Pawn in Mirror
by Dr. Danna Bodenheimer, LCSW, author of Real World Clinical Social Work: Find Your Voice and Find Your Way
One of the most disorienting and destabilizing dynamics that we face in relationships is to be intimately involved with someone who has narcissistic tendencies. While being engaged with narcissistic personality disorder renders powerful difficulties, handling any narcissistic characteristics is tricky business.
First, let’s start with the origins of the story of Narcissus, a character in Greek mythology. Narcissus was proud of his capacity to hate those who loved him most. In response to this, Nemesis took Narcissus to a pool of water, where he fell in love with his own image. He fell so in love with his image, in fact, that he never left the reflection - actually dying in the act of staring at himself. While superficially it would seem that he was enamored with his own gaze, the more underlying truth of the story is that he lost touch with who he was when he looked away. He was not able to maintain a steady sense of self without a clear reflection staring back at him.
In the story of Narcissus, we are introduced to a familiar character. This is a character we all have in our lives, whether as a client, a supervisor, or a parent. We have archetypes of Narcissus all around us, because narcissists are simply people whose developmental needs were not met. For people to develop a solid and steady sense of self, they require environmental mirroring. Basically, what that means is that for someone to figure out who they are, they need to see reflections of themselves in others. For example, if a child falls and gets hurt, that child needs to hear, “Oh, that looks like it really hurts.” If the pain is ignored, it is nearly impossible to modulate and make sense of it. Or, let’s think of someone who has an internal sense of same sex attraction but sees no one who is gay around them. It becomes very troubling to develop an understanding of one’s own feelings without data around oneself to help support what is happening inside.
Not everyone who has not been properly mirrored becomes a narcissist. But it does help to understand that most narcissists have had a developmental disruption that compromised their developing sense of self. And as a result, their ability to relate becomes terrifically compromised. Because no one has a pool like Narcissus did, offering an impeccable reflection, other resources are sought out to provide this reflection. These other resources are invariably people. Individuals with narcissistic tendencies rely on others to inform their understanding of who they are. Rather than forming three-dimensional relationships, people who are narcissistic tend to use others for reflective purposes. This means that you are used most powerfully when you provide a satisfying and soothing reflection. You become most useless when the reflection that you provide disappoints the narcissistic person’s perception of who they are.
Individuals with narcissistic tendencies, basically, function in a constant crisis around their self-esteem. Rather than being driven by attachment, which many of us are, more narcissistic folks are driven by the wish to experience a stable sense of worth. And their sense of worth, because it is so underdeveloped, is something that they are always searching to regulate. Like those who permanently have their finger on a thermostat, narcissists use others to turn the temperature up or down, depending on how they are feeling at any given moment.
The impact that this has on the person who is working with or interacting with a narcissist is what truly needs to be honored and recognized. This is because some of our most painful relational interactions occur when interfacing with someone narcissistic. There are some primary ways in which this pain is inflicted.
One of the most predictable ways in which someone narcissistic self-regulates is through the defense of projective identification. Projective identification occurs when narcissistic people siphon off a part of themselves that they hate, that disrupts their sense of self, and lodges this part of them into your own mind or psyche. For example, let’s say you are seeing a doctor who struggles with narcissism. The doctor feels unsure of what they are doing and can’t tolerate that feeling. The doctor will self-regulate by disavowing this sensation and somehow send it into the psyche of the patient. The patient then becomes overwhelmed by feelings of incompetence, starts to stutter, and feels as if they don’t know what to say next. The doctor leaves the appointment feeling oddly confident, and the patient feels like a fool. It is almost impossible to say when the moment of transaction occurs, but it does. And it occurs most easily when there is a pre-existing vulnerability to whatever feeling the narcissist wants to shed. This is particularly true in an established power dynamic, like the doctor and patient in this example.
The term gaslighting captures an abusive phenomenon that typically occurs between narcissistic individuals and the people who are most attached to them. It is a tactic by which victims are left to question their own perceptions of reality, when the scripts gets flipped and the events that have occurred are re-authored by the narcissistic member of the dyad. Typically, what occurs is that an upsetting transgression takes place. For example, someone is walked in on when naked or someone’s journal is read. When the victims of these intrusions voice discomfort about what has occurred, they are somehow confused that the occurrence is their fault. Narcissists will argue that the door was unlocked and it seemed like an invitation or that the journal had to be read because of how insecure they were feeling in the relationship.
It is nearly impossible for people with narcissistic tendencies to take responsibility for their actions. It seems to invariably be the fault of the other. However, this does not mean that the narcissistic person won’t try to right their wrongs. It is just that this will only occur when it makes narcissists feel better about themselves and improves their self-esteem in that exact moment. Typically, apologies take the form of grand gestures, almost serving as the pool of reflection in which Narcissus first studied his own image.
Part of why those of us who have close relationships with narcissists feel so confused about our experiences is because those with narcissistic characteristics are typically well and widely liked. Our experiences of them completely confound us when we see how they are viewed in more public settings. Individuals with narcissistic tendencies know how to seduce others, make others feel amazing and heard, and have inarguable charisma. Unfortunately, these characteristics only sustain themselves insofar as they help the narcissists regulate their self-esteem. In more private interactions, without a group to reflect the desired need for grandeur, the sense of self collapses and the people closest to the narcissist suffer the backlash.
Narcissism feels important to talk about at this particular moment because it is all around us. It is certainly being seen in politics and on the public stage. Further, with increased pools of water (meaning Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook), the reliance on reflection to refine one’s sense of self is quite powerful right now. Also, in starting new placements, recognizing the potholes of working with narcissists is an essential self-care strategy that will help you sustain your energy over time.
Simply put, narcissism is a by-product of arrested development and under-recognition at critical times in the evolution of one’s sense of self. It can be remedied, but it is very difficult to do. The more that an authentic version of the narcissist’s internal world is understood and loved, along with their true desire for affection and affirmation, the more possible it is for them to develop beyond acting out harshly or erasing the psychological experiences of others.
By seeing that there is tenderness and vulnerability behind the vicious veil that narcissism can often wear, we can help the need for the veil to diminish. This diminishing is the direct result of being loved and seen, but cannot occur if we hate ourselves in the service of this love.
Dr. Danna R. Bodenheimer, LCSW, is in private practice at Walnut Psychotherapy Center in Philadelphia, PA, and teaches at Bryn Mawr College Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research.Read more of her clinical insights for new social work professionals in her book, Real World Clinical Social Work: Find Your Voice and Find Your Way.