While Donaldson-Pressman and Pressman are focusing on the family system, they do have a few things to say initially about the narcissistic personality. I will use some of my own language to describe three different categories of individual narcissism – building on the descriptions offered by Donaldson-Pressman and Pressman. I wil then turn to the characteristics of the narcissistic organization.
The Flagrant (Overt) Narcissist
This is the person who is always talking about themselves and engaging in activities that brings attention to them. Their apparent “love” for other people is actually love reflected back onto them. The flagrant narcissist directs attention to other people only when they know that this attention will be reciprocated and intensified in the other person’s attention to the narcissist. (Donaldson-Pressman and Pressman beautifully and poignantly references the important and tragic role played by Echo in the original Narcissus myth.) There is a commonly voiced observation concerning this reflected love. It goes something like this: the most beautiful and compelling people in the world are those who are in love with (or at least are attracted to) us.
The Closet (Covert) Narcissist
Many of us belong in this second category. The closet narcissist is always (or often) worried about whether or not sufficient attention is being paid to him—but is embarrassed to acknowledge this concern or at least has the good sense not to share this concern with other people (other than his therapist or coach). As part of her own social learning, the closet narcissist finds ways to indirectly draw attention to herself—often by asking such scintillating and “caring” questions of other people that she gains the admiration (and attention) of not only the person to whom she is attended, but also other people observing the socially-skillful behavior this closet narcissist is exhibiting. The closet narcissism also seeks to satisfy his closet narcissism by out-performing other people in the classroom, on the dance floor, in the church choir or in the kitchen. He is not obviously competitive and certainly doesn’t “crow” when he is declared better than other people—but he savors the moment and can never seem to get enough praise (though he overtly dismisses this praise or seeks to share it when received: “oh shucks that was nothing . . . and didn’t Susan do a wonderful job too!)
I would suggest that there are several ways one can end up in this third category. One way is by being remarkably mature. There is no need for outside confirmation. Donaldson-Pressman and Pressman write about this perspective near the end of their book. They use the analogy of the “treasure,” noting that we can view ourselves as having unique talents that may or may not be recognized or acknowledged by other people. With a high level of self esteem, we can appreciate our own “treasures” without these gifts necessarily being identified or even valued by other people.
I propose that there is a second route to non-narcissism. People can have such a low level of self-esteem that they don’t believe they deserve any attention from other people. In the musical, “Chicago,” the husband of the major protagonist sings about being “Mr. Cellophane.” Other people look right through him. They don’t even realize that he is in the room—and he certainly can’t call attention to himself, given that he isn’t worth much. This second route is sadly traveled by many people—who don’t even think they “deserve” to be treated by a psychotherapist. Do these people deserve to be attended to in a book about low self-esteem and invisibility? I would suggest that they do and that this non-narcissism may relate (painfully) to the story of Echo (a story which is often poignantly forgotten alongside the story of Narcissus).
Characteristics of the Narcissistic System
Given this brief description of narcissistic personalities, let’s turn to the narcissistic family that is the focus of Donaldson-Pressman and Pressman’s attention. I will offer a cursory examination of several major points being made by these two therapists and then turn to the use of their insightful analyses in examining the narcissistic organization.
The most important point being made by Donaldson-Pressman and Pressman concerns the assignment of responsibilities in the narcissistic family. Rather than the parents being primarily responsible for the happiness (even welfare) of their children, the children are responsible for the parents’ happiness and welfare. In this family system, the children are there for the parents’ sake rather than the other way around. While the family system was originally created (supposedly) for protection of the children (since like few other animals the human child is born virtually helpless), the tables are turned in the narcissistic family. Parents are expecting (even demanding) that their children protect them—protecting the parents’ self-esteem, credibility, authority, and so forth. This skewed responsibility opens the door for many other dynamics in Donaldson-Pressman and Pressman’s narcissistic family.
Because the children in a narcissistic family are to attend to the needs of the parents (rather than the other way around), they grow up being reactive to the needs of other people and devote much of their time and attention to reflecting on what other people want (not just their parents). While this attention to the needs of other people is often appreciated in our society, the costs for the child reared in a narcissistic family are great. Ultimately, this obsessive other-directedness is destructive to organizations (and according to David Reisman is a widely-found source of distress and alienation in contemporary societies—see his classic book called The Lonely Crowd as well as Whyte’s study of The Organization Man).
Problems with Intimacy
At an even more basic level, the child reared in a narcissistic family finds it difficult to establish intimate relationships. Many years ago, Erich Fromm (in The Art of Love) proposed that we can’t truly love another person until we can love ourselves. This proposal would seem relevant to Donaldson-Pressman and Pressman’s analysis of the intimacy problems facing the products of a narcissistic family. These men and women can’t identify their own needs and wants, hence can never easily let other people into their lives other than through superficial relationships. While their attention to each of their lover’s needs may initially seem like a pleasurable gift, there is a terrible cost associated with this one-way relationship. Neurobiologists have recently indicated that human beings (more than any other animal) are oriented to bonding (as mediated through the neurochemical oxytocin)—probably in large part because of the above-mentioned vulnerability of the new-born human child. This bonding will only be sustained if there is a sharing of responsibility and attention. The adult who comes from a narcissistic family may be unable (and unwilling) to build a mutual bonding relationship in large part because they never received bonding-attention as a child.
Issues of Trust
The lack of a bonding capacity in the adult product of a narcissistic family may, in turn, be based on the absence of trust. Donaldson-Pressman and Pressman reference Erik Erikson’s stage theory of human development, noting that the first stage is founded on the establishment of interpersonal trust. The newborn child must trust that his parents will take care of him and provide for his needs. If the newborn child initially receives this parental care, but soon loses it as he grows older, then the fabric of trust is ripped asunder and the child will find it hard to ever trust anyone in the future. The neurobiologists would suggest that the presence or absence of trust is manifest in (and helps to create) the presence or absence of substantial oxytocin in the neural system of the child (and adult) (see Brazedine and The General Theory of Love authors).
The trust factor becomes even more prominent and painful as the child moves into adolescence and adulthood. In seeking out the child’s approval, the parents in the narcissistic family will insist on the creation of a family myth regarding happiness and mutual care. Donaldson-Pressman and Pressman write about the family secrets that are common in narcissistic families. The adults who are products of these families not only do not trust other people, they also do not trust what other people tell them about either the past or current realities. They also can’t trust what they are told about the future, since—as Donaldson-Pressman and Pressman observe—the parents in a narcissistic family are always making promises that are not consistently delivered. I am reminded of the Harry Chapin song called “Cat in the Cradle.” The father in this song is always promising his son that he will attend a specific event and more importantly be “present” for his son. The father’s work, however, always distracts him from fulfillment of the promise made to his son – and prevents the father from ever meeting his son’s legitimate needs. Sadly, the son “grows up to be just like his Dad” – thus the narcissistic abuse is transmitted on to the next generation.