The label – “Narcissism”

A bit like dissociation, our narcissistic ways are often regarded as one of the “bad boys” of human growth and development; see more on this in human defence mechanisms. This does a disservice to narcissism as well as demonstrating an implicit judgementalism. There is a lot of implicit judgementalism about in diagnosis of behaviour: what about “Borderline Personality Disorder”?!  This is a term almost certainly demonstrating not only prejudice, but also a professional misunderstanding of the nature of the traumatic response, and how it might present in public.

So what use might our narcissistic ‘part’ play? There is a useful, if detailed account available via the Cognitive Analytic website. Here are my own summary thoughts.

In this account, I refer to ‘parts’.  This is a problematic word and it can cause disputes between professionals and, indeed, between professionals and clients. However, it is difficult to invent a proper word that fits the bill. Furthermore, the idea of a ‘part’ is pretty central to psychology – Freud‘s id, ego and superego and Berne’s Parent, Adult and Child being just two models with ‘parts’ that are well know to many. Internal Family Systems is a more modern re-development of parts work led by Richard Schwartz. Also, I’d give mention, as well, to John Omaha’s work on Parts Therapy coming, as it does out of the clinical hynotherapy approach.

So, I am going to ask you to bear with me, and accept that ‘parts’ can be both healthy or unhelpful, even at one and the same time!  I will stop using ‘part’ from now on! Those parts can be very different from one another, and, sometimes, very ‘in tune’ one with another.

The aim of therapy, is to improvement the level of attunement.

So let me say more. In a normal attachment relationship, the small child will gaze into a carer’s eye – as they so often do – and they will see themselves. It is likely that ‘mirror’ neurons in both carer and baby will start to buzz in harmony.  At the risk of being frivolous, do you remember the scene in Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, when the alien spaceship and the Earth scientists found a way to communicate!! Could it be like that?

As the child grows, the intimate relationship can be extended to others. Because we are all different, each relationship that is created is different. Each has a different impact on the psycho-sexual and psycho-social development of the child as it incorporates a representation of each relationship into its growing personality. Where that integration works, then each part can talk, one to another, and the total can remain in harmony, for the most part. The individual will make a (roughly) normal development into adulthood.

However, that process of integration is easily disrupted.

For instance, if that initial gaze into the eyes of a parent (for the most part) does not happen, then the child is not able to see that reflection of itself, let alone feel a ‘connection’ with the carer. In time – that child will find its reflection somewhere else. The obvious place to look is in a mirror – literally or metaphorically. At that point, the child can see only herself. In due time, the child learns self-sufficiency; one based on a growing confidence in his ability to stand alone; to have mastery of the seas and continents.

Most of us know that this mastery is an illusion. Indeed, through the process, the child itself will develop a sneaking suspicion that all is not well; something is missing. The child learns to put that doubt into a box and to keep it separate – hidden from other parts – a secret. Over time, a visible split can develop between the content of that ‘box’ and other parts of ourselves.

Sometimes this split is known to the individual  – it becames a structural dissociation. Other times the split is not so evident and the individual can develop a Dissociative Identifty Disorder (DID). This can be problematic for the ‘client’ and other people in her life.

The US-based National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine (NICABM) have a very clear way of presenting this split:

One obvious split that can emerge is between admiring and contemptuous parts. Here, the admiring/admired part, in which I feel special and admired, fosters omnipotence.  By contrast, the contemptuous part offers a profound devaluation of both the self and others.

The magnifiers that operate to create these conditions – perhaps a special case of catastrophising – can lead to deep feelings of worthlessness and vulnerability. Most of us would find such strong feelings unbearable and so it’s understandable that there is a drive to hide that part away. The tension, however, can manifest in a pervasive anxiety arising from a suspicion that something is wrong. In its strongest form, this tension can manifest in a wish to be invisible; to become a ‘nobody’. This can be accompanied by a sense of failure and we all have experiences from our lives that provide ‘evidence’ of having failed.  It’s not such a long stride to generalise from specific falures to a sense of being a failure.

These tensions are so profound that is difficult to think of the small, safe experiments that might promote change.  Even so, The Transactional Analytic (TA) notion of the Driver can help. All that is said here is likely to manifest in highly ‘driverised’ behaviour. For instance, Be Perfect can set up a tendency to build up conditions of excellence for self or others that are arduous.  When my Be Perfect succeeds, excellence is rewarded by the admiring part.  Given the standard is high, and some failure is almost inevitable, then the Be Perfect is bound to fail; usuallyl with a 0 – 60 mph shift into the contemptuous part. Because the feelings are so strong and unpleasant, it’s possible that the pain will be lessened by creating contempt for others – that, at least, shifts of some of the blame.

The TA perspective is helpful as it identifes ‘antidotes’ to highly driverised behaviour. In the case of Be Perfect, it is: it’s OK to make mistakes. It follows that all the safe experiment information on Affirmations has some part to play in the process of healing – or, in this case, the re-integation of parts.

Another strategy to keep in mind is acceptance of self and others.  ACT is a therapeutic model well able to harness self-compassion. Even so, this assumes we can be respectful of the struggle experienced by the contemptuous part as we acknowledge the validity of any self-compassion, in the first place!

It’s not easy to know what different parts are trying to tell us; often, it is simply easier to put them away or feel they are not remotely helpful. That’s why I would want to be less judgemental about our defence mechanisms. Most are there for a very good reason – even if it is one from way back when.

Return to:


What is a nudge


Defence mechanisms