A narcissistic wound describes both: the sense of disturbance in our sense of how we relate to ourselves, and, the sense of disturbance in our sense of how we relate to other people.
While the word ‘narcissism’ has a disparaging overtone it is meant to categorise all forms of investment of energy in the self.
To look after ourselves appropriately requires that we value ourselves. But, if this sense of value is overdone, then we may see ourselves as too important, or if it is underdone; then we may not value ourselves enough. From either of these positions’ problems may arise, particularly when it comes to having healthy relationships with other people.
How do Narcissistic Wounds develop?
They develop from problems in the way we were originally valued in the minds of our main caregivers. If we were lucky, the people we grew up with will have given us the chance to develop, to be natural and spontaneous without our impulses, our gestures, our reactions, being overreacted to. In such a situation we will have been encouraged to be ourselves, and from this we may have developed a useable and realistic sense of who we are, and what the world looks like.
But, if we grew up in complicated emotional environments, with caregivers who were in the grip of unusual needs to be seen perhaps as special or important, then accurate reflections may have been hard to come by.
Then we will likely have had to compensate for shortcomings in the way in which we were related to and in how we behaved to get the attention we needed. Narcissistic wounds develop out of the experience of being immersed in such unreliable and unpredictable environments and situations.
As a consequence, we may have had to develop an inflated sense of ourselves to protect us against the sense that we were being neglected and undervalued.
Coming to terms with a Narcissistic Wound
Later, at some point in our development, we may have found a way to reflect realistically on the sense of our narcissistic wound, to see the way in which we are unusually high maintenance.
To see the way in which we struggle to form and keep emotional relationships because of our high needs to be seen as special. If so, then we may have corrected the over-inflated or under-inflated sense of ourselves. But if this didn’t happen, if we found no point in time to correct ourselves, then our narcissistic wound may have become a deep-seated aspect of our character.
Snow White and the Narcissistic Wound
In the Disney film (1937), an evil and sadistic queen obsessively demands to remain ‘the fairest in the land’ and becomes uncontrollably envious over the beauty of her stepdaughter. The queen has a magic mirror which reliably reflects the image of perfection that the queen wants to see. When this changes, as of course it must because she must age and other younger and perhaps more beautiful girls will grow up, the queen’s narcissistic wound is inflamed. This sets off her envy and fury and her dark magic powers which then drive the plot of her attempt at vengeance.
In real life we may not possess magic mirrors, but if we remain dominated by our narcissistic wounds, then as Otto Kernberg wrote in his seminal work ‘Borderline Conditions and Pathological Narcissism’ (1975) there may be very difficult consequences.
Otto Kernberg on Narcissistic Wounds
“These patients present an unusual degree of self-reference in their interactions with other people, a great need to be loved and admired by others, and a curious apparent contradiction between a very inflated concept of themselves and an inordinate need for tribute from others. Their emotional life is shallow.” Kernberg
Kernberg identifies the way in which people with these kinds of narcissistic wounds have a particular need for, as he calls them, narcissistic supplies. They need constantly to be told how special they are, and anyone who provokes the sense in which their specialness is not being respected will be punished and banished, like Snow White.
People with these kinds of narcissistic wounds expect people who are involved with them to bring them gifts that, much like the magic mirror in the Disney film, serve only to reflect the idea of their specialness. Nothing else will do or is required.
Their narcissistic wound strips their relationships of any possibility of being genuine and nurturing. Instead, they and their relationships are dominated by their narcissistic wound: in other words: they see that the other person is valuable, only as long as they bring the tributes and attention that they need.
Psychotherapy and a Narcissistic Wound
We might say that what the person with the narcissistic wound needs is the chance to see their warped and disturbed sense of their own value for what it is.
They need their own mirrors, not to be magic, but rather to reflect the ordinary quality of self that lets us accurately gauge who we are and what we need. They need a mirror to reflect a more reliable and more truthful sense of the world around them.
This is something that might be addressed in psychotherapy where the therapeutic relationship might become the mirror that the patient can look in and revaluate themselves. But it is worth being clear that our narcissistic wounds can be complex things which need time and patience if they are to be addressed. It is very easy for someone with a narcissistic wound to feel that someone has said the wrong thing to them, to be put off, to feel failed by the therapist.
Magic mirrors don’t do this, they only show what we want to hear.
If this can be worked around, if the client can find a way to look at their narcissistic wounds and to see the way that they complicate the process of relating to others then all kinds of change are possible.
One of the longer-term benefits about coming to terms with our narcissistic wounds is that we become people who can accurately reflect the world to other people. We can reflect more accurately the world our children see. Otherwise, narcissistic wounds are all too easily handed on from one generation to another.
But when we find a way to give up our magic mirrors, work on ourselves and correct the lenses through which we see and experience the world, we become able to help other people, including our children give up a belief in magic, and acquire ordinary reliable ways of relating to and understanding other people. That’s a good thing.
Having the chance to speak in a confidential setting is often key to developing a clearer understanding of our narcissistic wounds, of how they developed, of how they create barriers to authentic living and loving relationships.
By giving yourself a safe space to look at these things you may start to discover a greater sense of possibilities, and this may be the beginning of developing a greater sense of understanding the world around you. In this way you might be able to relate to other people in a truthful and non-magic mirror way. This is genuinely satisfying, not magic.
The chance to reflect on ourselves, our feelings and experience can be powerful and transformative. Out of this, you may be able to develop a clearer understanding of how you and your sense of your problems have developed.
I have been working with people on issues such like this for more than 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 telephone consultation to discuss how my approach might help you.
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