One recurring theme I’ve noticed from reading a lot of writers on the subject of psychoanalysis is the idea that the human personality is relational, rather than an isolated, self-developing thing. A person is best understood in terms of how he or she interacts with and is influenced by the other people he or she is in regular contact with. The most crucial contacts one has for one’s development are, of course, one’s parents/primary caregivers and one’s (more usually elder) siblings.
Object relations theory is all about how one introjects imagos of one’s parents; we carry these imagos inside our psyche, like ghosts haunting a house, and they influence how we perceive the world, regardless of whether or not the imagos are an accurate representation of the early people we were in contact with as infants or children. These imagos help form psychic bridges between ourselves and our social environment, and are crucial parts of our personalities. The positive or negative energy that our primary caregivers send across those bridges to us cause us, in turn, to send positive or negative energy right back across to them, then it comes back to us again, and is sent back from us again, back and forth, and back and forth, throughout our lives.
When those early caregivers/influencers are loving and kind, they inspire us to be similarly good to others; when they are cruel and abusive, we learn to be cruel and abusive to others. After years of being bullied and psychologically abused by my siblings, along with my inability to fight back (for it’s in the nature of bullies not to allow you to fight back), I had a huge store of inner rage, all that negative energy that needed to be vented; so, when I became an English teacher to Taiwanese kids, the boys–whose pre-teen awkwardness reminded me of when I was an awkward, patience-trying boy–ended up being on the receiving end of all that rage.
I know intellectually that I shouldn’t be taking out my frustrations on those kids (the way my siblings shouldn’t have taken the rage they got from our parents all out on me, and the difference between my siblings and me is in how I recognize what I’ve done is wrong, whereas they don’t recognize their own wrongdoing), but to this day, I still find it a challenge to refrain from blowing up at them from time to time, for such is the nature of my poorly-built psychic bridges, my ‘mental programming’, if you will. So, you see, the importance of setting up the best psychic bridges that we can for children cannot be overstated.
In the self psychology language of Heinz Kohut, these good, empathic psychic bridges are called self-objects, in particular, early caregivers who provide an empathic response to childhood grandiosity and exhibitionism, encouraging it and letting it down in ways appropriate to whatever phase of development a child may be in at a given moment. For children must learn to deal with disappointments and reduced narcissistic gratification in amounts that they can bear.
When the self-objects fail to provide that needed empathy, the child experiences traumatic disappointments, causing his or her narcissistic energy to fail to be incorporated into a psychic context of healthy, realistic self-esteem. Instead, the child’s self-concept splits: there’s a horizontal split, with much of the narcissistic energy repressed–pushed down–into the unconscious; also, there’s a vertical split, with much of the narcissistic energy disavowed–pushed over to the side, as it were. The remaining core ego puts on the mask of an unassuming, genial personality, a likeable False Self to fool the world into thinking the pathological narcissist is a normal person.
For my part, I tend to modify Kohut’s ideas where it seems appropriate, necessary, and defensible. Now, please remember, Dear Reader, that I am no authority on these matters; I merely dabble in psychoanalysis and have no formal training in it. All I’m doing here is giving my personal opinions, so take them with a generous dose of salt. Don’t take them as gospel.
Part of my modifications of Kohut includes my belief that the vertical split/disavowal of narcissistic energy includes projecting the grandiosity onto other people; this projecting often goes as far as to lapse into projective identification. If the pathological narcissist can cause his or her victim–ideally, a sensitive type whose empathy and sweetness are things the narcissist envies–to manifest the grandiosity and self-centredness projected from the narcissist, he or she then can feel ‘cured’ of the pathology, the demons are exorcized, as it were, and the narcissist can then feel comfortable in his or her False Self, deluded that the mask worn is his or her real face. I believe my late mother victimized me in this exact way.
So this split in the narcissist’s personality is a kind of dialectical split between hidden narcissistic grandiosity and an outward display of fake modesty.
The narcissist’s psychic bridges must be examined, too. We’ve already considered his or her grandiose self; now we must look across to the other side of the bridge of the bipolar self–his or her idealized parent, and how that parent’s imago influences the narcissist’s personality.
The lack of empathy the child suffered caused an injury to his or her grandiose self; that injury carries across to the other side of the bridge, causing a split image of the parent, between the idealized, all-good parent and the hurtful, empathy-denying bad parent. Healthy people, who have realistic self-esteem and recognize the coexistence of good and bad in themselves, also see the good and bad coexisting in their parents, for the psychic bridge reflects parallels of parents and children on both sides; hence, narcissists have a split of outward good (grandiosity) and secret self-hate, as well as a split of outward good seen in their parents (idealized parent imago) and a secret, unacknowledged resentment of the bad sides of their idolized parents.
I believe the preceding paragraph describes the personalities of my brothers R. and F., and especially my sister J., with respect to their own repressed/disavowed grandiosity, hidden behind a ‘respectable’ collective False Self, and to their idealizing of our late mother. She, in turn, had the same repressed/disavowed grandiosity for herself, as well as the same idealizing of her parents, especially her father, who died when she was a child, traumatizing her and not allowing her the opportunity to experience optimal frustration in him, which would have lead to a realistic sense of his strengths and faults.
Freud’s notion of the Oedipus complex needs to be modified, in my opinion, to mean not merely the love of the opposite-sex parent and the hate of the same-sex one (or, for that matter, in the case of the inverted, or negative, Oedipus complex, hate of the opposite-sex parent and love of the same-sex one), but rather an expanded notion, incorporating a mixture of love and hate for both parents. We all love Mom and/or Dad sometimes, and at other times we would love to kill both, or as least one, of them.
So these psychic bridges, with oneself on one side and one’s parents/primary caregivers/siblings on the other, are also like mirrors into which we see those primal people as reflections of ourselves (if you’ll indulge my piling of simile onto simile, Dear Reader). However we love or hate those other people is a reflection of how we love or hate ourselves; positive or negative energy is sent back and forth across the bridges.
Narcissists outwardly display grandiosity and excessive self-love while idealizing their parents; inwardly, though, they hate themselves and secretly resent their parents’ failed empathic responses to their childhood exhibitionism.
Failed parenting doesn’t necessarily result in narcissism: that tends to be the case for golden children, but what of scapegoats like me? To understand our psychic bridges, I recommend an examination of the ideas of WRD Fairbairn.
Fairbairn created his endopsychic structure, a relational model based on a libido of object-seeking (i.e., seeking out other people for love and friendships), to replace Freud’s inappropriately drive-based personality structure of id, ego, and superego. Freud thought it was all about a will to pleasure; Fairbairn thought it was all about a will to relationships, to connection with others.
So instead of Freud’s ego, we have Fairbairn’s similar concept of the Central Ego, linked to an Ideal Object (the link is the ‘psychic bridge’, as I call it). The id is replaced by the far-from-identical Libidinal Ego, psychically bridged with the Exciting Object; and the superego is replaced by the even-more-different Anti-libidinal Ego (formerly, the Internal Saboteur) and its Rejecting Object.
Everyone has all three configurations, according to Fairbairn, even the healthiest people, those whose Central Ego and Ideal Object, a seeking out of real relationships in the external world, is the dominant of the three. The less healthy we are, though, because of the poor empathy we got from our parents, the more predominant are our Libidinal Ego/Exciting Object (the urge to seek out pleasure in inappropriate, internalized, fantasied objects–idolizing of movie/pop/sports stars, consumption of pornography, etc.) and Anti-libidinal Ego/Rejecting Object (aggression and hostility towards other people).
The more predominant these latter two configurations are, the more of a ‘schizoid’ (i.e., split, fragmented–NOT to be confused with schizophrenic, though such could be the case in extreme cases) personality one has (Fairbairn, page 4). Here, the psychic bridges between oneself and others are damaged or broken.
Melanie Klein borrowed Fairbairn’s use of the word ‘schizoid’ (or, rather, he and she borrowed from each other) to describe these broken people in her use of the term ‘paranoid-schizoid position‘ to describe the hostility a baby (or, by extension, a son or daughter of any age) may feel towards his or her frustrating ‘bad mother‘ (Klein, page 3). Her contrasting term, the ‘depressive position’, describes the saddened state a child is in after fearing the loss of the temporarily-absent mother (after his hostile phantasies of hurting or killing her for having frustrated him), then wishing for reparation with her, a mending of the broken or damaged psychic bridge between him and his mother.
Some of us, like me, can never mend these broken bridges. Some of us were so severely emotionally abused, by Cluster B parents who were unrepentant right up to the grave, that we’ll never get that reparation with them. And if our siblings were the pathological parents’ flying monkeys, they will be every bit as impenitent as our parents. The psychic bridges between us and these primal people will always be damaged, if not irreparably broken; so we’ll need to establish bridges with a new set of people to replace them, new good objects to fill in the holes that the old bad objects broke into our bridges.
It should be a no-brainer to understand that the human personality is relational, based on bridges between oneself and one’s parents/primary caregivers/elder siblings, these elder people having related with one right from one’s birth, as opposed to younger people, or those one meets later in life, and who therefore haven’t had as foundational an influence on oneself.
Unfortunately, there are many who can’t grasp this idea, preferring to regard people as having a good or bad personality because they were ‘born that way’, instead of brought up that way. These people, like my elder siblings, for example, imagine a person to be an isolated particle of existence, as it were, generating himself with minimal, if any, influence from other people. My elder siblings have deluded themselves in this fashion, as did my mother, to evade taking responsibility for how their emotional abuse and bullying made me the man I am today, one who refuses contact with them.
To be sure, I must take responsibility for many of my faults: my wife, who has been only a good psychic bridge for me, has every right to complain of my faults. But one’s personality is more of a wave, a vibration connected with all surrounding vibrations, than a mere particle (to continue with the simile of the last paragraph) disconnected from everyone and everything else. Everything that I am, at my core, is the result of the pernicious influence of my mother, with her lies, gaslighting, and triangulating to ensure I’d never be friends with R., F., and J. These damaged primal psychic bridges ensured I’d go through life with mostly damaged relationships with other people.
My separation from that family gave me a chance to start again in my life here in East Asia, where I’ve made bridges with people on the other side who are kind, loving people. These are the good objects Klein and Fairbairn wrote of, rather like an adult version of a transitional object, in human form, that can link us with the external world in a healthy way. These are Kohut’s empathic self-objects, who give the needed mirroring to us damaged people, to help us build self-love.
If you are in relationships with people who give you damaged or broken psychic bridges, you must get out of those poisonous relationships as soon as you can. You must also mend what’s wrong inside yourself, either through therapy, or through self-compassion, self-care (I recommend ASMR, hypnosis, and meditation), and a greater awareness of how your own hostilities and aggressiveness to others (inspired, no doubt, by your abusers) stops you from building new bridges with others.
Remember, we people are not islands, cut off from each other and generating our own faults. If you’ll indulge more of my similes, Dear Reader, we are like the waves of the ocean, flowing into each other and affecting each other in ways we barely even notice. If someone is in a bad psychological state, he probably wasn’t ‘born that way’, he was probably raised that way.
W.R.D. Fairbairn, Psychoanalytic Studies of the Personality, Routledge, London, 1952
Melanie Klein, Envy and Gratitude and Other Works 1946-1963, The Free Press, New York, 1975