An Integral Understanding of Narcissism and Gaslighting, Part 2

In General by Dr. Keith Witt


Narcissism is characterized by self-absorption, self-centeredness, the objectification of others, and a constant hunger for attention and praise—narcissistic supply. People with pathological narcissism—seeing others as merely objects for gratification—can also hunger to enjoy the suffering of others. This is where narcissism sinks into psychopathy.

The term gaslighting comes from the Charles Boyer movie Gaslight where a husband drives his wife insane telling her the gaslight outside their window is slowly fading. Gaslighting means deliberately manipulating another to believe something obviously not true; essentially driving them crazy.

Sounds pretty sick, right? Pathological narcissism and gaslighting are certainly what I call extra crazy. But there is a cultural problem here that obscures deeper understanding. Integral psychology looks for truths everywhere, knowing that most truths are partial, missing wider contexts, implications, and interventions.

20th century psychology was based on the medical model of illness-requiring-cures. Of course, this model is applicable for all kinds emotional/relational/behavioral problems, but psychologists went crazy pathologizing human experiences over the last 130 years (pun intended!). The DSM5—psychology’s diagnostic manual—takes almost every domain of human experience and turns it into a disease. For instance:

  • You’re too sexual, or you’re not sexual enough.
  • You’re too hyper, or too slow and distracted.
  • You focus too much on what others want, or you focus too much on your own issues.
  • You’re too anxious, or you’re too emotionally nonreactive.

Many, if not most, diagnostic categories are extreme versions of normal human experiences.

Take narcissism.

At 10 months old a securely attached infant has been cherished and loved since birth, and is just waking up to being a separate self from mother. Our example in these blogs is little Jimmy. At 10 months Jimmy believes he’s the greatest ever! Everyone loves him and everything he does! Margaret Mahler called this stage primary narcissism, and it is completely normal and essential for healthy development, but there is a catch. We are intensely social creatures—the most social mammals on earth—and social creatures cannot be purely about me. Being social has to dramatically privilege we appropriately. Evolution motivates us to be about we through the mechanisms of narcissistic supply and shame.

  • Narcissistic supply is our hunger for the approval, recognition, and praise from others. All of us want others to think well of us and recognize our special qualities and achievements. Seeking recognition and approval from others motivates us to cooperate, connect, and communicate.
  • Shame dynamics are necessary to develop moral imperatives to serve the group. When our adaptive unconscious (our Shadow self) determines we have violated a social norm or moral principle, it generates shame emotions (like shame, guilt, embarrassment, or mortification) to let us know we have strayed and need to adjust. This pain—or the anticipation or memories of this shame-emotion pain—motivates us to follow social rules and personally important cultural standards.

Infants cannot feel shame. They don’t blush at disapproval from others until around 10 months when they develop enough of a separate self to seek out parents for reassurance, and to feel distressed by critical messages like frowns, stern tones, or physical constraints. This is when children can experience shame at perceived disapproval, where they blush, freeze, and look down in distress when feeling criticized. Let’s look at this with little Jimmy.

From 10 to 17 months, Jimmy will hear the word “No” every 9 waking minutes. This is called the “Practicing” period of adulthood because within the play/relating space of toddlers and caregivers they intersubjectively seek meaning by practicing many forms of social engagement and adaptation. As mom provides appropriate, firm, and kind boundaries to Jimmy barreling through life like a toddler wrecking ball (if you are a parent, you know exactly what I’m talking about!), Jimmy learns that it is wrong to hit his brother, stick his fingers into light sockets, run into the street, or scream out swear words he heard on TV. As he develops a theory of mind around two years old, his adaptive unconscious—his Shadow self—can increasingly observe himself breaking a rule and generate a shame emotion to regulate him back into pro-social standards.

But what if Mom always says “yes,” or pretends that everything Jimmy does is great? What if she doesn’t believe in disapprovals for toddlers and simply distracts him or physically blocks him from disasters while verbally still approving—“Of course you want to hit your brother! He’s so irritating! Let me take you outside and give you a popsicle.” Now Jimmy gets the message that the world needs to adjust to him, and that any problems he encounters are someone else’s responsibility to address. Jimmy is now on the way to narcissistic traits, or even narcissistic personality disorder.

We have social instincts to bond and influence each other. We have egocentric instincts to put ourselves first before others in certain situations. Identifying and acting appropriately on these instincts marks development on central developmental lines like the psychosocial, psychosexual, self, values, morals, and cognitive lines. Toxic narcissism and gaslighting generally indicate developmental arrest on many of these lines.

On the other hand, people are complex, and so is narcissism. There is a range from healthy narcissism to toxic narcissism, and it’s important to know the differences. Check out the following description of this continuum:

  • All of us have healthy narcissistic moments that are appropriately all about us—like eating a doughnut, smelling a rose, or getting a massage.
  • Most of us have unhealthy narcissistic moments where we feel entitled, grandiose, or objectify another inadvertently—like wanting to cut in line at the grocery store, staring too long at the bikini babe at the beach, or wanting special treatment at a restaurant.
  • Some of us have narcissistic traits where in certain circumstances we are grandiose, entitled, and manipulative—like a doctor who is well attuned to her husband and kids, but grandiose and arrogant in not thinking she could be wrong with a diagnosis or treatment plan.
  • A very few of us, 1% to 3%, have narcissistic personality disorder where we chronically objectify and exploit others, and are incapable of mature intimate relating, true empathy, or any real self-reflection..

For Jimmy to grow well, he needs his social environment to support healthy narcissism and interrupt unhealthy narcissism.

Just as healthy narcissism to toxic narcissism is a continuum, healthy wanting-to-influence to gaslighting is a continuum. The narcissism continuum extends from healthy self-regard, to inability to have empathic resonance with others.  The wanting-to-influence continuum extends from healthy dialectic—two people wanting to influence each other and help reach for deeper truths—to toxic attempts to impose distorted perspectives—gaslighting. I’ll talk more about gaslighting in  our next blog, An Integral understanding of narcissism and gaslighting, Part 3:

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