Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall; Am I Narcissistic?
All children are innately self-centered and internalize their experiences and the behaviors of others. This is especially true for traumatized children, who are wired to believe that the trauma taking place is because of them, rather than because of the traumatizer’s lack of internal resources. Unless this distorted belief is corrected, victims of trauma may develop the narcissistic practice of making everything about them or seeing themselves as the center of another’s world.
I want to emphasize I am referring to traits of narcissism rather than full blown narcissistic personality disorder. I think the term “narcissist” is widely overused and often misused. While there is a correlation between abuse/trauma and full-blown narcissistic personality disorder, not all abused or traumatized people grow up to become narcissistic in their thinking, and not everyone who displays narcissistic traits is a narcissist. For example, many people feel anxious or depressed, it doesn’t mean they have generalized anxiety disorder or major depressive disorder.
Narcissism can be characterized by an extreme sense of self-centeredness and self-importance. People believe this egotism is rooted in arrogance, but the opposite is true. People with narcissistic tendencies and traits lack (or are disconnected from) a true sense of self, instead projecting a false, normally grandiose, image of who they want people to believe they are. This is entirely dependent upon the participation and buy-in of others. If there is no one to buy-in to the narcissistic person’s illusory self, they will fall apart. They have no “self” outside of what others believe about them. Since who they are depends on the perceptions of others, their primary objective is to control the narrative others have about them through manipulation, deceit, projection, intimidation, etc.
Again, I am speaking to narcissistic traits and tendencies, which can be present in anyone, and it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. We develop these traits as a form of self-protection.
Good Child vs Bad Child
Inner children can take on two forms of expression – the aggressive child consciousness, and the passive child consciousness.
The aggressive inner child attempts to control their surroundings and others overtly. Their need for attention manifests as loud, often intimidating behavior. The passive inner child tries to control their surroundings by people-pleasing and avoiding conflict. The aggressive child’s behavior is defensive; it says, “DON’T MESS WITH ME.” The passive child’s behaviors say, “Look at how good I am.” Both children are trying to ensure their safety; both children are in reaction to perpetual victimization. One defends against being hurt pre-emptively and becomes emotionally, mentally or physically abusive; the other defends against it by becoming people pleasing and non-confrontational.
So where does narcissism factor into any of this? Both children operate from a space of self-centeredness, believing they have the power to influence others’ feelings and behaviors through the projection of a false identity. The aggressive child scares people into behaving the way they want them to, and the passive child aims to please their way into safety. They both use manipulation to do so, one just does it aggressively and one does it passively. It’s manipulation because the intention is to control their relationships with others, rather than be present in the relationship. They are both inauthentic in that their sense of self is dependent upon how others respond to them. While one tries to keep other people feeling good to avoid getting hurt, the other tries to make people feel bad when their own sense of safety or well-being is threatened. They both project their own insecurities onto others, making assumptions about what people will say and do. This is a survival technique that they’ve mastered, and so they’ll both be good at reading people and anticipating how others will feel and respond. Everything they do is motivated by others and there is no real sense of self (or true connection to self). It’s all just a mask.
What Does the Inner Child Want?
When one is operating from their child consciousness, they are really living from a space of UNCONSCIOUS awareness—meaning, they are disconnected from the present moment and instead reacting to their triggers. Hypervigilance ensues—this means reading people and places non-stop for potential threats and adjusting your own behaviors accordingly.
Regardless of how the inner child shows up, it wants what all children want: a feeling of safety, belonging, acknowledgement, and love. Children need to express themselves, and to explore the world around them with freedom and knowing that they are secure.
Inner child work involves engaging with your child consciousness with radical compassion and acceptance. Spending time with your younger self allows you to integrate the mini-you into the full-blown adult you are today. Making time to engage in constructive activities your inner child enjoys, like coloring or playing a game, is one way to restore a sense of peace and joy to your younger self. Envisioning yourself hugging or talking to your child consciousness is a great way to acknowledge him/her and foster a sense of safety and security. The safer your child consciousness feels, the less reactive it is to your surroundings. Over time you will become less self-absorbed and self-conscious. You’ll find yourself living in the present, and approaching your relationships with more openness, authenticity and curiosity. You’ll stop trying to control the way other people feel and behave, instead acutely aware of your own feelings and behaviors.