Podcast #2: Snow White and The Narcissistic Queen


If you prefer to read rather than listen, here is a transcript of the podcast.
(Also available in PDF format.)
Note: portions of the text may be slightly edited for clarity in written form.

Recording: …are not necessarily those of the staff, management or ownership of WGCH Radio.

Dr. Jerry: Good morning, and welcome to the Psychotherapist’s Corner. This is Dr. Jerry talking to you. Last week if you remember, I spoke about the human tendency to forget. In fact I quoted Barbra Streisand’s song, what is too painful to remember we simply forget. Very true. And yet, although that’s understandable and normal when we forget what was too painful or too hurtful it can bring about consequences in our lives, our relationships, our feelings about ourselves and how we interact with others. If we forget too much, we accumulate too much soot, so to speak. Remember I used the analogy of psychotherapy is like chimney cleaning and that if we don’t clean the chimney at least once a year, we’re in danger for putting the house on fire. If we don’t sit down and think about our life and where we’re going, and where we want to go and our relationships, we’re liable to accumulate too much soot in our life because we forgot about it.

This morning before discussing this any further, what I’d like to do is share a childhood fantasy tale that we all had, that we all heard when we were children. I wrote an article a number of years ago for the Greenwich Time, which I dug up because it speaks to this issue. The article was called, Caring for One’s Self, Caring for the World. It discusses a fairy tale that I hope we’re all familiar with. I certainly am, but I’m probably a little older than any of the people listening. So let me start. “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all,” asked the beautiful queen. Actually the queen must have been very attractive for the mirror to answer so consistently that it was she. Can any of us forget the apprehension we felt when we read on and heard that the queen’s wrath, when the mantle of beauty had fallen from her, to the lovely Snow White.

Now what’s important to remember here is myths and fairy tales touch us where our dreams are born. We relegate to their importance to children only if we no longer experience that knowing ones’ self is one of the rewards of life. What does this fairy tale tell us about our human condition? It describes, I think, one of the most pervasive human foibles, that is, the predilection for specialness. In our field we call it narcissistic specialness, but it’s specialness. The fairy tale relates the queen’s narcissistic rage, her murderous wishes towards the beautiful Snow White whom she somehow experiences as a threat to her self worth. Upon hearing the mirror’s reply, the queen orders the huntsman, as you can remember, to abduct Snow White, to kill her, and to bring her heart back to her.

Really interesting images. That’s why it’s important to just stay with some of the images. When we have a parent or a friend, or a spouse, who is too narcissistic they really do kill our heart because narcissism in a sense absorbs all the emotional energy in a relationship. Snow White, the innocent child, actually the innocent child in all of us, escapes such a fate and lives with the seven dwarfs away from the queen’s murderous face. In some versions of this tale, as you remember, Snow White is the queen’s step-daughter. In others she is her biological daughter. I always thought when I was writing this little piece, I always thought it was interesting because I remember from the movies that we all watched when we’re children, the seven dwarfs. But it’s interesting. Seven short people..people who walked tall but were who were small, who didn’t have to impress everyone around them. But let’s go back to the fairy tale for a minute. Why is the queen so captivated by mirrors?

There’s a Greek myth, some of you may know, where the term narcissism comes from. It’s the myth of Narcissus. He is apparently, or was apparently, a beautiful young man who when walking along one day came to the riverside and saw his image in the lake, and was so captivated by it and so wanted it that he fell into the lake and drowned. A rather simple way and yet very dramatic way of saying when we get caught too much with who we are and how we look, etc., etc., we’re going to drowned and get so preoccupied that we’re no longer living in the world. We’ve drowned in our self-image.

This psychological need has it’s roots, we now understand actually, in the first mirror. In our first mirror for all of us, men and women, our first mirror is our mother’s face. Depending on how that face, the mothering face, sometimes it may be the father in today’s world, depending on that face, how that face responded to us we either can experience ourselves as lovable and beautiful, or as empty and not attractive. A consistently caring parent is necessary for all of us to build an image of ourselves as lovable. If we’re lucky enough as children to have such an experience, then how others respond to us later in life becomes secondary. It’s important but it’s secondary. But without that feeling that we were welcomed, that we were loved, that we were cared for, and that we were truly beautiful in someone’s eyes, we don’t know how to respond to ourselves inside.

Sometimes, and this can manifest itself in a lot of different ways, narcissism first of all is not bad. I want to speak to that in a little while. Our defenses are not bad things that we do. They really are defenses. They’re ways of handling pain and conflict inside of us that we don’t really know any other way of handling. It’s very possible, as I will discuss, in a few minutes, that sometimes a child can be overindulged and they can be like the queen, very narcissistic, and sometimes a child can be under-responded to and that can lead to the same kind of behavior. So we’re not talking about any kind of bad behavior here. We’re really talking about stepping back and trying to understand what may be interfering with our relationships. Parts of which we don’t even know.

It’s not so much that the queen was suddenly momentarily jealous of Snow White; that is a very human emotion. It’s that she didn’t catch it. She didn’t catch it inside of herself. She didn’t say, “Gosh, I’m really sorry. I don’t have to be jealous of Snow White. She is the next coming generation.” And, “I’ve had my time and I’m still an attractive woman.” In that capacity, to step back, to say, I’m sorry, to say I’m sorry towards our children when we inadvertently offend them. To say I’m sorry to our husbands or our wives is very important.

When we do marriage counseling, my wife Julia and I, sometimes we’re truly struck by the fact that couples have enormous difficulty in just saying I’m sorry. What I did wasn’t right. What I did was thoughtless. What I did was forgetful. And I was really too self preoccupied, too concerned with myself. I’m sorry. It sounds very simple. From one point of view it is very simple. From another point of view it seems to be very difficult precisely because all of us to varying degrees suffer a little bit from what the queen suffered from. But let me get back to the story in a little while.

An emotionally unresponsive or uneven environment mirrors back to a child, and re-mirrors back to us as well one’s own fears of emptiness resulting in an all too common feeling that he or she is merely being tolerated rather than being celebrated. What we owe children, and actually even I can say this, what we owe ourselves is celebration. Later in life, a lack of celebration sometimes manifests itself in adult who quietly reclusively live their lives hiding from other people. Sometimes seemingly paradoxically, it results in individuals like the queen who are ever hungry for constant praise, intolerant of different opinions, excessively committed to outside appearance and approval. The person who can’t tolerate a different opinion without thinking that a different opinion is a judgment on them, that’s unfortunately a result of a kind of narcissistic problem, that they have.

The fear that one is not lovable for one’s self, that an inner emptiness will show itself to the world, propels such type of behavior in a continuous self-alienating cycle. Behind such a facade there lurks all too often the deepest rage as this myth indicates, as well as unrecognized and unnamable sorrow. The myth really in very dramatic form tells us about the rage. You know, off with her head, I want her heart back. That’s rather rageful.

What it really doesn’t get to is the fact that a lot of us to the extent that we are not able to hold ourselves as truly lovable and appreciated inside, carry around a lot of sadness. That sadness propels action. That’s what I mean about what we forget. It’s very painful to remember sadness. I understand that but we’re all in the same boat. But when we forget it sometimes it will propel us to actions that later on really complicate our lives.

The queen had deep emotional doubts, it’s clear to me, about whether she was lovable or beautiful at all; therefore her constant recourse to the mirror. She cannot recognize and love the beauty around her. She can’t love Snow White. But rather dedicates her life to covering up her inner emptiness and seeking constantly outside praise.

Myths and fairy tales often present thoughts of feelings as conscious, which in reality most people keep hidden. Most people, they’re truly unconscious. For example, competitive or hostile feelings towards one’s children even though there is great love as well. Occasionally fathers are jealous of their sons or mothers of their daughters. Now a parent can either pretend that such feelings don’t exist, which I think is rather dangerous to follow, or they can recognize them. That is, step back and avoid acting on them. The feeling is not the problem, it’s not recognizing it. Narcissism can also be evident if the queen might have given Snow White all the material things she wanted and still have experienced as no more than another object. In other words, the queen would be using Snow White just as a kind of extension of herself rather than having a real relationship with her.

The familiar refrain is often heard when a parent boasts, and I emphasize the word boasts, that there child will get everything they didn’t have. In such instance I often wonder if the child’s needs are being met at all. I know the parent’s are but I’m not sure the child’s needs are. Only when we feel lovable can we really tell others, can we respect them, can we care for them. Only if we have been cared for can we care for the world. It’s as simple as that and as difficult as that. The great Indian poet, Tagore, said it beautifully when he wrote, “We live in the world when we love it.” We live in the world when we love it. That’s not a simplistic idea. That really is a profound idea.

Implicit in this thought is the awareness that we make ourselves real, that as we feel alive, when I keep using that word real that’s what I mean, by loving by going outside of ourselves. The world is not meant to be a mirror to our specialness, but a playground for mutual growth and experience. We are all lucky. We are all unique. We don’t have to pull all of the emotional energy towards ourselves in a relationship in order to make ourselves special. We have to make ourselves special paradoxically when we don’t know we’re unique.

The great psychoanalyst, Erik Erikson, I don’t know if any of you remember him from your college courses, Childhood and Society is one of his very well known books. Erik Erikson speaks about the goal of life as being the achievement of wisdom. Interesting. Obviously we all need, particularly in our retiring years, but he says the goal of life is the achievement of wisdom. What does he mean by that. He defines wisdom as a capacity to give to the oncoming generation all that one has learned in life. Here is the important line, “While also recognizing the relativity of one’s personal truths.” In other words, we give to our children, we give to our students, we give to those who come after us, as much truth as we have managed to understand in a mass in our life without feeling that it is absolutely the truth and they must accept it.

There’s been hundreds and hundreds of civilization in the last million years while we Homo sapiens have been walking around the earth. So we don’t have to claim that we have somehow stopped history and we have the absolute truth, but we do have to recognize is, I give to my children what I haven’t learned recognizing it’s okay if I may be an error. That doesn’t interfere with my obligation to give them what I have learned.

The evil queen was not able to give any wisdom to Snow White. She was too preoccupied with herself. All she experienced was despair and a murderous rage that life was moving on and that the ugliness and emptiness she unconsciously feared about herself might be true. Not being able to feel herself as lovable, she could not get outside herself. She got lost in the mirror, the same as Narcissus who got lost in the lake. She died, so the fairy tells us, by falling into a ditch and no one was there. Really what it teaches us to the extent that narcissism gets out of hand, to the extent that we don’t recognize it in our life, to be that narcissistic ultimately is to be irrelevant…irrelevant to ourselves and irrelevant to those people around us.

So that was a little piece I wrote for Greenwich Time, a couple of years ago. I hope it’s helpful to you in understanding. As I said, not that oh my god, I’ve done something bad, but wow, another one of those things that we just have to be aware of. Everyone, ast I tried to make clear last week, everyone has defenses. That’s perfectly okay. They are normal. They are only unproductive when they keep us from experiencing ourselves as capable of love, work, and play. Love, work, and play. We have to be able to do all three. We human beings can at times be pulled in many different directions all at once.

Freud speaks about drives, desires, conflicting desires, conflicting situations. Defenses help us handle such conflicts. That’s the reason why we have defenses. We are generally not aware of them just like the automatic nervous system. Thank god you don’t have to worry in the middle of the night, I’d better tell my heart to keep pumping, I’d better tell my liver to keep cleaning out my system. We don’t have to do that. It happens automatically. They do their work quietly. They only get us in trouble when they interfere with our connecting and our living. What do I mean by that?. We’ll come back to it on and off during the course of the show, the shows that we’ll have. How do they interfere?

Well, do we feel alive? Do we feel that life is enjoyable? Now we have pain, we all have difficulty, we all have sadness, we all have financial reverses particularly in this very difficult period that all of us Americans and the rest of the world as well, are going through. But is that totally blocking out any feeling of gratitude for being alive. Are we just angry at our missed opportunities? Are we simply angry at other people not responding to us? Are we depressed at the ill-fated things that have crossed our paths? If we answer that they are too much in predominance, then our defenses are interfering. We have to be able ideally to respond in a sensible way to pain, to sorrow, to disappointment. We all have them. . Without such experiencing robbing us of our own competence. That is, A sense of our own self-worth. A willingness to value each other and this world we live in.

I don’t mean this as any kind of silly Polly Anna formula. Every day, every way things are getting better and better. No. Sometimes every day and every way things seem to be getting worse and worse. That’s the real world. It’s a matter of how do we handle the repetitive sorrows, disappointments, as well as joys that life brings us. One of the, in particular what I’m focusing on this morning, the psychological attitude or defense if you will, that doesn’t help us in feeling alive is narcissism. It didn’t help the queen. She missed out in knowing a really terrific beautiful person as the fairy tale tells us. And apparently the seven dwarfs totally loved Snow White if you remember the fairy tale. So the task becomes how do we appreciate who we are. How do we appreciate who we are without competition with others, excessive competition? We always have some competition. That’s understandable. Without making one-self the norm for how others should live or think. That’s really what we’re trying to talk about today.

As I said before, sometimes when we read great literature it helps us correct our perceptions, helps us step back and see ourselves. Sometimes a truly good, caring, respected friend can tell us stuff that we’re almost afraid to tell ourselves. That’s a kind of therapy and that’s okay. Sometimes we need a more formal therapy where another person listens to us carefully and respectfully answers us, and in that process we suddenly see aspects of ourselves that we simply were not aware of before.

Narcissism, as I’ve been making clear, is a psychological attitude; a defense that comes about usually, as I said, because of injury. That’s why I’m making it very clear we’re not talking about a bad quality that a person has. Children are either not given enough attention because mother is overwhelmed, because mother perhaps had too many children, mother and father had too many children, perhaps financial situation is too stressful for them, perhaps the child was unaccepted because of all kinds of things in the parent’s background, or the child was given too much.

Believe it or not, giving a child too much can hurt them. It can hurt them because it can make them think that they are entitled to life rather than they are supposed to enjoy life, and they are supposed to create competence. The ancient Greeks had a wonderful saying. As I go on with the shows, you’ll see I love to just quote, terrific sayings that I’ve come across in my life. The ancient Greeks used to say, “Happiness resides in the full exercise of one’s competence.” Not necessarily in how big our house is or what model Mercedes we drive. I’m not knocking those things but ultimately happiness resides in the full exercise of one’s competence.

So the most important thing I believe we can give our children, the most important thing we have to re-find in ourselves when we lose that in ourselves, is our own personal competence, because competence is a good corrective to that tendency we human beings have to make ourselves special. If I can know my competence I know my uniqueness. If I know my uniqueness I don’t have to be special. I don’t have to impose myself on other people, I can just relate to other people. What’s the point of speaking about this?

I mention this because an excessive amount of narcissism usually stirs up a lot of feelings of anger in those people around a narcissist. Now you see this in the fairy tale. The queen has murderous anger. But one feels when you’re around someone who’s really unfortunately overly self-preoccupied; one feels as if somehow the emotional energy has been sucked out of the air. The mother or the father, or the good friend or acquaintance who, for instance, is so preoccupied with how they look and in your approving everything they say, one starts to get uneasy because you know that the emotional energy has been sucked out of the air. It’s not staying on level ground, so to speak. Such hostility, a person causes, is if they are narcissistic, is not conscious. Very rarely are they trying to be a nuisance. But in the short little make-believe story, fairy tale, that I spoke about, what was unconscious really was became conscious in the queen’s murderous rage.

When we read fairy tales to our children and, in adulthood, when we reread them …we have to realize that a fairy tale makes conscious what was really unconscious. That’s why sometimes they seem exaggerated, but they’re exaggerated for a purpose. No mother, rarely, would a mother say off with my child’s head. Competitively, if you feel competitive with your child, in subtle ways, you might actually be doing the same thing. I hope that these thoughts are perhaps a little helpful for us because as we go on I really want to focus on that life, as I mentioned last week, is supposed to be an enjoyable experience. It’s not just supposed to be a task.

We all come somewhat injured into adulthood. To a certain extent in King Lear, Shakespeare’s King Lear, at the end of the play when the king finally recognizes some of the negative things he did, he also says, “I am more sinned than sinning.” Well, in my experience, even sometimes people who seem to have done some things that we wouldn’t particularly praise, when you get underneath it you understand that we’re more sinned against than sinning.

The marriage couple where there’s infidelity on either side, very frequently it’s not quite as simple as it seems to be. A lot of times, people are living out an unconscious conflict that they simply were not aware of. The competitiveness I spoke to a few minutes ago, the unrecognized competitiveness one might have with one’s children, or one’s siblings, very frequently comes from a sense of injury that the person is not aware of and is making compensation for. These are the type of issues I hope, as we talk and as our sessions go on, will be helpful to you. I want to urge you again either to give me a ring, 203-406-7070 Or if you feel more comfortable; an email. My email is JerryGargiulo@Gmail.com and share your thoughts or reactions, or anything that you’d like me to develop further.

As the shows go on I’d be happy to discuss your suggestions because I want to make the show something that makes sense to you, and that perhaps, in a little way , can then give you some information to help us all get through life happier. More joyfully.

So I hope perhaps some of you may go back and either see the Walt Disney movie again, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. I kind of vaguely remember it, when I was a little boy many, many years ago. You might enjoy that. Dr. Bruno Bettelheim has a wonderful book on myths and you might take a look at that. But I hope our little story this morning was helpful to you. I enjoyed sharing it with you. And as I said, I invite you to give any responses you care to or any suggestions you care to. Thank you very much for listening and we’ll see you again and hopefully talk to you again next week at The Psychotherapist’s Corner at WGCH.

One thought on “Podcast #2: Snow White and The Narcissistic Queen

  1. Michael Daly says:

    These podcasts are amazing, lovely work. I’m definitely going to pass on some of this wisdom to my own clients, in particular, children of self-obsessed parents.

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