Evil Deeds

A forensic psychologist on anger, madness and destructive behavior.

Sex Wars: How Do Women and Men REALLY Feel About Each Other? (Part Three)

Defensive narcissism and psychological readiness in relationships.

In my first post of this series, I mentioned pathological narcissism being a pervasive source of anger and hostility between the sexes. Psychologically, narcissism--and it was Freud (1914) who first introduced the term-- is a neurotic self-absorption which, in effect, prevents someone from achieving true intimacy with another. Pathological narcissism is related to narcissistic rage: a furious, reflexive, unrelenting need to repay any perceived slight or insult.

Post-Freudian psychoanalysts like Winnicott, Fromm, Kohut and Kernberg have attributed anger, rage and hostility to an underlying matrix of neurotic narcissism. Neurotic narcissism starts out as normal narcissism, a healthy, natural childhood need for attention and appreciation which, when continually frustrated, becomes fixated and pathological. Neurotic narcissism stems from inadequate, insufficient or traumatic parenting and resulting narcissistic injury, especially prior to five years of age, during what Freud called the pre-Oedipal period. Children at this tender age find any serious lack of attunement and attention--or certainly, any outright abuse, neglect or emotional, if not physical, abandonment--an insult, a psychological injury, a traumatic psychic wound which distorts perceptions of both themselves, the world, and their relationship to it.

When children experience parents or caretakers as unloving, rejecting or hostile, they respond to this narcissistic wounding by creating a shell-like false self--which replaces, protects and conceals the unaccepted, unloved and damaged true self--presenting instead a persona (Jung) based on what they perceive the parents and world want them to be. A great deal of what pathological narcissism in adults disguises is unresolved infantile anger, resentment and rage about not being recognized, accepted, and loved for who we are. This anger--along with feelings of being unlovable and unworthy of love-- is buried beneath the false self. It is repressed, but not forgotten, nor forgiven. Narcissistic rage from the past tends to be re-stimulated by intimate relationships in the present. In romantic relationships, feelings are inevitably re-injured, and the childhood anger suddenly resurfaces--with a vengeance. This is why I write in my book Anger, Madness, and the Daimonic, that intimacy is "the provocateur par excellence of the daimonic."

Freud's original theory of narcissism derives, of course, from the famous Greek myth of Narcissus. Echo, a sweet and lovely nymph, falls madly in love at first sight with the impossibly handsome youth, Narcissus, only to have her hesitant overtures rudely rejected by him. Echo is crushed, and runs away, leaving only her disembodied voice to remember her by. But she's enraged about her love being unreciprocated by the vain, self-absorbed Narcissus. As often happens, her love has now turned to hate. So she appeals to Nemesis, the Greek god of revenge and retribution, to punish Narcissus by causing him to suffer the same excruciating fate of unrequited love. This is not an unfamiliar sentiment in one spurned by someone they love. Sympathetic, Nemesis answers her prayer. Soon after, Narcissus, spying his beautiful reflection in a still pool of water, falls completely in love with his own mirrored image: obviously, an impossible, superficial, unilateral relationship. Unable to turn away for even a moment from the fascinating reflection of his own face, Narcissus, too, eventually withers away and dies of starvation, leaving only a flower--now his namesake--to remember him. The narcissist ultimately starves for love because he or she can never get enough in the present to compensate for the past.

Another myth depicting the bitter, vengeful, destructive quality of neurotic narcissism is the Grimm's fairy tale Little Briar Rose, better known to most Americans as Sleeping Beauty. In that story, Briar Rose is placed under a spell by a narcissistically offended witch, declaring that at the age of fifteen, she will fall into a century-long sleep from which no one will be able to waken her. When on her fifteenth birthday the princess accidentally pricks her finger with a needle, the evil prophesy is fulfilled, and she succumbs to a coma-like slumber. All life around her is also curtailed, except that around her castle, a thick hedge of stiletto-like thorns grows, covering the entire structure.

As the legend of this sleeping beauty spread across the land, suitors from far and wide made valiant efforts to penetrate the thorny briar surrounding the princess, only to be fatally impaled upon it. The grotesque image of these luckless suitors skewered on bloody thorns and suffering an agonizing fate bespeaks the poignant experience of every man or woman who has tried in vain to get closer to a narcissistically prickly person. Such Briar Rose-types (both female and male) are still so unconsciously angry about prior rejections, disappointments and narcissistic injuries that they are simply not psychologically prepared for any real relatedness or true emotional intimacy--despite what they may consciously believe. Sex, of course, may be another matter entirely. Prickly defense mechanisms serve to protect the insecure, vulnerable, narcissistically injured individual, in much the same way real thorns protect a rose's delicate petals: We may successfully fend off (e.g., offend) those persons by whom we might someday be hurt emotionally; but, in so doing, we imprison ourselves within thorny castles of our own creation.

This question of emotional or psychological "readiness" is as central to the story of Briar Rose as it is to the thorny relations between women and men. It takes real courage to create intimate relationships, since we all have our share of protective prickliness through which to navigate. Like much in life, it's all about timing. We can see both the great courage and impeccable timing required to overcome these barriers to intimacy in the happy--well, fairy tale ending--of the story: A brave young prince, undaunted by the grisly lot of her numerous, now dead would-be suitors, decides--against all wise counsel to the contrary--to seek the hand of the sleeping princess as his bride. Fully prepared to aggressively risk life and limb confronting the spiney hedge, he finds instead magnificent flowers which, magically parting for him, provide easy access to the castle. As fate would have it, the hundred-year-spell ended at precisely the moment he arrived on the scene. When he gently kisses the still somnolent princess, she is ready to waken and return to life. And to love. Intimacy--in the deepest sense of allowing another person access into one's well-defended fortress--always involves a conscious choice, a fundamental decision to fully live, to love, to risk. Fate is a factor. Good timing helps. And so does some plain old blind luck.

 

 

 

 

Stephen Diamond, Ph.D., is a clinical and forensic psychologist in LA and the author of Anger, Madness, and the Daimonic: The Psychological Genesis of Violence, Evil, and Creativity.

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