A Narcissistic Struggle as an Opportunity for Growth, Change
Resources in psychology and religion.
Posted December 23, 2016
A young couple, in their early twenties, whom I will call Tom and Carol, came to see me because they felt that their recent marriage was doomed. Both athletes and young professionals from Ivy League colleges, they reported that they came from wealthy, highly educated families with strong religious ties. Their history revealed no problems on the surface, and neither of them could explain their marital stupor, contrasting this also with their own childhoods presented in the best of light.
Carol tried every way possible, by both of their accounts, to make their marriage work, but Tom felt increasingly removed. After two months of revealing no specific stressors from their past, the young man's narcissistic demands finally surfaced, as he asserted his dissatisfaction with both his marital and professional choices: He felt depressed, yet perceived himself as gifted and deserving much more. Narcissism typically originates from deprivation and insecurity. Tom's achievement as a star athlete and his idealized sense of his capacities across several fields led me to consider his defensive behavior as a sort of “reversal of self‑doubt.” So I circled back to his reported experiences of a “perfect childhood,” as something essential was evidently missing. Nonetheless, he assurred me, with his mantra of coming from a “perfect home,” that his past was unrelated to his current elusive difficulties.
One evening following his session, Tom paged me, reporting an emergency. Parked at the side of a highway, in a state of panic, he insisted that he needed to talk “now.” A wave of rage overcame came him. He unleashed a flood of tears. He could hardly speak. Though he had not shared in his sessions that he had been reflecting on early childhood conversations with his mom, during his ride home, some painful recognitions came together.
Tom blurted out that he was told that his “twin brother had been breast fed by his mother,” but that he was not! The impact of this symbolic image now fell upon him like a ton of bricks. He was confronting his deeply repressed feelings that his mother had “always favored” his twin brother, which he perceived resulted because he told me, “I was born with club feet—and she saw me as damaged.” Following the avalanche of feelings that broke through, bottled up from over the years, he retold several painful incidents through agonizing tears. Tom also shared with me this letter that he wrote to his mother from the road:
In therapy, my anger is starting to surface. I have a lot. It's my problem, but it's your fault. This must surprise you. The other night you said something like “your problems couldn't be due to us, we even confirmed this with the the other kids...”
You breast fed one twin and not the other. That is incredible to me. Babies can survive without breast feeding, and seem to do so quite well; but you created some dynamic there!
I would think a woman of your intelligence would at least have suspected that what she was doing was not wise, and monitored the situation as time went on...
Yes, Mom you are right–to get whatever love was left over.
Later in sessions, now having accessed he shared with me the following notes from his diary:
"I felt much pain early in life. To accommodate this pain, I developed my personality style. This pain, of course, has not been dealt with and has festered to a point where I am an angry young man who is missing a good portion of life's experience. The therapy, and now the medicine, is helping me to understand these issues and to decide for myself how I wish to live.
My pain was the depravity of breast‑feeding. There are many babies who aren't breast‑fed and go on to live normal lives. However, my twin was receiving it. To aggravate this feeling of depravity, my mother would breast feed me occasionally for a little while.
By trial and error, I learned behaviors that would get my parents to show me love. For instance, I would take the blame when my twin did something wrong. When my parents found out, they would give me love: (“Oh, isn't he a nice boy for doing that”).
I went elsewhere to establish a connection. I was a fanatic sports fan and vehemently followed the New York teams. I would often cry when my team lost a game. Then, and still now, I vicariously experience the teams ups and downs. In high school, I found drugs as a way to escape further from my pain. Of course, this means of escape further damaged by relationship with my parents. I later found athletics and music as a way of drawing attention to myself.
My experiences in college and in my work life are very similar to those experienced in grade school and grammar school. I am an organism constantly seeking attention. I don't experience people as they are; I model them in my brain and decide how I rank against them. I gloat on successes by showing them to every one. I despair and lose faith in myself over failures. I am not in balance.
The spiritual erosion is rooted in the problems with my mother. My mother became a Catholic when she married my father. She has developed a strong faith and always dealt with any crisis, large or small, with the tenet to “It's in His hands.” If things were ever going poorly for someone in our family, she always recommended that we “offer it up.” I wasn't able to understand why I reacted so negatively to Church at the time, but now it is clear that I felt my mother was hypocritical: she practiced conditional love while she preached unconditional love. This turned me against organized religion as a solution.*
Tom wrote several poems, expressing his feelings of worthlessness. One he called The Reincarnation Blues:
THE REINCARNATION BLUES
I died and went to heaven like a thousand times before
And floated through the clouds 'til I was standing at his door
I was praying he'd accept my age old proposition
To cease this long commute and obtain a permanent position
“Come in and have a seat” he offered with a frown
“Your reputation in my creation is quickly going down
I gave you free will and you chose the common way
Until you prove your worth to me you know you cannot stay.”
“I must send you back to earth with a chance at restitution
A time to rid your soul of a thickening pollution”
In a moment I'll be born into a world anew
And I'll live not knowing of my past or those who I've lived through
But how can I ever become something that I ain't?
Will eternity be long enough to learn to be a saint?*
The conditional love of Tom’s mother, as he experienced it, complicated by feelings of rejection, left Tom at bay. Could he trust an intimate relationship when he missed essential elements of attachment (i.e., affirmation, authentic love, care) for himself and to share provide these for another?
Narcissism Essential Reads
Attachment has its roots in early infancy. It is a product of caregiver‑infant interaction. Preceding issues are continuously reworked in facing later issues. As Erikson suggested, early trust provides the foundation for autonomy, but trust is also deepened by the clarity, firmness, and support the parents provide in the autonomy and later phases. Children who earlier securely “attached” are often perceived as “highly resilient.” What children experience, early and later, makes a difference. We cannot assume that early experiences will somehow be cancelled by later experiences. Such cases show that lasting consequences of early inadequate experiences may be subtle and complex–particularly as one encounters vulnerability and/or seeks intimate adult relationships and/or parenting.
As Tom worked through his painful history and unresolved feelings with his parents and past, he began reconstructing his reactions, both to his wife and others and reappropriating his faith. He recognized that his marital relationship was not only a setting to fuel and honor him but one where he “worked construction” to build an authentic relationship. Regarding faith, which he was turned off in reaction to his mother who regularly responded to his distress, stating, “Just give it up to God.” Tom now recognized that religion and spirituality offered many other opportunities (beyond his negative maternal association) for personal self awareness and growth in terms of qualities that he possessed yet needed to develop and reveal.
As years passed, Tom’s redirected his talents in his growing family and in his faith, moving from his search for self-affirmation (seeking narcissistic supplies) to refining his growth and experiences fulfillment. His authentic discoveries and rewards differentiatied his neediness from his past to a maturing man, shaped through self-reflection and reworking patterns of hurt and pain to a healthy being. From both psychology and religion, Tom drew upon resources that challenged him. He transferred his athletic discipline to self discipline of mind and heart transforming his narcissism to healthy love of self, others, in concert with his Spiritual Core.
* Releases provided for these contributions.
John T. Chirban, Ph.D., Th.D., is a part-time lecturer at Harvard Medical School and author of Collateral Damage: Guiding and Protecting Your Child Through the Minefield of Divorce (HarperCollins, 2017). For more information visit drchirban.com