Thursday, October 22, 2009


Most of you have probably known someone who can be described as a hoarder. There are different levels of hoarding, from the avid baseball card collector to the person who cannot get out of his house because it is covered from floor to ceiling with a variety of items.

Hoarding behavior can be seen in both animals and humans. Squirrels and hamsters, for example, often collect large amounts of food and store it in a single place. This natural behavior serves to protect the animals from going hungry during expected periods of food scarcity, and thus allows for species survival. The hoarded food, in this case, is eventually consumed.

Hoarding behavior in humans can also have the similar function of species survival, at times where there is a real fear of imminent society-wide danger or food shortage. Wars and natural disasters may lead people to collect essentials that they believe will be in short supply. In these cases, the hoarded items are also eventually consumed.

Compulsive hoarding (or pathological hoarding) is something quite different from this. It refers to the acquisition of and failure to use or discard such a large number of seemingly useless possessions that it causes significant clutter and impairment to basic living activities. A person who engages in such compulsive hoarding is often called a "pack rat."

This kind of hoarding results from underlying feelings of anxiety. The hoarder often struggles with an Obsessive Compulsive disorder that leaves him or her plagued with anxiety about the idea of letting go. But what is it exactly that they are so fearful of letting go of? Certainly, it is not the old clock radio that no longer works, the three hundred volumes of the New York Times or the scores of empty Perrier bottles, is it? No, it is not the objects, per se, but what the objects represent that evokes the fear of letting go.

For the hoarder, the objects have become invested with such significant meaning that the loss of them appears to represent the loss of something significant. Thus, the hoarder likely is a person with much unresolved issues in his or her early life. There is a both powerful underlying anxiety and an equally powerful need for soothing. Like the hamster and the chipmunk who are driven to hoard because of fears around species survival, the hoarder, in this case, is driven to hoard because of fears around emotional survival.

Typically, in early life, if all goes well, childhood anxieties are met by the presence of a soothing (often maternal) figure who helps to emotionally regulate the infant and who provides a sense of security and safety. (I will use the term 'mommy' throughout this article to represent any primary caregiver - mother, father, grandmother, etc.)

If all goes well enough, and this mommy figure is consistent and available enough, the infant can eventually internalize this soothing, calming mommy who is available to be 'conjured' up when the child needs her. This allows the infant to tolerate separation without too much distress, reassured by the feeling of this mommy, now felt to be inside her, to calm and soothe her.

Before the infant gets to this point of being able to 'conjure' up the mental representation of the soothing mommy in the face of anxiety, there is a transitional period where there is sometimes a need for an actual transitional object. During this period, the child invests in a special, comforting object all of the features of the comforting mommy that it knows. As a result, during periods of separation and anxiety, the child is able to tolerate the evoked feelings because of the presence of this transitional object which represents mommy. These transitional objects are often the special stuffed animals and the must-always-be-with-me baby blankies that young children sometimes carry with them. This transitional period represents a period of normal psychological immaturity, where the child is not yet able to fully mentally represent the mommy in her absence, and thus relies on the concrete object, imbued with 'mommyness', in the transition. In periods of uncertainty, adults can sometimes find that they too rely on the magical solutions used during this early period. The use of 'lucky charms' in normal adults is an example of such an attempt at a magical solution in adulthood - that is, the use of a special object that is invested with magical qualities to provide security and soothing in the face of uncertainty or anxiety.

The compulsive hoarder's relationship with objects is considerably more complex than the normal adult's use of a lucky charm, however, and reflects both significant anxiety and significant psychological immaturity. The hoarder is a highly anxious person, even if he is not aware of the level of his anxiety. In fact, it is his hoarding behavior that often keeps the anxiety from his consciousness.

At the heart of the hoarder's dilemma is anxiety and fear of deprivation and of loss of security. The hoarder, filled with an unnameable anxiety resulting from feared (or sometimes actual) loss and deprivation, unconsciously projects onto various objects the soothing and containing mommy that she needs. Her psychological immaturity, due to an insufficient personality structure, does not allow for a mental representation of mommy to be sufficient to provide comfort. Instead, she relies on the excessive collection of physical objects (or, sometimes, excessive collection of food or small animals) to provide the comfort and reassurance that she needs. However, this anxiety is only momentarily abated, until the fear of loss and deprivation arises again. This eventually results in the compulsion to have yet another object to quell the anxiety.

The hoarder fears giving up or losing the hoarded objects, as much as he fears giving up or losing the secure, soothing mommy that he has unconsciously invested in the objects, leaving him alone with his anxiety and feelings of insecurity and emptiness. One object is never enough, for as soon as the anxiety or fear is assuaged by hoarding one object, the underlying anxiety and fear of loss and deprivation emerges again, necessitating further soothing and thus further objects.

The hoarder will often find it hard to articulate why the hoarded objects feel to be so necessary to hold on to, but does have some sense of discomfort if forced to give up the loved objects or if he is prevented from hoarding. There is no consciousness of what has been invested in the hoarded objects that make them feel like necessary objects - the hoarder only knows that he is compelled to have them.

Cleaning out the hoarder's dwelling is not a sufficient solution to this complex problem. The best treatment for hoarding is a combination of medication that impacts serotonin in the brain and is implicated in obsessive/compulsive behaviors (such as a SSRI antidepressant) and intensive psychotherapy. Family members of hoarders should understand the complexity of this disorder in order to provide appropriate support and guidance towards treatment.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Narcissistic Parent and the Trophy Child

Who is the narcissistic parent?

She is the parent who demands certain behaviors from her child because she sees her child as an extension of herself. He is the parent who needs the child to represent him in the world in ways that meet his emotional needs. She is the parent who expects the child to realize her unfulfilled dreams, wishes, and fantasies. For these narcissistic parents, the child is groomed to be a trophy, a symbol of the parent's success and specialness, to be admired and envied in the way that the parent would wish for him or herself. The child, in this way, serves as a source of narcissistic supply for the parent.

The child learns from the very beginning what is necessary to capture the interest and maintain the positive regard of the narcissistic parent. She quickly learns to stifle her own desires, her authentic self, and to become the shiny, attractive trophy child that will make her parent feel good. He quickly adopts a false self, an accommodation of himself that leads him to define himself and his value by his ability to gratify his narcissistic parent. His true self, his authentic self, is left far behind.

So what becomes of this trophy child?

She is the child who devotes her life to the sport that her father loves, sensing that her success as a player makes her father feel like a winner, thus winning his praises and special affection. He is the child who never expresses any feelings of upset to his mother, ensuring that her needs are taken care of and that she is never unhappy with her 'special boy'. She is the girl who becomes her mother's confident, setting aside her own need to be mothered to become the mother to a mother whose needs are made to be greater than her own. He is the boy who must show his loyalty to his father by appearing to hate his mother just as much as his father hates her.

The narcissistic parent has a hard time tolerating the separateness of thoughts and feelings that exists between the parent and the child and feels that his or her views are the child's views. This parent has a hard time recognizing that the child may have different and separate feelings than she does. He is oblivious to the child's needs that do not comport with his own. In order to survive such a relationship, and so as not to cause injury to this narcissistic parent and experience the resulting abandonment and rejection, the child quickly accommodates to the parent's desires. She quickly discovers that her authentic self has to be set aside. This true self holds little value when compared to the parent-pleasing self she takes on. His identity becomes constructed around maintaining the admiration and positive regard of the other - a false self. At times, it is constructed around merely avoiding disappointing by making choices of his own.

As a result, the child may fail to develop confidence in her own feelings and may need constant reassurance that she is pleasing, lest she may face parental abandonment by way of disapproval. She becomes the person who needs to let others know at all times that she is pleasing and will set aside her own needs to make sure that the other person remains happy. She will find herself in a relationship with someone who needs someone who is willing to set aside their own needs for him, likely a narcissist.

At other times, he identifies with the parent's confirmation of his special trophy status and becomes attached to the idea of his uniqueness, specialness and entitlement for special attention and praise. He learns that there should be no space between what he thinks and needs and what others think and need and therefore becomes intolerant (and sometimes rageful) when others fail to be in line with his desires. He is the one who will likely find himself in a relationship with the girl described above.

The narcissist rarely recognizes his narcissism and its impact. Christopher, a product of a narcissist parent himself, would often brag about his son's accomplishments, about how bright his son was, and about his son's expected future. He would swell up with pride to feel that his son reflected the specialness that he felt to be a part of himself. He enjoyed seeing the admiration that his son would capture as it felt like an admiration of him. He could not psychologically separate himself from his child. As a result, Christopher's son was tasked with the responsibility with ensuring the ongoing admiration that the father had come to depend on. When Christopher's son announced that he wanted to go to film school instead of law school, Christopher felt betrayed. It hadn't mattered to him that his son had no interest in the law. In fact, he had never even noticed that. And he was not even fully conscious of his worry that his own father would be disappointed that he had not been able to produce a son worthy of his own father's admiration.

Janine had spent much of her life aware of the special relationship she had with her mother. Throughout her life, her mother would often remind her of how similar they were. When her parents divorced, Janine, as was expected, supported her mother. She refused to talk with or visit her father. Her mother had demanded absolute loyalty. Janine and her mother would often talk about how Janine's father had betrayed them both by leaving Janine's mother. Once Janine became a teenager, she and her mother began to dress more and more alike. Although this was increasingly troublesome to Janine, she grew weary of the fighting between herself and her mother when she would try to establish a more separate life. Janine was embarrassed when her mother would flirt with her high school boyfriends and yet her mother appeared so unaware of how Janine might feel about this. It was not until Janine's mother emptied their joint bank account to make an extravagant purchase that Janine came to understand that her mother had always been incapable of thinking about her needs.

But for all the trophy children who try to please their narcissistic parents, there are those who conclude that they can't, or won't. There are those children who become convinced very early on of their inherent defects because of their inability to please their parent. These children easily give up in their own pursuits or don't even begin to try. There are those who refuse to succumb to the parent's impossible need for mirroring and gratification and, therefore, rebel. They live their lives in anger and opposition, refusing to meet parental (or societal) expectations. And for all the narcissistic parents that appear to be so preoccupied by their children, there are those that are so excessively focused on themselves that their children barely register on their radar, except for the moments when the child gratifies them. These children continue to struggle, to varying degrees throughout their lives, to establish their authentic selves.

To understand more about this dynamic in parent-child relationships, the following books are recommended:

- The Drama of the Gifted Child by Alice Miller
- Trapped in the Mirror: Adult Children of Narcissists in Their Struggle for Self by Elan Golomb
- Why is it always about you?: The Seven Deadly Sins of Narcissism by Sandra Hotchkiss