On the last track, we discussed three aspects of a narcissistic client’s need for manipulation. These three aspects of a narcissistic client’s need for manipulation included: parental attention in early childhood; splitting of the identity; and seduction as power.
On this track, we will examine three aspects of the narcissistic client’s need to control emotion and the connection to past traumatic experiences. These three aspects of the narcissistic client’s need to control emotion and the connection to past traumatic experiences include: horror; the fear of insanity; and repression of feelings.
Three Aspects of the Narcisstic Client's Need to Control Emotion
Aspect #1: Horror
The first aspect of traumatic events and their relationship to narcissistic clients is the horror the event incites in the client. The traumatic events that most narcissistic clients experience in early childhood rarely have to do with personal threat to the client. Rather, the client witnesses traumatic events happening to others. He or she may feel disgusted or horrified, and also helpless to stop the situation.
Instead of feeling a threat, the client may feel outside of the event, and in addition may not be able to comprehend the situation at the time. This idea of incomprehensibility directly affects the client’s ability to understand and interpret his or her own feelings. They may give up on feelings and emotions altogether, and it is at this time that the narcissistic client begins to numb him or herself.
Gerald, age 34, recounted several instances in which he witnessed horrific events occurring to his family members. Gerald stated, "When I was five, I remember my mom becoming hysterical a lot and when that happened, my dad would fly into a rage. He beat her pretty badly and my sisters would start crying. Then he would beat them too. I was younger but understood that crying got you beaten, so I refused to cry. He never beat me. I don’t remember being horrified, but I guess it was a terrible thing for him to do."
Because Gerald witnessed the brutal beating of his mother at such an early age, he was ill-equipped to understand and comprehend the drama unfolding. He could not frame his father’s actions as unwarranted or brutal, just that he himself could not understand what was happening at that moment. Coupled with the lesson he learned that "crying got you beaten," Gerald began to suppress his emotions as a defense mechanism of feeling unable to understand. Think of your Gerald. What traumatic events has he or she witnessed?
Aspect #2: The Fear of Insanity
The second aspect of traumatic events and their relationship to narcissistic clients is the fear of insanity. As we have just discussed, traumatic events can be difficult to interpret. This incomprehensibility leads to a questioning of one’s sanity. What the client experiences does not accord with the client’s image of reality. To avoid the resulting mental confusion, the client must dissociate and deny all feelings connected with the experience.
The narcissistic client faces the risk of being overwhelmed by feelings and going wild, or "insane" in their own words. In my experience, every narcissistic client is afraid of becoming insane because the potential for insanity, he or she believes, is in his or her personality. Many times this is a result of what the client has observed of the parent in young childhood.
Bob, age 45, had been brutally attacked by a hitchhiker. The disturbed hitchhiker hit Bob in the back of the head with a rock, but did not try to rob or continue the violence. Even during this encounter, Bob stated that he was not afraid, even though he was sure his attacker was going to kill him. When I asked him about his childhood, Bob recalled that his father had beaten him on multiple occasions, without provocation.
He stated, "He used to hit me on the head with his fists. I tried to protect my head with my arms, but he would continue to hit me until I fell to the floor. I thought he was psychotic. I grew up thinking my father was actually crazy and that I was going to be crazy." Bob’s emotional withdrawal came as a direct result from his father’s own brutality. During the hitchhiker’s attack, Bob slipped into complete incapacity. He adopted an attitude of submission, just as he had done with his father. In Bob’s mind, he may become insane if he also reacted irrationally.
Aspect #3: Repression of Feeling
The third aspect of traumatic events and their relationship to narcissistic clients is the repression of feeling. As we discussed earlier on in the track, clients who witness a traumatic event or who are the victims of a tragic event will begin to repress the feeling of horror and fear that they feel at that time in an effort to defend themselves against the overwhelming flood of emotion.
Narcissistic clients, then, will continue to repress these emotions even during the recalling of their traumatic memories. Many clients will report their childhood beatings and nightmares with often an even tone to their voice. They do not sound afraid or hurt. Rather, they state the incident matter-of-factly and without emotion. Obviously, this is again the learned behavior resulting from the traumatic event.
Technique: Grieving Pantomime
Hank, age 47, had described to me an incident in which he witnessed his mother be brutally beaten by a mugger when he was only nine years old. Although an incident like that may have incited feelings of anger, fear, or incomprehension, Hank said he felt none of those things. He stated, "The world is big and bad and harsh. What is my crying about it going to solve?" During that incident, Hank had become keenly aware of the adult world and its harsh reality. In his mind, he grew up that very day, at the young age of nine.
Because of his inability to feel the emotional repercussions of this incident, Hank was never able to grieve for his loss of childhood. The resulting consequences included an inability to feel and a prolonged state of depression.
To help Hank grieve for the loss of his childhood, I suggested that he, along with clients like Gerald and Bob, try the "Grieving Pantomime" exercise. This exercise requires the clients to act as though they are crying or mourning. In my experience, I have found that merely acting out certain emotions facilitates the expression of the bottled up emotions. I asked Hank to think about his mother and the day she was mugged. I then asked him to sporadically let out a verbal sob. By making a noise, I believed that the appearance of sadness would instigate the genuine expression of sadness.
Soon, tears formed and Hank was truly crying. I asked Hank what he was feeling. For the first time since the incident, Hank admitted, "I feel very vulnerable right now. I don’t want the bad man to hurt my mom! Why is he hurting my mom! Is she going to die? Am I going to die?" Think of your Hank. How would you facilitate his or her grief for past traumatic events?
On this track, we discussed three aspects of the narcissistic client’s need to control emotion and the connection to past traumatic experiences. These three aspects of the narcissistic client’s need to control emotion and the connection to past traumatic experiences included: horror; the fear of insanity; and repression of feelings.
On the next track, we will examine three aspects of anger and its relation to the narcissistic client’s need for power and control. These three aspects of anger and its relation to the narcissistic client’s need for power and control include: the right to be angry; physical body restraint; and false anger.
Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Josephs, L. (2015). Review of Traumatic narcissism: Relational systems of subjugation [Review of the book Traumatic narcissism: Relational systems of subjugation, by D. Shaw]. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 32(1), 221–227.
Orth, U., & Luciano, E. C. (2015). Self-esteem, narcissism, and stressful life events: Testing for selection and socialization. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 109(4), 707–721.
Zamostny, K. P., Slyter, S. L., & Rios, P. (1993). Narcissistic injury and its relationship to early trauma, early resources, and adjustment to college. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 40(4), 501–510.
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