Words by Paul Howarth, Director, PH7 Group
From my experience of working with and personally experiencing depression, I have come to understand that there are different sources that depression can come from. One central feature for me with all types of depression is that they relate to a real sense of loss. Be that a bereavement, loss of a childhood, loss of structure, loss of identity and so on. When we feel ‘loss’ in this sense mixed feelings of loneliness, anger, fear and shame are usually present.
But what is it about the ways we have learned to protect ourselves from the pain of loss and shame that becomes the barrier to us feeling a sense of security and self-worth? In this article, I’d like to explore particular problems people who have adapted a Narcissistic coping adaptation in order to feel a sense of worth and value in the world.
Firstly the word Narcissist gets a lot of bad press. The word Narcissism originated from Greek Mythology, where the young Narcissus fell in love with his own image reflected in a pool of water. The attachment he made into his own self-image meant that he could never leave the pool and ended up dying of starvation. What an interesting metaphor as the need for control and admiration ultimately blocks the meeting of authentic needs in the Narcissistic version of self.
A healthy amount of Narcissism is important. Having a sense of entitlement and self-worth enables human progression and growth. Without it, we wouldn’t have businesses, hospitals, books and leaders.
Imagine the young Narcissus looking in the pool of water and loving himself, nothing wrong with that? But what if he felt a sense of insecurity and felt that his worth and beauty was dependant on how other people viewed him not on how he viewed himself? What if in childhood he was criticised and shamed or constantly told he was brilliant as a child but didn’t really authentically feel it himself? The origins of the Narcistic wound are important. From birth we are all born with a Narcissistic defence. Our need for food, water and shelter are met, usually, immediately. From the age of separatation at around 9 months when we start to crawl, our world changes. No longer is our main caregiver (mother) responsible for meeting all our needs. From the age of 9 months to around 4 we expect everything to continue to be met, some call this the ‘terrible twos’ but it is a natural stage of growth and if children go through relatively in an ok way we learn to adapt and understand that other people exist in the world. If not, however, early decisions can be made such as ‘If I’m not in a one-up position, I don’t exist’. This is the true sadness and trauma, the fear drives the Narcissistic behaviour.
From this place of terror, we may learn to manipulate the environment around us to support the belief that we had to been seen in a certain way to feel OK. Once the identity and decision is made about who we are and how we fit into the wider human race we will set about doing everything to confirm it.
A desire for Power, Control, Criticism, Denial, Arrogance and Self-Righteousness are all ways that people who have adapted a narcissist character trait will adapt to ensure they feel OK in the world. What lies beneath this is a huge amount of uncertainty, low self-esteem and shame.
So, how can depression be induced by this type of character trait? Well let’s think about it, if people with a Narcissistic Adaptation pin their self-value on what they believe other people think about them, then when life is good and they believe others believe they are doing well they feel good. When they believe they are seen to be losing or in a one-down position they feel the loss of the image they believe they need to be to feel OK in the world, and this is when depression is induced. Denial and changing the reality of a story are excellent gifted ways Narcissistic people can keep in a relatively safe place and they will, at times, do anything to attack and/or abuse other people to ensure their safe position is held. I believe many people who feel they are ‘Bipolar’ carry some of this in their character.
Working with Narcissism
Unfortunately, many people with Narcissistic adaptations don’t make it to therapy as they are so wrapped up on their own world of denial and games of control. When they do come to therapy, they don’t really have a common goal and may come to bolster their position in life and never really have any conscious interest in changing.
Unfortunately, one of the best places to spot narcissism is at the top of a company or public sector organisations. Under the false self-presentation to the world of calm, patience and integrity is a feeling of superiority. The narcissist defence is addicted to control and power. Withholding information and passive-aggressive shaming are all good indications of narcissistic defence in operation.
Underneath their Child is longing for authentic recognition, contact and nurturing in a healthy way. Narcistic people have many great attributes, they are usually very smart, intelligent and funny and if in a safe environment they can connect with their trauma and shame and understand the origins of this, they can heal the narcissist wound and integrate back into the human race.
Many people find themselves wrapped up in Narcistic games but it important to remember that usually, the narcissist individual is usually meeting an unmet need in the other. For example, someone who is in desperate need for admiration and to be-loved. Narcistic Adaptations usually fit well with people with a Borderline Adaptation and it would be more productive to look at what unmet need the Narcissist was meeting in the self, rather than blaming the Narcissist for their actions. Otherwise, there may be a subconscious game being played keeping the person, my subconscious choice, to stay in the victim position.
When people who have adapted a Narcistic Adaptation can understand the root of their shame and heal this wound, they can start to build their own sense of self value and worth as opposed to what they feel others see in them and then this can make great strides in reducing the emotional volatility of depression and lead to contentment. They can be left with true attributes of communication and skill without the need to control.
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