This week I saw a client who was caught on the sharp and painful end of a narcissistic split. Let’s call her Cinderella
You know the story; Cinderella, mummy and daddy all living happily ever after and then mummy goes and dies. Daddy, incapable of looking after himself and needing the social approbation that comes with a wife, remarries to a woman who has two daughters. So far, so familiar.
The ugly sisters, in dramatic terms are really just one person, both mean, both ugly and both greedy and ambitious, they are not differentiated or characterised in any way, so we will treat them as if they were one.
The step-mother is the narcissist. There are lots of theories about how and why people become narcissists, but frankly this week, with this client, it wasn’t the time or place to go into that (I discuss it in Into The Woods).
Suffice to say, the step mother had created a False Self (FS) as an unconscious coping strategy following a pretty disastrous childhood. Imagine this as an invisible mask or suit of armour that she wears. She looks like a normal person, can fool people in social situations into thinking she is a real person, but actually she has forgotten her real self. This means she can not emotionally connect to people or love them as she isn’t really there, she is just her costume, just a lacquer, just a mirage.
And this wouldn’t matter except that in order to maintain the FS, the step-mother needs to see her idealised False Self, reflected back at her. She needs to look into the mirror and find herself to be beautiful, smart, witty, wise, powerful and perfect.
The problem with this is that there, lurking in the background is the bundle of what Jung called ‘shadow’, we all have one. Like most of us, her shadow contains all her self doubt, shame, sense of unworthiness, imperfection, vulnerability, abandonment, weakness, lostness, alone-ness and all the things we humans know about ourselves.
She doesn’t like her shadow and certainly doesn’t want to go into therapy to come to terms with her past hurts and traumas and frailties to diminish the power of her shadow. So instead she looks for a mirror for the shadow as well her idealised FS in the outside world.
- You might know someone like this?
Luckily for the step-mother, she has a step-daughter as well as her own daughter(s). When she looks at her own daughters, she can see none of their flaws, their avarice, their cruelty, instead she just sees her own perfection mirrored back at herself through them.
Poor old Cinderella on the other hand acts as the mirror for all that the step-mother hates about herself. She doesn’t see Cinder’s kindness, diligence, beauty of diligence, can’t bring herself to see it because it is so different from her false positive self. So instead she sees her shadow when she looks at Cinderella, finds her poor, pathetic, plain, servile, weak and unworthy of love or respect.
- Do you recognise this dynamic in any of your relationships? It can happen at work as well at home?
This means that Cinderella can never, ever do anything right and the ugly sisters can never do anything wrong. They are flat characters in the step-mother’s internal drama, projections of False Self.
Even when Cinders marries the prince, sets up a charitable foundation, becomes a professor, and adopts orphans, she can never be anything but poor little Cinders and the step-mother continues to treat her that way.
Occasionally a switch happens. For example, when Cinderella got invited to the palace for her MBE and invited her father and step-mother, then, because the step-mother could bask in that glory, just for a while, Cinders was alright. And then she wasn’t again.
Then, another time when the ugly sisters stole all of the step-mother’s jewels, momentarily Cinders was the golden girl. But not for long.
Even when the ugly sisters made the front page of the tabloids having been caught in flagrante with all the queen’s men, Cinders was still the baddie for not covering up for her sisters (because even though what the sisters did was just a little bit naughty, the step-mother loved all the media attention.)
So, what should poor Cinders do to get her step-mother to ideally love and but at the least respect and accept her.
- Do you know the feeling?
What can Cinderella do?
There is nothing she can do because the step-mother can’t even see her. She isn’t a real person, just a mirror for the false negative self. So, no matter what she does, the step-mother will continue her projection.
If she argues with the step-mother to justify her worth, it will just incense the step-mother and thereby reinforce all the bad things she already thinks about Cinders.
If she cries the step-mother will see her as weak and pathetic which will yet again confirm what she already thinks.
Cinders could walk away from the relationship but would obviously lose her father in so doing and forever hold the title of ‘home wrecker and selfish, dysfunctional, manipulative, selfish cow’.
So instead Cinders has learnt to nod a lot when her step-mother talks because then her step-mother feels special and right and she loves to feel like that.
On a good day, when her self esteem is high, Cinders can find compassion for her step-mother and ask her for advice which the step-mother loves to give as it makes her feel so important, especially when Cinders lets her think she’s right.
On a bad day, when she is premenstrual and stressed, Cinders turns the phone off and doesn’t answer the door.
- Do you do any of this? Which strategies work the best for you?
Judymay comes to the rescue
I advised Cinderella to watch this Youtube video by Judymay Murphy which tells her how to deal with it:
She has to surround herself with friends who know her and love her as she really is, quirks and all and who will support her.
She needs to practice self-care when around her step-mother, taking walks, cuddling up with a good book, taking things easy.
Cinders has to work on her sense of self, getting to know what she likes, what her preferences are without feeling the need to explain and apologise for them.
She is getting better at asking herself what is true. If the step-mother called her untidy, she used to go into a cleaning frenzy, and now she is learning to decide for herself if things need tidying or not.
She has improved her boundaries: limiting visits, making them short, always driving so she can leave when she needs to and never getting sucked into late night drinking with the family.
She also has to stop being so naïve, just because she’s nice, doesn’t mean everyone else is too.
- Could any of these strategies be helpful to you if you have a relationship with someone/ people who make you feel bad?
It’s all a work in progress for Cinderella.
Thank you Judymay for your video and Jon Lydon for your photo