Friday, August 6, 2010

Parental Narcissism, The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

You might think the  words “parent” and “narcissism” don’t seem to go together, right?

Actually, wrong.  

First a short dissertation on “narcissism.” Narcissism, self-love, is really key to human survival and healthy development. It morphs over time, as we grow, from believing ourselves to be the center of the world as young children, to something maybe slightly less over-weaning, like being confident of our abilities, and having the instinct for self preservation. Having a good relationship with our narcissism helps one navigate adult life.

I know a 4 year old who confides to me that he is “super-good” at soccer, running off to kick the ball to kingdom come. He thinks he’s great, and this makes him happy, happy.

Over time he will probably come to evaluate his soccer skills in a more modest and balanced way.

Becoming a parent often gives us another stab at satisfying these wishes, for we do become the center of our young children’s universe and for a substantial period of time, we get to vicariously enjoy their triumphs, their achievements, their incredibly rapid development. The besotted-ness that is the norm for young parents absolutely in love with their offspring could be viewed as a very benign form of narcissism, the child as an extension of self.

This is mostly good. It facilitates the kind of adoration that young children need to grow. It is fertilizer, sunshine, and water.

That’s the good stuff.

The bad stuff comes in when they are just themselves, not us, not an extension of us. Inevitably they will frustrate our expectations, the ones we are aware of and the ones outside of our awareness. This happens in small ways when they are small and in huge ways when they are not so small.

A digression: The Simpsons. As popular as this TV show is, I have probably seen a half dozen episodes in my lifetime. Strangely I saw the same one twice, as if it were calling to me! This featured Lisa, the saxophone playing sister and the blue haired mother. I was blown away by how very smart was the script. As I recall, Lisa had the blues. She felt unpopular and rejected at school. She was frankly depressed. Marge, the blue haired mom, had trouble with this and kept telling Lisa to cheer up, it wasn’t so bad, don’t be sad, etc., etc. This drove Lisa further into her depression.

One night the mother had a dream, I don’t remember the content. But the dream woke her up to the realization that Lisa’s doldrums were making her, Marge, feel inadequate and she was not really thinking of Lisa when she told her to cheer up and get over her bad feelings. Man, how often does that happen in our lives, that we filter our children’s problems through our own injured narcissism. We can’t stand their pain maybe for lots of reasons, but one may be that it makes us feel we have failed to do our job, it’s a reflection on us. Lisa ended up feeling alone.

Marge teaches us an important lesson about parental narcissism, one that the writer’s of The Simpsons think is important to reflect on. How often are we motivated when responding to our children difficulties with school, friends, sports, whatever, with our own injured self pride forgetting to try to get closer to their trouble, their pain, their felt experience. That can transform a problem for both parent and child.

What do you think?

1 comment:

  1. The Simpsons episode about the girl being sad and the parent telling her to cheer up , was my experience growing up to the 10th degree!!