The Narcissist as Eternal Child and Youth
By: Dr. Sam Vaknin
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"Puer Aeternus" – the eternal adolescent or youth, the sempiternal Peter Pan – is a phenomenon often associated with pathological narcissism. People who refuse to grow up strike others as self-centred and aloof, petulant and brattish, haughty and demanding – in short: as childish or infantile.
Childhood involves the acquisition of new skills and adaptation to change. Modern life continuously challenges us to do both and thus we remain in a perpetual state of “infancy”. But, while a normal adult seeks to confront these challenges head on, the narcissist is hell-bent on avoiding and evading them.
Pathological narcissism is a reaction to prolonged abuse and trauma in early childhood or early adolescence. The source of the abuse or trauma is immaterial - the perpetrators could be parents, teachers, other adults, or peers. Pampering, smothering, spoiling, and "engulfing" the child are also forms of abuse.
In an abusive environment, the child finds it difficult to assert his personal boundaries, to separate from his parents, and to individuate. Consequently, it chooses either of two solutions: to internalize and introject the abuser (to become a monster), thereby siding with the strong and winning party – or to remain a child forever, thus securing empathy, compassion, and pity in a heartless, hostile universe. The typical narcissist is unusual in that it chooses to adopt both solutions at once and is, therefore, simultaneously a monster and a child.
The narcissist is a partial adult. He seeks to avoid adulthood. Infantilisation – the discrepancy between one's advanced chronological age and one's retarded behaviour, cognition, and emotional development – is the narcissist's preferred art form. Some narcissists even use a childish tone of voice occasionally and adopt a toddler's body language.
But most narcissist resort to more subtle means.
They reject or avoid adult chores and functions. They refrain from acquiring adult skills (such as driving) or an adult's formal education. They evade adult responsibilities towards others, including and especially towards their nearest and dearest. They hold no steady jobs, never get married, raise no family, cultivate no roots, maintain no real friendships or meaningful relationships Many a narcissist remain attached to their families of origin. By clinging to his parents, the narcissist continues to act in the role of a child. He thus avoids the need to make adult decisions and (potentially painful) choices. He transfers all adult chores and responsibilities – from laundry to baby-sitting – to his parents, siblings, spouse, or other relatives. He feels unshackled, a free spirit, ready to take on the world (in other words omnipotent and omnipresent).
This curious abdication may have to do with what I termed the “Inversion-Null Dynamic.” Briefly: the narcissist always seeks to fulfil the role of a child. His parents, his spouse, even his own kids usually compliantly respond to this hidden signal. This is the “inversion” part.
Then, when another child enters the scene (the narcissist’s siblings, or his own newborn offspring), everyone react awkwardly, dismissively, or abusively towards the addition to the family because it is perceived as threatening to usurp the narcissist’s role and to upset the delicate dynamics and equilibrium that rule the narcissist’s intimate relationships. The newcomer is, thus, “annulled.”
Such "delayed adulthood" is very common in many poor and developing countries, especially those with patriarchal societies. I wrote in "The Last Family":
"To the alienated and schizoid ears of Westerners, the survival of family and community in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) sounds like an attractive proposition. A dual purpose safety net, both emotional and economic, the family in countries in transition provides its members with unemployment benefits, accommodation, food and psychological advice to boot.
Divorced daughters, saddled with little (and not so little) ones, the prodigal sons incapable of finding a job befitting their qualifications, the sick, the unhappy – all are absorbed by the compassionate bosom of the family and, by extension the community. The family, the neighbourhood, the community, the village, the tribe – are units of subversion as well as useful safety valves, releasing and regulating the pressures of contemporary life in the modern, materialistic, crime ridden state.
The ancient blood feud laws of the kanoon were handed over through familial lineages in northern Albania, in defiance of the paranoiac Enver Hoxha regime. Criminals hide among their kin in the Balkans, thus effectively evading the long arm of the law (state). Jobs are granted, contracts signed and tenders won on an open and strict nepotistic basis and no one finds it odd or wrong. There is something atavistically heart-warming in all this.
Historically, the rural units of socialisation and social organisation were the family and the village. As villagers migrated to the cities, these structural and functional patterns were imported by them, en masse. The shortage of urban apartments and the communist invention of the communal apartment (its tiny rooms allocated one per family with kitchen and bathroom common to all) only served to perpetuate these ancient modes of multi-generational huddling. At best, the few available apartments were shared by three generations: parents, married off-spring and their children. In many cases, the living space was also shared by sickly or no-good relatives and even by unrelated families.
These living arrangements – more adapted to rustic open spaces than to high rises – led to severe social and psychological dysfunctions. To this very day, Balkan males are spoiled by the subservience and servitude of their in-house parents and incessantly and compulsively catered to by their submissive wives. Occupying someone else's home, they are not well acquainted with adult responsibilities.
Stunted growth and stagnant immaturity are the hallmarks of an entire generation, stifled by the ominous proximity of suffocating, invasive love. Unable to lead a healthy sex life behind paper thin walls, unable to raise their children and as many children as they see fit, unable to develop emotionally under the anxiously watchful eye of their parents – this greenhouse generation is doomed to a zombie-like existence in the twilight nether land of their parents' caves. Many ever more eagerly await the demise of their caring captors and the promised land of their inherited apartments, free of their parents' presence.
The daily pressures and exigencies of co-existence are enormous. The prying, the gossip, the criticism, the chastising, the small agitating mannerisms, the smells, the incompatible personal habits and preferences, the pusillanimous bookkeeping – all serve to erode the individual and to reduce him or her to the most primitive mode of survival. This is further exacerbated by the need to share expenses, to allocate labour and tasks, to plan ahead for contingencies, to see off threats, to hide information, to pretend and to fend off emotionally injurious behaviour. It is a sweltering tropic of affective cancer."
Alternatively, by acting as surrogate caregiver to his siblings or parents, the narcissist displaces his adulthood into a fuzzier and less demanding territory. The social expectations from a husband and a father are clear-cut. Not so from a substitute, mock, or ersatz parent. By investing his efforts, resources, and emotions in his family of origin, the narcissist avoids having to establish a new family and face the world as an adult. His is an "adulthood by proxy", a vicarious imitation of the real thing.
The ultimate in dodging adulthood is finding God (long recognised as a father-substitute), or some other "higher cause". The believer allows the doctrine and the social institutions that enforce it to make decisions for him and thus relieve him of responsibility. He succumbs to the paternal power of the collective and surrenders his personal autonomy. In other words, he is a child once more. Hence the allure of faith and the lure of dogmas and ideologies, especially in troubled times, when everyone's narcissistic defences are out in full force.
But why does the narcissist refuse to grow up? Why does he postpone the inevitable and regards adulthood as a painful experience to be avoided at a great cost to personal growth and self-realisation? Because remaining essentially a toddler caters to all his narcissistic needs and defences and nicely tallies with the narcissist's inner psychodynamic landscape.
Pathological narcissism is an infantile defence against abuse and trauma, usually occurring in early childhood or early adolescence. Thus, narcissism is inextricably entwined with the abused child's or adolescent's emotional make-up, cognitive deficits, and worldview. To say "narcissist" is to say "thwarted, tortured child".
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It is important to remember that overweening, smothering, spoiling, overvaluing, and idolising the child – are all forms of parental abuse. There is nothing more narcissistically-gratifying than the admiration and adulation (Narcissistic Supply) garnered by precocious child-prodigies (Wunderkinder). Narcissists who are the sad outcomes of excessive pampering and sheltering become addicted to it.
In a paper published in Quadrant in 1980 and titled "Puer Aeternus: The Narcissistic Relation to the Self", Jeffrey Satinover, a Jungian analyst, offers these astute observations:
"The individual narcissistically bound to (the image or archetype of the divine child) for identity can experience satisfaction from a concrete achievement only if it matches the grandeur of this archetypal image. It must have the qualities of greatness, absolute uniqueness, of being the best and … prodigiously precocious. This latter quality explains the enormous fascination of child prodigies, and also explains why even a great success yields no permanent satisfaction for the puer: being an adult, no accomplishment is precocious unless he stays artificially young or equates his accomplishments with those of old age (hence the premature striving after the wisdom of those who are much older)."
The simple truth is that children get away with narcissistic traits and behaviours. Narcissists know that. They envy children, hate them, try to emulate them and, thus, compete with them for scarce Narcissistic Supply.
Children are forgiven for feeling grandiose and self-important or even encouraged to develop such emotions as part of "building up their self-esteem". Kids frequently exaggerate with impunity accomplishments, talents, skills, contacts, and personality traits – exactly the kind of conduct that narcissists are chastised for!
As part of a normal and healthy development trajectory, young children are as obsessed as narcissists are with fantasies of unlimited success, fame, fearsome power or omnipotence, and unequalled brilliance. Adolescent are expected to be preoccupied with bodily beauty or sexual performance (as is the somatic narcissist), or ideal, everlasting, all-conquering love or passion. What is normal in the first 16 years of life is labelled a pathology later on.
Children are firmly convinced that they are unique and, being special, can only be understood by, should only be treated by, or associate with, other special or unique, or high-status people. In time, through the process of socialisation, young adults learn the benefits of collaboration and acknowledge the innate value of each and every person. Narcissists never do. They remain fixated in the earlier stage.
Preteens and teenagers require excessive admiration, adulation, attention and affirmation. It is a transient phase that gives place to the self-regulation of one's sense of inner worth. Narcissists, however, remain dependent on others for their self-esteem and self-confidence. They are fragile and fragmented and thus very susceptible to criticism, even if it is merely implied or imagined.
Well into pubescence, children feel entitled. As toddlers, they demand automatic and full compliance with their unreasonable expectations for special and favourable priority treatment. They grow out of it as they develop empathy and respect for the boundaries, needs, and wishes of other people. Again, narcissists never mature, in this sense.
Children, like adult narcissists, are "interpersonally exploitative", i.e., use others to achieve their own ends. During the formative years (0-6 years old), children are devoid of empathy. They are unable to identify with, acknowledge, or accept the feelings, needs, preferences, priorities, and choices of others.
Both adult narcissists and young children are envious of others and sometimes seek to hurt or destroy the causes of their frustration. Both groups behave arrogantly and haughtily, feel superior, omnipotent, omniscient, invincible, immune, "above the law", and omnipresent (magical thinking), and rage when frustrated, contradicted, challenged, or confronted.
The narcissist seeks to legitimise his child-like conduct and his infantile mental world by actually remaining a child, by refusing to mature and to grow up, by avoiding the hallmarks of adulthood, and by forcing others to accept him as the Puer Aeternus, the Eternal Youth, a worry-free, unbounded, Peter Pan.
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