(photo credit: The Seattle Times 2006/MCT)
Mirror, mirror on the wall,The spouse of a narcissist
Who’s the fairest of them all?
Like Snow White’s evil stepmother in the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, many people spend a lifetime aggressively trying to protect a wounded or vulnerable self. Traditionally, psychologists have termed such people narcissists, but this is a misnomer. At first glance, it appears that these people love themselves, yet, deep down, they don’t; in fact, their self barely exists, and what part does exist is deemed worthless. All energy is devoted to inflating the self, like the stepmother’s seeking reassurance about her beauty and perfection from the magic mirror.
Narcissists use everyone around them to keep themselves inflated. Often they find flaws in others and criticize them fiercely, as this further distinguishes them from those who are “defective.” Repeatedly, to keep him/herself inflated, the narcissist has to control and dominate those around him/her; usually these are his/her immediate family members. It can also be a friend, a colleague, a peer or fellow worker. There is not enough room for more than one correct viewpoint in the mind of a narcissist, unless that viewpoint is in agreement with his own.
The narcissist does not really like others. Rather, others are used to reflect back the image he/she quite cleverly imposes on the world to keep his/her grandiosity inflated. This behavior of selling an image is to have people reflect, admire, applaud or even detest to have the narcissist feel his existence. Because of their underlying need to be heard, narcissists often work their way to the center of their “circle,” or the top of their organization, or community. They may strive to be part of the inner circle of friends, making sure that they do so at any cost.
These patterns often get played out in social settings like a civic organization or club or synagogue. Indeed, they may be the mentor or guru for others. The second they are snubbed, however, they rage at their “enemy.”
Growing up with narcissistic parents
It is no laughing matter to have a parent who is narcissistic. The problem is that many people reared in homes with narcissistic parents have had to put their own personalities on ice, seal them away in a deep freeze to survive and avoid severe rejection and painful ridicule.
For those children who grow up to be adults and have not developed their own autonomy in life, the submissive behavior, while somewhat adaptive in the service of surviving their childhood, becomes quite maladaptive and destructive in future relationships. Deeply ingrained submissive patterns easily get transferred onto other relationships. Unless the grown-up child of a narcissist develops his/her own autonomy, the transmission of this intergenerational pattern is most likely to occur.
Like children, spouses married to narcissistic partners receive similar
treatment. They exist to admire the narcissist and to remain in the
background as an adornment, the “Archie and Edith Bunker Syndrome.”
Frequently, spouses are subject to the same barrage of criticism or
even rage. This can never be effectively countered, because any
assertive defense is a threat to the narcissist’s wounded self.
Not surprisingly, narcissists cannot hear what their spouses have to
say if it does not mirror their viewpoint and sense of grandiosity.
They are interested in listening only to the extent that it allows them
the opportunity to give advice or share a similar incident (either
better or worse, depending upon which has more impact). Many only give
a pretense of listening, appearing to be very attentive because they
want to look good. Usually they are unaware of their emotional
deafness; in fact, they believe they hear better than anyone else (this
belief, of course, is another attempt at self-inflation).Help
Two circumstances bring this type of person to a therapist’s office.
Sometimes a partner who feels chronically unheard and unseen drags them
in. In the case of a single person, failure at maintaining a viable
relationship may initiate a cry for professional help. Others come to
therapists because they have met with some failure (often in a
relationship or their career) so that the strategies they previously
used to maintain self-esteem suddenly no longer work. In the above
instances, their depression is profound, their robust false self
dissolves like a melting ice-cream cone, and one is able to see an
accurate picture of their inner sense of worthlessness.
Actually, when narcissistic clients come into therapy because they are
depressed and unhappy with themselves and/or their situation, there is
an opportunity to help them learn about their wounded self that has led
to the kind of problems they are struggling with.The writer is a marital, child and adult psychotherapist
practicing in both Jerusalem and Ra’anana.