[NOTE: please read the second and third paragraphs from this post before continuing. Important–don’t skip reading them!]
The development of pathological narcissism can in some ways be connected to the irresolution of the Oedipus complex, for as Don Carveth has noted, this complex is a narcissistic trauma. Still, we must first clarify what the Oedipus complex really is; a brief explanation of other psychoanalytic concepts helpful in understanding narcissism (a more detailed exploration can be found here, if what’s written below is frustratingly obscure) will be made below, too, before I get into a discussion of how my family conflicts can be seen as an example of narcissism based on Oedipal envy and jealousy.
The best way to understand the Oedipus complex is in a metaphoric sense–far more than just Freud‘s literal, primitive conception of wanting to remove the rival, same-sex parent and wanting to possess the opposite-sex one (or, in the case of the negative Oedipus complex, children loving the same-sex parent and hating the opposite-sex one). The desire for the one parent doesn’t have to be sexual, incestuous; and the hostility to the other parent doesn’t have to involve murderous phantasies. The child simply doesn’t wish to share the desired parent with a rival; he wants that parent all to himself.
Furthermore, as I’ve touched on elsewhere, the desire and hostility don’t each have to be reserved for only one parent or the other; a child typically has a love/hate relationship with both parents, based on his or her acceptance of what Melanie Klein called the “good” and “bad” mother and father aspects of both parents, understood when the child has developed a sense of ambivalence for them, derived from the depressive position, a resolution of the black-and-white splitting from the earlier paranoid-schizoid position.
Anyway, the Oedipal situation is best understood as a narcissistic relationship we all, as little children or infants, had with an idealized parent and the rival other parent, who annoys the child by drawing Mother’s attention away from him or her. Usually the ideal parent is the mother, idolized by little boys and girls–these latter kids during the pre-Oedipal phase–because the mother usually has more access to, and (unfortunately, due to sex roles and the patriarchal family) responsibility for, the babies than the father has.
This narcissistic period occurs in what Jacques Lacan called the Imaginary Order, sparked by the mirror stage, when an infant sees his or her mirror reflection for the first time, then conceives him- or herself as a coherent, unified being (as opposed to the spastic, fragmentary body the infant otherwise perceives himself to have). The reflected image is an idealized self–just as the mother’s smiling face, which the baby sees as a metaphorical mirror reflection of itself, is the face of an idealized person the child imagines to be an extension of itself, rather than an independent being in her own right, with her own needs and desires.
The notion of the mother as an extension of the baby is intensified since, as Wilfred Bion observed (and expressed with his idiosyncratic terminology), the baby needs the mother to provide her ability to think for it and process its outer stimuli (beta elements), because the baby doesn’t yet have a developed thinking apparatus. The mother is a container, holding all the upsetting, frightening external stimuli for the baby (the contained) in a state of maternal reverie, then transforming the baby’s pain, anxiety, etc. into a pacifying form it can accept (alpha elements), and returning it to the baby.
This, according to Bion, is how Knowledge (K) develops for the infant, a transferring of energy back and forth, from infant to mother and back again (container/contained), via projective identification; acquiring knowledge, however, may be desired or feared. (Bion observed this of Tiresias in the Oedipus myth, when the blind prophet was reluctant to tell King Oedipus that he was responsible for his father‘s death, and that he had married and committed incest with his mother. Read more here, pages 45-49.)
A narcissistic mother, already lacking in empathy, may not be all that willing to help her babies grow in knowledge through reverie and Bion’s notion of containment, thus causing the babies’ anxieties not to be processed and soothed, but rather to be turned into a nameless dread; the frustrated baby thus, in self-defence, limits its acquiring of knowledge (-K) from what it perceives to be the “bad mother.” The narcissistic mother would rather have her children dependent on her than be independent in knowledge.
This building-up of knowledge exclusively through the mother (or, by extension, the infant’s Oedipally-desired, male or female primary caregiver), can thus be a bad thing if this desired caregiver is the baby’s more-or-less only window to the world, barring the intervention of a third party (Father, or by extension, the rest of society) to round out and give nuance to the child’s experience of the world. The child thus never matures or fully leaves Lacan‘s narcissistic Imaginary Order to enter the Symbolic Order, to acquire fluency in the language and shared symbols of society, and thus fit into society.
In a similar vein, Heinz Kohut wrote about how the infantile narcissistic state is composed of two poles: 1) the idealized parental imago, an image of the loved parent (what Kohut called a self-object to satisfy narcissistic needs, or to validate and affirm the ego’s narcissistic self-image), which is introjected and felt to be an internal object inside the child’s mind; and 2) the boastful grandiose self, which can be related to Lacan’s narcissistic ideal-I from the mirror stage. If these two poles’ effectiveness in building psychological structure for the child are compromised (e.g., because of an unresolved Oedipal conflict), he or she could develop pathologically narcissistic traits as an adult.
Since the mirror doesn’t have to be a literal one (i.e., the infant–looking at his mother’s loving face [see Homer, page 24]–can see a symbolic mirror reflecting both his ideal, grandiose self and his idealized parent, an extension of himself via projective and introjective identification [container/contained]), we can see how Freud, Lacan, Bion, and Kohut can be fused. This is the self/other dialectic, the human personality as understood in a relational sense with other people, the psychic bridges between us all.
So, the Oedipal relationship with (usually) the mother is one of mirroring narcissism back to the child and of giving narcissistic idolatry to the desired parent. The problem for the child is that this two-way, mirroring relationship can’t last forever. As the child gets older, he or she must come to accept that the prized parent has desires for someone else (the other parent, a boyfriend/girlfriend, etc.). The parent can’t belong exclusively to the child, and this traumatizing disappointment must be gotten over.
Most of us can get over this, to at least a reasonable extent, hence our infantile, childhood narcissism is let down tolerably, bit by bit (optimal frustration), and reduced to socially acceptable levels by the time we reach adulthood. Some people, on the other hand, because of some arrest in their childhood development, never sufficiently resolve this Oedipal trauma; these people grow up with pathological levels of narcissism, and throughout their lives need people to mirror their grandiosity back to them in the form of narcissistic supply.
I believe my mother suffered such unresolved traumas when she was a child, having been born in England two years before the Blitz, which–even if the bombings hadn’t happened in the city or town she, as an infant, had been in at the time–at least would have exposed her to a great level of parental stress in her immediate environment.
More significantly for her, though, would have been the death–several years later–of her father, to whom she’d have had a great Oedipal attachment, him being her metaphorical mirror when she was a little girl in the 1940s. Finally, her move with her widowed mother to Canada, by the 1950s, would have ripped her away from the–to her–idyllic, Edenic world of her origins, and put her in a strange new world she’d have found difficult to adjust to at such a tender, young age.
Because of these disruptions in her childhood development, she would have needed to fill in the voids where empathic mirroring was supposed to be. I believe she would eventually use my dad, my siblings, and me to fill in those voids, either to mirror her grandiose self back to her (i.e., my sister, J., her golden child, her idealized self), or to have people onto whom she could project the hated parts of herself (me–the scapegoat, or identified patient–and her nephews, L. and G., and eventually S., too, as I’ve explained in previous posts). To an extent, even my dad got scapegoated (whenever he displeased or disappointed her, which was frequent); so when he took me under his wing when I was a kid, the rest of the family blackballed me all the worse.
If Dad and I were mirroring each other, Mom was getting all that much less of a mirroring from me, causing her narcissistic injury. Narcissists are known for their wish to hog all the attention to themselves, so anyone taking any of that coveted attention away is seen as a rival to be envied. A key personality trait of people with NPD is envy: envy of others as well as a perception that others envy them, something easily interpreted as projected envy.
I believe that my mother’s envy of Dad’s ‘usurping,’ if you will, of some of that attention was part of her motive to fan the flames of jealousy that my brothers, R. and F., felt when Dad seemed to favour me over them. Their jealousy would have been a manifestation of their unresolved negative Oedipal feelings toward Dad; the same would apply to my sister, J., in her Oedipally-inspired jealousy. The Oedipal situation is all about narcissism, family rivalry, competition for love, and therefore, jealousy.
Jealousy differs slightly from envy, in that the former involves a fear of losing someone’s love to another person (this was my siblings’ problem); whereas envy involves irritation over one person having some kind of advantage, something or someone the envier lacks, thus making the envious one want to hurt the object of his envy (Mom’s problem).
I believe Mom envied the attention I gave to Dad, so she set up two camps in the family: those who were ‘loyal’ to her (my three siblings), and those who were ‘disloyal,’ Dad and me; this division into camps was the basis of much of the needless conflict in our family. While much of my father’s grumpy, authoritarian nastiness was due to his excess adherence to conservative values (his slavery to tradition), I believe a lot of his adversarial nature came from his bitterness in having married a narcissist, all while lacking the psychological vocabulary to give expression to his frustrations (one of Dad’s many bigotries was his hate of psychiatry, which he believed spawned many social ills).
So, by pushing R., F., and J. to focus their attention on Mom, to mirror her grandiosity back to her, and by punishing them if ever they failed to do so, Mom was causing my siblings to have–at least to a significant extent–an insufficiently resolved Oedipal conflict, a conflict she exploited to her advantage. They idolized her, felt a guarded hostility to Dad (criticism of him was allowed to a point; criticism of Mom was taboo, with rare exceptions), and tormented me for daring to do what they’d been forbidden to do: to have roughly equal proportions of affection and hostility for both parents.
I’m not saying R., F., and J. felt only negative feelings for Dad: a certain, circumscribed amount of affection for him was seen by Mom as not only acceptable, but appropriate and expected (after all, we had to maintain the public image of being a ‘good, loving family’). A similarly limited love was doled out to me by all of them, ‘as appropriate.’ J., as the golden child, was especially obligated ‘to love’ me.
The conflict that my mother promoted was also meant to stay within certain ‘acceptable’ limits. Mom was at least partly responsible for having failed to resolve the mid-1970s conflict between Dad and teen R. over the relative triviality of his bad grades at school. I speculate that she may have, in fact, helped escalate the conflict leading to teen R.’s leaving home; it’s all described in more detail here–scroll down about a third to halfway into it; read there also about his ranting to me, years later, of Dad supposedly loving J. and me more for having gotten better grades in school…Oedipal jealousy. Mom thus had to be careful not to let family fights escalate into physical violence, or into any of us, still underage at the time, running away from home.
Hence, Mom tolerated anyone verbally abusing me, but drew the line at physical violence (i.e., when she knew F. had perpetrated it); also, Mom’s use of the autism lie on me (read about that here) could have been partially motivated by a wish to ensure I’d be too scared to run away from home, she having implied that I was ‘too mentally incompetent’ to be able to take care of myself.
The family was fond of scorning me as some kind of overgrown child. But if I’m right about this repressed, unconscious Oedipus factor as the basis for so much of my conflict with Mom and my siblings, as well as their conflicts with each other and with Dad (all those unresolved Mommy and Daddy issues), we now can see who in my family, deep down, were the truly childish ones.
R., F., and J. were in a perpetual competition to see who was the ‘worthiest’ of Mom’s love, never realizing that conditional love isn’t love at all. They based their (and my) worth on how much of Mom’s love we had ‘earned’ (in earlier posts–some of which are among the links given above–I gave many examples of my siblings implying they’d ‘earned’ a love I hadn’t). Their sense of emotional stability, self-confidence, and ability to function normally in the world was based on the comfortable, flattering illusion of that love. I saw through the family’s bullshit, and they shame me for daring to have that Tiresias-like insight, Bion’s K, which they are probably still too afraid to uncover.
Wilfred R. Bion, Learning From Experience, Maresfield Library, London, 1962
Heinz Kohut, The Analysis of the Self: A Systematic Approach to the Psychoanalytic Treatment of Narcissistic Personality Disorders, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1971
Sean Homer, Jacques Lacan, Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, London, 2005
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