Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

The Narcissistic Pat

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on October 11, 2012

Martha Beck

“Look at my Lego,” a seven-year old says to his mom, clearly asking for enthusiastic praise. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could all ask for narcissistic pats, like children so easily do from their parents?” I pose to my ‘play class’. “Why do we lose our ability to get our needs met so simply?” I continue to ask my students, thinking about how children seem biologically programmed to demand praise, and parents, in turn, seem biologically programmed to understand the necessity for a passioned response. Somewhere, around puberty, getting affirmations become much more difficult. The relationship with parents are now more ambivalent. The praise has to come from peers, but the request for positive responsiveness is indirect and unclear. Competition sets in, meaning that friends hurt each other and help each other, at the same time. I wanted to say to my students today, “look at me, I am such a great teacher,” but somehow that did not feel right, so as a grown-up, I taught my class, hoping quietly that maybe, just maybe, a student would offer up some praise. I was having a day where I was needing a narcissistic pat, but asking for it, and knowing who to ask it from, seemed humiliating and inappropriate. The desire to have the excitement of showing off an accomplishment, knowing with almost certainty, that enthusiasm would flow readily, is still there. Some childhood wishes never go away. Wanting a narcissistic pat is one of them. Some days they are more important than others.


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4 Responses to “The Narcissistic Pat”

  1. Shelly said

    I think receiving affirmation from one’s parent is different than receiving affirmation from one’s peers, is it not? That is a different kind of “narcissistic pat,” I feel. The parent provides for all of the needs of the child and without continual proof that the child is loved and valued, the child may feel that he will be tossed out to fend for himself. On the other hand, the child wants to be accepted by her peers, so she dresses and acts like all the others, and seeks validation from her peers that she conforms. I don’t see these affirmations as “narcissistic pats” but rather as confirmations in the first case (from a parent) that the parent will still provide for the child love and support for him, and in the second case (peers, friends), that the child is an accepted member of a group of friends. I do so understand your need to hear from your students that you are a great teacher, but if it had come from the students’ mouths at that time when you had asked it, it would have been non-spontaneous and rote. You would have known that they had not really meant it and it would have been meaningless. I am certain they will surely tell you what you long to hear when you least expect it–and it then will have come from their hearts. And it will not be a narcissistic pat but a meaningful compliment that will give you hope.

    • I am not so sure. I think “narcissistic pats” are reassuring experiences that one’s work is valued and that this need runs throughout life and so is sought after in all kinds of endeavors, from all kinds of relationships. I think affirmations from peers, colleagues, students, mentors remind us of the affirmations we received from our parents, and as such, serve to reinforce our self-esteem. I also think that how one goes about getting “narcissistic pats” says a lot about one’s personality and one’s value system. Being accepted into a group is a “narcissistic pat” as far as I can see. The issue is what group the child wants to be part of. This decision is key to understanding the child’s psychic experience of himself. Yes, affirmations are always subject to hidden agendas and manipulation. Many people understand other people’s need for “narcissistic pats” and in so doing, they exploit the other person. In other words, the flattery is used as a manipulation, and this is always at play when one is in need for “narcissistic pats.” The less one needs these pats, the less vulnerable they are to manipulation. On the other hand, if one never needs “narcissistic pats” then one runs the risk of not connecting to other people and not understanding other people’s need for these. Narcissism, as Kohut taught us, is a healthy need, as long as it is conscious and sought out in constructive environments. Volunteering is a great example. Volunteering allows the volunteer to feel the “narcissistic pat” while at the same time, goodness is given to those in need. It is a classic win-win, only in this case, the win-win is psychological on the giver side, and more practical, usually, on the taker side. Thanks, as always.

  2. Jon said

    Well, first off, let me give you a “Narcissistic Pat” for all that you do, both in this blog proper and in what you write about what you are doing in general. You certainly deserve it, and, while correctly understanding that adults should not ask for them directly, they are still quite necessary for mental wellbeing.

    I am curious about the transitions – childhood, pubescences, and adulthood. We have some understanding of the simple physiological changes that centers around reproduction. The psychological changes are sometimes “reductionistcally” understood as hormone driven. Albeit I am an unabashed reductionist, the psychology that emerges needs discussion on its own. Could you discuss more the changes of the “Narcissistic Pat” qua the psychology of reproduction? Also, how do things change after menopause?

    • Shirah said

      Thanks, Jon. The “narcissistic pat” is appreciated!

      You raise an interesting point, as usual. It is my impression that with puberty and the ability to reproduce, the narcissism soon gets transferred to the offspring, where women, in particular, but some men, as well, begin to define their self-esteem based on the achievements of their children. The ability to reproduce creates, for some a “narcissistic bubble” where the mom may have a thin membrane between being happy for her children and being happy for herself because she feels responsible for her children’s accomplishments. This “thin membrane” can create difficulties in parent/child relationships, as if the membrane is too thin, the child lacks the narcissistic gratification for his/her achievements because the narcissistic glory goes back to the mom and away from the child. As for menopause, this is also a very interesting question. For some, menopause represents a loss of reproduction, which can be a trigger for depression. For others, menopause represtents a time to return to more self-centered endeavors and thus it can be a “re-birth” of sorts. Thanks, for stimulating this discussion.

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