Thursday, May 22, 2008

I understand now

The concept of differentiation has led me to an understanding of the connection between undifferentiation and narcissism.

In psychological terms one who is psychologically undifferentiated is unable to distinguish his/her perspective from somebody else's. People are not separate beings, but Objects. If I am an Object in my husband's world, then I am a part of him, the way a hand is a part of a body. If his conception of me is indistinguishable from his self-concept, and then I differ, it is as shocking and mutinous to him as if his leg suddenly folded under him or his hand allowed a cup of water to drop into his lap.

As I was considering this conceptualization with Sharon she mentioned the possibility that he had suffered some sort of 'narcissistic injury'. I was intrigued enough by the term that I googled it and found a wealth of information. Among the low-lying fruit was this article that I found most useful: "Narcissistic Pathology of Everyday Life: The Denial of Remorse and Gratitude" by Nancy McWilliams, Ph.D and Stanley Lependorf, Ph. D. It's about the mundane ways that narcissistic behavior manifests.

In its most benign manifestation, the narcissist has created a False Self as a defense against perceived vulnerabilities and flaws. Frequently this False Self has some grandiosity. The narcissist then demands that those around him/her serve as a mirror (Object) that reflects only this grandiose self-image back to the narcissist. People around serve to protect the fragile ego of the narcissist.

As a child, to the extent that I participated in reflecting back only what the narcissist wanted to see, I was a "good" child ('good' in the moral sense). My behavior was a barometer of how 'good' a parent my parents were. Misbehavior on my part reflected badly on them, and the heat that released was part of the intensity of the punishment I received.

I can't speak for others' experience, but my childhood seemed to be firmly embedded in a stream of narcissists demanding their False Selves be gratified. I think quasi-religious Americana which is rife with authoritarianism is a breeding ground for this. In a sense this seems to be institutionalized--there are stories all around us of not being able to 'contradict our elders', even when we know our elders are flaming wrong about something. To disagree becomes conflated with disrespect. For myself, I became hypersensitive to the possibility of offending others, so that I had a 'spidey sense' that tingled when I was aware that something I might say could seem to imply criticism of another.

I grew up in a bind. If what I observed contradicted the reflection the narcissistic adults around me demanded, I could not tell the Truth. Yet it was demanded of me that I not tell lies. Furthermore, I was dependent on these people who had absolute power over me. I was also expected to be an independent agent, even while it was demanded that I be a 'good' Object.

Frankly, that is why I wrote. The bind was painful--writing gave me a space where I could be myself and tell the Truth, as well as help me sort out the contradictions. Mainly though it was an expression of my angst--if my thoughts were critical of others I instantly blamed myself and thought there was something wrong with my vision of the world: I was selfish, I was narcissistic. ...Most important of all, I wrote to alleviate my suffering.

Mercurious had a wonderful post summarizing the Buddhist Path. The Second Noble Truth is about the causes of suffering: karma, cause-and-effect. Raised to be a good mirror I attracted a lot of men who were narcissistic. They adored me until my needs asserted themselves and then they left. It seemed perverse, but predictable: if I loved them back they left. It was baffling to me then, but perfectly clear now. It's also clear that though eventually I was able to sidestep that dynamic, I would not see the signs that the man I married was not able to distinguish me from him.

There were signs. He is not particularly grandiose, but his mother's ego has loomed over us. Early on I noticed that he seemed hamstrung by a need to not offend her and that protecting her fragile feelings seemed to take precedence over protecting the integrity of our relationship. I attributed this to some unworthiness in me--that I was childish, possessive, insecure.

So basically the work I've done for all these years has been to get me to here. To this understanding that I was tied up in knots in service to others' False Selves. I understand this now, and I think I'm just starting to grasp the implications of what it might be like to proceed without undercutting my every move by questioning my motives.

I wonder where I'll go from here.


Lori said...

There's a book I read that's germaine to this post: Dancing in the Dark: The Shadow Side of Intimate Relationships. It tells how we bring our unresolved patterns with our parents (an unequal relationship) into our romantic relationships (supposedly equal).

It tells how we might fit well at the beginning into each other's nooks and crannies, as we grow and develop and differentiate, we may no longer fit. And how to re-fit the relationship.

I highly recommend it.

Isn't it amazing how strong the drive toward Truth is? You could almost say that it will not be denied.

Douglas W said...

What a truly deep and thoughtful post.

I guess we all do it. The things we do; the people we choose to relate to; the books or music we collect; the clothes we wear...they are all an extension of ourselves. And when they reinforce the image we have or want of ourselves we feel good - our ego is gratified; but when they contradict our own self-image we feel uncomfortable and discard them.

At one extreme that is probably a totally self-centred, selfish, egocentric way of relating to the world around us.

At the other extreme is the totally self-less way of relating. Where there emphasis is upon what we can do for the world; what we can do for the betterment of others (as opposed to simply satisfying their egos); where we are not obsessed with the collection of material things, or relationships, that serve only to proclaim our own ego.

When we hold up the mirror in the first case we see the world and others moulded to fit our own image. What we see in the second case is the world. And that world IS our image.