Academic journal article Pre- and Peri-natal Psychology Journal

Pre- and Postnatal Repercussions of Handicapping Conditions upon the Narcissistic Line of Development

Academic journal article Pre- and Peri-natal Psychology Journal

Pre- and Postnatal Repercussions of Handicapping Conditions upon the Narcissistic Line of Development

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT: In this paper, I examine narcissistic difficulties experienced by the handicapped youngster, especially to the extent that they are anchored in pre-, peri- and early post-natal experiences that were cast in the molds of parental narcissistic vulnerability and of impediments to the infantile attainment of a core sense of self. Considerations pertain to relatively generalizable consequences of infant handicap, encompassing the potential effects upon narcissism of a broad range of developmental disabilities.

The use of the term "narcissism" in this text, with reference to both adults and infants, is concordant with the definition of Stolorow and Lachmann (1980): "mental activity is narcissistic to the degree that its function is to maintain the cohesion, stability, and positive affective coloring of the self representation" (p. 26). However, the perspective on narcissism adopted in the present paper is broader than a specifically self-psychological view, because it recognizes the validity of multiple psychologies (cf. Pine, 1988), including drive/conflictual, ego-psychological and object-relational as well as self-psychological models, to properly account for the clinical and observational data. Moreover, body-anchored primary narcissism is differentiated from secondary narcissism as a consequence of relations with anaclitic objects (Kestenberg & Borowitz, 1983, 1989).


Impediments to the actualization of each of the narcissistic configurations proposed by Kohut (1971)-the grandiose self and the idealized parent imago-are intrinsic to the infant born with a congenital or peri- or postnatally-acquired deficit. The often profound impact of the infant's condition upon the narcissism of each parent delimits the degree and quality of a "confirmatory echoing" (p. 124) and approval of the child that is elemental to salutary mirroring. The jarring experience of parenting a developmentally disabled newborn can have profound impact upon the most basic interactions between parent and child. Whereas for the healthy baby, some manner of "gleam" in the parent's eye is usually readily fashioned in response to the infant's bodily display, the impaired baby is at a disadvantage in eliciting adequate narcissistic supplies. The parent of a developmentally handicapped youngster is challenged to re-discover this gleam to offer the child in the process of encouraging potentialities.

There is a growing understanding of the importance of the intricate nonverbal reciprocal and mutual influences that infant and parent have upon one another (Lichtenberg, 1981; Beebe, 1984; Stern, 1985; Kestenberg, 1985), and of the significance of the qualities of harmony, adjustment and synchrony in the manner of dialogue achieved. It is in the developmental context of "interlocking responsivity" and "finegrained attunement" (Beebe, 1984) that early psychic structuralization takes place. Such considerations led Atwood and Stolorow (1984) to expand upon Kohut's self-object concept and to delineate the idea of an intersubjective field that evolves through progressive developmental phases, beginning prenatally.

The preparation for the embryo to emerge as neonate depends in large part upon the interplay between its biological system and innate developmental patterning and that of the mother. The mother's preparation is also profoundly influenced by the specific psychological meanings the newcomer has for her as her experience of the pregnancy is assimilated into the already existing structure of her sense of self, including especially, her body self. To harbor within her body a new living and parasitic entity with its absolute dependence, to have her body change radically in ways that cannot be controlled, to realize that her life will never again be the same and now contains a new and central uncertainty-all of these changes require significant reorganization of her subjective world (Atwood & Stolorow, 1984, pp. …

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