Traumatic Narcissism
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Traumatic Narcissism

Relational Systems of Subjugation

Daniel Shaw

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Traumatic Narcissism

Relational Systems of Subjugation

Daniel Shaw

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About This Book

In this volume, Traumatic Narcissism: Relational Systems of Subjugation, Daniel Shaw presents a way of understanding the traumatic impact of narcissism as it is engendered developmentally, and as it is enacted relationally. Focusing on the dynamics of narcissism in interpersonal relations, Shaw describes the relational system of what he terms the 'traumatizing narcissist' as a system of subjugation – the objectification of one person in a relationship as the means of enforcing the dominance of the subjectivity of the other.

Daniel Shaw illustrates the workings of this relational system of subjugation in a variety of contexts: theorizing traumatic narcissism as an intergenerationally transmitted relational/developmental trauma; and exploring the clinician's experience working with the adult children of traumatizing narcissists. He explores the relationship of cult leaders and their followers, and examines how traumatic narcissism has lingered vestigially in some aspects of the psychoanalytic profession.

Bringing together theories of trauma and attachment, intersubjectivity and complementarity, and the rich clinical sensibility of the Relational Psychoanalysis tradition, Shaw demonstrates how narcissism can best be understood not merely as character, but as the result of the specific trauma of subjugation, in which one person is required to become the object for a significant other who demands hegemonic subjectivity. Traumatic Narcissism presents therapeutic clinical opportunities not only for psychoanalysts of different schools, but for all mental health professionals working with a wide variety of modalities. Although primarily intended for the professional psychoanalyst and psychotherapist, this is also a book that therapy patients and lay readers will find highly readable and illuminating.

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Chapter 1

The Relationality of Narcissism1

A student attempting a thorough review of the psychoanalytic literature on narcissism might be reminded of the parable of the blind men and their encounter with an elephant: holding its tail, one of the blind men says the elephant is like a long thick rope. Holding its lower leg, another says the elephant is like a tree trunk. Holding … and so on. In a similar vein, analysts of different schools have their particular ways of thinking about narcissism, and they dispatch highly conflicting accounts from the different regions of the same animal they are observing. We need only invoke Kernberg and Kohut to illustrate the point when it comes to narcissism, though many others could be cited.
Narcissism today is a public word in common parlance. When most people talk about narcissism, they are referring to self-centered, vain, exhibitionistic people, people who seek admiration from others, and who make everything about themselves. An astonishing amount of popular psychology and internet chat is devoted to the topic—especially to the ways that narcissists exploit and abuse others and how one can best deal with them, protect one's self from them, and/or get them out of one's life.
When psychoanalysts talk about narcissism, however, we have to take pains to define our terms, of which there are many, and bushwhack our way through a jungle of complexity and contradiction. Are we talking about “healthy,” “normal,” or “pathological” narcissism? Is a narcissist deflated, overinflated, thick- or thin-skinned, overt or inverted? Is narcissism characterized by entitled grandiosity, or by primitive idealization, or both? Is it a line of development of the self, leading in maturity to empathy, wisdom, and humor; or a primitive infantile developmental stage to which schizophrenics regress? Is narcissism more broadly the dimension of mental activity concerned with maintenance of self-esteem? A pathology caused by an excessive endowment of aggression, or envy, or an extraordinary vulnerability to shame, or by traumatic impingements at crucial developmental stages? What about problems with making fluid transitions from subjective to objective states, and back—isn't that characteristic of the narcissist as well? All of the above is the answer, and a great deal more, when we go by the rich, complex, and sometimes contradictory psychoanalytic literature. Another parable, the one about the Tower of Babel, comes to mind.
Seeking to bring clarity and coherence to the subject, at least for psychoanalysts, Stephen Mitchell (1988) rejected the premise that narcissism was simply the result of intrapsychic developmental processes gone wrong. As he did with every psychoanalytic idea he addressed, Mitchell located the origin of narcissistic disturbances firmly in the relational matrix, as a set of personality features influenced by: 1) exposure to cumulative not-good-enough parental responses to the child's developmental needs—particularly those associated with the consolidation of good enough self-esteem; and 2) the not-regulated-well-enough narcissistic vulnerabilities and blind spots of the caregivers. What we experience with our patients that we have traditionally thought of as their narcissistic pathology is more productively understood, according to Mitchell, as repetition of entrenched relational patterns established in development—relational patterns that are very much at the root of the constricted, frustrating scenarios in which our patients are repeatedly finding themselves trapped, and which we and they enact in analytic work.
Grandiosity, the sense of omnipotence, and the tendency toward idealization are the innate human traits which, when severely exaggerated in the personality, are considered by psychoanalysts to be diagnostic of pathological narcissism. Mitchell saw these traits not merely as clinical phenomena on a health/pathology spectrum, but rather as components of universal existential illusions—as needed responses, however illusory, to the vastness of the universe, to our impermanence and unknowable significance within it. If held in flexible, playful contact with reality, these grand illusions could inspire creative, vital modes of living and relating. Rigidly fixed narcissistic illusions, on the other hand, would lead to constricted modes of relating that would interfere with the potential for more real, fuller engagement with real others. How parents, or others equally significant, managed their own narcissistic vulnerabilities, and how they responded to those of their children, would powerfully influence the flexibility or rigidity of the narcissistic tendencies in the developing child.
Mitchell's chapters (1988, pp. 175–234) on narcissism described people wounded by the narcissistic behaviors of their parents, and struggling as adults with painful difficulties of various kinds in work and love. He managed to sidestep the debated-to-death issues of etiology, and empathy vs. confrontation in clinical treatment, and went straight to the purposes narcissistic traits might serve in human development; and to how developmental derailments of self-regulating capacities in this area would create lasting relational difficulties in adult life. Without yet using this language, Mitchell described patients who had experienced cumulative developmental trauma from exposure to the narcissistic tendencies of their caretakers.
In a paper following the publication of Mitchell's work, Emmanuel Ghent (1989) moved further in the direction to which Mitchell had pointed. Ghent wondered:
whether, perhaps, the roots of clinical narcissism lie in some failure to integrate adequately the mode of intersubjective relatedness, a wholly two-person psychological experience, either because the significant others were misattuned, underattuned or unpredictably attuned to this mode of relating. Could it be that people we encounter as patients may, despite being highly experienced in intellectual intercourse or sexual conjunction, nonetheless feel like frightened virgins when it comes to encountering this area of deeply longed for, yet warded off, intersubjectivity? Is it perhaps the deficit in this type of two-person experience that has even led to naming the phenomenon narcissism, an infelicitous term which carries the implication that a one-person psychology is at work? I believe, rather, that the phenomena of narcissism are largely rooted in a two-person psychology, derived in part from earlier senses of self, and in part from defensive operations designed to compensate for deficits in a coherent sense of self.
(pp. 199–200)
In speaking of intersubjectivity, Ghent refers here to the infant research work of Daniel Stern (1985), work that has greatly influenced the rise to prominence of the “relational turn” (Greenberg & Mitchell, 1983) in psychoanalysis—a revolution that has kept the concept of intersubjectivity at the forefront of psychoanalytic theory, at the time of this writing, for more than 30 years. The many pioneering contributors to our understanding of the centrality of intersubjectivity, both in human development and in psychoanalytic treatment, are too numerous to mention here. Those contemporary authors whose work has most influenced my own thinking on intersubjectivity include, but are by no means limited to, Aron (1996), Benjamin (1988, 1995, 1998, 1999, 2004), Bromberg (1998, 2006, 2011), Ghent (1989, 1990), Hoffman (1998), and Mitchell (1988, 1993, 1997, 2000a, 2003a, 2003b). 2
As Auerbach (1993) definitively observes, the old paradigm—of narcissism as an infantile developmental stage that hopefully evolves into relatedness to others—no longer applies, once we take into account the findings of modern infant research: the infant is related from the beginning, and seeks relationship from the beginning. By identifying “clinical narcissism” as a developmental deficit, arising from “deficits in a coherent sense of self,” Ghent does not specifiy the cause of these deficits; but I believe he is suggesting that what has traditionally been referred to as narcissistic pathology originates in developmental trauma. I have come to think of “clinical narcissism” in exactly this way: as the result of cumulative developmental trauma to the capacity for intersubjective relatedness, particularly in the area of mutual recognition. What this means is that from a relational psychoanalytic perspective, narcissism can be understood as both traumatic and traumatizing, as follows:
the developmental traumas that engender narcissism are transmitted intergenerationally;
the central trauma in the genesis of narcissism is chronic, insufficiently repaired failures on the part of caregivers to support the developing child's needs for recognition as a separate subject;
these chronic failures of recognition thwart the child's achievement of the capacity for intersubjective relatedness;
most often, these chronic failures arise as a result of narcissistic disturbances in the parent.

Intergenerational Relational Trauma

One of the many gifts psychoanalysis has received from the prolific post-Bowlby wave of attachment theory research was a key finding of Fonagy et al. (1991), a finding bolstered by painstaking research, beginning with Main et al. (1985). They demonstrated that mothers and fathers who were able to be reflective and coherent in relating the narrative of their own attachment experience were three to four times more likely to raise securely attached children than were those parents whose narratives were unexamined and dissociative. This means that if one's own attachment trauma is dissociated, the chances of passing along insecure or disorganized attachment experience to one's own child are high. If, however, one's attachment experience was traumatic but is not dissociated, one is much less likely to pass along insecure attachment to the next generation.
This finding is a gift in many ways. For example, it has been a comfort to many an expectant parent I have worked with who was frightened about traumatizing her child, in the same ways she was traumatized as a child, to learn that her efforts to retrieve her own attachment narrative from dissociation could make it much less likely that her own child would not be able to attach securely. For analysts, the findings of Fonagy et al. provide compelling evidence confirming that trauma theory applies to developmental, or relational trauma, which can be transmitted intergenerationally, especially if dissociated.
Even without the illuminating benefits of modern infant and attachment research, among the original group of Freud's followers, no one recognized the centrality of relational trauma in understanding psychopathology more keenly than Ferenczi. In his long suppressed, extraordinary final paper, “Confusion of Tongues” (Ferenczi, 1933/1980), Ferenczi did much more than point to adult sexualization of children, rather than infantile sexuality and fantasy, as a cause of serious psychological damage the child carries into adulthood. Ferenczi went further, identifying the complex, cumulative emotional trauma the child who is neglected and/or abused experiences in the context of the developmental relationship. He went on to describe how parents project their disavowed guilt (and shame) on to the child; and how resentful they were, no matter how well masked, of the child's dependence on them—because of their own disavowed wishes to be the focus of attention and care. He recognized that such parents dissociatively take advantage of the child's instinctive willingness to “introject” the guilt and shame the parent disavows. The child, Ferenczi understood, does this by becoming self-blaming, self-loathing, and self-sacrificing. He becomes the caretaker of the parent, while dissociating the awareness of his own needs, along with his concomitant grief and rage about feeling abandoned and exploited.
Pretty much everything we know about attachment trauma and its lasting impact is there, in root form, in Ferenczi's final paper. He also describes the narcissist parent, to a tee, though not by that name. The confusion of tongues Ferenczi observed, when the boundaries differentiating adult passion from childhood tenderness are violated by adult caregivers, is one of the grossest possible examples of parental narcissism. Aside from understanding the profoundly confusing, exciting, humiliating, and terrifying feelings of the child who is sexually abused by an adult, Ferenczi points to another layer of trauma involved in such violations: the utter failure of the parent to recognize who his child actually is and what the child actually needs. Instead, the child is sexualized and told that it is she, the child, who has caused the sexualization. This catastrophic misrecognition and misattribution is an extremely destructive and cruel rejection and betrayal of the actual child—the child whose links to her own subjectivity are being destroyed, and replaced by the projections of the abuser. 3

Recognition and Intersubjectivity

Recognition is another word in common parlance, which in relational psychoanalytic theory takes on depth and complexity from its link to the fundamental developmental processes observed in contemporary infant research. In one of Jessica Benjamin's 4 earliest seminal writings on the subject of recognition, she offers a list of near synonyms that capture what she means by the term:
to affirm, validate, acknowledge, know, accept, understand, empathize, take in, tolerate, appreciate, see, identify with, find familiar, … love … What I call mutual recognition includes a number of experiences commonly described in the research on mother-infant interaction: emotional attunement, mutual influence, affective mutuality, sharing states of mind.
(1988, pp. 15–16)
Benjamin asks, in her elaboration of concepts drawn in part from Hegel and Winnicott, how do two people “make known their own subjectivity and recognize the other's?” (1998, p. xii). Bringing the importance of this deceptively simple question into sharper focus, she cites philosopher Richard Bernstein:
Reciprocity must … be preserved as a condition of conceiving the ethical relationship, in which, as Bernstein (1992) says, both self and other “stand under the reciprocal obligation to seek to transcend their narcissistic egoism.” For “without a mutual recognition of the Aufgabe [task/obligation] of searching for the commonalities and precise points of difference, without a self-conscious sensitivity of the need always to do justice to the other's singularity … we are in danger of obliterating the radical plurality of the human condition” (p. 75).
(Benjamin, 1998, p. 100.)
In this model of mutuality, there is an understanding that both parties are supported and enhanced when they consciously attend to striking a reciprocal balance between giving and taking. But mutuality is not a simple achievement, nor is it easy to sustain without effort. As Benjamin shows, the “shadow” of intersub-jective recognition and relating is complementarity: the sadomasochistic, domination-submission dynamic of “doer—done to” (Benjamin, 2004). Relating in this mode, each person fears the loss of superior power, and insists on the supremacy of their own subjectivity. Each becomes locked in to the conviction that they are the victim of the other, each feeling they must negate the other, or be negated. One dominates, the other submits, then the other one dominates, and the other one submits … ad nauseaum. Giving and taking is now based not on good will and gratitude, but on strategic calculations aimed at maintaining dominance, and, at the deepest level, aimed at preventing being destroyed by the other—being the destroyer, not the destroyed. Failure of mutual recognition represents a collapse of intersubjectivity that Benjamin likens to a kind of death. “Just as Freud posited an inherent conflict in intrapsychic life between eros and death,” Benjamin (1999) wrote,
so [we can] posit an inherent conflict in intersubjective life between eros and narcissism, recognition and omnipotence. The tension that we ideally imagine between these continually breaks down and has to be accomplished over and over (p. 202) … It is the constantly renewed commitment to restoring … intersubjectivity that allows us to get beyond a struggle of your meaning versus my meaning, to a sense of working together to transcend complementarity in favor of mutual recognition.
(p. 208)
Benjamin is careful to highlight here that we cannot perfect an ideally intersubjective position and then live happily ever after in a Utopian relational world. Recognition is a “constantly renewed commitment” we make, working together, creating a dialogue with our others—parents with children, spouses, siblings, colleagues, teachers with students, analysts with patients—that moves us toward mutual liberation from the tendency to seek power and control through negation of the other, out of fear of otherness.
Where the capacity for intersubjective relatedness has failed to thrive, traumatic exposure to parental narcissism has often been a key factor. Narcissist parents, as Miller (1981) pointed out in work that was groundbreaking at the time, relate to children with the expectation that the child will serve more or less exclusively as a gratifying object, for which the child is rewarded. But the child is punished—i.e., unrecognized—for her efforts to assert her separate subjectivity. The development of the mode of intersubjective relatedness can become a site of trauma as a result of the narcissist's pervasive negation of the child's sense of being a subject in her own right, and the system of rewarding the child's willingness to serve as the parent's object, while punishing the child's emerging subjectivity. For the developing child, the ...

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