Maxson McDowell PhD, LMSW, LP is a senior Jungian analyst who has practiced in New York City for the past 24 years. He is a board member and past president of the C. G. Jung Foundation in New York.
Natalie Portman: Black Swan
Fox Searchlight, 2010
I’m talking here about narcissism, what happens when it is injured and how injured narcissism may be healed. Narcissistic injury is very common but it sometimes get missed in therapy, so it is important that we understand it as fully as we can. I hope you enjoy this article even though it is a bit somber. That seems to be the nature of this subject.
A man at the gym looks again and again in the mirror as he goes through his workout: he’s admiring his own muscles and his own face.
In the street a man looks at you not because he is interested in you but because he hopes you will look at him.
A wealthy mother has a daughter who is impoverished. The mother gets angry when her daughter asks her for money because the mother wants their conversation to be about her, not about her daughter.
A mother does not acknowledge her child’s accomplishment.
When a supervisor hears about his trainee’s success he does not acknowledge it but, instead, subtly suggests that the trainee has done something wrong.
A therapist creates a web site which consists of long, detailed lists of all his own distinctions, awards and public presentations.
In conversation two people each wait for the other to finish so that each can continue talking about themselves.
A president treats his presidency as a photo opportunity, clings to his ideas even after they have been proven false, believes that god is advising him, and seems not to understand that his policies are causing human suffering.
In each case you may sense that there is a psychological disturbance. Popular terms for this are “selfish” or “self centered” or “self-absorbed.”
My main focus here is on in the subtle, sometimes secret damage that narcissistic injury inflicts upon relationships. A man may seem self aware and evolved. Perhaps by many external criteria he is a good person who contributes important things to society; perhaps he has been through a long analysis. And yet there is something wrong; he is oddly unsatisfying to be around: after a conversation with him you may feel cheated or empty. He seems to be posing. His work does not have positive outcomes. He is not creative and his wife and children seem unhappy.
This man is suffering from a disturbance in narcissism or self-love. Because he cannot love himself he cannot love anyone or anything else either. Normally it is love that makes us feel alive – love for other people, perhaps love for gardening, or perhaps love for mountain climbing. Because he cannot love the man feels dead. He has to have power over others in order to feel alive. So he dedicates his life to achieving power over others.
Here are some common examples of this:
A talker who forces others listen to long, boring stories.
A teacher who tyrannizes students and makes them fail.
A social worker who bullies vulnerable clients or undermines parents.
A policeman who is sadistic to the public.
A business manager who bullies and degrades the people under him or her.
A man in a position of power who is a sexual predator.
A politician who is self-serving, rather than serving the electorate.
A parent who abuses children, or forces his or her children to tend to him or her.
But we all have some degree of narcissistic injury. So if my words make you feel uneasy or pathological, don’t feel too bad. Narcissistic injury is part of being human.
Virginia Wolf on narcissistic injury
Text copyright: Harcourt, Inc., 1925; renewed by Leonard Wolf, 1953.
The following passage is by Virginia Wolf writing in the early 1920s, in her novel Mrs Dalloway, about the Harley Street Psychiatrist, Sir William Bradshaw and his wife, Lady Bradshaw. Virginia Wolf herself had suffered from serious mental illness and so had to deal with psychiatrists, one of whom probably served as a model for Sir William.
Sir William himself was no longer young. He had worked very hard; he had won his position by sheer ability (being the son of a shopkeeper); loved his profession; made a fine figurehead at ceremonies and spoke well – all of which had by the time he was knighted given him a heavy look, a weary look (the stream of patients being so incessant, the responsibilities and privileges of his profession so onerous), which weariness, together with his grey hairs, increased the extraordinary distinction of his presence and gave him the reputation (of the utmost importance in dealing with nerve cases) not merely of lightening skill, and almost infallible accuracy in diagnosis but of sympathy, tact; understanding of the human soul.
To his patients he gave three-quarters of an hour; and if in this exacting science which has to do with what, after all, we know nothing about – the nervous system, the human brain – a doctor loses his sense of proportion, as a doctor he fails. Health we must have; and health is proportion; so that when a man comes into your room and says he is Christ (a common delusion), and has a message, as they mostly have, and threatens, as they often do, to kill himself, you invoke proportion; order rest in bed; rest in solitude; silence and rest; rest without friends, without books, without messages; six months’ rest; until a man who went in weighing seven stone six comes out weighing twelve.
Proportion, divine Proportion, Sir William’s goddess, was acquired by Sir William walking hospitals, catching salmon, begetting one son in Harley Street by Lady Bradshaw, who caught salmon herself and took photographs scarcely to be distinguished from the work of professionals.
Worshipping proportion, Sir William not only prospered himself, but made England prosper, secluded her lunatics, forbade childbirth, penalized despair, made it impossible for the unfit to propagate their views until they, too, shared his sense of proportion …. so that not only did his colleagues respect him, and his subordinates fear him, but the friends and relations of his patients felt for him the keenest gratitude for insisting that these prophetic Christs and Christesses, who prophesied the end of the world, or the advent of God, should drink milk in bed, as Sir William ordered; Sir William with his thirty years’ experience of these kinds of cases, and his infallible instinct, “this is madness, this sense;” in fact his sense, of proportion.
But Proportion has a sister, less smiling, more formidable, a Goddess even now engaged [through missionaries in Africa and India]….. in dashing down shrines, smashing idols, and setting up in their place her own stern countenance.
Conversion is her name and she feasts on the wills of the weakly, loving to impress, to impose, adoring her own features stamped on the face of the populace. At Hyde Park Corner on a tub she stands preaching; shrouds herself in white and walks penitentially disguised as brotherly love through factories and parliaments; offers help but desires power; smites out of her way roughly the dissentient or dissatisfied; bestows her blessing on those who, looking upward, catch submissively from her eyes the light of their own.
This lady too …. had her dwelling in Sir William’s heart, though concealed, as she mostly is, under some plausible disguise; some venerable name; love, duty, self sacrifice. How he would work – how toil to raise funds, propagate reforms, initiate institutions! But Conversion, fastidious Goddess, loves blood better than brick, and feasts most subtly on the human will.
For example, Lady Bradshaw. Fifteen years ago she had gone under. It was nothing you could put your finger on; there had been no scene, no snap; only the slow sinking, water-logged, of her will into his. Sweet was her smile, swift her submission; dinner in Harley Street, numbering eight or nine courses, feeding ten or fifteen guests of the professional classes, was smooth and urbane. Only as the evening wore on a very slight dullness, or uneasiness perhaps, a nervous twitch, fumble, stumble and confusion indicated, what it was really painful to believe – that the poor lady lied.
Once, long ago, she had caught salmon freely: now, quick to minister to the craving which lit her husband’s eye so oilily for dominion, for power, she cramped, squeezed, pared, pruned, drew back, peeped through; so that without knowing precisely what made the evening disagreeable, and caused this pressure on the top of the head (which might well be imputed to the professional conversation, or the fatigue of a great doctor whose life, Lady Bradshaw said “is not his own but his patients'”) disagreeable it was: so that guests, [released] when the clock struck ten, breathed in the air of Harley Street even with rapture; which relief, however, was denied to his patients.
There in the grey room, with the pictures on the wall, and the valuable furniture, under the ground glass skylight, [his patients] learned the extent of their transgressions…. There some weakly broke down; sobbed, submitted; others, inspired by Heaven knows what intemperate madness, called Sir William to his face a damnable humbug; questioned, even more impiously, life itself. Why live? they demanded. Sir William replied that life was good. Certainly Lady Bradshaw in ostrich feathers hung over the mantelpiece, and as for his income it was quite twelve thousand a year. But to us, they protested, life has given no such bounty. He acquiesced. They lacked a sense of proportion. And perhaps, after all, there is no God? He shrugged his shoulders. In short, this living or not living is an affair of our own? But there they were mistaken. Sir William had a friend in Surrey where they taught, what Sir William frankly admitted was a difficult art – a sense of proportion …. he had to support police and the good of society, which, he remarked very quietly, would take care, down in Surrey, that these unsocial impulses, bred more than anything by the lack of good blood, were held in control.
And then stole out of her hiding place and mounted her throne that Goddess whose lust is to override opposition, to stamp indelibly in the sanctuaries of others the image of herself. Naked, defenseless, the exhausted, the friendless received the impress of Sir William’s will. He swooped, he devoured. He shut people up. It was this combination of decision and humanity that endeared Sir William so greatly to the relatives of his victims.
And with this final word, Virginia Wolf underlines her point that, though a narcissistically wounded person be eminently respectable and much admired, his behavior may be monstrous.
Cause of narcissistic injury
Now let’s ask a question: what causes a person to be narcissistically wounded? But to address this question we have to take a detour and talk first about unconditional love.
I’m not talking about romance here or fascination, because that may be more complicated, but about simple unconditional love. I was watching a couple with their dog in the park. The dog had short legs, and was rushing along the hill through leaves – full of delight. The owners were laughing with delight at the dog’s being true to itself. The dog was unconditionally loving its activity, loving the leaves, loving itself and the owners were unconditionally loving the dog, not because it was a special breed, or because it was doing something special, but because it was having fun. And having fun is a sign that one’s love for oneself, at least at that moment, is working well.
It is not easy to feel unconditional love for oneself. We tend to be all too aware to our own limitations and failures. And we may not have learned to love ourselves; we may instead have learned to criticize and reject ourselves.
By loving yourself, I don’t mean fascination nor do I mean demands, criticism and rejection. I mean a steady appreciation and acceptance, which has an eye towards future growth, if that is what your self needs for its fulfillment. When feeling this love, you will also be feeling centered, rather than off center, and integrated rather than split off.
How might you experience this?
These examples will sound like self-help tips, but I don’t mean them in that sense. I’m mentioning them to try to convey the flavor of unconditional self love.
Enjoying a walk on a hilly road: feeling pleasure in your own muscles, feet, legs, heart and lungs.
Taking pleasure in having exercised enough previously so that your body can enjoy this challenge.
Sitting down to a pleasurable meal by yourself, with the newspaper, or with the sun on the table where you sit, or with flowers there for you to enjoy.
Taking the time to shop for some clothing for yourself. Choosing carefully to please yourself.
Laughing, playing, having fun.
Taking pleasure with other people, and feeling that you belong with them, so that you reaffirm each other.
Meeting a friend.
Sharing a meal with a group of people.
Looking at someone and sharing a genuine smile.
Feeling worthwhile, admirable.
Believing that what you offer others, is important, serves some valuable purpose in the world, that you make things better than they would otherwise be.
Standing aside and let someone else go first in a shop.
Writing a letter to the paper and it gets printed.
Cooking a meal for someone.
Creativity is a part of this too. Taking time to work on a creative project, something in which you express yourself: knitting, pottery, gardening, writing, painting. Trying to take time for this every day, even if only for half an hour. (I’ll come back to creativity later.)
How do you learn to love yourself like this?
The simplest way to learn it would be from your parents. Or you might learn it from other people you are close to, from groups you belong to, or from your own self knowlege and your efforts and accomplishments.
If the parent abuses a child or criticizes a child excessively, that will prevent healthy self-love from developing. But too much praise may be a form of abuse. If the parent praises the child’s accomplishments and specialness too much, then the child feels loved and accepted because of being special, that he or she would not be loved if he or she were not special. And that may be the case. The parent’s love may be conditional upon the child being gratifying to the parent. Conditional love is quite different from unconditional love.
Heinz Kohut on narcissism
Heinz Kohut identified three parallel lines in a child’s development of self love: mirroring, idealizing, and twinship.
Mirroring begins ideally with your parents, when you are an infant, if they take unconditional delight in who you are and what you do. Then you will tend to have ambition, to feel that you are somebody, and can expect acknowledgement from the world.
You learn to get mirrorimg as an infant, and securely internalize that learning, so that your mechanisms for getting it can mature as you get older; then you continue to get it as an adult. And, on the occasions when you don’t get it (when somebody tries to diminish you by withholding acknowledgement; or when circumstances go against you – perhaps you are unemployed, or have moved away from your friends, or your spouse has left you) you are not devastated – because you know you’ll get mirroring elsewhere, soon enough.
Of course the converse of all this is also possible: If your parents do not take delight in who you are as an infant. Then you do not learn how to get this mirroring, so your process of getting it does not mature as you got older, so you don’t get enough of it as an adult, so every time someone diminishes you, or circumstances go against you, you are very much upset by it.
You then lack a secure sense that you can be someone; you may lack ambition.
Idealizing begins with parents whom you respect and admire. As you grow up, you gradually begin to understand your parents limitations, but your admiration for them is not shattered: it becomes human-scaled, more realistic. Then you can internalize the ability to believe in yourself realistically, to admire yourself, realistically.
You will tend to have ideals, to love your own beliefs and ideals, just as you love your parents. That is, you will learn to be idealistic.
But the converse is also possible: In the beginning you admire your parents, because all children do so in the beginning. Then, when you are still young, they betray your admiration traumatically. Perhaps they molest you or otherwise attack you, perhaps they prove to be charlatans.
Consequently, you become sour and cynical. You cannot admire others, or yourself. You cannot love your own values. Or you may tend to idealize other people, or beliefs, in a primitive, all-or-nothing, maladaptive way – because your capacity for idealization has never had a chance to mature.
Twinship is the feeling of being with, of being like, of being a human amongst humans.
If your parents or siblings do things with you, spend time with you, then you feel like them. So you take pleasure in your own being, your own self, because your self, being like others, unites you with others. We say “You are just like daddy.” Twinship is supported, for example, by being a member of a sports team.
This translates in adult life into the pleasure of friends and companions, to loving yourself because you feel like a human amongst humans.
The converse is also possible. You may feel like an alien. You may feel different, strange and unacceptable. You may reject yourself, despise yourself, because you feel “wrong, bad, alien.” Fear of such feelings is common in adolescence. Adolescents tend to be preocuppied with being like members of a group.
When we are secure in our self-love, we say we are “secure”. We do not spend much energy worrying about ourselves. We tend to treat ourself well. Our estimation of ourself is positive and realistic. Realistic because it has always been in play, and has always been modified by feedback from others.
We take pride in ourselves, and pleasure in our accomplishments, pleasure in showing our work to other people, in order to give something of value to them.
When we are not secure in self love: Secretly we feel inadequate, worthless. We defend against this with exaggerated, overblown image of ourselves. We feel larger than life, inflated, like a balloon, to make up for our inadequate self esteem.
This grandiosity defends against the narcissistic injury. It may be expressed blatantly, overtly, like George Bush I’m a Christian President and God is on my side, or like Donald Trump I own more real estate, so I’m special, or as I can get into the best nightclubs, so I’m more special than all the people who cannot or I’m acting so cool that I’m more interesting than other people.
Or the grandiosity may be expressed covertly: a man feels superiority which he keeps, more or less, hidden (in order to avoid having it challenged). He feels superior because he is more righteous, more sensitive, more insightful, more important, more creative, more long-suffering, but he doesn’t let on that he feels this way.
The grandiose defense (which conceals the low self esteem) becomes a trap: the man feels phony, his grandiose shell feels false, because it is contradicted by his hidden internal low self esteem. He cannot accept realistic praise because it doesn’t match his grandiose fantasy about himself. To him, realistic accomplishments may feel beneath him.
Or he may defend against realistic success because success stimulates his grandiosity. And he fears stimulating his own grandiosity because to be in a grandiose place is like being manic, it makes him feel crazy. So he fears success and avoids it, keeping himself from achieving what he could.
As a result, genuine positive accomplishments cannot accumulate inside, positive achievements cannot lead to an accumulation of genuine positive self esteem. So the man is trapped in grandiosity, secretly feeling awful about himself, and cannot learn to feel more genuinely positive.
Alternatively, grandiosity itself can be in the negative direction: this is confusing and hard to understand. A narcissistic woman believes she is more worthless more foolish, more hopeless, more of a failure, more despised than anyone else. The trick is that her worthlessness is larger than life. Secretly she is still special, still the focus of special attention.
She is liable to feel this way if she got too much negative attention as a child. Attention for her was based upon negativity.
Why does the narcissistically wounded person desire power and control?
It has to do with preserving grandiosity. Lets consider, what are her alternatives?
a. One alterntive is to be alone, isolated, uncompromised because she shares the stage with no-one. In this way she preserves the grandiose fantasy, the fantasy that she is empress of her own empire.
b. Another alternative is to be with another and to control that other person. The other does not exist as a separate center of being, the other is just an appendage. Then she is still the empress of her own empire and the other (who is not another) supports her grandiosity.
c. A third alternative is to be with other people as peers, as equals who interact. Then there is mutual awareness, mutual respect, mutual regard. Interactions occur back and forth, between equals. Each has a similar impact on the other. Then her grandiose fantasy is deflated. She feels same as or just like others.
Of those three alernatives, the second one explains why a narcissistically injured person tends to be controlling.
For the narcissistically wounded person, other people are kept at a distance. And distance protects her from having to deal with another person’s more realistic estimations of her. If someone praises her, this fuels her grandiosity. If someone criticizes her, she devalues, avoids the critic.
Or, if she is negatively grandiose: when someone criticizes her, this fuels her negative grandiosity. This is why she clings to people who put her down.
If I, as therapist, support the negatively grandiose narcissist, Then I am likely to be devalued, dismissed; the patient may quit treatment. This can make therapy very difficult.
The narcissistically injured person finds it harder to be close to other people. Marriages, friendships and other relationships suffer. We can say this in a few words but the consequences are pervasive.
An example is puer psychology: a woman does not mature, but retains a perpetual girlishness. She is plagued by feeling that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence; she tends to be uncommitted to anyone, or to any activity; she may not sustain relationships, or activities, or work; she lives like a butterfly: she is hooked upon grandiose fantasies about the next new thing he or she is about to flit away to.
Another example is alcoholic psychology. When I relate alcoholism to narcissism, I’m not denying that alcoholism is complex, that it includes, for example, genetic sensitivity to alcohol. But I am saying that narcissistic injury lies at the heart of all kinds of addictions.
The narcissistically injured person may feel closer to the addictive substance/behavior, than to other people, because addictive substance/behavior fuels grandiosity. If I have a couple of drinks, I don’t have to feel small or worried. I feel like I have seven-league boots. I have escaped the toil of this world. It’s like magic. I get high! I feel on top of the world, above it all. I don’t have to work to pay attention to other people and relate to them. I just feel wonderful and I’m friendly with everyone.
One of the therapeutic affects of AA, or any 12-step program, is that the program links the addict to other people, through the steady labor of attending meetings, and talking. The program helps the person to feel same as, neither better nor worse than others.
All addictions, to drugs, to food, to gambling, to sex, all addictive behaviors, our addiction to television and computer screens, our national addiction to material consumption of all kinds, are all, in part, symptoms of narcissistic wounds. In all these addictions, the addict is not so much relating to another person, but rather is joined at the hip with the material substance, or with the addictive behavior. Since the addictive substance is a thing, not a person, people in the injured person’s life tend also to be treated impersonally.
If you think about how common are obesity, alcohol abuse, gambling and addiction to material consumption, then this help you to understand how ubiquitous, is narcissistic injury. Obviously addictions are huge field of problems which I could discuss further, but not here, because the subject is too big.
Creativity is linked to alcoholism. The creator is god-like because she is alone, has total control of her artistic project, and is guided primarily by her own inner voice. Thus she is in a grandiose position, and creativity is one of the positive potentials of grandiosity. So developing creativity has a healing effect. She may have become narcissistically injured in the first place because her innate creativity was rejected or disregarded.
Here the Jungian approach can be helpful because it supports creativity. But it can also be harmful, because the Jungian approach may serve as a smoke-screen behind which the interpersonal problem is ignored and narcissistic injury is not addressed. But, to repeat, developing creative expression is sometimes essential in treating narcissistic injury.
How can narcissitic injury be treated?
At the deepest level narcissistic wounds can transform when the patient is able to develop and narcissistic transferences. This means that the patient has to be allowed to develop archaic feelings in the analysis. Heinz Kohut said that the transferences are the mirroring transference, the idealizing transference, and the twinship transference. These transferences mobilize archaic needs which tend normally to be repressed. Gradually then the patient can work through them.
This work requires that the therapist be able to tolerate consciously these archaic transferences. That is possible to the extent that the therapist has become conscious of his or her own narcissistic injuries.
At another level narcissistic wounds can transform through self awareness. Self awareness is not just intellectual, but includes suffering the full realization of how the narcissitic wound has hurt the person’s whole life. It means grieving all the losses the narcissitic defense has caused.
First the person has to be hurting. If he is getting away with narcissism, dominating others, not being confronted, not feeling lonely, then he may be unaware of his behavior, and not accessible to treatment.
If he is in pain, if he sees that his life is unproductive, if he is lonely, and sees that he is hurting people he loves, perhaps that his marriage not working well, then he may seek help.
If he can form a bond with a therapist, and establish narcissistic transference, and has time to work through that transference, then the narcissism can transform. Then it becomes possile for the therapist to gently challenge the narcissism. Gently because narcissistic injury makes a person extremely touchy – the person is liable to pull into defense, close off from contact.
If all this is possible than the patient can become more conscious of his narcissism, He can begin to laugh at himself, at his emperor fantasy, and his narcissistic defenses lose some of their power. He can learn to relate better to other people.
Three things I’m saying here need to be emphasized.
a. The narcissistically wounded person has to be in pain, and often he is not.
b. He has to form a trusting bond with the therapist, which is sometimes difficult.
c. The therapist has to be gentle and accepting.
Therapeutic groups can help people to see and accept their own narcissism as they accept that of the others in the group .
It can be very difficlt to achieve progress in therapy. Depending on how severe was the injury to self-esteem, how severe was the rejection of self in childhood, the patient may cling tenaciously to feeling specially bad. He may ruthlessly reject, devalue, and feel contempt for, any acceptance from the therapist. He may devalue and dismiss therapy so that, even when it lasts for years, still he fights hard to make sure that it does not work while, at the same time, he is deeply frustrated and disappointed that he is stuck and unable to change.
A goal of analysis
One goal is that the person should have a chance to develop a more secure self esteem. Here the goal is to feel ordinary and to take pleasure in that. If a woman has this narcissitic split in self esteem, then it is great relief when she can feel accepted in her ordinariness, can learn to like herself as being ordinary. This is not to say that she cannot strive to achieve high goals – only that her self esteem should not be conditional upon success at these goals.
With regard to creativity: she may need to accept her ordinariness in order to free herself up to explore her creativity. A writer needs to write something pretty much every day. It doesn’t have to be anything important, it just needs to be writing. If she is stuck in grandiose fantasies about what has to be written then the essential everyday work of writing may be blocked.
This is the end of this lecture. There are two other lively papers on narcissism called “Tahaki of the red skin” or “Healing narcissistic injury and addiction”, and “Depression, creativity and narcissistic injury”.
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