NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Thursday, December 21, 2017

What is Traumatic Narcissism?

In his insightful and informative book, Traumatic Narcissism: Relational Systems of Subjugation, psychoanalyst Daniel Shaw, LCSW explores the relational dynamic between highly narcissistic parents and their children as well as other dyads and groups where there is relational narcissism, like couples, the relationship between a psychoanalytic supervisor and a supervisee, cults and so on.

What is Traumatic Narcissism?

In his book, Escape From Freedom, Erich Fromm (1900-1980), a psychoanalyst and social philosopher, addresses a similar dynamic, which he calls "malignant narcissism."

Having grown up in Frankfurt, Germany, Fromm was one of the most influential thinkers of his time.  When the Nazis came to power, Fromm left Germany to come to the United States, but the rise of fascism influenced his thoughts, and he writes about the malignant nature of narcissism in Escape From Freedom.

Daniel Shaw references Erich Fromm., but he emphasizes not only that narcissism is traumatic, but that it is relational  and intergenerational (see my article: Psychotherapy and Intergenerational Trauma).

The Intergenerational Nature of Traumatic Narcissism: Long Days' Journey Into Night
As an example of the intergenerational nature of traumatic narcissism, Shaw discusses Eugene O'Neill's play, Long Day's Journey Into Night.

The play, which was released after O'Neill's death (at his request), is recognized as being fairly autobiographical about Eugene O'Neill's life with his family.  This is an excellent example of the corrosive effect of traumatic narcissism in a family.

Long Day's Journey Into Night depicts the tragic story of the Tyrones, which includes the mother, Mary Tyrone, who is addicted to morphine; the father, James Tyrone, who was once regarded as a talented actor who threw away his chance for lasting success in the theatre; the brilliant older son, Jamie Tyrone, who can't hold a job or enter into a romantic relationship and who also can't stop drinking; and Edmund Tyrone, the youngest son, who also has a drinking problem and suffers from tuberculosis.  Edmund is generally believed to be the character that represents Eugene O'Neill.

The action in the play all takes place in a day.

Mary, who recently came back from inpatient treatment for morphine addiction, is a broken woman in her 50s, who relapses on morphine soon after she is released from treatment.  In her morphine stupor, Mary dreams of the days when she wanted to be a nun or a concert pianist.

Although the rest of the family accepts that the youngest son, Edmund Tyrone, has tuberculosis and he will soon need to go to a sanitarium to recover, Mary can't bring herself to accept her son's illness.  Despite what the doctor's says about the severity of Edmund's medical problem, she dismisses the doctor's medical evaluation calling him a "quack."

Due to her narcissistic preoccupation, Mary tells Edmund that he is being overly dramatic and he's attention seeking--even when he has fits of coughing where it's obvious that he is very sick.

The husband and the sons tiptoe around Mary because they're aware of her emotional fragility and her strong sense of denial.

In the meantime, Mary is immersed in what her life could have been and the disappointment it turned out to be--living in a house that's not "a real home," having to contend with difficult servants who aren't up to par as compared to her neighbor's servants, and sacrificing her life to her husband's former acting career.

Aside from daydreaming about what her life could have been if she had not married Jame Tyrone, she idealizes her father and her life with her family.  She makes it clear to her husband and her children that, as a child, she was accustomed to a much finer life than the one she has now.

No one is spared her barbs, which are delivered in a passive aggressive tone.  She blames her husband and his acting tours for the death of their two year old child (a child who was born after Jamie and before Edmund).  She also believes that if she had not allowed her husband to persuade her to go on tour with him, their son would have survived.

She especially blames her older son, Jamie--she thinks that when he was a young child he intentionally went near the baby while he was contagious with measles knowing that this would kill the baby.

Mary ruminates about all of this out loud to her husband and Edmund.  All the while, Edmund is very sick and could die, but she doesn't see this.

Until it has become quite obvious to him that she has relapsed, the younger son, Edmund, wants to believe that his mother will keep her promise to stay off morphine--even though she has never kept this promise before.  So, when he realizes that she has relapsed, not only does he feel invisible to her, he also feels betrayed.

The father, James, who grew up in a poor family where he had to help support his mother and siblings at a young age, is anxious about money--even though he is in a much better financial position now.  He lives with his early trauma as if he was still in it.  His wife and sons are angered by his stinginess, and his stinginess is also reflected in his emotional relationships with them.

James Tyrone also ruminants about his glory days when he was handsome, when he was a recognized Shakespearean actor and how he threw it all away.  Now it's too late.

Both parents, who are nearly always in a dissociated state of old memories, are so self involved that they create a toxic environment in the home, and the parents and sons survive in this atmosphere by remaining in a drunken or morphine-induced stupor.

In his book, Daniel Shaw also discusses that he did further research on Eugene O'Neill and discovered that O'Neill abandoned his second wife and disowned his children.  So, the intergenerational traumatic narcissism continued on to the next generation with two of O'Neill's children committing suicide.

This is an excellent, well-researched book if you want to understand the relational nature of traumatic narcissism and how it often permeates a family and perpetuates itself from one generation to the next.

Getting Help in Therapy
Many clients start psychotherapy because of the experiences they have had with traumatic narcissism.

Traumatic narcissism can leave a child feeling invisible and emotionally invalidated, which the child carries with him/her into adulthood (see my article: Growing Up Feeling Invisible and Emotionally Invalidated).

If you are suffering from the effects of growing up neglected or abused, you owe it to yourself to get help from a licensed psychotherapist, who can help you to work through your traumatic past so you can live a meaningful, fulfilling life (see my articles: The Benefits of Psychotherapy and How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who uses integrative psychotherapy to develop a unique treatment plan for each client  depending upon the client's needs (see my article:  The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrated Psychotherapy).

I work with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.