The Fear of Seeming Narcissistic

JubilationEarlier this week, my friend Sherry came over for dinner. After asking all about her trip to Las Vegas and briefly discussing our vacation, I finally got around to telling her of some recent developments in my writing career (more about this in a moment). After a few minutes, she said to me, “So you just told me all these marvelous things that are happening in your life and your demeanor hasn’t changed one bit. You’re not smiling. You don’t seem excited. What that’s about?”

One of the great things about Sherry is the way she calls you out (in a loving way). She is nothing if not frank. Anyway, I explained to her that I didn’t feel comfortable “tooting my own horn,” but that I was in fact very excited. When it comes my turn to talk about myself, I tend to keep it short and to the point … though I’m secretly hoping other people will show that they truly are interested by asking more questions. I’m usually disappointed in that regard (but that’s a different issue).

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Envy for Your Children

Evil Queen
The familiar plot of Cinderella gave me the opportunity to write about shame and narcissism, themes not traditionally addressed by other iterations of this classic fairy tale. Snow White, my current project, allows me to write about the experience of envy and jealousy, usually the most prominent feature of every version of the story: the envy felt by the Wicked Queen for Snow White’s youth and beauty, obviously experienced as a narcissistic injury or threat. As in the original version of the fairy tale, before the Brothers Grimm altered the story to make it more emotionally acceptable to their audience, the Queen in my story will be Snow White’s biological mother. What kind of woman would feel so envious of her own child that she wants to destroy her? Rather than a monochromatic “evil” queen, I’m trying to envision a fully dimensional character and what might drive her.

The envy parents sometimes feel for their children has been on my mind of late, not only because I’m writing about it in Snow White but also because I’m feeling it. This envy is not the poisonous, destructive kind of hatred parents sometimes feel for their kids, but one that mingles with pride and genuine happiness for my children’s success. It’s a wistful kind of regret: I wish I could have had that, too. My oldest graduates this weekend from a top university and, at 22, will step into a fascinating job with an excellent company. My second son, only 19, attends college in London and will be spending his summer as an intern in Paris. Neither one has had to take out student loans or work their way through college — all thanks to the education trust established by their maternal grandparents. Oh my, these are fortunate boys!

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Envy and Competitiveness

Early in the summer of 2011, not long after we arrived in Colorado, I received an email from our good friends in Los Angeles who also own a cabin down the road from us. They had offered the use of their cabin for one week to the rector of their church, All Saint’s in Pasadena, who would be using it as a retreat while he worked on his book; they wondered if we could “keep an eye out” for him in case he needed anything during his visit, and asked if they could give him our telephone number. I’d do anything for these friends, to begin with, and the fact that this visitor was a writer made me all the more willing to help.

According to my friends, the Rev. Ed Bacon had appeared on The Oprah Show, as well as on her radio program, and apparently she suggested on air that he write a book. This aroused the interest of literary agents and led to a bidding war for his book proposal, along with a “significant” advance. Even before I met Ed Bacon, I felt envious. I’ve been writing since I was 12 and for most of my life have wanted nothing more than to be in his position. I had launched my website seven months earlier and was struggling to find my way as a blogger; I’d also begun a non-fiction book in the self-help genre and would soon be attempting to interest a publisher in acquiring it. I knew that the prospect of a “significant” advance for a relative unknown like me was highly unlikely.

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The Oedipus Complex in Divorce Situations

Since writing my last post about the Oedipus complex, I’ve been thinking more about those situations where we might make use of Freud’s ideas concerning the family triangle; one that occurred to me is a toxic divorce situation of the kind I described in my post on the shame-based divorce.

To summarize the basic ideas in that post: In situations where unconscious shame and mutual idealization have played a large role in a marriage, if the relationship breaks down and the couple divorces, they usually battle one another to see who will be the “winner” and who the “loser”. They often try to enlist the loyalty of their children against one another; the parent who can get a child to turn against the other parent will then feel triumphant over the former spouse. This is a tragic instance of the narcissistic needs of that parent overriding his or her concern for the welfare of the child: desire to take vengeance on their ex drives them to sacrifice the child’s fundamental need for a good relationship with both parents.

This dynamic always damages the child, but it can be doubly toxic when added to an Oedipus complex dynamic. Here’s a scenario that may be familiar to many of you. I’ll describe it in relation to divorced mothers and their sons because I’m more familiar with that situation, though it would also apply to fathers and daughters. In cases where the husband’s infidelity instigated their divorce, the ex-wife may often have legitimate grounds to be angry, but that wouldn’t justify the kind of destructive narcissistic behavior you sometimes see.

I’m thinking of the ex-wife who makes her son into the “little man”, who turns to him for the sort of companionship she might look for with a spouse, and who confides thoughts and concerns inappropriate for a child to hear. She might discuss her financial situation in ways that subtly make the boy feel responsible and protective; she might complain to him about the difficulties of her new status as a single woman and the burdens of running a household alone. Looking to a son to assume some of the chores her ex-husband might have shouldered is one thing; asking him to step into his father’s shoes as confidante and life partner is another.

The ex-wife’s attempts to poison the relationship between father and son make the situation much more lethal for the boy. You may recall that in Freud’s view, the Oedipus complex is “resolved” when the son identifies with his father, internalizes him as part of his conscience as conceived of in the id ego superego model of the mind. That resolution implies an intact family, where the father’s authority opposes the son’s desire for exclusive possession of his mother; it depends upon the boy’s respect for his father and an awareness that the father doesn’t actually want to retaliate for those patricidal impulses the son may have harbored.

So what happens when the mother enlists her son as a surrogate husband and at the same time tries to destroy his relationship with his dad? In a particularly toxic way, it confirms the Oedipal fantasy. By trashing her ex-husband, she subtly invites the boy to “kill off” his father; how then can he “resolve” his Oedipus complex in the usual way, by internalizing a positive authority as part of his superego? Even if you don’t find the Oedipus complex a compelling idea, you’ll probably agree that we do internalize our parents as part of ourselves. What effect will it have on a boy’s sense of self to internalize a damaged father? I think it undermines that sense of self and encourages a hatred of authority, even legitimate authority, that will handicap him in his ability to navigate roles and relationships in the world at large.

It’s interesting to me that in my practice, I rarely make interpretations that concern the Oedipus complex. It’s more something I see as I look around me in the world-at-large. So much of the comments I make to my clients concerns the mother-infant dyad (issues about neediness, emotional dependency and helplessness) or shame and damage to our earliest sense of self. Maybe issues arising from the Oedipus complex have more to do with later development; most of the clients I’ve seen have struggled with first-year-of-life type issues or come from shattered families. Now that I’ve been thinking about the Oedipus complex, though, I’ll be on the lookout for more instances; I’ll let you know if I observe anything noteworthy.

And in the meantime, if any of you has an interesting anecdote that illustrates the Oedipus complex at work, please let me know.

Sigmund Freud and the Oedipus Complex

Freud’s concept of the Oedipus Complex is one of those ideas that seems almost to have disappeared from the field of psychotherapy; even much of what is written from the perspective of psychodynamic theory leaves out this central idea. Very few people search the term nowadays on the Internet — about 15K per month, as opposed to 135K who search for information about bipolar disorder symptoms or treatment and 110K apiece for borderline personality disorder and narcissistic personality disorder. In part, this reflects the trend away from explaining mental illness in terms of its psychological and emotional roots (especially in the unconscious) toward the medical view with its emphasis on diagnostic categories akin to those for physical illness. I believe it also reflects a kind of widespread social repression, where unpopular ideas disappear from view, in many ways due to a misunderstanding of what the oedipal situation actually involves.

Sigmund Freud mostly clearly articulated his ideas about the Oedipus complex in the charming case study of Little Hans (1909), though he also discussed Oedipus in The Interpretation of Dreams (1905) and other early works. In Little Hans, Freud puts forward the theory that every little boy wishes to have sexual intercourse with his mother and wants murder his father in order to gain exclusive possession of her. It’s hard for us to imagine just how provocative such a theory would have been in Freud’s day; we live in a world where Freudian ideas have permeated so many aspects of our culture that it’s virtually impossible to understand how shocking and offensive his contemporaries would have found it. I don’t think people today find it shocking; if anything, they find it silly and misguided, a quaint idea from the early heyday of psychoanalysis, or maybe just plain wrong. That old Sigmund Freud — what a wacky idea! Wasn’t he the guy who talked about penis envy?

People might find the Oedipus complex more relevant if they understood the revisions and additions that have occurred since Freud first introduced the idea. Most importantly, Melanie Klein wrote extensively about the early stages of the Oedipus complex; she believed it unfolded primarily within the context of the feeding relationship: when the baby begins to become aware of the father’s existence, he or she feels him to be a rival for the nourishment and comfort offered by the breast. To me, the Oedipus complex is about emotional competition, in whatever arena; while I have seen clients with unconscious sexual feelings for their mother, I’ve more often found rivalry in the emotional area.

I’ve also seen a lot of competition for the father’s attention, with hostile feelings toward the mother. Jung referred to this as the Electra complex though that term doesn’t seem to have caught on. Many of us now think of the Oedipus complex in a larger, more varied way, as a relationship between three parties (one child and two parents) where the child competes with one parent for the love and affection of the other. It doesn’t need to be sexual to be considered Oedipal. It’s not limited to a boy’s feelings for his mother.

The Oedipus complex also involves the feelings of the parent toward the competing child. Let’s not forget that, in the original story of Oedipus Rex, Laius tries to have his infant son Oedipus put to death when he hears the prophecy. Many fathers feel deeply jealous of the attention babies get from their mothers; husbands often feel sexually deprived after the birth, and may feel that the wife’s involvement with their newborn leaves him out. It’s not unusual for mothers to feel deeply competitive with their daughters, and jealous of the relationship they may have with the father. I’ve heard it many times from female clients; my own sister told me that she didn’t have a decent relationship with our mother until my sister found her own man and got married. She was quite consciously aware that Mom was jealous of her relationship with Dad. Remember the story of Snow White and her vain and jealous step-mother? In the original version of the Grimm Brothers fairy tale, it was actually her mother who felt jealous and tried to kill her.

My colleague Marla Estes discusses this issue in a recent post over on our Movies and Mental Health blog, using a film clip from The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood to illustrate it. To me, the Oedipal situation is still a vital idea, highly relevant to my psychotherapy practice, and observable everywhere once you start to look for it.