FAQ  #25
The Development of the Narcissist

by Dr. Sam Vaknin

How will a narcissist that is overly and overtly attached to his mother react to her death?

We are born with abilities of the first order (abilities to do) and of the second order (potentials, abilities to develop abilities to do). The environment, though, is critical to the manifestation of these abilities. It is through socialisation and comparison with others that we bring our abilities into full fruition and put them to use. We are further constrained by cultural and normative dictates. Generally speaking, four conditions are present as we develop:

  1. We possess an ability and society recognises and encourages it the result is a positive reinforcement of the capacity.
  1. We possess an ability but society is either indifferent to it, or outright hostile to it, or does not recognise it as such. Weak persons tend to suppress the ability as a result of social (peer and other) pressures. Stronger souls go on with it, defiantly, adopting non-conformist, or even rebellious stances.
  1. We have no ability and yet society tells us otherwise we usually succumb to its superior judgement and develop the talent in question.
  1. We have no ability or talent, we know it and society informs us as much through its reactions to us. This is the easiest case: no propensity to explore the irrelevant capacity will develop.

Parents (Primary Objects) and, more specifically, mothers are the first agents of socialisation. It is through his mother that the child explores the answers to the most important existential questions, which shape his entire life. How loved one is, how loveable, how independent can one become, how guilty one should feel for wanting to become autonomous, how predictable is the world, how much abuse should one expect in life and so on. To the infant, the mother, is not only an object of dependence (survival is at stake), love and adoration. It is a representation of the "universe" itself. It is through her that the child first exercises his senses: the tactile, the olfactory, and the visual. Later on, she is the subject of his nascent sexual cravings (if a male) a diffuse sense of wanting to merge, physically, as well as spiritually. This object of love is idealised and internalised and becomes part of our conscience (Superego). For better or for worse, it is the yardstick, the benchmark. One forever compares oneself, one's identity, one's actions and omissions, one's achievements, one's fears and hopes and aspirations to this mythical figure.

Growing up (and, later, attaining maturity and adulthood) entails the gradual detachment from the mother. At first, the child begins to shape a more realistic view of her and incorporates the mother's shortcomings and disadvantages in this modified version. The more ideal, less realistic and earlier picture of the mother is stored and becomes part of the child's psyche. The later, less cheerful, more realistic view enables the infant to define his own identity and gender identity and to "go out to the world". Partly abandoning mother is the key to an independent exploration of the world, to personal autonomy and to a strong sense of self. Resolving the sexual complex and the resulting conflict of being attracted to a forbidden figure is the second, determining, step. The (male) child must realise that his mother is "off-limits" to him sexually (and emotionally, or psychosexually) and that she "belongs" to his father (or to other males). He must thereafter choose to imitate his father in order to win, in the future, someone like his mother. This is an oversimplified description of the very intricate psychodynamic processes involved but this, still, is the gist of it all. The third (and final) stage of letting go of the mother is reached during the delicate period of adolescence. One then seriously ventures out and, finally, builds and secures one's own world, replete with a new "mother-lover". If any of these phases is thwarted the process of differentiation is not be successfully completed, no autonomy or coherent self are achieved and dependence and "infantilism" characterise the unlucky person.

What determines the success or failure of these developments in one's personal history? Mostly, one's mother. If the mother does not "let go" the child does not go. If the mother herself is the dependent, narcissistic type the growth prospects of the child are, indeed, dim.

There are numerous mechanisms, which mothers use to ensure the continued presence and emotional dependence of their offspring (of both sexes).

The mother can cast herself in the role of the eternal victim, a sacrificial figure, who dedicated her life to the child (with the implicit or explicit proviso of reciprocity: that the child dedicate his life to her). Another strategy is to treat the child as an extension of the mother or, conversely, to treat herself as an extension of the child. Yet another tactic is to create a situation of "folies-a-deux" (the mother and child united against external threats), or an atmosphere suffused with sexual and erotic insinuations, leading to an illicit psychosexual bonding between mother and child. In the latter case, the adult's ability to interact with members of the opposite sex is gravely impaired and the mother is perceived as envious of any feminine influence other than hers. The mother criticises the women in her offspring's life pretending to do so in order to protect him from dangerous liaisons or from ones which are "beneath him" ("You deserve more"). Other mothers exaggerate their neediness: they emphasise their financial dependence and lack of resources, their health problems, their emotional barrenness without the soothing presence of the child, their need to be protected against this or that (mostly imaginary) enemy. Guilt is a prime mover in the perverted relationships of such mothers and their children.

The death of the mother is, therefore, both a devastating shock and a deliverance. The reactions are ambiguous, to say the least. The typical adult who mourns his dead mother usually is exposed to such emotional duality. This ambiguity is the source of our guilt feelings. With a person who is abnormally attached to his mother, the situation is more complicated. He feels that he has a part in her death, that he is partly to blame, responsible, did not behave right and to the utmost of his ability. He is glad to be liberated and feels guilty and punishable because of it. He feels sad and elated, naked and powerful, exposed to dangers and omnipotent, about to disintegrate and to be newly integrated. These, precisely, are the emotional reactions to a successful therapy. The process of healing is, thus, started.


This information was written by:

By: Dr. Sam Vaknin
The author of Malignant Self Love -
Narcissism Revisited ORDER

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