by Michael Etts, LCSW-C
A baby cries and it's mother cries harder, or walks away. The same baby smiles and is picked up and gets a smile in return. It quickly learns which emotions are acceptable and which are not. And so the development of the false self begins...
narcissistic disorders [are] the true self’s ‘solitary confinement’ within the prison of the false self. This I see as less of an illness than as a a tragedy [...] (Miller, 1996, p. xvi)
In agreement with the spirit of that perspective, this article will not refer to a person as "a narcissist," as labeling a human being is often the first step in dehumanizing them. Instead, a case will be made that behavior consistent with narcissism is a defense against great psychological pain and that it is both unconscious and involuntary. That it is a regression to wounds suffered near the time of infancy, the most vulnerable time of our lives.
This is not meant to minimize or trivialize the injuries that those with narcissistic defenses can cause. Those emotional injuries can be serious and long lasting.
Rather, the goal of this article is to illuminate the injuries that lead to the creation of narcissistic defenses. Hopefully, when armed with this information and insight, it will become possible to view narcissistic defenses through a more compassionate lens.
The vast majority of articles on the subject break down the population into "us" those unfortunate enough to have to interact with "them" and "them" (those who use narcissistic defenses). This article takes the position that narcissism is a spectrum and that, to some degree, it is in virtually everyone. In other words, it’s all "us."
Further, this article delves into a less well known type of narcissistic defenses (called by others as ‘vulnerable narcissism’ or by the more unfortunate name ‘covert narcissism’). This type of psychological defense will be referred to as "emotionally overwhelmed narcissistic defenses." It is when a person becomes so overwhelmed with their own emotion, pain and suffering that they are unable to acknowledge or respond to the needs/emotions of another.
Narcissistic defenses prioritize the needs of the self while minimizing or ignoring the needs of others. It is usually, though not always, accompanied by an imagined superiority whose purpose is to protect against the destructive effects of an imagined inferiority.
Emotionally numbed narcissistic defenses are evident by the heavy use of invalidation and reliance on conditional self esteem.
All people who had to develop a false self suffer from self esteem issues. It is an inevitable consequence of having one's true self ignored or rejected. In the case of the emotionally numbed, that lack of self esteem will manifest in subtle or frequent references to traits that suggest they are "special" or superior (this goes beyond the ordinary pleasure of sharing a point of pride). Frequently, these traits are related to appearance, money, success, power and even the ability not to show emotion.
The ability to not feel emotion is a societally esteemed trait, especially for men. It is a common attribute of "heros" in the movies and no negatives or downsides are portrayed. However, just ask anyone who does couples counseling and they will tell you that one of the top issues is the inability of one partner to express emotion. A common fear is that if someone starts feeling emotion, they will be emotional all the time ("I don't want start crying all the time"). This is a myth. Becoming aware and being able to express emotion does not mean unregulated emotion. Someone can feel all their emotions and still regulate them when they want to or need to.
With that said, perhaps you can see the irony in taking pride in the ability to repress or not feel emotion. It is the equivalent of taking pride in a bleeding wound. It's not an asset - it is evidence of prior injury.
As we shall see later in the article, narcissistic defenses are the result of different types of emotional invalidation (e.g., role reversal, neglect, abuse, etc) in early childhood. So, this is not a behavior that is invented internally. It is a behavior that a person has experienced and is now visiting upon others.
Emotionally overwhelmed narcissistic defenses are characterized by ignoring the needs and feelings of another person in one of two ways. The first is an intense display of emotion that results in a shift of focus to the self. The second is emotional shutdown (silence, stonewalling). To reiterate, these are involuntary (likely subconscious) responses.
Some important notes for the emotionally overwhelmed narcissistic defenses:
Here are some verbal examples of emotionally overwhelmed narcissistic defenses:
Here are some non-verbal examples of emotionally overwhelmed narcissistic defenses:
Since narcissistic defenses are a preoccupation with the self, it follows that the emotional needs of others are overshadowed. This makes sense, because, as we will see, the very early, critical emotional needs of the person with narcissistic defenses were not met. As is often the case, it is hard to give another what you have never received yourself.
That is a question extending back to the late 19th century by analysts who spent large portions of their careers trying to understand it (Freud, Kernberg, Kohut, Winnicott). It is generally agreed that these defenses develop very young "According to Kernberg, such pathology is [...] due to severe, early deprivation, usually before age 2" (Tonkin M, Fine H, 1985, p 233).
*** A note to those who doubt the powerful influence of early childhood.
In my practice, I have encountered many people who express skepticism about the damaging effects of negative early childhood experiences. If you are skeptical, have a look at this 6 minute video produced by Harvard University or this 3 minute video showing the effects of even brief periods of neglect. To see dramatic brain scan data that occurs from neglect, scroll to the end of this article from the Child Trauma Academy.
The primary caretaker is generally (though not always) the mother, so the convention for describing the caretaker will be mother. Reading this, one might be tempted to view this as an issue of maternal care. This is not the case. Variables that can encumber a primary caretaker are numerous. Relationship conflict (Hanington, et al, 2012), including self silencing to avoid conflict (Whiffen, et al, 2007), paternal depression, (Wilson, Durbin, 2009), lack of social support (Elsenbruch et al, 2006) and economic stress are some of the major challenges. The Infant Mental Health Journal writes "Economic stress and relationship stress directly affected maternal depression [...]" (Coyl D, et al, 2002).
This article takes the position that raising a well adjusted child is a social responsilbility. That all the issues mentioned above need to be addressed so that a caretaker has the support that they need. This is especially true for those who have been raised in difficult circumstances themselves.
[...] for parents who have themselves been abused or neglected, or whose families have been encumbered by emotionally destructive patterns, a deeper level of education together with outside support or therapy may be essential for constructive parenting (Karr-Morse, Wiley, 1997, p. 217).
Creation of self definition
A baby sees no difference between itself and the world. Mother is something that just appears and ideally, brings food, warmth and comfort. But mother also begins the process of forming consensual reality. By mirroring back a reaction to the child (who is still is unaware of itself as a separate being), she is creating a mental image or impression of the self to the infant. Put differently, the infant has no "self definition." That will largely be created by mother.
Part of self definition is being "good" or "bad." Any living being must differentiate between what is beneficial (food, warmth,etc.) or harmful (freezing cold, burning heat, violence,etc). This mental categorization extends to the self. When treated well, an infant forms a self definition of "good." When abused or neglected, the infant cannot afford the luxury of seeing the mother as "bad." Since the infant is dependent on the mother for it’s very survival, the only person that can be considered "bad" is the infant itself.
This is the beginning of self esteem issues and shame (feeling that the core self is "bad"). In extreme cases of neglect and abuse, toxic shame is created in a processes summed up here:
The expectation of being seen and understood as a feeling and thinking person, which is created by the attachment context, clashes violently with the brutalised person's objectification and dehumanisation. Shame is a higher order derivative of this basic affect of pain. Unbearable shame is generated through the incongruity of having one's humanity negated, exactly when one is legitimately expecting to be cherished. (Fonagy et al, 2002, p. 426)
The ideal scenario
Mental impression – I can have needs and feelings and they will elicit a positive response, resulting in my needs being met. Mother will help me manage my emotions. I can rely on and trust others. The world is a safe and welcoming place.
Less than ideal scenarios
Mental impression – I have to be careful not to upset mother and help her manage her emotions. The parent-child role is becoming inverted and the infant is learning to disassociate (or not feel) emotion. Also, the infant might feel the poor boundaries of the mother and consequently, can begin to develop an aversion to the needs of others.
Mental impression – I have to display distress and struggle to gain the attention I need. I must keenly focus on mother to see when I can get attention and care. There is not enough of what I need. Emotionally overwhelmed distress is beginning to develop here.
David Wallin (citing the work of Mary Ainsworth) explains:
Virtually from the start [...] these infants conveyed their disturbing preoccupation with mothers availability. Their distress upon separation was extremely severe and the relief upon reunion was negligible. (Wallin, p. 21)
Mental impression - My needs and emotions will be ignored or punished. I can’t count on others. The world is not a safe place. I am alone.
When infancy goes well ...
The infants self definition is of I (the self) and the infant begins to gain an innate sense of itself as separate. This would be referred to as the "true self." A coherent, separate identity forms and the idea can grow that "it is me for which that I have come."***
When infancy goes wrong ...
The negative effects of role reversal, neglect or abuse are numerous.
The first effect is emotional numbing, beautifully summed up by Alice Miller:
For a child can only experience his feelings when there is somebody there who accepts him fully, understands and supports him. If that is missing, if the child must risk losing the mother's love […] then he cannot experience these feelings secretly "just for himself" but fails to experience them at all (Miller, 1996, p.10)
In these less than ideal situations, the child learns that it’s true self and it’s spontaneous expression of emotion are not welcome. A clear self definition does not get created. Instead, the authentic, spontaneous self gets displaced in order to make room for the needs of others. This becomes the basis for the mask of the false self. The conclusion often becomes "I am here to meet the needs and expectations of others (in this case, mother)."
In the case of the emotionally numbed narcissistic defenses, the sense of entitlement and feelings of superiority can provide a buffer against the negative effects of this role reversal. For the emotionally overwhelmed narcissistic defenses, the result is a slightly or severely impaired ability to set boundaries. In either case, the child develops a vulnerability to manipulation via guilt, money, flattery, power, etc.
And in the most harmful scenario, it leads to disassociation.
Indeed, for many of the maltreated children we work with, crying for "help" from a potential trauma is doomed to fail— often the parent causes the trauma. In the absence of an appropriate caretaker response to their initial alarm outcry, the child, eventually after many painful disappointments, will abandon this behavior (a defeat or surrender response). In the face of persisting threat and, depending upon the age of the child and the nature of the threat, the child will move [...] into the dissociative continuum (Perry B, et al, 1995, p. 279)
The child now realizes that mother is separate and has some notions about wanting to be in control of the supplier of all good things. A power struggle ensues. If mother holds appropriate boundaries in a reasonably consistent manner, the mental impression is "I must conform to external limits."
If, on the other hand, the child successfully employs tantrums or other disruptive techniques to get mother to yield to his/her will, an altogether different impression will be created. The child learns "limits don’t apply to me" and "others can be bent to my will." This is critical in the formation of the emotionally overwhelmed narcissistic defenses, as the unregulated display of emotion is both reinforced and rewarded.
Children exposed to role reversal, neglect or abuse can have their injuries compounded later in childhood.
Narcissistic defenses can broaden to include feelings of superiority when the consensual reality within a family is that the family is superior. This notion is often non-verbally communicated though it may include verbal assertions of superiority. One client reports that his mother often used the term "far superior" when comparing family members with people outside the family. Alexander Lowen writes:
A boy doesn't think himself a prince through any failure of normal development. If he believes himself so be a prince, it is because he was raised in that belief. How children see themselves often reflects how their parents saw and treated them. (Lowen A, 1985, p. 21)
Families that use narcissistic defenses will pick one (or more) children to assume the role of hero (a child charged with bringing pride to the family). This child will usually develop the emotionally numbed narcissistic defenses. Another role assigned in narcissistic defensive families is scapegoat (a child charged with reinforcing superiority of family members by being assigned an inferior role). This child is often targeted with criticism, devaluation (and sometimes violence) and will often develop emotionally overwhelmed narcissistic defensives.
When someone is raised in a way that allows them to retain their true self, the lesson is profound. The implied lesson is that their essential humanity is prized and respected. They can then easily and naturally extend this to others. But as we have learned, this was not the case for those who had to develop a false self. Having sacrificed essential parts of themselves to meet the needs of their caretaker, they learn an unfortunate relational lesson.
The unconscious thought process goes like this. Other people are there to meet my needs, the same way I was created to meet the needs of my caretaker. People don’t exist just “for themselves,” rather they are a collection of benefits that I can access.
Making prolonged eye contact with someone with emotionally numbed narcissistic defenses can feel uncomfortable for someone who is not numbed. One can get the sense that you are not viewed as a thinking, feeling other but rather more of an "it" or an object. There is an implied negation of one's humanity. And since the need to feel superior is a core need, the emotionally numbed will often scan others visually, looking for "flaws" or things to feel superior about. In couples counseling, partners of the emotionally numbed will accurately voice perceptions of being criticized, judged and devalued.
The emotionally overwhelmed have a different set of needs. Their eye contact is seeking emotional assurance. Abandonment issues, negative thoughts about the self and powerful tides of emotion create suffering that they understandably want to resolve. Here, others are seen as a source of assurance and comfort. Again, this is common human relational style but it is a question of degree. The emotionally overwhelmed cannot percieve another in their total humanity, rather they focus on the subset that can meet their emotional needs.
Early on in relationship, emotionally numbed partners can be especially charming, offering frequent praise and extensive flattery. One could consider this a type of grooming, as they attempt to create an unspoken agreement that this new person. Agree with my self perceptions of being special or superior and this praise will continue. This is especially intoxicating for those with self esteem issues. Here is this (superficially) confident person giving all these positive affirmations. But this is necessarily temporary, as the drive to feel superior eventually leads to critical and judgmental thoughts and remarks.
Those with emotionally numbed narcissistic defenses select attributes that they want and are indifferent or rejecting to attributes they don’t want. While seeking to get social needs met is a basic attribute of almost everyone, it is qualitatively different for those with emotionally numbed narcissistic defenses. On many occasions, I have heard about the search for someone “better.” This is not a reference to finding someone more compatible, rather it is the hope for a better collection of desirable attributes. This if often reinforced by their family of origin, who might literally say “you can do better.”
In essence, other people are viewed as interchangeable or fungible, like commodities. Qualities like loyalty, empathy and commitment are minimal or don’t exist at all. If someone with more desirable attributes is accessible, they will opt to be with them. In marriage, this leads to affairs, or the abandonment of a spouse with little or no guilt. In friendships, this means ending long term friendships suddenly, often with no communication. Those unfortunate enough to be on the receiving end of this will often be shocked, as they are generally unaware of how little they were regarded.
The emotionally numbed will often stay in a marriage because, after a cost benefit analysis of divorce, the benefits of staying married are deemed to outweigh the costs. For example, giving the appearance of a successful marriage (divorce is seen as failure), keeping joint assets (avoiding having to divide them) and maintaining the parental role (avoiding someone else raising their children).
Those with emotionally overwhelmed narcissistic defenses tend to unconsciously view relationships as a means of regulating their own emotions . While all positive relationships help one to regulate emotion, for the emotionally overwhelmed, this function is central. Fear of abandonment is usually present and this leads them to accept or overlook judgmental or devaluing behaviors in their relationships. But for behaviors that they cannot accept, they utilize unregulated emotion to gain control.
In many couples counseling sessions, I have heard stories of self silencing to avoid emotional turmoil. Again, this is common in relationships but it is a question of degree. The emotionally overwhelmed will display such intense emotion that the other person will often acquiesce simply to restore calm. Were this a conscious effort, it could be considered emotional blackmail. And while the emotionally overwhelmed feel and express emotion easily, the bulk of that emotion is reserved for the self. Compassion and empathy for their partners emotions are diminished or missing altogether.
Unlike the emotionally numbed, many with emotionally overwhelmed narcissistic defenses will seek counseling. As they begin making progress, they find the behaviors of their emotionally numbed partners increasing intolerable.
While it can be easy to judge these relational styles, upon closer examination, they can be easier to understand. This behavior is an echo or a mirror of their earliest days. When the needs of the caretaker were met, the false self was rewarded and reinforced. This early objectification leads the false self to normalize this relational style or to see it "obvious" and appropriate. It is this unquestioned belief that may also explain the lack of guilt or remorse for negative behaviors. For the emotionally numbed, objectifying or devaluing others is rationalized as being “true.” If the other person expresses distress, it is quickly invalidated and dismissed. For the emotionally overwhelmed, the needs and emotions of others are hidden by the impenetrable intensity of their own emotions. What cannot be seen cannot be acknowledged, and empathy becomes difficult if not impossible.
In my experience, this is a common coupling. On the exterior, one could see how a person who has difficulty managing emotion could be drawn to some one who seems to manage emotions very well. Alternatively, some one who struggles to feel and express emotion could find some one who is very expressive appealing. Other dynamics are involved as well. The emotionally overwhelmed person will seek closeness while the emotionally numbed will want more distance. This sets up the well known distancer/pursuer pattern within relationship. Marriages of this type usually show up in couples counseling after the emotionally overwhelmed partner has done individual counseling.
This is a less common pairing. Here, each partner sees the other as a desirable collection of attributes (in terms of appearance, social status, money, etc). As mentioned earlier, initially there will be praise and flattery and this results in a brief honeymoon period. However, the drive to judge and feel superior will eventually turn them against one another. The relationship will eventually devolve into indifference or a thinly veiled, mutual hostility. There will be little emotional intimacy as each partner preserves their primary attachment to their family of origin. Guilt free affairs are common in this type of relationhip with one exception. When the emotionally numbed partner feels morally superior, they will not engage in affairs. The main motivation for fidelity is not loyalty or empathy but rather, to preserve the moral superiority aspect of their self defintion.
This is usually associated with emotionally overwhelmed narcissistic defenses. It is anger that results from having dependency needs (needs which cannot be independently met) that are denied by a caretaker who could meet those needs. Dependency rage is one reason why a person with narcissistic defenses can be resistant to some adult responsibilites, preferring to get others to "fix" or handle those responsibilities. It may also manifest in relationship, where a partner is tasked/expected to be like a mother or father figure (instead of a peer to peer, adult relationship of interdependency). This rage is disowned (kept subconscious) and manifests as helpless behaviors.
Dependency issues can be intensified (or develop) later on, as a result of "infantilizing" a child. This results from not allowing the child to gain competence and mastery, usually with the parent "taking over" tasks.
Abandonment was initially avoided (and attention secured) by becoming what the caretaker needed. The spontaneous expression of feeling and behavior was painfully sacrificed to gain what was far more critical, care from the caretaker. This Faustian bargain leaves a mental impression and an association between avoiding abandonment and negating one’s true self. This may be one reason why someone with emotionally numbed narcissistic defenses might disown and keep subconscious the fear of abandonment. It reminds them of the grievous price that they paid to avoid it.
Often times, the person believes they will be “fine” if a long term attachment ends. If that person is sufficiently numb, that may be true. But more often than not, the pain of attachment loss appears when separation is imminent or as it occurs.
Recall that control is a symptom of emotionally numbed narcissistic defenses. Here we can see why. Controlling another person reduces the (disowned) fear of abandonment. When control fails and abandonment is imminent, the repressed emotions will likely emerge. This can be moderately to severely destabilizing, leading to rage and sometimes even violence.
This is a less obvious side effect of developing a false self. It was the original dependency that led to the negation and the abandonment of the true self. I have heard many clients show open hostility to their own vulnerability and their own emotional needs. It is as if their subconscious blames the self for its own suffering. What results is statements like “I hate that I need other people” and other, similar sentiments.
With emotionally numbed narcissistic defenses, it goes much deeper. Dependency needs are denied, exiled deep into the subconscious. It is only in the context of extreme emotional safety, in a profoundly trustworthy relationship, that these needs might ever resurface. More likely than not, these needs will be forever repressed and denied.
Emotionally numbed narcissistic defenses are characterized by a drive to establish a sense of superiority. It is widely held that notions of superiority offer a defense against shame and feelings of an imagined inferiority (Horvath S, Morf C, 2009). Another plausible explanation is that superiority creates a sense of relational power which, in turn, serves to protect the self against the despised feelings of dependency and vulnerability. In the same way the “divine right” of monarchs justified entitlement and dominion over others, a felt sense of superiority might provide a rationalization for the desire to exert control in relationships.
Alice Miller suggests that superiority (grandiosity) defends against depression:
Behind manifest grandiosity there constantly lurks depression, and behind a depressive mood there often hides an unconscious (or conscious but split off) sense of a tragic history. In fact, grandiosity is the defense against depression, and depression is the defense against the deep pain over the loss of the self [...] (p. 34)
People are generally averse to being critical of their parents and for good reason. Parenting is a demanding job that involves a lot of sacrifice and it is a position that deserves respect. However, to recover from narcissistic defenses means being able to tolerate a critical examination of negative early childhood experiences.
But it gets more complex, as the reinforcement of the narcissistic defenses often continues into adulthood. A parent with narcissistic defenses will usually create a child with narcissistic defenses and as quoted earlier, imbue that child with notions of superiority. This is what is called "narcissistic supply" and makes the adult child vulnerable to continued influence and even control by that parent.
This continued relational pattern is explained here:
The impact of first relationships may endure because the original patterns of behavior, communication and affect regulation are simply maintained and reinforced through the child's ongoing relationship to the same parents who helped shape these patterns in the first place. (Wallin, p. 24)
While the dynamics of family narcissistic defenses are multi-dimensional, this diagram details the relationship with the parent with narcissistic defenses:
Those with emotionally overwhelmed narcissistic defenses will often seek out counseling to cope with the emotional pain of their past.
Those with the emotionally numbed narcissistic defenses however, don't feel the majority of their own emotions and are bouyed by feelings of superiority. Their self perception is that of being priviledged, fortunate or lucky. The tragic loss that began in infancy is discounted or denied. The attachment relationship (diagrammed above) prevents any meaningful critical examination of their early childhood. If any dysfunction is identified, it will be minimized, explained away or otherwise invalidated.
Counseling is usually sought when the inevitable relationship problems arise and at that point, the motivation is to examine the issues of their partner. Those with emotionally numbed narcissistic defenses are confident in their relative or complete innocence and unable to see how their behavior is harming their partner. Their partners will often develop depression and anger management issues as the accumulated frustration of coping with the lack of emotional intimacy/expression/empathy and the invalidation become unmanageable. Ironically, those with emotionally numbed narcissistic defenses come to counseling seeking to help their partner with the very anger and depression issues that their behavior has aggravated or even created.
In sum, the original harmful relationship is rarely, if ever, questioned by people with emotionally numbed narcissistic defenses. Sometimes, a story is the best explanation.
Three friends decide to join the military and are sent to war together. On a routine patrol, a roadside bomb detonates right next to their vehicle. All three suffer severe leg injuries and none could walk after the explosion.
A year goes by and two of the friends are ably walking, although they still suffer some pain from their wounds. These two friends meet one day and talk sadly about their other friend, knowing that he has not fared as well. As it happens, they both get an invitation to his birthday and decide to go together.
At the party, they try to demonstrate to him how rehabilitation has helped them. From his wheelchair, he laughs at them and says "I don’t see why you guys went through so much suffering. Look at me, I haven’t suffered a bit. I know that the past is the past, and I just don’t think about it. Maybe you should try the same." They looked down at his wheelchair and then at each other, with amazement and even confusion. It was clear that their friend wasn’t hearing anything they said. The night ended and as they they backed out of his driveway, they waved goodbye. At the door, they could see his parents, smiling and waving back, both in their wheelchairs.
False self - a persona or mask consisting of emotions (or lack of) and behaviors developed to meet the needs of the original caretaker.
Trigger - a current incident that is reminiscent of a prior emotional injury, which results in a disproportionate and intense emotional response.
True self - the spontaneous expression of emotion and individuality
*** derived from Gerard Manley Hopkins poem "As Kingfishers Catch Fire, Dragonflies Draw Flame"