In a very early post on this site, I described people who view the world in terms of winners and losers, where one person will shore up his own self-image by triumphing over someone else, usually by demonstrating that he’s more successful, better-looking, wealthier, more popular, etc. Feelings of contempt for the “loser” usually go along with such triumph. These dynamics also lie at the heart of different kinds of narcissistic behavior.
As I’ve discussed in many of my posts, the core narcissistic defense involves flight from unconscious feelings of profound shame about oneself — how dysfunction in your family of origin has damaged you — into an idealized false self meant to disprove all that damage. At the same time, the narcissist will project his damage into someone else, who then “carries” it for her. By triumphing over the other person, the narcissist “proves” that he has successfully rid himself of all that unwanted shame; humiliating the “loser” confirms his idealized self-image.
Sometimes two people who regularly compete with one another will unconsciously “trade” the shame back and forth between them, continually in battle to be the winner and not the humiliated loser. It might be an ongoing struggle with many fluctuations; or their roles might be relatively stable for long periods and then reverse. It is rare that they’re both doing well at the same time. If one of them has succeeded, almost by definition the other one must fail.
During the early years of my practice, I happened to be working simultaneously with three different women who had identical sisters. At one time, they’d each had a more “merged” kind of relationship with their twin, as identicals often do; then they’d separated but done so along polar lines, where if one of them was doing well, the other almost invariably seemed to be struggling. The “losers” unconsciously (and sometimes consciously) strove to reverse those positions and come out on top.
In those days, I didn’t understand the role of shame in psychological difficulties; I’d probably be more helpful to those women if they were my clients today. You can also see this dynamic in divorcing or separating couples who once idealized their own relationship but who now hate the former partner; each one tries to “win” and make the other appear to be the “loser” (see my post on the shame-based divorce).
My friend Angela Davis-Gardner — whose excellent novel Butterfly’s Child recently came out in paperback — has brought to my attention a short story by Michael Cunningham called “Mister Brother” which perfectly illustrates this dynamic. (I’m a great admirer of Cunningham; The Hours is one of my favorite novels.) This short story depicts the relationship between two brothers, beginning in their teens; the eldest, a charismatic sexual athlete, feels contempt for his younger brother Twohey. In the opening scene, Mister Brother (the older one) preens naked before the bathroom mirror, preparing for his date, while Twohey sits by, admiring and at the same time hating his sibling because he feels so utterly inferior. Despite Mister Brother’s contemptuous dismissal of him, Twohey can’t pull himself away. They’re locked in a relationship where one — the winner — looks down upon and feels contempt for the shame-ridden loser.
By the story’s end, the brothers have aged and to an extent reversed roles, although Twohey can’t really shake the shame at his core. The memory of the ideal “Mister Brother” is too strong, even if his actual older brother has aged and “failed”. Many people who struggle with issues of low self-esteem like Twohey unconsciously believe in such an ideal; they feel persecuted by it, forever the loser in relation to this ideal self. In my experience, a big part of the task of psychotherapy is to shed light on this ideal, the way clients feel ruthlessly criticized by it but at the same time aspire to that ideal. As much as they want help, they resist facing the true extent of their damage and the inevitability of shame; they don’t want to relinquish all hope for the ideal, to accept more realistic types of growth that involve limits: the ways they’ll always have to take their damage into account and never fully transcend or heal it.
I try to make these issues easier to understand by using everyday language, but a well-crafted novel or short story by an artist like Michael Cunningham can sometimes do better at conveying the dynamic I want to describe. Here’s a link to the story; it’s not very long and is well worth the few minutes it will take you to read it: