2-2 Narcissism, Intergenerational Trauma, and Love

2-2 Narcissism, Intergenerational Trauma, and Love

2-2 Narcissism, Intergenerational Trauma, and Love

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Nisha Gupta

There is hardly any activity, any enterprise, which is started out with such tremendous hopes and expectations, and yet which fails so regularly, as love.” - Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving

The recent relational psychoanalytic literature about narcissism has sought to conceptualize it not merely as a set of pathological character traits, but rather as a particular style of engaging in human relationships which is the direct result of childhood relational trauma—of continuous exposure to a kind of love that was oppressive and annihilating. This literature has explored in depth how narcissism is passed on from generation to generation, as the traumatized child of narcissistic parents frequently grows up to relate to others in the same oppressive way that he or she was loved growing up. This paper will articulate the framework of intergenerational relational trauma, elaborated by Shaw (2014), in hopes of providing a compassionate lens for psychotherapists working with patients with whom we may detect a narcissistic personality, in varying degrees of pathology. In doing so, psychotherapists might better understand and repair moments of therapeutic rupture with these patients during which early relational trauma is being reenacted. Psychotherapists can also consider how to transform these difficult moments into emotionally corrective experiences for narcissistic patients, helping to assuage their early relational trauma and introducing them to more authentically loving ways of relating to others. Ultimately, this framework provides hopeful possibilities for breaking the intergenerational transmission of trauma that generates narcissistic personalities in the first place.

A Psychoanalytic Definition of Narcissism

The DSM-5 paints a picture of narcissistic personality disorder as a person who is grandiose, entitled, omnipotent, and preoccupied with fantasies of power and success. Its symptomology further describes the narcissist as exploitative, envious, requiring of admiration, and lacking in empathy (APA, 2013). This explicitly grandiose, exploitative personality may account for just one version of a narcissistic patient. Psychoanalytic literature provides a more nuanced approach to defining narcissism. Nancy McWilliams (2011) used the term to refer to people whose personalities are structured in such a way that they are preoccupied with receiving validation from the outside world in order to maintain a sense of self-worth. Most people require “self-objects”—those significant others in our lives whose approval and admiration we rely upon and internalize to help build our self-esteem (Basch, 1994; McWilliams, 2011). However, the key to detecting a narcissistic need for self-objects is the difficulty in perceiving these others as people in their own right, beyond their function of augmenting their own self-esteem. Narcissistic patients are preoccupied with using self-objects as a constant source of reassurance and recognition in order to retain self-worth. This consumption leaves little room for reciprocity—for the other’s self, perspectives, and needs to be recognized, as well. Other people become “narcissistic extensions” of the self. As such, narcissistic patients struggle with a limited capacity to love, though their dependency needs for other people are vast (McWilliams, 2011). With this solely self-oriented mode of relating as the basic structure of narcissistic pathology, there can be different faces of narcissism that appear in the therapist’s office: the overtly grandiose and arrogant person or the more covert, insecure, and self-critical person who nevertheless unconsciously designates others as supplies upon which his or her self-esteem is contingent. Gabbard (2014) reflects that though patients may present with narcissistic personality features to varying degrees in psychotherapy, one way to evaluate whether or not such narcissism is “pathological” is by the qualities of their relationships. Gabbard characterized healthy interpersonal relatedness as being able to exhibit empathy and compassion, concern for the other’s ideas, a tolerance of relational ambivalence across the span of time, and an ability to acknowledge one’s own responsibility in relational conflict. There are some patients, however, who experience chronic challenges with such relational tasks. This paper centers its discussion on such patients, who often seek out therapy depressed by the impact that their restricted ways of relating have on their personal and professional lives.

The Intergenerational Transmission of Narcissism

Object relations theory has contributed greatly to our understanding of the etiology of narcissistic personalities, theorizing that people become narcissistic because they themselves were treated as narcissistic extensions of their parents while growing up. In her acclaimed book The Drama of the Gifted Child, Alice Miller described patients she treated in therapy who were successful, talented and intelligent, but for whom a sense of inner worth was lacking. She realized that many of these patients endured childhoods in which their parents continuously failed to acknowledge the child’s deepest emotions and perceptions—the child’s “true self,” as Winnicott would say (Miller, 1981). Object relational theory asserts that having one’s feelings and perceptions recognized and mirrored by caregivers during infancy is a developmental requirement for establishing a sense of self. In narcissistic families, however, the child is only noticed and validated for external accomplishments that reflect well on the parents.

These parents seek reassurance from the world to bolster their own fragile self-esteem. They try to derive it from their children, who are perceived as an extension of themselves rather than unique human beings in their own right. Miller sympathetically explained that these parents themselves were likely deprived as children of having their own developmental needs for mirroring and recognition met, and therefore as adults unwittingly attempt to get these needs fulfilled from all others, including their kids (Miller, 1981). Additionally, Miller remarked that many of these parents appear devotedly loving towards their children, fawning over them with pride for all they have accomplished. Yet this parenting style is nevertheless damaging for the child, who is exposed to a blueprint of love that is conditional and based on external achievements rather than who they are inside. These children learn that their worthiness depends upon being a gratifying object for their parents’ narcissistic needs, rather than a separate person with thoughts, wishes, and desires of their own.

The cumulative effect of this upbringing is the construction of a “false self” that tries to obtain love through external markers of success and recognition. The individual’s grandiose false self strengthens in its search for love, while his or her true self is suppressed and diminished. A dreadful inner void develops in its place. A patient of Alice Miller’s described the experience of stifling her true self in order to remain a narcissistic extension of her mother: “I lived in a glass house into which my mother could look at any time. In a glass house, however, you cannot conceal anything without giving yourself away, except by hiding it under the ground. And then you cannot see it yourself, either” (Miller, 1981, p. 21). By burying one’s true self in order to maintain love, an inner emptiness settles which feels unfillable—despite the constant, desperate attempts to fill this void through other people’s affirmations. As adults, these individuals often relate to others solely through their false self, which is all that is accessible to them anymore. This style of relating is all they know of love: a self-gratifying, superficial, non-reciprocal style of love that mimics how their parents once loved them. Miller remarked that many of these individuals come to psychotherapy as adults describing an ideal childhood with a perfect family. The delicate task of psychotherapy is to help them confront the truth about their relationships with their parents, mourn the loss of a less-than-ideal childhood, and experience having their true selves—their innermost feelings, thoughts, desires—be acknowledged within the psychotherapeutic relationship, perhaps for the first time (Miller, 1981).

Narcissism as Relational Trauma

In his recent book Traumatic Narcissism: Relational Systems of Subjugation, relational psychoanalyst David Shaw (2014) outlines a trauma-driven framework for understanding narcissism as a pattern of intergenerational relational abuse. Shaw distinguishes between two types of narcissists. “Traumatizing narcissists” appear overinflated, exploitative, and have a limited capacity for self-awareness. They enact a rigid defense of omnipotence that staunchly resists the notion that they might ever be wrong; accordingly, they rarely enter psychotherapy. Shaw believes that these individuals are the true “malignant” narcissists, whose disturbances may be so characterologically ingrained that there is little hope for change and who, therefore, inflict the most abuse in relationships with others. The children of traumatizing narcissists may grow up to become overinflated, omnipotent, and malignant narcissists as well, like their parents. Alternatively, the children may emerge from their traumatic childhoods with more deflated narcissistic features, in which their self-esteem is visibly fragile and constantly fluctuating between grandiosity and self-loathing. These are the “narcissists” who typically seek help in psychotherapy. Shaw prefers to conceive of these patients as “post-traumatic adult children of traumatizing narcissists” who are victims of abuse that then go on to abuse others similarly, but who have a better chance of attaining self-awareness and gradual relational transformation through psychotherapy.

Shaw’s (2014) trauma-driven framework of narcissism is based upon particular abusive interpersonal dynamics which he calls “relational systems of subjugation”. In these relationships, the victims of traumatizing narcissists are objectified and stripped of their subjectivity in order to reinforce the dominance of the narcissist’s subjectivity. In the context of a parent-child relationship, the child’s subjectivity is persistently and viciously obliterated in order to uphold the righteousness of the parents, who learned through their own abusive upbringings that human relationships are made up of win-lose encounters. The narcissist’s sense of self is so fragile that another person’s separate thoughts, feelings, and perceptions pose a direct threat to it and, therefore, must be attacked and diminished in order for the narcissist’s selfhood to win and survive. As a result, the victimized party of this relational encounter is “left in grave doubt about the validity and even reality of their own subjectivity” (Shaw, 2014, p. 4). The victim’s loss is especially detrimental in childhood. Children who experience this subjugation day in and day out lose out on the opportunity to develop a sense of themselves as a subject—as a person in their own right. Shaw (2014) elaborates on what it means to experience oneself as a subject:

[It] means to have a consistent enough sense of one’s intrinsic worth and value, to know what one thinks and feels, what one wants and doesn’t want; to feel permitted, or free, to assert the legitimacy of one’s own point of view, without having either to deny the reality of others, or to adopt the other’s reality for fear of being isolated, or at worst, annihilated. A sense of one’s own self as a subject means knowing desire, and experiencing oneself as an agent capable of meaningful and productive action. (p. 19)

The children of traumatizing narcissists, however, are not afforded this basic human right. Instead, they become adults who suffer from devastating post-traumatic effects of cumulative childhood abuse in which their sense of self-as-subject was repeatedly shattered. Consequently, traumatized adult children of narcissists use the only defense mechanisms they have learned to protect their sense of self-as-subject from being demolished in relationships: they objectify other people in order to keep their own subjectivity intact. They subjugate others in order to avoid subjugation themselves. Sadly, the cycle of narcissism persists, as this abusive way of relating continues to be inflicted upon friends, colleagues, spouses, kids, and psychotherapists.

What is absent in these narcissistic relationships is intersubjectivity, which Shaw declares to be the crux of all healthy forms of love. Intersubjective relatedness is described as a “wholly two-person psychological experience” during which a person is able to “maintain the integrity of one’s subjectivity while remaining flexible and porous enough to negotiate mutuality, resisting both demands for submission and the need to demand it of others” (Shaw, 2014, p. 19). The mutuality referred to here is of mutual recognition, in which both parties’ needs, thoughts, and feelings are seen, acknowledged, and balanced in a relationship. Shaw (2014) places great emphasis on the basic existential need for recognition, as essential to human beings’ livelihood as food and water. He describes the experience of recognition as feeling “seen, understood, cared about, paid attention to, affirmed, supported, and, with one’s most significant others, lovingly cherished” (p. 9). Without this relational experience, a person is never able to establish a sense of him or herself as a subject, while simultaneously developing the ability to recognize other people as subjects in their own right as well. Thus, the underlying core issue of narcissism is the “cumulative developmental trauma of unrecognition” (Shaw, 2014, p. 9). Rather than learning about mutual recognition as the basis for human relating, children of traumatizing narcissistic parents instead learn, through example, to operate in wholly one-person relationships in which they must negate the other’s personhood so they can retain validity of their own subjectivity. The relationship between the two parties becomes void of intersubjective relatedness and instead becomes a power struggle whereby one party is demanded to subjugate his or her sense of self-as-subject for the sake of the other’s survival.

Another feature of this narcissistic relational dynamic is “fixed complementarity,” in which the narcissistic individual always seizes the dominant position in a relationship and relegates the other person to the status of an object to be utilized for his or her purposes (Shaw, 2014). The other is exploited for purposes other than mere admiration and validation of the narcissist’s subjectivity. The other is also used as a vessel for the disowned parts of the narcissist’s self that he or she cannot bear to acknowledge. Because the traumatizing narcissist’s sense of self is so fragile, he or she often retains a rigid defense of omnipotence which filters out all indications of imperfection or human flaw. All people have less-than-perfect qualities by virtue of our inherently fallible humanity; however, these aspects are unbearable to the narcissist, who must rid him or herself of them somehow. As a solution, traumatizing narcissistic parents project these flawed aspects onto their children, who become repositories for their bad selves so that they can maintain a sense of self that is perfect and good (Shaw, 2014). Consequently, the children of traumatizing narcissists frequently absorb all qualities that the narcissist deems unacceptable in him or herself: they acquire a sense of self that is overwhelmingly inadequate, shameful, unworthy, unloveable, and always to blame. Thus, the “fixed complementarity” of narcissistic relational systems involves one person that is always good, while the other is always bad. The parent is idealized and the child is devalued, a technique that aids the parent’s need to sustain self-esteem. This technique is also utilized by the victimized children, who go to great lengths to maintain a fantasy of their parents as all-good. Object relations theorists call this the “moral defense” that victims of abuse adopt, in order to maintain the belief—for survival’s sake—that they are attached to a “good object”. According to Fairbairn, the child may identify with all moral badness, so that their narcissistic parent can retain total goodness (cited in Shaw, 2014).

When these children grow up to be adults, the moral extremism can swing both ways. Trauma theory—such as in the writing of Howell—posits that abuse survivors often form a “protector/persecutor self” in their adoption of the moral defense (cited in Shaw, 2014). This protector/persecutor self internalizes the abuse that occurred, so that the abuser’s hostile and rejecting voice echoes in his or her mind, saying, “You nothing, you loser! No one could or ever would love you! Give up!” (Shaw, 2014). This internalized abuser kills off the hopeful, lively parts of the self, keeping one’s sense of self down on the ground in order to ward off re-traumatization. This explains the depressed, deflated, self-loathing presentation of narcissism witnessed in psychotherapy: the narcissistic patient is devaluing him or herself in the same manner that was endured at the hands of the abusive parents. Shaw also explains that sometimes the hostile projections of the abuser are externalized rather than internalized. In these moments, the individual identifies with the abuser in order to avoid feeling the inner helplessness and powerlessness associated with victimization. Shaw described it as “a defense against depression by the use of a manic reversal—as if to say, ‘it doesn’t matter if you don’t recognize me; you are not important, and I don’t recognize you” (Shaw, 2014). When this manic reversal is occurring, we witness the self-idealizing, grandiose, arrogant presentation of the narcissist who accordingly disdains others. In object relations literature, this phenomenon is also referred to as “splitting”: the tendency to either devalue oneself and idealize others, or devalue others in order to retain an idealized version of oneself that is devoid of shame and humiliation (Fairbairn. cited in Shaw, 2014). Adult children of traumatizing narcissists often cycle back and forth between these two extremes, for their parents could not provide them with the lesson that it is okay to be a human who is flawed but good-enough—who can be worthy amidst fallibility (Shaw, 2014).

What is essentially occurring during splitting and manic reversals is the same coping strategy that all trauma survivors enact to survive their circumstances: dissociation. In fact, psychoanalytic traumatologist Elizabeth Howell (2008) declares that narcissism is a dissociative disorder: “dissociation and pathological narcissism are inextricably intertwined, each reflecting aspects of the other, each implying the other” (p. 219). To protect their self-worth, adult children of traumatizing narcissists have learned to dissociate the full spectrum of their humanity, including their authentic feelings and thoughts which were consistently subjugated and rejected throughout childhood. Sadly, this leads them to dissociate their own needs for dependency, intimacy, and love. For the paradox of narcissism is that there exists an extreme dependency upon other people to affirm their self-worth, alongside an extreme shame for being so dependent. These individuals were once naturally dependent on their parents for love, recognition, and support. However, their parents could not fulfill their children’s natural dependency needs, due to their own limitations. Because these parents could not admit to their own limitations, they instead projected “badness” onto the child for having such dependency needs in the first place. Thus the child learned that to want love is wrong, shameful, and bad: “Frustration of his desire to be loved as a person and to have his love accepted is the greatest trauma that a child can experience” (Fairbairn, cited in Shaw, 2014, p. 7). To cope with such trauma, adult children of traumatizing narcissists dissociate their need to love and be loved, to engage in interdependent relationships, and to cultivate close, intimate bonds with others. Perhaps it is difficult to even imagine a relationship of interdependence, because in their experience getting close to others involves either subjugating the other’s subjectivity, or having their own subjectivity annihilated. To avoid such re-traumatization, narcissistic individuals strive to be fully self-sufficient in their universe of one. Yet the primal need for love still persists, leading them to “search for love in all the wrong ways” (Shaw, 2014, p. 9). This push-and-pull of dependency, intimacy, and love is often apparent in all relationships in life, including the therapeutic relationship.

Analytic Love as Antidote

With annihilating love as the backdrop of narcissistic personality disorder, Shaw (2014) wonders about the value, implementation, and effects of providing “analytic love” to these patients as a healing mechanism. He acknowledges that the psychoanalytic profession is often suspicious of tender, loving feelings that a therapist may feel towards his or her patient. Some psychoanalysts who are honest about their loving feelings towards patients are cautioned that they may unconsciously wish to fulfill their own narcissistic needs to be the “perfect parent” that their patients never had. However, Shaw offers a definition of love that seems like an essential ingredient in the relationship between psychotherapist and patient: “human warmth, empathic responsiveness, trust, recognition, faith, playful creativity” (Ghent, 1992; Shaw, 2014, p. 142). It is this warm, empathic, tender recognition that narcissistic patients were most deprived of as children and that the psychotherapist subsequently can provide as an emotionally corrective experience. For empathy is the main “therapeutic agent of change” across many theoretical approaches to psychotherapy (Kohut, 1959; Shaw, 2014). As such, much psychoanalytic literature recommends the primary strategy of mirroring during therapy sessions with narcissistic patients. Mirroring entails providing unwavering empathic reflection of the patient’s “true self”, so that it can be recognized and nourished in a way that these patients never experienced growing up (McWilliams, 2011). Winnicott (1971) first coined the term to describe the developmental need of children to have their facial expressions mirrored back to them through their mother’s gaze, in order to confirm an authentic sense of self that is recognized as real, worthy, and good. If the parents could not mirror their children’s spontaneous expressions in a “good-enough” manner due to their own limitations, it becomes the therapist’s task to do so, so that patients can feel recognized, accepted and validated for their subjective selfhood (Winnicott, 1971).

Suffice it to say, nobody can provide perfect mirroring and recognition to a human being, neither parents nor psychotherapists. Ruptures in empathy occur with all patients, but narcissistic patients are especially sensitive to deviations from their subjectivity. Their dependency needs towards their psychotherapist are often vast, so that ruptures in empathy may be devastating to them and to the therapeutic relationship. Some psychoanalytic literature remarks that the therapeutic relationship with narcissistic patients involves a distinct lack of transference: “Typically, the therapist first notices the patient’s lack of interest in exploring the therapeutic relationship…inquiries into how the client is feeling towards the clinician may be received as distracting, annoying, or irrelevant to the client’s concerns” (McWilliams, 2013, p. 186). The literature observes that narcissistic patients believe their therapist is inquiring into the transference relationship out of their own narcissistic need for reassurance or affirmation (McWilliams, 2013). Yet Shaw (2014) affirms that the transference relationship is indeed extremely important to narcissistic patients, but it is helpful to understand its unique flavor through his “relational systems of subjugation” framework. These patients’ traumatic childhoods led them to become hyper-vigilant about protecting their own subjectivity, worried that it would be annihilated if they allowed another person’s subjectivity to exist. As such, the patient’s subjectivity must dominate the therapy session at the expense of the psychotherapist’s. If the therapist inquires, comments, or interprets anything that deviates from the patient’s subjectivity, this may be considered an attack against him of her. Any breach of empathic mirroring—in which the therapist’s separate subjectivity slips through—may be experienced as a direct threat to the narcissist’s sense of self-as-subject (Shaw, 2014). These patients desperately need the therapist to not annihilate them like their parents did—they are fiercely dependent on the therapist to allow their sense of self-as-subject to remain intact. As such, says Shaw, when these upsetting impasses occur in therapy, it is helpful to consider them as reenactments of earlier relational trauma that the patients endured with their traumatizing narcissistic parents.

These moments of therapeutic rupture may result in the patient feeling disdain towards the therapist, devaluing him or her as an exploitative abuser just like everyone else. These moments can be all the more devastating if the therapeutic relationship had been progressing until that point—if the patient seemed to be developing more trust, vulnerability, and overt dependency towards the therapist. Yet Shaw (2014) cautions against the therapist trying to return to an “idealized” position in the patient’s mind. This would only continue the early relational trauma that is being reenacted, because his or her childhood relationship with parents so often consisted of “fixed complementarity,” in which the parent was always right and good and the child was wrong and bad. Instead, moments of therapeutic rupture can present the opportunity for an emotionally corrective experience. This opportunity lies in the therapist’s ability to authentically admit his or her human fallibility to the patient—something the adult children of traumatizing narcissists never witnessed their parents doing and, consequently, never learned to do themselves.

Shaw (2014) shares an example of a difficult traumatizing reenactment with a patient, which he worked to transform into an emotionally corrective experience. During this rupture, he explains, “I think about our complementarity, how quickly and thoroughly each of us has become convinced that we are the victim of the other, and I remind myself that it is unlikely that I am completely right and Alice is completely wrong” (Shaw, 2014). To heal their rupture, he provided a therapeutic intervention based on intersubjectivity—disrupting the idea that one party is right/good and the other is wrong/bad, but that both parties had needs, feelings, and thoughts that conflicted with the other’s during the rupture. Instead of behaving as an authoritative, omnipotent, and enigmatic analyst, Shaw honestly disclosed to the patient his own perspectives and frustrations about their shared relational encounter. He simultaneously validated the patient’s subjective perspective of the experience and expressed genuine remorse for the ways that he let his patient down. While doing so, Shaw was careful not to sound too self-critical, so that the patient could witness what it is like to make mistakes and be fallible while still remaining self-accepting. The patient was able to accept his fallibility, and gradually accept her own, without resorting to disdain or devaluation of either of them.

These difficult moments in psychotherapy can ultimately become moments of transformation for narcissistic patients. Through modeling, psychotherapists can demonstrate what it is like to retain self-worth while still being a flawed human being. This can gradually help narcissistic patients to stop disassociating parts of their full humanity, allowing themselves and others to be fallible but good-enough humans rather than resorting to defenses of idealization and devaluation. Patients may also learn, through repeated experiences in psychotherapy, that their own feelings, thoughts, and perceptions can still be valid, recognized, and heard, despite being separate from the other’s. As such, psychotherapy can expose narcissistic patients to new ways of relating based on intersubjectivity, in which their own sense of self-as-subject can co-exist alongside the other’s, without needing to subjugate either party’s subjectivity in the encounter. Psychoanalytic literature asserts that therapeutic progress with narcissistic patients is gradual, filled with stops-and-starts, and dependent upon great patience on the part of the psychotherapist (McWilliams, 2013). Nevertheless, there is possibility for real healing, learning, and change to occur when it comes to the relational patterns of adult children of traumatizing narcissists. These patients may gradually be able to carry their newfound relational encounters outside of the therapy office and into a world of others, enjoying what it is like to engage in wholly two-person psychological experiences that constitute the crux of real love.

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About the author:

is a PhD student in Clinical Psychology at Duquesne University. Her work attempts to shed light on the psychological impact of sociocultural oppression. She experiments with fusing existential-phenomenological research with the media arts to cultivate societal empathy and bridge cultural differences.


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