Narcissism and Inadequate Mirroring
In the early stages of an individual’s life, the soul is not capable of self-reflection or self-monitoring. So, for the helpless child to grow and develop a healthy identity through the first personality, it needs both reflection and monitoring to be provided from outside itself.
In psychological terms, this natural phenomenon is known as “mirroring”. So, when a child comes into the world, it needs caring, loving eyes to mirror back to them that they are loved. Mirroring includes how the mother (or another authoritative caregiver) holds the infant or the tone she uses to communicate with her baby.
The way in which she reinforces or suppresses her child’s spontaneity, (either through her fear, anxiety or calmness). Or how she expresses approval and sets necessary boundaries without shaming or threatening the child.
The mirroring of loving, calm, and non-judgemental supportive eyes promotes “moments of oneness” with the mother (or other authoritative caregivers), creating the connection and bonding that makes the child feel safe and protected in the world. It is through loving, compassionate mirroring that the child senses that they are accepted, good-enough, valued, treasured as a worthy individual, and loved.
This is vital for building the child’s confidence and self-worth, and for developing a healthy and strong sense of self within the growing child.
It is through the mirroring empathic eyes of the mother that the child also learns that it is admired, understood and appreciated, allowing them to grow, develop and mature in a natural way. The mother’s (or authoritative caregiver’s) active mirroring cultivates the child’s essence and helps the growing child to trust its developing True Self.
When the mirroring comes from an individual who is well attuned and in a deep soul relationship with themselves, the developing child can then learn how to take that self-worth from within itself for building and developing the True Self and carrying that forward for building healthy future relationships with others throughout their life.
Without adequate attachment and mirroring, the child experiences the core wound of abandonment. Gravely wounded the child becomes emotionally detached and separates from its True Self, forming a False Self to build their ego identity, resulting in what Kohut (1971) described as a narcissistic personality.
Without a real sense of self, the child’s narcissistic personality becomes established by reactions to the environment, and everyone within it. Sadly, not all infants experience perfect attachment and mirroring. Many mothers (or authoritative caregivers) are unaware of the needs of the child; they act harsh, impatient, aggressive, and resentful with the child, making the mirroring and bonding process stunted, and leaving the child feeling very unsafe.
In such an environment, they will experience the mother’s voice as cold and harsh, her touch as insensitive and unloving.
When the mirroring comes from a parent who is not entirely in touch with their true self, the child will be unable to get a real sense of their true nature, and this will prevent them from growing and developing their true self-worth. They will internalise themselves as being deficient, wrong, not good enough in some way, and they will spend their life looking for validation through a myriad of mirroring eyes; which, of course, will never convince them that they are alright as they are. Because of faulty mirroring, the individual is then unlikely to develop and mature correctly and entirely.
Although the exact cause of narcissism is unknown, many theorists agree that it is inadequate mirroring that is the fundamental cause of a narcissistic personality forming. Isolated from its True Nature, the child, is separated from its True Self and develops a false self in its place.
Now separated from their True Self the child’s ego-personality development is arrested, resulting in the ego taking over, where “Ego” then rules supreme.
The child will continue into adulthood where the second personality will be arrested, and the ego will not be transcended, leaving them unable to go beyond their ego self, with total disregard for others.
In this corrupt state, unconsciously the growing child will go on to develop a position of superiority. The superiority is a good way for them to mask their feelings of inferiority that results from the separation from one’s True Self.
Guilt and shame for having needs, the child will look for ways of getting those needs met through other means, demanding special attention and empathy from anyone they can manipulate, and this is likely to continue throughout its adult life.
When they fail to get the mirroring that they want, their grandiosity will lead to their becoming enraged and punishing; the angry, sensitive inner child is always ready to react no matter what age they are. It is only when a narcissist is basking in the light and getting empathy and mirroring from others that they feel validated.
When validated they are happy, secure and satisfied bunnies. But, if anybody should outshine them, or the mirroring stops, their mood will suddenly change, and they will feel narcissistically wounded.
Always on the lookout for a sense of safety, security, esteem, value and worth, the narcissist constantly searches for mirroring eyes that will mirror the validation, acceptance, approval, love, and self-worth that they desperately crave. They are particularly attracted to compassionate, empathic, loving people, and especially attracted to those qualities that they lack in themselves.
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My boundary deficient mother got pregnant again one month after I was born. My sister, 10 months younger than I, was very spoiled by my mother, while she put a virtual black hat on me and smeared me to her family, (her words repeatedly were “my family, not yours”) since I was a child. We did not spend as much time with relatives as most families, as our parents traveled and partied (socialized, but it was the ’70’s and they drank like fish) so everyone believed her that first I was “bad,” and later, after she drunkenly attacked me in an irrational rage, traumatizing me, that I was “mentally ill.” From then on, it became my mother’s “loving” obsession to backhandedly get me the help she and her partner in crime, my father (her heavy with the money and power) diagnosed me as needing, and she used one of my former friends to do this after she found out Jennie’s mother was a psychiatrist (whom had given me a letter of recommendation for law school, which I never got to go to, due to them putting me on some kind of community black list, due to my mother’s accusations and baiting new flying monkeys thru the money she and my father were willing to put into doing this to me as punishment for moving thousands of miles away). My life was destroyed. Someone in a position of knowledge, experience, and power ought to stand up for those who just want to live their lives, as opposed to only ever being thwarted, due to power imbalances.
I would fully believe this, but when I tried to unconditionally love and accept the narcissistic abuser they shunned me. They want love but they cannot accept it. I could not keep him content with my love and unwavering loyalty.
Thank you for your work Christine. While I see the logic in the idea of “lack of mirroring” as partially valid, at least in infancy, I question the premise that it is the only precipitating factor. As a mother of an obviously adult “narcissist” (according to your stated qualification) and another child who is not narcissistic…and as someone who has worked with children of all ages for 45 years and have a degree in child development, I would have to add there are many other precipitating factors, in my opinion.
I do believe there is a natural proclivity in brain structure and development that precipitates a narcissistic personality. There are also factors involving drug abuse (including huffing) and the behavior of peers, teachers, and expectations related to a child having a high IQ (and the accompanying expectations and “glories”) in tandem with a hyper-sensitive initial nature and “geek status”. The unbalanced expectations placed on my “narcissistic” child by teachers and peers was over-whelming. Despite years and years of therapy and helps, he ultimately made choices he found his intelligence allowed him to manipulate out of, blame shift, and more.
I can assure you my child received a more than adequate amount of mirroring and healthy nurturing. I was a very conscientious, warm, and welcoming parent, which can also be attested to by the parents of the thousands of children I have nurtured through the years. So while my own “sensitive nature” has caused me “false guilt” in this regard, I am able to recognize that while I was not a perfect parent, to an especially challenging “gifted child”, I was a committed and responsible parent who was, is, and remain nothing more and nothing less than human and trying. This, now adult child is now a source of many griefs and sorrows. While we of course continue to love him, his hate and rage toward us is so far out of bounds as to be dangerous and threatening on many levels. We have established boundaries we never dreamed would be required of us and quite simply, it hurts like nothing else to be the targets of his divisiveness and hatred.
I tell you all this, so you will consider the many factors involved in the development of a narcissistic personality disorder. And so others may be comforted to know they are not alone in the abject sadness involved in having a relationship with such a personality, whether it be a parent, a spouse, a sibling, or a child (which is not usually addressed). Thank you for taking time to read this. Thank you again for helping us to better understand what is so very difficult for some of us to fathom. And yes, even while existing inside safe boundaries, trying to better understand the pain I am unable to heal in my child. It’s so very hard.
I am a child of a narcissist and a graduate student obtaining my degree in Clinical Mental Health. My brother (older) is a bonafide narcissist and I am not. I was, however, a flying monkey for many years. I do not label flying monkeys as narcissists because they know not what they endeavor to do. They merely take charge when presented with a narcissist’s plight. The narcissist is a VERY skilled manipulator who’s sole goal in life is to feed their own needs. It is because of this dynamic that they are amazing manipulators. They spend their lives honing their craft and, therefore, are compelling and convincing “victims”. Most never seek out treatment for this affliction but often seek it out for what they perceive is “depression” or, someone else’s affliction they are seeking help for (a spouse or child). It is NEVER their affliction because they embody perfection and “the good fight”. In short, never underestimate the power of a narcissist; especially one who has raised their own flying monkeys. They can justify and excuse pretty much anything and everything they do. All they require is an audience (stage) and their own charisma.
Christine it took my a long time to find someone so helpful. Everyone writing in are very articulate in their description of their lives. I’m hoping to reach that. Right now I can’t find the words to describe my unhappiness and situation. I only know by my therapist that a decision has to be made…stay or leave. 68 and married over 30 years. My spouse has no othet family or friends so I would feel like I would be abandoning him. On the other side he did abandon his kids and family long before my time and has only wanted ME as his friend. Bizarre. I only found out about narcissism in the last year and hate that I didn’t act when I saw the red flags.
This is very true. My mother was narcissistic. I am co-dependent and married to a narcissist. I am over 60 and over my head in this relationship.
Lack of adequate mirroring can leave the empath, from time to time, in a truly bereft place in their lives — one that can ultimately be filled only by God.
It is interesting to try to fathom why narcissism becomes a coping mechanism for some, while others who did not have the kind of love, nurturing, and mirroring that we needed, go through life carrying the very heavy weight of the cross that only understanding the suffering of Jesus Christ can alleviate. We go to God for our mirroring.
Not so, the narcissist, not so; the narcissist is his own god. The damage and sorrow the narcissist brings to his own family is unfathomably cruel and sinister but there is no reasoning with them. They can not be embarrassed, insulted, or humbled. There is no reasoning with someone who has sold out, and it seems that the narcissist sells out to the devil instead of God.
The ego serves a purpose in our developmental years as it represents the many facets of our external self or how we reflect our internal self to the world. Maturity, it seems, is the breadth of our ability to overcome ego identification and to develop ourselves spiritually. One of the most important things for us to remind ourselves of is that our life here on earth is temporal and really does not last for a very long time; like it or not, we are mortals. Many of us come to understand, after enduring all kinds of hardships and heartache when we accept that we are the victims of narcissistic parents, siblings, or significant others, that our reward is not in this lifetime, but of the next, and the cross we have been given to carry is what Jesus Christ carried for all of us; the suffering is not in vain but will continue as long as people refuse to accept suffering.
This is largely the problem narcissists battle. They can not accept suffering of any kind. They lack the courage to look at themselves in the mirror with eyes that are open and hearts not hardened by their own bravado. It is really a very sad and tragic way for them to live, yet they often give the outward appearance of slick success. Our entire culture has fallen prey to narcissistic worship, making idols of corrupt Hollywood “stars” who are void of moral substance. Instead of seeking God, the most fashionable “group think” is what the narcissist subscribes to; they hate America, they hate God, they hate morality, they hate the TRUTH. That is not to say churches aren’t filled with plenty of narcissists; they are. Oh, yes, the holier than thou do-gooders who make their piety public while committing adultery.
It is very difficult to learn how to pick up the pieces of our lives, even at age 60 when we are past middle age, after our souls have been crushed by the abuses of narcissists. Perhaps bereavement support is viable for those grieving the dead souls of the narcissists in our lives. For some of us, the unconditional love of a pet; a cat, dog, horse, bird, and so on, can provide the kind of mirroring our hearts need to keep faith in the true meaning of love. God gives us flora and fauna to soothe our souls with the unfathomable beauty of His creation.
We live in an imperfect world and can only hope that there is perfection in the Heaven we are promised if only we truly BELIEVE.
skylar – EXCELLENT RESPONSE. You are correct on all counts.
So could inadequate mirroring and/or other unaddressed needs (“abandonment”) lead directly to high levels of emotional numbing later in life, thus making it difficult to impossible to get effective (bottom-up) therapy? Do you know what research if any has been done in this area?
In my experience in my own family dynamics, not every child turned into a narcissist. As we all got older, all cemented themselves into their chosen roles….either as flying monkeys (minor narcissists….. I call them that because they have chosen to enable the narcissist parent and to also exhibit strong narcissistic traits themselves in order to maintain their relationships with their narcissist partners and parent), a narcissist brother, a co-dependent, empathic, people pleaser (the only one who has sought therapy to rid herself of the traits she has that keep her in relationships with narcissists), and the oldest who was also a people pleaser with deep anger over the events of her childhood but still enabled her narc parent and minor narc siblings. Six siblings all with unique and similar ways of dealing with being raised by a narcissist father and a flying monkey mother with strong narcissistic traits. Neither parent showed love but the father is a covert, cerebral who could be very charming at times.
An accurate and clear description of the NPD persona. It’s so obvious when you read it as it’s explained with such clarity by Christine. Thank you for all you do.
Not all children that do not get healthy mirroring develop narcissism. Some develop co-dependency instead. I think co-dependency can be a part of Narcissistic victim syndrome also. Lisa A Romano has a great Youtube channel about that. Very interesting to look into.
I find that quite touching and as an “empath” and a person who over time has delved into the realm of narcissistic abuse for my own survival, I can actually feel compassion for my narcissistic father. However, he has severely affected my and my mother’s mental-health well being and continues to do so. I have been on my healing journey for several years releasing excruciating psychological pain through the toxicity of such an individual – idem my mother- who is still severely affected. I have known people who have been born and grown without “the mirroring of love…………….” but are not narcissistic but quite the opposite… Is there an explanation for this..? As always much gratitude is sent to you Christine for your devotion in narcissistic behaviour. Jacqueline
This article makes it sound like every child of every narcissistic parent is destined to automatically become a narcissist themselves, and that simply isn’t true.
Boy did I see and experience that! I was a marginally okay source of supply until our younger son left for college.At that point I was apparently expected to turn my entire focus on my NPD husband (and I didn’t even hear about NPD till two years after he divorced me). Sadly for our marriage (37 years!) , at that point I’d been asked by a successful international Christian author/speaker friend to write leaders’ guides for two of her books. Uh-oh, I was finding my purpose and validation outside of him! Wow, did I see an abrupt change in his attitude and words toward me! And then came the sudden dump, his adultery, moving out “to see if my feelings change,” more adulteries and then the divorce, and even that couched in”I may find out this was the worst mistake I ever made” to keep me hanging on in case he couldn’t find anyone else, and I, with unconditional love for him from Almighty God, believed him. Well, I’m nobody’s supply and I’m certainly not garbage thrown out in yesterday’s newspaper! “He” just withdrew his third petition to “annul” our marriage through the Catholic Church (no, neither of us was Catholic, but his new supply is)after five years of him trying, and I’m not sure why, but I’m glad I don’t have to fight that battle for truth anymore. Sadly I watch him slide down the slippery slope to perdition,and knowing there’s nothing I can do, I pray for his spiritual/emotional eyes to be opened by Jesus, who healed blind physical eyes,and who is his only hope.
Hi Christine Thank you for all your work born of experience. I think your work does not only change people but in the wider sense changes consciousness itself.
Thank you again for all that you have changed for the better including me.
Thank you for sharing this insight and providing an explanation for the making of a narcissist (or an empath) from the core. This understanding encourages conscious awareness to be kind, loving, and respectful to ourselves before we consider bringing a child into this world, so that we can teach them to be kind, loving and respectful to themselves and others.
What a clear description of Narcissism!!
If only there could be an equally clear description of the Narcisstic person so one may be alerted prior to becoming involved in a relationship, and only becoming aware that all is not well when ‘the first mask slips’.
Love the way you explained narcissistic behavior in a simple language everyone can understand !
Karen L. Wallace
Thank you for such an informative and enlightening piece.
You can mirror the narcissist but it will only buy you time. They still eventually devalue you anyway.
I wonder if this is because they hate you for being so “weak” a.k.a. the concept of “I wouldn’t want to belong to a club that would have me as a member”. Or maybe they devalue their supply as a way of pushing boundaries, to see how much you will take before you stand up for yourself and then they discard you for not loving them unconditionally the way the infant expects and demands.
I think there’s a place where these two elements merge with their hatred for their mothers, who was not good enough for them and they felt rejected.
Thank you so much for the continued confirmation. I appreciate your writing and am learning from your experise and research. Please never stop! We need you in the US too! Jeanie