I really want to write about narcissism. What a loaded word! Our current political climate has recently opened up all kinds of discussion – on social media, in the blogosphere, in the mainstream media – about narcissism. I guess it’s helpful to have more open dialogue about how we should – and shouldn’t – treat each other. In my work, though that discussion with my clients has always been front and center.
All human beings have, at the very least, healthy narcissism. We all have to value our own needs enough to wake up in the morning and take a shower, feed ourselves breakfast and resist the onslaught of messages about everyone else’s needs long enough to take care of our own. In my perfect world, every adult could look back at their childhood and say, “my primary attachment figure – the parent person I was closest to – took care of their own needs enough for them to then turn their kind, patient and boundaried attention to my needs. They weren’t perfect, but they were there most of the time when I needed it. They saw me and liked what they saw. They wanted me to feel proud of myself and lovable. And they gave me the space to learn slowly, making my mistakes along the way. They reminded me that, even though they hope I’ll strive to learn and grow, I’m good enough just they way I am.”
That’s my perfect world. The world, my friends, is imperfect.
Across the spectrum from healthy narcissism, is Narcissistic Personality Disorder. We think it is related to a deeply ashamed sense of self originating in childhood but what we know it is that is characterized by a mask of ultraconfidence and extreme vulnerability to the slightest criticism. If that’s how you travel through the world, you’re probably really smooth and really mean.
Many of my clients enter my office with a story of a parent who may not even technically meet the criteria for the full blown personality disorder, but who – when the client was small and helpless – was charming, was never wrong, would not tolerate the client’s childhood anger, frustration or disappointment, who acted as if everything the client did – positive or negative – was a reflection on the parent (see this article for more explanation about how this plays out in families.) My clients describe feeling sad and scared and never good enough.
Yup. As you would.
But while those conditions are damaging for a child there is no clear villain in this story. It would be easy to call the villain the parent and you’d be the closest to the truth. It’s certainly not the kid.
But who is the kid? The narcissistic parent was once a kid. And then they had a kid. And that kid grew up and had a kid (see where this is going?) Hurt people, hurt people. And narcissists, deep down, are very hurt, ashamed children in grown up bodies. So many of my clients, even as adults, want deeply to heal their parents, to be loved by them, to change their behavior so that the dream of connection can be realized. They struggle with the notion of seeing their parents as having been wrong in that story. Why? Because as I often say, “we are wired to believe our parents.” So they’re left with that feeling of shame that sounds like, “Something is just wrong with me.”
(For more on that watch this Ted Talk with Brene Brown.)
There is a cycle of shame playing out in the world. Shame happens but if we pretend we don’t feel it, it tends to steer how we treat each other, and with a steady diet of it, it’s toxic. How will it end? I think I know. Though the goal is a lofty one, I get to walk toward that goal with my clients every day. It will be ended by the survivors of narcissistic parenting – the ones who are healthy enough to dig into their own therapeutic work – saying, “it ends here.”
Here’s what that sometimes looks like in my office: I start with a bold assumption. If we want kids to grow up emotionally healthy, parents have to put their kids’ emotional needs first. No kid is responsible for making their parents happy. (Sound obvious? Not if you had a narcissistic parent.)
Next, together, we shine light on the childhood violations. The times when clients were shamed or frightened. Then we say what may never have been said. “I remember this or that hurt as a little person; my hurt matters; I didn’t deserve it; it wasn’t my fault.” We ‘right the ship’ a little, right there.
I help clients to imagine their child selves and say (over and again in manifold ways), “I love you; I hear you; I’m sorry you were hurt; you’re safe; I will take care of you now.”
It sounds like just words but actually, it’s a habit you can develop and use as a very effective tool. I love Kristen Neff’s work for explaining why and how to use it.
We work on how clients can be for themselves and for others – especially their children – what they needed their parents to be for them. That part can be hard. Shame bubbles up about ways they might have hurt their kids that mirror ways they were hurt. But that’s where shame helps us. In tiny doses, if we can acknowledge it, it keeps us from doing that “thing” again. It helps us repair rifts in relationship. So together, we hold shame gently and let it do its work, while keeping the self-judgement reasonable. We are all only human, after all.
What is all this? It is good work. It can feel too slow. There is grief. There is healing. It’s courageous as hell.
And then there is change. Change in the ways clients think and feel about themselves. Change in the ways they talk to themselves. Change in the ways they tell others “no” and tell others “yes” and tell others, “I love you.”
But the most important change of all is that my amazing, heroic clients can finally say to themselves, “There is nothing wrong with me.” And by saying so, with compassion at the helm, they break the cycle of shame for their one family. The goal is lofty. But I’m sticking with it. We shape each other by how we treat each other. It’s darn important.