Santa Clause and the Narcissistic Defense

Have you seen the film, A Miracle on 34th Street?

It hinges upon whether people will accept Kris Kringle’s claim that he is in fact Santa Clause.

What a strange preoccupation. Why does it matter so much whether or not people believe in the material existence of something that seems so clearly to be mythical?

The answer, I suggest, is the Narcissistic Defense.

When I say the Narcissistic Defense, I’m using Dr. Hyman Spotnitz’s definition, not to be confused with a lot of other psychological writing on narcissism.

Rafael Sharon has written succinctly and eloquently about this term:

The idea is that a baby is frustrated, can’t communicate, needs the mother (the object) to fulfill it’s needs. It’s guess work much of the time. What starts to happen in certain cases is the baby will have the feeling from the mother that the mother can’t handle the aggression, the crying, the screaming, so they turn it inward to protect the mother. They turn it on themselves.  This is the narcissistic defense and we all do it to some extent. We blame ourselves for what’s going on around us.  The ultimate example is schizophrenia. I think it’s both biological and it’s nurture. I don’t think just anyone is going to suffer from schizophrenia. That’s the ultimate narcissistic defense where you disable your brain so you won’t do anything disruptive to your primary object.

So what does Santa Clause have to do with the Narcissistic Defense?

Most parents want to give to their children. They want to provide what they need and also give them gifts and increase their delight. Christmas in America is a prime time for gift-giving.

Wise parents also want their children to be able to express their aggression in a constructive way and not turn it inward.

Santa Clause is a way to satisfy both of these desires.

If parents just gave their children gifts directly, there is a risk that the child would either cling to their anger and reject the gift, or cling to the gift and reject the anger. The Narcissistic Defense is all about rejecting the anger. Children understand that they need their parents to survive. They can’t afford to risk that relationship. Unless the parents express aggression in a constructive way and encourage their children to do the same, young people will suppress some of their anger out of fear that their parents will withdraw their love and support.

Santa Clause allows parents to celebrate with their children when they give them something that they enjoy. If the gift seems to not come directly from the parents, then it has a sort of emotional purity, the child can appreciate it without the overwhelming burden of gratitude and need associated with everything else the parents provide.

When a person stops “believing in Santa Clause,” they have entered the adult world. Now when they are angry with someone or in conflict, they need to consider if and how to express themselves.  Can the person handle their criticism? If the conflict is not resolved, they may not receive gifts or resources from that person in the future.

This is also one reason that in therapeutic settings like Group, we want actions like gift-giving to be put into words. Unconsciously the gift may be an attempt to ward against or dissipate anger and conflict in a relationship. It is far better for the therapeutic relationship to express the affectionate, loving feelings that inspire the gift-giving, and also explore whatever fears of conflict there may be.

Sharing The Weight in Group

I had a conversation recently with a colleague who works with people who struggle with compulsive overeating and are considering or have had bariatric surgery. She told me how frequently the surgery doesn’t help very much unless the underlying psychological issues are confronted. Which of course got me thinking about how issues related to food, weight, body-image and so on can be addressed in Group.

In February, I co-led a workshop called Food, Sex and Relationships. The basic idea was that the same emotional wounds that drive us to seek out particular foods and diets would manifest in how we related to others. If we paid careful attention to our interactions in a group setting, we could gain insight and awareness about the pain that prompted our over-eating, zealous dieting and shame about our needs and desires.

Group is the perfect place to receive the message that you’re valued, lovable and even attractive, regardless of your weight. This message can be explicitly expressed, or gently reinforced meeting after meeting, as members continue to show interest and appreciation when you contribute.

Our society is so quick to shame fat people that it can become almost impossible to address the issue with gentle curiosity. An authentic Group will wonder:

What is the weight is protecting you from?

How does it help you?

Which part of you are you trying to nourish when you overeat?

Who would you be without it?

Someone in Group may remind you of an abusive parent, a bullying peer in middle school, or a narcissistic spouse. Perhaps you unconsciously hoped that having more weight would make it harder for them to push you around, that taking up more space would force them to pay attention to you, that becoming unattractive would protect you from their predatory lust and controlling desire. Now, you have the opportunity to learn how to protect yourself effectively.

Hopefully you will discover what you’re truly hungry for and start getting nourished by the Group.

Eventually, this awareness of what you’re needing and wanting, what feels good and what doesn’t, empowers you. You no longer need to carry the burden of other people’s emotional immaturity and cruelty.  What a relief!


Sense8 and Group Therapy

I just finished watching Season 1 of Sense8, a Netflix show about eight people who are telepathically connected, able to share experience, skills and perspectives instantly with each other, no matter where they are geographically.

I thought about Group.

For about a year and a half, I’ve been a member in a training group for Group Therapists which is a combination of supervision and therapy. I’m noticing more and more that the other members are living inside my psyche, that their attitudes, strengths and insights are available to me when I’m thinking about a challenge in my own life and work.

It’s not the same as being able to immediately access the lifelong training of a martial artist, but it’s something–a feeling of being more powerful than I would be otherwise, more supported, more balanced.

I don’t know how to end this post, so I’m letting my mind glide over the members of my group, imagining their reactions. They’re urging me not to leave out the unpleasant parts of being so connected.

The people in Sense8 often feel invaded, swept up in the feelings and experiences of another member of their cluster. They have to learn how to regulate, to focus and maintain their own self even as they are constantly joining with others.

This is also true for Group, just as it can be true for life. Connecting with other people means being affected by them. Their pain and sorrow touches on my own, activates desires to help, to be in control, to change the situation. I’m reminded of my powerlessness to “make it all better,” I may feel rage, fear, despair.

Many of us spend a lot of energy suppressing these feelings. They certainly are uncomfortable. They are also crucial to truly feeling alive.

What is Group Therapy?

What is Group Therapy?

People ask this over the phone, thinking Group might be for them. They ask at parties and networking events. Sometimes group members themselves ask.

What do you think it is? I ask them.

Well, like a support group?

Not quite.

The main difference in the groups that I run is that they are process groups.

What is a Process Group?

A Process Group is a space where members are invited to express their immediate, here-and-now thoughts and feelings towards and about other members. If your first reaction to this is “why would anyone subject themselves to such an environment?” you are not alone.

In a process group, members are encouraged to abandon many of the social norms of polite discourse.

Group members are asked to put into words any and all reactions they have including anger, sexual attraction, fear, hurt, and affection. As group progresses, members learn to express their sentiments in a way that focuses on their own experience:

  • “I feel frustrated and angry when you yawn while I’m speaking.”
  • “I feel hurt and scared when you yell at me and call me that.”
  • “I feel very attracted to you.”
  • “I feel a lot of affection for you and I’m angry because I think you’re making a bad decision.”
  • “I want to say something but I’m anxious that you will judge me.”

This feedback about members’ effect on other people is hard to come by.

Friends, family and acquaintances are rarely so direct, preferring either to avoid unpleasant conversations, or relying on unhelpful habits of criticism and blame.

Even individual therapists may struggle with sharing a perspective that is difficult and uncomfortable for their clients to hear.

Process Group members learn to access and express their own emotions and to comprehend and respond to the emotions of other people.

They discover how they might sabotage relationships and explore how to create and sustain intimacy, to ask for what they need and to receive it.