Acquired Traumatic & Traumatised Narcissism

Adults who experienced domestic abuse when they were children have more potential to suffer from long-term health impacts such as diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. They might also experience mental health problems which involve low levels of resilience, and higher levels of anxiety and depression, among other health complications. Those who endured severe physical violence as children at times carry their injuries into adulthood in the form of disabilities; intellectual, social, and emotional difficulties can arise, and individuals might perform poorly occupationally as a result of the abuse they’ve been through. Furthermore, their perceptions of a ‘normal’ relationship can also be affected (e.g. women who cannot differentiate between affection and a sexual advance), and the traumas can also lead to shallow object relations, where those who survived are unable to form a meaningful connection with others. Yet, the most concerning aspect of childhood domestic abuse is that in some cases these children can grow to imitate the behaviour of their perpetrators and subjugate others. This is what acquired narcissism is, a relational system where the person exposed to domestic abuse goes on to introject such patterns of behaviours and to abuse other innocent victims, displacing the trauma. This article will focus on this potential consequence of domestic abuse, and what happens when a victim becomes a perpetrator drawing from Shaw (2014).

Some narcissists are born with this predisposition (e.g. psychopaths), whilst others acquire the predisposition through trauma (e.g. sociopaths), getting absorbed in a generational and social cycle of abuse. This is how acquired narcissism works. That is, the individual is not born with it, but rather he acquires it through adverse experiences. Shaw (2014) defined traumatic narcissism as ‘the action of subjugation. In the traumatizing narcissist’s relational system, the narcissist fortifies himself by diminishing the other. The other is then conquered, controlled, or enslaved at worst—and exploited’. In other words, traumatic narcissism can be described as the narcissism that can consciously traumatise other people through behaviours. Similarly, traumatised narcissism happens when someone who has already been narcissistically abused, unconsciously behaves in ways that resemble their perpetrator. Traumatised narcissism— which is also traumatising— can be acquired in adulthood, is often temporary, and recovery depends on the individual’s ability to heal trauma; whereas traumatic narcissism as described by Shaw (2014) is acquired through childhood trauma, is often long-term and constitutes a pathology that is consistent with an individual’s personality and trajectory. Moreover, in some cases victims of narcissistic abuse go on to become traumatised narcissists. In rare cases, adults go on to become traumatic narcissists; especially when they are subjected to adverse epigenetic changes or traumatic brain injury resulting from their circumstances.

For those with acquired traumatic narcissism, narcissistic trauma is often relational or developmental, and relational trauma happens when there is a constant disruption of a child’s sense of feeling loved and safe (Monroe, 2017). There might be a form of physical or emotional neglect and abandonment, a violation of boundaries, and/or abuse. In other words, relational trauma happens when a child’s needs are not met by their caregivers, and where the child ends up feeling betrayed by their parents. All this can affect a child epigenetically, and alter their biological make-up in the long-term. For instance, Shaw (2014, pp. 7-8) states: ‘these people typically experience significant depressive symptoms, which are actually post-traumatic symptoms of cumulative developmental, or relational, trauma—symptoms that are often expressed in the form of painful lifelong longing for love that can never be requited. In development, to be recognized primarily as object—in other words, to be rigidly objectified—is to be cumulatively traumatized in one’s efforts to consolidate the sense of subjectivity’. 

Furthermore, the American Psychological Association (n.d.) defines subjectivity as ‘the tendency to interpret data or make judgements in the light of personal feelings, beliefs, or experiences’. Stripping someone off their subjective can lead to problems with intersubjectivity, which Oxford Reference (n.d.) describes as ‘the mutual construction of relationships through shared subjectivity’. Indeed, those with acquired narcissism struggle to maintain stable relationships with others precisely because of their many relational traumas. According to Shaw (2014, p. xv) ‘the traumatizing narcissist seeks to abolish intersubjectivity, and to freeze a complementary dynamic in the relationship, allowing recognition in one direction only—toward himself’.

This is why narcissists are extremely talented at hiding and protecting their vulnerabilities always wary of the world around them, a world that betrayed their trust. They seek to impress others through what seems like a normal demeanour. Yet, covertly, a narcissist will display the following behaviours: 

  1. Passive aggression: they may say things that are not directly offensive but that are still hurtful. 
  2. Introversion: they might be more reclusive but still need narcissistic supply from others. 
  3. Sulky behaviours: they may act in sullen ways when they do not get their way. 
  4. Constant dissatisfaction: they chronically blame the world for their circumstances, and constantly complain. 
  5. Grandiosity: they secretly think they are superior to others, and will only associate with those they deem to be superior. 
  6. Sense of entitlement: they always want to take what they desire, often crossing boundaries. 
  7. Playing as the victim: they always say that the world is doing something to them, and do not take responsibility for the harm they cause. 
  8. Hypersensitivity to criticism: they might rage if criticised and might feel hurt at the slightest comment. 

Morever, Shaw (2014, p. 13) states that ‘the heightened sadistic tendencies of the traumatizing narcissist may be masked in some cases by charisma and seductive charm. She has successfully dissociated the need to depend on idealized others by achieving a complete super-idealization of herself. She is overt in her need for superiority and domination, successful in seducing others into dependence on her, and cruel and exploitative as she arranges to keep the other in a subjugated position’. A common misconception is to think that the narcissist’s grandiose overcompensation is somewhat rooted in high self-esteem. I would argue it is more rooted in egocentrism. The truth is that narcissists are hypersensitive to their own impression management. That is, the facade they show to the world is their vulnerability because deep down they do not love who they are. Overtly, the malignant narcissist will exhibit the following behaviours:

  1. Pathological jealousy: they may experience feelings of envy and anger at the slightest disadvantage.
  2. Psychopathic behaviours: callous, cold-blooded, and instrumental harmful actions.
  3. Persecutory delusions: excessive paranoia based on false beliefs that the world is out to get them.
  4. Cruelty: having no remorse for engaging in sadistic behaviours.
  5. Coercive control: manipulating, threatening or controlling the victim.
  6. Pathological lying: not being able to tell the truth.
  7. Distress-based responses: things that hurt his self-esteem or self-image might trigger his dangerous behaviours.
  8. Sexual promiscuity: having more than one sexual partner.
  9. Hypersensitivity to criticism: always on guard for real or imagined criticism.
  10. Aggression: an inability for self-restraint when raging.

The individual with acquired narcissism is essentially looking for the love that he or she did not receive in childhood. According to Shaw (2014, p. 10) ‘patients described as pathologically narcissistic are often those whose self-esteem is terribly fragile; who easily feel insulted, attacked, and humiliated […] someone who in development has suffered severe damage to their self-esteem system, and whose self-esteem regulation is therefore inconsistent and precarious, subject to the internal persecution of the split-off protector self’. Furthermore, according to Mahendran (2015, p. 179) there are five main cognitive biases used by narcissists in order to maintain their self-esteem: (1) misremembering, which is a particular way in which people tend to remember past events in ways that are self-serving; (2) self-serving attribution, which consists in attributing blame to external events for failures, and attributing credit to the self for successes; (3) false consensus effect, which consists in assuming that other people will make the same choices one does, and behave in similar ways to one; (4) sour grapes effect, which consists in devaluing unattainable goals and rewards; and (5) unrealistic optimism which consists in attributing a positive expectation or outcome to something, even if the evidence and standards contradict it. 

In conclusion, acquired narcissism can be severely detrimental and is often a result of domestic abuse. Acquired narcissism can be conscious or unconscious, temporary (traumatised narcissism) or long-term (traumatic narcissism), and has many biases reinforcing an unstable sense of image.

References

American Psychological Association (n.d.) ‘Subjectivity’, APA Dictionary of Psychology [Online]. Available at https://dictionary.apa.org/subjectivity (accessed 17 December 2021). 

Mahendran, K. (2015) ‘Self-esteem’, in Turner, J., Hewson, C., Mahendran, K. and Stevens, P. (eds) Living Psychology: From the Everyday to the Extraordinary 1, Milton Keynes, The Open University. 

Monroe, H. S. (2017) ‘How Relational Trauma Affects Teen Mental Health, Relationships, and Self-Esteem’, Newport Academy, 1 September [Online]. Available at https://www.newportacademy.com/resources/mental-health/relational-trauma/ (accessed 16 December 2021). 

Oxford Reference (n.d.) ‘Intersubjectivity’ [Online]. Available at https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803100008603 (accessed 16 December 2021). 

Shaw, D. (2014), Traumatic Narcissism: Relational Systems of Subjugation, New York, Routledge [Online]. Available at https://www.routledge.com/Traumatic-Narcissism-Relational-Systems-of-Subjugation/Shaw/p/book/9780415510257# (accessed 16 December, 2021). 

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Journalism Science

Understanding Self-esteem and Why it is Important

According to the online Etymology dictionary (n.d.), the verb “esteem” originates from 14c Latin meaning “to value, determine the value of, appraise”. Based on this definition, to self-esteem is to self-appraise and to consequently establish one’s own self worth. Nevertheless, in psychological research, the concept of self-esteem is a much disputed one. It encompasses other key terms such as self concept (the awareness a person has about themselves), and self-efficacy in relation to the status quo (the way a person assesses their own abilities and skills; Mahendran, 2015).  Is self-esteem a cognitive attitude or a relational phenomenon? Some of these terms will be explored further below, in order to analyse the psycholinguistics and psychodynamics of everyday self-appraisal, and how this reveals the way someone understands and relates to the world around them. 

Self-esteem is an everyday psychological phenomenon that permeates all aspects of a person’s life. Psychologists have at times described this concept as one that encompasses all types of attitudes an individual has about themselves (Mahendran, 2015, p. 159). Now, in order to understand how this concept might influence everyday executive functions, it would be helpful to first elucidate what is meant in psychology by the word “attitude” in relation to “self”. According to Mahendran (2015), an attitude has three core components: the cognitive component encompasses the way in which an individual sees their own object, that is, themselves. The affective component explores the feelings an individual has towards their own object. And third, the behavioural component encompasses the general views an individual has about their own identity, and how this perceived identity shapes the person’s behaviour within the public environment. The following paragraphs will elaborate on the cognitive and relational aspects of self-appraisal as an attitude and behaviour. Furthermore, labelling theory proposes that the ‘self’ is socially constructed, and such construal determines what is labelled as ‘deviant’ or ‘criminal’, or ‘normal’  (Blackburn, 2005). This would suggest that by evaluating one’s understanding of the self-concept (including its historical biography), and its relations to the world around it (the episodic map); one can gain a more accurate understanding of what it means to self-esteem. Furthermore, Tafarodi and Milne (2002) cited in Mahendran (2015, p. 178) described self-esteem as having two main components: self-competence and self-liking. Based on this construct, it can be said that a person’s subjective definition of competency, and the mores shaping their milieu and SUPEREGO; contribute to what a person considers worthy, desirable, and acceptable. In correlation, James (1952) cited in Mahendran (2015, pp. 171-173) saw self-esteem as essentially having four components: the material self (the body and possessions), the social self (the personality presented to other people), the spiritual self (the stream of consciousness, and the observer of subjective experience); and the pure ego (a person’s individuality and self-concept in solitude). Furthermore, Branden (1988) cited in Mahendran (2015, p. 161) defined the term self-esteem as having two main feelings: “personal competence” and “personal worth”. 

After the self-esteem political movements of the 1980s and 1990s, and after Baumeister cited in Mahendran (2015, p. 162) officially promoted self-esteem as being the key to health and happiness, more and more people began to get in touch with this aspect of themselves consciously. Moreover, the concept of self-esteem gained a collective status, and became a central focus of social psychology. It was realised that self-esteem has intricate environmental and socio-cultural factors which are not always in the control of an individual (that is, that self-esteem  is at times a correlational phenomenon). All of this public attention to the subject led eventually to further concerns about whether collective self-esteem could be raised at all without first challenging the status quo. But why would this concept of self-love be relevant to forensic psychology? Branden (1988) cited in Mahendran (2015, pp. 160-161) described self-esteem as being the root of all psychological evils; including crime, mental health problems, social problems, poor wellbeing, and even suicide: “I cannot think of a single psychological problem […] that is not traceable, at least in part, to the problem of deficient self-esteem”. What this perspective suggests is that self-esteem should be considered a basic need in civil society, rather than a privilege of  a selected few, or a future project. Moreover, Bull et al. (2012) explains that sexual offenders, for example, can often be motivated to offend by their low self-esteem (in psychoanalysis, the ID); and often rely on cognitive biases to self-justify their behaviours and autobiographical discourses (impaired or deficient SUPEREGO). In view of such evidence, it is not surprising therefore that at some point a self-esteem deficit was considered to be a security risk, and this is why in 1986 the Task Force for Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility was established in the US California State Department cited in Mahendran (2015, p. 162), which promoted the deterrence and desistance from crime through interventions designed to increase morality and self-esteem levels in individuals. 

Furthermore, in psychoanalysis the self is often referred to as a relational object, which has a personality that is presented to the outside world (the EGO; Eysenck, 2000); where identity is socially constructed  (Mahendran, 2015, pp. 188-190). A culture’s social norms and definitions of what is termed as “desirable” and “acceptable” impact on a person’s SUPEREGO*, and therefore their process of self-identification, as well as their object-relations are shaped by the dynamics between ID, EGO, and SUPEREGO. Burkitt (2008) cited in The Open University (2019) reinforces this idea about the self being relational within the social sphere: “Our self-worth is dynamic; it changes as we move through the world with our individual biographies”. One of the most influential approaches to understanding self-esteem was proposed by Rogers (1951) cited in Mahendran (2015, p. 174), who understood ‘self-fulfilment’ as the gap between the actual self (who we are) and the ideal self (who we want to be). By the same token, James (1952) cited in Mahendran (2015, p. 171) proposed a model claiming that self-esteem could be developed by manifesting the potential of one’s actual self into the ideal self, finding this way congruence within. Subsequently, Rogers also posited how in order for a person to mind this gap between the actual and ideal selves, they would have to let go of societal expectations and stereotypes. What all the above mentioned suggests is that self-actualisation, also known as self-realization (the capacity to reach one’s current maximum potential) relies on the individual challenging the status quo (Mahendran, 2015, p. 175). Indeed, exposure to unrealistic media stereotypes, for instance,  can influence individual and societal constructions of object identities and relations by setting manufactured personas as standards for what is desirable and competent (Kennedy, 2007). Blindly following or measuring oneself against such stereotypes can result in self-object dissatisfaction and therefore low self-esteem as a byproduct of the existing levels of inequalities, which reproduce all types of distortions related to the ontology of self-image presentation, and representation. Calogero (2013) cited in Mahendran (2015, pp. 192) proposed the system justification theory which sees activism as a healthy manifestation of self-love, because a person challenges the disproportionate general standards of what is considered nice. In other words, the way in which someone internalises the world around them- including the social, environmental, cultural, political and economic dimensions- influences self-esteem (Mahendran, 2015). 

This would support the approach to understanding self-esteem as a cognitive attitude (e.g. internalisation of circumstances), and yet this would not be mutually exclusive with the idea of self-esteem as relational phenomena. Leary (2003) cited in Mahendran (2015, p. 180) proposed the sociometer theory, which posited that self-esteem levels can sometimes be attributed to external, rather than internal inputs. This theory highlights the importance of understanding object-relational dynamics. On the other hand, there are several cognitive biases which prevent people from maintaining a healthy level of self-esteem (Mahendran, 2015). For instance, an individual can make a fundamental attribution error if they assume that self-esteem is all about personal attitudes and has nothing to do with the milieu they live in (Mahendran, 2015, p. 180). This is why self-esteem should not be interpreted as belonging only to one single aspect of reality, but rather, it should be seen as a phenomenon that really permeates every aspect of a person’s life at all times; and is therefore subject to both, interoception and exteroception. Nevertheless, Pyszczynski et al. (2004) cited in Mahendran (2015, p. 181) proposed a somewhat nihilistic account of self-esteem where self-love is presumably used as a defence mechanism derived from denial about the brutal reality of death. What this suggests is that all approaches to understanding self-esteem have been a byproduct of the subconscious fear that the human individual has about the imminent probability of dying. Maslow’s and James’ models, for example, would be a byproduct of the subconscious need to distract the mind from the imminent reality of mortality. Consequently, Mruk (2006) cited in Mahendran (2015, p. 169) proposed a phenomenological definition of self-esteem which focused on the way in which a person tries to make sense of their day to day world, supporting the approach to understanding self-esteem as a cognitive attitude in relation to reality. He described it as a status which is lived, and which can be developed through time. This goes hand in hand with some of the approaches developed through humanistic psychology on the topic, such as the phenomenological accounts offered by Rogers, which focused on the holistic aspect of qualia (Mahendran, 2015, p. 174). 

To summarise, there are several approaches to understanding self-esteem, and these are not always mutually exclusive. As it has been demonstrated, there are several different aspects that make and remake a person’s self-concept. Therefore, based on the above evidence, it can be said that self-esteem is both a cognitive and a relational phenomenon with direct relevance to forensic psychology when trying to understand the underlying causes of offence culture and offending behaviour.

References

Blackburn, R. (2005) The Psychology of Criminal Conduct, West Sussex, John Wiley & Sons, pp. 87-110.

Bull, R., Cooke, C., Hatcher, R., Woodhams, J., Bilby, C. and Grant, T. (2012) Criminal Psychology: Beginners Guides, London, Oneworld Publications, pp. 186-207.

Eysenck, M. W. (2000) Psychology: A Student’s Handbook, East Sussex, Psychology Press Ltd., pp. 16-41.

Kennedy, B. M. (2007) ‘THINKING ONTOLOGIES OF THE MIND/BODY RELATIONAL’, in Kennedy, B. and Bell, D. (eds) CYBERCULTURES, 2nd edn, Oxon, Routledge, pp. 773-787.

Mahendran, K.  (2015) ‘Self-esteem’, in Turner, J., Hewson, C., Mahendran, K. and Stevens, P.  (eds), Living Psychology: From the Everyday to the Extraordinary, Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp. 155-194.

Online Etymology Dictionary (n.d) Esteem (v) [Online]. Available at https://www.etymonline.com/word/esteem (Accessed 22 November, 2019).

The Open University (2019) ‘5.1 Beyond managing self-esteem’, DD210-19J Week 7: Self-esteem [Online]. Available at https://learn2.open.ac.uk/mod/oucontent/view.php?id=1467715&section=5.1 (Accessed 22 November 2019).