Narcissistic abuse

Narcissistic abuse

Narcissistic abuse is a term that emerged in the late twentieth century, and became more prominent in the early 21st century. It originally referred to a specific form of emotional abuse by narcissistic parents of their children - parents who 'require the child to give up his or her own wants and feelings in order to serve the parent's needs for esteem (narcissistic abuse)'[1] - but has also come to be used more widely to refer to forms of abuse in adult relationships on the part of the narcissist.

Self-help culture currently takes for granted that 'if you were abused by narcissistic parenting as a child, you probably struggle with codependency' now; while if as an adult you 'are currently or have been in a relationship with a narcissist, you probably struggle with...not knowing what is "normal" in relationships'.[2]



Antecedents: Ferenczi

The roots of current concern with narcissistic abuse may be traced back to the late work of Sandor Ferenczi. 'In Ferenczi's fervid and restless and inchoate attempts to help people over whom other analysts had thrown up their hands in despair lie the seeds of all the modern psychoanalytic theories of "schizoid," "narcissistic," and "borderline" disorders'.[3]

In his seminal paper "Confusion of Tongues Between Adults and the Child", Ferenczi argued that 'a mother can make a lifelong nurse, in fact a substitute mother, out of the child by bewailing her suffering, totally disregarding the interests of the child'.[4] Within such distorted patterns of parent/child interaction, 'Ferenczi believed the silence, lies, and hypocrisy of the caregivers were the most traumatic aspects of the abuse' - ultimately producing what he called 'narcissistic mortification'.[5]

Ferenczi also looked at such distortions in the therapist/patient relationship, 'accusing himself of sadistic (and, implicitly, narcissistic) abuse of his patients'.[6]

Kohut, Horney and Miller

A half-century later, in the wake of 'Kohut's innovative pronouncement...[that] the age of "normal narcissism" and normal narcissistic entitlement had arrived'[7] - the age, that is, of the normative parental provision of narcissistic supply - the concept of its inverse appeared: narcissistic abuse. 'According to Kohut, maternal misrecognition amounts to a failure to perform the narcissistic selfobject functions of "mirroring"...the cause of a narcissistic disturbance'.[8] Paternal misrecognition could produce the same result: Kohut explored for example a son's 'transference reproaches directed at the nonmirroring father who was preoocupied with his own self-enhancement and thus refused to respond to his son's originality'.[9]

Karen Horney had already independently highlighted 'the character disorder - particularly the compulsive striving for love and power - resulting from the childhood hurts bred of parental narcissism and abuse. She thus heralded today's work in this area by Alice Miller and others'.[10]

'Alice Miller lays special emphasis on the process of reproduction of narcissistic abuse, the idea that love relations and relations to children are repetitions'[11] of previous narcissistic distortions. Miller's early work in particular was 'very much in line with Kohut's tale of deficits in empathy and mirroring', with a stress on the way adults 'revisit and perpetuate the narcissistic wounds of their own early years'[12] in an intergenerational cycle of narcissistic abuse. In Miller's view, when 'abused for the sake of adults' needs', children could develop 'an amazing ability to perceive and respond intuitively, that is, unconsciously, to this need of the mother, or of both parents, for him to take on the role that had unconsciously been assigned to him'.[13]a

Wider developments

Miller's work, in its emphasis on the real-life interaction of parent and child, 'challenged the orthodox Freudian account of Oedipal fantasy, in a sustained indictment of the moral and pedagogical underpinnings of the therapy industry'; and did so at a point when 'the keyword of the 1980s was invariably "abuse"'.[14]

With the passing of time (and of the polemical edge), a more slimmed-down, pragmatic version of the concept of narcissistic abuse gradually came to permeate most of the wider culture of psychotherapy.

  • C21st Transactional Analysis has highlighted clients who 'suffered some narcissistic abuse as children (that is, an injury to their developing selves)', examining for instance the boy in an all-female household who only 'survived by developing powerful emotional antennae in order to respond to the emotional needs of his mother and sister'.[15]
  • Post-Jungians have explored the after-effects of 'an intense narcissistic wound resulting from an oppressively unempathetic parent'.[16] In particular, Polly Young-Eisendrath emphasises how 'the narcissistic longings of mothers (or fathers) to amass reflected glory through their children...can bring disastrous results for mother and child if both lose their capacity for autonomous development'.[17]
  • Object relations theory for its part stresses both that 'the most traumatizing experience of all is the absence of emotional giving from a mother or father', and that, in an intergenerational pattern, 'people who have been brought up by tyrannical authoritarian parents will often parent their children in the same way'.[18] Adam Phillips adds that 'the mother who colonizes her child and stifles gestures of autonomy and difference breeds in him or often unconscious craving for the dead-end justice of revenge'.[19]
  • In another tradition, Julia Kristeva points out how a pairing of 'mothers and fathers, overprotective and uneasy, who have chosen the child as a narcissistic artificial limb and keep incorporating that child as a restoring element for the adult psyche intensifies the infant's tendency toward omnipotence'.[20]
  • M. Scott Peck looked at 'milder but nonetheless destructive common forms of parental narcissism', as well as 'the depth of confusion...produced by her mother's narcissism'[21] in a more serious instance.
  • The term has also appeared in connection with parental alienation syndrome, in situations where 'by role reversal (parentification) the child, like a "living antidepressant" fills the alienating parent's emotional void': the result is that 'the parent clings to the child like a person who is drowning..."narcissistic abuse"'.[22]

Only in the Freudian heartland of mainstream psychoanalysis has the term retained a more restricted, pre-Ferenczi usage. Thus in a "comprehensive dictionary of psychoanalysis" of 2009, the only appearance of the term is in connection with misuse of the couch for narcissistic gain: 'The fact that it is seen by some patients and therapists as a "status symbol" lends it to narcissistic abuse'.[23]

Adult relationships

Narcissistic abuse may also occur in adult-to-adult relationships, where one or both partners are very narcissistic - the 'narcissistic couple'.[24] As a typical rule, 'narcissistic people do not take responsibility for relationship difficulties', and their relationships can often be characterized by 'a period of intense involvement and idealization of the other, followed by devaluation, and rapid, sometimes explosive, severing of the relationship'.[25]

If 'the core of narcissism is a hatred of the of the way that narcissism operates is to destroy separateness'.[26] This lack of separateness enables the initial romantic gestures of what has been termed 'a particular type of male bastard', dominated by narcissistic needs; but 'those big romantic gestures that at first proved so alluring are in fact the whole deal, symptomatic of these men's needs to show off and be the centre of attention'.[27]

In almost the same way, 'the great charm of narcissistic women has, however, its reverse side; a large part of the lover's dissatisfaction, of his doubts of the woman's love, of his complaints of her enigmatic nature, has its root' in the fact that 'strictly speaking, it is only themselves that such women love with an intensity comparable to that of the man's love for them'.[28]

Crompton suggests that (rightly or wrongly) 'in Sam Vaknin's terms...if he had been around today, Watson would be declaring to the world that he was the victim of narcissistic emotional abuse from Sherlock Holmes'.[29]

See also


  1. ^ James I. Kepner, Body Process (1997) p. 73
  2. ^ "Narcissistic Abuse Recovery"
  3. ^ Janet Malcolm, Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession (London 1988) p. 134-5
  4. ^ Ferenczi, "Confusion", in J. M. Masson, Freud: The Assault on Truth (London 1984) p. 293-4
  5. ^ Martin S. Bergmann, Understanding Dissidence and Controversy in the History of Psychoanalysis (2004) p. 162
  6. ^ John E. Gedo, The Language of Psychoanalysis (1996) p. 97
  7. ^ James Grotstein, "Foreword", Neville Symington, Narcissism: A New Theory (London 1993)p. xiii
  8. ^ Lior Barshack, Passions and Convictions in Matters Political (2000) p. 37
  9. ^ Heinz Kohut, How Does Analysis Cure? (London 1984) p. 183
  10. ^ Janet Sayers, Mothering Psychoanalysis (1991) p. 18
  11. ^ Barshack, p. 37
  12. ^ Henry Sussman, Psyche and Text (1993) p. 83-4
  13. ^ Alice Miller, The Drama of Being a Child (1995) p. 152 and p. 9
  14. ^ Lisa Appignanesi & John Forrester, Freud's Women (2005) p. 472-3
  15. ^ H. Hargaden/C. Sills, Transactional Analysis (2002) p. 131
  16. ^ Andrew Samuels, Jung and the Post-Jungians (London 1986) p. 228
  17. ^ Polly Young-Eisendrath, Women and Desire (London 2000) p. 198
  18. ^ Neville Symmington, Narcissism: A New Theory (London 1993) p. 79 and p. 75
  19. ^ Adam Phillips, On Flirtation (London 1994) p. 106
  20. ^ Julia Kristeva, Black Sun (New York 1989) p. 61-2
  21. ^ M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Travelled By (1990) p. 175-7
  22. ^ R. A. Gardner et al, The International Handbook of Parental Alienation Syndrome (2006) p. 200
  23. ^ Salman Akhtar, Comprehensive Dictionary of Psychoanalysis (2009) p. 60
  24. ^ Symington, p. 32
  25. ^ G. David Elkin, Introduction to Clinical Psychiatry(1999) p. 171
  26. ^ Symington, p. 18
  27. ^ Simon Crompton, All about Me (London 2007) p. 68-9
  28. ^ Sigmund Freud, On Metapsychology (PFL 11) p. 82-3
  29. ^ Crompton, p. 33

Further Reading

  • Alice Miller, The Drama of the Gifted Child (1979)
  • Steven Stosny, Treating Attachment Abuse (1995)
  • Estela Welldon, Mother, Madonna, Whore: The Idealization and Denigration of Motherhood (1988)

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