The Unwanted Child's Narcissistic Defense
by Aaron Lederer, NCPsyA
In this article, the narcissistic defense is presented from the perspective of Spotnitz’s (1985) modern psychoanalysis, followed by a description of its second-order structural analysis correlate and a discussion of transactional analysis as a treatment to resolve this defense.
Clients suffering from disorders originating in infancy usually do not process their aggressive impulses properly. This problem is referred to in psychoanalytic writings as the narcissistic defense. A recent school of psychoanalysis, pioneered by Hyman Spotnitz, M.D. (1969/1985) and his associates in the 1950s and called “modern psychoanalysis,” considers the narcissistic defense to be the cause of, and its resolution the key to the cure of, the full range of pre-oedipal disorders, including schizophrenia.
Freud (1913/1958) stipulated that in narcissistic disorders, the fixed hostility that develops makes analysis impossible. Exasperated by their ability to thwart his therapeutic efforts, he once remarked, “Psychotics are a nuisance to psychoanalysis” (Freud cited in Federn, 1952, p. 136). Indeed, until the early 1940s, there was no effective treatment for schizophrenia and other disturbances originating in infancy.
However, it has been increasingly recognized (Klein, 1935/1975; Rinsley, 1989) that many clients arrive at therapy with unresolved narcissistic fixations of varying degrees. Fairbairn (1944/1952), for example, wrote that “a sufficiently deep analysis of the oedipus situation invariably reveals that it is built up around the figures of an internal exciting mother and an internal rejecting mother” (p.142), a state that developmentally precedes the depressive position in later infancy (Klein, 1935/1975).
In spite of Freud’s comment about psychotics, psychoanalytic theories and treatment for pre-oedipal disorders have been developing since the early 1940s. These developments evolved into three schools: object relations, ego psychology, and self psychology. Another psychoanalytic approach, so-called “modern psychoanalysis” (Spotnitz, 1969/1985), has been growing in a manner reminiscent of the rapid early expansion of transactional analysis and is, at present, being taught in institutes in major cities around the country. Interest in modern psychoanalysis is seen in other countries, as well.
Central to modern psychoanalytic theory is the concept of the narcissistic defense. In this article, the narcissistic defense is presented from the modern psychoanalytic perspective. Then its structural analysis correlate is outlined, and illustrations from sessions are provided. It is then proposed that the narcissistic defense is carried out by a part of the Child ego state the infant splits off in its quest to survive in its unfavorable environment and that the narcissistic defense is but a specialized function of that split part. That split, the process that leads to it, and its consequences are described in my article, “The Unwanted Child” (Lederer, 1996). In that article, transactional analysis treatment is proposed to correct the structural distortions the infant effected by the splitting, a correction that also resolves the narcissistic defense.
The Narcissistic Defense
The narcissistic defense concerns the proclivity of the client to attack his own self to spare others. Spotnitz (1996/1985) stated that as early as 1948, Nunberg wrote about such a patient: “In a similar situation the patient said, ‘It seems to me that I am to hit somebody, to tear out somebody’s hair.’ Thereupon he struck his own head with his fist and started to pull out his hair” (p. 48). Margolis (1994) defined the narcissistic defense as follows:
The consequence to the patient, Margolis wrote, is that “his entire character structure and his way of functioning have been organized around the need to maintain this position” (p. 180). And “the narcissistic defense...is at the root of the narcissistic disorder, in whatever form” (p. 150).
Accordingly, “Resolving the narcissistic defense and enabling the patient to express his aggressive feelings are major concerns of modern analysis.” (p. 181). On the outcome of resolving the narcissistic defense, Spotnitz and Meadow (1976) wrote:
Spotnitz and Meadow added, "He also has to be helped to develop new patterns for controlling and regulating the discharge of these impulses" (p.43). Finally, "We need to recognize that the problem is not hate itself, but its expression in harmful ways." (p. 44).
From the preceding it is apparent that self-hatred and self-attack, rather than self-love, are considered by the modern analyst to be the nuclear problem requiring attention in the treatment with some leftover narcissistic fixations, and treatment with most patients begins with this assumption in mind. As with the three schools mentioned earlier, modern psychoanalytic treatment usually requires many years.
Structural Analysis Correlate
The structural characteristics of the narcissistic defense can be discerned by understanding the function of defense. Spotnitz (1976/1987, 1976) wrote that the purpose of defense in general is to “prevent the occurrence of some undesirable action through the self, by someone else, or by natural processes (p. 103). Thus, by definition protective, a defense is parental in function, and its aim is to attend to the Child’s safety.
But since the narcissistic defense originates in infancy, before differentiation of the first-order Parent ego state, the parental function of that defense must reside within the Child ego state as a second-order P1 (see Figure 1) and fulfill a protective function for the infant in the Child (C1). That function is to save C1 from consequences, perceived as catastrophic, of its impulse to attack the frustrating mother. The impulse is transferred, probably by the Adult in the Child (A1), to a made-up Parent (P1) that has been split off (C1) and that, in turn, “safely” discharges the impulse back on C1, thereby sparing the mother.
Because the split occurs before the differentiation of either A2 or A2, neither is involved, thereby making the narcissistic defense ego-syntonic with the Child, outside Adult awareness or Parental influence.
Keith is a 32 year-old college graduate, a manager at a financial services company. He was raised by an alcoholic, detached mother and a distant, angry father. He presented himself in treatment as polite, vaguely irritating, detached, and mechanical. He was terrified of closeness and had not had any close relationships up to the time he entered therapy. He revealed that he had been calling himself names and occasionally hitting and punching his own head. There is no history of physical abuse in his family.
During the month of the treatment described later in this article, Keith entered into a relationship with a woman of good prospect. Problems surfaced in that relationship that paralleled treatment milestones and were resolved as treatment progressed. The couple recently married.
Gary, a 35-year-old scientist of some achievement, has a manner that is careful and deliberate. His speech, sad sounding, has low energy. His thinking tends to be circular. Although committed to therapy, he feels hopeless about it. His narcissistic defense revealed itself to be subtle, symbolic, and insidious.
In its zeal to absorb all aggression, the split-off vacuum cleaner sweeps up indiscriminately any spark of impulsiveness or spontaneity. Further work with the vacuum cleaner showed that is does not just contain the accumulated impulsivity but discharges it onto the other part through a stream of humiliating and contemptuous put-downs
Transactional analysts, versed in ego state theory and treatment, can immediately recognize the benefit of understanding the second-order structure of the narcissistic defense.
The Tough Kid
In my article “The Unwanted Child” (Lederer, 1996), which considers transactional analysis treatment for disorders that originate in infancy, I cite research showing that infants whose mothers are excessively frustrating or rejecting detach themselves from their mothers if closure to the infants’ deprived environment cannot be obtained (Bowlby, 1969, 1973; Federn, 1952). I then stipulate that when such a detachment occurs, it is followed by an internal restructuring that begins with the infant’s excluding its internalized Mother (P1). I call this exclusion a “basic flaw.” In the absence of a reliable internal representation of Mother, the infant then splits psychically to produce a made-up substitute.
I further describe how the split (not the same as the splitting defense of object relations theory) bring about unintended, disastrous consequences for the person’s life, not the least of which include stunting subsequent growth and making close, loving relationships impossible.
This P1 substitute functions to protect C! from any possibility of disappointment that may repeat the original pain of separation. Functionally, it surrounds C1, which I call the Dependent Child, and stands guard over it against any outside contact that has the potential for nurturing or intimacy. It assumes the executive and excludes not only significant others but also the client’s own Adult from external and intrapsychic contact.
Behind various harmless guises that protective part is as hard as a rock, resolute and resourceful in its deflecting maneuvers. I call this P1 substitute part the Tough Kid. I show that both the Tough Kid (TK) and the Dependent Child (DC) (with TK’s permission) are available for contact through chair work. Studies of the narcissistic defense in sessions reveal that it is but one among several specialized protective functions of the Tough Kid (see Figure 2).
However, the Tough Kid encompasses more than just protective functions. While the Dependent Child is forever locked in desolate emptiness and loneliness, it is the Tough Kid that carries the intolerably painful emotional memories of the original loss, and it is the Tough Kid that must work these out in treatment.
Understanding the narcissistic defense as a specialized protective function of the Tough Kid enlarges our perspective on treatment. The aim of treatment becomes the mending of the “basic flaw.” When that mending is accomplished, all the protective roles of the Tough Kid become superfluous. The Tough Kid then rejoins the Dependent Child to return the Child ego to its original, integrated state. The client can then begin his voyage through the respective, previously incomplete developmental stages toward healthy separation and individuation.
To bring about that mending, the Tough Kid must be helped to reenter the pain of the original separation and to give it full emotional and verbal expression. The mending is accomplished when the original devastating loss and the agonizing feelings that accompany it are fully recalled, verbalized, and mourned.
But in its protective blocking-off, the Tough Kid makes it incredibly difficult for the therapist to work with it directly. To bypass this obstacle, the therapist uses a part of the client’s own Adult, designated as the Auxiliary Adult (Ax), to work with both split parts under the therapist’s supervision, making the treatment mostly intrapsychic. For a full understanding of the theory and treatment of the Tough Kid, the reader is urged to refer to my previous article (Lederer, 1996).
Soon after this treatment was initiated, Keith’s Tough Kid became aware of its role in the narcissistic defense:
A few sessions later rage emerges, directed first at the Auxiliary Adult:
Several sessions later, the Tough Kid’s rage begins to flow toward the original sources of frustration
Keith reports that he has stopped hitting himself but still attacks himself verbally. He experiences mounting sadness between sessions and frequent bouts of crying. In the sessions the Tough Kid's own dependency needs have emerged
Keith no longer attacks himself. His narcissistic defense is resolved. He is progressively getting better at expressing his dislikes directly to the sources. His work continues by investing his freed energies in furthering his mourning work.
The significance of the modern analytic view of the narcissistic defense and its implication for the etiology and treatment of the full range of narcissistic disorders should be noted and taken into account. The purpose of this article is to point the transactional analyst’s attention toward the narcissistic defense, where his understanding in terms of ego state theory and treatment provides a considerable advantage.
The narcissistic defense resolves naturally during the restructuring work.
In my cited article (Lederer, 1996), I call the method of treatment described here treatment of the unwanted child rather than treatment of particular diagnoses. I caution there that use of that treatment should be determined by the client’s structural characteristics, not by the diagnosis. This treatment is considered intensive and works best when provided at a frequency of one or more sessions a week. In addition, group membership is recommended to provide the client with a place to generalize the accomplishments obtained in individual sessions.
Finally, while the modern analyst sets his sights on the aggressive drive as the focus of treatment, the transactional analyst aims to facilitate the expression of mourning, toward which anger and hate are but a necessary step.
Aaron Lederer is a Certified Transactional Analyst (clinical) in private practice in Chatham, New Jersey. The author welcomes contact with clinicians whose interest is aroused by this article. Please send reprint requests to: Aaron Lederer, 244 Main Street, Chatham, New Jersey 07928, USA; home phone: (908) 903-9233; work phone: (201) 635-5215
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