Below are some excerpts from Traumatic Narcissism: Relational Systems of Subjugation, by Daniel Shaw, a book that is completely revising the way I understand narcissism, in general, and the narcissistic wound, in particular.
I see a lot of traumatic narcissism in my clients, and until now I have not had a term for it. We all have seen books like Toxic Parents: Overcoming Their Hurtful Legacy and Reclaiming Your Life (Susan Forward), Children of the Self-Absorbed: A Grown-Up's Guide to Getting Over Narcissistic Parents (Nina Brown), or Trapped in the Mirror: Adult Children of Narcissists in their Struggle for Self (Golomb Elan). These are very useful books for our clients to read, but they do not offer much for the relationally-inclined, intersubjectively-focused psychoanalyst.
The great beauty of Shaw's book, for me, is that he approaches this topic from a relational perspective, which is aligned with my approach to therapy.
Narcissism can be understood as both traumatic and traumatizing:From here on, he spends several pages focused on how the child of narcissistic, traumatizing parents can turn their pain and wounding outward, rather than adopting the dissociative model presented above.
In his long suppressed, extraordinary final paper, "Confusion of Tongues" (Sandor Ferenczi 1933/1980), Ferenczi did much more than point to adult sexualization of children, rather than infantile sexuality and fantasy, as a cause of serious psychological damage the child carries into adulthood. Ferenczi went further, identifying the complex, cumulative emotional trauma the child who is neglected and/or abused experiences in the context of the developmental relationship. He went to describe how parents project their disavowed guilt (and shame) on to the child; and how resentful they were, no matter how well masked, of the child's dependence on them--because of their own disavowed wishes to be the focus of attention and care. He recognized that such parents dissociatively take advantage of the child's instinctive willingness to "introject" the guilt and shame the parent disavows. The child, Ferenczi understood, does this by becoming self-blaming, self-loathing, and self-sacrificing. He becomes the caretaker of the parent, while dissociating the awareness of his own needs, along with his concomitant grief and rage about feeling abandoned and exploited.
- The developmental traumas that engender narcissism are transmitted intergenerationally
- The central trauma in the genesis of narcissism is chronic, insufficiently repaired failures on the part of caregivers to support the developing child's needs for recognition as a separate subject
- The chronic failures of recognition thwart the child's achievement of the capacity for intersubjective relatedness
- Most often, these chronic failures arise as a result of narcissistic disturbances in the parentPages 3-4
As with all forms of trauma, dissociation becomes a central survivor mode for the adult child of the traumatizing narcissism. Trauma theorists describe aspect of dissociation as the formation of the "protector/persecutor self" (Howell, 2005; Kalsched, 1996). ... The voice of the protector/persecutor says: "No. Do not believe in yourself, do not hope, do not dare. You'll only be hurt again." As the voice becomes more fearful of retraumatization, it becomes more laden with rejection and hostility, dissociatively identified with and mimicking the traumatizing narcissist caregiver: "You nothing, you loser! No one could or would ever love you, you're disgusting! Give up!"
There is a different route taken by some children of traumatizing narcissists--involving externalization, rather than internalization, of the hostile projects of the narcissist parents. People in this group, the externalizers, might come to disdain needs altogether, and imagine that they themselves have no needs, that only others are weak and needy. This sort of person could become fixed in a subjective orientation, paving the way toward manic grandiosity and contempt for others, with a sense of entitlement and self-justification. The same cumulative traumatization to the sense of subjectivity as with the objectified child has taken place, but this child, rather than succumbing to a sense of helplessness and despairing of being able to feel recognized, instead develops as an adult into someone who arranges to wield the power to bestow, or not bestow, recognition upon others. ... Another way to think about this is to posit that the traumatized, thwarted subjective self of this child morphs into a protector self, which succeeds in preventing the internalization of shame and badness. Instead this super-defended self locates badness only in others--never in the self. Rather than persecute the self, this dissociated protector is quick to detect inferiority in others, and able to maintain the sense of superiority quite consistently.I'm sure that as I get deeper into the book, I will have more to share. Stay tuned.
The patient who is labeled the deflated, thin-skinned pathological narcissist is usually someone who in development has suffered severe damage to their self-esteem system, and whose self-esteem regulation is therefore inconsistent and precarious, subject to the internal persecution of the split-off protector self. In my view, this person is more aptly deemed a sufferer of cumulative, developmental, post-traumatic stress. These patients are inhabited and often tormented by the ghosts of their traumatizers.
The overinflated narcissist is often someone much more like the original Narcissus of Ovid's Metamorphoses, as I understand the Narcissus myth: reveling in being wanted and adored by others, contemptuously deeming no one good enough; reinforcing his grandiose overvaluation of himself by sadistically negating the value and worth of others; and ultimately trapped and destroyed by his delusional obsession with what he perceives to be his own perfection. The narcissist in real life, a myth in his own mind, is so well defended against his developmental trauma, so skillful a disavower of the dependency and inadequacy that is so shameful to him, that he creates a delusional world in which he is a superior being in need of nothing he cannot provide for himself. To remain persuaded of his own perfection, he uses significant others whom he can subjugate. These spouses, siblings, children, or followers of the inflated narcissist strive anxiously to be what the narcissist wants them to be, for fear of being banished from his exalted presence. He is compelled to use those who depend on him to serve as hosts for his own disavowed and projected dependency, which for him signified profound inadequacy and is laden with shame and humiliation. To the extent that he succeeds in keeping inadequacy and dependency external, he can sustain in his internal world his delusions of shame-free, self-sufficient superiority.
I am especially focusing on a particular type of the predominately overinflated, entitled, grandiose narcissist, and the way in which this person characteristically organizes relationships. I call this person the "traumatizing narcissist." In what I (Shaw, 2010) have previously termed "the pathological narcissist's relational system," I describe the narcissist who seeks hegemony for his subjectivity by weakening and suppressing the subjectivity of the other for the purpose of control and exploitation. The other is then left in grave doubt about the validity and even the reality of their own subjectivity. The sadistic, abusive aspect of narcissism stems from the belief, often held unconsciously, that the separate subjectivity of the other is a threat to the survival, literally and/or figuratively, of one's own subjectivity--and the other must therefore be captured and kept under control.
What is most characteristic of the traumatizing narcissist as I am defining him is his compelling need to suppress subjectivity in the other, so that the narcissist's subjectivity is always the exclusively important and only valid focus of any dyad or group. ... Unconsciously, he is using the other to identify with and internalize the disavowed, shameful dependency he projects onto others. In the case of a traumatizing narcissist parent, the child's subjectivity is attacked, suppressed, and shattered. In this situation, the developing child's ability to self-regulate and balance the innate narcissistic tendencies is not just unsupported, but actively derailed by the parent.