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Narcissism - the underlying pain of narcissistic wounding

5 December 2023

“Narcissism is a condition in which a person does not love himself.”

  • Thomas Moore

 Today the word narcissism and narcissist is thrown around a lot, mostly as an insult. 

But often we fail to understand the pain of the early ‘narcissistic wounding’ that underlies narcissistic behaviour. We only see the outward behaviour of selfishness, treating other people as objects, a lack of vulnerability. 

 In this post I refer to a ‘narcissistically wounded person’ rather than ‘narcissist’, as I think that sometimes the latter has become a loaded description that lacks empathy. Ironically, the dismissiveness that I associate with the use of ‘narcissist’ is also the kind of dismissiveness that some who is narcissistically wounded uses towards others.

 It is also important to recognise that many of us have experienced some form of narcissistic wounding growing up and may display some narcissistic tendencies. This post is mostly focused on those whose narcissistic wounding was severe and who therefore struggle a lot as adults with their relationships.

 First, it’s important to understand that there is a difference between ‘healthy’ narcissism and, what we might call, toxic narcissism. It is the latter that we usually think of when someone uses the word. It has become a way of judging and criticising people who we perceive as selfish, arrogant or entitled. 

 But in psychology narcissism is an important stage that infants go through as part of their development. From about age two to age three or four the child needs to develop a sense of ‘I’, a sense of self. In this stage everything is about them and that is appropriate. It is only after this ego has begun to develop that the parent can gradually help the child understand that there are other people in the child’s world, who may have different needs and feelings.

 If this stage can be handled well enough the child grows up with a healthy sense of self, a healthy narcissism one could say. The individuals is able to have a healthy sense of self and also be aware of, and responsive to, other people’s needs and feelings.

Narcissistic wound

 But when this early developmental stage goes wrong the child experiences a ‘narcissistic wound’ and grows up feeling, deep down, insecure about their worth. This feeling of insecurity is pushed down, often out of consciousness, and replaced with a ‘false self’ or compensatory self. The false self strives to be admired, to be successful, to be loved. 

 The narcissistic wound occurs to some form of self-expression by the child, when the child is not allowed to express who he or she truly is. Either they are expected to behave in a way that is beyond their capability, they are ‘inflated’. Or, alternatively, their behaviour is treated as ‘too much’ and they are put down. Either way, the message the child receives is that they must behave differently to what feels natural in order to be accepted, that their ‘ordinary’ self is somehow unacceptable. 

 A not uncommon situation is for one parent to idealise the child, to ‘inflate’ them and the other parent behaves in the opposite way by humiliating or putting down the child. In some cases where the mother, disappointed in her partner, transfers all her energies onto the child and he or she becomes ‘special’ and the object of all her attention. The father, meanwhile, resents this and responds by humiliating the child.

 Both inflating the child and humiliating them are ways of not allowing the child to develop a healthy sense of sense. The message the child receives is, ‘I must change myself in order to be accepted’. The child then loses touch with their authentic self and begins to live the ‘false self’ because they learn that this is what expected of them. 

 There is a black hole at the centre of their self that narcissistically wounded people experience. Or rather they protect themselves from feeling this black hole, often by perfectionism. If they over achieve or impress others then they don’t have to confront that internal emptiness. This drive for admiration can help some narcissistically wounded people excel in their chosen fields. They can have high levels of drive and charisma.

 But it is in their personal relationships that the narcissistic wounding always makes itself felt and they find it incredibly difficult to develop healthy and intimate relationships with others. After all, it’s impossible for someone to constantly admire and validate the narcissistically wounded person and any challenge or criticism is usually experienced as an attack. Intimate relationships are also difficult because intimacy is not possible without vulnerability. The false self does not usually allow genuine vulnerability because that would feel dangerous and put the person in touch with the disowned vulnerability of childhood.

Brittle false self

 Because the narcissistic false self can be brittle, a major set back in life can send the narcissistically wounded individual into crisis. Sometimes the depth of despair evoked by the collapse of the false self can result in suicidal feelings.

 The narcissistically wounded person often splits people into ‘good’ or ‘bad’ - in other words replicating their original treatment of being idealised or put down. This is an example of psychological splitting. But the individual’s idealisation of certain people is inevitably followed by disillusionment when those people turn out not to be perfect.

 According to Stephen M. Johnson, in his book Character Styles, there is ‘that nagging sense pressing for awareness, ever greater with age, that there is more to life than this. In those moments when when the defences are dropped, the narcissist sees that others do see and hear and feel one another.

 He adds: ‘In that realisation, and in that envy, there are the seeds of the narcissistic transformation.’

 Therapy can help in that gradual transformation. But it can be a long journey in which the individual is able to re-connect with his or her deeper self. It takes patience, determination and a willingness to feel the pain, rage and grief that is associated with the renunciation of one’s deeper self.