A narcissist's world
Like waking from a years-long coma, to escape a narcissistic relationship is to be resurrected. The spell breaks, and the real ‘you’ is able to breathe again. You collect yourself and see the world with new eyes. Life regains its vibrancy, hope seeps back into your heart, and for the first time in a long time, you dare to dream of a better future.
Then the honeymoon period ends, and the night sets in. You find yourself in a world that has moved on without you, while the aftershocks of your ordeal rise to the surface. Without a narcissist to consume your consciousness, new space appears. Rushing in to fill it are toxic shame, self-doubt and fear. Emotional flashbacks, nightmares, or even panic attacks seem to come from nowhere. For a time you struggle with recovery, having good and horrible days, occasionally reaching a point of clarity and focus. Other times you find yourself thrust into the fog of terror and doubt. The crushing loneliness feels like it will never end.
Eventually, you start having more good days than bad, and the flashbacks taper off. It seems like the worst is over. This is a time to reflect, to understand what happened. You come to terms with the knowledge that recovery will be a lifelong pursuit, but you draw comfort from the fact that your efforts are starting to pay off. You are growing, and you are healing. You look ahead with new-found clarity, and the realisations hit you one by one. You find that your earlier innocence has given way to an emerging sense of vigilance and wisdom. You are maturing and discovering confronting truths about the world in which you live. Your eyes are finally open.
Over time you purge the narcissist from your system, and the cravings become fewer. Your mind wanders. You contemplate future relationships, and what kind of form they might take. You also find yourself thinking less about the narcissist and more about narcissism itself. You have questions:
- How big is this thing?
- What causes it?
- How exactly did I get wrapped up in it?
- And most importantly: how do I make sure it never happens to me again?
By now you have read the literature. You understand the relationship between shame, grandiosity and narcissism. You see through the narcissist’s game, and have learnt the importance of setting boundaries. A strong support network is available to you when needed. Your confidence is growing. Nonetheless, you sense the presence of something which continues to hold you back. There is an ache in your chest, telling you there is more to this journey. Ingrained patterns linger, and remain hard to break. You also want to know the truth. The whole truth. Recovery is no longer enough, you want transformation. You want to evolve from ‘target’ to enlightened being; a person who not only survives, but flourishes. The way toward this reality, as you will soon learn, has been staring at you the entire time.
The all-seeing eye
Picture the stare of a narcissist when it focusses on you. This unflinching, all-seeing eye casts out a pulse of judgement that makes you feel naked and exposed. It is as though the narcissist sees something which nobody else does. The second they lock on, you sense yourself lured into their realm, compelled to act or speak without being sure why. There is just something about this stare which profoundly impacts you. It seems to speak to an otherwise unreachable part of you.
The piercing stare of a narcissist has three characteristics:
- Judgement: It makes you feel small and defective, as though there were something you need to fix, compelling you to prove yourself worthy of the narcissist’s presence.
- Tension: It creates a cold, enclosed void and waits for you to fill it, putting you under pressure to reveal more vulnerable parts of yourself to ‘please’ the narcissist.
- Magnetism: It weakens your resolve, making you feel you have no choice but to engage the narcissist.
There is something deeply unsettling about the all-seeing eye of a narcissist. It is forever directed outwards, scanning its ‘territory,’ using its judgement to determine if a person is a source of loyalty or threat, while using the resulting tension and magnetism to coerce that person into providing narcissistic supply. This is the narcissist’s world, where vigilance and tension reign, infecting every second of every day while taking a physical, mental and emotional toll on anyone who enters it. Under the shadow of this all-seeing eye is where the devouring process takes place, wearing down the target and consuming their identity, until all that remains is an unadulterated source of supply. The weapons that make narcissistic abuse possible take many forms, including shaming the target, ridiculing them, terrifying them with open-ended threats, sowing doubt in their mind and bombarding them with charm or drawn-out monologues. But first the narcissist must lock their target in with their stare while gauging their target’s weak points. Does the target look away? Do they squirm under the pressure? Do they blush, fidget or blabber nervously?
When a person with healthy shame makes eye contact, they take the edge off the tension by expressing warmth with their eyes, looking away occasionally, as well as using head gestures to indicate that they acknowledge and accept what you are offering. The narcissist’s stare, on the other hand, is cold, static and unyielding. It offers nothing to its target except an eery sense of being watched. The narcissist may smirk and say nice things to create the illusion of a real interaction, but their eyes reveal their true intention. Awareness of it is one thing, being able to confidently hold eye contact is something else. Your capacity to remain firm within the tension tells the narcissist that you have a spiritual boundary which they cannot cross. It informs them that your sense of Self is solid, that you have faced and transcended your ‘primary wound’ while integrating it into a Higher Self which will never bow to manipulation. In short, the person who can go toe-to-toe with a narcissist is one who has undergone the journey into the darkness of the soul, survived, and come out reborn. Herein lies the art of transcending narcissism, which is the focus of this book.
Turning the eye inside-out
As long as you avoid the malignant, all-seeing eye, you remain vulnerable to its effects. This book is about developing the strength and courage to stare back at this menacing gaze. It is about cultivating a character so formidable, the narcissist is the one forced to either yield or look away. But that is not all. This book is also about attaining a state of consciousness so potent, you gain the ability to see through the stare of the all-seeing eye, deep into the recesses of the narcissist’s being. You do this by anchoring yourself within, which allows you to engage life with abundant certainty, tenacity and self-esteem.
Such a venture is not to be pursued lightly. It requires the heart of a hero; a person willing to take the treacherous journey to the edge of their faith and courage — and then further. This modern-day hero journey requires you to travel away from your home, i.e. your comfort zone, and into the depths of your being. There you will meet with formidable opponents such as toxic shame, rage, despair, confusion, the critical voice, the saboteur, the abandonment wound and, of course, fear. Turning these ‘opponents’ into allies will be essential to your success. It is during this journey that you will also meet with a mysterious figure; a certain someone who has been there the whole time, waiting for their saviour to arrive. You are that saviour, and you are the mysterious figure.
As you will soon discover, this enigmatic presence is your divine essence, which will feed your actualisation and growth. Tapping into it opens you to a world not only of torrential grief, but also abundant potential. For reasons beyond your control, this divine presence was locked-up long ago, left alone in the depths of your soul. It is they who you will bring back from your journey, and it is their super-human qualities which you will integrate so that your sense of Self will be complete. It is at this point that your evolution truly begins.
As it is with all heroes, inside you exist the blueprint and the resources to actualise into the person you were meant to be. Hero energy lies within all of us, having been gifted to us by our ancestors who underwent their own journey into the soul in order to conquer the challenge of their day. We are here because they faced their demons and won. We are products of countless generations of successful evolution. What is needed from us now is the readiness to pay our ancestors homage by also taking on the mighty struggle. We must be willing to be torn apart and put back together, to be pushed to our limits, and to emerge anew. This is not wishful storytelling, but a very real alchemical and psychological process. You should not take hero stories literally; they merely point toward a necessary human undertaking. This process leads to a cosmic expansion of your consciousness, the evolution of your mind, body and spirit, and the discovery of unimaginable wonders.
Just like any hero who ventures into the underworld, you will have help along the way. While this can and probably should take the form of a therapist, support group or friend, assistance will also come from unexpected places. As you plunge into the depths of your Self, you will discover resources you thought only others possessed. You slowly learn that your capacity to tolerate pain and intensity is limitless, and that inside you is an organism which is self-regulating and wise beyond imagination. The more you learn to trust this organism, the further you will progress.
Your journey begins in the land of duality — where ‘good’ and ‘bad’ reign supreme and narcissism thrives through a strategy of divide and conquer. Narcissists succeed here by creating exclusive situations where they and their ‘allies’ are pure good, and anyone else is pure evil. This experience of duality is not only a concept. It is felt. Meanwhile, control is enforced by the all-seeing eye, which has the potential to lift you to the heavens or crush you beneath the weight of toxic shame. The shadow of duality can be something one notices, but more often than not, the hero in this story will have to rely on their ability to intuit and sense when things are wrong. The journey out of this world leads you into the underbelly of the Self, where these capacities to intuit and act courageously can be found. Although the narcissist’s world is perilous, you nonetheless possess the capacity to transcend it. The all-seeing eye exists in every society, always seeking to dominate and control. Narcissism is a part of human nature, and as a consequence, so is malignant narcissism. Its sorcery is boundless.
Lucky for you, so is the power of your True Self.
In ‘How To Kill A Narcissist,’ the first instalment of this two-part series, the role which grandiosity and shame plays between a narcissist and their target was explored. The intention behind ‘How To Kill A Narcissist’ was to free the targets of narcissistic abuse, focussing primarily on understanding the nature of the abuse as well as the recovery process. Little attention was given to the plight of the narcissist. This approach of objectification, of labelling a human being a ‘narcissist,’ was done to unburden the target and help them focus on purging their ordeal from the inside out. Self-care and self-protection, along with facing up to shame, trauma and anger, are the crucial first steps for those on the path to healing. Only following this can one move to the next stage, which is to face the origins of their torment.
In this second instalment, we will delve deeper into the Self, carefully inspecting its core components layer by layer. Doing so allows us to understand what makes us tick from an unconscious, psychological level, which in turn shines a light on the processes at play during narcissistic abuse. By tuning into this core Self, we can intuit the game in real-time and be better informed in making decisions. Without awareness of our entire spectrum of experience, we will never be able to act from a place of confidence and conviction. Worse still, we will remain ill-equipped to ward off manipulation.
Next, narcissism is looked at from a systemic perspective, demonstrating how it perpetuates in enclosed social environments including families, workplaces, cults, spiritual groups, friendship circles as well as romantic relationships. Using a bird’s-eye view, we will observe precisely how narcissism takes a spontaneous Self with endless potential, and moulds it into a rigid role that provides narcissistic supply. When a narcissist reigns over a group — in a family or otherwise — their shadow can lurk over countless people, often impacting multiple generations. The devastating impact this personality can have on society as a whole cannot be understated. This concept of an oppressed social structure lorded over by a narcissist, i.e. the narcissist regime, was introduced in ‘How To Kill A Narcissist,’ but here it will be explored in far more detail.
Connecting the ideas of the Self and the narcissist regime will be a look at how malignant narcissism forms after an extended period of abandonment and abuse. The resulting trauma and toxic shame leave a person no choice but to split from their True Self and invest their energy into propping up an idealised, grandiose identity to ensure survival in a cold, shameless world. Behind this unnatural state is an insatiable hunger, which calls for a steady flow of ‘supply’ to feed it. The ensuing search for people willing to sacrifice themselves leads to a lust for power in what culminates as the aforementioned narcissist regime — a social group geared toward providing narcissistic supply to the ego-fixated person. Any outsider who lacks awareness of this reality is first drawn in, and then devoured.
Finally, the process of individuation is explored, illustrating how a person breaks free from bondage by cultivating an empowered and enlightened Self. Here the focus shifts from recovery to evolution by tapping into and activating the core aspects of the Self. Even though understanding the journey from a cognitive level is a crucial step, it is by instigating change at a spiritual and bodily level that profound transformation takes place. That is, thinking to yourself ‘be confident’ has little effect. However, introducing empowering experiences and grounding the body to allow better energy flow will make the transition from ‘unconfident’ to ‘confident’ seem like a formality.
Regardless of what form of narcissist regime you deal with, the idea is the same — as is the approach to transformation. To discover where the solution lies, we follow the gaze of the all-seeing eye. We shift our attention below everyday consciousness, toward our vulnerable Self, where our true nature reveals itself. Using Melanie Klein’s theory on splitting, Carl Jung’s ideas on complexes and archetypes, as well as Wilhelm Reich’s work on characterology, we will discover how the development of the Self occurs primarily within the context of a group; a process which begins in childhood and repeats anytime we join a new ‘tribe.’ By revisiting the child still living within us, we discover core instincts which continue to impact our lives. This includes an all-or-nothing view of the world, a deep longing for an all-powerful figure to protect and nurture us, as well as the five essential building-blocks for personal power: security, vitality, tenacity, divinity and wisdom. When the evolutionary process is sufficiently tapped into and restored, the result is the constellation of a powerful Self. The narcissist regime gains its power by hijacking this developmental process, aiming to entrap its target in a psychological cage of fear, confusion, neediness and shame. It is here where the war is waged — and won.
A fully developed Self is the antithesis of narcissism. It is formidable, wise, self-sustaining, and capable of relating to others in a profound way that empowers all parties involved. For you to obtain such a state, your path must run through the fire of daily life, with one empowering experience lighting the torch for the next, and so forth. It is a journey which we are all supposed to take before it was derailed. Resuming this voyage requires that we first step back, to the moment in time where the flame of the Self was first lit — when we entered the world and laid eyes on our first higher power.
PART I: SELFHOOD
The birth of worship
Like flowers blossoming, we come to this Earth to grow into all we can be. For a flower, its becoming is limited to blooming. We humans, on the other hand, with our awareness, culture, technology and imagination, have far greater potential. Our version of fully maturing is called self-actualisation, and it all begins with worship.
A blueprint for life
Self-actualisation is an unfolding toward a higher state of being, driven by an unceasing flow of life energy. We are hardwired to explore and learn about our surroundings as well as look for our place in society. How we actualise depends on our personality, our environment, our influences and what resonates with our True Self.
We pursue actualisation in countless ways, such as public service, research, literature, art, sports, philosophy, study, business, politics, philanthropy or raising a family. Once something resonates with us, we immerse ourselves in it and absorb it like a sponge, and so begin a process of deepening our relationship with the world, deepening our maturity, and most importantly; deepening our connection with our True Self. In doing so, we move into our spiritual centre and direct it toward a higher purpose, hence emulating all other life forms.
When we consider the theory of evolution, we see that all living beings originate from a single ancestor, where life is connected through one mammoth-sized family tree. Some species evolved quicker than others and left their cousins behind, with humans making the most significant leap, elevating us to the dizzying heights of today. While consciousness and the rational mind dominate our current age, we cannot forget the heritage of our mammalian and reptilian ancestors that remains within us, and serves us in ways we take for granted. Our emotional brain enhances learning and allows us to bond with others and experience pleasure. Our ancient reptilian brain controls our heart rate, breathing, body temperature, balance, and much more. While life forms can evolve in countless ways, at the core of each one is a blueprint shared by all. From the single-celled organism to the mighty blue whale, life has a great deal to teach us about not only physical growth, but also our actualisation.
Take a tree, for example, which we can characterise in three ways:
- Earth: It is nurtured from beneath by rooting itself in the soil.
- Heaven: It is sustained from above by growing toward the sun.
- Divine Purpose: It supports life by attracting wildlife and providing oxygen, food, shelter or even medicine.
Figure 1: The tree, like any living organism, originates from a single point (Earth), growing from nothing to a higher state (Heaven) while playing out a creative role in its environment. Binding this process together are the opposing yet mutually exclusive life and death instincts.
Using the tree as an analogy, we see that humans are bound to this same process of development. We too must be supported by a source of nurture, must have a higher state to aspire towards, and so long as we are alive, must direct our life energy toward a creative purpose which contributes to our world. If any of these three elements are missing, we fall into depression and despair.
This dark, heavy state plagues us all on occasion, and lies at the core of every living being. Sigmund Freund, in his book ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle,’ proposed that ‘the goal of all life is death,’ of which he is correct to a degree. In reality, the goal of all life is death and rebirth. This is the endless cycle of the universe, where life is born, dies, and is replaced by new life forms. This process is balanced by opposing yet mutually exclusive drives. Freud called one the life instinct, and the other the death instinct. The life instinct is there to compel us to survive, pursue pleasure, love and care for each other, cooperate with others, reproduce, and self-actualise. The death instinct, in comparison, has a magnetic pull toward a desolate state which the life instinct must overcome. We all experience this when we struggle to get out of bed, or get caught in negative thinking, or procrastinate, or fall into apathy. Behind these inhibiting acts of self-sabotage is the death instinct, continually working to return life to its original, inorganic state. So long as our basic needs for food, shelter and connection are met, and as long as we have a higher power to aspire towards, the life instinct can thrive. What Freud referred to as the ‘pressure toward death’ is then overcome, and our journey can progress. The only remaining concern we have is to determine which direction we should direct this so-called life instinct.
Permission to grow
A core difference between us and a tree is the complexity of our divine purpose, which we pursue by worshipping a higher power of our choosing. The simple definition of worship is: ‘adoration for a deity.’ Yet this does not fully capture its purpose. Another way to define worship is: ‘the act of pursuing actualisation through another person or entity.’ This involves a complete surrender of your defences, the exposure of your most vulnerable parts, and the identifying with someone or something which you believe can lead you to a higher state of being. To be in worship is to enter the flow of life. Much like the flow of electricity, we must be connected to a ground source (earth) and an active source (heaven). With these conditions met, the evolution process can take place.
Before we may begin the path toward self-actualisation, we need to secure help. While a tree can anchor itself in the soil and grow toward the sun, humans need the support of other humans to grow to maturity. The world is complex and full of danger, and our True Self has infinite potential while our body and conscious mind is limited, especially early in life. We start off helpless while overwhelmed with options and possibilities. We need to have life presented to us in a structured way. We also need initiation into the world, which we gain by imitating specific role models within our ‘tribe.’ For this reason, we feel an instant pull toward people who we believe can show us the way forward; people of higher power who ‘have it all worked out.’
The original higher power
Regardless of whether you are religious or not, you have already given yourself over to a higher power. The second you came out of your mother’s womb, you were a frightened, vulnerable baby, with a desperate need for care and security. From this precarious position, anyone who cared for you became larger than life. These family figures were also vulnerable and uncertain in their own way. Still, from your perspective, they were celestial beings from a divine realm, possessing qualities and abilities that were beyond your comprehension.
Consider that your experience back then was immensely different from now. For one, you did not possess the conscious mind you now take for granted. Rationality and knowledge were non-existent. There was no analysing and making sense of the world. Instead, you experienced the world energetically. An example which demonstrates this mode is a superhero movie, or any movie with a compelling protagonist. These transcendental characters are portrayed as supremely gifted, and hence morph into someone other-worldly. An underdeveloped mind views its parents precisely this way. Relative to a baby, consider the herculean strength of your father as he picked you up without effort. Imagine for a second the nurturing softness of your mother’s body and the way her breast milk flooded your fledgling body with life. These paragons really would have been something to behold for a child.
When you reached your ‘terrible twos,’ you entered the narcissistic phase of childhood development, and your grandiosity peaked. You believed that you were indestructible, and that the world revolved around you. Your vocabulary consisted mostly of ‘I,’ ‘me’ and ‘mine.’ You roamed your environment shamelessly while there was always somebody taking care of your every need. Eventually, you hit barriers. As frustrating as it was, there was a gap between your perceived capabilities and your actual power. You realised that without someone to support you and cater to your needs, you would get nowhere. Due to your lack of real-world ability, you had no choice but to delegate power to your guardians. You noticed that food, clothing and toys appeared like magic, and you took for granted that they would keep coming. Where things came from and who made them did not cross your mind, nor did the thought that you would one day have to provide for yourself. Personal power would come later in life as you grew and developed. In the meantime, your guardians reigned over your life. You allowed them to feed you, shelter you, clothe you, help you go to the bathroom, manage your bedtime and tell you where it was safe and unsafe to play. It was a given that they ran the show. This act of surrendering your personal power is called infantilisation.
Infantilisation is a state of helplessness, a survival mode in which a child entrusts their guardian to look after their well-being. It is like a warm blanket that slips over someone and sheds them of their willpower as soon as they are in the presence of any figure of perceived higher power. When infantilised, a person unconsciously hands over the wheel for their life. It is like having your ego surgically removed and then being ‘remote-controlled’ by the ego of another person. Here you have no agency except when the other person says so. In childhood, this is normal and expected. Whether the higher power is nurturing and loving, or neglectful and abusive, is irrelevant. The primary concern is survival, and therefore any higher power is better than none.
Infantilised and with no capacity to influence outcomes in the world, the child reverts to using a psychological mechanism to establish a sense of control. Much like a binary switch, on one side is a state of absolute worship, and on the other, a total rejection of it.
Split to survive
Having no capacity to protect or care for oneself is terrifying. You will appreciate that for the child, abandonment equals death. This vulnerable position would have brought you face to face with the death instinct, which activates the fight/flight response that a human being experiences in the face of annihilation. When the death instinct arises, a child is gripped with terror. Life becomes black and white, meaning you lose the ability to see the finer aspects of a situation. To act swiftly (fight) or escape (flight) are the only two options.
While some situations terrify more than others, the child can never feel entirely at ease. They do not yet have the capacity to reason or act their way out. They remain acutely sensitive to stressors at all times, and it takes little to activate their fight/flight response. Also, at that age, the child cannot comprehend that their guardian could have stress in their life, have bad moods, or still be dealing with unresolved trauma. The child only knows that anger and neglect equate to danger.
To deal with the terror of being alive, we reverted to a binary view of the world. We abstracted our experiences to maintain tight control, switching between a state of absolute loving, or loathing. We adored anything that we perceived as ‘good’ with all our heart, such as our family or favourite toy. On the other hand, we hated anything that we saw as ‘bad’ or that frightened us, which also included our family members when they were abusive, neglectful or unpredictable.
This polarised state can be represented on a continuum, with a ‘neutral’ mode to illustrate what lies in the middle:
Figure 2: The love/loathing continuum. Children, as well as people polarised by fear, will alternate between the two extremes of the scale to regain a sense of control. With loathing, one aims to psychologically annihilate a source of threat, whereas with love, they aim to merge themselves with a source of nurture and power.
For a child, neutrality is not an option. Life is black and white, all or nothing. When your guardian mirrored you, catered to your needs and made you feel safe, you loved them with all your heart. This would have brought you closer to the life instinct; that warm feeling of safety and confidence which propels you toward self-actualisation. When your guardian became angry at you, neglected you or failed to sufficiently cater to your needs, this aroused your death instinct instead, and you directed all of your rage toward them. This polarised state is why babies and children can turn to anger so unexpectedly, and then be instantly appeased and made calm again.
What Melanie Klein referred to as splitting gave you somewhere to direct the intense emotions which you could not process in your underdeveloped mind. It was vital for you to create a ‘tyrant’ figure and focus your rage toward them. You did this to preserve what came to be a ‘divine being,’ a loving and perfect figure who would always love you and never abandon you. Furthermore, by having a perceived tyrant to rage against, you could ‘empower’ yourself against the terrifying prospect of being abandoned or annihilated. In the child’s mind, a person remains the divine being until they let the child down, after which they become the ‘tyrant.’ In reality, your guardian was a person who you experienced in polar opposite ways.
A word such as ‘annihilation’ might seem extreme to an adult, but in the child’s mind, it is a real possibility. The more abusive or neglectful a guardian is, the more overwhelming the terror becomes, and the more a child must split to cope. When situations feel frightening, the child clings tighter to any sign of the divine being, thus helping assuage their dread and fear. In the child’s mind, this will save them from annihilation and keep them safe. The split keeps the child sane.
The split is also the reason why we are so strongly affected by heroes and villains in movies and popular culture. By identifying with and worshipping the hero, we vicariously experience a sense of power, whereas the villain becomes the dumping ground for our repressed negative emotions and fear of helplessness. The split is why we fantasise and project ideal situations and outcomes in our minds. It helps us cope with the unpleasantness of life. It also explains how parents often continue to hold tremendous sway over their children well into adulthood, turning with one snide remark an otherwise independent and robust person into nothing more than a helpless infant.
Great mother, great father
A fascinating effect of the split is the uncanny ‘quality’ it gives the people we project it on — above all our parents. The tyrant and divine being are not something we simply made up, but a natural consequence of intense loving and loathing. Regardless of whether one chooses to believe in this phenomenon or not, nobody can deny that they have experienced this polarised state. We have all adored our heroes and role models to the point of obsession, or have found ourselves despising certain people in our lives or in the media to the point of utter disgust.
As already explained, a higher power is a critical requirement for life. Losing it for even a second throws us into chaos and disarray. This is what gives parents such power. Like the soil nourishing a tree’s roots, or the sun shining above, our guardians play a fundamental role in our physical and spiritual growth which permeates the deepest corners of our psyche. Helping them with this tremendous life-creating responsibility are archetypal energies based on Heaven and Earth. The three Abrahamic religions of Islam, Judaism and Christianity speak of a shared patriarchal figure who embodies the masculine blueprint. The most celebrated matriarch of all is Mother Nature; the nourishing force behind all of life. One represents profound wisdom, the other embodies boundless abundance. One provides structure, guidance and purpose, the other demonstrates the art of channelling life energy. These masculine and feminine energies manifest in the psyche in the form of two archetypes separated by gender; the great father and the great mother. Each can be seen as a collective pool of traits, abilities and energy forms which came from our ancestors, all of whom undertook the challenge of being a father or a mother. The immense capacity of these archetypes to nurture and support life was passed on one generation at a time until it was time for our parents to embody them.
First of all, these archetypes are not limited to a person of the corresponding gender. A man can embody the great mother and vice versa. Fathers can be affectionate and nurturing, and mothers can provide guidance and wisdom. Secondly, no person can be perfect in their endeavour to live up to these God-like figures. Nonetheless, they exist in every human being as latent energy waiting to be released. From the point of our conception, these archetypes looked to express themselves through our parents. When a parent recollects the moment their first child was born, they tend to describe a momentous shift. This is, in fact, the great parent archetype awakening within them. They sense themselves presented with a significant responsibility which calls on them to leave youthful pretence behind and transform into the formidable figure their child needs them to be.
At its best, the great parent archetype brings out super-human qualities in the parent, along with the ability to create a safe container for the child to grow and actualise. At its worst, however, when the parent is traumatised, inexperienced or unable to keep up with their responsibility, the great parent archetype transforms into the tyrant. Their posture stiffens, their face permanently hardens, and their gaze sharpens. They use a combination of anger, disapproving stares, emotional coldness and shamelessness to enforce the image of authority and control. Some parents alternate between the two extremes in a split moment, lovingly channelling the great parent until frustration tips them over the edge, from which they grow rigid and angry, unconsciously channelling the tyrannical parent. Other times we project the tyrannical parent onto our parents regardless of whether it is justified, as captured in the teenager who screams “I hate you!” when they fail to get their way.
The split also works the other way when adults are overwhelmed and insecure. When you were angry and uncooperative, your guardians experienced you as the ‘bad child,’ and when you were submissive and loving, they experienced you as the ‘good child.’ Many parents even call their children ‘good girl/good boy’ and ‘bad girl/bad boy’ depending on the child’s behaviour, which is the parent’s split in action.
Figure 3: The split dynamic between a child and their guardian/s. The figures which arise are enigmas, uncanny ‘spirits’ from the unmanifested realm. When the energy of the great or tyrannical parent expresses itself through our guardian, however, it becomes quite real. The great mother represents yin energy, a source of nourishment for the True Self via the Earth realm. The great father represents yang energy, a north star or lighthouse that leads us to our self-actualisation.
In childhood you looked to the great mother for yin energy, a passive force which regenerates and sustains the soul. The great mother held you safely in her womb then nurtured you once you were born, caring for you and helping you feel secure. Through the yin energy of the great mother you were able to rest in being, and so align yourself with the harmonious flow of life energy. Later, you connected with the great father; a figure who could provide structure and protection. His role was to help you channel yang energy, an active force for penetrating and impacting the world.
These two enigmatic, gender-based archetypes dominated your psyche, and you yearned for them as the figures who would shield you from the terror of being a vulnerable child. Your later expectations of them depended on your experiences with carers in your life, which began with your guardians, then extended to older siblings, extended family, teachers and any other adult of perceived higher power. Each person contributed toward your idea of what the great mother and great father archetypes encapsulate. For example, if your father was short-tempered and angry, you would form a picture of men as being more tyrannical than benevolent. If your mother was emotionally closed off, you might see women as callous — a source of shame and rejection. Such experiences remain firmly planted in your psyche for the rest of your life as paternal complexes, which the Jung Lexicon defines as “a group of emotionally charged images and ideas associated with the parents.” These are activated and projected onto anybody you perceived as more powerful than you, which helps explain why we often feel fear and uncertainty around people of high-status or beauty. Their apparent perfection associates them in our minds with the frustration and pain of trying to obtain the love of the great parent. These deeply entrenched complexes can humble us and trigger fear and shame which takes on a life of its own, crippling us and rendering us helpless. They also influence every one of our relationships moving forward, and as much as it can feel like it is the person who is triggering these emotions, it is in fact our split activating, along with emotional flashbacks of past experiences with the great mother or father.
From splitting to worship
Due to your precarious position, you had no choice but to split and project onto your guardians the archetype of the great parent. The alternative was unthinkable; the tyrannical mother or father could annihilate you. As a result, you infantilised yourself and worshipped your guardians. In your developing mind, you looked up to them, hoping they would use their power to support you, inspire you and mirror back to you your divine nature. When you ran out to explore the world, you looked back on occasion to make sure they were still there watching over you. In turn, you observed them and imitated their actions. You shared your smallest successes with them. Their approval was everything, and their disapproval crushed you.
Because they were ‘perfect,’ their word was gospel. Consequently, their anger and disapproval could never be their fault; it had to be someone else’s. To blame the great parent would be to risk destroying them and losing your source of nourishment and safety. So you focussed your rage and negative feelings toward the tyrannical parent instead. How your guardian handled their alternating position as the great parent and tyrant would play an enormous part in your growth and future relationships. Such is the power of the split. Such is the power of anyone we worship.
This early tendency to externalise our source of higher power gives others a license to set us free, or imprison and control us. Behind our surrender lies the enigmatic great parent, setting the stage for every relationship we will have, running deeper than we could ever imagine. Society feeds off our split in numerous ways. Celebrities project an image of perfection, and we unconsciously see them as a higher power. Monarchies maintained a grip over nations for centuries in the same way by projecting divinity and high status. Dictators, through a cult of personality, also capitalise on this phenomenon. On a smaller scale, the split is also responsible for the halo effect, which is when we exaggerate a person’s goodness and wisdom based on their appearance and body language, becoming putty in their hands while doing our best to please them.
Whoever can project the illusion of high status and grandeur potently enough can hijack our personal power. The woman or man of stature, strength or undeniable beauty, the celebrity, the politician, the charmer, the social media influencer; anyone can activate our split and gain our worship, or at the very least our curiosity. It is easy to forget the intended purpose of the split, which is to maintain psychological health long enough for us to come of age. Easy to lose sight of is also our divine purpose, which is self-actualisation. The goal is not to forfeit our personal power to others, but rather to use worship as a launching pad for our growth, with the result being the constellation of a competent and fully-developed Self.