The Complementary Moral Defence
Those that know, know that the narcissist believes they are the epitome of perfection. That when someone has a problem with the narcissist’s behaviour, it is THEIR problem, not that of the narcissist.
It can be the most frustrating thing about interacting with a narcissist, they never accept responsibility, they devalue, discard, and smear the criticiser, and deflect from the main issue.
As adults that is hard enough to deal with, but what happens when that happens in a parent child relationship?
The child of a narcissistic parent develops something called ‘the complementary moral defence’.
Now hang on in there, this is going to get a bit technical, but I’ll do my best to keep it accessible!!
Daniel Shaw describes it thus:
‘the assertion on the part of the parent…usually implicit, and sometimes explicit, that one owns exclusive rights to “the goodness” …and the child therefore is the locus of any “badness” that arises.
The complementary moral defence is an intrapersonal response from someone in an interpersonal relationship with an abuser. In my instance, I’m applying it to the relationship between the child and the narcissistic parent. This is because, in this situation, it becomes a conditioned response to every relationship where someone disagrees with said child.
What happens is this. When a child is raised by a narcissist, they are not allowed to criticise or reject the narcissistic parent’s personality, behaviour or need. As the narcissist believes they are the whole of all things good, they will refuse and deflect any responsibility around wrongdoing, in whatever format that might take.
When we are children, our parents are meant to represent a secure base from which to explore the world. A place of safety to which we can retreat if scared or unsure about our surroundings and relationships. This is called attachment. The attachment relationship is the most precious and idealised thing for a child. They will go to any and all lengths to maintain it, including accepting responsibility for all that is wrong in a relationship, which is what happens in the narcissistic parent/child relationship.
And that is what the complementary moral defence is. It is where a child will understand that in order to avoid rupturing their attachment with their narcissistic parent, they must hold ALL that is bad or wrong in the interpersonal relationship, and as such internalise the idea that they are fundamentally flawed and broken.
They then take this belief and translate it to all the relationships they experience moving forward, until they have a huge amount of therapy and understand that it isn’t possible for only one person to be bad, and that relationships are co-created, and that parents are fallible humans, and in fact parents need to recognise and own their own flaws before projecting them onto their child, as a matter of urgency, and children don’t understand the shades of grey around ‘good’ and ‘bad’ as adults do.
The complementary moral defence carries with it an omnipotent power over the emotions of others, where the sufferer will believe they have an unrealistic influence over how others think, feel and behave, because they have been told repeatedly sentences that start with the words ‘you make me……’
The adult child with this symptom of narcissistic abuse will struggle to say no to others, to hold others accountable for negative behaviour, and will feel huge guilt when they try and assert their need over someone else’s. They will need reassurance and support above that of someone who hasn’t experienced this, and will also feel guilt and shame for this too.
It’s hideous. The impact of this reaches into all other relationships, and makes the sufferer vulnerable to other abusers, believing them when they say ‘it’s your fault, you made me do it’.
Breaking out of this behaviour requires therapy, and thought challenging techniques. It requires the unpicking of learned messages and behaviours, and painful realisation that the parent wasn’t perfect at all, but possibly more flawed than most.
It’s painful, it’s shocking, but holy moly it’s healing. By unpicking, it allows the establishment of boundaries, and a relief from the omnipotent power and responsibility over others.
Ultimately, it’s worth it.