Mother-Daughter Wisdom: Creating a Legacy of Physical and Emotional Health
By Christiane Northrup, M.D.
A child who is raised to believe that she is the center of the universe, that she is entitled to receive everything she wants and can do no wrong, may construct her sense of self very differently from someone who was raised with appropriate amounts of shame and self-restraint: she becomes a narcissist-in-training.
Narcissism gets its name from the Greek myth of Narcissus, who fell in love with his own reflection in the water and pined away when he could not embrace it. The sine qua non of unhealthy narcissism is an overinflated sense of self-love and self-worth coupled with the inability to recognize any flaws. It goes hand in hand with a lack of mutuality, or even curiosity about others. Other people exist only to mirror the narcissist back to herself.
Narcissists cannot accept criticism because they feel they must be "perfect," without any foundation for that belief. If they are criticized, they are crushed, because they feel either superior to others or terrible and worthless. And there's nothing in between.
Excessive narcissism stems, in part, from the failure to accept one's humanity-both the flawed and limited parts as well as the good ones. Narcissists lack the ability to see when they are doing well and when they aren't measuring up. Not surprisingly, narcissistic personality traits are far more common in boys than girls, given our cultural history and preferences.
Do You Know a Narcissist?
Narcissists are particularly impervious to authentic shame. They control negative feedback from the outer world and think that they're "above it all." They are hypersensitive to criticism, but, ironically, very critical of others so as to maintain their "one-up" position, which is why they often appear arrogant and superior.15 Their highest aspiration in life is to look better than others, thus keeping the attention on themselves and their needs.
As a result, narcissistic individuals feel intense anger if criticized when they do something that is insensitive or hurtful to another. But they can't admit their anger because that would make them look bad. If you tell them that they have hurt you, they will look angry-and then often deny it and insist they're hurt and ashamed instead. This shame isn't real, otherwise they'd show remorse by making an effort to change their hurtful behavior. But that almost never happens. Instead, they use pseudoshame or sometimes crocodile tears (a tactic generally, but not always, directed at the opposite gender) to make others feel sorry for them. This gets the heat off them and puts it back on the person who complained about the unskillful or hurtful behavior in the first place!
An empathetic person will be stopped dead in her tracks by this-because she's certain that the narcissist has the same depth of feeling and sense of responsibility that she does. This simply is not true. Although narcissistic people don't feel empathy in the same way as someone with normal bonding and shame circuits, they know how to use empathy to get their needs met at the expense of others. Their crocodile tears "act" is so skillful that others learn never to bring up the subject again.
What the person with normal empathy does is try to put themselves in the narcissist's position and imagine what and how they are feeling. The narcissistic person is actually a "blank screen" onto which a person with empathy projects how they themselves would feel. The empathetic person then makes excuses for the narcissist, assuming that their emotions run so deep and that they've been so deeply hurt that they simply can't go near that painful place within them. That must be why they don't want to talk about or change anything.
This is the story that those in a relationship with a narcissist always tell themselves. It becomes so uncomfortable and so unproductive to be around the emotional manipulation of a narcissist that most people never ask the narcissist to change his or her behavior again. They just go along. The following true story is an illustration of how this can play out.
The Tragedy of Narcissism
Narcissists do not have the ability to care for or "mother" others. This causes enormous suffering in those around them-the ones who pick up the "mothering slack." If a mother is narcissistic, her daughter may well end up mothering her-and may also marry a narcissistic husband whom she must also "mother." If a daughter is narcissistic, chances are good that she will end up overtaxing her mother's empathy and resources-monetary and otherwise-for a lifetime. Sometimes, both mother and daughter are narcissistic, and live in their own isolated little world of entitlement.
On some level, narcissists are truly tragic individuals who teach the rest of us that if we are to find the truth, we have to look beyond appearances. Though they may have a few decades of glory depending upon how good they look, most narcissistic individuals do not age well because their values are only skin-deep. In fact, they tend to fall off the growth curve relatively soon-high school or college. This is because the outer world of work and achievement never grants anyone exclusive status unless they earn it. Because of their inner emptiness and neediness, narcissists never feel the genuine warmth of true partnership with another, or the sense of accomplishment that comes from knowing that you did a job well, even if no one was looking! In the end, we always sow what we reap. And the sooner a child learns this, the happier and more content she'll be.