The Development of the Narcissist
Frequently Asked Question # 25
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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). Our 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, we are faced with four scenarios as we grow up:
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 one becomes, 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 (as his 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 becomes 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 his conscience (Superego). For better or for worse, she is the yardstick, the benchmark against which everything in his future is measured. 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 entails the gradual separation from one's 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".
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Thus, 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) and is, therefore, unavailable. He must thereafter choose to imitate his father ("become a man") in order to win, in the future, someone like his mother.
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 successfully completed, no autonomy or coherent self are achieved and dependence and "infantilism" characterise the unlucky individual.
What determines the success or failure of these phases in one's personal history?
Bonding and attachment in infancy are critical determinants and predictors of well-being in adulthood. A small minority of children are born with dysfunctions – such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder or Asperger’s Disorder – which prevent them from properly bonding with or attaching to the primary caregiver (mother, in most cases). Environmental factors - such as an unstable home, parental absenteeism, or a disintegrating family unit - also play a role and can lead to the emergence of Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD). Toddlers adapt to this sterile and hostile emotional landscape by regressing to an earlier phase of unbridled self-sufficient, and solipsistic primary narcissism.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, 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 dedicates 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 shared psychosis or "folie 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 this, 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. Such a mother is frequently critical of 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 - ambivalent emotional reactions. Even a "normal" adult who mourns his dead mother is usually exposed to such emotional duality. This ambivalence is the source of great 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 to blame, somehow responsible, that he could have done more. 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. With the death of his mother, the narcissist's embarks on a process of healing.
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