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How Early Childhood Oedipal Narcissistic Development Affects Later Adult Intimacy and Relationships
In my companion article How Early Life Attachment Affects Adult Intimacy and Relationships, I explored some of the implications and consequences now being documented by trauma researchers, and childhood development psychologists, about the important baby/infant stage of childhood development. In particular the focus was on the attachment process between mother and baby/infant, and how this shapes the babies social engagement system, and sense of self in the world when it comes to later adult attachments (relationships).
Regardless of what happened during this formative stage of childhood development from birth to just before the age of 2, then the child will then evolve and have to navigate another important childhood development stage. This next stage will also impact its later adult ability to enter and sustain adult intimate relationships. There are 2 actual stages which are commonly known as the Narcissistic and the oedipal stage of childhood development and both are critical stages in the child’s development.
It is important to note that the child at this stage and commencing at age of 2 years, now has a sense of self, a degree of autonomy and a set of physical, emotional and psychological resources available to it. These resources and levels of consciousness were simply not present during the earlier baby/infant stage where they navigated the mother-child attachment phase of development.
This article explores the later childhood dynamic of the important Narcissistic and Oedipal phases of childhood. The article explores the way in which the dynamics and issues that naturally arise in this period are handled, will also shape the way an adult will unconsciously approach and relate to another in an adult intimate relationship.
CHILDHOOD NARICISSISM AND OEDIPAL BASICS
The Narcissistic phase of childhood development is generally considered to occur at about the age of 2 and may go until the age of 3 to 4. This phase is notable for the child developing an ego and sense of “I” according to Heinz Kohut (2000). This sense of “I” is without boundaries and neural development of associations about “I” and “You” beyond a primitive level (Johnson:1994). The brain is undergoing enormous changes during these years and the child is taking on massive strides in all forms of cognition, hand-eye co-ordination, logic formation and its Limbic or emotional brain centres (Doidge:2007).
Everyone will note this Narcissistic phase as where the child starts to say with authority “mine!!”, and “me”, and they become egocentric or relate to the whole world as being about them. In a sense it is all about them in this phase, and this is healthy. The child must develop a strong sense of self before it can relax that sense of “I” to be less demanding and infallible, and more realising of their truly dependent state. The child must then become aware of the need for a “we” or social engagement with others as a way of being in life.
The Oedipal phase of childhood is not the same as the Narcissistic phase but comes in the midst of this evolving sense of self for the child, and is a period that lasts in the range of 2 to 5 years of age. Once the child has an “I” then the child starts to have impulses and desires, feelings and motivations from this new sense of “I”. The parents as love objects start to take on new constellations in the child’s internal universe and the relationship includes both parents in a primary focus for the first time in a way that reveals some universal base instincts that all humans possess.
These two distinct but overlapping phases of childhood development are universally seen as so important to navigate by both parents and the child that the key myths of Narcissus and Oedipus were evolved to contain the wisdom and dynamics of these childhood rites of passage. The myths are psychological truths in the language of their day (Jung:1990) and activate our collective unconscious as eternal mythic truths that span cultural and social boundaries.
INDIVIDUATION IN LIFE
In her key book “The Drama of the Gifted Child”, author Alice Miller discusses the critical childhood dynamic of how a child needs parental support to separate and individuate from the parents. The famous psychoanalyst Carl Jung (1990) placed great importance on the need for humans to complete the individuation process in adulthood as part of our healthy psychic development. Individuation is the process whereby we completely separate from others such as mother, and understand, realise, and deal with the issues of being separate in life.
This healthy psychological evolution allows a person to truly stand alone and face their mortality, their fragility and their place in the wider universe. Within this realisation comes the task of dealing with the anxieties of life, death, purpose and meaning. Both Jung and Miller stressed that interruption or corruption of the commencement of the individuation process in the Narcissistic and Oedipal stages of childhood development would create ongoing life issues for that child and then later adult.
It is a key psychological truth that children must be acknowledged and accepted as important and separate to their parents, and that they must have effective “mirroring” in order to achieve healthy separation of self. Any child who is treated as a mere extension of the parents needs and image, will be compromised in the child’s ability to grow up with a stable and solid sense of self (Miller:1981).
As part of the individuation process we as a separate self will compare ourselves to others. The parents’ job is to assist the child in developing a balanced and healthy sense of self through being loved, respected and acknowledged by the parents as separate, with feelings that are real, and a reality that is accurate. The child is vulnerable as it starts life in a power inequality with its parents where it is always inferior in many ways.
One of the key issues and problems in both the Narcissistic and Oedipal phases of childhood development is where parents have unresolved power and control issues within themselves. Unfortunately this is more common than at first may be considered. We live in an age of Narcissism where the attainment of power and control over others and ourselves is placed on the idealised altar of perfection. Many adults now find they consciously and unconsciously act out control, power and domination defences and strategies in their everyday lives.
THE BRAIN AND ITS DEFENCES
Neuroscience informs us that the habits of mind and the patterned behaviours we adopt become ingrained in our neural networks over time. What this means is we start to unconsciously and without awareness to take any habits and strategies into other parts of our lives where we might not have first imagined we would want to or would so do.
It is common for modern families to have both parents working hard to maintain a lifestyle.
People adopt strategies in workplaces to survive the workplace dynamics. An example is a hard working business person who survives the cut and thrust of corporate office life by “hardening up” and adopting power, control, and manipulation strategies and ways of using others to both survive and get ahead in the organisation. Over time this way of being slips from consciousness and into the unconscious way of being.
This is not just a psychological state or process, it is part of the neural reorganisation within the brain that adopts this new pattern over time as an “adapted” way of surviving in its environment (Doidge:2007). That same person, brain, and way of relating then comes home from work to the partner and their children.
People like to create a fantasy that they “switch off” when they get home, and “leave the sword and shield” at the door when they come in to the family. What these typically stressed people are really saying is they switch-off their “fight or flight” mechanism or Sympathetic state of the Autonomic nervous system (ANS) when they get home.
Stressed workers then drop into the relaxed Parasympathetic state of the ANS. In this state the person is not consciously dropping any personality mask they use and portray at work, as much as they switch off their frontal neo-cortex and live more unconsciously and emotively from their limbic brain system (Cozolino:2010).
In this state and in this way over time many adults become used to a way of unconscious relating that is potentially not an ideal outcome for children. Psychological studies show that where a parent uses their power, control or manipulation as forms of superiority on their children to boost their own self-esteem, the child will develop an inferiority complex and deep seated feelings of inadequacy.
We all share a universal and ego based form of defence which is designed to shield us from suffering and injury to our emotional, mental and physical selves. This process is basically that when we feel bad about something that has an emotional charge or base to it, and is painful to bear and feel, we simply “forget” it.
What the forgetting actually represents are the symptoms of an ego process that functions to repress the incident from the conscious mind into the unconscious mind. This has a parallel neural process which means we do not “forget” or complete or release the incident, it is simply relocated within the bodymind and brain to a place where we cannot consciously access or remember it. The limbic brain holds many of these memories (Doidge:2007).
The problem is that our brain is a learning mechanism that constantly seeks to adapt to its environment and better survive in it. This is Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” mechanisms of the brain at work. The only problem is that this process is enacted from the primitive Limbic and Dorsal-Vagal parts of the brain which operate from a defensive and reactive design (Ogden:2006).
If a child for any reason is repeatedly made to feel inadequate then this is actually a form of mental and emotional abuse which will haunt the child unconsciously forever unless they seek treatment later in life. The reason is that the conclusion and feelings of inferiority will return again all through life when the brain detects a trigger which “seems like feels like” the same mental and emotional abuse is happening again to them. A common outcome is the sensitive adult person who personalises constructive feedback or comments as being about their self rather about an issue or dynamic which is not their self.
The unconscious triggers will start to inform and shape your behaviour as an adult, including the behaviours you adopt in adult intimate relationships. Our past is shaping our present and will keep shaping our future if an intervention does not occur to change this unconscious process and the way it starts to run our lives. The wounding from emotional and mental abuse is quite subtle and is often unrecognised in those who experienced it as a child.
The acts of physical and sexual abuse at this early formative stage are also traumatising to all parts of the child. The child’s overall sense of self will be compromised and broken with resulting cognitive and possibly physical dsymorphic images of their self and body. The child may also have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and forms of Attention Disorders (AD) from any of the possible types of abuse.
NEURAL DEVELOPMENTS IN THE NARCISSISTIC PHASE
In a child’s magical world they see the adult parent as a god, as right and all powerful. Conversely when things go wrong between the adult parents, and between themselves and the adult parent there is a tendency for the child to assume all blame and feel bad for what occurs around them. The negative interactions of the parent can devastate a child who witnesses such events and the child is liable to wrongly put the cause back inside themself and then looks to overcome their own bad aspect to prevent such bad incidents occurring again.
This wounding becomes important in the Narcissistic and Oedipal phases due to the fact that the child now has an emerging sense of self, and you need to have a self before you can wound that self. The child at this stage does not yet have a solid self that can discriminate and realize that negative comments and put downs are not real to who they are. The put downs inflict direct and formative injury to the child and literally shape the child’s sense of self that will later shape the adult self. Such a wounded child commences life with a damaged foundational self.
The other aspect of the human brain and mind is that it seeks to find meaning and to resolve all events around it as quickly as possible. This evolutionary feature is designed to allow us to resolve uncertainty quickly so we identify any potential threats and react quick enough to survive.
From birth onwards we seek to create patterns for everything random in front of us so we can comprehend our world. We are hardwired in the brain to find meaning and purpose throughout our lives. We can only control random events by overcoming confusion and gaining understanding of whatever stimuli is in front of us. We are doing this from birth and this process is key to our mental, emotional and physical development as a baby and a child.
The baby and the later child firstly look to the mother to show the child how to make sense and order of such environmental random events. The baby learns through the attachment based “mirroring and modelling” process with firstly mother and then father, other children, siblings and adults. The baby finds meaning and understanding by following the other person’s pattern of dealing with an object or event as a safe way of assuming reality. This is the process of mirroring.
An important aspect of mirroring is how the mother accurately mirrors the child’s feelings and then reflects them back. The mother is attuned and responsive to the child’s needs. The child then develops a secure attachment as outlined in my companion article How Early Life Attachment Affects Adult Intimacy and Relationships.
Where the mother has issues of her own, or is unstable, drug or alcohol addicted or somehow unable to be present and grounded with the child, one finds that the basis for either an Avoidant-Ambivalent, Avoidant-Insecure, or a Disorganised-Disoriented attachment outcome can form. Refer to the companion article for more information on these outcomes.
The human child is totally dependent and at the mercy of adults from the moment of conception up until teenage years, with mirroring remaining an important source of learning that children continue to assume even when they have developed into solid self children who may be now at school and evolving in many other ways. Many parents are unaware how they are continually shaping their children’s beliefs systems, attitudes, self esteem, and images of what is normal in relationships, intimacy, sex and emotional life.
Wilhelm Reich articulated how children are naturally emotionally and psychically present in their bodies up until a point is reached where the repressive behaviours of the parents, care takers and culture, force us to defend against injury and erect a compromised “false self” to make contact with the outside world.
The basic “false self” outcomes can be found in 5 key articles in our Characterology section. As part of every type of false self we constructed, we turned part of our emotional expression back against ourself and withdrew from our true natures. In the Narcissistic phase the key wounding occurs where either he child’s true self is not honoured or the child starts to be used as a mere extension of the parent’s needs, lifestyle, image, and life attitudes.
THE NARCISSISTIC CHILDHOOD PHASE
In our emerging age of Narcissism we are increasingly seeing children being shaped by their parents into idealised images and “cool” or sexualized parodies at ever younger ages. In a recent outcry it was revealed that school photographers are offering an “airbrush” service to remove blemishes and defects from school children’s photos due to demands by parents (Mayes:2011). This image management and attempts at perfectionism by parents on their children represent a cameo of this alarming trend of narcissistic perfectionism that parents are inflicting on their children.
Before the age of 2 the child is less socially adapted and often not quite yet able to be “shaped” into the idealised and often narcissistic image of the parent(s). The child by that stage may have been dressed up as a cute “doll” and used to portray the parent as “perfect” or acceptable or using the child to draw attention and other adoring comments which feed their ego and narcissistic supplies, but this does not yet directly affect the baby/infant.
Once the child starts to develop a true sense of self or “I” then such objectifying and distorted mirroring starts to have real impact on the child in its Narcissistic phase of development. If the child is not properly mirrored by the parent while its emerging self or “I” was being established we find a psychological injury occurs.
The injury will tend to undermine the child’s solid sense of self and the child will normally then grow up without a solid sense of self and instead start to develop a sense of self or “I” that includes a compensation of other people or objects as part of the self or “I”. Since the boundary and sense of self is enmeshed with other objects or persons then adult intimate relationships will become problematic and genuine relationships difficult.
Neuroscience also informs us that at the stage a child develops this sense of self or “I” brain of the child is advancing in terms of how we psychologically orient towards objects with our senses. Studies show that the child starts a form of exploratory orienting as it starts the individuation and separation process from its mother. The orienting reflex is that where a continual focusing and attention placing on internal and external environments as well as conscious decision making processes about objects found during orientation (Ogden:2006).
We may react to the environment and orient based on unconscious reaction from the bottom-up processes of the old reptilian part of the brain, or we may consciously decide to engage in a particular activity from the top-down processes of the logical front brain (Ogden:2006). The stage of exploratory orienting in the young child is essential for its ongoing individuation and psychological growth (Cozolino:2010).
The child’s brain needs practice and experience to create and develop strong neural circuits that facilitate the ability to hold attention on objects. The mother needs to create the stimulating environments and the safe container for the child to explore to enable this to occur. This phase shows up with the child playing and exploring with autonomy, but then coming back to mother for a “check-in” and reassurance, and then heading off again for more exploration.
The child whose parents do not provide such environments, or curtail such exploration are liable to affect the child’s attention skill creation, and may create the basis for later attention deficits and distractions to being able to concentrate (Van Der Kolk et al:1996). There is a relationship between attention, concentration and the level of consciousness (Ogden:2006).
Children who are raised by parents who are unstable or whose demands on the child force their orienting to remain fixated on the mother for safety or survival reasons, affects the child’s development of attention. Adaptive attention enables an active balance between being too distracted, unfocused, erratic, or flighty, versus being too overly focused, compulsive, obsessive or fixated. When parents demand the child’s ongoing attention then this orienting process is compromised (Ogden:2006).
Mothers who over-stimulate or over-arouse their children through emotional outbursts, chaotic behaviour, threats, punishment and inconsistent guidance and mirroring affect their children via how it threatens both the integrity of their sense of self or “I”, and their ability to have adaptive and explorative orienting in life (Sokolov:2002). As adults these children will tend to withdraw from stimulus, arousal and conflict in their adult relationships, and perceive there are constant demands on their time, attention and direction (Cozolino:2010).
Some parents live with the unrealistic expectation that one can validly expect and demand that one’s own emotional and other needs can be met and fulfilled through objects, others and relationships with others. This can include a parent who takes a child emotionally hostage to use that child to meet their own adult needs or who uses the child against the other parent in a manipulative triangulated dynamic. It is these 2 themes that tend to dominate the wounding in the Narcissistic and Oedipal childhood developmental stages of childhood, and which have a direct impact on the later adult’s ability to enter and sustain adult intimate relationships.
If how we love and how we allow ourselves to be loved are directly related to psychological patterns developed in our childhood then we need firstly to further discuss the Narcissistic phase of childhood which as already noted commences roughly at about the age of 2 years. Some of the relevant neural and psychological dynamics, processes and developments have already been touched upon in this article.
Narcissism is a normal stage of childhood development but must be outgrown by the child or else a form of developmental arrest occurs, where the personality fixates on the reality and characteristics of that stage of development. Narcissism is a stage of self-love and any dynamic involving love then also involves anger and hatred, which are the shadow side of love.
THE SHADOW SIDE OF LOVE
The shadow side of love as articulated by the famous psychoanalyst Carl Jung involved the presence of hurt and rage, pain and resentment, loss and vindictiveness, and the arising of hate towards all those who elicit these other outcomes and feelings (Jung:1990). Carl Jung made clear it is not the existence of the shadow side of love with these darker feelings that is destructive to love, but rather the turning away from facing and expressing these dark feelings.
In my therapy practice there is always a percentage of clients who come into therapy in denial that they harbor such shadow feelings such as anger and rage within themselves either as an individual or within their love relationship. Our false notions of romantic love in society leave no place for the shadow side of love to exist, to be acknowledged or be expressed. This denial, as Carl Jung pointed out is what leads individuals and couples into have a pattern of unfulfilled relationships. Couples try to live sanitised relationships which simply are not real.
What most people do not understand is that when we are angry, hurt of feel vengeful, many of us pretend we do not feel anything at all, or we act out those feelings in words or behaviour (Goldberg:1993). Most adults shun feeling their negative feelings and so either repress or discharge as a defence against feeling those negative feelings.
In the act of repression we simply learn to consciously “forget” our feelings. This ego process is often a defence learnt in childhood either at home or at school, where we have to deny a true and authentic part of ourself. When we deny the existence of our feelings we prevent ourselves being able to energetically embrace the fullness of our being and set ourselves up for suffering both in the mind and in our bodies via illness.
What is worse is that we do not as humans possess in the ego a discriminator of feeling suppression. When you choose the path of repression of “bad” feelings then all feelings get suppressed, not just the “bad” one’s. The cost of the suppression of our “bad” feelings is the loss of being able to feel our love and joyous feelings (Lowen:2004). The act of following the sanitised form of “romantic love” where life is just an attempt at all valentines, romance and light, is the loss of love and the loss of feelings in that relationship.
From this place, passion and eros die, and the couple become like brother and sister. I shake my head at the proud boast of couples who say “we have never ever had a fight our entire marriage”. What they are unconsciously admitting to is they also have never felt love’s passion, eros, or their feelings if that is the case. Such couples often have a productive and functional relationship that is more like a contract, and there is often an energetic dullness and routine to such people, as well as the existence of a body that looks unlived in.
In therapy such persons or couples reject the notion they are angry, harbor anger, or that anger is needed to be expressed as part of clearing emotional blocks to their relationship, physical health, or way of deepening their love. The idealised notions of romantic love and society in general, as Wilhelm Reich (1976) had pointed out, has forced them to create a false self and disown vital energies and parts of themselves into their unconscious self.
Some clients who have repressed their feelings quit therapy and feel insulted that they somehow possess a “shadow” of uglier qualities and feelings which they refuse to accept is part of their humanity. They have bought into the concept that some feelings are “bad” or that they have no place in adult relationships, yet they are often full of anger at the very moment when they defend their defence to their counsellor!!
Some people choose to “discharge” their emotions rather than feel them. Such people lash out at their loved ones with a cruel desire to hurt, punish, or humiliate their loved one as their goal. They become the “critical parent” and punish and abuse their spouse and force blame and judgement upon them in an outburst of toxic emotion. Such people often justify their emotional “spew” or hysterical outburst with a range of rationalisations (Goldberg:1993).
Some people combine the acts of repression and discharge together via turning their feelings against themselves as an act of self hatred. These people typically get sick or ill in the body just after an “emotional” event which sees them develop anger and rage but instead “swallow” it, and attack themselves. The psychosomatic illnesses (bodily illness caused by emotional causes), psychogenic illnesses (bodily illness caused by mental causes), and a host of psychological disorders (e.g. depression) are forms of such attacks against the self.
Others actually come into therapy due to what psychoanalyst Theodor Reik (1988) noted as a “guilt complex” or the enormous amount of guilt they felt when they realized how “abnormal” they felt about how much they hated, resented or had shadow feelings about those they loved (Goldberg:1993).
Such people often fear that to make contact with, and give expression to, the dark rage and resentment they feel, and the distorted thoughts that they carry, will threaten the love, the relationship and the loved one they hold dearest. They attempt to ignore and hide their secret thoughts and feelings, and carry their tortured selves in silence for as long as they can until they either seek help or end the relationship.
Some other clients will fear facing their “shadow material” and also quit therapy, or take up counselling or a therapy where they talk about their issues without ever having to feel their repressed shadow feelings. Carl Jung and Wilhelm Reich were quite clear when they pointed out that the conscious exploration of such shadow material, including its emotional expression, was the primary method of fixing neurosis, psychosomatic illness in the body, psychological disorders, and preventing the acting out of the repressed shadow material via addictions, affairs, and punishing emotional behaviours on others, including their children.
Research in the fields of clinical and social psychology, animal studies, child development and sociology has consistently shown that not only do animals and humans hate those we love but that we are also drawn towards others hate for us. Hate includes anger, rage, vindictiveness jealousy and hurt. Consciously we revile others hate for us and shun and deny our hate for others as it does not fit into the idealised image we tend to hold of ourselves as educated, adjusted and loving people.
A clue is that people can connect to the idea of hating injustice, cruelty, abuse or other ideas. Freud first connected hate to an aggressive drive in humans that is linked to destruction and death instincts (Freud:1953). The hate in aggression mobilises people for constructive purposes and if one looks at the recent protests in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt which aim to overthrow dictatorships then hate can serve a purpose.
THE NARCISSISTIC PHASE CHILD AND HATRED
As the child’s sense of self emerges it comes into contact with feelings of hatred. A child in its narcissistic phase of development is thought to think in absolutes and will not yet have developed the complex psychological mechanisms that permit the acceptance of love and hate existing together towards the same object in the same moment. (Klein:1971).
Psychoanalyst Melanie Klein (1971) coined the term “splitting” to describe to describe this reality where the world around us is seen in either-or terms of the “all good” or “all bad”. The child develops this splitting in its infancy but it still operates in the narcissistic phase of the child’s reality.
The concept of “splitting” is where the child cannot see the mother both in terms of the “good mother” and the “bad mother” and so creates a magical reality of two separate mothers who each show up from time to time. This preserves the imperative of the “good mother” always being good and not being compromised by hurtful acts against the child. Instead the “bad mother” who is someone else is responsible for the hurtful acts against the child (Klein:1971).
In this way the child can vent its rage against the “bad mother” without threatening its own survival by killing off the “good mother” who supplies all its nurturance and survival needs (Klein:1971). Carl Jung noted that almost all fairy tales employed the “splitting effect” of the “good fairy godmother” archetype versus the “bad witch” or “cruel mother or step mother” archetype (Jung:1990). He and psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim (1932) both agree that this is because it is a concept the young child already has a reality for and can relate to when reading such stories.
The child must go through a form of object constancy where the child can hate its mother, and annihilate the mother, yet sees the mother is still existing and still there for the child afterwards (Johnson:1994). The child has the splitting defence to assist in this process. Unfortunately some parents respond to the child’s infantile rages of hatred, anger and defiance with punishment and their own adult versions of hate wrapped up as love.
When this occurs the adult in a sense is reacting from their own infantile thinking. An adult needs to be able to relate to the child in terms of the child being both good and bad at the same time for the parent to be able to contain a child’s emotional reactivity (Goldberg:1993). When the adult is unable to move beyond seeing the child from a good-and-bad splitting mechanism then the child will be rejected and subject to adult parental hatred that the “bad child” now forms in the adult parents mind (Goldberg:1993).
A child is supposed to test its emerging narcissistic powers and feelings that unlock in the emerging sense of self against the parents it loves. It can test itself against those it feels safe with. When the safe parent turns against the child with an adult reaction that might be appropriate for adult to adult hate behaviours, the child is now in trouble. The child’s nervous system is not yet capable of containing adult rage in a way that does not compromise its felt sense of safety and survival. The child will traumatise (Ogden:2006).
Children subjected to a parents rage will go into a form of trauma like shock (Ogden:2006). In the aftermath there can be an egocentric rationalisation by the child that it is “bad” and so the child will start the process of identifying with its own hate in a way that creates self-hatred as a constant in its reality. The child may split itself into a “good child” and “bad child” based on parental mirroring and messages that tell it that it is bad.
A child who is shamed or punished when it expresses its own infantile rage and hatred soon learns to suppress the expression of such feelings (Goldberg:1993). The parents split the child into the idealised “good child” and force the child to disown its shadow feelings and behaviours as the “bad child” into their unconsciousness (Klein:1971).
The critical parent or the demanding parent who wants perfection and absolute obedience of the child “out of love” will tend to use damaging parental messages to the child. Such parents will be seen reminding the child what is wrong with it, how it “got it wrong”, how the child is stupid and needs to try harder, and how the child must be punished for its failures. Here is the hatred that comes from love and here is the shadow side of love which if not dealt with in the parent will wound the child and create the basis for its self-hatred.
It is from such a dynamic that the child creates a false self of the “good child” to survive. Anytime the child is made wrong, made unsafe, and made unlovable it seeks to adjust and adapt to its environment by rejecting and disowning into the unconscious all the hated parts of itself as told to it by its parents and caretakers, and noting what areas remain in itself as “lovable” and so build a false self around these parts where they exist, and become “lovable” for just parts of who their authentic self is.
All this occurs under the guise of “love” but is really the operating dynamics of the shadow side of love in action. We give up in our Narcissistic phase of childhood those parts of ourself that are rejected firstly by our parents, and then soon after by ourself, and create a defence or our emerging characterology and social mask based on what “love” tells us is our acceptable nature. Such is the sickness of what we call parental love in Western society.
This setup is the basis for the creation of the later adult narcissistic personality. I cover the basis for the formation and characteristics of this adult personality in my article Narcissism. The pathology of an adult Narcissist is they as parents typically operate a “splitting” consciousness towards both themselves and their children.
An adult narcissist overly identifies with themselves as the “good child” where there is only “good” and perfection, and they are constantly working at their image, and manipulating others realities to convince themselves and others that this is who they are. At the same time they completely disown all negative qualities about themselves, and disown their humanity, feelings, and less than perfect outcomes into a projection onto others around them, or as a total secret or cover up.
As part of the adult narcissist’s projection and “splitting” processes, their children are often found to be wounded by them in this dysfunctional way of doing life. The narcissist will tend to constellate and wound a favoured children into being a favourite child who is then setup to go on later to themselves become a narcissistic. The adult will also tend to “scapegoat” a hated child into being co-dependent, self-hating or a co-narcissist. Such a child will carry the negative disowned qualities that the adult narcissist refuses to own as being their own humanity and unresolved emotional baggage (Johnson:1994). They will be confused, self-loathing and often collapsed and withdrawn.
Such children will have no role model or permission for constructive hate. Healthy psychological growth is fostered by parents who help their children to recognise and feel their destructive wishes and at the same time not act on those impulses. Constructive hate is healthy, and is about hating and feeling the hate without destructive action or acting out. This would allow such a child to hate and be hated without being fearful of the consequences, and without having to split themselves to cope.
Psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott noted “It seems to me doubtful whether a human child, as they develop, is capable of tolerating the full extent of their own hate in a sentimental environment. They need hate to hate”. Mature and vibrant adult love can only be based on two individuals knowing themselves and each other, and needs a full range of feelings to exist. The denial of justified and honest hate simply denies the ability to love.
Sigmund Freud (1953) in his pioneering work, entitled “On Narcissism”, identified that we all pass through a primary development stage of narcissism where we as infants believe we are the centre of the universe. However this is given up when the child realises that they do not control the parents but is entirely dependent on them. Freud (1953) believed that narcissists did not reinvest their emotions back to the parents, but instead redirected them back to themself thus starting the process of a self absorbed, grandiose, self entitled person.
The psychoanalyst, Heinz Kohut, argues that the deficiency of being appropriately “mirrored and modelled” by the parents creates a child stuck in their grandiose narcissistic developmental stage, and yet still requiring constant self approval by others for their self esteem, all of which is central to an adult narcissist. His peer, Otto Kernberg, cites evidence that narcissists often arise from the dynamic of a cold, unempathic, self absorbed parent, often the mother, who may be narcissistic themselves.
Emotionally starved and angry at the depriving parent, the child withdraws and lives from that part of the self that the parents value, be it looks, intellect, athleticism, or a skill or talent. The child then develops from a split self, where the perceived defective parts are suppressed and hidden, while an overdeveloped and false grandiose presenting self is built to face the world.
There is no clear cut agreement on the causes but all agree the trend is that narcissism is a growing and disturbing problem in society which is misunderstood and often untreated. Social commentators agree that we are now living in an age of Narcissism that is creating more adult narcissistic personality outcomes (Meier:2009). Such adults struggle in their primary adult intimate relationships, and also wound their children from their own narcissistic wounded self (Lewi-Martinez:2008).
Narcissism tends to play out inter-generationally and one can see through family trees the Narcissistic lineage in families and how one generation wounds its children and sets up at least one to carry on the torch of Narcissism into the next generation. The issue of the narcissistic parent and its effect on the child going through its childhood developmental phase is now explored as it will shape the affected child’s ability to function as a healthy partner in adult intimate relationships.
THE OBJECTIFICATION OF THE CHILDREN OF NARCISSISTIC PARENTS
Some narcissistic adults deliberately do not want to be parents as it gets in the way of others being in their life to only serve their needs. Children have needs and are dependent which is uncomfortable and unavailable for the Narcissistic parent to be able to cater to. However Narcissists also believe in image and success, and the powerful image of the “stable, happy family” is yet one more achievement that needs ticking off in life. Narcissistic parents tend to view their children as objects to be used for their image sustainment, and as an extension of themself when the child is trotted out in public (Meier:2009).
When a child comes along in a family of one or more narcissistic parents then the child may end up being used for the selfish needs of the parents. The child may be expected to know things without being taught, as the narcissistic parent resists spending time helping anyone else but themself, but at the same time may still have a demand on the child that they be gifted or special or “make mum or dad proud”.
In all relationships the adult narcissist tends to have a general stance of “Well what have you done for me today!!” (Stern:2008) as self-obsession dominates the thinking and world of the adult narcissist and is also projected onto their children as part of this way of being in the world. Children of narcissistic parents report later that they felt in childhood constant tension and pressure to keep proving to the narcissistic parent their worth and to prove how they love and appreciate the narcissistic parent being their parent. This however is not a two-way street and the children typically do not have memories of ever having felt loved or appreciated for being themselves or for being a child with needs that the parent could be bothered meeting.
When the child makes a mistake the narcissistic parent often reacts with biting criticism, often berating or labelling the child “stupid”, or demanding a perfectionistic standard that “around here this is what is expected”. Given the narcissistic parent is never wrong nor ever apologises, the child stats to feel defective in front of what is supposedly a perfect setting that they, the child is sabotaging for all concerned. This leads to a drive to also be perfect, or a collapse into shame and self-blame, and a felt sense of being flawed and not enough. Both of these outcomes are also containing the child’s self hatred.
The child will also learn that feelings are to be suppressed as they are not acceptable, or are seen as a sign of weakness, as the narcissistic parent has disowned their own feeling states, and is unable and unwilling to show real emotions from behind their false mask of perfection to the world. The child grows up in a world without feelings, and will suffer a vague sense of unhappiness as a result no matter how adapted they are to their adult world.
Such a person may suffer a low grade depression for years before finally going into therapy when their own best efforts fail to bring them happiness despite often bringing them accomplishments. Their relationships are often re-creations of their childhood.
If the child becomes a narcissist themself then they too will start to see any potential love partners as only being there to serve their own narcissistic needs, and to fit in with their image of success, glamour, power and having “possessed” another trophy (Lewi-Martinez:2008).
Even in sexuality the thinking and stance of “it’s all about me” shows up. Studies by Joanne Stern (2008) indicate that narcissists view their sexual partners as sexual objects that satisfy their narcissistic ego supplies of pleasure, status and power. Given that authentic sexuality is communal and brings emotions to bear and a couple closer together, sexual love is a way in relationships are enhanced (Stern:2008). Narcissists are unable to meet their partner in this place and in this way and so will avoid such encounters. Instead they will be self-gratifiers, takers, objectifiers and sexualisers of their partners in the bedroom. Clinical reports of partners of narcissists reveal they rated their narcissistic partner as lousy in the intimate life of the bedroom.
Narcissists in relationship can be considered to operate in only one direction in terms of what Bert Hellinger (1990) calls “taking” and “giving”. A classic narcissist is a “taker” who gives nothing back and focuses solely on their own needs. Any “giving” is only a manipulative gesture enacted with an agenda in mind. The other extreme or polarity of form of a narcissist which traditionally was labelled an “enabler”, “caretaker” or “co-dependent” takes little or nothing for themselves and focuses solely on the needs of the other person at the expense of their own needs.
Recent writings are now labelling this second group of enablers as “co-narcissists” instead of co-dependents. This new term is chosen since both one-way stances are narcissistic and also since they relate to where the hatred flows. A classic narcissist openly discharges the hatred and anger outwards without remorse or feeling, whilst the co-narcissist discharges it inwards against themselves as self-hatred. Both are forms of narcissistic love/hatred rather than healthy love.
This is why you commonly find an adult relationship where one party is a classic narcissist who criticises, belittles, rages and abuses their “love” partner, who takes on the punishment abuse and put-downs as a recreation of their childhood felt sense of being hated or rejected. Unfortunately the co-narcissist gets a double dose of hatred in this dynamic. They receive hate from the narcissist wrapped up as “love”, and they develop self-hatred which gets turned against their own self. Over time the co-narcissist has been found to suffer significant psychosomatic and psychological disorders stemming from their relationships, including suicide and further abusive relationships (Lowen:2004).
In a multiple child family of narcissistic parents it is common that each parent picks a child to idealise and another to denounce and devalue, with the rest of the children effectively ignored. The parents may choose a common “good child” and a common “bad child”, but what is most common is each parent chooses a different favourite child, and a different scapegoated child, which is often the opposite choice of the other parent (Meier:2009). This enacts another form of form of “splitting” amongst the children.
A common outcome is the narcissist chooses the eldest child of the same sex as them to be the scapegoat, whilst the eldest child of the opposite sex to be the idealised favourite child, or the prince or princess (Meier:2009). In effect the narcissistic parent is creating the same idealised false self in their favourite child, and project their own disowned faults and shadow onto the scapegoated child (Meier:2009). This too is a form of “splitting”.
This outcome can become a battlefield where the child is assaulted interchangeably with seductive ego puffery by one parent, and a cold belittling hostility of the other parent. Where there is a common choice of the favourite child and the scapegoat, one sees the creation of the next generation of narcissist, whilst the scapegoated child will likely act out rebel behaviours and the disowned shame and shadow material of the parents, via drugs, crime, shameful public activities, and possibly self mutilation or anorexia over time.
The rest of the children watch silently and like lonely sentinels from the sidelines in either case, wondering all the time what is wrong with them that they are invisible and unwanted. Some will develop strategies like becoming sickly to get negative attention (which is at least attention), while others fade into the background and learn to be needless, wantless, and unsure of feelings and who they are.
In amongst this battlefield of a dysfunctional family there may also be the added complication of the jealousy of those children who compete for attention of the parents. Narcissistic parents will play power games with children in this way, making children earn their “love” and loyalty by proving over and over the same from the child in many demonstrated ways. The Narcissistic parent will milk their own children for their narcissistic ego supplies without remorse.
The children are all under the common demand to “maintain the family image”, and are told how lucky they are to be in such a family. The children may be accused behind closed doors of being “too dramatic” for just having human feelings or emotions in public that spoil that perfect image. The child will quickly learn to disown and split off those aspects of self that invite recrimination.
The needs of the parents are all that count and the children learn to shutdown emotionally, to play their part in the family facade, and from time to time to “perform” their special skill, trick, or be shown off, all to garner the parents the public’s tick of approval of their parenting. Children learn that image is everything around here and bend to the parents will, setting the child up to grow up narcissistic in themself.
Children of such families are robbed of their childhoods, their realities, their needs and wants, and connection to their true selves. Every child is dependent on their parents for their survival, and every child seeks and needs love, time, attention and direction from their parents. The child will split themself into a disowned true self, and a false self that houses that special talent or gift that gets them the narcissistic parent’s approval. The parent may also decide which aspect of the child must be developed and perfected in order for the child to get that approval.
For example the parent may be either a very successful or a failed footy hero and now pushes the son all through childhood to be perfect and best footy hero, even at junior levels. The narcissistic adult parent rages on the sidelines every Saturday at the Little-Aussie footy games, to the horror of everyone around him. The narcissists goes into blame when the child gets tackled, blames the umpires, the coach and never the son in public. The star child is talked about often to the parent’s friends, colleagues, and anyone else who will listen.
At home, behind closed doors, the rage and criticism of the child not winning is intensely felt. The child, being an extension of the narcissist’s idealised false self, must be perfect and the winner. Losing must be rationalised as someone else’s fault, either that being the rest of the team, the coach, the grass surface etc. From here phone calls of threats and abuse to school teachers, coaches, other team mates parents, may occur.
If blame cannot be sheeted home elsewhere then the child is the last resort of projection of fault and blame and told to “shape up” and “get it right” next time. The child will start to have performance anxiety in these settings as everything rests on him getting it right and so getting approval and “love”.
One recent case of this form of alleged parental abuse is the 2011 documented case of Amy Chua, who is a Yale law professor. She describes herself as a “tiger mother” and wanted her children to be perfect and disciplined. She forced her 7 year old daughter Lulu to practice an advanced tune on her violin for hours on end “right through dinner into the night” (Paul:2011). The child was forced each day to practice this way with no breaks for water or even the bathroom, until Lulu learnt how to play the piece perfectly (Paul:2011).
Amy Chua would call her other daughter Sophia “garbage” when she felt disrespected, and tore up a hand-made card that Lulu made her for her birthday as not being “good enough”. Her father is also severe. He severely chastised his daughter for humiliating and disgracing him by taking him to a school Awards honour presentation where she received second prize, not first prize. The Yale Law Professor is unrepentant and claims she is preparing her daughters for adulthood because “its a tough world out there” (Paul:2011). She has even published a book entitled “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” which is now in the best seller lists in the USA.
The book details her recommended style of parenting which includes never accepting a school grade lower than an “A”, insisting on hours of math and spelling drills, piano and violin practice each day (weekends and public holidays included), of not allowing play dates, sleepovers, television, computer games, school plays. (Paul:2011).
Amy Chua states she is raising her children to rule the world. This is a classic statement of a narcissistic parent who demands perfection, and whose value system has been replaced with images of power, success, perfectionism, status, and who sneer at everyone else as inferior and weak, as Amy allegedly does claim about other parents and their children compared to herself and her children.
Amy Chua states emphatically that she is doing all this to her children out of love and that her children’s happiness is her primary goal (Paul:2011). This is a distorted sense of love. Her own parents were strict on her as well and raised Chua harshly which she does not regret. Chua believes that adult happiness comes from being able to make the most possible choices from the work ethic and scholarly achievements that childhood sacrifices gave her (Paul:2011). There is no admission that there is any meaningful cost to be paid by any child raised under such strict disciplines and a home environment absent in emotional affection or affirmative love.
Imagine a world ruled by rigid, heartless leaders who are critical and demanding such as the model and vision Amy Chua aspires to. We see this already in the Chinese culture and its leadership values of power, control and material achievements at the expense of human rights, the environment, equality and freedom of expression. Like many authoritarian cultures, this is happiness for the few at the expense of the many.
OEDIPAL FAMILY WARS
In Narcissistic based and other family systems it can happen that the parents’ adult intimate relationship has deteriorated or has always been built around unresolved psychological dynamics of the parents. Some parents have a combative and competitive relationship which is never acknowledged but unconsciously acted out. As I stated earlier in the article the work behaviours we adopt can unconsciously come home with the parents to be unconsciously acted out on the home front, and in front of the children.
As the child grows older and has an established sense of self or “I” the neural wiring in the limbic and other parts of the brain continues and the child’s socialisation skills develop. At the same time the child is able to cognitively understand concepts and ideas about themself and life (Seigel:1999). Between the ages of 2 to 5 the child develops a primitive sexual impulse and feeling system, and finds pleasure in its own body and tactile sensations (Johnson:1994).
As part of its oedipal dilemma the child will find instinctively it is now attracted to the parent of the opposite sex in a loving and infantile sexual way. This process sees the child become vulnerable and fully open-hearted to this parent, and being at an oedipal stage, it may also involve having infantile sexual impulses towards that parent. The responsibility of this parent is to be aware of this emerging dynamic and work skilfully with it, such that the child is not rejected, used, punished or shamed for having natural impulses of the heart and their sexuality.
The wounding parent is often a Perfectionistic or narcissistic type of personality themself, who by definition often has a closed heart, lives in their head, and is threatened by others feelings. In any event the adult parent will dismiss or criticise or punish or reject the child who approaches them out of love. This crushes the child who will learn from such repeated attempts to form a defence that prevents them from being rejected and from feeling the painful feelings at all.
A parent may also feel uncomfortable with a child’s infantile sexual behaviour and shame them for this, or react angrily, so leaving the child to believe there is something wrong with this part of themself. One parent may use the child’s love interest in them as a tool to trigger reactions and anger in the other parent. This can occur when the adult parents are engaged in passive-aggressive behaviours toward each other.
Here one parent plays a cruel game where they encourage and exploit the sexuality and love of the child in order to create competition with the other parent. When it becomes too much, or threatens the relationship with the spouse, the manipulator withdraws from the used child, or humiliates or punishes them for these previously encouraged behaviours.
The child learns that it is unsafe to love sexually with an open heart and to experience natural human rivalry. The child will start to control themself so their impulses and urges do not lead them into painful feeling outcomes, and by splitting themself in this way, they disown these impulses and feelings into their unconscious, and start to compensate by wanting to please the parent and win love in other ways.
In one type of outcome, because they feel flawed and wrong for having their natural impulses they decide to become fully in self-control and to become “perfect” and to achieve at whatever will win them praise and love and positive attention. In this first dynamic, the wounding parent will often be critical and perfectionistic themself. They demand perfect behaviour, perfect academia and sporting achievement from the child if the child is to please the parent, which every child does, and will adopt now as the substitute for the disowned natural sexual love feelings which have been rendered unsafe.
This stance by the parent is abusive and wrong, and effectively uses their own children to promote the false ideal of perfection in the family. Many such parents may also be narcissistic and want “trophy” children they can trot out to others and show off, and whom they can boast about their sporting and academic achievements. The real authentic child is lost in all this, and becomes a false idealised self in order to survive and be accepted.
The child placed in these dilemmas will not feel good about themself later in life. They may have become perfectionistic to survive and ward off parental criticism. They may still unconsciously carry the oedipal war dynamics within their unconscious and then play them out in their adult intimate relationships. Perfectionistic persons have pride as a key fault, and will have a deep conviction of being superior to others which they may not publicly admit.
They may still have a strong connection to the parent of the opposite sex, and may be “Daddy’s little Princess” or “Mummy’s little Man or Her Prince”. This now adult relationship speaks of this infantile triangulated and sexualised relationship that may still be in place decades later even when the child has grown into an adult.
It is not uncommon for this childhood or early teenage origin dynamic to still operate when the child is an adult, and will effectively still create a triangle as the spouse of the parent in this dynamic is often sidelined, resentful of both of them, and unable to compete with the child for the spouses attention or affection. This also explains why these perfectionists as adults often created triangulated relationships, as this dynamic may be normalised to them now, after all these years of living it in a family system.
They may still triangulate their own adult love relationship by still having the original parent “on a pedestal” where their current adult relationship partner is in competition with that parent, cannot please that parent, and where they feel the hostility of that parent towards them. This can be the archetypal “mother-in-law” who criticises the new girlfriend as not being “good enough for my boy!!”.
It is common that these personalities show a generational link, with either one or both parents, either the same sex or other sex parent, having the same Perfectionistic personality that they then as parents then create in one or more of their children. The parent wounds the child through their perfectionistic demands, betrayal of the child’s sexual love, harsh black and white thinking, and criticisms and judgements they visit on their children they are supposed to love.
At home the spouse or partner may suffer as the Perfectionistic person is normally emotionally unavailable, is mentally often not present, and living in their head or are still in their office in their heads. They may also bring home their office or corporate behaviours they use to survive in that work setting without being aware of how such behaviours are destructive in home settings.
The partner and the children will feel unseen, unappreciated or unloved, and will typically withdraw and start to either avoid the Perfectionistic person, or please them via perfect achievements at sport or academia in order to be “seen” or to get “love”. The first born child often becomes the “perfect” child and goes down the path of being the “good one” or the “achiever perfectionist” themself, whilst the second born is often unseen, and may rebel and act out the negative disowned qualities that horrify and shame the Perfectionistic parent, and shame the family who are expected to present Brady Bunch perfection to the world.
In the long term either the Perfectionistic person or their neglected partner may start to have an affair outside their relationship. As a child their united sexuality and love, as symbolised by their pelvis and heart, was made wrong, and became the basis for humiliation, shame, punishment and exploitation.
As part of shutting down their feelings and creating defences against being hurt again, they split their love and sexuality between two people in all future situations. By this they will tend as adults to have a “confidante” which whom they can have “heart to hearts” but no sex, and then have a separate partner to whom they submit sexually but will withhold their heart.
When this person enters a relationship this split stance towards sex and love can be confusing for partners. They may start a relationship with a strong libido, but as they fall in love they face the internal tension of being betrayed again, and so unconsciously split their love and sex, or pelvis and heart. For many this will mean giving the partner sex, but withdrawing and relating “from their heads”, with little emotional connection. For some they will cultivate a “friend” outside the relationship at this stage, thus creating a triangle which resembles their childhood triangulated dynamics, and where they displace their heart needs.
Intimacy is a particular kind of knowing of the other person which is pursued for its own sake, not for the satisfaction of any particular goal. This is opposed to a strategic kind of relationship, where the outcome is of primary importance, and the actual relating is secondary. Examples of strategic relating might be coaxing, flattering, appeasing or bullying in order to get what you want. Both narcissistic and oedipal phase woundings can leave the later adult prone to conduct themselves in this way in intimate relationships.
The desired outcomes might be to gain a financial advantage, to have sex, to feel important, to get a new car, to get custody of the children, and so on. This kind of relating poisons intimacy. A couple which finds itself in such a relationship may eventually find that they no longer have anything in common with their partner, and feel like they are living with a stranger.
In summary it is a fragile path to adulthood that a person must navigate to emerge as a functional adult who is capable of entering and sustaining healthy intimate adult relationships. If we define intimacy as a particular kind of knowing of the other person which is pursued for its own sake, and not for the satisfaction of any particular goal, then we can see how for many of us, we are still trying to be safe, get nurturance, autonomy or other needs and actualisations achieved whilst conducting relationship.
No matter what woundings occurred to you along the journey from childhood to adulthood, you can heal and change. Anyone can make the decision to change and then see professional help to do so. Body and emotional centric Psychotherapy in the tradition of our Integrative Body Mind Psychotherapy is a sound place to find such help and to work with those wounded and disowned aspects of ourselves, including our feelings. Body Psychotherapy like all solid psychotherapy assists a person in growing and filling in the developmental spaces that we had arrested or failed to get in childhood.
Psychotherapy can give an adult the knowledge, skills, and experiential outcomes that equips them to enter and sustain adult intimate relationships and in a wider context to live as successful and functional, happy adults. Current dysfunctional societal fantasies, role models, ideas, and trends about love and relationship are destructive and false. Many of our parents were not ideal role models either.
When we finally stop running from ourself, and stop the denial and the compromises with ourselves, and start to face ourself, we are ready to develop that essential and primary relationship with ourself. From there we can then start to develop true relationships with others at many levels.
We can live life through a false self and deny our disowned aspects and our shadow qualities and feelings. There is a price to pay for this that will affect and compromise not just our relationships, but indeed all aspects of our lives. We can also choose to get real with ourself and give up the games, the denials, and the suffering that we carry even when we cut-off our feelings in an attempt to avoid that suffering. As the old saying goes “A life unexamined is a life unlived”. It’s your choice and your life but this life is short so make the right choice!
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