For the developing child, the importance of healthy, genuine empathic mirroring cannot be overstated. Lack of this vital form of nurturing can produce a sense of emptiness and a lack of a sense of identity as the child grows up. A lack of a coherent sense of self can produce a lack of safety and security with existence. Naturally, for the purposes of psychological survival, the resilient child will push this into the unconscious mind, only to surface in adult life. This can produce an almost constant perceived threat of non-being – a fear of not existing. To cope with this, one may become overly dependent on external mirrors to provide a sense of identity – needy – needing others to frequently provide validation of some sort, be it healthy or unhealthy. This puts great strain on relationships because those who suffer from narcissistic injury cannot perceive themselves or others clearly and therefore struggle to relate from a genuine place with their integrity intact.
Some may try to cope with this with very coercive, manipulative and controlling behaviours over others, even in the disguise of love. In this day and age it seems almost fashionable to label such a person a 'narcissist', forgetting that the controlled as well as the controller are both suffering narcissistic injury. It takes two to tangle. They are two sides of the same coin.
We frequently see how some become preoccupied with the body to provide a sense of self identity, needing it to look a certain way in order to feel OK. This can put enormous stress on the body and may give rise to excessive exercising or eating disorders. The result is a stressful clutching on to the body, making it very difficult to allow the body to just be and relax, and let it do its job of housing the individual. Furthermore, what is referred to as narcissistic rage becomes the natural defence to protect oneself from the sense of inner emptiness and deprivation for not having a clear sense of self and safety, making the quest for self-esteem doomed to fail and lead to disillusionment; and therefore an opportunity to mature out of one's illusions. In the unconscious mind there is little distinction between the lack of a sense of self and the fear of annihilation.
A good therapeutic relationship helps the client to grieve the losses – the emotional deprivation and the lack of empathic connection. The wounds of the unseen, unheard and despairing child begin to unravel. The wounded parts of the client begin to be seen, valued and emotionally empathised with by the therapist as the pain of not being seen is released, and the pain of being seen (feeling exposed) comes forth. Feelings of shame, rage, and perhaps intense shyness and heightened sensitivity coming from a very young place can be worked with, which helps the client to integrate those disowned aspects of the personality as he or she gains a more authentic sense of self, and becomes more grounded with a capacity for self-reflection and self honour.
Those who have suffered narcissistic injury can be very vulnerable and need a sensitive therapist who is also not afraid to challenge the client when appropriate. In my view narcissistic injury requires longer term therapeutic work and thoroughly deserves the commitment it takes.
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