November 14, 2013

The Search for the Real Self: James F. Masterson

Warning! This interview took place in June 1989 , obviously saved on someone's VHS tape and stuffed in an office drawer for a decade. In other words, it's a terrible copy but its the only copy on the Internet. If you can't bear watching imperfect visuals, avert your eyes and listen to the audio 'cuz this interview is excellent. 

Dr. Masterson is internationally renowned for his clinical work, research, and writing on personality disorders. The book referred to in this interview is titled The Search for the Real Self: Unmasking the Personality Disorders of our Age. (1990). Dr. Masterson died in 2010 at the age of 84.


  1. Watched it, CZ. For me, raised more questions than answered...sort of between the lines?
    When he says that the self separates from the parent (mother mostly) at 2-3 years of age, that got me very concerned. It's not that this isn't true but that I am thinking of our own adopted son. We adopted him at a month after his third birthday. He was left at the charity hospital (in a shoebox) at 13 months (weighing 12 lbs) by the grandmother and was in a 'failure to thrive' foster home with 9 other children. All on a spectrum of retardation...from severe to mild. He was diagnosed by DFACS as 'mildly retarded'. We doubted this, for no reason, except we wanted a child. He was 24 lbs at 3. He was kept in a crib and fed baby food until we got him at Xmas 1990. He didn't have the swallow reflex. We had to stroke his throat to make him swallow. Times were tough for our son. We got no help from DFACS. That probably was a good thing ultimately. But this issue of separating from the parent at 2-3? He had no development (intellectually/physically, 3 more with the development of an 18 month child. He was still in diapers and didn't speak (actually didn't speak except for maybe three word sentences until he was four. He had never slept in a bed...a single bed and this terrorized him. So, what goes here? It doesn't seem that he COULD separate from me or husband at that age....I doubt that he would have survived much...and certainly wouldn't have grown. We tried to put him in the local elementary school (kindegarten, 1st grade) where he was severely injured (teeth knocked out and palate broken in an after school class) We homeschooled after that.

    I was a pretty rotten teacher/mother, still smarting from the wounds of my own mother and her narcissistic and abusive behavior. I've written about that wonder about this separation...probably applies to most NORMAL environments with NORMAL and loving parents. But the separation issues here were probably extreme...first from the birth mother then from the neglectful foster parents (by the way, with many observations and complaints, we were able to get that substandard home closed).
    Other thing: This separation issue at college? what about those of us who had to separate in order to survive the parental abuse? I ran way from home at 19. Neighbors said that the fully expected me to be found hanging from the barn rafters. So separation from the parents was not one of angst...staying was. Only this move on my part saved me I believe from further psychological harm.

    As long as you play the 'good girl' to the mother, you are accepted. This is not necessarily true, because Narcissists (and not only extreme ones...) keep changing the goal posts. There is no way to really please a narcissistic mother. And a daughter turns herself into a pretzel attempting to do so.

    I have become more and more convinced that the thread of sadism runs through the relationships of Narcissists and their children. Narcissists get easily bored. They children are not seen as valuable or independent of them, therefore they 'play' with them like a cat with a tiny mouse. It's always an issue of Power for the Narcissist. Any attempt of the child to establish their own independence is only really allowed when the Narcissist thinks that narcissistic supply is not worth the effort and turns to other sources.

    Sorry if this goes against some of what I heard, but this has been my personal experience. Considering life, I am amazed that I haven't given up! Actually, with separation, comes thriving.


    1. What a terrible beginning your son had! I didn't realize everything he'd gone through before you adopted him. That he has become a healthy young man, speaks to the importance of loving and kind parenting. The only thing I can say about adopted children who experienced a traumatic infancy is that we don’t know why some children are more resilient than others. We can try to understand human development but we really don’t know that much...yet. Quite a few people have told me their children went to therapy because of our increasing knowledge about attachment. This is relatively new information. It wasn't common twenty years ago! As to your development as an infant having a narcissistic mother:

      Narcissistic mothers can be excellent caretakers, allowing their infants to develop normally. Babies are lovely. Babies make us feel good about ourselves. We like babies. When the child begins to separate, that’s when the trouble begins. How were you treated before you were eight, or maybe six? Six-year-olds are little tyrants. Defiance would be insupportable to a narcissistic mother who needed a perfect mirror. By age six, the child has already mastered attachment although narcissistic Mom may not be healthily attached to her child! (I’m winging it on this response because I am not an attachment specialist but have learned a lot from my years and peers on the forum.)

      Narcissistic mothers stifle a daughter's growth as an individual. Evidently they were able to 'bond' normally until the daughter was older and then the trouble started when N-mother couldn't bear her child's individuality. Uniqueness. The struggle between what Mom wants and what the daughter needs is the stuff of blogs and message boards.

      I think most daughters of narcissistic mothers (even more than fathers perhaps) need to separate themselves physically in order to separate psychologically. College, as Masterson said, can start a process that didn't occur naturally and it can be very destabilizing without therapeutic support. I remember the first day my family left me at University. I had a panic attack. It was like all of a sudden, I didn't know who I was because the "me" I had come to accept as real, was the only "me" that was acceptable to my family. It's taken decades of work to accept my family's rejection and be okay with displeasing them.

      Physical proximity to narcissistic families can delay our natural healing process (we're just stubborn enough to INSIST on being our True Selves, aren't we?). Close proximity can also keep us so triggered from the constant rejection that we can't do the work we need to do to be comfortable in our own skin. No Contact appears to be a solution for many and it's not a selfish act, it's survival. The blossoming that happens when people are not being consistently 'rejected', 'criticized' and 'controlled' is a beautiful thing to see. It's what keeps me attached to recovery work, watching people free themselves from oppressive and 'sadistic' relationships.


  2. You got it, CZ. LOL! I'm laughing in relief because if I hadn't detached, separated, who knows? I would have been swallowed whole by an already dismissive mother. Physical proximity to narcissists does delay our healing. And yes, those damn triggers that turn everything logical and normal on their heads.

    As for me....since you asked...the rejection started the moment I was born. My mother was a ballet dancer, and at 27, she was rather old for a first child, 65 years ago. Narcissists have a delayed emotional mentality of between 7 and 15. So, at 28 she already was a spoiled brat (that is a marker for narcissism I believe) a woman who 'married outside her class' according to her.
    When the nuns handed me to her...she was recovering from 24 hours of labor she says, and though I was less than 6 lbs...I can see this, as she is only 5' tall, I was wrapped in a stiff cone of blanket with the corner flap over my face. I was a high forceps baby, meaning they used pincers to pull me out and of course my skull was misshapen and I was bruised. She told me that after that first view, she placed me on the pillow behind her head, up on the back of the bed. Sounds like rejection to me.

    . She made me bleach my hair so 'we could look like sisters'. This is a way to deny a daugher her own individuality. I didn't realize how sick it was then. Only in the last few years. Actually, back then, I think I was flattered...and 'example' of bonding with me. Hah!

    My son? He's fine. .
    We started him on violin at 4, cello at 6 and bought him a baby grand at 7. He played for years until he left for the Navy. He was quite the composer and gave local concerts. Funny story: in one of his first performaces of a piano class, a lovely Korean girl played first, was marvelous, and our son was to play next. He flubbed the Mozart (K147) and his own ABA composition. LOL! The lesson learned? Don't play after the Korean girl.

    Well, the human spirit is strong and can recover from these things. But I think that my decades of aborted attempts to be in her life only showed me that it was dangerous and impossible. She wasn't normal. And when we align ourselves with this, the bottom falls out of our lives. Close proximity doesn't allow light and reason. NC was something I tried for 3 years, and felt great guilt and dismay at doing so. But! Finally, I realized that any attempt to contact her in a normal way was always rejected. And I didn't deserve that battery. Nor did my son or husband who also came into her abuse. Life is so much better when you avoid the crazies....especially those in the too close for comfort family.

    Two weeks ago, a friend and writer collaborator came from Australia to visit. (he was on a 5 week tour of Europe, and I was the last stop.) He took back my 5th book, "The Nightingale's Song" to do the photography and publish in Australia. This morning, River Muse Press said they wanted to publish my 4th book: "A Pitcher of Moon". Oh, I'm over the moon! These are the fruits of moving away from the narcissists in my life. The only way we can actualize ourselves is to take control of our lives and sum up the past in the correct ways. Therapy and your blog has helped immeasurably in doing this, CZ. My mother 20 years ago said that I would never be publlished. Well, take that, you old bat! And you STILL ain't in the dedication! And I got more books coming down the shute!

    Life is good.

    Lady Nyo

    1. The sad thing is that you were excited about having the same color hair as your mother. Dying your hair mimicked bonding and in narcissistic families, pseudo-love is better than no love at all. The stories people tell me about their childhoods would be utterly depressing without an evolutionary view of human history. Considering how infants were swaddled and treated two hundred years ago, letting you lie next to her head gives me hope we're moving in the right direction! (If anyone wants a broader view of human history than our romantic notions of perfect families, read Lloyd deMause: "The History of Childhood").

      My comment is not meant to dismiss your mother's narcissism and neglect, but taking a broad view puts things in perspective. Or perhaps the 'broad view perspective' is a defensive maneuver because stories like yours make me so sad. And angry.

      I liked something James Masterson said in the video. He mentioned the Authoritarian Culture prior to the 1960's which instigated the "individualistic culture" we have today. In my view again, this individualism is the foundation to healthier parenting and "children's rights" even if society is swinging to the narcissistic extreme as we do with everything! We'll find our balance. Being able to talk about the way we were raised, what was good and what was not, is based on our "individualism", the belief that we are deserving of love and protection by our parents. Masterson's comment triggered a whole afternoon of thoughts about the "recovery" movement for ACoNs and what a miracle it is. My brain is a runaway train sometimes.

      Older generations didn't have the 'right' (and may feel guilty) challenging their upbringing (dishonoring parents). So even if blogs like mine are upsetting to people, we are changing what has proven to be dysfunctional by creating healthier relationships with ourselves AND with our families-of-creation (hopefully). There isn't much we can do about our family-of-origin (FOO) if family members are uncomfortable OR UNABLE to defy the "No Talk Rule" silencing families.

      AND what GREAT news about your book! I am so very very happy for you! You are an amazing and talented writer, LadyNyo! Moving away from your mother (physically, mentally, emotionally AND spiritually) has freed the Real You. She made it hard for you to be yourself, to find your real self, didn't she?


    2. Yup., She made it hard to find my 'real' self. And it didn't happen really until I came into my 6th decade. Long time happening! LOL! And that happened because I finally, FINALLY saw that she would NEVER change, that any desire and wish on my part was a pipe dream. I finally embraced what she was...and the danger to more tender things that she presented. NC was a difficult salvation, but an uncomfortable salvation nonetheless.

      You uncovered something that was just under the surface...YES! I was excited that our hair was finally the same color! LOL! I had seen this as not bonding but her overpowering desire to be seen as my 'older' sister. And that meant that I didn't have a mother in her. But you are sooo right CZ...In a Narcissistic family, bonding is rare, so anything that looks like bonding is embraced with hope.

      No, I didn't make myself clear on her putting me back BEHIND her head. She expressed that "I came out Ugly"....and she didn't want to see me. She was rejecting me. Of course, I only learned this about two decades ago, when she felt she could scrounge around to find more things to hurt me. And it did, but actually, I could laugh now. What an example of what was to come! LOL! I dreamed once that a nun picked me up and held me tenderly, even while my mother was putting on her makeup in bed. She was all about her physical presence...all the time.

      Well, yes. You are right. The pendulum has swung the other way, and even if it unearths (or develops???) more narcissistic behavior in our general society? The individualization of people is a relief. Just two generations ago, women who weren't marrier early were forced many times to live with a family, the birth family, or shunted off to other relatives where they were considered second class family members and little more than servants.

      IF your blog is upsetting to people, let them be upset. It's, again...a question of their own ignorance and a refusal to change. It's basically a 'hardening of the heart' and you know of whom I am speaking of, CZ.

      I know that our children are watching...they are like little hawks watching with 8x eyes. They watch for future behavior..theirs. We are teaching them all the time...good and bad. Oh! How I wish I could have gone back and rectified so much with my son. I was so angry at my mother and her cruelty that I didn't stop...until understand that I was creating the same issues in my son. Fear, hatred, trepidation. The very same things I grew up with. It has to stop with us.

      My son comes home from the Navy. Four years and I have had a lot of time to reconsider our life together. Your blog and CS's have helped so therapy with my darling Bavarian get straight what is important in life. It's not books or awards, or's the simplier and harder things: our human relationships that mark our basic humanity.

      and that is what Narcissistic parents rob us all of: they confuse (we are confused...) our basic humanity. It takes years to figure it out, or at least it did for me.

      Love to both of you. You both are like sails for me pushing me in the heavy waters.

      Lady Nyo

  3. Congratulations Lady Nyo on the River Muse Press! That is fantastic news, and so well deserved, as you are a marvelous writer. Re: forceps head, so was I. I'm convinced that if I hadn't been pulled out with forceps (and later allowed to fall down basement stairs on my head) I coulda been Einstein (ha! there's an excuse for everything). I didn't know your son had such a rough beginning either. You have done a much better job than you even realize, Lady N.

    I have no memory of treatment by my mother until I was around two, when my sister was born and at that point, my needs and presence were just always in the way. I was always a "needy nuisance." Great start in life, eh? xo CS

  4. Oh, God, CS....I can so understand! My brother came 22 months after me, and he had a hernia at birth and within two months had to have surgery to repair it. So my mother bonded with him and I you....a needy nuisance. Once I looked at all the photos of me as a child, about 3-5 years old and I was always crying...Mother said "I was afraid of the camera". I think I probably was afraid of a lot more. I think, from what I know of you, that we both were sensitive AND needy children...which is what children are...especially when we see the disruption in NORMAL family behavior around us. We never really had the care and attention we needed as children I think. And this makes us needy. We yearn and cling to something that just isn't there...emotionally and probably physically.

    To me, you ARE an Einstein, CS. You are brilliant, and so hard working and in the face of such little support, you have made an incredible success of life. And I think we do this, or attempt this, because we don't have the support that many middle class children have. We grow up with a handicap and we do everything possible to overcome that emotional handicap. I know that I could never do enough: what I did was never enough according to the words of my mother. I know you suffered this, too. We have been on our own emotionally for so many decades, and it is amazing to me the human will and spirit.

    Surviving abuse and neglect is one thing. Going on an finding a way to tap into creativity, something we might not know in childhood and early adulthood was there, well, this to me is truly marvelous. That is the key difference in just living and making our world better in some way. Contributing something....

    Perhaps I did a better job than I realize with my son, but of course I only remember the cruelties that I did. I know I was mirroring my mother in so many things, without knowing why. But, we are so hard on ourselves because it feels 'normal' to beat ourselves up. We are well trained.

    With love to you!


  5. Thank you for posting this video.
    I know Dr Masterson's books, but it's great to hear him speak, not least because one can hear the compassion in his voice, not only for the people whose lives are affected by a disordered person but for the suffering of the individual too.


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