In this episode of Transforming Trauma, our host Sarah Buino is joined by therapist, social worker, and author Daniel Shaw to discuss his seminal book Traumatic Narcissism: Relational Systems of Subjugation. Daniel explores the theme of traumatic narcissism from a developmental and trauma-informed perspective. In his work, he connects the challenging symptoms and behaviors of clients diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder and Borderline Personality Disorder to the deeper understanding that they were raised in a highly traumatic environment by narcissistic caregivers. His underlying message for listeners is that, “It's important to understand what's going on in the mind of the narcissistic traumatizer in order to help patients free themselves from those relationships, in order for therapists to help the patient, and in order for the patients to help themselves.”
Daniel began his research in social work after leaving a religious group that he participated in for thirteen years, and which he later came to identify as a cult. In this group, Daniel experienced traumatic abuse through the cult leader, who “needed to inflate their own narcissism by controlling others.” This dynamic is exactly what he came to see represented in the relational system of the traumatizing narcissist, which he identified as a “system of subjugation.”
Unlike perspectives that can ostracize or vilify narcissistic tendencies, Daniel’s perspective on narcissism is very similar to that of the NeuroAffective Relational Model (NARM). Narcissism is understood to be a common trait that all personalities experience to some degree. While Daniel acknowledges that this trait can be quite harmless, for example “sometimes people are just a little more self centered”, his work focuses on the narcissistic person who is predatory in their behavior, and who seeks to establish relational dynamics in which they can control others “through belittling and intimidating and humiliating.” Daniel describes these individuals as highly seductive at first, and then after their initial phase of seduction others become subjugated to the narcissist. “So that person actually … comes to believe that they are bad and the narcissist is good. And the reason the narcissist is cruel to them is because of their badness.” He goes on to explain that the victim of traumatic narcissism is so affected by this relational system, that it is incredibly difficult to stop blaming themselves or feeling alienated from themselves.
In a healthy parent-child relationship, the parent honors and understands a child’s natural dependency, and allows them to gradually grow more independent over time through healthy individuation. This healthy individuation celebrates the child’s growing independence, while also allowing the child to come back and check in to re-establish safety as they slowly venture farther and farther into the world. Daniel and Sarah come together with Daniel’s statement that “We are born completely dependent and there's… no reason on earth why a child should grow up ashamed of that dependency.” However, the narcissist is not brought up in this healthy environment. Narcissistic parents resent the child’s dependency, shame them for it, and create a traumatizing environment in which the child’s dependency on their parent becomes the source of pain and suffering. These children often grow up with one of two outcomes: to become profoundly depressed with low self-esteem, or to take on aspects of this narcissism themselves and recreate relationships with this relational system of power-over and control through humiliation. As Daniel states, the traumatized child can then become the narcissist, who begins “disavowing and denying any kind of dependency, any kind of need, and associating [need] with shame. And then the person that they choose to relate to has to carry that neediness and that shame for them.”
Sarah and Daniel discuss the common thread in Daniel’s work and NARM. Much like in NARM, in which the therapists support clients to reconnect with their own agency, Daniel’s intention in working with people that have experienced narcissistic abuse is to help them “retrieve a faith in themselves that has been taken from them by the narcissistic abuser.” In both NARM and Daniel’s work, the therapist supports the client to raise their awareness of what has become internalized from their childhood abuse, including the vicious ways that these clients often degenerate and belittle themselves throughout their lives. This is a “powerful moment” in the therapeutic process, as the client begins to recognize that they themselves have taken on the role of their abuser through their own self-objectification.
Sarah then turns the conversation to the complexity of narcissism in a family system. Oftentimes, there is not only the traumatic narcissist who is creating relationships of subjectation, but there is also the covert narcissist, who is often the one that is standing by and watching what is unfolding, and not protecting the children from the abuse that is taking place. This person is essentially sacrificing the child to the relationship, which is a form of narcissistic abuse. Though there are common gender dynamics in these family configurations, both Sarah and Daniel are careful to note that these forms of narcissistic abuse are truly ‘gender blind,’ and can happen in any family system.
Daniel describes the healing from these forms of traumatic narcissism he sees when the client is able to look at themselves without judgment, and with compassion for their own experience. This form of self-inquiry is about re-discovering their own relationship to themselves through compassionate understanding. Sarah and Daniel close by discussing the role of the therapist, and how therapists can support the client in this process of self-reflection through being fully attuned and letting them know that we are “in their corner.” If the therapist is able to do this, the therapeutic relationship then becomes a place where the client can begin to feel this unconditional, fully present relationship from another, so that they can begin to feel it for themselves.
A much more in-depth look at the NARM perspective on narcissism is available through the NARM Masters Training on working with Personality Disorders.