On Narcissism

Returning from a trip to visit my family of origin, I feel keenly the seductive pull of victimhood. A friend mentions Alice Miller and I remember how righteous I felt reading Drama of the Gifted Child for the first time. My copy is marked and dog-eared, and yes, I read at least 2 of her other books as well.

For those of you unfamiliar with Alice Miller, here is a too pithy summary: A brilliant psychologist writes poetically about children who are misunderstood by narcissistic parents stuck in their own point of view. Of course I applied her approach to my own poor misunderstood self, and also to my work with patients. To heal the narcissistic child, it is crucial to understand and accurately reflect the child’s point of view.

Many mothers in my community have drunk from Alice’s well, and have attempted to apply her principles to motherhood. Some of those mothers criticize me privately for being narcissistic.

Is that true? Am I traumatizing my child by asserting my needs?

Since I became UnMartyred, I have consciously decided to insist that my daughter understand my point of view. For example, when I received the lovely comment on the Renouncing Groups Post from Katrien after my traumatic family visit, it had such a strong effect on me that I shared it with Vita while I was driving her to a lesson. She ignored me and stared out the window.

Here is a choice point (per Ellen Wachtel). I could reflect her: “Honey, you seem bored or sad.” I could just stop talking. Or, I could do what I did: “Vita, I’m telling you something important about me and you are not responding. How do you think that makes me feel?”

Is that narcissistic?

Some would say that we need to be 100 percent attuned to our children and our patients. With patients, I agree to a point. To the 98 percent point. Even with patients, I think it is essential to have what we shrinks call a therapeutic rupture every now and then. We try to be accurate but sometimes we fail and then the patient must deal with a flawed person in the form of a psychotherapist. Handling this rupture forces us to learn about multiple perspectives.

But with children, I think we do them a disservice if we attune 98 percent. To interact with others, they need to learn that others have feelings. Even mothers.

I say that what is narcissistic is confusing our needs with our children’s needs, confusing our feelings with theirs. I see parents praising their kids and bragging about them, and to me it looks like parents acting out their own childhood longings.

New York Magazine

Pic from a New York Mag cover story.

What is missing from this picture? Where are the family portraits? Healing narcissism in the world means including all perspectives. Pity the lonely child who only has his own.

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6 thoughts on “On Narcissism

  1. pegasus says:

    Wow, I’ve never before heard of therapeutic rupture being used as an “essential” therapeutic technique. I mean, sure, good things can come out of it if you manage to heal the rupture, but most therapists see it as something to try to avoid. And I wonder about your construction of it being an essential ingredient for learning about multiple perspectives. In my experience not every client needs that lesson, especially in such a potentially traumatic form.

    With regard to your response to your daughter’s ignoring your story about a response that was meaningful to you, I would say that, yes, it does sound somewhat narcissistic to me. I liked your suggested alternative response, “Honey, you seem bored or sad.” That discussion could then have easily turned to incorporate your feelings about her not listening to an important thing about yourself that you wanted to tell her. I suppose I’m saying that it sounds like you are setting up a false dichotomy. One can reflect and nurture one’s kids, while also teaching them to pay attention to other people’s feelings. I’d bet she’d be more receptive to the lesson in those circumstances anyway.

  2. Thank you, Pegasus, for putting your finger on the most controversial, even radical, aspect of my position.

    With respect to psychotherapy, I hope that all therapists try very very hard to tune into their patients’ perspectives. However, as hard as we try, we inevitably fail sometimes and then there can be a rupture in the alliance–the key ingredient in therapy. How we handle the rupture makes the difference between losing the patient and facilitating positive change. Safran & Muran suggest that “negotiation of ruptures in the alliance is at the heart of the change process” and their research suggests that “tear and repair” is associated with better outcome than no tear at all. (I can’t link here but you can search on “repairing alliance ruptures” to see several helpful papers.) Still, no one tries to misunderstand. It just happens, and then we deal with it as non-defensively and non-reactively as possible. When we succeed, we have a stronger bond that includes multiple perspectives. If we fail, we’re back to just one perspective and no one wins.

    Now, back to the question of mothers and their children. Here I am suggesting the radical approach of actually explicitly teaching your child that you as a mother have a separate point of view and a separate set of feelings that need to be attended to. For those of us who may have had narcissistic parents who were NEVER able to see beyond their own point of view, this may seem outrageous. And your selected option “Honey, you seem bored or sad..” is the one that I see most mothers choosing most of the time. And I use it quite a bit myself. But my daughter, at 11, will pick up on anything that lacks authenticity and if I make that comment while feeling pissed off, she will ‘whatever’ me. So I choose to articulate my actual feeling instead, and insist that she respect it. She doesn’t have to understand. She doesn’t have to comfort me. She doesn’t need to wipe out her own experience. It’s just a different starting point.

    I don’t mean to suggest a dichotomy. We choose our responses according to the situation. But I do think that, as a culture, we have gone way too far (again, but in a new way) in disregarding the needs of the mother.

  3. pegasus says:

    I’m glad to hear that you aren’t seeking out therapeutic ruptures. That would truly be bad therapy, in my opinion. Your statement sounded a bit too close to that for my comfort. My misunderstanding.

    I understand the power in healing a therapeutic rupture, if it’s handled well by both client and therapist. I do not really follow your logic about multiple perspectives, though. Certainly some clients benefit from learning about outside perspectives. But my experience is that many (most) clients come in to therapy with an all too developed focus on external perspectives (sometimes multiple), and that confusion arising from that focus contributes profoundly to their suffering. In those cases, a therapeutic rupture, followed by an undue focus on the therapist’s differing perspective could be additionally damaging to the client, in my opinion.

    My bias here is that I see many of my colleagues (and I probably do it too) focus on issues that are related to something very important in their personal agenda, and miss opportunities to make a more authentic connection with the client. As you recognized, the alliance that comes from those connections is the most important aspect of good therapy. Not every client is narcissistic, and not every client needs a lesson in recognizing multiple perspectives.

    I’m not saying that you definitely are making this mistake here. I’m just saying that the way you phrased your comments sent up a red flag for me.

    Your point about teaching your daughter to respect you as an individual is well taken. At 11 she is probably ready to understand that other people have important and different points of view that need to be respected, and also she’s probably very aware when your’e being authentic (and not). I still say that if you can form a response that includes your repsect for her point of view, as well as asking her to respect yours, then the lesson will be more powerful. In terms of setting a good example, as well as in terms of creating an environment more conducive to her accepting a lesson from you. I can easily imagine an 11-year-old listening to her mom talk about someone praising her work, and becoming annoyed or bored. I’m suggesting that somewhere in there you might be able to find some respect or compassion for that perspective, at the same time that you find it annoying. A response from that place may be more instructive to her. Which is not to say that it’s easy. I know all too well how hard it is to come up with exactly the right thing to say in the moment.

    I completely agree that we get a lot of messages from society that we should be doormats to our kids. And that it’s important to teach them to respect us as individuals, and to respect alternative points of view in general. I also believe that it’s our jobs as parents (moms *and* dads) to be in tune with their experience, and help them manage it appropriately with compassion. It’s a delicate line, and I am suggesting that you may have gone a hair farther than you needed to in the direction of your current bias in this instance.

  4. This e-conversation is a perfect example of strengthening alliance by including multiple perspectives. Pegasus, I appreciate your intelligent and nuanced reply. I certainly agree that pushing an agenda does not contribute to either good therapy or good mothering. Inclusion, however, is a different matter. If clients focus only on their internal perspectives, they cannot manage in the world.

    And the same goes for children. I stand by my choice of response to my daughter. In this case, I was teaching respectful action regardless of her internal state. I prioritized manners over feelings, even though of course I have compassion for the condition of annoyance and boredom. I could make a whole speech on the difference between indulgence and compassion but I’ll resist for the moment. Anyway, my daughter got the point. And I think she knows that I’m available to her.

    Pegasus, your response might have done the job just as well. I just don’t know. Thanks for your comment.

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