Psych-Talk with Dr. Mike: A look at the meaning of narcissism

Dr. Mike Gropper, psychotherapist and marital therapist specializing in clinical diagnosis and therapy, looks at narcissism.

Dr. Mike Gropper is an American psychotherapist and marital therapist living in Ra'anana. For further details, see end of story. Like Snow White's evil stepmother, 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 love themselves 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. Narcissism is named after the ancient Greek myth of Narcissus, a handsome Greek youth who rejected the desperate advances of the nymph Echo. In punishment for his cruelty, he was doomed to fall in love with his own reflection in a pool of water. Unable to consummate his love, he pined away and changed into the flower that bears his name to this very day. Because they need continuous proof of the significance of their "voice," narcissists must find people, particularly important people, to hear and value them. If they are not heard, their childhood wound opens, and they quickly begin to feel threatened, like the evil stepmother in Snow White. This terrifies them. 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, in order to keep himself inflated, the narcissist has to control and dominate those that are around him; usually these are his immediate family members. 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 quite cleverly imposes on the world to keep his grandiosity inflated. This behavior of selling an image is to have people reflect, admire, applaud or even detest, in order 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 in order to survive and avoid severe rejection and painful ridicule have had to put their own personalities on ice, seal them away in a deep freeze or else risk rejection.
  • Samantha, in her 30s, was an adolescent when her parents divorced. She and her brother suffered terribly during the divorce proceedings. Samantha's mother, extremely dependent and very demanding, now turned to Samantha. This got worse when the mother fell terminally ill. Samantha became her emotional servant throughout the remaining years of her life. Samantha came into therapy, addicted to marijuana and suffering from bouts of acute anxiety. Drugs, food and other addictions are often used to cover-up "narcissistic injuries." They provide the wounded person with some instant gratification and magic elixir that aims to take away all of the pain and fill up the emptiness inside. The problem is that the addiction creates a totally new and very dangerous predicament.
  • Ralph remembers spending most of his childhood adoring and idealizing his good-looking, athletic dad. As he matured and became a young adult, Ralph began to develop depression and suffer from anxiety attacks. After entering therapy, he learned that while he adulated his father, the man never took notice of any of Ralph's achievements, either athletic or scholastic. It did not matter what he accomplished, he just could not please his dad, who would often say: "anyone can do what you have done." His father always had to be right about anything discussed, and would become very angry if his son appeared to know more than he did.
  • Sarah was reared in an upper middle class home. Her father was a dentist, her mother a housewife, catering to the father's every need. Sarah's brothers both became dentists, but Sarah was encouraged not to pursue a profession, but instead to settle down and become a "proper housewife" to a man who could provide her with security and take could care of her, a model similar to her parents. She did just that and married a dentist, raised three children. One day in her late 30s she met an artist. She soon began "seeing" him, which led to having an affair, and then the break-up of her marriage. What was different for her was that for the first time in her life, this man wasn't telling her what to do or how to behave, but loving her for herself. Thinking of themselves as perfect parents, Sarah's mother and father could not understand where they had gone wrong and why their daughter was leaving her husband. The husband was even more distraught and just could not understand his wife. The stories of Sarah and Ralph are perfect examples of how the idealization process operates in narcissism. A narcissistic parent will often make their child an extension of themselves, the emotional projection of something envied, wished for, or idealized. The parent, to play out some emotional issue that has never been adequately dealt with by the parent, uses the child. Even as they castigate their children and show so much insensitivity to their child's feelings, the narcissistic parent sees himself as a very good and caring parent. The gap between the image and the reality is indicative of the need to inflate his worthiness. 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 own autonomy, the transmission of this intergenerational pattern is most likely to occur. The spouse of a narcissist Jerry and Suzie came to therapy to help their psychosomatic daughter. It did not take long to realize that the entire family structure evolved around Suzie's perfectionism and demands for total conformity and submissiveness to almost all important decisions. For the first part of their marriage, Jerry gave into Suzie on almost every issue concerning her view of what was correct. Jerry, quite depressed at the time of his coming to therapy, nevertheless, did not know how to handle his demanding wife. His only escape was through his working endless hours at the office. 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 What makes it difficult to help this type of narcissist is his/her self-deception. The processes used to protect themselves are ingrained from childhood. As a result, they are absolutely unaware of their constant efforts to maintain a viable "self." If they are meeting with success, they are satisfied with life regardless of whether the people around them are happy. 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 this person learn about their wounded self that has led to the kind of problems they are struggling with currently. Psychotherapy is the treatment of choice for the spouses and adult children maltreated by narcissistic relationships. The spouses and adult children of a narcissistic relationship often come into therapy complaining that they are depressed or anxious or that they have some type of psychosomatic symptom that does not have any medical origin. The goal is to help the individual counter false images of him/herself and to overcome self-dislike. Acknowledging this truth takes much courage, for they must face their underlying lack of self-esteem, their exceptional vulnerability, and significantly, the damage they have caused others. Therapy aims at helping this individual, perhaps for his/her first time to develop a sense of themselves as people with their own view of the world, and to begin to like themselves without being afraid of stepping on someone else's emotional toes for doing so. Then comes the long and painstaking work of building (or resurrecting) a genuine, non-defensive self in the context of an empathic and caring therapy relationship. Dr. Mike Gropper is an American trained psychotherapist and marital therapist specializing in clinical diagnosis and therapy for both children and adults. He is a clinical consultant to the Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services and Mt Sinai Medical Center in NYC and the Institute for the Advancement of Children in Israel. He has been on the faculty of the Bar Ilan University and Haifa University Schools of Social Work and the Mount Sinai Medical Center in NYC. He is also the founder and director of SmokeQuitters (, a smoke cessation treatment program. His office is located at the Golan Center, Achuza 198 in Ra'anana, (09) 774 1913, Send your comments >> * * * Cafe Oleh experts have been chosen for their knowledge and reputation. Cafe Oleh does not take responsibility for any advice they offer.
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