disease of the fetus. It seems that the mother is less important to the baby than the romantics would have it – and cleverly so. A too strong attachment between mother and fetus would have adversely affected the baby’s chances of survival outside the uterus. Thus, contrary to popular opinion, there is no evidence whatsoever that the mother’s emotional, cognitive, or attitudinal state effects the fetus in any way. The baby is effected by viral infections, obstetric complications, by protein malnutrition and by the mother’s alcoholism. But these – at least in the West – are rare conditions.

In the first three months of the pregnancy, the central nervous system “explodes” both quantitatively and qualitatively. This process is called metaplasia. It is a delicate chain of events, greatly influenced by malnutrition and other kinds of abuse. But this vulnerability does not disappear until the age of 6 years out of the womb. There is a continuum between womb and world. The newborn is almost a very developed kernel of humanity. He is definitely capable of experiencing substantive dimensions of his own birth and subsequent metamorphoses. Neonates can immediately track colors – therefore, they must be immediately able to tell the striking differences between the dark, liquid placenta and the colorful maternity ward. They go after certain light shapes and ignore others. Without accumulating any experience, these skills improve in the first few days of life, which proves that they are inherent and not contingent (learned). They seek patterns selectively because they remember which pattern was the cause of satisfaction in their very brief past. Their reactions to visual, auditory and tactile patterns are very predictable.

Therefore, they must possess a MEMORY, however primitive.

But – even granted that babies can sense, remember and, perhaps emote – what is the effect of the multiple traumas they are exposed to in the first few months of their lives? We mentioned the traumas of birth and of self-inflation (mental and physical). These are the first links in a chain of traumas, which continues throughout the first two years of the baby’s life. Perhaps the most threatening and destabilizing is the trauma of separation and individuation.

The baby’s mother (or caregiver – rarely the father, sometimes another woman) is his auxiliary ego. She is also the world; a guarantor of livable (as opposed to unbearable) life, a (physiological or gestation) rhythm (=predictability), a physical presence and a social stimulus (an other).To start with, the delivery disrupts continuous physiological processes not only quantitatively but also qualitatively. The neonate has to breathe, to feed, to eliminate waste, to regulate his body temperature – new functions, which were previously performed by the mother. This physiological catastrophe, this schism increases the baby’s dependence on the mother. It is through this bonding that he learns to interact socially and to trust others. The baby’s lack of ability to tell the inside world from the outside only makes matters worse. He “feels” that the upheaval is contained in himself, that the tumult is threatening to tear him apart, he experiences implosion rather than explosion. True, in the absence of evaluative processes, the quality of the baby’s experience will be different to ours. But this does not disqualify it as a PSYCHOLOGICAL process and does not extinguish the subjective dimension of the experience. If a psychological process lacks the evaluative or analytic elements, this lack does not question its existence or its nature. Birth and the subsequent few days must be a truly terrifying experience. Another argument raised against the trauma thesis is that there is no proof that cruelty, neglect, abuse, torture, or discomfort retard, in any way, the development of the child. A child – it is claimed – takes everything in stride and reacts “naturally” to his environment, however depraved and deprived. This may be true – but it is irrelevant. It is not the child’s development that we are dealing with here. It is its reactions to a series of existential traumas. That a process or an event has no influence later – does not mean that it has no effect at the moment of occurrence. That it has no influence at the moment of occurrence – does not prove that it has not been fully and accurately registered. That it has not been interpreted at all or that it has been interpreted in a way different from ours – does not imply that it had no effect. In short: there is no connection between experience, interpretation and effect. There can exist an interpreted experience that has no effect. An interpretation can result in an effect without any experience involved. And an experience can effect the subject without any (conscious) interpretation. This means that the baby can experience traumas, cruelty, neglect, abuse and even interpret them as such (i.e., as bad things) and still not be effected by them. Otherwise, how can we explain that a baby cries when confronted by a sudden noise, a sudden light, wet diapers, or hunger? Isn’t this proof that he reacts properly to “bad” things and that there is such a class of things (“bad things”) in his mind? Moreover, we must attach some epigenetic importance to some of the stimuli. If we do, in effect we recognize the effect of early stimuli upon later life development. At their beginning, neonates are only vaguely aware, in a binary sort of way. “Comfortable/uncomfortable”, “cold/warm”, “wet/dry”, “color/absence of color”, “light/dark”, “face/no face” and so on. There are grounds to believe that the distinction between the outer world and the inner one is vague at best. Natal fixed action patterns (rooting, sucking, postural adjustment, looking, listening, grasping, and crying) invariably provoke the caregiver to respond. The newborn, as we said earlier, is able to relate to physical patterns but his ability seems to extend to the mental as well. He sees a pattern: fixed action followed by the appearance of the caregiver followed by a satisfying action on the part of the caregiver. This seems to him to be an inviolable causal chain (though precious few babies would put it in these words). Because he is unable to distinguish his inside from the outside – the newborn “believes” that his action evoked the caregiver from the inside (in which the caregiver is contained). This is the kernel of both magical thinking and Narcissism. The baby attributes to himself magical powers of omnipotence and of omnipresence (action-appearance). It also loves itself very much because it is able to thus satisfy himself and his needs. He loves himself because he has the means to make himself happy. The tension-relieving and pleasurable world comes to life through the baby and then he swallows it back through his mouth. This incorporation of the world through the sensory modalities is the basis for the “oral stage” in the psychodynamic theories.

This self-containment and self-sufficiency, this lack of recognition of the environment are why children until their third year of life are such a homogeneous group (allowing for some variance). Infants show a characteristic style of behaviour (one is almost tempted to say, a universal character) in as early as the first few weeks of their lives. The first two years of life witness the crystallization of consistent behavioral patterns, common to all children. It is true that even newborns have an innate temperament but not until an interaction with the outside environment is established – do the traits of individual diversity appear.

At birth, the newborn shows no attachment but simple dependence. It is easy to prove: the child indiscriminately reacts to human signals, scans for patterns and motions, enjoys soft, high pitched voices and cooing, soothing sounds. Attachment starts physiologically in the fourth week. The child turns clearly towards his mother’s voice, ignoring others. He begins to develop a social smile, which is easily distinguishable from his usual grimace. A virtuous circle is set in motion by the child’s smiles, gurgles and coos. These powerful signals release social behaviour, elicit attention, loving responses. This, in turn, drives the child to increase the dose of his signaling activity. These signals are, of course, reflexes (fixed action responses, exactly like the palmar grasp). Actually, until the 18th week of his life, the child continues to react to strangers favorably. Only then does the child begin to develop a budding social-behavioral system based on the high correlation between the presence of his caregiver and gratifying experiences. By the third month there is a clear preference of the mother and by the sixth month, the child wants to venture into the world. At first, the child grasps things (as long as he can see his hand). Then he sits up and watches things in motion (if not too fast or noisy). Then the child clings to the mother, climbs all over her and explores her body. There is still no object permanence and the child gets perplexed and loses interest if a toy disappears under a blanket, for instance. The child still associates objects with satisfaction/non-satisfaction. His world is still very much binary.

As the child grows, his attention narrows and is dedicated first to the mother and to a few other human figures and, by the age of 9 months, only to the mother. The tendency to seek others virtually disappears (which is reminiscent of imprinting in animals). The infant tends to equate his movements and gestures with their results – that is, he is still in the phase of magical thinking.

The separation from the mother, the formation of an individual, the separation from the world (the “spewing out” of the outside world) – are all tremendously traumatic.

The infant is afraid to lose his mother physically (no “mother permanence”) as well as emotionally (will she be angry at this new found autonomy?). He goes away a step or two and runs back to receive the mother’s reassurance that she still loves him and that she is still there. The tearing up of one’s self into my SELF and the OUTSIDE WORLD is an unimaginable feat. It is equivalent to discovering irrefutable proof that the universe is an illusion created by the brain or that our brain belongs to a universal pool and not to us, or that we are God (the child discovers that he is not God, it is a discovery of the same magnitude). The child’s mind is shredded to pieces: some pieces are still HE and others are NOT HE (=the outside world). This is an absolutely psychedelic experience (and the root of all psychoses, probably). If not managed properly, if disturbed in some way (mainly emotionally), if the separation – individuation process goes awry, it could result in serious psychopathologies. There are grounds to believe that several personality disorders (Narcissistic and Borderline) can be traced to a disturbance in this process in early childhood. Then, of course, there is the on-going traumatic process that we call “life”.

C. The Narcissistic Personality

“When the habitual narcissistic gratifications that come from being adored, given special treatment, and admiring the self are threatened, the results may be depression, hypochondriasis, anxiety, shame, self-destructiveness, or rage directed toward any other person who can be blamed for the troubled situation. The child can learn to avoid these painful emotional states by acquiring a narcissistic mode of information processing. Such learning may be by trial-and-error methods, or it may be internalised by identification with parental modes of dealing with stressful information.”
(Jon Mardi Horowitz – “stress Response Syndromes: ptsd, grief, and adjustment disorders”, Third Edition)

Narcissism is fundamentally an evolved version of the splitting defence mechanism. The narcissist cannot regard humans, situations, entities (political parties, countries, races, his workplace) as a compound of good and bad elements. He is an “all or nothing” primitive “machine” (a common metaphor among narcissists). He either idealises his object – or devalues it. The object is either all good or all bad. The bad attributes are always projected, displaced, or otherwise externalised. The good ones are internalised in order to support the inflated (“grandiose”) self-concepts of the narcissist and his grandiose fantasies – and to avoid the pain of deflation and disillusionment. The narcissist’s earnestness and his (apparent) sincerity make people wonder whether he is simply detached from reality, unable to appraise it properly – or willingly and knowingly distorts reality and reinterprets it, subjecting it to his self-imposed censorship. I believe that the narcissist is dimly aware of the implausibility of his own constructions. He has not lost touch with reality. He is just less scrupulous in remoulding it and in ignoring the uncomfortable angles.

“The disguises are accomplished by shifting meanings and using exaggeration and minimisation of bits of reality as a nidus for fantasy elaboration. The narcissistic personality is especially vulnerable to regression to damaged or defective self-concepts on the occasions of loss of those who have functioned as self-objects. When the individual is faced with such stress events as criticism, withdrawal of praise, or humiliation, the information involved may be denied, disavowed, negated, or shifted in meaning to prevent a reactive state of rage, depression, or shame.”
(Jon Mardi Horowitz – “Stress Response Syndromes: ptsd, grief, and adjustment disorders”, Third Edition)

The second mechanism which the narcissist employees is the active pursuit of “Narcissistic Supply”. The narcissist actively seeks to furnish himself with an endless supply of admiration, adulation, affirmation and attention. As opposed to common opinion (which infiltrated literature) – the narcissist is content to have ANY kind of attention. If fame cannot be had – notoriety would do. The narcissist is obsessed with the obtaining of Narcissistic Supply, he is addicted to it. His behaviour in its pursuit is impulsive and compulsive.

“The hazard is not simply guilt because ideals have not been met. Rather, any loss of a good and coherent self-feeling is associated with intensely experienced emotions such as shame and depression, plus an anguished sense of helplessness and disorientation. To prevent this state, the narcissistic personality slides the meanings of events in order to place the self in a better light. What is good is labelled as being of the self (internalised) Those qualities that are undesirable are excluded from the self by denial of their existence, disavowal of related attitudes, externalisation, and negation of recent self-expressions. Persons who function as accessories to the self may also be idealised by exaggeration of their attributes. Those who counter the self are depreciated; ambiguous attributions of blame and a tendency to self-righteous rage states are a conspicuous aspect of this pattern.
Such fluid shifts in meanings permit the narcissistic personality to maintain apparent logical consistency while minimising evil or weakness and exaggerating innocence or control. As part of these manoeuvres, the narcissistic personality may assume attitudes of contemptuous superiority toward others, emotional coldness, or even desperately charming approaches to idealised figures.”
(Jon Mardi Horowitz – “Stress Response Syndromes: ptsd, grief, and adjustment disorders”, Third Edition)

Freud versus Jung

Freud must be credited with the promulgation and presentation of a first coherent theory of narcissism. He described transitions from subject-directed libido to object-directed libido through the intermediation and agency of the parents. To be healthy and functional, the transitions must be smooth and unperturbed. Neuroses are the results of such perturbations.

Freud conceived of each stage as the default (or fallback) of the next one. Thus, if a child reaches out to his objects of desire and fails to attract their love and attention – it regresses to the previous phase, to the narcissistic phase. The first occurrence of narcissism is adaptive. It “trains” the child to love an object. It secures gratification through the availability, predictability and permanence of the loved object (=oneself). But regressing to “secondary narcissism” is mal-adaptive. It is an indication of failure to direct the libido to the “right” targets (to objects, such as his parents).

If this pattern of regression persists and prevails, a “narcissistic neurosis” is formed. The narcissist stimulates his self habitually in order to derive pleasure and gratification. He prefers this mode of deriving gratification to others. He is “lazy” because he takes the “easy” route of resorting to his self and reinvesting his libidinal resources “in-house” rather than making an effort (and risking failure) to seek out libidinal objects other than his self. The narcissist prefers fantasyland to reality, grandiose self-conception to realistic appraisal, masturbation and fantasies to mature adult sex and daydreaming to real life achievements.

Jung had a mental picture of the psyche as a giant warehouse of archetypes (the conscious representations of adaptive behaviours). Fantasies to him were just a way of accessing these archetypes and releasing them. Almost ex definitio, regression cannot be entertained by Jungian psychology. Any reversion to earlier phases of mental life, to earlier coping strategies, to earlier choices – in other words, any default – is interpreted as simply the psyche’s way of using yet another, hitherto untapped, adaptation strategy. Regressions are compensatory processes intended to enhance adaptation and not methods of obtaining or securing a steady flow of gratification.

It would seem, though, that there is little but semantic difference between Freud and his disciple turned-heretic. When libido investment in objects (esp. the Primary Object) fails to produce gratification, maladaptation results. This is dangerous. A default option is activated: secondary narcissism. This default enhances adaptation, it is functional and adaptive and triggers adaptive behaviours. As a by-product, it secures gratification. We are gratified when we are at peace with our model of our environment. We are at such peace when we exert reasonable control over our environment, i.e., when our behaviours are adaptive. The compensatory process has TWO results: enhanced adaptation and inevitable gratification.

Perhaps the more serious division between them is with regards to introversion. Freud regards introversion as an instrument in the service of a pathology (introversion is indispensable to narcissism, as opposed to extroversion which is a necessary condition for libidinal object-orientation).

As opposed to Freud, Jung regards introversion as a useful tool in the service of the psychic quest for adaptation strategies (narcissism being one of them). The Jungian adaptation repertoire does not discriminate against narcissism. To Jung it is as legitimate a choice as any. But even Jung acknowledged that the very need to look for a new adaptation strategy means that adaptation has failed. In other words, the search itself is indicative of a pathological state of affairs. It does seem that introversion per se IS NOT pathological (because no psychological mechanism is pathological PER SE). Only the use made of it CAN be pathological. One would tend to agree with Freud, though, that when introversion becomes a permanent feature of the psychic landscape of a person – it facilitates pathological narcissism.

Jung distinguished introverts (those who habitually concentrate on their selves rather than on outside objects) from extroverts (the converse preference). According to him, not only is introversion a totally normal and natural function, it remains normal and natural even if it predominates the mental life.

This is where, to my mind, Jung missed the proverbial “narcissistic train”. The habitual and predominant focussing of attention upon one’s self, to the exclusion of others is THE definition of pathological narcissism. What differentiates the pathological from the normal and even the welcome is, of course, degree. Pathological narcissism is ex-clusive and all-pervasive. Other forms of narcissism are not. So, although there is no healthy state of habitual, predominant introversion, it remains a question of form and degree of introversion. Often a healthy, adaptive mechanism goes awry. When it does, as Jung himself recognised, neuroses form.

Freud regards narcissism as a POINT while Jung regards it as a CONTINUUM (from health to sickness).

Kohut’s Approach

In a way, Kohut took Jung a step further. He said that pathological narcissism is not the result of excessive narcissism, libido or aggression. It is the result of defective, deformed or incomplete narcissistic (self) structures. Kohut postulated the existence of core constructs which he named: the Grandiose Exhibitionistic Self and the Idealised Parent Imago (see below). children entertain notions of greatness (primitive or naive grandiosity) mingled with magical thinking, feelings of omnipotence and omniscience and a belief in their immunity to the consequences of their actions. These elements and the child’s feelings regarding its parents (which are also painted by it with a brush of omnipotence and grandiosity) – coagulate and form these constructs.

The child’s feelings towards its parents are reactions to their responses (affirmation, buffering, modulation or disapproval, punishment, even abuse). These responses help maintain the self-structures. Without the appropriate responses, grandiosity, for instance, cannot be transformed into adult ambitions and ideals.

So, to Kohut, grandiosity and idealisation are positive childhood development mechanisms. Even their reappearance in transference should not be considered a pathological narcissistic regression.

In his “Chicago Lectures 1972-1976” he says:

“You see, the actual issue is really a simple one … a simple change in classical [Freudian] theory, which states that auto-eroticism develops into narcissism and that narcissism develops into object love … there is a contrast and opposition between narcissism and object love. The [forward] movement toward maturation was toward object love. The movement from object love toward narcissism is a [backward] regressive movement toward a fixation point. To my mind [this] viewpoint is a theory built into a non-scientific value judgement … that has nothing to do with developmental psychology [pp.277-278].”

Kohut’s contention is nothing less than revolutionary. He says that narcissism (subject-love) and object-love coexist and interact throughout life. True, they wear different guises with age and maturation – but they always cohabitate.

Kohut (ibid.): “It is not that the self-experiences are given up and replaced by … a more mature or developmentally more advanced experience of objects.”

This dichotomy inevitably led to a dichotomy of disorders. Kohut agreed with Freud that neuroses are conglomerates of defence mechanisms, formations, symptoms, and unconscious conflicts. He even did not object to identifying unresolved Oedipal conflicts (ungratified unconscious wishes and their objects) as the root of neuroses. But he identified a whole new class of disorders: the self-disorders. These were the result of the perturbed development of narcissism.

It was not a cosmetic or superficial distinction. Self-disorders were the results of childhood traumas very much different to Freud’s Oedipal, castration and other conflicts and fears. These are the traumas of the child either not being “seen” (an existence, a presence not affirmed by objects, especially the Primary Objects, the parents) – or being regarded itself as an object for gratification or abuse. Such children develop to become adults who are not sure that they do exist (lack a sense of self-continuity) or that they are worth anything (lack of self-worth, or self-esteem). They suffer depressions, as neurotics do. But the source of these depressions is existential (a gnawing sensation of emptiness) as opposed to the “guilty-conscious” depressions of neurotics.

Such depressions: “…are interrupted by rages because things are not going their way, because responses are not forthcoming in the way they expected and needed. Some of them may even search for conflict to relieve the pain and intense suffering of the poorly established self, the pain of the discontinuous, fragmenting, undercathected self of the child not seen or responded to as a unit of its own, not recognised as an independent self who wants to feel like somebody, who wants to go its own way (see Lecture 22). They are individuals whose disorders can be understood and treated only by taking into consideration the formative experiences in childhood of the total body-mind-self and its self-object environment – for instance, the experiences of joy of the total self feeling confirmed, which leads to pride, self-esteem, zest, and initiative; or the experiences of shame, loss of vitality, deadness, and depression of the self who does not have the feeling of being included, welcomed, and enjoyed.”
(From: The Preface to the “Chicago Lectures 1972-1976 of H. Kohut”, by: Paul and Marian Tolpin)

One note: “Constructs” or “Structures” are permanent psychological patterns. This is not to say that they do not change – rather, they are capable only of slow change. Kohut and his self-psychology disciples believed that the only viable constructs are comprised of self self-object experiences and that these structures are lifelong ones. Melanie Klein believed more in archaic drives, splitting defences and archaic internal objects and part objects. Winnicott (and Balint and other, mainly British researchers) as well as other ego-psychologists thought that only infantile drive wishes and hallucinated oneness with archaic objects qualify as structures.

Karen Horney’s Contributions

Horney is one of the precursors of the “Object Relations” school of psychodynamics. She said that personality was shaped mostly by environmental issues, social or cultural. She believed that the relationships with other humans in one’s childhood determine both the shape and functioning of one’s personality. She expanded the psychoanalytic repertoire. She added needs to drives. Where Freud believed in the exclusivity of the sex drive as an agent of transformation (later he added other drives) – Horney believed that people (children) needed to feel secure, to be loved, protected, emotionally nourished and so on. She believed that the satisfaction of these needs or their frustration early in childhood were as important a determinant as any drive. Society came in through the parental door. Biology converged with social injunctions to yield human values such as the nurturance of children.

Horney’s great contribution was the concept of anxiety. Freudian anxiety was a rather primitive mechanism, a reaction to imaginary threats arising from early childhood sexual conflicts. Horney argued convincingly that anxiety is a primary reaction to the very dependence of the child on adults for his survival. Children are uncertain (of love, protection, nourishment, nurturance) – so they become anxious. Defences are developed to compensate for the intolerable and gradual realisation that adults are human: capricious, arbitrary, unpredictable, non-dependable. Defences provide both satisfaction and a sense of security. The problem still exists, but it is “one stage removed”. When the defences are attacked or perceived to be attacked (such as in therapy) – anxiety is reawakened.
Karen B. Wallant in “Treating Addictions and the Alienated Self”:

“The capacity to be alone develops out of the baby’s ability to hold onto the internalisation of his mother, even during her absences. It is not just an image of mother that he retains but also her loving devotion to him. Thus, when alone, he can feel confident and secure as he continues to infuse himself with her love. The addict has had so few loving attachments in his life that when alone he is returned to his detached, alienated self. This feeling-state can be compared to a young child’s fear of monsters‹without a powerful other to help him, the monsters continue to live somewhere within the child or his environment. It is not uncommon for patients to be found on either side of an attachment pendulum. It is invariably easier to handle patients for whom the transference erupts in the idealising attachment phase than those who view the therapist as a powerful and distrusted intruder.”

So, the child learns to sacrifice a part of his autonomy, of WHO he is, in order to feel secure. Horney identified three NEUROTIC strategies: submission, aggression and detachment. The choice of strategy determines the type of personality, or rather of the NEUROTIC personality. The submissive (or compliant) type is a fake. He hides aggression beneath a facade of friendliness. The aggressive type is fake as well: at heart he is submissive. The detached neurotic withdraws from people. This cannot be considered an adaptive strategy.

Horney’s is an optimistic outlook. Because she believes biology is only ONE of the forces shaping our adulthood – culture and society being the predominant ones – she believes in reversibility and in the power of insight to heal. She believes that if an adult were to understand his problem (his anxiety) – he would be able to eliminate it altogether. My outlook is much more pessimistic and deterministic. I think that childhood trauma and abuse are pretty much impossible erase. Modern brain research tends to support this sad view – and to offer some hope. The brain seems to be more plastic than anyone thought. It is physically impressed with abuse and trauma. But no one knows when this “window of plasticity” shuts. It is conceivable that this plasticity continues well into adulthood and that later “reprogramming” (by loving, caring, compassionate and empathic experiences) can remould the brain permanently. I believe that the patient has to accept his disorder as a given and work AROUND it rather than attack it directly. I believe that our disorders ARE adaptive and help us to function. Their removal may not always be wise or necessary to attain a full and satisfactory life. I do not believe that we should all conform to a mould and experience life the same. Idiosyncrasies are a good thing, both on the individual level and on the level of the species.

D. The Issue of Separation and Individuation

It is by no means universally accepted that children go through a phase of separation from their parents and through the consequent individuation. Most psychodynamic theories (especially Klein, Mahler) are virtually constructed upon this foundation. The child is considered to be merged with his parents until it differentiates itself (through object-relations). But researchers like Daniel Stern dispute this hypothesis. Based on many studies it appears clearer by the study that, as always, what seems intuitively right is not necessarily right. In “The Interpersonal World of the Infant” (1985) Stern seems to, inadvertently, support Kohut by concluding that children possess selves and are separated from their caregivers from the very start. In effect, he says that the picture of the child, as depicted by psychodynamic theories, is influenced by the way adults see children and childhood in retrospect. Adult disorders (for instance, the pathological need to merge) are attributed to children and to childhood.

This view is in stark contrast to the belief that children will accept any kind of parents (even abusive) because they depend on them for their self-definition. Attachment to and dependence on significant others is the result of the non-separateness of the child, go the classical psychodynamic/object-relations theories. The self is a construct (within a social context, some add), an assimilation of the oft-imitated and idealised parents plus the internalisation of the way others perceive the child within social interactions. The self is, therefore, an internalised reflection, an imitation, a series of internalised idealisations. This sounds close to pathological narcissism. Perhaps it is really a matter of quantity rather than of quality.

E. Childhood Traumas and the Development of the Narcissistic Personality

Traumas are inevitable. They are an inseparable part of life. But in early childhood – especially in infancy (ages 0 to 4 years) they acquire an ominous aura, an evil, irreversible meaning. No matter how innocuous the event and the surrounding circumstances, the child’s vivid imagination is likely to embed it in the framework of a highly idiosyncratic horror story.

Parents sometimes have to go away due to medical or economic conditions. They may be too preoccupied to stay attuned at all times to the child’s emotional needs. The family unit itself may be disintegrating with looming divorce or separation. The values of the parent may stand in radical contrast to those of society.

To adults, such traumas are very different to abuse. Verbal and psychological-emotional abuse or neglect are judged by us to be more serious “offences”. But this distinction is lost on the child. To him, all traumas are of equal standing, though their severity may differ together with the permanence of their emotional outcomes. Moreover, such abuse and neglect could well be the result of circumstances beyond the abusive or negligent parent’s control. A parent can be physically or mentally handicapped, for instance. But the child cannot see this as a mitigating circumstance because he cannot appreciate it or even plainly understand the causal linkage.

Where even the child itself can tell the difference is with physical and sexual abuse. Here is a co-operative effort at concealment, strong emotions of shame and guilt, repressed to the point of producing anxiety and “neurosis”. Sometimes the child perceives even the injustice of the situation, though it rarely dares to express its views, lest it be abandoned by its abusers. This type of trauma which involves the child actively or passively is qualitatively different and is bound to yield long term effects such as dissociation or severe personality disorders. These are violent, active traumas, not traumas by default, and the reaction is bound to be violent and active. The child becomes a reflection of its dysfunctional family – it represses emotions, denies reality, resorts to violence and escapism, disintegrates.

One of the coping strategies is to withdraw inwards, to seek gratification from a secure, reliable and permanently-available source: from the self. The child, fearful of further rejection and abuse, refrains from further interaction. Instead, it builds its own kingdom of grandiose fantasies wherein it is always loved and self-sufficient. This is the narcissistic strategy which leads to the development of a narcissistic personality.

F. The Dyfunctional Family

The family is the mainspring of support of every kind. It mobilizes psychological resources and alleviates emotional burdens. It allows for the sharing of tasks, provides material supplies coupled with cognitive training. It is the prime socialization agent and encourages the absorption of information, most of it useful and adaptive.

This division of labour between parents and children is vital both to development and to proper adaptation. The child must feel, in a functional family, that he can share his experiences without being defensive and that the feedback that he is likely to get will be open and unbiased. The only “bias” acceptable (often because it is consistent with constant outside feedback) is the set of beliefs, values and goals that are finally internalized by the child by way of imitation and unconscious identification. So, the family is the first and the most important source of identity and of emotional support. It is a greenhouse where a child feels loved, accepted and secured – the prerequisites for the development of personal resources. On the material level, the family should provide the basic necessities (and, preferably, beyond), physical care and protection and refuge and shelter during crises.

The role of the mother (the Primary Object) has been often discussed and dissected. The father’s part is mostly neglected, even in professional literature. However, recent research demonstrates his importance to the orderly and healthy development of the child.

He participates in the day to day care, is an intellectual catalyst, who encourages the child to develop his interests and to satisfy his curiosity through the manipulation of various instruments and games. He is a source of authority and discipline, a boundary setter, enforcing and encouraging positive behaviours and eliminating negative ones. He also provides emotional support and economic security, thus stabilizing the family unit. Finally, he is the prime source of masculine orientation and identification to the male child – and gives warmth and love as a male to his daughter, without exceeding the socially permissible limits.

We can safely say that the Narcissist’s family is as severely disordered as he is. He is largely a reflection of its dysfunction. One or more (usually, many more) of the functions aforementioned are improperly fulfilled.

The two most important mechanisms are:

First, the mechanism of self-deception. The Narcissist’s internal dialogue is “I do have a relationship with my parents. It is my fault – the fault of my emotions, sensations, aggressions and passions – that this relationship is not working. It is, therefore, my responsibility to make amends. I will construct a narrative in which I am both loved and punished. In this script, I will allocate roles to myself and to my parents. This way, everything will be fine and we will all be happy.”

Second is the mechanism of over-valuation (idealization) and devaluation. The dual roles of sadist and punished masochist (Superego and Ego), parent and child – permeate, then invade and then pervade all the of the narcissist’s interactions with others.

The narcissist experiences a reversal of roles as his relationships progress.

At the beginning of every relationship he is the child in need of attention, approval and admiration. He becomes dependent.

Then, at the first sign of disapproval (real or imaginary), he becomes an avowed sadist, punishing and inflicting pain.

Another school of psychology is represented by Otto Kernberg (1975, 1984, 1987).

G. Otto Kernberg

Kernberg is a senior member of the “Object Relations” school in Psychology (Kohut, Kernberg, Klein, Winnicott).

Kernberg disagrees with Freud. He regards the division between an Object Libido (=energy directed at Objects, people in the immediate vicinity of the infant and who are meaningful to him) and a Narcissistic Libido (=energy directed at the Self as the most immediate and satisfying Object), which precedes it – as artificial.

Whether a Child develops normal or pathological Narcissism depends on the relations between the representations of the Self (=roughly, the image of the Self that he forms in his mind) and the representations of Objects (=roughly, the images of the Objects that he forms in his mind, based on all the information available to him, including emotional data). It is also dependent on the relationship between the representations of the Self and real, external, “objective” Objects. Add to this instinctual conflicts related both to the Libido and to aggression (these very strong emotions give rise to strong conflicts in the child) and a comprehensive explanation concerning the formation of pathological Narcissism emerges.

Kernberg’s concept of Self is closely related to Freud’s concept of Ego. The Self is dependent upon the unconscious, which exerts a constant influence on all mental functions. Pathological Narcissism, therefore, reflects a libidinal investment in a pathologically structured Self and not in a normal, integrative structure of the Self. The Narcissist suffers from a Self, which is devalued or fixated on aggression.

All object relations of such a Self are distorted: it detaches from the real Objects (because they hurt him often), dissociates, represses, or projects. Narcissism is not merely a fixation on an early developmental stage. It is not confined to the failure to develop intra-psychic structures.

It is an active, libidinal investment in a deformed structure of the Self.

H. The Narcissist’s Family

“For very young children, self-esteem is probably best thought to consist of deep feelings of being loved, accepted, and valued by significant others rather than of feelings derived from evaluating oneself against some external criteria, as in the case of older children. Indeed, the only criterion appropriate for accepting and loving a newborn or infant is that he or she has been born. The unconditional love and acceptance experienced in the first year or two of life lay the foundation for later self-esteem, and probably make it possible for the preschooler and older child to withstand occasional criticism and negative evaluations that usually accompany socialization into the larger community.

As children grow beyond the preschool years, the larger society imposes criteria and conditions upon love and acceptance. If the very early feelings of love and acceptance are deep enough, the child can most likely weather the rebuffs and scoldings of the later years without undue debilitation. With increasing age, however, children begin to internalize criteria of self-worth and a sense of the standards to be attained on the criteria from the larger community they observe and in which they are beginning to participate. The issue of criteria of self-esteem is examined more closely below.

Cassidy’s (1988) study of the relationship between self-esteem at age five and six years and the quality of early mother-child attachment supports Bowlby’s theory that construction of the self is derived from early daily experience with attachment figures. The results of the study support Bowlby’s conception of the process through which continuity in development occurs, and of the way early child-mother attachment continues to influence the child’s conception and estimation of the self across many years. The working models of the self derived from early mother-child inter-action organize and help mold the child’s environment “by seeking particular kinds of people and by eliciting particular behavior from them” (Cassidy, 1988, p. 133). Cassidy points out that very young children have few means of learning about themselves other than through experience with attachment figures. She suggests that if infants are valued and given comfort when required, they come to feel valuable; conversely, if they are neglected or rejected, they come to feel worthless and of little value.

In an examination of developmental considerations, Bednar, Wells, and Peterson (1989) suggest that feelings of competence and the self-esteem associated with them are enhanced in children when their parents provide an optimum mixture of acceptance, affection, rational limits and controls, and high expectations. In a similar way, teachers are likely to engender positive feelings when they provide such a combination of acceptance, limits, and meaningful and realistic expectations concerning behavior and effort (Lamborn et al., 1991). Similarly, teachers can provide contexts for such an optimum mixture of acceptance, limits, and meaningful effort in the course of project work as described by Katz and Chard (1989).”
(Distinctions between Self-Esteem and Narcissism: Implications for Practice – ERIC database)

Kohut, as we said, regarded Narcissism as the final product of the failing efforts of parents to cope with the needs of the child to idealize and to be grandiose (for instance, to be omnipotent).

Idealization is an important developmental path leading to Narcissism. The child merges the idealized aspects of the images of the parent (Imago in Kohut’s terminology) with those wide segments of the image of the parent which are cathected (infused) with object libido (=in which the child invests the energy that he reserves for Objects). This exerts an enormous and all-important influence on the re-internalization processes (=the processes in which the child re-introduced the Objects and their images into his mind) which are right for each of the successive phases. Through these processes, two permanent nuclei of the personality are constructed:

  1. The basic, neutralizing texture of the psyche, and
  2. The ideal Superego

Both of them are characterized by an invested instinctual Narcissistic cathexis (=invested energy of self-love which is instinctual).

At first, the child idealizes his parents. As he grows, he begins to notice their shortcomings and vices. He withdraws part of the idealizing libido from the images of the parents, which is conducive to the natural development of the Superego. The Narcissistic part of the child’s psyche remains vulnerable throughout its development. This is largely true until the Child re-internalizes the ideal parent image.

Also, the very construction of the mental apparatus can be tampered with by traumatic deficiencies and by object losses right through the Oedipal period (and even in latency and in adolescence).

The same effect can be attributed to traumatic disappointment by objects.

Disturbances leading to the formation of NPD can be thus grouped into:

  1. Very early disturbances in the relationship with an ideal object. These lead to a structural weakness of the personality, which develops a deficient and/or dysfunctional stimuli filtering mechanism. The ability of the individual to maintain a basic Narcissistic homeostasis of the personality is damaged. Such a person suffers from diffusive Narcissistic vulnerability.
  2. A disturbance occurring later in life – but still pre-Oedipally – affects the pre-Oedipal formation of the basic fabric of the control, channeling and neutralizing of drives and urges. The nature of the disturbance has to be a traumatic encounter with the ideal object (such as a major disappointment). The symptomatic manifestation of this structural defect is the propensity to re – sexualize drive derivatives and internal and external conflicts either in the form of fantasies or in the form of deviant acts.
  3. A disturbance formed in the Oedipal or even in the early latent phases – inhibits the completion of the Superego idealization. This is especially true of a disappointment related to an ideal object of the late Pre-Oedipal and the Oedipal stages, where the partly idealized external parallel of the newly internalized object is traumatically destroyed.

Such a person possesses a set of values and standards – but he forever looks for ideal external figures from whom he aspires to derive the affirmation and the leadership that his insufficiently idealized Superego cannot supply.

It is commonly agreed that a loss (real or perceived) at a critical junction in the psychological development of the Child – forces him to refer to himself for nurturing and for gratification. The Child ceases to trust others and his ability to develop object love or to idealize is hampered. He is constantly shadowed by the feeling that only he can satisfy his emotional needs.

The Narcissist is born into a dysfunctional family. It is characterized by massive denials, both internal (“you do not have a real problem, you are only pretending”) and external (“you must never tell the secrets of the family to anyone”). The whole family unit suffers from an affective dysfunction. It leads to affective and other personality disorders exhibited by all the members of the family and ranging from obsessive – compulsive disorders to hypochondriasis and depression.

Such families are reclusive and autarkic. They actively reject and encourage the rejection of social contacts.

This inevitably leads to defective or partial socialization and differentiation and to problems with sexual identity.

This attitude is sometimes applied even to members of the extended family. Other members of the nuclear family feel emotionally or financially deprived or threatened by them. It reacts with envy, rejection, self-isolation and rage.

Constant aggression and violence are permanent features of such families. The violence can be verbal (degradation, humiliation) and up to severe cases of psychological, physical and sexual abuse.

Trying to rationalize and intellectualize its unique position and to justify it, the family resorts to emphasizing logic, cost effectiveness, and feasibility. It is a transactional approach to life and it regards knowledge as an expression of superiority and as an advantage. These families encourage excellence – mainly cerebral and academic – but only as means to an end. The end is usually highly Narcissistic (“to be famous/rich/to live well, etc.”).

Some Narcissists react by creatively escaping into rich, imagined worlds in which they exercise total physical and emotional control over their environment. But all of them react by diverting libido, which should have been object-oriented to their own Self.

The source of all the Narcissist’s problems is the foreboding sensation that human relationships invariably end in humiliation, betrayal, pain, and abandonment. This belief is embedded in them during their very early childhood by their parents.

But the Narcissist always generalizes. To him, any emotional interaction and any interaction with an emotional component is bound to end this way. Getting attached to a place, a job, an asset, an idea, an initiative, a business, or a pleasure is bound to end as badly as getting attached to a human being. This is why the Narcissist avoids intimacy, real friendships, love, other emotions, commitment, attachment, dedication, perseverance, planning, emotional or other investment, morale or conscience (which are only meaningful if there is a tomorrow to consider and to believe in), developing a sense of security, or pleasure.

The Narcissist emotionally invests only in things which he feels that he is in full, unmitigated control of: himself and, at times, not even that.

F. The Narcissist’s Mother – A Suggestion for an Integrative Framework

The whole structure of the narcissistic disorder reflects the prototypical relationship with frustrating primary objects (usually, the mother or main caregiver).

The narcissist’s “mother” is typically inconsistent and frustrating. She thus thwarts the narcissist’s ability to trust others and to feel secure with them. By emotionally abandoning him, she fosters in him fears of being abandoned and the nagging sensation that the world is a dangerous, hostile, and unpredictable place. She becomes a negative, devaluing voice, which is duly incorporated in the narcissist’s Superego.

But there is a less traditional view.

Our natural state is anxiety, the readiness – physiological and mental – to “fight or flight”. Research indicates that the Primary Object (PO) is really the child, rather than its mother. The child identifies itself as an object almost at birth. It explores itself, reacts and interacts, it monitors its bodily reactions to internal and external inputs and stimuli. The flow of blood, the peristaltic movement, the swallowing reflex, the texture of saliva, the experience of excretion, being wet, thirsty, hungry or content – all these distinguish the child from its self.

The child assumes the position of observer and integrator early on. As Kohut said, it has both a self and the ability to relate to objects. This intimacy with a familiar and predictable object (oneself) is a primary source of security and the precursor to emerging narcissism. The mother is only a Secondary Object (SO). It is this secondary object that the child learns to relate to and it has the indispensable developmental advantage of being transcendental, external to the child. All meaningful others are Auxiliary Objects (AO).

A “good enough” SO helps the child to extend the lessons he had learned from his interaction with the PO (his self) and apply them to the world at large. The child learns that the external environment can be as predictable and safe as the internal one.

This titillating discovery leads to a modification of naive or primitive narcissism. It recedes to the background allowing more prominent and adaptative strategies to the fore. In due time, and subject to an accumulation of the right positively reinforcing experiences, a higher form of narcissism develops: self-love, a stable sense of self-worth, and self-esteem.

If, however, SO fails or is abusive, the child reverts back to the PO and to its primitive form of narcissism. This is regression in the chronological sense. But it is also an adaptative strategy.

The emotional consequences of rejection and abuse are too difficult to contemplate. Narcissism ameliorates them by providing a substitute object. This is an adaptative, survival-orientated act. It provides the child with time to “come to grips with its thoughts and feelings” and perhaps to revert with a different strategy more suited to the new – unpleasant and threatening – data.

So the interpretation of this regression as a failure of object love may be wrong. The child merely deduces that the SO, the object chosen as the first target of object love, was the wrong object. Object love continues to look for a different, familiar, object. The child merely replaces one object (his mother) with another (his self). The child does not relinquish his capacity for object-love.

If this failure to establish a proper object-relation persists and is not alleviated, all future objects are perceived either as extensions of the Primary Object (the self), or as external objects to be merged with one’s self, because they are perceived narcissistically.

There are, therefore, two modes of object perception:

The narcissistic (all objects are perceived as variations of the perceiving self) and the social (all objects are perceived as others or self-objects).

The core (narcissistic) self precedes language or interaction with others. As the core self matures it develops either into a True Self or into a False Self. The two are mutually exclusive (a person possessed by a False Self has no functioning True Self). The distinction of the False Self is that it perceives others narcissistically. As opposed to it, the True Self perceives others socially.

The child constantly compares his first experience with an object (his internalised PO, his self) to his experience with his SO. The internalisations of both the PO and the SO are modified as a result of this process of comparison. The SO is idealised and internalised to form what I call the SEGO (loosely, the equivalent of Freud’s Superego plus the internalised outcomes of social interactions throughout life). The internalised PO is constantly modified to justify feedback from the SO (for example: “You are loved”, or “You are a bad boy”). This is the process by which the Ideal Ego is created.

The internalisations of the PO, of the SO and of the outcomes of their interactions (for instance, of the results of the aforementioned constant comparison between them) form what Bowlby calls “working models”. These are constantly updated representations of both the self and of Meaningful Others (what I call Auxiliary Others).

The narcissist’s working models are defective. They pertain both to his self and to ALL others. To the narcissist, ALL people are meaningful because NO ONE really is. This forces the narcissist to resort to crude abstractions (imagine the number of working models he needs!).

The narcissist is forced to dehumanise, objectify, generalise, idealise, devalue, or stereotype in order to cope with the sheer volume of potential interactions with meaningful objects (i.e., with everyone!). Trying not to be overwhelmed, the narcissist feels superior and inflated – because he is the only REAL three-dimensional character in his mind.

Moreover, the narcissist’s working models are rigid and never updated because he does not feel that he is interacting with real objects. How can one feel empathic, for instance, towards a representation or an abstraction or an object of gratification? How can such representations or abstractions grow or change?

Follows a matrix of possible axes (dimensions) of interaction between child and mother.

The first term in each of these equations of interaction describes the child, the second the mother.

The Mother can be:

  • Accepting (“good enough”);
  • Domineering;
  • Doting/Smothering;
  • Indifferent;
  • Rejecting;
  • Abusive.

The Child can be:

  • Attracted;
  • Repelled (due to unjust mistreatment, for instance).

The possible axes or dimensions are:

Child / Mother

How to read this table – an example:

Attraction – Attraction/Accepting

Means that the child is attracted to his mother, his mother is attracted to him and she is a “good enough” (accepting) mother.

  1. Attraction – Attraction/Accepting
    (Healthy axis, leads to self-love)
  2. Attraction – Attraction/Domineering
    (Could lead to personality disorders – PDs – such as avoidant, or schizoid, or to social phobia, etc.)
  3. Attraction – Attraction/Doting or Smothering
    (Could lead to Cluster B Personality Disorders)
  4. Attraction – Repulsion/Indifferent
    [passive-aggressive, frustrating]
    (Could lead to narcissism, Cluster B disorders)
  5. Attraction – Repulsion/Rejecting
    (Could lead to personality disorders such as paranoid, borderline, etc.)
  6. Attraction – Repulsion/Abusive
    (Could lead to DID, ADHD, NPD, BPD, AHD, AsPD, PPD, etc.)
  7. Repulsion – Repulsion/Indifferent
    (Could lead to avoidant, schizoid, paranoid, etc. PDs)
  8. Repulsion – Repulsion/Rejecting
    (Could lead to personality, mood, anxiety disorders and to impulsive behaviours, such as eating disorders)
  9. Repulsion – Attraction/Accepting
    (Could lead to unresolved Oedipal conflicts and to neuroses)
  10. Repulsion – Attraction/Domineering
    (Could have the same results as axis 6)
  11. Repulsion – Attraction/Doting
    (Could have the same results as axis 9)

This, of course, is a very rough sketch. Many of the axes can be combined to yield more complex clinical pictures.

It provides an initial, coarse, map of the possible interactions between the PO and the SO in early childhood and the unsavoury results of internalised bad objects.

This PO/SO matrix continues to interact with AO to form the person’s self-evaluation (self-esteem or sense of self-worth).

This process – the formation of a coherent sense of self-worth – starts with PO/SO interactions within the matrix and continues roughly till the age of 8, all the time gathering and assimilating interactions with AO (=meaningful others).

First, a model of attachment in relationships is formed (approximately the matrix above). This model is based on the internalisation of the Primary Object (later, the self). Attachment interactions with SO follow and in the wake of a critical mass of interactions with AO, the self is formed.

This process of the formation of self rests on the operation of a few critical principles:

  1. The child, as we said earlier, develops a sense of “mother-constancy”. This is crucial. If the child is unable predict the behaviour (let alone the presence) of his mother from one moment to another, it finds it hard to trust anything, predict anything and expect anything. Because the self, to some extent (some say: to a large extent), is comprised of the internalised outcomes of the interactions with others – negative experiences are be incorporated in the budding self as well as positive ones. In other words, a child feels loveable and desirable if it is indeed loved and wanted. If it is rejected, it is bound to feel worthless and worthy only of rejection. In due time, the child develops behaviours which yield rejection by others and the outcomes of which thus conform with his self-perception. The adoption and assimilation of the judgement of others and its incorporation into a coherent sense of self-worth and self-esteem.
  2. The discounting or filtering-out of contrarian information. Once Bowlby’s “working models” are formed, they act as selective membranes. No amount of external information to the contrary alters these models significantly. Granted, shifts in relative positions may and do occur in later stages of life. A person can feel more or less accepted, more or less competent, more or less integrated into a given social setting. But these are changes in the values of parameters within a set equation (the working model). The equation itself is rarely altered and only by very serious life crises.

Reprinted with permission from:

“For Want of a Better Good” (In process)

Author: Alan Challoner MA (Phil) MChS

(Attachment Theory Researcher Counsellor in Adoption & Fostering, and associated child development issues. MA awarded by thesis on the psychology of handicap – A Culture of Ambiguity; 1992):

“A developmental line for narcissism has been devised by Temeles, and it consists of twelve phases that are characterised by a particular relationship between self-love and object-love and occur in a precise order.”

(Temeles, M.S. – A developmental line for narcissism: The path to self-love and object love. In Cohen, Theodore, B.; Etezady, M. Hossein; & Pacella, B.L. (Eds.) The Vulnerable Child. Volume 1; The Vulnerable Child. International Univ. Press; Madison, CT, USA – 1993.)

Proto-Self and Proto-Object

As the infant is incapable of distinguishing either the self or the object as adults do, this phase is marked by their absence. However he is competent in certain attributes particularly those that allow him to interact with his environment. From birth his moments of pleasure, often the instrument of infant-mother interaction, are high points in the phase. He will try to avoid the low points of un-pleasure by creating a bond that is marked by early maternal intervention to restore the status quo.

Beginning Self-Object Differentiation and Object Preference

The second phase can begin as early as the third week, and by the fourth month the infant has prescribed his favourite individuals (apart from mother). However he is still not really discriminating between self and subject. He is now ready to engage in a higher state of interaction with others. He babbles and smiles and tries to make some sense out of his local environment. If he should fail to make the sort of contact that he is seeking then he will turn away in a manner that is unequivocal in its meaning. His main social contact at this stage is by the eye, and he makes no bones about his feelings of pleasure or displeasure.

His bond with his mother, at best, is now flowing and, if he is fortunate, there is a mutual admiration society established. This is not however an isolated practice for there is a narcissistic element on both sides that is reinforced by the strength of the attachment. His continued development allows him to find an increasing number of ways in which he might generate, autonomously, personal pleasure. He finds delight in making new sounds, or indeed doing anything that brings him his mother’s approbation. He is now almost ready to see himself in contrast to others.

Self-Constancy and Object-Constancy

The infant is now becoming able to know himself as “me”, as well as being able to know familiar others as “them”. His fraternisation with father, siblings and grandparents or any other closely adjacent person, endows this interaction with a tone of special recognition as “one of the gang”. This is of vital importance to him because he gains a very special feedback from these people. They love him and they shown their approbation for his every ploy that he constructs in an effort to seal this knot. He is now at the beginning of a period when he starts to feel some early self-esteem. Again if he is lucky, he will be delighted at being himself and in his situation. Also at this stage he can often create a special affinity for the same-sex parent. He throws up expansive gestures of affection, and yet can also become totally self-absorbed in his growing confidence that he is on a “winning streak”.

Awareness of a Awareness: Self-Centredness

This is an extension of the third phase and he is continuously becoming more aware of himself and is adept at gaining the pleasures he seeks. The phase also coincides with the beginning of the decline of maternal feeling that he is the best thing on this earth. His activities both positive and negative have started to draw on maternal resources to the point where they may at times be sapping. Thus at the beginning of the child’s second year the mother starts to realise that the time has come when she must “shout the odds”. She begins to make demands of him and, at times, to punish him, albeit in a discrete way. She may not now respond as quickly as she did before, or she may not seem quite so adoring as she was three months ago.

The most dynamic intervention that a child can have at this time is the fear of the loss of love. He needs to be loved so that he can still love himself. This beginning of a time of self-reflection needs him to be aware of being aware. It is now possible for him to be injured narcissistically, for example, perhaps through sibling rivalry. His relationship with his same-sex parent takes on a new importance. It now goes beyond just a “mutuality club”. Because he is becoming aware of his limitations, he needs to know through this relationship with the same-sex parent, just what he may become. This allows his narcissistic image of himself to be regularly re-polished after any lapses that might have tarnished it.

Object-Centred Phase: The First Libidinal Disappointment

This is what has been described as the Oedipal period, when genital and object-directed sexuality comes to the fore. He must continue to recover whenever he receives a blow to his self-esteem; but more, he must learn not to over-compensate. As Temeles puts it, narcissistic supplies from both the adored Oedipal object and also the loved rival are threatened as the child’s libidinal investments are sporadically supplanted by negative impulses. [Idem.]

The child will refresh his relationships on a different platform, but nevertheless maintains and is sustained by his attachments to his parents, and other subsidiary figures. At a time when he begins to divest himself of some of the libidinal baggage he may enter into a new “love affair” with a peer. The normal pattern is for these to disintegrate when the child enters the period of latency, and for the interregnum to be typified with a period of sexual segregation. By now he is going to school and is acquiring a new level of self-sufficiency that continues to enhance his narcissism.

Beginning Prominence of Peer Groups: New Objects

This phase, which begins sometime in the third year, is marked by a resolution of the Oedipal period and a lessening of the infant ties with the parents as the child turns his attention towards his peers and some other special adults (such as teachers or other role models). In some respects these new objects start to replace some of the narcissistic supplies that he continues to gain from his parents.

This of course has its dangers because other objects can be notoriously fickle, especially peers. He is now at a stage where he has journeyed into the outside world and is vulnerable to the inconstancies of those who now are around him in greater numbers. However all is not lost for the world revolves in circles and the input that he requires from others is shared by the input that they need from him.

On an individual basis therefore if he “falls out” with one person then he very quickly will “fall in” with another. The real potential problem here is for him to be disliked by so many others of his peers that his self-esteem is endangered. Sometimes this can be rectified by his mastery of other elements; particularly if they contribute a steady flow of narcissistic supplies. However the group-ideal is of great significance and seems to have become more so in recent times.

The development of a burgeoning independence together with a sense of group recognition are both in the nature of self-preservation issues. The parental influence, if it has been strong and supportive and consistently streaked with affection and love, will be the launching pad for an adequate personality and a move towards eventual independence.

Beginning Prominence of Self-Assessment: Impact on Self-Love

This pre-adolescent phase encompasses a child who still needs the reassurance of his peers, and hereabouts his attachments to certain individuals or groups will intensify. The assaults on his self-esteem now come from a different quarter. There is an increased concentration on physical attributes, and other comparisons will be made that might diminish or raise his narcissistic supplies. His self-confidence can be strained at this time, and whilst the same-sex peer is still dominant, the opposite-sex peer starts to catch the corner of his eye.

At this time, when he needs all the support he can gather, he may find to his chagrin that a certain ambivalence is coming to pass in his relationships with his parents. They in turn are discovering a rapidly changing, not so compliant, and more independent child. They may be astounded by the group ideals that he has adopted, and whilst in reality he still needs to receive from them abundant narcissistic supplies, the affectionate ties may be strained and the expected or desired support may be somewhat withered.

Beginning Sexual Maturity: Importance of the Sexual Object

At this stage ties with parents continue to slacken, but there is an important change taking place as the affectionate characteristics are converging with libidinal ones. The need to be loved is still there and the adolescent version of narcissism begins to trail its coat. Gradually the narcissistic element is enhanced as the subject becomes more self-assured and develops the need to win the frank admiration of a sexual object. Hormonal mood swings can underlie the degree to which rejection reduces the narcissistic supplies. Where there is a blatant over-valuation of the self it is often the result of a defence mechanism coming in to play to protect the subject. Individual subjects compare themselves with others in their group and may become aware of either shortcomings or advantages that add to the feelings in self-assessment. Over-inflated Ego ideals may bring about a negative assessment, and the need arises for young people to confront themselves with reality. A failure to do this will result in a much more severe assault on their narcissism later.

Resurgence of Master Issues: Impact of Self-Love

Having now experienced the change of love object, and tasted the new relations that stem from it, there is a need to resume the issues of mastery. These are no longer childhood fantasies but are the basic requirements for a successful future. On them depend the acquisition of a successfully completed education, skill training and employment. At this stage narcissistic supplies depend upon success, and if this is not obtained legitimately then it may be sought by other means. His culture and to some extent his peer group will tend to dictate what the criteria of success will be. Within some societies there is still a gender difference here but it is reducing with time. Temeles suggests that, If the woman’s narcissistic supplies are, in fact, more dependent on maintaining a relationship with the libidinal object, then perhaps it reflects a greater need to maintain more affectionate ties reminiscent of the past. [Idem.]

When the time comes for parenthood earlier ties tend to be reinvigorated; parents become grandparents and the cycle begins again.

The Balance between Self- and Object-Generated Narcissistic Supplies

Each culture has its unit of social characteristics. These often revolve around family, work, leisure and on the extent to which they are successful will depend the amount of contentment and pride that is generated. A continuance of narcissistic supplies will continue to flow from partners, colleagues, children, parents etc. The more success the greater the flow; and the greater the flow the more success can be achieved and the better the subject will feel about life. The downside of this is when things go wrong. We are in a situation generally where many people have lost jobs and homes; where marriages have broken up and children are separated from one of the parents. This causes great stress, a diminution of self-esteem and a loss of narcissistic supplies. This may result in the loss of the power to sustain an effective life style and with a continuing diminution of narcissistic supplies the result may bring about a negative aspect to life.

Accommodation versus Self-Centredness

The subject has now arrived at middle age. Whatever success has been achieved it may well be that he will be at the summit of his personal mountain, and the only way forward is down. From here on mastery is waning and there is a tendency to rely more and more on relationships to supply the good feelings. The arrival of grandchildren can herald a return to earlier mutuality and may account for narcissistic supplies for both generations. In the long-term the threat of, or the reality of, a reduction in physical capacity or ill-health may play a part in the reduction of narcissistic supplies.

Self versus Object

Advancing age will develop its threat. Not only is this at a personal and physical level, but often it is at an emotional level. Long gone are the inter-generational family settings. Grand parents, parents and children now not only reside in different houses, but in different counties or even different countries. The more one is separated and possibly alone the more one feels threatened by mortality which is of course the ultimate in the loss of narcissistic supplies. When loved ones disappear it is important to try to crate substitute associations either through re-entering into group activities or perhaps the solitary pleasure that can be gained from a domestic pet. Loss of the good feelings that were present in earlier times can lead to depression. This is countered by those who have developed a degree of self-sufficiency and who have maintained interests that provide a continuance of narcissistic supplies. Once any or all of these start to disappear there enters a factor of dissimulation, and we can no longer reconcile what we were to what we now are. We lose our self-esteem, often our will to live, but even though this is not consonant with a will to die it often leads to a failure to thrive

Sam Vaknin is the author of Malignant Self Love, and runs the website Malignant Self Love - Narcissism Revisited.Sam has served as the author of the Personality Disorders topic, Narcissistic Personality Disorder topic, the Verbal and Emotional Abuse topic, and the Spousal Abuse and Domestic Violence topic, Suite101.

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