The wounded self: the torture of narcissism
Narcissism is a word that is bandied about nowadays with casual frequency, and if often used in place of the words ‘selfish’ or ‘self-centred’. Many of us will recognise in ourselves a generous sprinkling of selfishness and that awareness often comes with a feeling of discomfort and the sense that it’s not something we want to admit out loud. The good news is that such a reaction, when not crippling, is a sign of normal emotional health.
At the other end of the scale is the person who has a constant sense of their own weakness and resentment at being a victim in the face of mistreatment by others. This, too, is a wound to the self which constantly battles with the need for validation.
Narcissistic personality disorder
A person with true narcissistic personality disorder will not be able to tolerate that discomfort at all, to the extent that they simply will not recognise it as an issue. They will have to maintain their sense of grandiose validation, respect and self-worth at all costs. It is essential to them because the alternative is consciousness of an annihilating abyss that they are ‘nothing’.
Everyone around the narcissist will be serving to reflect the narcissist’s self-worth back at them. Initially, they will be seductive charm itself. But when the other person fails to make the narcissist feel good about themselves, which given time in any relationship is inevitable, they will trigger destructive criticism, rage and ultimately be discarded.
Such an attitude is ingrained as a ‘fact’ and formed in very early childhood or infancy. As much as food, warmth and security the infant needs to feel loveable and worthwhile to their caregivers.
Without love, their survival is deeply threatened. With an abusive caregiver, the child will face the unbearable dilemma of accepting either that the person they depend upon is wrong, or that they themselves are bad. In the total dependency of infancy the latter course "I am bad" will tend to be preferable.
To survive this hateful knowledge about themselves, the child counterbalances the threat by ‘knowing’ in a grandiose way that he/she is the perfect centre of a universe that exists to feed their self-worth; yet without an empathic and two-way sense of connection to that universe.
Furthermore, any intimate relationship will be experienced as threatening exposure and be intolerable. The narcissist is condemned to a life of isolation. Yet superficially the picture as seen from the outside may seem very different - to the onlooker this person is sparkling, the epitome of power, achievement, popularity and success.
A narcissistic parent may often pass on their damage to their child. The narcissistic parent is unable to genuinely love selflessly, and the child will learn that their self-worth exists only as long as it serves the needs of the parent.
The child will receive praise for charm or achievements, for anything that reflects well on the parent. Yet when that good reflection is less than perfect it threatens the narcissistic parent’s sense of self-worth which is intolerable to them: the child may become the focus of terrifying rage, threats or manipulation and discover a total lack of empathy in the one person they rely upon. It is a lonely experience; the public face of the parent will always be beyond reproach so that others will not know what is happening.
How counselling can help
Many people find their way to counselling because they are coming to realise that they are with a narcissistic partner. The narcissist will be charming as long as their sense of self-worth is fed - most likely through good looks, popularity and successful achievement.
At some point when your partner’s needs diverge from yours, there will be manipulative behaviour, betrayal, cold withdrawal, anger, blame or rage. Their lying, lack of empathy and challenges to your sense of what is real and true will be the norm. It will always be ‘your fault’ that the narcissist is unhappy, having an affair, overspending, feeling disappointed in you. The person who is limitlessly loving and giving, and who has a blurred sense of the limits of their own tolerance, will be sorely tested by such a partner. The narcissist cannot help but drain the energy of others.
With authentic mirroring, clear delineation of boundaries, patience, tolerance and consistent holding through the most profound despair, the therapeutic alliance can enable the challenges of narcissism to be worked through to achieve healing of the wounded self.