Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Gifted Child Part 4: Healthy Narcissism

I was talking with my sister a few days ago and she was complaining that some of the things she has done recently feel "selfish" to her. I mentioned that "selfishness" is not necessarily a bad thing and we definitely need a healthy level of selfishness. Today, I read part of the Alice Miller book that reminded me of that discussion.
We cathect an object narcissistically, according to Kohut (1971), when we experience it not as the center of its own activity but as part of ourselves. If the object does not behave as we expect or wish, we may at times be immeasurably disappointed or offended ... This sudden loss of control may also lead to an intense narcissistic rage.
... in the earlies stage of our life, this is the only attitude possible. Not only during the phase of primary narcissism (the symbiotic phase) but also after the gradual separation between self- and object-representation does the mother normally remain a narcissistically cathected object, a function of the developing individual.
Every child has a legitimate narcissistic need to be noticed, understood, taken seriously, and respected by his mother. ... This is beautifully illustrated in one of Winnicott's images: the mother gazes at the baby in her arms, and baby gazes at his mother's face and finds himself therein ... provided that the mother is really looking at the unique, small, helpless being and not projecting her own introjects onto the child, not her own expectations, fears, and plans for the child. In that case, the child would not find himself in the mother's face but rather the mother's own predicaments. This child would remain without a mirror, and for the rest of his life would be seeking this mirror in vain.
Healthy Narcissism
If a child is lucky enough to grow up with a mirroring mother, ... a mother who allows herself to be ``made use of'' as a function of the child's narcissistic development, ... then a healthy self-feeling can gradually develop in the growing child. ... But even a mother who is not especially warm-hearted can make this development possible, if she only refrains from preventing it. This enables the child to acquire from other people what the mother lacks. ...
I understand a healthy self-feeling to mean the unquestionable certainty that the feelings and wishes one experiences are a part of one's self. ...
This automatic, natural contact with his own emotions and wishes gives an individual strength and self-esteem. He may live out his feelings, be sad, despairing, or in need of help, without fear of making the introjected mother insecure. He can allow himself to be afraid when he is threatened, or angry when his wishes are not fulfilled. ---pp. 31--33, The Drama of the Gifted Child

As I was reading the above paragraphs, I had a bad feeling. I can remember that not long ago I was looking for approval from people around, but most importantly, from some place inside me that I could not even identify. I now understand that it was the internalized image of the criticizing/expectant people around me in the childhood. Sadly, most Iranian parents I can remember would fit in the same category:

What happens if the mother not only is unable to take over the narcissistic functions for the child but also, as very often happens, is herself in need of narcissistic supplies? Quite unconsciously, and despite her own good intentions, the mother then tries to assuage her own narcissistic needs through her child ... This does not rule out strong affection. On the contrary, the mother often loves her child as her self-object, passionately, but not in the way he needs to be loved. [Reza: Wow, this reminds me of the popular expression among Iranian mothers, ``I love you more than my self!'' Or, ``you are my body and soul!'' On the surface, these expression seem as pure love and affection, but are they really healthy? Should we love anyone, more than our own self? Can we?] Therefore, the continuity and constancy that would be so important for the child are missing, among other things, from this love. Yet, what is missing above all is the framework within which the child could experience his feelings and his emotions. Instead, he develops something the mother needs, and this certainly saves his life (the mother's or the father's love) at the time, but it nevertheless may prevent him, throughout his life, from being himself.
In such cases the natural narcissistic needs appropriate to the child's age that are here described cannot be integrated into the developing personality. They are split off, partially repressed, and retain their early, archaic form, which makes their later integration still more difficult. ---pp. 34--35, The Drama of the Gifted Child

I wish I could translate this book into Farsi and give it to people for free. This form of ``narcissistic disturbance'' is so common in Iran that it should be considered as the norm rather than the exception!!!

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