Narcisistic dilemma love

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  • 1. PSYCHOTHERAPY: THEORY, RESEARCH, AND PRACTICEVOLUME 5, #4, DECEMBER, 1968 LOVE VERSUS OMNIPOTENCE: THE NARCISSISTIC DILEMMA HARRY BOYD Veterans Administration Hospital Oklahoma City In this paper I would like to explore some tion, many authors have described characteris-ideas and speculations which have, more or tic patterns of behavior which seem to fit theless, forced themselves into my awareness as a concept of narcissism as it is considered intherapist and a human being struggling with this paper. For instance, the concepts of om-the problem of maturing. In particular, cer- nipotence and magical thinking, which Itain fantasies or expectations which seem to would consider as belonging under the rubriccharacterize many of my patients, and which of narcissism, have been discussed in ahave manifested themselves in my own life, wide variety of contexts (Pumpian-Mindlinappear to have implications for understanding (1965; W. F. Murphy 1965). Freud andthe treatment process and for understanding subsequent authors have related these topicsthe problems in living which face all of us. to the narcissistic stage of development. SearlesThe two centers about which these fantasies (op. cit.) and Kaiser (1965) have referred,seem to revolve include fusion-incorporation, in somewhat different language, to a fantasyas described by Searles (1951), and limitless of fusion or incorporation, a fantasied sym-omnipotence. Both of these fantasies, I be- biotic and primitive relationship between peo-lieve, have their origin in the narcissistic ple whose model is the mother-child relation-struggle of infancy. ship in early infancy. The problem of narcissism has been rela- The twin fantasies of fusion-incorporationtively ignored in the literature of psychother- and limitless omnipotence appear to be pres-apy, although it was considered by Freud ent in a wide variety of kinds of people, re- (1914) to pose a central concern for psycho- gardless of the apparent kind of charactertherapy. Perhaps the knowledge that the structure. At times I have wondered if the at-"narcissistic neuroses" were held by Freud to tempt to preserve the integrity of the uncon-be untreatable has discouraged the investiga- scious fantasy of omnipotence does not maketion of narcissism within the "transference necessary the subsequent development of neu-neuroses." It certainly appears that many rotic character structure. In this sense, onetheorists, such as Federn (1952) and Fenichel could speculate that the roots of most (or at (1945), have assumed that an "either/or" re- least many) patterns of neurotic life style arelationship exists between the transference neu- grounded in narcissistic fantasies and expecta-roses and the narcissistic neuroses, and have tions. Since the narcissistic period is the mostthus tended to ignore the usefulness of the primitive of the developmental stages, a dis-concept of narcissism in the understanding of turbance on this level could be expected tothe "transference neuroses." Freud, however, have far-reaching effects on subsequent devel-explicitly states that there is ". . . a certain re- opment and adult behavioral patterns. I amciprocity between ego-libido and object li- primarily interested, as a therapist, in the na-bido" (1914). Thus one could expect certain ture and content of the interpersonal behaviorevidence of narcissistic functioning in any of people trapped in the confines of narciss- type of neurotic development and for these ism. Therefore, it seems appropriate to begin narcissistic remnants to play an active part in by exploring the interpersonal developmental the interaction between therapist and patient. history of the narcissistic way of life. Although rarely, if ever, is explicit refer- A very early picture of the relatedness be- ence made to their origin in a narcissistic fixa- tween the child and his world must include 272
  • 2. LOVE VERSUS OMNIPOTENCE: T H E NARCISSISTIC DILEMMA 273the childs learning to value mastery or con- thus incompletely experienced by itself, andtrol as a means of insuring gratification. The the child has not received adequate gratifica-small child meets frustration with screams of tion and is thus incomplete. The failure todenial of the right of the world to impinge on achieve an integrated and valued self is rarelyhim. The fortunate child is surrounded by experienced, I believe, as the fault of the par-enough love and acceptance that he is able oc- ents, but rather that the person himself feelscasionally to forego immediate gratification inadequate or lacking in some mysterious,for the sake of slightly delayed but greater dimly understood but nonetheless awful way,gratification, and, in this way, is gradually and for this lack, in the back of his mind, heable to give up the assumption of an omnipo- feels a terrible shame. In adults I have seen intent and symbiotic relationship with his world therapy, this shame is usually connected within favor of learning more adequate mastery by a feeling of isolation and loneliness, as if therecognition of the limits of his autonomy. To person were somehow basically bad or shame-put it another way, he had developed enough ful and undeserving of human respect andconfidence in the long-range benevolence of love. The denied and repressed "bad me"the people around him that he can at times struggles toward awareness and makes thetolerate delays; he trades the comforting but conscious "good" and partial self aware of itsincorrect assumption of an omnipotence which own dishonesty.promises total passive gratification now for a This is not to say that such an attitude willmore frightening recognition of a real world often be stated in so many words. Neuroticoutside himself which imposes limitation and people are, of course, notorious for the widepain but which offers opportunities for ac- variety of ways in which they attempt to denytively taking gratification. Essentially, it is or conceal their feelings, even from themselves,the confidence of the child in the benevolence and this is especially true of the feeling ofof the world (i.e., his parents) which provides deep shame. But, nevertheless, I believe thatsufficient positive motivation for him to move the sense of shame and dishonesty, of over-from passive, omnipotent symbiosis to a more whelming guilt for their own incompletenessactive attempt to manipulate the world as and loneliness, characterizes their self concept.something separate from himself. Such people are sometimes more comfortable The less fortunate child, faced with a world if they can assign their shame not to them-of inconsistent performers (i.e., his mother) selves in totality but to some fragmented andwho have made it impossible for him to de- unaccepted or ego-dystonic aspect of their be-velop confidence in long-range gratification, havior or being. From my standpoint, thistends to cling to a cherished world of passive limited shame is what is frequently referred toomnipotence, the model for which he has ex- when the word "guilt" is used. Thus, guilt ofperienced as the symbiotic mother-infant rela- this kind appears defensively as an attempt totionship. The child, in effect, rebuilds the cope with shame, or the total devaluation ofworld according to his needs and attempts to the self, which is a kind of death.deny all evidence that he is subject to a real Thus, the dilemma in which the neuroticworld in which he is limited, weak and ungra- and narcissistic person is caught involves histified. He can hold on to the remembered frag- attempt to achieve with others a fantasied om-ments of good and gratifying relationships, nipotence and limitlessness which is totallypresent in almost any relationship, no matter impossible to attain after infancy (if it is at-how bad, in an attempt to form a self who has tainable even then). The tragic consequence isexperienced acceptance and love and is thus that such striving and denial of real and per-loveable and acceptable to the world. Other sonal limits makes impossible the attainmentinteractions between himself and significant of more limited, but nevertheless potentiallyothers which were frightening or overwhelm- rewarding, involvement or engagement withing are denied or repressed. The child is thus the real interpersonal world. This is the nar-more or less aware of a feeling of incomplete- cissistic dilemma, and it appears to lie at theness, which is reinforced by two elements: core of a great many neurotic ways of life.The self itself is inadequately accepted and This dilemma has to do with the relationship
  • 3. 274 HARRY BOYDbetween man and his personal universe, and kinds of pain means to accept to some degreethus, in Frankls (1959) term, is noetic. a limit exerted by the nature of the world, and What is the consequence in the interper- such acknowledgement may thus be intolera-sonal life of the adult who clings to the fan- ble. To avoid the awareness of this pain, hetasy of omnipotence and Hmitlessness? What may develop a number of techniques, depend-does it mean for the adult to be unable to ac- ing on his family and developmental historycept or even acknowledge personal limitations past infancy, all of which have in common theor boundedness? To answer these questions refusal to give up the fantasy of omnipotence.we must first consider what limitations there One person, for instance, may fight his fearreally are on interpersonal relationships. We via reaction formation, by which means he as-all know, for instance, that all human rela- serts the opposite of being limited: competi-tionships are limited by their nature and must tive and arrogant mastery. Or he may striveend in death or loss. No matter how hard we for control of all his feelings by exerting mas-work at them, no matter how deeply we are tery internally: He splits himself into goodcommitted to others, the outcome is inevita- and bad parts, and combats shame with guilt,ble. And no matter how much we wish it oth- in the way usually characterized as obsessive-erwise, we are separate from one another and compulsive. In this way, he may achieve acan never become one with another person for limited tolerance for himself, although his ex-more than the most fleeting moments. Yet the perience may be distinctly uncomfortable.knowledge of this limitedness and separate- Through his cognitive narrowing and splitting,ness paradoxically makes it possible for us to he exerts mastery and control by dividing hisrecognize the reality of the other person and experience. Another person may become ato respect him in his separateness. shallow drifter, never completing his educa- But in the person still trapped in the di- tion, perpetually delaying all significantlemma of narcissism, his inability to accept choices as to permanent kind of vocation,these limitations and his own helplessness in mate choice, and so on, because to make anythe face of the workings of the universe pre- commitment means to give up the possibilityvent him from ever seeing anything in others of making other commitments and is, thus, ex-but the mirror-like reflections of his own perienced (or rather avoided) as representingneeds for symbiotic self-completion. He is a limit and, therefore, a threat to the fanta-driven to attempt to possess the other as an sied omnipotence (Pumpian-Mindlin, 1965).object, utterly and forever, denying the oth- One price of omnipotence is paradoxicallyers nature as a separate person and seeing that of total guilt for everything that happensonly his capacity to fill the patients needs, in a kind of neurotic hyper-responsibility; inneeds which, by their growth from an unat- its most extreme form, this dynamic maytainable fantasy, are insatiable and unending. characterize the catatonic.Others must exist in the patients own uni- When the person can express his feelings ofverse of self or they do not exist for him at frustration at all, he may verbalize his irra-all. They must somehow bolster his false tional and infantile need for complete gratifi-image of a powerful, boundless, and endlessly cation by saying something like, "Why isnt receptive self or be discarded in panic before the world (or a particular person) the way it they can become important in themselves. ought to be, the way I want it to be?" To Thus the narcissistic dilemma is one in such a child, the parent frequently says, "You which the subject is caught between two can do anything you make up your mind tosources of pain: the pain of loss or separa- do," thereby encouraging the denial of limita- tion, which for whatever reason seems to him tions which itself seems to be one of the cher- greater than the possible rewards of accepting ished myths of American society. In the more separateness and limitation, and the pain of openly narcissistic neurotics, the unconscious loneliness and alienation which are the inevi- fantasy of symbiotic omnipotence is mani- table results of clinging to the fantasy of lim- fested by a dissatisfied and restless searching itless omnipotence. Even to acknowledge the for something or someone who will give grati- necessity of one or the other of these two fication. Such a search can take many forms,
  • 4. LOVE VERSUS OMNIPOTENCE: T H E NARCISSISTIC DILEMMA 275depending on the overlying character struc- neurotic "love" as essentially an attempt attures: absorption with acquisition of posses- incorporation, a maneuver which ultimatelysions, striving for status, multiple "love" af- denies the separateness and reality of thefairs, footloose wandering and frequent other person. In such a relationship, the otherchanges of occupation, and so on. The inevita- person is taken in and fused with, not as able failure to meet the fantasied needs breeds real person but as an object, an inhabitant ofan objectless rage against everything, a rage the fantasy-laden, unrealistic inner world ofwhich increases as the years of frustration go the neurotic. All realistic differences are de-on, and the rage itself must be dealt with by nied. The basic model for such a relationshipmore or less neurotic defenses since there is no is the mother-child symbiosis. It should beway in which it can be resolved without a made clear that this is not intended to meanshift in character structure. When one consid- that the neurotic of this type is always look-ers the basic mistrust present from childhood ing for a mother. The adult neurotic is, afterit is perhaps not at all remarkable that openly all, an adult, not a child. But the fantasy ofnarcissistic people so frequently become para- magical completion or "Love at first sight," anoid if they become severely disturbed. symbiotic relationship which will make him Ultimately the failure to resolve this di- complete and whole at last does exert a pow-lemma in favor of a limited version of the erful pull, tending to make him search rest-world leads to increasing alienation and de- lessly for just the "right person" for the grat-spair. Rage may be manifested as boredom ification which must exist somewhere andwith life or loneliness or depression. Paradoxi- which, by being in the right place at the rightcally, the more capacities and potentials one time with the right person, he can passivelyhas, the more acute this progression becomes receive. American songs (and perhaps others)because the adequate development of any skill repeat this theme constantly.requires the capacity to tolerate ones personal The neurotic marital relationship, therefore,limitations. Thus, to the already crushing bur- many times becomes a kind of game whichden of loneliness and shame, is added guilt, both partners play by mutual and unconsciousthrough his knowledge of his failure to meet agreement, a game which provides both withhis capacities. The outcome, in Farbers ex- certain gratifications and enables both topressive phrase, is "despair and the life of sui- maintain the fiction of being unlimited. Butcide," or else denial of the reality of the world this kind of socially acceptable folie a deuxoutside the person to an extent that is usually is, by its nature, unstable since it depends ontranslated as psychosis. mutual lies and pretense, conscious or uncon- To allow ones self to respect and care scious. Therefore, of course, a drastic denialdeeply for the separateness of another human of the real nature of the relationship betweenbeing means inevitable loss which one is help- them is required. Either an extremely limitedless to prevent. Ultimately, therefore, each and ritualistic relationship is developed whichperson, in order to become as healthy and lov- is rigidly the same at all times, and which of-ing a person as he is capable of becoming, fers satisfaction in safety, or the two personsmust resolve the dilemma on an emotional, must develop an extremely careful sensitivitynon-verbal level by knowing that death and for the feelings and behavior of the other, aloss are less painful than loneliness, or more situation in which each person behaves in apositively, that the rewards of loving and, way which is least threatening to the otherthus, meeting a basic capacity are great person. In many cases this latter course be-enough to meet the pain of loss and death. comes extremely difficult, with each partner What kind of marriages do narcissistic peo- figuratively "walking on eggs" with the otherple make? While, obviously, the variety is as person. One form of the latter might be thegreat as the variety of kinds of people there pseudo-marriage, in which each partner seeksare, there seem to be certain common features part, or all, of their gratification outside theby virtue of the narcissistic preconceptions marriage. A common characteristic of narcis-about the nature of human relationships. sistic-neurotic marriages is that of tremendousSearles (1951) has pointed out the nature of ambivalence; each partner is caught between
  • 5. 276 HARRY BOYDbeing unable to give the other up because of hell, of being punished forever, is less awfulintolerance for loss, and resentment because than that of death because death is equatedthe other person is unable to meet all his part- with marasmus. Punishment is less painfulners needs, to make him a whole and totally than abandonment and loneliness. Death, notgratified person. life, is a nightmare from which neurotics When such people come into therapy, they struggle to awaken.frequently give more or less vivid evidence of Thus, death is fantasied as loves alternate,their difficulties in accepting the boundaries the absolute and irrevocable loss of narcissis-between themselves and their spouses. For in- tic supplies and of helplessness to obtainstance, one will complain of his inability to more. The neurotic denies this fantasy by om-make his spouse feel toward him what he wants nipotently attempting to turn everyone andher to feel, or will attribute various kinds of everything into an object whose purpose is tomotivation to his spouse for which he has no furnish him with more and better supplies,direct evidence and typically has never asked turning the idea of death into the repositoryabout. Certainly, they cannot accept the for all his fears of loss, limitation and help-limited nature of their relationship with their lessness. One cannot understand the neuroticsspouses, and are angry because there is never fear of non-symbiotic love without havingthe total gratification which they are seek- worked through the death/abandonment fan-ing. In therapy, their transference is initially tasy which lurks behind it. Agnar Mykle, thepositive, because of their hope for a good (i.e. novelist, has put this very well:symbiotic) mother, but very quickly the nega- . . . And it was this idea of utterness that made histive transference makes itself evident by in- head suddenly sw
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