Ten year-old Sallyann peers around the kitchen. The house seems quiet. She gingerly sets her schoolbooks on the counter and sighs. Mother must be out. Maybe she won’t come home today and Father will cook hot dogs tonight. Sallyann drags a chair over to the counter and crawls up on it to reach for the crackers.
The car door slams and Sallyann flinches. She nearly falls off the chair in her scramble to place it back by the table. Too late to remove her school books.
The door slams as Mother stomps into the kitchen. Sallyann can smell the alcohol on Mother’s breath.
“Don’t you look at ME like that young lady!” Mother yells as soon as she sees Sallyann cowering by the counter. “And why are your books on the counter? You lazy worthless girl! Why do I even bother with you? Haven’t I told you before to put your books away when you come home? Put them away! I don’t want to see them.” Mother snorts in disgust as she puts her paper bag on the counter.
Sallyann starts to creep towards the offending books.
“Did I say you could move? You stay right there till I finish with you!” Mother’s voice is rising. Irritation causes her face to flush. An expression of resentful contempt covers Mother’s once pretty face.
Sallyann stops breathing, her face goes slack, her shoulders tighten as she instinctively hunches. Her heart seems to congeal into a solid block of ice and sink to her belly. The room seems far away as if she were looking at herself through a tunnel.
“Don’t you ignore me when I’m speaking to you, you useless piece of trash!”
Sallyann finds herself helpless to respond. Soon the slapping and pushing will start…
A tiny voice in her head whispers “I must be very bad for mother to be so angry with me.”
Fast-forward twenty years…
Although her personal life is a mess, Sallyann’s smarts and persistence have earned her a good position in a local real estate firm. This is an important meeting. The owner of the firm, a volatile, expressive woman in her mid-forties, is rolling out her new plan for the business. Sallyann does her best to pay attention, but her anxiety is making her mind wander. The owner cracks a joke, but there is an edge to her voice that evokes a tremor in Sallyann.
Without realizing it, Sallyann’s breathing becomes shallow, her heart rate drops, all the energy leaks out of her limbs. Her boss’s words dissolve into a mumble jumble of sound. She rouses when the others in the room applaud. As they leave the conference room, Sallyann is startled when a co-worker congratulates her on her new job. A wave of old toxic shame covers her for a moment when she realizes she does not know what her co-worker is talking about…
[Sallyann represents a composite of different clients I’ve worked with over the years.]
Relationships shape who we become
Interactions shape us, especially those interactions that occur over time in important relationships. These repeating exchanges pattern our brain and nervous system. The human brain is biased to remember danger and respond with alacrity to cues in our environment that provoke the memory of previous dangerous times. Faster than thought, these patterns of interaction take over and create the shape of our inner, and often our outer, reality. The good news is that when these implicit patterns are brought to the surface in safe surroundings with appropriate resources, our brain and our nervous system can learn new, more useful patterns of self-love and mutually supportive relations with a safe other.
Although caregivers most often want to do their best, sometimes they themselves are so traumatized they cannot see or even tolerate their own child’s needs for love and recognition. Daniel Shaw’s well-researched and insightful book, Traumatic Narcissism: Relational Structures of Subjugation (2014, Routledge), addresses the patterns that a “narcissistic” parent leaves in the child’s psyche and soma from a psychoanalytic, attachment, and relational perspective. I’d like to examine Shaw’s constructs and show how constellation work is a useful adjunct to healing these wounds. I appreciate that Shaw does show some compassion for the narcissistic caregiver. In constellation work, since we look trans-generationally, we see the patterns of trauma in the family that preceded the narcissistic care-giver’s behavior.
Two expressions of the narcissistic wound
Shaw suggests that there are two typical responses to a predicament like Sallyann’s. A child who is trapped in a narcissistic relationship system can either externalize or internalize the traumatizing behavior of the adult. The child who externalizes their experience perpetuates the pattern by projecting onto others the shame, guilt, humiliation and fear that she experienced and cannot tolerate herself.
As adults these externalizing narcissists exhibit the behavior we most often identify with the term narcissist. The externalizing narcissistic adult:
- Cannot tolerate dependence or neediness of a child since they themselves are so needy and unfulfilled.
- Desperately needs to be the center of attention and cannot tolerate any diversity of opinion or thought. Their view is the only right view of the world. In essence, a winner-takes-all, one-person-rules system.
- Cannot value anyone else’s contributions. Others become objects to the narcissistic adult’s subject, to be used to keep the adult’s devouring toxic feelings at bay.
- Unable to hold the emotional and possibly physical violence they received as a child, they seek out and project these toxic feelings on those who are more vulnerable.
- Are heavily defended against any sign of their own vulnerability or weakness and despise this in others.
This creates a dynamic of dominating perpetrator and submissive victim in which the child’s emerging self is subjugated to the needs of the adult. As Shaw puts it: “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 most egregious case is sexual abuse of the child by the adult. As Shaw describes, “When the boundaries differentiating adult passion from childhood tenderness are violated by adult caregivers, it is one of the grossest examples of parental narcissism.” This results in the “utter failure of the parent to recognize who his child is and what the child actually needs.” The child’s “links to her own subjectivity are being destroyed, and replaced by the projections of the abuser.”
In Shaw’s view, narcissistic behavior can be internalized as well. As the episode with Sallyann illustrates, the child first develops a protector identity, usually dissociative, whose aim is to reduce the harm by anticipating the narcissist behavior of the adult. The child does this by creating an internal version of the narcissistic adult’s behavior. Later as the child develops, this part that arose as protector begins to function as a persecutor, a replica of the abusive adult that now lives inside the growing child’s own mind.
The need to belong seals the child’s fate
Bert Hellinger pointed out that belonging is the most important need of children. Without a place in the family, the child will not survive. In any human system, the most dependent members are the most loyal. As such, a child will make incredible sacrifices in order to belong to her family system. In a phrase that Hellinger might have said, Shaw puts it this way, “Children will go to great lengths to keep their parents good.” Even if this means they have to become “the bad one” in relation to the parent. This blind love traps the developing child in a cul-de-sac in which her own healthy sense of herself cannot develop. Internalizing narcissism means the child has no sense of a subjective self, a “me” that has wants and desires, can distinguish what is good for me, what I like, what I don’t, and so on. This loss of self has profound consequences for the internalizing child’s life.
The narcissistic system is in effect a one-person system with two or more members.
Healthy relational systems are different
A healthy relational system is quite different. In a healthy dyad, both members are seen as selves, or subjects, with thoughts and feelings and needs. Healthy relationships are marked by a mutuality of relations and reciprocal interactions. Giving and taking is a dynamic flow with the contributions of each member valued by the others. These systems are marked by fluidity, the ability of members to tolerate and even appreciate points of view that are different from their own. To create a system like this requires more skill, especially in communicating respectfully, than a one-person dominated system. In this dyad, both members are allowed room to grow and change. Differences can be held in the system without projection, and space given to work through these differences to find workable agreements that address the needs of everyone involved. Each person is recognized by the others as a separate self.
For the child wounded by the narcissistic behavior of a similarly wounded adult, this can sound like a fairy-tale. The way back to self-love, mutual interactions, a flow of giving and taking seems far away. It is possible and it takes work to repattern the brain and nervous system to learn what safety is, and to be able to receive love and appreciation.
The journey home
Each healing journey is unique, and Shaw identifies some common movements, to which I will incorporate a few of my own observations.
- Giving up the idea of attaining the narcissisticly behaving adult’s love. Shaw describes this as “distance” or “detachment.” The adult child now recognizes the parent or caregiver as a human with flaws and their own wounds, and gives up the project of winning the parent’s love or even recognition of the child’s separate self and needs. This is a very challenging step because it means giving up hope, but that hope keeps the child part of the adult hooked into the subjugated role, waiting on the adult to bestow love.
- Grieving the loss of hope for something better, and the loss of self that occurred in the obliterating relationship with the adult. Grieving is a process, and takes physical work. Part of this process is suffering the disorganizing space of giving up one pattern of organization – knowing what to do when – without another pattern in its place. This “liminal” space between one way of responding to the world and another requires external support and this is where therapy is especially helpful.
- Reorganizing, and re-building a new sense of self as an autonomous subject. Using Daniel Stern’s model of the core self a healthy child develops, the adult has to recover a sense of:
I AM – physical cohesion. I have a “me” that I can experience accurately and use in the world to meet my needs.
I HAVE A FUTURE – continuity. Tomorrow I will wake up as more or less the same “me” as I am today.
I CAN ACT – agency. I have the ability to act in the world and with others to get my needs met.
I FEEL – affectivity. I have the capacity to experience my emotions and sensations, and the resources to hold those experiences and discern what is good for me and what isn’t.
- Learning to care for this self with compassion, learning to be human and tolerate the mistakes and mishaps that are part of daily life, i.e., developing trust in this self and resilience in the face of the ups and downs of daily life. Often this work involves enabling the adult self to recover the despised child self and care for this self with love.
- Learning to regulate this self through safe interactions with caring others, to receive caring and love and comfort from others. This takes time and trust, attuned and resonant others with whom the adult’s inner child can learn new ways of interacting based on respect and mutuality.
None of these steps are necessarily easy, and the rewards are nothing less than the full reclaiming of one’s own psyche, soma, and soul.
Next post, how constellation work can help in healing the narcissistic wound…