In Ontario the landscape has been significantly shaped over the past 300 years or so. Seen from the air, the rural areas are a tribute to rationality with their uniform rectangular fields. When you fly over Europe, fields appear by contrast to be a testament to organic growth. Like a patchwork quilt, these boundaries radiate out from the towns and villages unplanned, and form their own patterns of space claimed over time, interspersed with ancient woodlands and rivers.
Whether here in Ontario or across the pond, those fields reflect something we need as people, something important about what we need in order to function as individuals and societies. For many people, the word boundary conjures the idea of division, as if that somewhat negative connotation is what we’re seeking when we assert them in our lives. But those hedgerows and fences are not solely to do with division; they are far more purposeful, more functional than that.
Absolute boundaries are rare. This type of “no contact” boundary is asocial, the desired end of interaction, something we reserve for highly problematic individuals often at the severe end of the narcissistic spectrum. I think of this kind of boundary as oceanic in breadth, beyond even the function of castle walls - certainly beyond any hope of health or warmth passing over it. To follow the metaphor, the Atlantic was a “no-contact” boundary for millenia, prior to recent history.
For the most part, our boundaries are not oceanic. They are not primarily to do with cutting people off. Their importance is much more to do with our essential need to assert our being in the world. From this perspective, boundaries have a primary purpose of self-respect, of grounding ourselves in space-time, of saying “I’m here and I’m taking up room”.
Some people never really have to think about boundaries. Their function has been learned environmentally in their childhood homes and maintained ever since. But if you’ve grown up with narcissistic parenting, or you’ve been worn down by a narcissistic partner, the assertion of self in space-time is not a given. Not at all. A highly narcissistic person doesn’t respect boundaries because they do not perceive them accurately. The field is their field, and aspects of that field (you included) either promote this image or threaten it. You having boundaries, having a self-respecting existence, having a self that has integrity, difference, boldness and independence...in other words, you being a separate entity...is anathema to narcissistic control. A boundary therefore, whether by axe or acid, is something to be taken down.
In maturity, we’ve grown out of the “one field theory” of narcissism. When we’re healthy, our empathy isn’t lacking, and it isn’t limited to self or other. We have empathy for both. Our boundaries are extensions of healthy egos, assertions of our existence and need for respect. Where our field meets another, the boundary is a meeting point. Rather than oceans or castle walls, we have fences with an aesthetic we like and a function of mutual respect. As in our backyards, we encourage flowers to grow, we have gates to pass through, we chat to one another and share both materially and emotionally. This is the social boundary. It’s our most common boundary, important, assertive, and functional, flexible and appropriate.
Understanding and implementing social boundaries can be a real achievement in life, perhaps especially for those of you who have been drawn to this article. It is an achievement beyond the obvious because healthy boundaries are an assertion of your ego, your being, and your self-respect. It can take a lot of work even to find this self that needs respecting, and more work still to keep it that way. Pleading with a narcissist to do this for you is like asking the sun to only scorch the desert on Tuesdays.
“There’s no such thing as a baby” wrote the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, a beautifully put statement on the psychology of babies, and how they exist not as independent psychological beings, but as a world-to-themselves. The external and internal worlds are not differentiated as ours are. The baby assumes magical control of the mother's breast, as if it were a part of its own world. This is the era of infantile narcissism, before the other exists as such, a kind of unity or dyad with their mother.
Winnicott was making a comment for the ages. “I” is something so embedded in human language and experience that we rarely even think of it. We don’t need to explore the excesses of social media to notice its dominance. If a baby is too young to have an I and an other, but by the time it has become a child playing in the sand, they're very much there. The squabbles over who gets what and when. The puffed out chests: I did it! I got there first! My turn. “I”, when it first appears, is filled with narcissism. Then of course, the good-enough parents have to chime back: “Oh yes, well done. No, now you have to share - please give your sister some too.” Good-enough parents have spent a lot of time modelling and teaching self-other interactions: you and me, rather than you or me. The child grows, imperfectly, toward a balance of self and other.
But the problem of I never leaves us. On the sunburned return home, the parent who’s driving swears involuntarily as she’s dangerously cut up by another, selfish driver: a rampaging I who, it appears, cares not a whit for her safety or that of her kids, still arguing in the back seat over who gets what and when. Back home, the news she reads is filled with devastation: wealth hoarding; wars; hatred and environmental destruction. I, I, I, our human gift, our legacy and our destruction. Despite all our progress in other domains, taming the I has proven difficult, to say the least. If the I is a tiger, it’s still very wild indeed.
In psychotherapy, this issue falls under the umbrella of narcissism: the untrammelled dominance of I. The damage done to people who’ve had to survive such an environment is clear. But the great I is not solely found on an individual level. It’s also found on the group level in what is known as group narcissism. That car that cut you up? You notice it’s a group of youngsters, and they are all laughing at you as one, gesturing rudely as you struggle to calm down.
Group narcissism tends to stick out like a sore thumb; it betrays itself because if you understand narcissism, you know what to look for:
Highly narcissistic groups do not display healthy narcissism. They are not devoted to their own collective self while also listening and respecting other groups - quite the opposite. Many groups are psychologically identical in this respect, whether on the playground or the battleground. There’s always a scapegoat, always devaluation of another group, and a dehumanization of those who do not fit the group’s paradigm. There’s always a grandiose idealization of the self-group. On the largest scale, the dynamics of group narcissism play out on both extreme wings of politics, organized crime, cults, nationalism and totalitarian religions.
Cultural narcissism is broader still, and encompasses both individuals and groups within its framework. Our relationship to nature has been broadly a narcissistic one, for example: we have taken without respect, we’ve devalued the other ruthlessly (without ruth, meaning care). Cultural narcissism is also prevalent on social media and exploitative tv shows, and it’s present in the pervasive materialism that so haunted Carl Jung and determines so much about how we view ourselves.
We are acutely vulnerable to narcissism in its different forms. We need an individual I, as well as a group I to which we can belong, and both individuals and groups must swim in cultural waters. We yearn for a sense of self, but the balance between self and other is a delicate one, one we often pay little direct attention to. We make particular and unconscious use of the abstract world and of language to devalue and to idealize: something no other species on earth has to contend with. We don’t think for a second about how we’re living in misery because we have a “perfect” (imaginary) version of ourselves that haunts our every move and leaves us never good-enough. We’re deeply unconscious about how simple and tempting it is for us to paint a picture of the other that is devaluative: it just happens. Slavery, abuse, neglect and devaluative ideology “just happens”. Echoist fawning over cultish, destructive leaders “just happens”: the self evaporates like mist in the morning. But what do we mean by how easy and unconscious it is for us to “paint a picture”?
Along with consciousness comes our power of abstraction. In devaluation and idealization, abstraction (imagination) is key to our methodology. Think of a devaluation you have witnessed, received or committed (everyone does it), and you are probably remembering someone being thought of or spoken about, or portrayed, as something less than they really are. We can reduce people to objects, insects, or worms simply with the power of our minds. Words are the chariots of devaluation. Language is a supreme achievement in our species. It has helped build what I think of as the abstract world, something near to hand, an ever present which we confuse with reality all the time. Think for example of how you view the political party you oppose, a rival sports club, or your enemies. Are these generalised abstract and devaluative representations, or do they accurately reflect the reality of the individuals concerned? Devaluations are often caricatures.
Idealization uses the same mechanism as devaluation. It doesn’t have to be the cultish leader that bewitches us into hero worship; it can be anyone - mother, father, lover, leader. When we idealize we don’t see the person in front of us; we see, without usually noticing it, a god or goddess, their live image projected like gossamer, the abstract world lying on top of the real person in front of us.
Splitting refers to our tendency for binary (black and white) thinking. Splitting good from bad in glib, simplistic ways brings a particular form of violence to human relations. If we’re not frightened by how easily we lose any form of nuance in our relationships, perhaps we should be.
Every human being is narcissistic. What determines so much of our character is the degree - where we lie on the spectrum of narcissism. In my work as a psychotherapist I hold to the concept of “healthy narcissism”. We all have an I that must be respected. We need to take up time, space, to have our own ideas and our own sense of reality in order to be healthy. At the same time, we need to recognize when we’re taking all the limelight, or using grandiosity like helium in a balloon, or using the projections of devaluation and idealization.
The flip side of narcissism is “echoism” or “codependence”, where people are reduced to wallflowers, to pleasing the other obsessively. Echo is a character who uses a kind of narcissism-by-proxy. She knows how to disappear but keeps the central narcissistic requirement of specialness alive by being bound to it externally rather than internally. Such individuals often feel intensely anxious about taking up space-time as an individual. Existence feels dangerous to Echo, so she looks for - and often finds - her Narcissus. Between the extremes of narcissism and echoism lies the imperfect, dynamic world of interdependency, of give and take, existing and loving the existence of others. In mythology, Echo was feminine, and Narcissus masculine. But just as the beauty of myth and art allows us to recognize that these two are not necessarily separate beings at all - they are frequently twin aspects of one person’s psychology - their genders are interchangeable too.
As humans, we live with narcissistic bubbles: individual, group, cultural. Our species has narcissism built into it, as Winnicott knew. Darwin, Copernicus and Freud all brought us up against our narcissism: we came from apes; our planet isn’t the centre of the universe; we’re not even ‘masters in our own home’ (mind). Democracy, environmentalism, the UN...so many of our efforts are, at root, an attempt to overcome our inherent dangerous narcissism. Religion too, often attempts to tackle it; how seemingly impossible it is for a consciousness to wrestle with its own eventual absence. For thousands of years, we’ve adhered to the notion that somehow not just consciousness, but something of our ego could survive death and exist forever in another place. Our own absence is not just frightening to us, it is unthinkable and we’re forever tempted to imagine our way around it.
Okay, so therapists can be a wordy bunch!
Here’s a snapshot of something a little more practical. I’ve sketched out some simple things to think about to challenge your own narcissistic impulses, which is often a better way around than getting angry with those we notice in others. These meditations are not exhaustive in the least - they are just meant as a sample, a beginning if you’re interested. It might be that technology will one day help us out of this pickle, but in the meantime, we have the ability to observe our own narcissism. So, take a quiet moment to self-reflect upon the following:
Bullying, particularly in schools, but also online, in workplaces and in the home, has never been something we’ve been good at combating. There are a myriad of programs and efforts at “increasing empathy” and still more that seek to increase or induce guilt in perpetrators. What appears to be frequently ignored remains unconscious...that people bully because they enjoy bullying. Bullying is intensely narcissistic, on the individual and group level. If we never teach what sadism is, and that yes, as a species we’re fully capable of enjoying being utterly vile to other people, this problem won’t be dented, let alone solved. Ask yourself honestly: have you enjoyed devaluing others? If your answer is no, try again. This time, include yourself: perhaps, like Echo, you habitually devalue your own self in the world. Does this make you feel “good”? Feeling good about feeling bad is the root of sado-masochism. Give it a name. Look it in the eye.
Interestingly, the word “narcissist” itself is frequently used as a devaluation.
At the moment, as it’s always been, there’s no greater societal danger than group narcissism, or tribalism. Today, we live in an era of mass projection, and our responsibility in this is a shared, human one. Here’s a meditative practice through which you can become more aware of your own part in these phenomena on an ongoing basis.
First, be honest with yourself about some of the groups you despise. List a few; trust me, you have some. Next, back to the group narcissism checklist: grandiosity, idealization, devaluation and splitting. You’ll need to pay particular attention to the role abstract imagination is playing. Ask yourself: are you idealizing your own group? In other words, are you seeing it as a projection, rather than the thing in itself? What is the real picture, nuanced, warts and all, without its grandiosity? Remember, idealization is every bit as dangerous as the next issue: devaluation.
Are you devaluing the other group - seeing it as a devalued abstract entity, just like a picture on the wall, rather than the complexity it truly is? What about its individual members: are they accurately reflected, or grouped together under a devaluative projection? Think of the language you use to talk of the other, think of the pictures you conjure with your mind. Finally - and by now some of this will have already been addressed: splitting. How much binary (black and white) thinking is going on in your views of your own group (your beyond-I) and of the other? Remember, language is a giveaway, even if you’re using it within your own mind.
Many clients I meet with have long since given up any formal sense of religion. But how can we cope without the comforts it once offered?
One way of approaching this from the perspective of narcissism is to think about our concepts of individuality. We have a great deal of trouble wrestling with death because unconsciously we’re wedded to the idea we’re special, unique individuals. Consciousness itself creates this perception. Perhaps this is something of a mirage; when you die, another is still alive. Consciousness is not truly “lost” in death - it continues in the psyche of humankind, and probably elsewhere too. It’s not just your children, your work or an afterlife that “continues” you.
In healthy narcissism, we recognize our need to take up time and space, our need for ego...but letting go of some of our narcissism can also be a great relief. An afterlife is right here, right now, in your fellow human beings, and even in other life forms. The historical, binary separation between our self-concept of humanity as conscious, and the natural world as unconscious, and thing-like is breaking down. We are all utterly unique, but also the same as one another. Remember that your own consciousness is going to struggle to imagine its own absence. The binary implications of death are intolerable for us, but we don’t need to conclude an afterlife with an intact ego, including our personal relationships and memories; and neither do we need to strive for genius or children as our only way of leaving a self behind when we’re gone. We can’t all be a Shakespeare or an Elton John; we can’t, and shouldn’t, all strive to leave behind a band of mini-me’s. Neither do we need to. It’s a wonder to be a spark of consciousness, but the flame goes on once the spark disappears into the night. On this planet and beyond, who knows how many flames, what colours, what fireworks...what inferno? Isn’t that beautiful enough?
Depression can snag us, and take us down. It seduces us to shrink from the world and hide away. While summer’s balm welcomes us, winter pushes us back into our homes, toward comfort, known quantities and isolation. Here are five ideas that can help you challenge the call of SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) depression.
Be mindful that we’re in unusual times. The call to hibernate and withdraw into depression is likely to be stronger this year. We tend to avoid anxiety-inducing situations, and we can stick too long in the comforts of withdrawal. This is not a balanced place to be. Weather advises, but if it determines your being this winter, be wary of becoming SAD - seasonal darkness can become your darkness, and seasonal cold can beckon your drift toward isolation and emotional deep freeze. Feeling vital and engaged is something you can have greater control over than you might realize. This winter, take up the challenge and go against nature’s grain, till you can flow with it again come spring, and relax into summer.
In fighting a war, you wouldn’t treat the opposing navy, air force, army and civil service as unrelated hostile phenomena...or rather, if you did, you might be missing a key component of the battleground. But that’s exactly how we approach the effects of a single widespread psychological mechanism that is rampant in our society - as if each instance were entirely unrelated to the whole.
Some of the forces opposing dreams of a higher civility include: bullying, racism, xenophobia, sexism, toxic work environments, scapegoating, narcissistic abuse and homophobia. Traditionally, we have fought each of these forces alone - as if there were no organizing principle behind the scenes, orchestrating the carnage before us. But is it possible that an unseen and devious enemy might be lurking just out of our vision, or are these phenomena actually as unrelated as they appear? The answer is yes, there is a common enemy, and that enemy has a name: devaluation.
We’re natural discriminators, and easily dismiss what is not important to us from a very early age. If we didn’t, we’d be overwhelmed and unable to function. Our brain discriminates all the time. As we age, we purposefully increase our ability to discriminate, thereby devaluing aspects of our environment: we hone our disgust, language, categorization, ability to order, simplify and quantify. As we enter adulthood, these unique human tools help us to gain more control of the environment around us than any other species on earth.
Our discriminating brains do not simply perceive the world as it is. Rather, we perceive a reality that has been conditioned, filtered and filled by our imagination. Contrary to popular myth, imagination is not only dreamy or expansive; it’s not something confined to creative writing or art. It can run in the opposite direction too, and contextualize self and other alike as something lesser than they actually are. This produces an abstract reality, rather than an “objective” one. A good historical example of this occurred in Babylonia around 8000 years ago, when the first cities were forming. Rather than physically counting animals in trade, and remembering who owed what, marks were made in clay tablets. These marks stood in for the actual animal, and via the birth of accounting, arguably became more important to people than the real world creature that the marks represented: the marks were units in math, accounting and trade. Separated from the animals, these abstractions could be considered and manipulated in any number of ways, without ever setting eyes on the life they described.
Human beings inhabit a unique middle ground, balancing the inner realm of imagination with the external other. From an early age, we use the former to idealize and devalue the other, using these polarized narcissistic projections in order to deal with an outside world that is far larger than us and operates on rules we cannot understand. In adult relationships, idealization is present in the blindness of first love, and in our idolization of celebrities and cultish leaders. But as if these victories of abstraction over reality were not precipitous enough, we also have idealization’s ugly twin to deal with. Devaluation is a powerful psychological mechanism, so powerful in fact that it can be addictive, and become a modus operandi for the way we approach the world, while we conveniently overlook the inherent sadism buried within it.
It’s hard for us to admit it, but we delight in our inherited power to devalue, just as we delight in our other powers of imagination. The sadism that crooks up the bully’s smile exists in much of our humour; it’s more difficult to construct jokes that are expansive and generous toward the other than it is to offer a satisfying put-down. Similarly, swearing relieves us of complexity and satisfies us because we are exercising devaluation over the Other. Our ability to use imagination to reconstruct what is given into a competing abstract reality of our own making places us “above” the natural world, in a position where we’re vulnerable to hubris.
Our ability to survey, categorize and quantify from on high leads to successful prospecting of nature; it’s much easier to erase a portion of the Amazon once it is reduced to a set of numbers on a spreadsheet, shorn of awe, empathy, without the thunderstrike of love for the other and its infinite riches. We might not be aware of the devaluation, or of the tingle of sadism this power commutes, but it is present nonetheless. The dominance of both prospector and bully alike is based entirely on the power of devaluation.
Jung was particularly disturbed by the devaluation that is inherent in scientific materialism, a trend that to this day seeks to abstract the individual into chemical components. Jung knew that the allure of this reductive doctrine was irresistible, and could be turned inward in self attack. As in his time, “nothing but…” and its variants remain classic indicators of devaluation. I’ve lost count of the number of clients who have referred to their particular suffering as “nothing but a chemical imbalance in my head”, and likewise to themselves as “nothing but a loser”, “nothing but a whiner” or other reductive equivalent, even as they nestle into depression.
Many of our great modern societal movements are attempts to shrug off devaluation and the treatment that this psychological mechanism precipitates. A racist, for example, has a worldview tainted by abstraction. In a classic, narcissistic manoeuvre, they idealize their own skin and devalue others’. The other is frequently reduced to a “nothing but” while the perpetrator elevates their own being into a position of manufactured superiority.
Likewise, many survivors of familial narcissism have grown up surrounded by what I sometimes refer to as a fairground mirror - the one that shows you a grotesque reflection of yourself, often much smaller than your actual self, or impossibly large and exaggerated - projected images which present the real child with the unending accusation that they are “not good enough” and cannot measure up. Such survivors have experienced what amounts to a formative relational trauma, leaving many terrified of the judgement (devaluation) of others, socially phobic, depressed, anxious or without direction.
The uprisings of our time, whether individual or cultural, are not only battles over rights or historical maltreatment. They are also about self-esteem, self-image and about how we are imagined. They are about the psychology of scapegoating and group narcissism, and in particular the mechanism of devaluation. Societally, people are not only sick of being devalued, they want to shrug off its associated humiliation and shame; they have the newfound courage to speak encultured sickness out loud, even through their fear. They want to free themselves of the distorted lens that society has placed on them. They want to be recognized in the real, in the here and now, as legitimate human beings, worthy of respect. The same is true for many of the clients I meet. But the temptation is always there for individuals or groups, no matter who they are, to engage in negating spirals of devaluation toward one another - it’s a power we’re never taught we possess, let alone how to use it responsibly. Instead, to this day it orchestrates from the background, just out of sight, immortal, unrestrained, forever readying its troops.
Working online is different from meeting in person, but here are a few tricks to make it easier - particularly if you’re sharing space with others:
1. Putting even quiet white noise, music or radio on by your door can help confuse noise and maintain confidentiality
2. Use headphones to “hide” one side of the conversation. If your partner is with you in a small space, they can perhaps listen to media using headphones too - to create some extra privacy.
3. Coordinate therapy sessions with others’ outdoor exercise so you have the place to yourself.
4. If children have allocated screen time, coordinate this with your therapy sessions. Better still if they too have headphones!
5. Be conscious of the “digital divide”. If you’re aware that there’s an added layer that can restrict you from diving deeper into the work of therapy, there’s a better chance of overcoming it.
6. Don’t be afraid to ask for your time. You need your own time for your own health. Therapy time is a unique, directed and important part of your time - sometimes we need to verbalize this so we can make it happen.
Therapy relies in part on us having a safe, confidential place to talk. It can allow us to let our guards down, and to drop into conversations we didn’t know we could have. By mimicking as much as possible the confidential set-up of a therapist’s office, we can still allow for that to happen.
If you have other ways that help you approach online therapy, it would be great to hear them.
Best wishes to all, stay safe and stay well,
This title is actually a subversive question because it directs you towards a line of thinking: that the only solution to increasing reliance on alcohol, food, video games or cannabis lies in a prohibitive attitude of not doing something.
Not far behind are admonishing complaints like: “I set limits but never keep to them. I’m beginning to hate myself.” Or “I indulge with a compulsive, secret rebellion - even though I know there’s no one I’m rebelling against. I have no will power.” Or the classic: “I know what I should do…but I don’t. I’m pathetic.” These are conflictual statements, each of which contains evidence of a power dynamic alongside compromised self-esteem. Who is this secret authority against whom we rebel, and then feel “bad”? Subversive actions roam these phrases like spies.
If we dispense with the wrangling over who gets to wear the crown for a moment, we can ask a different question: “Where on your list of friendships is your particular indulgence?" You have an undeniable relationship with it, even a close one, so how high up the ladder has it gone?
Perhaps we could agree that top of the list is a position best avoided.
Comfort. Warmth. Dependability. The dissolution of anxiety and furrowed brows. These are qualities we naturally derive from close relationships with others, but also by our indulgences. We can think of compulsive indulgence in terms of a human need for relationship - and instead of relying on cycles of shame and failing prohibition, try to work on a balance in our relational world that helps us feel healthy and regulated.
Diversity of relationships can help to free us from the binary, conflictual mechanics of desire and prohibition. We can use actions to further our deep need for reliable relationships - not just to other people, but to our physical, mental and emotional selves. We can reach out to nature. We can refocus on careers, hobbies and passions. We can exercise. We can apply ourselves to projects and improvement. Examples like these can help regulate emotions and lead us toward self-esteem in ways that an over-reliance on immediate gratification cannot.
We crave regulation of our emotional worlds in times of crisis: it’s natural to do so. It makes sense that you’re reaching out to a particular relationship to help you achieve that - one that’s probably convenient and feels dependable. But if that dependence is being asked to carry the lion’s share of unpleasant, crisis-level emotions such as anxiety, boredom or despair, it might be time to diversify your portfolio, and thereby to respect the other relationships in your life. You never know - they might crave you back.
Please note: This article is about dependency rather than physical addiction.
Covid-19 has caught me unprepared, just as it has caught everyone unprepared. It’s taken me a few days to adjust, but now that I’ve made the move to online therapy and have had a chance to connect with many of the clients that rely upon our work together, I’ve had some time to think about some of the mental health challenges we’re all facing in these unprecedented times. My thoughts are by no means exhaustive, and I hope to add further information and articles as we progress through this event together.
Based on my thoughts and conversations so far, here are a few common concerns it’s good to be aware of:
I send my best wishes to everyone out there. Stay safe. Take care of yourself and the others around you. Therapists like me are present, albeit online for now, if you’d like to connect.
I’d like to talk in this article about a specific kind of depression, linked with the stresses of growing up in the shadow of narcissistic parents. As I wrote in my last article “What is Narcissism”, a narcissistic parent is akin to Geocentrism: they have an insistent need for the Universe to revolve around them, and a concurrent, linked need to devalue the other. To quote the Highlander movie: “There can be only one!”
Modern developmental psychology shows that one of the fundamental things that any young child has to do is to go into the world, to be mirrored and mirror, to give and receive, to see and be seen. This is a picture, though unequal in terms of size, age and power, of mutuality. If a parent is narcissistic, none of these vital things is going to happen on a reliable basis: narcissistic people do not relate mutually, but monadically - by which I mean they insist on their own perfection, perspective and “rightness” in an effort to maintain their superiority and stability and in so doing, deny the separate, legitimate existence of others. Narcissistic parents demand conformity unto themselves, a folding-in of their children and partners, and create an environment in which rebellion feels like the only alternative to submission - a false one as it turns out, since the narrative of rebellion remains in reality “all about them”.
As an adult survivor of narcissism, it’s important to know how this has affected you. I’m going to use a fictionalized example to talk about how one outcome, depression, is experienced by many of the survivors I’ve worked with.
In Russian, the name for a Russian Doll is Matryoshka . This is the type of doll, originally made of Linden wood, that comes apart in the middle to reveal another smaller, but otherwise identical version which also splits to reveal another, and so on until the smallest doll, which is always present at the centre. The word Matryoshka has its roots in the meaning: feminine, or mother. Likewise, it’s easy to see why people associate the beings inside, especially the smallest one, with babies.
When I talk with adults with depression resulting from a traumatic relationship with a narcissistic parent, the conversation often goes in a similar direction. This is a fictional example, based on many real life ones. These are the words of “Alice”:
“I want to get out of bed, feeling refreshed. I try to do it, but I’m groggy and tired. At work, same thing. I don’t even really feel a part of it...I’m removed somehow and can’t be bothered. Other people annoy me, I’m alone wherever I go, and it’s not just that I’m unhappy - I’m filled with uncomfortable feelings. I ache, I’m anxious, I’m full of dread and negative, morbid thoughts. It gets to the point where I hate myself.”
In these words, you can hear a person who believes “I” to be a simple, unitary thing. To quote Freud (see previous essay), she believes that she’s “master of her own house”. Read more carefully, and you can hear tension between parts of her self, a bit like the parts of a Russian Doll. The outermost part can be heard with its adult, frustrated voice at the beginning of the paragraph; it appeals to the logical side of the speaker. She knows, after all, that getting up and feeling good is something she wants in order to experience health and vitality. But she’s confused and angry that the rest of her won’t play ball!
This person, in the course of therapy, becomes aware of this strange tension, and comes to question the identity of her innermost aspect - the part she is so frustrated with. Over time, we come to see that this part is acutely sensitive to the outside world and that, when triggered grows intensely anxious, sometimes hateful and urgently wants to retreat from the world - a kind of inner flight. This is what has happened in our example above: the vital core of this depressed person has retreated, deep into the waters of the mind, and none of her frustrated everyday “outer” self does much to help.
But why is this retreat happening in the first place? She asks. In response, I ask whether the innermost part of the Matryoshka might be able to tell us. This part of her sounds frightened, I say, as if it’s convinced the outside world will dominate, reject and humiliate her. Just like my father, she says, deep in thought: sometimes my mother too. Whenever I really needed to feel heard or seen, they got angry, as if I was criticising them, or they found another way to make it all about them.
As we talked, Alice began to understand her internal world and to feel a greater measure of empathy for the traumatized, innermost part of herself. It’s not long before she recognizes the tone of her frustrated “logical” outer self - it carries the tone and even some of the language that her parents used to use on her, with the same net result: the devaluation of a wounded inner child and further retreat into depression. It’s not just external relationships that Alice needs to work on, but inner ones too. Just as the Matryoshka carries the baby, Alice needs to learn how to carry this vulnerable and highly sensitive part of herself. The innermost part of the Matryoshka never goes away, but she can learn to acknowledge it differently, listen to it carefully, and never again feel that it shouldn’t exist.
A few months later, during which we continue our work together, Alice comes into my office with a broad smile. I ask her how she’s doing. She looks at me and holds my eye:
“When I first came to see you I didn’t even know how stuck I truly was. I can’t tell you everything I’ve learned, but I want to say this to you: I know that depressed side of me now. I’ve learned how to love that vulnerable, scared, young part of me...and I will never ignore her again. I’ll never let her down.”
Then she tells me of a memory that she’d held for many years, but had always concurrently dismissed:
“I can’t remember how old I was. Maybe four. Maybe six, I don’t know. I was standing in the living room, alone. It’s very hard to explain, but I had an experience, like...I’d always imagined the world to be one way, and I was suddenly made to question it. In the old way, there was just my lens on the world. You’ll laugh, but it felt to my young self that the world was incredibly complex, but it made sense that way. The new way that I was wondering about was different, unimaginably complicated, so rich I couldn’t believe it didn’t fall to pieces or explode. The new way was filled with different lenses, as if each were a world in itself - how could that be?! How could reality all hang together like that without endless conflict ensuing? And yet, I knew it was true. I knew I had to accept it, and returned to it over and over for a while, wondering if I was just silly. At the same time, I eventually knew I’d reconciled myself to something very important, and that I might have become stuck if I hadn’t. Even so, thinking about it now I realize I was still stuck - life was an endless fight after that.”
We had succeeded in bringing Alice out of her depression for now, but this innermost part of her would often want to tug her back and away from the world. Sometimes she’d talk about the baby Matryoshka sinking inside or wanting to panic and rage, and so dominate the entirety of Alice’s experience. We’d talk about how to honour, help and calm her.
With our work had come a distinct memory in which she’d first wrestled with the idea of a multi-polar world - the realization of which her parents did everything they could to squash. From here on in, we’d return to this phrase of hers: I will never ignore her again. I’ll never let her down - a phrase which carried the sense that her vulnerability was no longer alone, hated and blamed out of existence. Taking herself seriously and learning self-care will require not only mindfulness, kindness, discipline, understanding but also so-called “healthy narcissism” - the ability for Alice to become her own being, her own centre that (unlike her parents) doesn’t need to devalue and deny the other, but instead is able to build on all the hard work we’ve done together and accept the existence of the other with nothing less than love.
A couple of years ago, I wrote a small article with this title, and it must have found a home somewhere on the internet, because I regularly receive enquiries about it. I decided it was high time I followed it up, so here goes.
The concept of narcissism has moved mainstream, which can only be good news in my opinion. The more this issue is in our language and conversation the better, since the issue of narcissism haunts every human relationship - be it individual, group, political, economic or social. It’s something we just don’t seem to be able to grow through, perhaps because we’re often fixing the surface, rather tending to our underlying problematic trait.
The second thing to understand about narcissism is that it’s ubiquitous: every human has a degree of it. But the degree of our narcissism varies considerably between individuals, and over time. The first thing to understand is: what on earth is it?
Here’s my best current effort to describe narcissism: Freud (himself quite narcissistic) said that there were three great blows to mankind’s narcissism. The first blow came Copernicus, who the 16th century assured us that we were not that special - the Universe did not actually revolve around the Earth, but around the Sun, he said. The second came from Darwin, who assured us we were not made in God’s immutable image, but descended instead from apes. The third came from (of course!) Freud himself, who assured us that we weren’t even “masters of our own house” - we didn’t rule our minds; the unconscious did.
I’d like to take the first example above as a way in to the question “what is narcissism?” Copernicus was actually reviving an Ancient Greek idea when he risked the wrath of the Catholic Church by promoting the idea of Heliocentrism (Sun as centre of the Universe) instead of the widely accepted “truth”: Geocentrism (Earth as centre of the Universe). But what does it say about mankind that until the modernisation of telescopes and empirical science in general, we actually believed the entire Universe revolved around us? There’s actually only one reason to suppose this quite laughable idea is true: narcissism. Or, put another way, the unquestioning belief that we are special, and that everything revolves around us.
Now, the concept of Geocentrism also exposes something else about narcissism: it is antithetical to the idea of mutuality and recognition. In other words, the Other, the other stars, sun and planets are in no way equal to the Earth. They are lesser, and their primary role is just to keep the revolving system going, with the Special One at the centre.
Heavily narcissistic people are renowned for just these qualities: their maintenance, at all costs, of their own special status. They are perfect, and as poor Copernicus learned to his cost, they will defend the way they perceive the world at all costs. They have, you will have noted, an inflated sense of their own importance, and engage in a concurrent devaluation of the Other. If you are that Other, your “job” is not to have your own, equal and recognized identity, but to affirm and fit into the narcissistic person’s worldview.
This is why the psychological harm inflicted by narcissistic people can be quite severe. If you’re the child of a narcissistic person, you’ve been negated, devalued and pressured to fit into another person’s universe. A universe that revolves around them, in which empathy is an affront, and their entitlement is...well, an entitlement. You’ve learned to feel ashamed, at some level, of your own emergent being. This is a relational trauma, and one that can often lead to the constellation of symptoms often referred to as Complex PTSD (C-PTSD). If you’ve grown up under a Geocentrist parent, you had to buy into their perspective and conflate your identity with theirs, or you rebelled to become a scapegoat, and conflated your identity with rejection. Quite possibly, you oscillate between the two, and often you know the vortex of depression like the back of your hand, and cannot for the life you find a sense of direction that is your own.
Good psychotherapy is, in my opinion, a unique way of meeting on a level playing field. Its work is to meet you where you’ve been lost, forgotten and unrealized: to help you develop out from the narcissistic person’s shadow, into your own self and out of theirs. Along the way, it’ll be important to talk about your anxiety, your depression and the times you disappear or camouflage. It’ll be important to speak and actually be heard. And remember: the Universe(s) is actually quite the reverse of our previous narcissistic understanding. It is far larger, far more interesting, more mysterious, and much more interconnected. Actually, the closest thing to a picture of a centre around which everything revolves in swirl of material supply is not the Earth at all, but a Black Hole.
Psychotherapist, working in private practice in the Annex, Toronto.