Selfishness and Narcissism in Family Relationships
Author: Lynne Namka, Ed. D.
Narcissism as a psychological definition is typically seen as self-involved attitudes and behavior where there is little or no empathy for others. Narcissistic wounding starts early in life to children whose parents are insecure, abusive, addictive or have narcissistic patterns themselves.
Narcissistic injury happens to the child when his or her emotional needs are not met. The narcissistic parent has unresolved needs for attention and care taking because his or her needs were not met in their early life. Neglect, physical, mental and sexual abuse, being spoiled and not given structure and limits create the wounding. Narcissism can be an inflated ego sub part or the trait can take over the personality. Narcissistic attitudes and behavior come from the ego defenses that function as smoke screens to hide the deep shame and fractures that came from being hurt emotionally or physically as a child.
The child who was not allowed to have boundaries becomes energetically and developmentally arrested at this level with beliefs of not being safe in the world and being unworthy and unlovable. Thus the Shadow is born with the defenses and negative core beliefs becoming set in the child’s repertoire. The child carries this primitive, self-defense core of fear even into adulthood. This is called the “Core Script” or Core Identity, which is like a big lens of perception by which the world is viewed. The defenses remain lurking in the unconscious mind ready to be called into action at any resemblance of threat.
The False Self – Narcissism or Codependency
We can be a little bit hurt or a lot hurt by neglect, abuse or trauma. The depth of the wound to the psyche determines the severity of the insult to the child’s personality and a loss of the true self for the child. A false self develops along with a fragile self esteem of defining identity as feeling good when being given to or giving to others. The child is stuck in early primitive defenses and cannot go through the stage of normal separation from the parents that is necessary for growth.
Children of a difficult, more stubborn temperament defend against being supportive of others in the house. They observe how the selfish parents get his needs met by others. They learn how manipulation and using guilt gets the parent what he or she wants. They develop a false self and use aggression and intimidation to get their way.
The sensitive, guilt-ridden children in the family learn to meet the parent’s needs for gratification and try to get love by accommodating the whims and wishes of the parent. The child’s normal feelings are ignored, denied and eventually repressed in attempts to gain the parent’s “love.” Guilt and shame keep the child locked into this developmental arrest. Their aggressive impulses become split off and are not integrated with normal development. These children grow up learning to give too much and develop a false self of becoming co-dependent in their relationships.
Living on Fantasy Island
People with narcissistic thinking and behavior strive to defend their fragile self esteem through fantasy and have blind spots in their thinking. Living in a fantasy world where all their needs are met and unrealistic expectations take the place of life. They become involved in material things, vanity, and are shallow developing excessive life long interest in things that are not real such as movies, rock stars, soap operas and video games. They fear their feelings, gaining deep friendships and intimacy and cannot develop mature love relationships.
Fantasy can become an attempt to not see what is really there in order to build up a fragile self-esteem. People with narcissistic traits process information, emotions and unresolved pain to make up for what they did not have in childhood. They often place unrealistic demands on others to make them feel better. They cannot tolerate negative emotional distress and turn it on others and blame them instead of looking within to see their own part of the problem. This is the defense of projection — what the person does not like in him or her self, they get angry at others who may have some of that same trait. Projecting one’s anger onto others instead of using it to learn and grow is always limiting.
Self image is distorted with the narcissistic point of view and the person believes that he is superior to others. An inflated self-esteem is a defense to cover up their sense of shame deep within. Grandiosity is an insidious error in thinking that prevents them from blaming themselves and becoming depressed or disintegrated. Creeping narcissism in a person is their succumbing to the gradual demands of selfishness and entitlement by giving in to “I am special” beliefs.
Narcissistic Defenses – The Need to Feel Good at all Costs
Selfish people usually insist on having things their own way at the expense of others. The need to impose getting one’s way over others is an unreal attitude and expectation that sets other people off against them. When the person with narcissistic tendencies doesn’t get what he or she wanted, he feels devalued. Since they cannot tolerate the feelings of fear, hurt, anxiety, helplessness and despair, they defend against them. They deny and rationalize their own contribution to the problems to preserve their own internal fantasy of being all good and right.
People with narcissistic tendencies have errors in thinking which prevents them from seeing things how they are from both sides of the picture. Not wanting to feel bad inside, they build defenses such as denial, repression and a strong need to be right. When the person has severe traits, they can feel an increase in self-esteem when they get what they want and feel no remorse or justify their using others. John Masterson called this rigid type of thinking a “Swiss Cheese Brain” with holes in the brain and mind where good common sense and conscience should be.
Some even get a sense of feeling superior when they get their way or make others feel bad. This is the dynamic underlying bullying. When hurting others becomes a hook into feelings self-satisfaction, the narcissism takes an ugly turn. There is a cost to this false sense of self-esteem. People who abuse and bully others end up being lonely because others do not want to be around them.
People with narcissistic behavior cannot handle criticism in any way and feel that they are being made wrong. . They are super sensitive to criticism and either attack the other person or they leave the scene. This blaming the person who gives criticism helps the person with narcissistic defenses avoid feeling guilt, shame and depression but it also keeps them from taking responsibility for learning from their mistakes and ultimately from growing up.
They can pout and give the silent treatment or hold grudges. This combination of these defenses that distort reality often set them up for failure in partnerships.
When the narcissistic traits are too severe and causes havoc in the lives of others, there is a disorder. Narcissistic Personality Disorder happens when a person’s outlook is so distorted to the extent that they do not see reality as it is and cannot see the needs of other people. These people are the takers of the world leaving pain and destruction in their wake. If their behavior is left unchecked, they become con artists, manipulators, sociopaths and dictators.
Without empathy for others, people with narcissistic personality disorders can irrationally justify and rationalize their hurtful and unlawful behaviors and may become sexual predators. Family members who have sex with children always have some element of narcissism seeing others as objects that are available for their own sexual satisfaction. High intelligence coupled with a lack of empathy and remorse for hurting others is a dangerous combination for family members. With extreme narcissistic behaviors, the diagnosis may be a sociopath personality disorder.
The Narcissistic Person in Relationship
The two greatest fears we humans have in relationships are fears of engulfment (smothering, being controlled by someone else) and fears of rejection and abandonment. And to spice up the human drama, our greatest longings are the needs for connection and the opposite need for space and individuality. This is the great Cosmic joke! What a set up for problems! And so the couple dance is set playing out these great, universal themes. People with narcissistic traits have more of this quality than other people. They play both these fears out in the relationships with their significant others, yearning for closeness and fearing it the same time.
When the narcissistic person grows up, they harbor the irrational belief that the person they choose for a partner will give them perfect love and make up for all the hurts and slights of their life. People with severe narcissistic traits long for an ideal love to soothe their fragile sense of self. This yearning for getting unconditional love is an unresolved need left over from childhood. Most adults realize unconditional love would be nice, but understand that it rarely happens as people we love usually hold us accountable for our actions in some way. As we should be –no one should be allowed to impose their neediness and bad behavior on others.
In the narcissistic mind, there is a gap between the idealized love and the actual day-to-day dealings with their partner. They long for symbiosis with the idealized love to stabilize the self, but they fear being traumatized by the partner. They seek refuge in being seen as the good guy and try to gain approval and recognition. When this does not come forth readily, they feel wounded, hurt and attacked. Family members learn to back off from confronting them about their behavior and not “hurt their feelings.” Without someone to put the brakes on their unhealthy and abusive behavior, they can become tyrants.
Constantly seeking attention and approval puts them in the precarious position of always needing something from somebody else. As they believe that they are right and others are wrong, they rarely admit to faults in themselves. They can verbally abuse and punish their spouses and children without seeing the pain that they cause as they believe that the person deserves they abuse they dish out. They may try to enlist a child to side with them and turn against the other parent.
People with narcissistic behavior have a sense of entitlement that allows them to break the rules of society. They believe that the laws do not apply to them and they do not feel remorse when they get caught. However they are upset over any inconveniences they suffer as a result of being busted. They believe they have the right to do what ever it takes to get short term gratification without suffering any consequences.
Lying and distortions of reality are considered fair game to shut the other person down. They feel free to cheat on their income tax, take what is not theirs or cheat on their partners. Criticism of their behavior or trying to get them to see what they are doing only causes them to entrench further into defensiveness. When found out in a wrong doing, they get evasive, lie or get angry. They have little or no remorse for the pain they caused the other person, only anger that they did not get away with their behavior.
Intimacy Skill Defects
Narcissists have a lack of insight about understanding and processing of feelings. Instead, they deny their uncomfortable feelings and run from them with the exception of anger. The huge core of shame inside must be protected by avoiding the vulnerable feelings. They avoid taking risks to love and never learn to develop true intimacy. They would rather threaten their relationship than face humiliation, embarrassment or injury to their self-esteem. They are slow to learn the all important skills of commitment such as sympathy, understanding the intentions and motives of their partner, compassion and empathy. They may even choose someone to love who is even more narcissistic and selfish than themselves thus mirroring their own problems.
True intimacy and a lasting partnership require the skills of dealing with conflict. After the euphoria of a new relationship wears off, each partner’s values and belief systems begin to rub against each other. At this point negotiating conflict is necessary for the relationship to continue effectively. Narcissistic people often discount the issues in the relationship and pull away from their partner. The narcissistic defenses of becoming angry, shutting down, minimizing and distancing keep them feeling safe in the moment.
Intimacy is always affected. When problems are never resolved, the partner becomes highly threatened and angry themselves thus weakening the relationship. Typically children and partners who suffer verbal, physical or sexual abuse become so overwhelmed and threatened that they do not want to continue in relationship.
Changing the Pattern
The antidote to narcissistic behavior is to understand how the defenses work, identify and correct the errors in thinking and learn to tolerate frustration, anxiety, sadness and shame. By learning to be straight first with the self, and then with others, these unhealthy defenses can be lessened. Then the person can learn to live in the world of reality even though it hurts at times instead of turning to a fantasy that can never be gained.
People with severe narcissistic traits do not change because they do no believe that they have a problem and what they are doing works for them. The narcissistic defense occurs to keep them from feeling bad so they can’t know their own defects.
People with strong narcissistic traits are not interested in reading self help books or learning about their feelings. What they do works for them–they get what they want and CANNOT see the damage that they inflict on others. They do not want to come to therapy and often have the myth of “I can do it all by myself. I can change if I want to.” while it is apparent to others that they cannot. They are UNABLE to see the depth of their pathology as to know their shortcomings would send them down into great shame which would trigger depression.
Some people with milder versions of narcissistic behavior may change somewhat across their lifetime if they become more aware of their actions because they stand to lose something or someone they love. Some start to admit their selfishness, short comings, defensiveness, inability to take responsibility for their actions. As they grow older, some start to identify their insensitivity when dealing with those around them. With hard work, people with narcissistic defenses can learn conflict negotiation and appropriate, safe anger expression. They can learn to be less self-centered and more empathetic with others.
Some come to couples therapy after years of being abusive asking that their spouse be closer and more intimate with them. What they do not realize is that when there has been great pain and threat, basic trust has been broken in the relationship and it is unlikely that it can be regained.
Education, self-searching and therapy are needed to resolve these defense mechanisms that interfere with the ability to be happy. They can learn to become more real with their feelings; they will gain self-esteem by stretching and growing, even if it means being vulnerable to uncomfortable emotional states. As these new skills are learned, they can achieve more satisfying and balanced relationships with others.
Mature Healthy Narcissism
Everyone has narcissistic behaviors; it is normal to think of ones self and try to get out needs met. We view the world through our own narrow outlook based on our past history and our conditioning. We all need to care enough about our self (narcissism) to pay our bills and function effectively in life. It is only when selfish behavior gets out of hand does it cause problems for the person and those around him.
“Each of us functions with a core of narcissistic, self focused view of the world,” said Marion Soloman, psychodynamic psychologist. Now we all have a bit of narcissism and indeed need some of it to survive. We all have a bit of selfishness in us and that is okay. Otherwise we would end up giving away everything. We need to learn to receive as well as give to be healthy.
The Narcissistic-Co-dependency Continuum
Fear: I am not safe unless I get, loving conscious relationship
Love: I am safe
Fear: I am not safe unless I give
Shadow Parts Which Create Suffering
Through Too Little Caring for Others
Through Too Much Caring for Others
Mature Healthy Narcissism
Getting a good balance between taking from others and giving to them is called “Healthy Narcissism” by the psychoanalytic community. Healthy Narcissism is the ability to have reciprocal relationships where the need of each of the partners is balanced with the needs of the other.
Mature Healthy Narcissism is the middle ground between caring for self and the caring for other. It includes those centered, conscious choices that fall within the center of the continuum. It is the equilibrium between taking too much and giving too much in regards to the other person. Moving towards the middle of the Narcissistic-Co-dependency continuum where there is not too much and not too little of either giving too much to others or expecting too much brings balance into a life. By learning the balance between giving too much and taking too much and learning the skills of communication that create intimacy (See books by Harville Hendrix and John Gottman); you can have loving, fulfilling relationships.
A Chip Off The Old Block
Lynne Namka, Ed. D. © 2005
Sorting out your family’s dysfunctional behavior helps you take charge of your own life. Parents are a mix of both positive and negative attributes. We examine family patterns not to blame our parents, but to understand how our own neurotic behaviors were formed so they can be changed. Write down the negative facts and realities of your dad’s actions, behaviors, beliefs, personality quirks, illness, job loss, family myths and unrealistic expectations. Include facts such as worked two jobs, not there for me, alcoholism, abuse, favored my sister, stubbornness and messages like “don’t talk feelings.” What did Dad expect you to do to take care of him? Then write his positive qualities.
Dad’s Box – Fill in the blank space…
You are not your parents but you certainly learned from them. You can’t change your history, but you can change your unhealthy behaviors now as an adult to placate, manipulate, hide from, seek approval etc. What survival behaviors did you adapt when you were young? Sort out your box from your dad’s. What did you learn to try to stay safe as a child in your family?
My Box–How I Survived/Learned from my Dad
I described myself as a child by saying ___________________________
I was afraid of _______________________________________________
I always hoped for (but never got) ______________________________
I took care of my dad by ______________________________________
Dad’s addictions were ________________________________________
I took care of myself by ______________________________________
The traumas that changed me were _____________________________
I coped with family dysfunction by ______________________________
I survived in this family by _____________________________________
I told myself that if I did ________________________better,
then dad would ______________________________________________
The unhealthiest thing I learned from dad was _____________________
The best part of my dad I’ve taken on is _________________________
We do what we do as little children in order to get along in our family. With our limited resources of not having power in the family and a lack of life experiences, we resort to survival tactics that we happen on to. Virginia Satir said, “Everyone does the best they can with the resources that they have available at that moment. If they could do better, they would have.” This applies to our parents as well as ourselves. As adults, we can let go of the little child survival mechanisms, forgive ourselves for engaging in them and learn better ways of communicating and getting along with others.
The Apple Doesn’t Fall Far from the Tree
Now write about your mother’s patterns–both negative and positive. What personality characteristics and behaviors of your mother affected you deeply? What specific events involving her helped form your personality to the detriment? How did Mom expect you to take care of her? Again, this exercise is for self learning, not to blame your parent. After all, your parents learned dysfunctional behavior from their parents and traumatic life experiences. We are all victims of victims of victims going back the generations.
Mom’s Box – Fill in the blank space…
Therapy offers you a process of sorting out who you truly are after your rid yourself of your negative defenses, beliefs and behaviors. You can choose to stop being a victim of your upbringing. Sort out the similarities and differences between you and your mother. What unhealthy coping mechanism and defenses did you pick up in order to keep the peace, fight for survival or protect others or yourself? Sort out your box from your mothers. By letting go of the negative, you can enhance more of the positives of each of your parents.
My Box–How I Survived/Learned from my Mom
My mom thought I was _______________________________________
I always wanted mom to ______________________________________
I desperately needed ________________________________________
I always hoped for (but never got) ______________________________
I took care of my mom by ______________________________________
Mom took care of me by ______________________________________
Mom’s addictions were ________________________________________
I made mom proud by ______________________________________
I told myself that if I did ________________________better,
then mom would ______________________________________________
The unhealthiest thing I learned from mom was _____________________
The best part of my mom I’ve taken on is _________________________
Healthy Narcissism–Leaving Family Dysfunctional Patterns Behind
Healthy narcissism is having just the right amount of self centeredness to get some of your own needs met and as well as some of the needs of others. It’s a balance between giving and taking. Healthy narcissism means using appropriate adult communication, having appropriate boundaries and setting limits for your own self protection. It means giving up old survival patterns that no longer work and using adult behaviors that give you more of what you want.
Characteristics of the Parenting Styles in a Narcissistic Family
Resource: The Narcissistic Family: Diagnosis and Treatment. Stephanie Donaldson-Pressman and Robert Pressman
_____ I was not allowed to have feeling that might upset my parents.
_____ As a child, I had to meet the emotional needs of the parents.
_____ I learned early on that my needs weren’t valued so stopped trying to get them met.
_____ I felt that I had to act in ways that pleased my parent(s) to avoid being abandoned.
_____ Our family had to look good to outsiders, so I was required to keep the family secrets.
_____ At times my parent’s need to look good to others did help me get some positive attention.
_____ I was expected to read my parent(s) mind and give what they wanted without their asking.
_____ If I tried to set limits and boundaries, they were overrun by my parent(s.)
_____ I was not allowed to make mistakes or change my mind.
_____The less emotional support I got from my parent(s), the more fearful I was that I’d lose it.
_____ I learned to be super responsible to please my parent(s.)
_____ The rule in my family was that parent(s) got to do selfish things because it was their right.
_____ I have had life-long problems making and keeping intimate relationships.
_____ In relationships, I worry about the other person finding out how defective I am.
_____I have an overwhelming need for external (outside of myself) validation.
_____ I learned to achieve early on to bring glory to my family OR Even though I did well in school, my parent(s) ignored my achievements.
_____ I became fragmented trying to figure out what my parent(s) wanted from me.
_____ It was dangerous for me to recognize and express my own power as a child.
_____ I had no inherent value other that what I could do for my parent(s.)
_____ My parent(s) became hurt or angry when criticized so I learned not to rock the boat.
_____ I had to give up my own sense of self to survive in my family.
Characteristics of Narcissistic Parents
Resource: From Children of the Self Absorbed: A Grownup’s Guide to Getting over Narcissistic Parents by Nina Brown
- Turns every conversation to him or herself.
- Expects you to meet his or her emotional needs
- Ignores the impact of his negative comments on you
- Constantly criticizes or berates you and knows what is best for you
- Focus on blaming rather than taking responsibility for his own behavior
- Expect you to jump at his every need
- Is overly involved with his own hobbies, interests or addictions ignoring your needs
- Has high need for attention:
- Brags, sulks, complains, inappropriately teases, is flamboyant, loud and boisterous
- Is closed minded about own mistakes. Can’t handle criticism and gets angry to shut it off
- Becomes angry when his needs are not met and tantrums or intimidates
- Has an attitude of “Anything you can do, I can do better”
- Engages in one-upmanship to seem important
- Acts in a seductive manner or is overly charming
- Is vain and fishes for compliments. Expects you to admire him
- Isn’t satisfied unless he has the “biggest” or “best”
- Seeks status. Spends money to impress others
- Forgets what you have done for them yet keeps reminding you that you owe them today
- Neglects the family to impress others. Does it all: Is a super person to gain admiration
- Threatens to abandon you if you don’t go along with what he wants
- Does not obey the law–sees himself above the law
- Does not expect to be penalized for failure to follow directions or conform to guidelines
- Ignores your feelings and calls you overly sensitive or touchy if you express feelings
- Tells you how you should feel or not feel
- Cannot listen to you and cannot allow your opinions
- Is more interested in his own concerns and interests than yours
- Is unable to see things from any point of view other than his own
- Wants to control what you do and say–tries to micromanage you
- Attempts to make you feel stupid, helpless and inept when you do things on your own
- Has poor insight and can not see the impact his selfish behavior has on you
- Has shallow emotions and interests
- Exploits others with lies and manipulations.
- Uses emotional blackmail to get what he wants
- May engage in physical or sexual abuse of children
- Meet the emotional and physical needs of the children
- Have healthy boundaries and can be assertive in stating them
- Respect children’s boundaries and rights to be safe
- Resist intrusion and mind games by others
- Have strong, positive values and priorities for family
- Allow children to express their feelings
- Use appropriate self disclosure
- Have the ability to develop intimacy and happy relationships
Narcissistic traits are treatable. Education and/or therapy are the keys to long-lasting change. If you find these characteristics in your family and yourself, you can read to learn about how to escape from this destructive pattern.
Children of the Self Absorbed: A Grownup’s Guide to Getting over Narcissistic Parents – Nina Brown. Oakland, CA. 2001. New Harbinger Publications.
Narcissism and Intimacy: 1989 Love and Marriage in an Age of Confusion – M. F. Solomon, New York, W. Norton & Co.
The Narcissistic Family: Diagnosis and Treatment – Stephanie Donaldson-Pressman and Robert Pressman, San Francisco: 1994. Jossey Bass–a Wiley Company.
The Doormat Syndrome – Lynne Namka, Tucson, Arizona; Talk, Trust and Feel Therapeutics, 1989, 2002.