The Sad Havoc Created by Narcissism

by Joseph Nicolosi, Ph.D. and Linda Ames Nicolosi

The narcissistic parent loves the child in his own way, yet he interferes with the child’s uniqueness.  The child may then unconsciously choose to reject his own gender.

Narcissistic people are often well-intended, even benevolent. Yet they create havoc in the lives of the people around them.

Your first encounter with such a person may leave you charmed, yet you will also come away feeling strangely dissatisfied and irritated.  There is a vague perception of having been taken advantage of, and “used” —  yet you can’t quite put your finger on what caused that feeling.  

All of us have some narcissistic features.  But we are speaking here about the person for whom narcissism is the primary, organizing character trait.

Children of narcissists

The narcissistic parent “loves” the child in his own way, yet he unintentionally steals the child’s uniqueness. The child becomes, for the parent, an object for gratification. When the child expresses something unique about himself, if it doesn’t gratify the image the parent has for the child, the parent will either react negatively, or not react at all.  

This message is conveyed nonverbally and goes “under the radar” of conscious awareness. 

The messages are conveyed in four ways—facial expression, vocal tone, body language and context.  For an example of context, a boy comes home from school, and happily announces to his mother that he got an A on an exam, and the mother says, “Are you hungry?” The boy mutters no, and quietly goes to his room.  Somehow he feels deflated, but can’t put his finger on why.  The mother’s asking “Are you hungry?” unconsciously communicates the unimportance, for her, of his achieving something that he (but not she) values. To the sensitive child, her reaction conveys devaluation, diminishment, and becomes a shame moment. 

Narcissistic people are often charming, and within five minutes of meeting such a person, you may have the feeling that you have known them all your life—  there is an instant sense of familiarity; they make you feel good about yourself, but you are walking into a trap. One could say “they flatter your pride before they strike”; but “pride goeth before a fall.”

As an example of the “deflation” that narcissists cause, a young couple came to me who had had been trying to adopt a child from overseas; finally, they were approved for the adoption of the child they had been waiting for. The couple could not wait to have lunch with her mother to announce the good news, and she eagerly accepted their invitation. When the woman told her mother that a child would finally be coming home with them, the mother clapped her hands joyfully and cried, “I knew it, I knew it…  I had a feeling, just the other day I had a dream..I can’t believe it, I think I’m psychic.”  The young couple looked at each other across their chicken salads, feeling strangely deflated.  This special event had somehow become about Mum.

Narcissism is a handicap which limits a person’s full participation in the emotional give-and-take of life. There is a “vampire” quality of sucking the dignity out of the other person.  Even when he does give, before very long, he will bring the focus back to himself and how the other person’s actions make him feel.  This overshadows the narcissist’s ability to experience true, lasting empathy for the other. 

Yet accurate empathy is essential to our humanness.  Our ability to feel the other person’s feelings, to attune ourselves to another’s pains and passions, demonstrates the essence of our humanness. Thus the narcissist is deprived of the community of life. Usually, he is blind to his character flaw—  “I am so generous; why don’t they want to be with me?”

The narcissist does not, in fact, feel very good about himself; his spontaneous, authentic self was likely not affirmed by his own (also narcissistic) parent.  His gestures and words are studied; the improvisational nature of normal human give-and-take is stylized. How he appears to others is a subject that can never be far from his mind.

When narcissists reach old age, losing their looks and their sources of pride and power, they are angry, depressed and bitter.  They are left alone by family members and wonder why.  They spend their final days mulling over a litany of resentments toward loved ones who, in order to protect themselves, have learned to avoid them.  They are trapped in the living hell of self-reference which, for a time—when things were going their way—was gratifying, but which eventually comes to feel like wandering around in a hall of mirrors.

The “withholding/introverted” type of narcissist

“John” is a highly intelligent engineer, but not a particularly emotional man. He has been very successful in his field but is not popular wth his colleagues.  He does not have the charming personality of the giving/extroverted type of narcissist.  But John is very high-functioning; his home and business are well-run and he is known as reliable and competent. Conversation with him is, however, vaguely annoying; if a colleague mentions something new he has done, or a place to which he has just travelled, John remains quiet until he has an opportunity to tell the speaker a story of his own that it makes him feel good to relate. (Hearing of someone else’s good fortune is vaguely annoying to him.)  A young undergrad at a social gathering of student engineers reported enthusiastically that he had just been to Tahiti.  John’s sole response to the student was his: “Now, that’s the one country I haven’t seen yet!”

When he visits his grandkids, John always wants to be sure he “has fun.” He prefers not to have to babysit when his daughter and son-in-law actually need him; but when he does babysit and things go well, he reports, by way of description of the event, it “felt good.” 

When a new grandchild comes, the first news he relates is something like “I’ve got a red-haired granddaughter!” or “I’ve got a second grandson!” instead of conveying news to the family about how mother and baby are doing. He describes the child in terms of what features it has that look like his own—  “He has my feet.”  “He has my eyes.” At family gatherings, John is sure to be the first one to reach the buffet table with his own plate. 

Those of his children who interest him are the ones that present an attractive image; one daughter was especially beautiful when she was born and became his obsession for two years; when she outgrew her babyish cuteness, he “dropped” her and then immersed himself totally in a new obsession—  becoming physically fit. But a couple of years later, when he gained thirty pounds and had stopped jogging, he completely stopped talking about health and fitness. 

His son was, at that time, doing Iron Man Triathlons himself, but the young man knew that fitness had now become a “taboo” subject with his father, and that if he talked to him about his own success, hearing about it would unconsciously make his father “feel bad.” Besides, John had moved on to a new obsession that was dominating every moment of his life—  building an experimental airplane. John sent pictures of every phase of the project to every person on his email “contacts” list, most of whom, unknown to him, simply deleted the photos without opening them.

Janie, a “giving/extroverted” narcissist:  “The Cat”

Janie doesn’t have naturally good facial features, but she takes advantage of every beauty technique in the book to make a stunning impression on people.  She dresses like a fashion model, and it takes her an hour to put on her makeup just to go out for dinner at a hamburger joint. When you first meet Janie, she is charming and seems very interested in you.  When she shows up at your house for dinner, she will be dressed “to the nines” and will be holding an extravagant bouquet, which she will spend ten minutes telling you about, before she relinquishes it. Janie will also laugh heartily at all your jokes, will drink heartily (you needn’t feel bad if you get a bit drunk, because she will match you, glass for glass) and you will be sure that you have found a charming new friend to invite to your cocktail parties.

But as you get to know Janie better, you will realize that it is your ”job” to make her feel good about herself. She does not have conversations with people, she “holds court” with long monologues.  Even the men in the group will be forced to listen to a long, detailed story about the bargain she just snagged at Costco. In fact, these aren’t so much conversations, as self-talk; one gets the impression that Janie is a big Persian cat, rubbing itself on your leg in order to feel good. She pauses at appropriate moments in this self-talk to wait for praise.

Janie is glamorous, fun-loving, and accomplished; her smile is made for the camera—  tightly drawn back, with teeth held together just at their tips, Hollywood-style. When you are invited to her house for dinner, no matter how far you have driven and how tired and hungry you are, before you are offered a drink or a chair, you will first be given “the tour” of her home decor.  

If you neglect to praise her living-room color scheme or choice of artwork, her husband (who knows his role well, after years of living with Janie) will dutifully prompt you to do so. You will see a whole room of photos, which give the immediate impression of a close-knit family circle, but you will only hear about the son who is a lawyer (he is gay, but she will not mention that), and not the angry daughter who never calls home. A second son is “in” with Janie right now (he has no career, which previously put him “out” with her), but he has just married a girl from Italy, and Janie recently developed a fascination with all things Italian (before that, it was “all things French”).

Janie has been married four times, always to a star-struck man who she can control. Her children know that, despite intermittent lavish displays of attention and reassurances of their specialness, the relationship is ultimately about how they make her feel. The gay son has a hostile-dependent entanglement with her and calls her every weekend; he knows that she at once “adores” him and sees him as “special,” yet doesn’t (and never did) truly “see” him. The other two children rarely call home. 

When Narcissists become parents

It is very hard for a narcissist to be a good parent to a child who is less than picture-perfect. The parent’s point of view of self-reference causes the child to grow up distrusting his own perceptions, because his perceptions were never accurately reflected; the attunement, or “mirroring” by the parent was skewed.  All the child’s assertions were tentative, subject to the parent’s response.  Children of severely narcissistic parents don’t know who they are; they lack an intrinsic sense of self and they remain externally focused, continually seeking social cues to determine the validity of what they think and feel. 

With a same-sex parent who is critical and shaming, the child may unconsciously reject the gender of that parent, because to do so, would bond the child to a negative identification object. To protect his separateness and individual integrity, he must assert himself as “other than” the parent. 

Or, when the narcissistic parent is of the opposite sex— for a boy, when she is the mother—he may never be able to develop an erotic attraction to a woman, because he perceives women as emotionally destabilizing, intrusive and emasculating. (His platonic female friends are an exception to this situation.)

Such is the background of a considerable number of our homosexual, bisexual and transgendered clients, many of whom have substance-abuse or porn addiction problems which they use to manage their sense of internal dis-regulation. 

We get suggestive illustrations of this family pattern from reading the autobiography of Chastity Bono, who first thought she was a lesbian, and later decided she was a man; and the biographies of several other public figures including actor Montgomery Clift, who was bisexual, and Olympic swimmer Greg Louganis, who is gay. We also see this pattern illustrated in the play “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” by Tennessee Williams, a much-celebrated (homosexual) playwright who was thought to be writing autobiographically.