Narcissism is essentially a distortion in the human development process. People are designed to move from dependence (I am not self-managing) to independence (I am self-managing) to interdependence (two self-managing people in relationship). The healthy development of independence appropriate to each season of life is what positions us to cultivate healthy relationships.
One of the key aspects of our development from dependence to independence is called differentiation. This is where I learn that I am a me and I am not a you and, conversely, that you are a you and you are not a me.
In our toddler years we begin to assert ourselves and express our own will independently of the will of others. Mine! No! I am not a you. I have thoughts and opinions and desires that are not yours. I have a will and it is not your will! This is normal and healthy if stewarded well by parents who are engaged and loving, teaching boundaries and consequences along the way.
Parallel to this process, little things like learning to share, to say “sorry,”and to ask for forgiveness teach us that there are other people with a will distinct from ours and we must learn to live with an awareness of that reality. So we learn to have conflict and learn to resolve it. We learn about the boundaries other people have in their lives to protect what they value and prioritize. We learn to tune in to the feelings of others and develop an ability to put ourselves in their shoes, to see things from their perspective. This is called empathy.
Some people (actually more and more in contemporary culture) grow up physically without this aspect of development. We learn that we have a will and that our experiences are valid; but we never really absorb the reality that other people have a will and that their experiences are also valid. With this developmental limitation in place, other people become the furniture of our experience. We understand how they affect our experience. We understand only how our actions affect their experience in the very narrow sense that their responses to our actions affect us.
For true independence to develop, everyone involved has to be independent. If I become independent but don’t allow you to become independent with me, then for my version of reality to stand strong, I need you to need me. I need you to be dependent. I need you to feed my illusions that my will is the only real will and that my experience is the only valid experience. I’m willing to be an angel or the devil to keep this facade intact.
The capacity to experience others as independent people develops when we are very young. Adults who lack this ability don’t have a minor issue that needs tweaking. They have a major lifelong developmental deficit. The healing and transformation needed has to go back to the little boy or little girl within, core lies that have shaped their experience for a lifetime, defenses and coping mechanisms that are all their conscious memory can even recall.
For more from our 10 part series on narcissism, check back next week or read previous posts: