Healing must include finally receiving the loving and empathic mirroring that we didn’t receive when we were a child. In therapy we prepare the soil and sow the seeds, but ultimately it is from our own unconscious psyche, from its self-healing capacity, that a new attitude will emerge.
The damaging effects of growing up with a narcissistic primary caregiver were demonstrated in the previous articles The legacy of a narcissistic parent (part 1/4 and 2/4) using the fairy tale of Snow White, whereas its underlying archetypal energy of Death Mother was explored in Medusa and the Death Mother – The legacy of a narcissistic parent (part 3/4).
So what happens after Snow White succumbs to the last poisonous attack of the witch and falls into a coma, i.e. numbs out, and dissociates from her deepest feelings ?
As the dwarfs are unable to revive Snow White this time, they believe she is dead and put her in a glass casket in the forest. The dwarfs weep for her, as do an owl, raven and dove. All three birds are associated with the feminine and the number three again points toward repetition.
The next day, a prince who is out hunting stumbles on the glass coffin that contains the beautiful Snow White. After hearing her story from the dwarfs, he proposes to take Snow White with him to his father’s castle, where she will have her final resting place. While transporting the glass coffin, one of the servants stumbles. When the casket hits the ground, the piece of poisoned apple is dislodged from Snow White’s throat, and she wakes up.
In her online lecture Growing up with a narcissistic parent Jungian analyst Dariane Pictet says the following.
Healing comes from confronting the witch through a restorative analytical mirror or relationship, which lets in a new gaze (loving this time), that can surround and even penetrate her body and awaken her inner being : a body she will have to clear of the poison apple and learn to love and respect herself.
Healing must include finally receiving the loving and empathic mirroring that we didn’t receive when we were a child. This can be through psychotherapy or through a loving relationship in which the other person (therapist, mentor, teacher or any other type of parental or grandparent figure) is able to provide us with this healthy mirroring without using us for their own selfish needs.
This person must be able to lovingly hold the positive (yet realistic) image of us that has been poisoned by our narcissistic caregiver until we have healed enough to be able to hold it on our own.
In theory the person best equipped to mirror us this way is a good therapist, especially one who has been trained to recognize and manage transference and countertransference.
The advantage of a therapist (over a friend or other reciprocal relationship) is also that the relationship is one-sided : the therapist has an ethical obligation to act in our best interest, and not in his or her own. As a client, we need to respect the boundaries of the clinical relationship and of our therapist (including remuneration), but we do not need to cater to any of his or her conscious or unconscious needs. That is not our role. Therapists have their own support system, which should never include a client in any way.
The therapy is for the client. When something comes up that triggers the therapist, it must be worked out in supervision.
A good therapist will take note when a client starts trying to take care of him or her, however subtle, and incorporate that information in the therapy. We must learn the correct balance between self-care and care for others, just as Snow White did during her time living with the dwarfs (see part 2/4).
In addition, a lot of shadow work must be done. It is not enough to be seen in a positive light, as our inner critic (the poison in our psyche) will simply not believe it or accept it. We must recognize and integrate our own shadow in order not to be thrown into despair whenever we notice anything less than desirable in ourselves or we feel like we are no longer pleasing somebody : i.e. whenever somebody or something triggers the poison that is still present in us.
We must also know our own shadow in order to recognize it in others (see part 2/4). It is extremely important to recognize the envious attacks of other people for what they are, so that they can no longer manipulate our perception of reality with their secondary attacks (see part 3/4).
However, a therapist cannot create change and transformation.
No other person can be our knight in shining armor who comes to our rescue and takes us away from everything that is bad in our life.
Although modern versions of the folktale (for example the classic 1937 Disney movie) have Snow White wake up from being kissed by the prince a year after she was put in the glass coffin, this is not what happens in the original fairy tale. In older versions the work of transformation is done by Snow White herself during her period of isolation in the forest and her time with the dwarfs.
These correspond to the period of introversion that is often seen in analysis, and the integration of the split and unintegrated masculine or feminine principle in ourselves (see part 2/4).
During this stage we may spend time journaling, dancing, painting, gardening : spending long periods of time doing an activity simply because it makes us feel good and in touch with our deepest self. It is a time to get to know ourselves : what we like and what we hold dear. We learn to put ourselves and our own needs first, while courageously facing the fear or guilt of being selfish.
Dariane Pictet says that to heal, we need to actively protect our inner world, so that the self-to-self message becomes : “I will never let anyone poison what I hold as high value”. There comes a time that the primary act of compassion must be towards oneself.
We must learn to recognize the envy and poison of our primary caregiver (and subsequent others) and no longer fall into the trap of being compassionate toward the other at the expense of our own happiness and health. We must give up protecting our persecutor and protect ourselves instead. We must stop betraying ourselves.
When suffering an attack, however subtle, instead of saying “He didn’t mean it.” or “She had such a difficult childhood”, our priority must be towards ourselves : “I’m not going to let people treat me like this anymore !” It doesn’t mean that we have to be hostile or mean about it. We need to learn to set healthy and firm boundaries with people, and the more we learn how to do that, the less anger we’ll need to assert ourselves.
In order to build self-confidence, self-trust and independence, we need to do our shadow work and we may benefit enormously from learning to dialogue lovingly with our inner child. When our inner critic is putting us down once again, it may help to ask ourselves what we would say to our friend, partner or child, and then use the same compassion toward ourselves.
With time we learn to recognize and trust our intuition, bodily reactions and gut feelings : our internal thermostat.
In addition, we may come to realize the paradox behind other people’s envious attacks : why would anyone envy us if we are truly as worthless as we have been made to feel ? There must be something enviable and precious about us.
The poisoned apple is finally dislodged from Snow White’s throat by the mysterious workings of chance : one of the helpers trips up and the casket drops to the ground.
Ultimately healing must come from within. In therapy we prepare the soil and sow the seeds, but it is from our own unconscious psyche, from its self-healing capacity, that a new attitude will emerge. The timing of transformation is mysterious.
Our therapist or analyst can only accompany and guide us (mirroring us, doing shadow work, inner child work, …), and eventually witness our awakening to a new reality, one where the poison is thrown out, absorbed or simply outgrown : the narcissistic wound is healed.
Once Snow White is awake and free from the poison of her narcissistic stepmother, the prince asks her to marry him. She says yes, there might be a kiss, and he takes her out of the forest to his castle.
But the original fairy tale doesn’t end there. The evil queen learns yet again from her magic mirror that there is someone fairer than her. She arrives at the wedding of Snow White and the prince and tries to kill her one last time. As punishment for the attempted murder the queen is forced to wear a pair of red-hot iron shoes and dance in them until she drops dead.
This ending provides a cautionary tale.
One of the things that we need to do in order to heal is to fully reconnect with the child we were and engage with the suffering and terror we experienced at the hands of our primary caregiver. We need to face the fear of being victimized and abandoned, and consciously grieve what is lost forever.
Snow White lost her mother at birth and, as her father is barely mentioned in the fairy tale, we must assume he wasn’t present either. The figure of Snow White can be interpreted as the part of us that grieves the loving mirroring we did not receive as an infant and child.
Dariane Pictet says :
It is a psychological truth that when we enter wholeheartedly in a pain memory, it dissolves.
It is very important to have a safe space to do this, for example in analysis or therapy. There we can truly feel the terror and suffering in our body, and we can shed the healing tears that are needed to dissolve the pain.
For this we need the mirroring presence of a person who won’t run away, dismiss us, or react badly in some other way because something is triggered in themselves : a person who is trained to manage their own unease at suffering, who has done their own shadow work, and who has their own support system when necessary.
But if our fear becomes too great, if we are not ready, or if anything else goes wrong, we might relapse.
Realistically we might go through a whole series of smaller and bigger relapses over the course of our healing journey.
According to Dariane Pictet the red shoes that the evil queen is forced to dance in may represent an interrupted analysis, an addiction we might fall back into, the avoidance of deep trauma, or the compulsion of repetition.
After the queen is dead, the wedding proceeds in peace. At this point in the analysis a healing symbol often appears in our dreams.
This might be a funny, mysterious and positive mother or father symbol, something that provides a stark contrast to our experience of Death Mother in childhood. It shows that the terror we experienced as a child at the hands of our primary caregiver carrying Death Mother has been transformed.
Whereas previously we could only see the Mother or Father archetypes in their negative aspect, our experience now also includes their positive aspect, and their negative aspect somehow seems less terrifying because it is balanced and because we have found the confidence and inner authority to defend ourselves against it.
The personal primary caregiver and Parental archetypes can now be integrated into a new continuum, free from the black-and-white nature of split-off complexes. We no longer see our mother solely as a witch or our father as a tyrant, but we can see them in their humanity, with their own unique combination of talents and shortcomings.
According to Dariane Pictet the marriage between Snow White and the prince symbolises the inner marriage between our neurotic unconscious elements and our ego or field of consciousness. Our ego is awakened and regains its central function of orientation. It is capable of dialogue with others. There’s a balance between feminine and masculine points inside.
Once we experience this inner marriage, we no longer need someone or something outside ourselves to complete us or to make us feel whole.
Narcissistic parents often suffered a narcissistic upbringing themselves and come from a long line of narcissists, as one of the ways to cope with the poison of the internalized Death Mother is to act her out and direct her energy onto others (see part 3/4). Others unconsciously choose a narcissistic partner and perpetuate the abuse they suffered into the next generation in this manner.
But we can break the cycle by doing the work, step by step, in whatever way we can. We might relapse, but we can start again. It is never too late to do the healing work that is needed.
And the good news is that the people in our life, especially those who depend on us in some way, our children most of all, will benefit greatly from the investment we’ve made to heal the effects of generations of narcissistic parenting.
Peggy Vermeesch, PhD
Dr Peggy Vermeesch is a Jungian-oriented therapist based in France, an English language teacher at the University of Western Brittany, and former researcher in geophysics at the Universities of Texas (US) and Southampton (UK). She writes articles in French and English and acts as bilingual liaison between Jungian Psychology Space (JPS) and its Francophone mother site Espace Francophone Jungien (EFJ)
For more information, see her webpage.
- Toni Wolff’s structural forms of the feminine psyche
- The need to acknowledge the archetypal forces within
- Mirror mirror on the wall – The legacy of a narcissistic parent (1/4)
- Snow White – The legacy of a narcissistic parent (2/4)
- Medusa and the Death Mother – The legacy of a narcissistic parent (3/4)
- Snow White’s awakening – Healing from narcissistic parenting (4/4)