Man is born pure, it is society that corrupts. Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Last Tuesday evening, I was sitting at my computer in the staff room when one of my colleagues came in and sat at the computer next to me. We said a quick “Good evening, how are you?” and as I was peeking at his screen, I noticed the word Narcissism. I started to talk to him, told him that my ex-boyfriend had narcissistic Personality Disorder and that I had a keen interest in the topic.
He told me that he was currently teaching a course entitled Forensic Psychology and the Criminal Mind and was particularly interested in childhood psychology and the causes of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, sociopathy and psychopathy.
I told him that, from my own experience and all the reading I had done, my belief was that NPD was born of abuse. He said that indeed, childhood abuse was a common cause of personality disorder. Most psychopaths and sociopaths have experienced a troubled childhood.
My ex-boyfriend had a terrible childhood indeed. I will not give too much details as I respect his privacy, but he experienced abandonment, emotional neglect and psychological and physical abuse. NPD is a defence mechanism that he developed in order to protect himself. As his true self was being denied to him, he had to create a false self in order to survive.
My colleague told me that I should feel some level of compassion for him as he was not born that way. I said that I did have a lot of compassion this is why I had stayed so long with him. I had a photo of him as an 18-month- old toddler sitting on his tricycle, holding a black kitten. Every time I looked at that photo, I felt sad for him, my heart would sink, thinking of the abuse that he had gone through. Eventually, I deleted that photo. I did not want to see him as a vulnerable child anymore.
I had to cut my conversation with my colleague short, as we both had to teach, but before he left the staffroom, he was kind enough to give me a printout of his lesson notes for that evening and I am going to share part of them with you.
Causes of Narcissism- Work of Psychoanalyst Donald Winnicot
Like Freud, Winnicot saw that narcissism (sense of omnipotence) was a natural tendency with children and it is not to be discouraged but actively cultivated in babies.
At the early stages of development, the mother’s regular attendance to the infant’s needs allows the child to have a sense of omnipotence and while it is an illusion of omnipotence, it is a healthy one and contributes to the child’s sense of wellbeing. Through allowing for this sense of omnipotence, the baby can gradually understand the illusory element of this sense as the mother begins to introduce aspects of the world which challenge the child’s sense of omnipotence. Through this process, The True Self is established.
With good enough mothering, the child has the ability to live in two worlds: the world of illusion. Fantasy and magic, on the one hand, and on the other hand a world that does not always conform to his wishes.
A False Self is created when the infant doesn’t get the devotion from the mother at the earliest stages resulting in extreme anxiety and the sense that the child will die. The baby hasn’t been allowed to make the transition from the sense of omnipotence to a more balanced nature.
The False Self is created as the baby ‘understands’ that the True self is liable to be annihilated by the external world. This leads to a self which attaches on to objects and persons as a means to obtain the emotional balance they are lacking.
A piece of the early psychological programming of the self is missing and as a survival mechanism, they attempt to get people to provide them with a mechanism for emotional regulation. They are lacking a piece of software that evolution has established will be laid down by the efforts of good enough mothering and so, they need constant validation of their desire for omnipotence which they have never been able to do away with.
They wander through life never feeling ‘real’ like a lost and abandoned child constantly needing people to attest to their greatness and of course, they have no idea why this is the case. It is done below the level of conscious.
They never feel real and even the achievements they attain by virtue of the effort of the False Self are never satisfying as they know it is not really them who have achieve this.
Ineffective parenting has led to a failure to develop internal structures necessary for the development of a person who is comfortable in his own skin with a sense of equanimity and unconscious self-acceptance – they try to persuade people of their worth as they have such a strong feeling of worthlessness.
Winnicot noted that such a person will live a very impoverished life and will be unable to partake in activities that enrich someone’s life. They will constantly be restless with an inability to concentrate and will be unable to dedicate themselves to life-long meaningful pursuits like devotion to a family or career and instead will gravitate towards short-term superficial activities with quick pay-offs – such as sexual promiscuity.
I am grateful to my colleague for sharing those notes with me. Understanding the roots of narcissism and its expressions, helps make sense of what happens.
Understanding is the key to healing.
NB: The featured image is Sebastian by Ivan Cartwright, another of my very talented colleagues. You can check his website by clicking here.