It’s Narcissist Friday!
The issue of identity, which this blog has begun to address, holds a special place in the discussion of narcissism. The older teachers would say that narcissism is a problem in the “self.” The youngest child does not see his “self” as distinct from his environment, at least not in the way that develops later. Thus, mother and father and siblings are all part of “self.” The world is entirely “self” centered. The baby is so dependent on the parent or caregiver that there is little psychological distinction between the one who needs and the one who provides.
Of course, that changes. Eventually, the child understands that the parent is a different person, one with a different agenda. So the child learns to have needs met through a relationship with others. The one who needs must somehow communicate and move the one who provides. Usually, the parent cultivates this relationship with a predictable pattern of cause and effect based on communication. Mothers, for example, can usually tell the difference between the various types of crying to discern when the baby is in pain or just trying to manipulate and respond differently. The baby begins to learn how things work at the most basic levels of society. If I do this, that will happen, the baby reasons. The relationship between baby and parent is the foundation of life with others. All of this, in my book, is normal.
But what if the parent does not cultivate that relationship? What if the pattern is unpredictable or intermittent? Then the child struggles to establish a “self” in relation to the most important other. There is a lot of anecdotal evidence that narcissists are often raised in homes where parents are distant, uncaring, or unpredictable. The child of an alcoholic, for example, never quite knows what to expect from the parent. In some families discipline is administered almost arbitrarily. One time the child receives brutal punishment for a minor infraction and the next a serious act is ignored. Children in these situations find it very difficult to establish a secure sense of “self.”
It may not always be the parent. There may be some children who simply interpret any discipline as rejection. If the “self” is rejected, or in constant danger of being rejected, some find it better to promote a different “self.” The child’s perspective of who he is may be hidden away, protected, while a better image is lifted up—one which is much less likely to be rejected.
Many people report that they never knew their narcissist. In fact, the narcissist didn’t even seem to be the same person consistently. The narcissist knows that the projected image is not real and struggles against the energy it takes to maintain the façade and the need to adapt to the situation. But the identity of the narcissist will not be revealed, at least the identity the narcissist believes is his own. He has found a way to avoid rejection.
Identity is key—and not only for the narcissist. The victim of the narcissist often struggles with feelings of rejection and questions of identity. Many have looked at their own perspective when they were vulnerable to the narcissist and have realized that they were afraid and lonely and needing affirmation. The narcissist came to provide all of that, as the means to establishing support for his image. But, as the relationship progressed, the victim experienced more and more loss of identity until he or she became part of the narcissist. “Self” was lost in the process.
Identity is so important. Knowing yourself. Knowing the truth about who you are. Being yourself. These things can help to avoid the manipulations of narcissists and other users and can help to heal the brokenness brought on by these toxic relationships.
We will talk more about this. The Christian gospel is fundamentally about relationship. Love God and love others. But love infers some basic and right understanding of identity. Unless I know who I am and accept who I am, I cannot share my “self” with others in relationship.
Once again, there is significant overlap between the message of grace and the discussion of narcissism.