Increasingly, the use of narcissism as a slur has become commonplace, especially in social media. "You're a narcissist! You only care about yourself!" The claim of narcissism often comes when individuals present with the following behaviours, as outlined by Dentale et al. (2015):
- emotional instability;
- fragile self esteem;
- superiority; and
However, while most people display these characteristics to some degree, what Dentale et al. (2015) delineate is healthy narcissism vs. pathological (or unhealthy / problematic) narcissism.
In addition to possessing the above characteristics in an elevated capacity, pathological (unhealthy) narcissists have the two following, intensified long-term characteristics:
- 1. Grandiosity, as defined as an exaggerated self-esteem; and
- 2. Exhibitionism and vulnerability, as defined as having a fragile / low self-esteem and emotional instability.
As a result of these above characteristics, pathological narcissists will often engage in behaviours that deny the needs of others and use others as a complimentary figure (or a "prop") for their own self-esteem. And as research indicates (Dentale et al., 2015), the underlying fear of narcissism is a deep, usually unconscious, belief of being inadequate and vulnerable to blame and rejection.
However, my clinical work focuses on the individual - the person using their therapy time to discuss the impact of the social narcissist - and what their relationship with a narcissist might reveal about them; often an unidentified history of narcissistic parents.
As discussed by Rappoport (2005), narcissist parents are characterized by individuals with the following:
- - blaming;
- - easily offended;
- - interpersonally rigid;
- - often intrusive in some ways while entirely neglectful in other ways (e.g., the child is punished if they do not respond adequately to the parents' needs);
- - self-absorbed;
- - struggle with others-directed empathy; and
- - very low self-esteem.
Punishment by the narcissistic parent includes:
- - angry outbursts;
- - attempts to instill guilt;
- - blame;
- - criticism in pursuit of enforcing compliance;
- - emotional withdrawal; and
- - physical abuse.
The result is that children often become "co-narcissists" as a coping mechanism in order to accommodate pathological narcissist parents (Rappoport, 2005). These co-narcissists often:
- - are unaware of their own feelings, needs, and experience;
- - defer to others' opinions;
- - fear being considered selfish if they act assertively;
- - find it hard to know their own views and experiences;
- - frequently assume blame for interpersonal problems;
- - frequently fade into the background;
- - often feel depressed;
- - work hard to please others; and
- - worry about how others feel about them.
Due to the tendency for only one person (psychologically) to exist in a narcissistic dynamic, as Rappoport (2005) explains, the co-narcissist will respond in one of three ways to manage themselves:
- 1. Identification: The child mirrors the narcissistic characteristics of the narcissistic parent in order to defend their own self-esteem. An example of this: A parent whose self-esteem depends on the child's academic achievement will value / devalue the child in relation to their academic accomplishments.
- 2. Compliance: The child becomes an approving audience by complying with the self-esteem needs of the narcissistic parent. For example: The child will periodically support the narcissistic parent's need for emotional validation by telling the parent how thankful the child is for all the support they offer while the child minimizes their own needs so as not to become the target.
- 3. Rebellion: The child behaves in opposition to the narcissistic parent by unconsciously refusing to submit to the parent's self-serving demands. For example: The child of a parent whose self-esteem depends on the child's academic achievement will perform poorly in school, despite their evident academic capabilities. Through rebellion, the child acts in a self-defeating manner in pursuit of maintaining a sense of independence.
As it pertains to rebellion, I often think of how the character Christina Crawford (Diana Scarwid) is portrayed in her role as daughter to Joan Crawford (Faye Dunaway) in Mommy Dearest (1981) during Joan's attack toward Christina for not loving Joan -
Joan Crawford: Why can't you give me the respect that I'm entitled to? Why can't you treat me like I would be treated by any stranger on the street?
Christina: Because I am NOT one of your FANS.
...And the physical fight ensues...the culmination of which is a form of self-defeating behaviour as it entrenched Christina as the target for her mother's pathological narcissism.
Based on Rappoport's (2005) research, psychotherapeutic treatment for a co-narcissist must involve principles of Rogerian Therapy (i.e., accurate empathy, interpersonal warmth, unconditional positive regard, and personal genuineness) in support of active contradiction of the co-narcissist's childhood experiences - to helping them determine how safe they are not to accommodate the behaviours to the therapists' imagined needs and be able to express themselves freely.
In closing, therapy is most effective and meaningful when the primary focus is on the patient rather than the other. Next time you find yourself thinking "Wow - this person is narcissistic!", consider whether you have an unidentified history of parental narcissism and explore whether you have unconsciously slipped into a co-narcissist role and resorted to rebellion as a way to cope with the person's narcissistic tendencies.
Dentale, F., Verrastro, V., Petruccelli, I., Diotaiuti, P., Petruccelli, F., Cappelli, L., & San Marini, P. (2015). The Relationship Between Parental Narcissism and Children's Mental Vulnerability: The Mediation Role of the Rearing Style. International Journal of Psychological and Psychological Therapy, 15 (3), 337-347. Retrieved 23 October 2023 from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/280102005_THE_RELATIONSHIP_BETWEEN_PARENTAL_NARCISSISM_AND_CHILDREN'S_MENTAL_VULNERABILITY_THE_MEDIATION_ROLE_OF_THE_REARING_STYLE
Rappoport, A. (2005). Co-Narcissism: How We Adapt to Narcissist Parents. The Therapist. Retrieved 23 October 2023 from https://www.sakkyndig.com/psykologi/artvit/rappoport2005.pdf
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