Add & Subtract - Today we look at Narcissism

Dec 03, 2023

Today we look at Narcissism


Narcissism has been a popular psychological flavour over the last few years, raising awareness around this personality type and the problems it causes.

Many of my clients have been child of or partner to someone on the narcissism scale; it is a common and complicated journey to freedom for them, to make sense of and grow beyond the impossible limitations of such a confusing relationship.

The way I understand narcissism is as a psychological defence. When a child is overwhelmed by stress, especially due to emotionally absent, unavailable parents, they have to find a coping strategy. Some (possibly weaker) personality types get jammed in the very early development stage of ego-centricity.

It is all about me, my needs, my survival.
You are just there to look after me, to give me what I want.
You are only an object in my field, an extension of me.
Other people don’t exist as separate, with their own feelings and needs.
I will cry, protest, tantrum if I don’t get my way.
Over time, I learn to bully, manipulate, seduce, play victim to get what I want.

It is notoriously difficult for people so developmentally stuck to change. They lack the maturity to face their pain, tolerate unpacking the trauma, process internally and heal. Although they may do counselling, even learn the language and become counsellors themselves, they cannot access deeper layers.They are not good candidates for therapy.

Instead of striving to get the narcissist to change, we need to learn to manage such wounded people with clear, firm boundaries.

Author Julie Hall on boundary setting for adult children of narcissists:

“Having had your boundaries crossed your whole life in a variety of ways, you are likely to struggle to define what “normal” healthy boundaries are in your other relationships…

Sometimes the worst models in life teach the most important lessons, and not repeating your parents’ abuses and manipulations can be your best guide.

Paying attention to and respecting your own needs and feelings is crucial to setting appropriate boundaries in all areas of life.

Boundaries show us where we and others begin and end, what is needed and not needed, and what is allowed and not allowed. They are flexible enough to enable us to connect with others while being defined and strong enough to support our own healthy individual identity and comfort zone”

Source: The Narcissist in your Life: Recognizing the Patterns and Learning to Break Free


Children of narcissists often become narcissists, stuck in the same immaturity. The ones I meet as a therapist however, have the better problem of over-responsibility. As children, they matured through that early stage, learned to recognise others as separate people, to consider another’s thoughts, needs and feelings, to enter into reciprocal relationships of give and take, where genuine loving connection is possible.

But the child in them is still striving for the impossible, to get love from a parent (or later, a partner) who simply cannot give it. The child has to keep hoping it is possible, that the person is just choosing to withhold the love; that if they behaved differently, gave more, carried more of the other’s psychological, emotional baggage, that they could magically unlock a loving connection. High levels of denial are needed to cope.

Somehow the crumbs of acceptance and approval are taken as signs that a fulfilling love is possible, but just out of reach. Like the random, intermittent rewards of a poker machine, the child-adult is addicted to chasing a ‘love’ that can never arrive.

When we unpack the dynamics of such an enmeshed relationship, and reparent our inner child, gradually we can tolerate the truth that they will never change. We lower our expectations to a realistic baseline, accept the person for how they are, distance ourselves as required, and even find compassion for their tragic stuckness.

Then we can seek and improve our connection with others who are genuinely capable of mature, reciprocal love.

From Julie Hall again:

“As a child you were probably deeply invested in “winning” your parents’ love as opposed to getting it unconditionally, an ingrained compulsion you may still feel as an adult.

All children want and need their parents to love them, and for adult children of narcissists that empty feeling tends to persist a very long time.

Even realising your parents are narcissistic and understanding NPD does not make it easy to let go of the fantasy that they will someday finally take responsibility for their egregious actions and provide appropriate love and care”

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