Narcissistic Abuse

Donald Winnicott’s concept of the emerging self is that it is develops within a maternal dyad.  Winnicott describes the transition from absolute to relative dependence.  This work builds on Freud’s map of the child’s journey from the pleasure principle to the reality principle.  In this model healthy and appropriate mirroring by the main caregivers is essential.

In Winnicott’s version, the infant needs a good-enough mother, a mother who will help bring the emergent child into being. The good-enough mother makes herself available and sensitively sustains the child’s sense of omnipotence.  All being well the healthy child emerges to a state of sustainable independence.

When mirrors can’t be relied upon

In situations where this cannot happen, perhaps because the child’s mother is psychologically unable to respond to the needs of the child and provide appropriate feedback, then the child may develop a narcissistic wound.

In this version maternal mirroring is insufficient. It reflects back partial and incomplete views which have the consequence of creating a distorted image of the child in its own mind. The child may grow up constantly searching for the correct reflection of itself. This can lead to narcissistic abuse.

The need to have been seen and recognised has not been met, and this has left a mark on the mind of the child which distorts the maturing child’s capacity to feel recognised and understood.

Narcissistic wounds and narcissistic abuse

One way of thinking about narcissistic wounds and narcissistic abuse is to think of the wicked Queen in Snow White.  The Queen has a magic mirror, and wants that mirror to tell her one thing; who is the most beautiful of them all.

There is only one answer to that question that can placate the Queens’ temperamental psyche; ‘you are.’

In the case of Snow White, appropriate mirroring is not taking place.  Being seen appropriately, and being able to develop a useable image of the self has not happened. 

  • The Queen is a kind of caricature of someone who has been left with a narcissistic wound and a repeated need to have her self-image confirmed to her. 

This becomes the main thing that she wants other people to give her, and she will do whatever she can to make sure she gets the answer she wants.  Real values have given way to the pathological demands of her narcissistic wounds.

People who suffer such narcissistic problems create problems around them

Though Walt Disney’s animated tale is a caricature it provides a helpful way of thinking about narcissistic abuse.

It’s very difficult to have a relationship with someone who has this kind of psychological deficit because their need for our appreciation is so high that nothing else really matters to them.

We know of Narcissus and narcissism from earlier stories, from Ovid and the myth of Narcissus illustrated powerfully by Salvador Dali.  In the myth a beautiful youth falls in love with himself and in the end drowns in his own image, a pool of water, another mirror.

To be in a relationship in which you are narcissistically abused is to be the abused mirror in the fairy tale

You’re not there to be appreciated in an appropriate ordinary way, you’re not there to be nurtured. You’re there really just to do one thing, and that is to tell the person that you’re having a relationship with that they are the most special person of them all.  They must always come first, you are only there to reflect their specialness.

This is the only thing that matters to someone with a narcissistic wound. They are like an addict craving their fix; self-reflective love. And just like any addict, they will need you to provide a constant supply.

Narcissistic abuse is dangerous

Underneath the glittering, charming effortless surface of the narcissist lurk more ruthless pathological emotional states that crave attention above all else.

The narcissist is like that child that never got enough of the love and care that it needed and so grew up insatiable.  No matter how much attention you give the narcissist it will not be enough.

How do we manage if we have become caught up in narcissistic abuse?

We have to find a way of looking after ourselves of stopping giving all of our good resources away to the narcissist.

Otto Kernberg wrote brilliantly about pathological narcissism:

‘… patients who present with a high degree of need to be loved and admired by others.  They have an inflated concept of themselves and an inordinate need for tribute from other people. Their emotional life is shallow, they experience very little empathy for the feelings of others.  They obtain very little enjoyment from life other than from the tributes they receive from others.

‘They envy others.  They will tend to idealise some people from whom they expect narcissistic supplies. In general, their relationships with other people are clearly exploitative and sometimes parasitic. It is as if they feel they have the right to control and possess others and to exploit them without guilt. Behind a surface. Which very often is charming and engaging one sense coldness and ruthlessness.’

Otto Kernberg, from Borderline Conditions and Pathological Narcissism (1975)

If you are in a relationship with someone like this you may be being a victim of narcissistic abuse.

Psychotherapy, because it is a confidential relationship that aims to provide a more accurate mirror to you, might be a helpful place to talk and get your bearings and get a break from the distorting mirror of the narcissist in your life. This may provide the key to breaking the cycle of narcissistic abuse.

Contact me to discuss further

If you feel that your life is dominated by narcissistic abuse, that you are having to live by certain rules, and that this may be getting in the way of knowing more about who you are and what you want, then it might be helpful to talk about it.

I have been working with people on issues such like this for twenty years.  My work is built around helping you to develop greater insight into who you are, and how you live. 

Contact me to arrange a free 15 minute conversation to discuss how my work might be useful to you. I have a lot of experience of using telephone and online platforms and I would be pleased to hear from you.

Mobile: +44 7980 750376