So how does/do narcissism or narcissistic systems create this inability to feel good about ourselves? One theory posits that the healthy emotional development of children hinges on parent-child eye contact known as the “gaze” (often the mothers’ but not necessarily only). When our parents encourage, praise, love, and look at us the experience gives us substance. It lets us know we are “something” in the world. It’s an important building block for positive feelings about self, our inner emotional structure, the “shelves” that Neal Brennan (3 Mics, 2017) talked about.
Growing up in toxic, dysfunctional systems children are often denied this gaze. Narcissistic parents by definition are not able to access that part of themselves from which they give – because this all important gaze is exactly that, a sharing and giving of one’s self. Without this gaze there is no sense of self for the child, and there is no way for that inner emotional structure to develop and make room for positive feelings. It’s a downward spiral from there of feeling invisible, not worthy, wrong. We really, really need that gaze from our parents.
The narcissistic system is also a system where the adults’ feelings rule the roost. The child learns to diminish their own feelings and this muscle that is responsible for maintaining positive feelings, atrophies. That same muscle is energized and grows as we are held in our parents’ gaze – and withers away without it.
There is another mechanism at work for how the inner emotional structure accommodates negative feelings. Except it’s not negative feelings as much as negative thoughts isn’t it? The “product” of a depressed brain. Minus any positive feeling about one’s worth, one’s self in the world, or in a relationship, we are left empty, and that void is depression. And again, the product of a depressed brain is a lot of negative messages about the self.
I want to believe that therapy can provide us with a “re-experiencing”, in a relationship, of receiving that gaze, a corrective emotional experience like they talk about in couple therapy literature. That’s a lot of what therapy is about to me: holding you in my gaze, so you feel seen, regardless of how little or much you think of yourself; letting you know someone is here, hearing you, so you feel heard; caring for you and respecting you, giving you a sense of substance, making vital emotional space for you. It doesn’t work for everyone – I get that. That’s what I feel this work requires though. Helping people build on themselves, one shelf at a time.
Peace to you.