Some years ago I wrote a piece entitled ‘I am the Alienator*’ which has now been read over a hundred thousand times in over thirty countries around the world. This piece, which was actually written from the house where I was working with a diagnosed narcissistic parent, is really nothing more than my observations of how two parents with personality disorder behaved towards each other.
Whilst narcissism is an issue which appears to be used routinely by lay people in conjunction with parental alienation, it is not as common as it is made out to be. Diagnosed narcissistic personality disorder is rare in the UK ( perhaps because clinical psychologists are encouraged to formulate not diagnose, or perhaps because true narcissistic personality disorder IS rare) and so it is not often that one gets the opportunity to work directly with parents who suffer from it. What I observed in this piece of work taught me an huge amount in terms of how true narcissism presents itself and how impossible it is for the person suffering from it to do anything about it without help.
In therapeutic terms, working with narcissism is a long term task, the most difficult of which presents at the outset because people who suffer narcissistic personality disorder do not believe they need treatment. The presentation of grandiosity and inflated self image prevents them from understanding that they have a problem and the way in which they have often manipulated others around them for many years, causes them to see the problem ‘out there’ rather than take responsibility for it.
Narcissists are incredibly fragile people in reality, their ego strength is extremely weak and they rely upon others to shore up this fragmented sense of self which lies beneath their arrogant self assurance. The insecurity that a narcissist feels drives them to pull people to them only to leave those same people stranded when they are not needed anymore. My work with these particular parents, taught me a great deal about how children become used as extensions to bolster vulnerability and shore up the defences.
Whilst the ‘I am the Alienator’ piece came straight out of my observations from this work, what was missing in it was the compassion I felt for these parents whose child was attached and loving and always happy when in their care. What was also missing was the light side of the narcissist’s world, the laughing and playing and the dancing and singing which went on. In the most desperate of circumstances these parents could and did have fun. One might say that the defence of narcissism helped to create fun even in the most desperate situation, but there were times in our work together when we laughed a lot and the child involved enjoyed that time. Helping the narcissistic parent to deepen their engagement with their child so that the child emerged as a real and separate person from the parent, was part of what we did together. Keeping the child in relationship to both parents (both diagnosed with personality disorder) was my key goal.
When I read about parental alienation and narcissistic or borderline personality disorder in everyday writings by some lay people, I find myself saddened by the way in which these parents are caricatured as mad/bad/sad people who should be punished. Whilst there are many parents who are able to take control of their children after family separation and thereby manipulate them into rejection of the other parent, diagnosed narcissistic parents are uncommon. It is therefore misleading for all parental alienation to be characterised as narcissistic/BPD parents acting in evil ways against the other parent. It is also, in my view, harmful because it prolongs the belief in all good and all bad. What this characterisation does is maintain the splitting defence which runs rife through both parents in many families, where children are alienated, so that the whole clinical picture simply looks like two parents wholly locating the bad in the other person, whilst upholding themselves as perfect and beyond reproach.
Life is just not as simple as that.
The narcissistic alienator can be characterised as a wicked person and indeed, in my piece ‘I am the Alienator’ I am describing a wicked person. In that piece I am observing the diagnosed narcissist manipulating and managing events and relationships in what appeared to be a determinedly vicious campaign. At times however, I regret having written the piece, simply because of the way in which the person I am describing is only portrayed in the completely negative light. Whilst many people have told me that I am describing their ex perfectly, I regret leaving out the the lightness and brightness of the narcissist, the charm and the warmth and the absolute sunshine that comes with the shadow side.
What I also missed out, was the compassion I felt as I worked with this family and the affection I felt for them even as I recognised the harm that could be done to the child without my protective input. What I recognised was that these parents, both of whom were diagnosed with personality disorder, were not doing anything other than what they believed was the right thing to do. Locked into their distorted world view, they each did the best that they could with the limited vision they possessed. The child, born into a world where parents saw life differently to others, had the unasked for task of surviving in this mayhem.
When I write about parental alienation I do not do so from a theoretical standpoint but from the experience of doing, being and working with families affected by it and that includes those who are personality disordered, the alienated AND the alienating parent and the children. In doing so I work not in the safety of my office from the view point of someone who ticks boxes and writes reports, but from being with, doing with and at times living with disordered families. From within so much more can be seen and the living dynamics of parental alienation can be experienced and worked with.
Parental alienation is not a story of monsters, it is not about good and evil and it is not about angels and demons. Parental alienation is a problem with a human face and even the narcissist is, in reality, human. Working from a place of curiosity, care and compassion so much can be achieved, as my work with this child and parents showed me.
Some years later the very same narcissistic parents who inspired the piece ‘I am the Alienator’ are sharing the care of their now older child, who is thriving and showing all the signs of being healthy and well.
A cautionary tale if ever there was one which teaches me, at least, to keep my mind open and my box of labels and assumptions firmly closed.
Not all parental alienation involves narcissism and not all narcissism leads to parental alienation.
And even when it does, it doesn’t always end in disaster for all children.
And the humanity which is required of those of us who do this work, demands that we keep that in the forefront of our minds in all that we do.
*All of my writing comes directly from the work that I do with families. This means however that I must take the greatest care to disguise the people I am writing about. I do so by scrambling the people I work with so that they cannot recognise themselves or be recognised by others. This piece is therefore derived from elements of a range of cases I worked with some years ago. It is, nonetheless, based upon direct work with diagnosed narcissistic parents, which is something I have been doing for over a decade now.