Monday, February 06, 2006

The Mirror of a Parent's Eye

UPDATE: Be sure to read the comments for this post. One makes me think that this theory goes too far -- that there are parallels between narcissism and autism but that they are fundamentally different.

The paralells between autism and narcissism are striking. Now, before I even get started here, I must warn you not to jump to conclusions about people. If a child is autistic, that doesn't mean his or her mother witheld attention during infancy. It isn't that simple.

Long before I heard of NPD and knew more than what I had learned on a TV show about autism, I spotted the similarity between autism and what was strange about a certain narcissist I knew. Both seem held back from paying any attention to you. Their obduracy is invincible. It's almost as though they think they don't dare pay any attention to you and at the same time couldn't do so if they tried -- like it's a knee-jerk reflex to withold attention from you.

Both seem not to know that others have . . . what to call it? It's such a basic assumption that we hardly have a word for it. But what I mean is that they don't seem to know that others have a soul, a self, an inner life, a mind. To them you are but an object.

At best, to an adult narcissist, even the others in his immediate family are but one-dimensional cartoon characters, extras in a crowd scene of the stageplay of his life. Consequently, you could ask him any question about his wife's or children's characters, and he wouldn't know the answer. Is his wife religious? He doesn't know. Is his daughter loyal? He doesn't know. Is his son excitable? He doesn't know. You couldn't even give him three character descriptions, one of each, and have him match these three people to them. He would therefore not know better than to believe any preposterous lie somebody told him about one of them.

Ask any narcissist what he or she thinks you think about anything. They will act stunned by the question, as though you spoke it in Greek. The question makes no sense to them! Because you might as well ask them what a tree or a stone thinks. At best, they are taken aback by the notion that there is some correct answer and that you may tell them whether they are correct about what you think. That does not compute in the brain of a narcissist. He can't imagine that you needn't be thinking whatever he (the author of his fiction) decides to make-believe you think.

All but the narcissist have bit parts in his world. They are one-dimensional (cartoon) characters without depth or significance in his eyes. They are of no more interest to him than extras in a crowd scene. And worthy of as little individual attention. Just there "to swell a progress" as the poet T.S. Eliot would say (in "The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock"). In other words, just there to be of use in a story about him, focusing all attention on the star of the show.

Since he pays no attention to other people, he notices nothing about them. It's as though he somehow manages to block out even the look of their face so that he can't recognize anybody or remember their name. Consequently, people are all the same to him.

One narcissist I knew was so successful at viewing others as part of the furniture that in 50 years never did learn to distinguish his daughters. He never got names straight! Half the time he called Terry "Ka-terry" and Kathy "Te-kathy." Often, it was worse than that. He'd sometimes get halfway through a rant at, say, "Terry," before he'd use the name and Kathy would have to tell him what her name was. Over the phone he'd keep forgetting which one he was talking to. Though they were different as night and day (one was a narcissist) they were both the same to him. If he ran into one of them in an unusual setting, such as in the grocery store or on the street, he would stand gaping at her as though wondering why that woman was looking at and approaching him (= he didn't recognize his own daughter) until she said, "Dad" and started talking talking to him!

Truth is stranger than fiction, eh?

Now notice how similar this is to the behavior of an autistic child. Though his physical development is normal, and his intelligence and language may be normal or even superior, an autistic child treats others as though they are inanimate objects. He doesn't make eye contact, and he doesn't seem to know that others have thoughts and feelings he could share. He pays no attention to others and makes no eye contact with them.

Maxson McDowell gives this example in The Image of the Mother's Eye: Autism and Early Narcissistic Injury:

An autistic child seems not to know that his or her mother has a subjective self. An autistic boy, for example, was playing with his mother when she hurt her finger with a toy hammer and gave a sudden exclamation of pain. Though he was emotionally attached to his mother the boy paid no attention to her exclamation.

Her cry had no more significance to him than the sound of the hammer pounding a piece of wood. A piece of wood and his mother are all the same to him -- though he is emotionally attached to his mother because she takes care of him and he needs her. Rather like a baby blanket he needs. In other words, he seems to have no concept of mind.

Now notice how similar this is to the behavior of newborn infant.

Clearly, something has gone wrong. Something didn't happen, or something broke, during that child's psychological development. Personality is a system of "insincts, impulses, feelings, images, memories, ideas, and attitudes, some conscious and and some unconscious." Much of the framework and foundation of personality is formed before we have any language to think with -- integrated information more profound than words and absolutely essential to the development of a human person-ality. This child is in the same predicament as a gosling that hatches and imprints on the first thing it sees -- which had better be his mother, because if it isn't (if, for example, it's a human caretaker), he is going to grow up to be a pretty weird goose. His behavior will indicate that that he thinks he's a human.

Autistic children characteristically refer to themselves in the third person. I will bet my bottom dollar that narcissists think of themselves in the third person, too. That is a strange way of relating to one's self. Normal people think of themselves in the first person as "I" except when distancing themselves from themselves because they are upset with themselves. But even then normal people don't think of themselves as "he" or "she." They think of themselves in the second person, as when a tennis player playing badly bawls himself out by thinking, "You couldn't hit a backhand in today to save your soul!"

What has gone wrong to make people think of themselves as "he" or "she?" It's like they're relating to a charcter in a novel. Everybody has a personal narrative, but it's memoir, not a work of fiction about some ficticious "he" or "she." Weird.

Normally, at the breast, his mother's eyes are about the only shapes at the focal-length an infant's eyes can bring into focus. The iris and whites sharply contrast to attract his attention. Their shape has sharply defined edges. They move to attract his attention. And they gaze lovingly into his eyes 70% of the time, in long gazes that average 20 seconds at a crack. How's that for attention?

It is through the eyes where we come into contact with the inner person of other human beings. Normal people look at the eyes on another person's face. People suffering from autism look at the mouth. And I will bet my bottom dollar that narcissists look at the mouth too.

All infant primates gradually learn to maintain continuous eye contact with their mother. Not others' eyes -- their mother's eyes. Which means they recognize her eyes. Which means they have a mental picture of their mother's eyes. They learn to follow their mother's eyes. Which means they know she is looking at something else when she glances away and that they want to share what she sees.

That doesn't sound like much does it? But it literally means that "I see it, and I know that she sees it too." In other words "she" is no inanimate object. In other other words, the infant now knows that Mother is another conscious being. Now she will notice that he begins to relate to her. Within his concept of her self, his concept of his self forms. In other words, his person-ality begins to take shape. At about eight months, an infant develops a sense that he and his mother each have inner mental states that they can share. If he could speak, he would say things like "I want that toy, and she knows I want it." Something he'd never think about a piece of wood.

He doesn't see himself. Mother is the only mirror he has. Mirroring is being looked on with joy and basic approval by a delighted parental figure. So in the mirror of his mother's eye, the infant sees himself as lovable. Soon the mirror of his father's eye is just as important.

Narcissistic parents refuse to mirror their children. Instead they demand that their children mirror them. And thus the curse is passed from generation to generation.

Read more here.
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At 6:18 PM, Anonymous Eileen said...

Thanks, Kathy, for all the wonderful work you've done on the subject of NPD. Your website is the single most useful resource I have found online, and I have placed it on the recommended reading lists of the various Adult Children of Narcissists support groups I contribute to.

At 6:12 PM, Blogger kendra2 said...

I think comparing narcissism and autism doesn’t really work. They both may treat people as inanimate objects, but I believe it is for highly different reasons. The children I’ve known that suffer from autism are basically on sensory overload. The reason they cannot perceive you as a whole person is because they are focused on, and distracted by everything! They can become spellbound by the light reflecting off your hair, the smell of your deodorant, the sound your clothes make when you move, etc. They cannot, therefore, concentrate on the person him/herself.

At 7:36 PM, Blogger Kathy K said...


I see what you mean. Narcissists can't focus either and are distracted by everything. But I never got the impression that it was from sensory overload. I also never noticed them becoming spellbound about such things.

At 7:27 PM, Blogger kendra2 said...

Exactly. A narcissist is focused only on their own needs. So focused (as you have noted before) that they may be oblivious to everything else around them.

At 9:33 AM, Blogger gior said...

I think narcissits are suffering from sensory "underload".

At 10:32 AM, Blogger Kathy K said...

>I think narcissits are suffering from sensory "underload". <

Good one ;-)

At 11:36 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have to mention here, Kathy, that there's a wonderful little story by C. S. Lewis entitled 'The Shoddy Lands' which actually goes inside the mind of a woman - the fianceé of one of his Oxford students - who, I suspect, is a narcissist from the way he describes her. And it's just as you said: for her, other people simply are not real. Well worth a read if you can find it...


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