What (really) is narcissism? The myth of the over-valued child.
Many people are writing and talking about narcissism these days. What worries me the most is that the rhetoric coming from some psychologists and parent educators is inconsistent with what we know about child development and attachment. The inaccurate conceptualization goes something like this: narcissism comes from parents overvaluing children or putting them on a pedestal. Many point to such practices as handing out participation trophies as examples of how we coddle today’s youth. They blame cultural phenomenon like helicopter parenting, snow-plow parenting, doting parenting, or the inability of parents to hold their children accountable as the reasons that children grow up to be narcissistic. While outwardly these parental behaviors may look like like the child is being overvalued, there is something underneath these interactions that explains the development of a narcissistic personality. To be clear,
Narcissism is NOT a result of being overvalued. Instead, narcissism is the result of valuing the wrong thing in the child.
To put it another way, the child is NOT valued. Technically, it might be impossible to overvalue a child, but we can value them for the wrong reasons such as valuing them for being “good” or being the “easy”, or “happy” child. Many children experience praise and adoration for their accomplishments or giftedness and interpret that as love. In the recent Academy Award winning movie “Inside-Out,” the main character was referred to by her parents as “Our Happy Little Girl.” After several disheartening events in her life, the young girl experienced and displayed sad and morose emotions. Subsequently, due to a lack of empathic capacity, her parents interpreted this as disrespect rather than a valid emotional response given the circumstances. When we are valued for things such as our talents, our intelligence, our obedience, or our happiness, essentially we are not seen by others. Alice Miller (The Drama of the Gifted Child) talked about the need to cut the connection between being admired and being loved:
"Without therapy, it is impossible for the grandiose person to cut the tragic link between admiration and love." (p.35)
So the narcissistic wound is a wound of not being seen. It might look like overvaluing, but it is not valuing the whole child or the real self of the child—and valuing the real self has little to do with a child's accomplishments, cooperation, talents, or pleasant (to the parents) behaviors. Many children with whom I work express this sentiment. They equate their successes and the subsequent parental responses as affection and love. Parents, anxious to be seen as loving parents, lather praise to prevent any possible dip in the child’s self esteem. But again, this dynamic essentially misses the child because the child is turned into an object (reflection of the parent) rather than their own person.
When I was 15, my therapist told me, “A superiority complex ALWAYS covers up an inferiority complex.” Since then I haven’t been confused about anyone’s narcissism, including my own. Recently, a young man reflected that when he entered our therapeutic wilderness program he was “full of himself,” posturing to show the others how big he was. Yet, after a more careful look at things, he realized he was actually empty and his posturing was evidence of that emptiness.
“If I walked up to Tupac and told him he was an idiot,” I explained, “how do you think he might respond?”
He laughed, “He would choke you and one of his crew would probably put a gun in your face.”
I followed with, “And if I walked up to Gandhi and said the same thing?” This time he wasn’t so sure. I suggested, “I imagine he would have said something like, ‘You have no idea. I am such an idiot sometimes and I am working on that every day. I must have done something to hurt you. Please tell me what it was so I might make it right.”
The problem is that when narcissism shows up as inflation, it can have the effect of triggering us to want to “knock the other person down to size.” The narcissist’s puffed-up demeanor disregards any and all responses that don’t reflect this inflation, and he rails against anything or anyone that doesn’t reinforce this grandiosity. Others experience the narcissist as seeing themselves as better than others and the subsequent error is that we believe they need a reality check: they need to be called on their “crap” and deflated. The response often includes anger, disgust, judgment and hatred. See the problem here? We are responding to a wound by reinjuring the one suffering from the wound.
The wound is the narcissistic injury: a lack of connection and attachment in childhood.
Narcissism doesn’t always come in the classic arrogant form. Sometimes it looks like a depressed narcissism. This version of narcissism isn’t inflated, but rather self-deprecating. This type of narcissism is still self-centered, but the individual who suffers from it see’s all the evidence in the world pointing to them as detestable, the problem, and reason for other’s rage. They find a way to blame themselves for what others do, think or feel. This style of narcissism often triggers others to respond with compensating behaviors, enabling and rescuing. We feel sorry for or pity them and may eventually become tired of them and fulfill their prophecy of rejection. Regardless of the way it presents, classic inflated narcissism and depressed narcissism come from the same wound: a lack of attunement and attachment in early childhood.
Judgment will not lead to change in our culture. Judgment is a short term response serving the individual who holds it to protect them from an awareness of their own issues. Therapy is not about judgment, but about compassion and understanding. When we get angry or frustrated with an Other, it is most often the clearest indication that we have lost contact with the Other. For if we understood and saw the Other, we would know their symptoms make sense, given the contexts in which that person had been raised. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow observed,
If we could read the secret history of our enemies we should find in each man's life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.
A recent notion from pop-psychology is that previous generations of children worried what their parents thought about them but this generation of parents worry what their children think about them. If we take this to be true, then it is the same person in each generation that is doing the worrying. In other words, children who are raised to worry about what others (parents included) think of them fail to develop a whole sense of self. They are wired to believe that what others think of them is about them. The child then grows up to be an anxious parent, tossed about by the whims and emotions of their own children. The overvaluing of their children or putting them on a pedestal is then the evidence of an under-developed self; they are afraid of their child’s failures or feelings or rejection. They need their children to like them, because they didn’t experience themselves as okay in their own childhood. They may also need their children to be happy and good and successful to prove they are a good parent. The parent is overvaluing so the child and others will think they are good. In this way, the child becomes an object. An object missing attunement and attachment, which can lead them to try to prove to the world their worth because they never got a sense of it. In simple, lay terms, children who are overvalued are being used by their parents.
Ideally, an awareness of these ideas can help us in parenting and in our life more generally. Yet, this pattern happens in therapy as well. Therapists unaware of their own narcissistic wounds, project that on to the client and the result is anger, frustration and disgust. Miller brilliantly explains how therapists may cloak their disapproval and derision behind abstract terms like borderline, obsessive, regression, destructive, but unless they explore the three-year old boy inside of themselves, they will not see the parallel between these terms and garden variety contempt.
The solution to narcissism? Resonating, understanding, connection, and long term psychotherapy is often the way to heal. And if we want to be helpful, we will practice compassion, born out of the insight discussed here. We will refrain from hate and name calling—towards the narcissist or the generations that came before them. We will stop judging these people and start helping and teaching them. We will teach them about the patterns described above. And we will be patient when they struggle to grasp them, because we will know that their wounds and their symptoms came to them honestly.
Perhaps most important, we will be patient with others because we will know that we too need that same patience. We will know this because we have gone into the dark corners of our own psyches and recognize that our demons share so much with the ones we see in others.