The Narcissist's Mother
- The Loved Enemies - An Introduction
- The Narcissistic Personality
- The Issue of Separation and Individuation
- Childhood Traumas and the Development of the Narcissistic Personality
- The Narcissist's Family
- The Narcissist's Mother - A Suggestion for an Integrative Framework
- Watch the video on Consequences of a Narcissistic Mother on her Adult Daughter
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?", "Am I being 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 verbally formulate 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 urge to assimilate and integrate by being assimilated and integrated.
"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." (J. D. Levine and Rona H. Weiss. The Dynamics and Treatment of Alcoholism. Jason Aronson, 1994)
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 child's first breath: a battle to gain autonomy, to usurp the power of the parents, to become a distinct entity.
The child refuses to let the parents continue to serve as its self. It rebels and seeks to depose them and take over their functions. The better the parents are at being 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 supplanted by an indigenous, successful, government.
"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 worth-whileness 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." [Ibid.]
"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. New York, NY University Press, 1998)
Narcissism is fundamentally an evolved version of the psychological defence mechanism known as splitting. The narcissist does not regard people, 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 objects or devalues them. At any given time, the objects are 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. The truth is somewhere in between: 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 its 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." [Ibid.]
The second psychological defence mechanism which characterizes the narcissist is the active pursuit of Narcissistic Supply. The narcissist seeks to secure a reliable and continuous 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 - good or bad. If fame cannot be had - notoriety would do. The narcissist is obsessed with his 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." [Ibid.]
Freud versus Jung
Freud was the first to present a 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, these transitions must be smooth and unperturbed. Neuroses are the outcomes of bumpy or incomplete transitions
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 adaptative. It "trains" the child to love an object, albeit this object is merely his self. It secures gratification through the availability, predictability and permanence of the loved object (oneself). But regressing to "secondary narcissism" is maladaptive. It is an indication of failure to direct the libido at the "right" targets (at objects, such as the parents).
If this pattern of regression persists and prevails, it leads to a narcissistic neurosis. The narcissist stimulates his self habitually in order to derive pleasure. 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 suggested a mental picture of the psyche as a giant warehouse of archetypes (the conscious representations of adaptative behaviours). Fantasies to him are just a way of accessing these archetypes and releasing them. Almost by definition, Jungian psychology does not allow for regression.
Any reversion to earlier phases of mental life, to earlier coping strategies, or to earlier choices is interpreted by Jungians 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 only a semantic difference between Freud and his disciple turned-heretic. When libido investment in objects (esp. the Primary Object) fails to produce gratification, the result is maladaptation. This is dangerous and the default option - secondary narcissism - is activated.
This default enhances adaptation (is adaptative) and is functional. It triggers adaptative behaviours. As a by-product, it secures gratification. We are gratified when we exert reasonable control over our environment, i.e., when our behaviours are adaptative. Thus, the compensatory process has two results: enhanced adaptation and inevitable gratification.
Perhaps the more serious disagreement between Freud and Jung 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 new adaptation strategies 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 tends 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 (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 one's mental life.
But surely the habitual and predominant focussing of attention upon one's self, to the exclusion of others, is the very definition of pathological narcissism. What differentiates the pathological from the normal and even the welcome is, of course, a matter of degree.
Pathological narcissism is exclusive 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, adaptative mechanism goes awry. When it does, as Jung himself recognised, neuroses form.
Last but not least, Freud regards narcissism as a point while Jung regards it as a continuum (from health to sickness). Modern views of narcissism tend to adopt Jung's view in this respect.
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 (whom it tars with the same brush of omnipotence and grandiosity) coagulate and form these constructs.
The child's feelings towards its parents are his or her reactions to their responses (affirmation, buffering, modulation or disapproval, punishment, even abuse). These responses help maintain the self-structures. Without appropriate parental responses, infantile grandiosity, for instance, cannot be transformed into healthy adult ambitions and ideals.
To Kohut, grandiosity and idealisation are positive childhood development mechanisms. Even their reappearance in transference should not be considered a pathological narcissistic regression.
"You see, the actual issue is really a simple one ... a simple change in classical [Freudian] theory, which states that autoeroticism 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."
(H. Kohut. The Chicago Institute Lectures 1972-1976. Marian and Paul Tolpin (Eds.). Analytic Press, 1998)
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.
"It is not that the self-experiences are given up and replaced by ... a more mature or developmentally more advanced experience of objects." [Ibid.]
This dichotomy inevitably leads 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 are the result of the perturbed development of narcissism.
It was not a cosmetic or superficial distinction. Self-disorders are the outcomes 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" (that is not being affirmed by objects, especially the Primary Objects, the parents) - or being regarded merely as an object for gratification or abuse.
Such children grow up to become adults who are not sure that they exist (lack a sense of self-continuity) or that they are worth anything (labile sense of self-worth and fluctuating or bipolar self-esteem). They suffer from depressions, as neurotics do. But the source of these depressions is existential (a gnawing sensation of emptiness) as opposed to the "guilty conscience" 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."
(Paul and Marian Tolpin (Eds.). The Preface to the "Chicago Institute Lectures 1972-1976 of H. Kohut", 1996)
One note: "constructs" or "structures" are permanent psychological patterns. But this is not to say that they do not change, for they are capable 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 observed that one's personality was shaped mostly by one's environment, society, or culture. She believed that one's relationships and interactions with others 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 (to which he later 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 are 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 is 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 child's dependence on adults for his survival.
Children are uncertain (of love, protection, nourishment, nurturance) - so they become anxious. They develop psychological defences to compensate for the intolerable and gradual realisation that adults are merely human and are, at times, capricious, arbitrary, unpredictable, unreliable. These defences provide both gratification and a sense of security. The problem of dangerous dependence 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 "Creating Capacity for Attachment: Treating Addictions and the Alienated Self" [Jason Aronson, 1999] wrote:
"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 and of his identity in order to feel secure.
Horney identified three neurotic strategies: submission, aggression and detachment. The choice of strategy determines the type of 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 adaptative strategy.
Horney's is an optimistic outlook. Because 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 when an adult understands his problem (his anxiety), he also acquires the ability to eliminate it altogether.
Yet, clinical experience shows that childhood trauma and abuse are difficult to completely erase. Modern brain research tends to support this sad view and, yet, offer some hope. The brain seems to be more plastic than previously imagined - but no one knows when this "window of plasticity" shuts. What has been established is that the brain is physically impressed with abuse and trauma.
It is conceivable that the brain's plasticity continues well into adulthood and that later "reprogramming" (by loving, caring, compassionate and empathic experiences) can remould the brain permanently. Clearly, the patient has to accept his disorder as a given and work around it rather than confront it directly.
After all, our disorders are adaptative and help us to function. Their removal may not always be wise or necessary to attain a full and satisfactory life. We should not all conform to the same mould and experience life the same. Idiosyncrasies are a good thing, both on the individual level and on the level of the species.
It is by no means universally accepted that children go through a phase of separation from their parents and through 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 N. Stern dispute this hypothesis. Based on many studies, it appears that, as always, what seems intuitively right is not necessarily right.
In "The Interpersonal World of the Infant: A View from Psychoanalysis and Developmental Psychology" [New York, Basic Books - 1985], Stern seems to, inadvertently, support Kohut by concluding that children possess selves and are separate from their caregivers from the very start.
In effect, he says that the picture of the child, as proffered by psychodynamic theories, is biased 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 accept any kind of parents (even abusive) because they depend on them for their survival and 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 (in a social context, some add), an assimilation of the oft-imitated and idealised parents plus the internalisation of the way others perceive the child in 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 quality.
Traumas are inevitable. They are an integral and important part of life. But in early childhood, especially in infancy (ages 0 to 4 years), they acquire an ominous aura and an evil interpretation. 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 be absent 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 do not equate 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 - deliberately inflicted or inevitable and inadvertent life crises - are of equal abusive standing, though their severity may differ together with the permanence of their emotional outcomes.
Sometimes even abuse and neglect are the results of circumstances beyond the abusive or neglecting parent's control. Consider a physically or mentally handicapped parent or caregiver, 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 a child can tell the difference is with physical and sexual abuse. These are marked by a co-operative effort (offending parent and abused child) at concealment and strong emotions of shame and guilt, repressed to the point of producing anxiety and "neurosis". The child perceives even the injustice of the situation, though it rarely dares to express its views, lest it be abandoned or severely punished 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, premeditated 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 one's self. The child, fearful of further rejection and abuse, refrains from further interaction with others. Instead, it builds its own kingdom of grandiose fantasies where it is always loved, respected, and self-sufficient. This is the narcissistic strategy which leads to the development of a narcissistic personality.
"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 new-born 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 pre-schooler and older child to withstand occasional criticism and negative evaluations that usually accompany socialisation into the larger community.
As children grow beyond the pre-school 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 internalise 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  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 organise and help mould the child's environment 'by seeking particular kinds of people and by eliciting particular behaviour 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  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 behaviour 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 ."
(Lilian G. Katz - Distinctions between Self-Esteem and Narcissism: Implications for Practice - October 1993 - ERIC/EECE Publications)
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");
The Child can be:
- 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.
- Attraction - Attraction/Accepting
(Healthy axis, leads to self-love)
- Attraction - Attraction/Domineering
(Could lead to personality disorders - PDs - such as avoidant, or schizoid, or to social phobia, etc.)
- Attraction - Attraction/Doting or Smothering
(Could lead to Cluster B Personality Disorders)
- Attraction - Repulsion/Indifferent
(Could lead to narcissism, Cluster B disorders)
- Attraction - Repulsion/Rejecting
(Could lead to personality disorders such as paranoid, borderline, etc.)
- Attraction - Repulsion/Abusive
(Could lead to DID, ADHD, NPD, BPD, AHD, AsPD, PPD, etc.)
- Repulsion - Repulsion/Indifferent
(Could lead to avoidant, schizoid, paranoid, etc. PDs)
- Repulsion - Repulsion/Rejecting
(Could lead to personality, mood, anxiety disorders and to impulsive behaviours, such as eating disorders)
- Repulsion - Attraction/Accepting
(Could lead to unresolved Oedipal conflicts and to neuroses)
- Repulsion - Attraction/Domineering
(Could have the same results as axis 6)
- 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:
- 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.
- 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
Staff, H. (2008, November 26). The Narcissist's Mother, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2023, February 7 from https://www.healthyplace.com/personality-disorders/malignant-self-love/the-narcissists-mother