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The Issue of Separation and Individuation

It is by no means universally accepted that children go through a phase of separation from their parents and through the consequent individuation. Most psychodynamic theories [especially Klein, Mahler] are virtually constructed upon this foundation. The child is considered to be merged with his parents until it differentiates itself (through object-relations). But researchers like Daniel N. Stern dispute this hypothesis. Based on many studies it appears that, as always, what seems intuitively right is not necessarily right. In "The Interpersonal World of the Infant: A View from Psychoanalysis and Developmental Psychology" [New York, Basic Books – 1985], Stern seems to, inadvertently, support Kohut by concluding that children possess selves and are separate from their caregivers from the very start. In effect, he says that the picture of the child, as depicted by psychodynamic theories, is influenced by the way adults see children and childhood in retrospect. Adult disorders (for instance, the pathological need to merge) are attributed to children and to childhood.

This view is in stark contrast to the belief that children accept any kind of parents (even abusive) because they depend on them for their self-definition. Attachment to and dependence on significant others is the result of the non-separateness of the child, go the classical psychodynamic/object-relations theories. The self is a construct (in a social context, some add), an assimilation of the oft-imitated and idealised parents plus the internalisation of the way others perceive the child in social interactions.

The self is, therefore, an internalised reflection, an imitation, a series of internalised idealisations. This sounds close to pathological narcissism. Perhaps it is really a matter of quantity rather than quality.


D. Childhood Traumas and the Development of the Narcissistic Personality

Traumas are inevitable. They are an inseparable part of life. But in early childhood – especially in infancy (ages 0 to 4 years) they acquire an ominous aura, an evil, irreversible meaning. No matter how innocuous the event and the surrounding circumstances, the child's vivid imagination is likely to embed it in the framework of a highly idiosyncratic horror story.

Parents sometimes have to go away due to medical or economic conditions. They may be too preoccupied to stay attuned at all times to the child's emotional needs. The family unit itself may be disintegrating with looming divorce or separation. The values of the parent may stand in radical contrast to those of society.

To adults, such traumas are very different to abuse. Verbal and psychological-emotional abuse or neglect are judged by us to be more serious "offences". But this distinction is lost on the child. To him, all traumas are of equal standing, though their severity may differ together with the permanence of their emotional outcomes. Moreover, such abuse and neglect could well be the result of circumstances beyond the abusive or negligent parent's control. A parent can be physically or mentally handicapped, for instance.

But the child cannot see this as a mitigating circumstance because he cannot appreciate it or even plainly understand the causal linkage.

Where even the child itself can tell the difference is with physical and sexual abuse. Here is a co-operative effort at concealment, strong emotions of shame and guilt, repressed to the point of producing anxiety and "neurosis". Sometimes the child perceives even the injustice of the situation, though it rarely dares to express its views, lest it be abandoned by its abusers. This type of trauma which involves the child actively or passively is qualitatively different and is bound to yield long-term effects such as dissociation or severe personality disorders. These are violent, premeditated traumas, not traumas by default, and the reaction is bound to be violent and active. The child becomes a reflection of its dysfunctional family – it represses emotions, denies reality, resorts to violence and escapism, disintegrates.

One of the coping strategies is to withdraw inwards, to seek gratification from a secure, reliable and permanently-available source: from the self. The child, fearful of further rejection and abuse, refrains from further interaction. Instead, it builds its own kingdom of grandiose fantasies where it is always loved and self-sufficient. This is the narcissistic strategy which leads to the development of a narcissistic personality.


E. The Narcissist's Family

"For very young children, self-esteem is probably best thought to consist of deep feelings of being loved, accepted, and valued by significant others rather than of feelings derived from evaluating oneself against some external criteria, as in the case of older children. Indeed, the only criterion appropriate for accepting and loving a new-born or infant is that he or she has been born. The unconditional love and acceptance experienced in the first year or two of life lay the foundation for later self-esteem, and probably make it possible for the pre-schooler and older child to withstand occasional criticism and negative evaluations that usually accompany socialisation into the larger community.

As children grow beyond the pre-school years, the larger society imposes criteria and conditions upon love and acceptance. If the very early feelings of love and acceptance are deep enough, the child can most likely weather the rebuffs and scoldings of the later years without undue debilitation. With increasing age, however, children begin to internalise criteria of self-worth and a sense of the standards to be attained on the criteria from the larger community they observe and in which they are beginning to participate. The issue of criteria of self-esteem is examined more closely below.

Cassidy's [1988] study of the relationship between self-esteem at age five and six years and the quality of early mother-child attachment supports Bowlby's theory that construction of the self is derived from early daily experience with attachment figures. The results of the study support Bowlby's conception of the process through which continuity in development occurs, and of the way early child-mother attachment continues to influence the child's conception and estimation of the self across many years. The working models of the self derived from early mother-child inter-action organise and help mould the child's environment 'by seeking particular kinds of people and by eliciting particular behaviour from them' [Cassidy, 1988, p. 133]. Cassidy points out that very young children have few means of learning about themselves other than through experience with attachment figures. She suggests that if infants are valued and given comfort when required, they come to feel valuable; conversely, if they are neglected or rejected, they come to feel worthless and of little value.

In an examination of developmental considerations, Bednar, Wells, and Peterson [1989] suggest that feelings of competence and the self-esteem associated with them are enhanced in children when their parents provide an optimum mixture of acceptance, affection, rational limits and controls, and high expectations. In a similar way, teachers are likely to engender positive feelings when they provide such a combination of acceptance, limits, and meaningful and realistic expectations concerning behaviour and effort [Lamborn et al., 1991]. Similarly, teachers can provide contexts for such an optimum mixture of acceptance, limits, and meaningful effort in the course of project work as described by Katz and Chard [1989]."

(Lilian G. Katz – Distinctions between Self-Esteem and Narcissism: Implications for Practice – October 1993 – ERIC/EECE Publications)


F. The Narcissist's Mother - A Suggestion for an Integrative Framework

The whole structure of the narcissistic disorder is a derivative of the prototypical relationship with the mother.

This "mother" usually is inconsistent and frustrating in her behaviour. By being so, she thwarts the narcissist's ability to trust others and to feel secure with them. By emotionally abandoning him – she fosters in him fears of being abandoned and the nagging sensation that the world is a dangerous, unpredictable place. She becomes a negative, devaluing voice, which is duly incorporated in the Superego.

Our natural state is anxiety, the readiness – physiological and mental – to "fight or flight". Research indicates that the Primary Object (PO) is really the child, rather than its mother. The child identifies itself as an object almost at birth. It explores itself, reacts and interacts, it monitors its bodily reactions to internal and external inputs and stimuli. The flow of blood, the peristaltic movement, the swallowing reflex, the texture of saliva, the experience of excretion, being wet, thirsty, hungry or content – all these distinguish the selfless child from its self. The child assumes the position of observer and integrator early on. As Kohut said, it has both a self and the ability to relate to objects. This intimacy with a familiar and predictable object (oneself) is a primary source of security and the precursor to emerging narcissism. The mother is only a Secondary Object (SO). It is the second object that the child learns to relate to and it has the indispensable developmental advantage of being transcendental, external to the child. All meaningful others are Auxiliary Objects (AO).

A "good enough" SO serves to extend the lessons of the PO and apply them to the world at large. The child learns that the external environment can be as predictable and safe as the internal one. This titillating discovery leads to a modification of naive or primitive narcissism. It recedes to the background allowing more prominent and adaptive strategies to the fore. In due time – and subject to an accumulation of the right positively reinforcing experiences, a higher form of narcissism develops: self-love and self-esteem.

If, however, SO fails, the child reverts back to the PO and to its correlated narcissism. This is regression in the chronological sense. But it is an adaptive strategy. The emotional consequences of rejection and abuse are too difficult to contemplate. Narcissism ameliorates them by providing a substitute object. This is an adaptive, survival-oriented act. It provides the child with time to "come to grips with its thoughts and feelings" and perhaps to come back with a different strategy more suited to the new – unpleasant and threatening – data. So the interpretation of this regression as a failure of object love is wrong. The SO, the object chosen as the target of object love, was the wrong object. Object love continues with a different, familiar, object. The child changes objects (from his mother to his self), not his capacity for object-love or its implementation.

If this failure to establish a proper object-relation persists and is not alleviated, all future objects are perceived as extensions of the Primary Object (the self), or the objects of a merger with one's self, because they are perceived narcissistically.

There are, therefore, two modes of object perception:

The narcissistic (all objects are perceived as variations of the perceiving self) and the social (all objects are perceived as others or self-objects).

As we said earlier, the core (narcissistic) self – precedes language or interaction with others. As the core self matures it can develop either into a True Self OR into a False Self. The two are mutually exclusive (a person with False Self has no functioning True Self). The distinction of the False Self is that it perceives others narcissistically. As opposed to it, the True Self perceives others socially.

The child constantly compares his first experience with an object (his internalised PO) to his experience with his SO. The internalisations of both the PO and the SO are modified as a result of this process of comparison. The SO is idealised and internalised to form what I call the SEGO (loosely, the equivalent of Freud's Superego plus the internalised outcomes of social interactions throughout life). The internalised PO is constantly modified to be rendered compatible with input by the SO (for example: "You are loved", or "You are a bad boy"). This is the process by which the Ideal Ego is created.

The internalisations of the PO, of the SO and of the outcomes of their interactions (for instance, of the results of the aforementioned constant comparison between them) form what Bowlby calls "working models". These are constantly updated representations of both the self and of Meaningful Others (what I call Auxiliary Others). The narcissist's working models are defective. They pertain to his self and to ALL others. To the narcissist, ALL others are meaningful because NO ONE has BEEN meaningful hitherto. This forces him to resort to crude abstractions (imagine the sheer number of working models needed).

He is forced to dehumanise, objectify, generalise, idealise, devalue, or stereotypise in order to cope with the sheer volume of potential interactions with meaningful objects. In his defence against being overwhelmed, he feels so superior, so inflated – because he is the only REAL three-dimensional character in his life.

Moreover, the narcissist's working models are rigid and never updated because he does not feel that he is interacting with real objects. How can one feel empathic, for instance, towards a representation or an abstraction or an object of gratification?

A matrix of possible axes of interaction between child and mother can be constructed.

The first term in each of these equations of interaction describes the child, the second the mother.

The Mother can be:

  • Accepting ("good enough");

  • Domineering;

  • Doting/Smothering;

  • Indifferent;

  • Rejecting;

  • Abusive.

The Child can be:

  • Attracted;

  • Repelled (due to unjust mistreatment, for instance).

The possible axes are:

Child / Mother

How to read this table:

Attraction – Attraction/Accepting means that the child is attracted to his mother, his mother is attracted to him and she is a Winnicottean "good enough" (accepting) mother.

  1. Attraction – Attraction/Accepting
    (Healthy axis, leads to self-love)

  1. Attraction – Attraction/Domineering
    (Could lead to personality disorders such as avoidant, or schizoid, or to social phobia, etc.)

  1. Attraction – Attraction/Doting or Smothering
    (Could lead to Cluster B Personality Disorders)

  1. Attraction – Repulsion/Indifferent
    [passive-aggressive, frustrating]
    (Could lead to narcissism, Cluster B disorders)

  1. Attraction – Repulsion/Rejecting
    (Could lead to personality disorders such as paranoid, borderline, etc.)

  1. Attraction – Repulsion/Abusive
    (Could lead to DID, ADHD, NPD, BPD, AHD, AsPD, PPD, etc.)

  1. Repulsion – Repulsion/Indifferent
    (Could lead to avoidant, schizoid, paranoid, etc. PDs)

  1. Repulsion – Repulsion/Rejecting
    (Could lead to personality, mood, anxiety disorders and to impulsive behaviours, such as eating disorders)

  1. Repulsion – Attraction/Accepting
    (Could lead to unresolved Oedipal conflicts and to neuroses)

  1. Repulsion – Attraction/Domineering
    (Could have the same results as axis 6)

  1. Repulsion – Attraction/Doting
    (Could have the same results as axis 9)

This, of course, is a very rough draft-matrix. Many of the axes can be combined to yield more complex clinical pictures.

It provides an initial, coarse, map of the possible interactions between the PO and the SO in early childhood and the unsavoury results of bad objects internalised.

The results of this POSO matrix continue to interact with AO to form a global self-evaluation (self-esteem or sense of self-worth). This process – the formation of a coherent sense of self-esteem – starts with POSO interactions within the matrix and continues roughly till the age of 8, all the time gathering and assimilating interactions with AO (=meaningful others). First, a model of attachment relationship is formed (approximately the matrix above). This model is based on the internalisation of the Primary Object (later, the self).

The attachment interaction with SO follows and following a threshold quantity of interactions with AO, the more global self is formed.

This process of the formation of a global self rests on the operation of a few critical principles:

  1. The child, as we said earlier, develops a sense of "mother-constancy". This is crucial. If the child cannot predict the behaviour (let alone the presence) of his mother from one moment to another – it would find it hard to believe in anything, predict anything and expect anything. Because the self, to some extent (some say: to a large extent), is comprised of the adopted and internalised outcomes of the interactions with others – negative outcomes get to be incorporated in the budding self as well as positive ones. In other words, a child feels loveable and desirable if it is indeed loved and wanted. If it is rejected, it is bound to feel worthless and worthy only of rejection. In due time, the child develops behaviours which yield rejection by others and the outcomes of which thus conform with his self-perception.

  1. The adoption and assimilation of the judgement of others and its incorporation into a coherent sense of self-worth and self-esteem.

  1. The discounting or filtering-out of contrarian information. Once Bowlby's "working models" are at work, they act as selective membranes. No amount of external information to the contrary alters these models significantly. Granted, shifts in RELATIVE positions may and do occur in later stages of life. A person can feel more or less accepted, more or less competent, more or less integrated into a given social setting. But these are changes in the values of parameters WITHIN a set equation (=the working model). The equation itself is rarely altered and only by very serious life crises.

Reprinted with permission from:

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