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On this track, we will examine three aspects of the ambivalence of feeling commonly found in narcissistic clients. These three aspects of the ambivalence of feeling in narcissistic clients include: early childhood development; confidence vs. self-dissatisfaction; and altruism and manipulation.
3 Aspects of the Ambivalence of Feeling
Aspect #1: Early Childhood Development
The first aspect of the ambivalence of feeling occurs in early childhood development. During this stage, the narcissist will often make his or her first conclusions about the nature of emotion and feeling. Most commonly, clients learn and absorb information about feeling from their parents. They develop notions about the power struggle between those who show emotion and those who do not. Most often, clients observe that those role models who suppress emotion have more power and control over those that overtly express their feelings.
At this point in the client’s life, he or she may feel inner struggles about his or her own feelings he or she is experiencing. Coupled with their own developing associations with the lack of emotion to the lack of power, clients begin to imitate that which they see and wish to emulate. Although they may be experiencing strong emotions as a result of a developing identity, they fight these emotions and resultantly fight their own development.
Jonathan, age 26, reported a great lack of emotion since an early age. I asked if one of his parents exhibited a great deal of emotion or a considerable lack thereof. Jonathan replied, "It was both, actually. Mom was always on the verge of hysteria and Dad showed no feeling at all. My dad’s coldness and hostility nearly drove my mom crazy! It was really nightmarish at times!"
As you can clearly see, there was already an ambivalent presentation of emotion during Jonathan’s early years. His mother, provoked by her husband’s emotional drought, compensated with her own flood of feelings. Jonathan, however, identified with his father and equated will, reason, and logic with sanity and power.
Rather than be hysterical, Jonathan instead chose to be unfeeling because, for him, those were the only two choices available. Because Jonathan associated feeling with insanity, I stated to him, "In truth, ‘hysteria,’ as you put it, describes the state of a person who is out of touch with reality. Since feelings are a basic reality of a human life, to be out of touch with one’s feelings is a sign that something may be wrong." Think of your Jonathan. What sort of ambivalence to emotion had he or she experienced during their early childhood development?
Aspect #2: Confidence vs. Self-Dissatisfaction
The second aspect of the ambivalence of feeling occurs in the struggle of outward confidence vs. inward self-dissatisfaction. Although narcissistic clients may portray an outward appearance of ambition and grandiosity, in fact their actions are motivated by an inward self-dissatisfaction. Even though they may not experience the same feelings of inadequacy as emotionally balanced clients, subconsciously, each narcissistic clients holds him or herself up to be judged by the outside world.
They depend on the positive assessment of others and because of this, they strive to maintain an image of what they believe to be the socially exceptional standard of society. They control their image almost as rigidly as they control those around them.
Nicole, age 32, expressed her self-doubt through her constant diligence to her appearance. She stated, "I never let anyone see me without makeup and my hair done! If I haven’t exercised the day before, I don’t go outside! If anyone saw me like that, they may get the wrong impression. I can’t risk that!" Although in our earlier sessions, Nicole exhibited a great deal of confidence, this only came with the bolster of makeup and her projected image.
I stated, "The confidence that you related to me last week seems to only be the result of your image, and not of yourself. You have created an image of beauty and that image may give you confidence, but without that image, you feel self-conscious and anxious. In short, you are feeding off the image you created instead of using your own identity to guide you." Think of your Nicole. How does he or she exhibit his or her own self-dissatisfaction? Could it be hidden behind a wall of confidence?
Aspect #3: Altruism and Manipulation
In addition to early childhood development and confidence versus self-dissatisfaction, the third aspect of the ambivalence of feeling occurs between the illusion of altruism and the reality of manipulation. Contradictorily, narcissistic clients are often involved in charitable organizations and volunteer programs. They will describe themselves as wanting to serve "the greater good", but they speak of themselves in the context of an instrument of the greater good.
They disembody themselves to the point of becoming merely a "thing" that is to be used by a larger cause. This is accompanied by a need to manipulate those around them. What many clients describe as "doing good" is actual a distortion of reality. These altruistic deeds really represent an exercise of power over those who the clients claim to be helping and loving. This type of exploitation through affection often appears in the client’s intimate relationships, which are less like a mutual exchange of passions and more like a conquest of power.
Eric, age 25, could not understand why his girlfriend, Kelly, was leaving him. He stated, "She has everything a girl could want. I attend to her every need, I’m not cruel, and I respect her."
Kelly, during a private session, stated, "Something is missing from our relationship. He does things to please me, but only physically. When he shows affection, I never feel that it’s because he wants to show affection. He feels he has to. I don’t even think he knows what love is. Whenever I tried to leave him, he tells me I’m being selfish and that I have it ‘good’ with him. So after one of those arguments, I assess the situation and realize that I really don’t have any concrete reason to leave; I just feel that I should."
As you can see, the image Eric projected of a good and dutiful boyfriend was a means to keep Kelly in the relationship. Without her, he may lose his source of validation. Think of your Eric. How has his or her manipulation and apparent altruism affected his or her relationships?
On this track, we discussed three aspects of the ambivalence of feeling commonly found in narcissistic clients. These three aspects of the ambivalence of feeling in narcissistic clients included: early childhood development; confidence vs. self-dissatisfaction; and altruism and manipulation.
On the next track, we will examine four degrees of narcissism. The four degrees of narcissism include: phallic narcissism; the narcissistic character; the borderline personality; and the psychopathic personality.
Peer-Reviewed Journal Article Reference:
Crowe, M. L., Edershile, E. A., Wright, A. G. C., Campbell, W. K., Lynam, D. R., & Miller, J. D. (2018). Development and validation of the Narcissistic Vulnerability Scale: An adjective rating scale. Psychological Assessment, 30(7), 978–983.
Edershile, E. A., Woods, W. C., Sharpe, B. M., Crowe, M. L., Miller, J. D., & Wright, A. G. C. (2019). A day in the life of Narcissus: Measuring narcissistic grandiosity and vulnerability in daily life. Psychological Assessment, 31(7), 913–924.
Orth, U., Robins, R. W., Meier, L. L., & Conger, R. D. (2016). Refining the vulnerability model of low self-esteem and depression: Disentangling the effects of genuine self-esteem and narcissism. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 110(1), 133–149.
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