Transforming Trauma Podcast: Traumatic Narcissism: Relational Systems of Subjugation

From NeuroAffective Relational Model (NARM) Training Institute: “. . . therapist, social worker, and author Daniel Shaw [discusses] 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 [for example] ‘Bipolar Disorder’ and ‘Borderline Personality Disorder’ to the deeper understanding that they were raised in a highly traumatic environment by narcissistic caregivers. . .

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.’

Daniel Shaw, LCSW: I began my psychoanalytic work as a private practitioner in New York and I began to see all kinds of patients. Many of them were describing upbringings or relationships that very closely mirrored what I had experienced in the abusive cult. And so I began to think more broadly not just about the nature of this kind of narcissistic abuse in these cultic communities but in relationships in general—in couples, among siblings, in families, developmentally, and in all kinds of other situations where there is authority and power—including in the therapeutic situation, which can also be an exploitative situation in some cases.

This person. . . has to have other people that they can control. And they control these people through belittling and intimidating and humiliating. They’re initially quite seductive, and once they feel they have somebody hooked in, they then maintain a high degree of control over the person through this belittling and intimidating and humiliating. And this person basically becomes 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. So that’s how I think of the relational system of the traumatizing narcissist . . . When I was talking to people who had been in these abusive situations with these kinds of people, they did not know how to stop blaming themselves or stop feeling alienated from themselves.

. . . The people who most need to know about it are often the people that have long felt themselves kind of trapped in relationships where they always try to do better and work harder and be more what the other person wants. And they find it difficult to have a sense of their own self, of who they truly are, what they truly feel and think. And they come to depend on the narcissist for their self-esteem and their self-regulation. And the problem is the narcissist is always trying to keep them destabilized, trying to keep them in a position of feeling unworthy, inadequate and needy—dependent.

. . . It’s important to understand what’s going on in the mind of that 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.

. . . I understand a traumatizing narcissist person to have been brought up in an extremely traumatizing environment, specifically around being made to feel ashamed of their dependency. Now, any human being is born fully dependent. And the narcissistic parent resents the child’s dependency [and] shames the child for that dependency: ‘Stop being so selfish,’ ‘Stop being so self-centered,’ ‘Oh, you’re so needy.’ A child is fully dependent, and that dependency in a normal, healthy upbringing is recognized and honored and understood, and supported, so that gradually a person’s independence develops out of a secure base of knowing that they have that dependence—they can always depend on a reliable, well-regulated parent who is also attuned and empathetic. But the narcissist is not brought up by that parent. The narcissist is brought up by the unattuned, unempathetic parent who is completely absorbed in their own needs and resents the needs and the dependency of the child.

Now the child brought up that way can grow up in a couple of different ways. But typically one way is that they become a profoundly depressed person whose self-esteem is always falling apart. But the other possibility is that that person grows up to become like the parent—to become convinced that they’re actually better and superior, and everybody else is weak and needy and small. And in order to maintain that illusion of how strong and superior and independent they are—in other words, they’ve been so shamed about dependency that now what they are that ‘I don’t need anybody or anything, I have everything I need because I’m perfect, I’m superior’—but what they ‘need’ is to have relationships with people who are fully dependent on them. So this kind of narcissist is disavowing and denying any kind of dependency or need and associating that with shame. And the person they choose to relate to has to carry that neediness and that shame for them.

. . . When you’re working with the survivor of narcissistic abuse, my goal is not to reach toward forgiveness, it’s to reach toward understanding. If I understand the abuser, where they’re coming from, what’s going on inside of them, I don’t have to love them, I don’t have to forgive them—but I don’t have to take it out on myself . I can liberate myself from the whole framework they set me up for and put me in. And I can see myself for who I am and see them for who they are. So that’s the goal of the work.

. . . It’s when the parents—these parents who are traumatically narcissistic—and this goes back generations usually, it’s intergenerational trauma—they themselves have been made to feel ashamed of their dependency. They do not have a coherent narrative of their own developmental experience and as a result they repeat it with their own children. It’s tragic. But so often the survivors who come to therapy have spent a lifetime protecting the abuser and blaming themselves.”

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