Narcissistic abuse is a term that emerged in the late twentieth century, and became more prominent in the early 21st century because of the works of Alice Miller and other Neo-Freudians, rejecting psychoanalysis as being similar to the poisonous pedagogies. Miller used "narcissistic abuse" to refer to a specific form of emotional abuse of children by what she considered narcissistic parents—parents who require the child to give up their own wants and feelings in order to serve the parent's needs for esteem, which constitutes narcissistic abuse. The term has also come to be used more widely to refer to forms of abuse in adult relationships on the part of the narcissist.
Self-help culture currently assumes that someone abused by narcissistic parenting as a child likely struggles with codependency issues in adulthood. An adult who is or has been in a relationship with a narcissist likely struggles with not knowing what constitutes a "normal" relationship.
The roots of current concern with narcissistic abuse may be traced back to the later work of Sándor Ferenczi. In Ferenczi's fervid, restless, and inchoate attempts to help people over whom other analysts had thrown up their hands in despair lie the seeds of all the modern psychoanalytic theories of "schizoid," "narcissistic," and "borderline" disorders.
In his seminal paper "Confusion of Tongues Between Adults and the Child", Ferenczi argued that 'a mother can make a lifelong nurse, in fact a substitute mother, out of the child by bewailing her suffering, totally disregarding the interests of the child'.[how?] Within such distorted patterns of parent/child interaction, 'Ferenczi believed the silence, lies, and hypocrisy of the caregivers were the most traumatic aspects of the abuse'—ultimately producing what he called 'narcissistic mortification'.
Ferenczi also looked at such distortions in the therapist/patient relationship, accusing himself of sadistic (and, implicitly, narcissistic) abuse of his patients. Narcissistic abuse is commonly associated with how the baby boomer generation treated their generation X children.[why?]
Kohut, Horney and Miller
A half-century later, in the wake of Kohut's innovative pronouncement that the age of "normal narcissism" and normal narcissistic entitlement had arrived—the age, that is, of the normative parental provision of narcissistic supply—the concept of its inverse appeared: narcissistic abuse. According to Kohut, maternal misrecognition amounts to a failure to perform the narcissistic selfobject functions of "mirroring"...the cause of a narcissistic disturbance. Paternal misrecognition could produce the same result: Kohut explored for example a son's transference reproaches directed at the non mirroring father who was preoccupied with his own self-enhancement and thus refused to respond to his son's originality.
Karen Horney had already independently highlighted the character disorder—particularly the compulsive striving for love and power—resulting from the childhood hurts bred of parental narcissism and abuse. She thus heralded today's work in this area by Alice Miller and others.
Alice Miller lays special emphasis on the process of reproduction of narcissistic abuse, the idea that love relations and relations to children are repetitions of previous narcissistic distortions. Miller's early work in particular was very much in line with Kohut's tale of deficits in empathy and mirroring, with a stress on the way adults revisit and perpetuate the narcissistic wounds of their own early years in an intergenerational cycle of narcissistic abuse. In Miller's view, when abused for the sake of adults' needs, children could develop an amazing ability to perceive and respond intuitively, that is, unconsciously, to this need of the mother, or of both parents, for him to take on the role that had unconsciously been assigned to him.
Miller's work, in its emphasis on the real-life interaction of parent and child, challenged the orthodox Freudian account of Oedipal fantasy, in a sustained indictment of the moral and pedagogical underpinnings of the therapy industry; and did so at a point when 'the keyword of the 1980s was invariably "abuse".
With the passing of time (and of the polemical edge), a more slimmed-down, pragmatic version of the concept of narcissistic abuse gradually came to permeate most of the wider culture of psychotherapy.
- 21st century transactional analysis has highlighted clients who suffered some narcissistic abuse as children (that is, an injury to their developing selves), examining for instance the boy in an all-female household who only survived by developing powerful emotional antennae in order to respond to the emotional needs of his mother and sister.
- Post-Jungians have explored the after-effects of an intense narcissistic wound resulting from an oppressively unempathetic parent. In particular, Polly Young-Eisendrath emphasises how the narcissistic longings of mothers (or fathers) to amass reflected glory through their children...can bring disastrous results for mother and child if both lose their capacity for autonomous development.
- Object relations theory for its part stresses both that the most traumatizing experience of all is the absence of emotional giving from a mother or father, and that, in an intergenerational pattern, people who have been brought up by tyrannical authoritarian parents will often parent their children in the same way. Adam Phillips adds that the mother who colonizes her child and stifles gestures of autonomy and difference breeds in him or her an often unconscious craving for the dead-end justice of revenge.
- In another tradition, Julia Kristeva points out how a pairing of mothers and fathers, overprotective and uneasy, who have chosen the child as a narcissistic artificial limb and keep incorporating that child as a restoring element for the adult psyche intensifies the infant's tendency toward omnipotence.
- M. Scott Peck looked at milder but nonetheless destructive common forms of parental narcissism, as well as the depth of confusion produced by his mother's narcissism in a more serious instance.
- The term has also appeared in connection with parental alienation syndrome, in situations where by role reversal (parentification) the child, like a "living antidepressant" fills the alienating parent's emotional void': the result is that the parent clings to the child like a person who is drowning.
Only in the Freudian heartland of mainstream psychoanalysis has the term retained a more restricted, pre-Ferenczi usage. Thus in a "comprehensive dictionary of psychoanalysis" of 2009, the only appearance of the term is in connection with misuse of the couch for narcissistic gain: The fact that it is seen by some patients and therapists as a "status symbol" lends it to narcissistic abuse.
Narcissistic abuse may also occur in adult-to-adult relationships, where the narcissistic person tends to seek out a successful (independent, educated, and attractive) and empathic partner in order to gain admiration of own attributes - narcissistic supply. The narcissist creates a dynamic abuser and victim relationship through a cycle of abuse resulting in traumatic bonding that makes it hard for their partner to leave the increasingly abusive relationship.
The narcissists' relationships are characterized by a period of intense involvement and idealization of their partner, followed by devaluation, and a rapid discarding of the partner. At the beginning of a relationship with a narcissist, the partner is only shown the ideal self of the narcissist, which includes pseudo-empathy, kindness, and charm. Once the partner has committed to the relationship (e.g., through marriage or a business partnership), the true self of the narcissist will begin to emerge. The initial narcissistic abuse begins with belittling comments and grows to contempt, ignoring behavior, adultery, sabotage, and, at times, physical abuse. At the core of a narcissist is a combination of entitlement and low self-esteem. These feelings of inadequacy are projected onto the victim. If the narcissistic person is feeling unattractive they will belittle their romantic partner's appearance. If the narcissist makes an error, this error becomes the partner's fault. Narcissists also engage in insidious, manipulative abuse by giving subtle hints and comments that result in the victim questioning their own behavior and thoughts. This is termed gaslighting. Any slight criticism of the narcissist, whether actual or perceived, often triggers narcissistic rage and full blown annihilation from the narcissistic person. This can take the form of screaming tirades or quiet sabotage (setting traps, hiding belongings, spreading rumors, etc.). The discard phase can be swift and occurs once the narcissistic supply is obtained elsewhere. In romantic relationships, the narcissistic supply can be acquired by having affairs. The new partner is in the idealization phase and only witnesses the ideal self; thus once again the cycle of narcissistic abuse begins. Narcissists do not take responsibility for relationship difficulties and exhibit no feelings of remorse. Instead they believe themselves to be the victim in the relationship.
- Note: In For Your Own Good, Alice Miller herself credits Katharina Rutschky and her 1977 work Schwarze Pädagogik as the source of inspiration to consider the concept of poisonous pedagogy, which is considered as a translation of Rutschky's original term Schwarze Pädagogik (literally "black pedagogy"). Source: Zornado, Joseph L. (2001). Inventing the Child: Culture, Ideology, and the Story of Childhood. Routledge. p. 77. ISBN 0-8153-3524-5. In the Spanish translations of Miller's books, Schwarze Pädagogik is translated literally.
- James I. Kepner, Body Process (1997) p. 73
- C. Bailey-Rug, Life After Narcissistic Abuse (2015) p. i-iii
- C. Bailey-Rug, It's Not You, It's Them (2016) p. 80-1
- Janet Malcolm, Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession (London 1988) p. 134-5
- Ferenczi, "Confusion", in J. M. Masson, Freud: The Assault on Truth (London 1984) p. 293-4
- Martin S. Bergmann, Understanding Dissidence and Controversy in the History of Psychoanalysis (2004) p. 162
- John E. Gedo, The Language of Psychoanalysis (1996) p. 97
- James Grotstein, "Foreword", Neville Symington, Narcissism: A New Theory (London 1993)p. xiii
- Lior Barshack, Passions and Convictions in Matters Political (2000) p. 37
- Heinz Kohut, How Does Analysis Cure? (London 1984) p. 183
- Janet Sayers, Mothering Psychoanalysis (1991) p. 18
- Barshack, p. 37
- Henry Sussman, Psyche and Text (1993) p. 83-4
- Alice Miller, The Drama of Being a Child (1995) p. 152 and p. 9
- Lisa Appignanesi & John Forrester, Freud's Women (2005) p. 472-3
- H. Hargaden/C. Sills, Transactional Analysis (2002) p. 131
- Andrew Samuels, Jung and the Post-Jungians (London 1986) p. 228
- Polly Young-Eisendrath, Women and Desire (London 2000) p. 198
- Neville Symmington, Narcissism: A New Theory (London 1993) p. 79 and p. 75
- Adam Phillips, On Flirtation (London 1994) p. 106
- Julia Kristeva, Black Sun (New York 1989) p. 61-2
- M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Travelled By (1990) p. 175-7
- R. A. Gardner et al, The International Handbook of Parental Alienation Syndrome (2006) p. 200
- Salman Akhtar, Comprehensive Dictionary of Psychoanalysis (2009) p. 60
- Vaknin, S. (2010) Malignant Self Love
- G. David Elkin, Introduction to Clinical Psychiatry(1999) p. 171
- Zayn, C. & Dibble, K. (2007). Narcissistic Lovers: How to Cope, Recover and Move On. Publisher: New Horizon Press
- Stern, R. (2007). The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life. Publisher: Harmony
- C. Bailey-Rug, Life After Narcissistic Abuse (2015)
- Patricia Evans, Controlling People: How to Recognize, Understand, and Deal with People Who Try to Control You (2003)
- Alice Miller, The Drama of the Gifted Child (1979)
- Steven Stosny, Treating Attachment Abuse (1995)
- Estela Welldon, Mother, Madonna, Whore: The Idealization and Denigration of Motherhood (1988)