Criticism: How Narcissists Make YOU the Problem

This is one section of an article entitled Narcissistic Pathology of Everyday Life: The Denial of Remorse and Gratitude, reprinted on the Institute for Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy website. (This describes the projection behavior of my narcissistic ex and further describes how and why narcissists project their own faults onto others – most of all, those closest to them.) 

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Analysts working with narcissistic patients frequently bemoan, among themselves, the judgmental, devaluing attitudes to which they may be chronically subjected during treatment. The disapproving behavior of narcissistically motivated people is by no means confined to the consulting room, however, and those who live with them are often much more effectively wounded by their tendency to judge and criticize than is the analyst, who is protected by the limits of the professional relationship, the understanding of the devaluation in the context of the person’s history, and the consolations of psychoanalytic explanations of such defenses.

There seem to be at least two bases for the criticism that narcissistically defended people repeatedly direct toward those with whom they live. The object may be seen as a narcissistic extension; hence, any imperfection in the object reflects in an unseemly way upon the self. Or the object disappoints by not being the counterpart to the grandiose self; i.e., the omniscient, all-empathic Other, who effortlessly divines one’s needs and meets them, without the narcissistic person having to ask for anything, thereby admitting to an insufficiency in the self. Bursten (1973) has given us an unforgettable example of this second dynamic, in a patient who took his disappointments out on his long-suffering lover:

Increasingly, he expected his girl-friend to anticipate his needs in some empathic way. For example, he would lie on his bed hoping the girl would perform fellatio. Seeing his unhappiness, she would ask what she could do for him. This made him furious. He felt she should know without him having to tell her.

The tendency of a person in the grip of narcissistic defense to levy criticism, in preference to admitting other feelings and needs, can be observed in numerous circumstances. A mother who is busy and inattentive to her child, for example, if she is protecting a grandiose vision of herself as an exemplary mother, will meet a child’s demands not with the explanation that she is busy and unwilling or unable to give attention at the moment, but with attributions that the child is selfish, immature, too demanding, or whatever. The child is made the flawed object in the service of avoiding realistic limitations and imperfections in the mother’s self.

The repeated experience of being pathologized is typical not only for the children but also for the spouses and other intimates of narcissistic people. A woman who, for instance, expresses hurt when her husband defensively criticizes her, may be glibly accused of “oversensitivity.” An employee who tries to convey his distress to a hypercritical boss may be told he is “overreacting.” People generally feel quite helpless in the face of such defensive operations, which shift the focus of attention from the defects (as unconsciously perceived) of the narcissistic party to the alleged neuroses of the target person. Narcissistically motivated people who possess psychoanalytic insight are particularly skilled at this tactic.

Naive objects of such processes frequently don’t know what has hit them. They tend to get distracted by the grains of truth in their accusers’ version of their contribution to a problem, and they can easily buy into the characterization of an issue as embodying their own difficulties to the exclusion of those of the other. A woman in treatment with one of us reports that when she broaches a marital problem to her spouse, a psychiatrist, she is labeled a masochist and told to work on her “martyr problem.” She came to therapy convinced of her severe character pathology, and she is not without masochism, but she is hardly the picture of pathology her husband has painted. This propensity for fault-finding, or critically “interpreting” to deflect attention from felt imperfections in the self, seems to us a process very close to projective identification, in that the object of the narcissistic attack ends up affectively owning a sense of badness that originated unconsciously in a person whose grandiose faultlessness was somehow challenged (cf. Calef & Weinshel, 1981). It is thus destructive to both the object and the initiator of the criticizing defense, since anyone except possibly the most sociopathic of narcissists would accumulate unconscious guilt, and defenses against it, over misusing another person.