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Narcissism And The Male Heart Wound

by Linda Marks 

Disconnection is both a personal and social disease in today's world. With it come the afflictions of addictions, depression and narcissism in epidemic proportions. 

For all but the last several hundred to one thousand years of human existence on this planet, we have lived in a more collective, tribal society. In such a society, much like the one author Jean Liedloff described in the Continuum Concept, babies are born with cellular expectations of a connectedness and relatedness with self, others and all of life. 

From this point of view, as infants, we feel connected to life and expect life and others in our lives to both recognize us as human beings and take care of us at the most basic levels when that is required. Likewise, we expect our caregivers to help steward us through a maturation process leading to appropriate self-sufficiency that can co-exist with appropriate interdependence. We place such emphasis on working long hours, and getting so much done, that we live in an always hurrying, overprogrammed culture. We don't have time to relax, to let down our defenses, to relate deeply. The pace of life today becomes another force to maintain disconnection.  

As we have moved farther away from tribal, village and community-based societies and into fragmented, disconnected nuclear family units or broken nuclear families, the sacred roles of both men and women have been lost. Men and women today are both engaged in the work culture for economic necessity and for a sense of identity and place. Many men and women alike are more distant from constant intimate daily presence in the lives of their children. Child care is often handed off to professional childcare providers, as the demands on one parent alone at home with children feels unbearable, as two parents each work and someone is needed to take care of the children or a single parent works to survive and can't be in two places at once. When working parents are lucky enough to have extended family, grandparents age into their 80's trying to surrogate parent their grandchildren.  Some of the energetic, emotional and practical mentoring and mirroring from parents and extended family that were once considered a child's birthright are less available. This is true for both boys and girls. 


The wound to heart and psyche that gets called narcissism occurs when a child's vulnerable and developing core sense of self is not seen and reflected back by the adults around him/her. Each child is born a unique individual with special gifts and personal challenges, multi-layered and both simple and complex. For any one layer to develop, that part of the child needs to be seen, heard, understood and valued. Parents have to be present to be mirrors—to bear witness and reflect back. Healthy  parents help young people build a frame of reference for living. 

A child needs a safe context in which to explore and express his/her core sense of self. A child needs adults who are themselves grounded in who they are so they have emotional and psychic space to be receptive to the individual child at any moment, rather than relating to the child from their own unmet needs. Any one adult may be capable of seeing and developing certain aspects of a child, and less equipped to see and develop other ones. In this sense, it does take a village to raise a child, and with the loss of this village and the committed long-term adult relationships the village offers to a child, many levels of the child's developing self will be missed entirely.  

When a parent's own woundedness and unmet needs override their ability to be present to a child or a parent's undeveloped parts of self render them unable to respond to a child's vulnerable and authentic needs, the child's core sense of self can be lost, fragmented or undeveloped. The loss, fragmentation and lack of development of the core sense of self is the root of the narcissistic wound. Raw, broken, undeveloped and lost, we enter a cold cruel world ill-equipped to relate, define fulfillment from the inside out and connect with the spirit of life.  

While our hunter-gatherer and agricultural ancestors and the worlds they lived in have slowly become extinct over many generations, our human bodies are still wired with the cellular expectations of connection that were the birthright and experience of those that came before us. When our primal wiring meets the world we live in today characterized by disconnection at personal, family and social levels, we experience a helplessness and aloneness that is beyond what we are biologically prepared to embrace. By necessity, we must sculpt defenses that allow us to navigate the world as

it is, and protect us from what we are afraid of or not equipped to deal with. These defenses create a false self that allows us to survive practically but  masks as it protects our wounded hearts and souls.  

We cannot live with a sense of depth because to relate at this level is exhausting unless we are self-secure beings, willing to be vulnerable and chance being exposed to the core. Most people yearn to be known, to be understood. Only by living from the core do we become who we were meant to be.  


A degree of helplessness and aloneness is the psychospiritual paradox of human embodiment. We need to develop our faith and trust in nature, the lifeforce and our connection with each other to live through and overcome moments where that sense of essential helplessness and aloneness prevails.   When a culture has a sacred foundation, spiritual practices, and community connections, psychospiritual crisis moments are held with understanding, respect and care. Life is hard, but the experience is understood, held or even shared.  

The repeated experience of disconnected abandonment and disinterest wires in a pathological sense of self-reliance, where we become feral humans on the emotional streets of life. God has forsaken us and no one hears our pain. We have no choice but to do it alone. Much of our pain is unspoken and  invisible as we go about our compartmentalized, isolated lives. Some people develop masks to wear at work and in the world. The mask makes one appear well when they are really not. We live the experience, "No one is going to be there when I really need them. In life, I have to do it alone." No one touches beneath the thick plates that form to protect the traumatized heart. 

Narcissism can be seen as a simultaneous trauma to the core self and the neglect/deprivation of the core self. While healthy mirroring feeds and reinforces the developing sense of self, narcissistic mirroring breaks down the boundaries of the developing self.  With narcissistic mirroring, the developing self is lost, overshadowed or never activated at some, if not many level(s).  

A metaphor for looking at the developing self is the conditions necessary for a seed to germinate. A seed is full of potential and contains all the raw ingredients needed to grow into the full embodiment of whatever plant it has descended from. Without the proper conditions, rather than having the life spirit inside of the seed sparked to life, it can decompose and disappear, sprouting and then shriveling or remaining dormant, never to see the light of day. Healthy mirroring allows for germination of soul and spirit. Narcissistic faux mirroring damages, if not destroys, the potential to germinate as a sense of self, put down roots that support full development and grow into life. This creates emotional birth defects which are physically unexpressed, but set emotional limits which stunt our capacities to be fully human and program us for failure in some ways.  

In this sense, the narcissistic defense is a natural result of or response to trauma. Here, trauma is defined as an interpersonal violation of the boundaries of the self, which may be fragile to start with.  Likewise, this narcissism generating trauma also includes elements of deprivation and neglect. The heart simultaneously starves from deprivation of essential contact, mirroring and relational experience, and dies of toxicity as it is force fed by the narcissistic other. This compromises emotional metabolism. The person wires in a way of life of emotional starvation and toxicity—unable to take in the good and unable to release the bad.  

Creating a fantasy world to defend against an unliveable reality is what children who are physically or sexually abused do as a matter of survival. This is called dissociation, a splitting of self into disconnected parts. The narcissistic wound becomes a trauma response at two levels, first as our spiritually empty culture can't support our spiritual needs, and second, as our narcisstically wounded parents are unable to be present and often overshadow our developing sense of self. Left unhealed, the map is set for a future trail of tears. Seeds of self darkness are sown for the wounded, their mates and their offspring.  


In healthy relating, adults have a grounded sense of self and personal boundaries. This means I know who I am distinct from you and you know who you are distinct from me. And it extends further to mean, I can know and own my own needs, triggers, wounded places and projections and not inflict them on you or blame you for them. When a narcissistic adult relates to a developing child, s/he may not be able to make the distinction between self and other and therefore, impose his/her own needs, pain and projections on the child. The child can experience trauma at the boundaries between self and this intrusive other. 

As boys and girls grow up with lost, fragmented and undeveloped parts of core self, when they try to parent their own children, they invade and neglect them at intimate and core levels. Narcissistic parents pass on the narcissistic wound through their lack of grounded sense of self, their unclear or broken boundaries and their inability to be fully present to or respond to the needs of a developing child.  


While both male and female children suffer heart wounds growing up in our fragmented culture that values productivity and functioning over relationships, there is a difference in how men and women are allowed to deal with their woundedness. As infants, toddlers and small children, boys do feel and they do cry. As the mother of a son who has just turned six, I would even say that the boys I have spent time with many be more emotionally sensitive than the girls their own age. They may be more likely to act out their vulnerability than talk it out. However, the intensity and complexity of the boys' feelings are certainly evident. 

In THE MEN WE NEVER KNEW, Daphne Rose Kingma writes that "obviously male children feel and feel deeply, but eventually socialization takes care of all that.... the feeling boy is gradually molded into  the unemotional man." She quotes a 45 year old graphic artist, "This culture... destroys the sensitivity in men. It annihilates the male emotionally, sexually, spiritually and creatively." 

"Men have been taught that in order to hold the world together, to make political, economic or social decisions, they have to ignore their emotions because the intervention of feelings could make mincemeat of their choices," says Kingma. "They have been encouraged not only NOT to have feelings, but have also been specifically instructed to shove down whatever random tendrils of feelings should, from time to time, manage to crop up." 

Male identity is based on suppressing the male heart and the wounded male heart. Kingma notes that we have enculturated beliefs that men, "by nature are willing to carry and inflict the pain that is required for civilization to advance. Whether it's in the form of laying railroad tracks or fighting a war, we have  always assumed that men have a special capacity for bearing pain in silence." Men have been taught to sacrifice their hearts and their lives for the forward movement of civilization. And we have collectively been taught to assume men will not be affected by what the male role requires of them. 

The definition of a man is to put duty ahead of emotional fulfillment. Kingma speaks to this. "Like Ulysses, a man's calling is always to duty, never to what might be emotionally fulfilling for him. This need for men to not feel is so universal, that it has become, basically, our definition for what it is to be a man." Men carry their pain in their bodies, in their faces and in their self-destructive habits. Alcoholism, drug addiction and sex addiction rates are higher for men than for women. Men drop dead of heart attacks and suffer early deaths at higher rates than women too. Without having developed a grounded core sense of self, men truly are lost, and treat themselves in disconnected ways far more self-destructively than women. 

Men who yearn for a deeper, fuller, richer life often stamp out this impulse because to go for emotional fulfillment and self-expression runs contrary to society's forces that define his success as a man. Men often have difficulty connecting deeply with who they are emotionally and going for it. The risk is too high. Many men spend their lives waiting for their emotional ship to come in, but without taking matters into their own hands and creatively shaping their lives. Men don't realize they need to do their emotional work. They wait for social security and death, not really caring which comes first. 


There are many secondary gains of the male heart wound. Power and wealth are two great anesthetics for the wounded male heart. Power and wealth get men the social trappings, including pretty women and all the toys, that allow men to avoid the emptiness in their own hearts. "When I am feeling powerful, I have no pain," commented a man I interviewed. Men have built externally functional selves with worldly rewards. However, these rewards are not rooted in a core sense of self or soul which is inaccessible and undesirable, having been lost, broken, underdeveloped or never defined. This lack of sense of self, fragile self, undeveloped self results in an elaborately built psychic/emotional defense system that draws power and attention towards the person and keeps pain at bay. 

"We all have this monster of anxiety and depression that eats around the edges and wants to eat us up," reflects Mark McDonough, an entrepreneur and explorer of the male heart wound. "We throw different bones at it: power, sex, alcohol, workaholism, entertainment. There are so many ways to keep that monster from eating you up. Nobody wants to sit with the monster. It's too horrendous."  

Men and women alike run from the dark feelings that characterize human existence in our modern day world and that accompany the wounds we inflict to both male and female hearts. Men, even more than women, have a lack of  tolerance of emotional pain. They become addicted to running from pain and discomfort, disconnecting and distracting. The growing presence of chemical solutions, like Prozac and its family of prescription drugs, adds yet another avenue to avoid dealing with the monster. Men don't want to feel. If they did, what they would uncover might question and erode the foundation and the structures on which they have built their identities and their lives.

"Because of the nature of the male heart wound, many men are closed to considering that the male heart wound exists," notes Art Matthis, a father of three boys in the Chicago area. "A characteristic of the male heart wound is the denial of the existence of the male heart wound." 

Kingma says, "Because they've suppressed their feelings for so long, men are unconsciously terrified of what might occur if they did experience their feelings.... Most men don't own up to this of course, but... they arrange their lives and behaviors... so they avoid stumbling into feelings they're not prepared to have... In particular, men fear they won't be able to move from the feeling state back into the rational state" which provides a safe and productive ground to stand on and act from.  

Many men don't know how to trust their feelings or reconcile the conflicts between what they can figure out rationally and what they feel. They have not had a chance to see that emotional process leads to resolution, and lack the tolerance of the discomfort and the time it might take to reach such resolution. Men routinely deny and rearrange feelings to defend against and suppress anything they don't want to see about themselves. While this keeps pain away, it also keeps real love out.


While both men and women need love, Kingma acknowledges that "it is exactly at the point where love the feeling, intersects relationship, the reality, that men have so many problems. Indeed, it is the very relationships that have made women despair of ever having a real experience of intimacy with men that the true dimension of men's suffering is ultimately revealed. For it is in relationship, the very essence of which is to be a sanctuary for the nurturing and exchange of feelings, that men, by virtue precisely of what it is to be a man, are most deprived. In the province of feeling, men are called upon to serve and not to feel, to perform and not to reveal, to behave like heroes and not mere human beings."  Women contribute to the struggle for intimacy as well, as they ask men to go forth and conquer the world, and then are amazed when he cannot take his armor off at home. 

I find it striking that a song recently popularized by singer Nellie Furtado, "I'm Like a Bird," speaks to the prevalence of the male heart wound, which can also be seen as the narcissistic heart wound in both men and women. The song speaks of a person who has qualities that are precious and rare, but who is sure to break the heart of even the most devoted lover. Eventually, "I'm like a bird, I'll only fly away. I don't know where my home is. I don't know where my soul is."  

Art Matthis notes, "Men live with a tension between a deep desire to connect and some strong social training that as a man you shouldn't have to. While all human beings have a natural need to be in community, men have been taught they need to function as rugged individualists. The male identity gets split apart between an organic human need and a social convention."  

Men and women alike are deprived of the solace of true emotional intimacy, which is the most fundamental food for our hearts and souls, by the price that is paid simply for being a man in our society. Neither men nor women get to be whole, fulfilled people with traditional gender roles. Kingma reflects, that men and women suffer equally. "Until men can be liberated from the spirit suppressing requirements of the male role, they—and we—will be consigned to relationships that deny us the joy of true intimacy, those that would allow us to discover each other in all our depth, power and exquisite vulnerability." 

Mark McDonough points out that men and women have lived out an unspoken deal. There are several elements to the deal. First, men ask women to be their heart and in exchange, the woman doesn't have to go out into the world, put on a shell and stay hard. "The woman can stay home with the kids and remain soft and cuddly." Second, women have been taught to let men be the rational thinkers, so that head and heart functions are split between the genders rather than developed in each gender.  

Third, each gender has a different and corresponding response to the narcissistic heart wound. The male response is, "These people can't take care of me. So, I will become big and strong and take care of myself. I can make it on my own and I don't need anyone." The female response is, "I can't make it on my own. I'll find someone who can protect me from it, because I don't have the power to do it on my own." Male and female relationships are based on two incomplete halves coming together to form a whole, rather than two whole people coming together to create something exponentially greater.  


Both men and women have broken hearts and have learned to take on fragmented gender roles that need to evolve to create a healthier and more fulfilling world. Finding a language that can be heard by  the male psyche is critical to healing the male heart wound. The words "healing" and "male heart wound" themselves may be considered women's language. One man I interviewed commented, "When men hear words like this, they run for the hills. They think 'you want to heal me.' 'You think I'm not whole, I'm not good enough, I'm not okay.'  This is very threatening and hard for men to hear and take in." 

Somehow we need to develop a language of gender equality. This language might be a language of growth, building a full life, creating, even nurturing. Men and women must come together and collaborate on finding a common language that reflects compassion for each gender's unique strengths and struggles. Even beyond finding a common language, men and women need to come together and speak frankly and listen fully to each other's experiences. A compassion between the genders is necessary to heal the wounds in both male and female hearts. 

In addition to healing work done with both men and women, men need to also find ways of doing healing work with other men. This can include finding a peer group of men who will support each man's development physically, emotionally and as a unique soul. Sparrow Hart, leader of The Mythic Warrior Training thinks men need to be put in a place where they can learn to love other men and receive love from other men. Likewise, older men need to mentor younger men and children. How can a boy grow up to be a man if he doesn't know what it means? Boys and men need both role models and coaches to help them develop a mature male identity. 

Sacred artist Heyoka Merrifield, feels healing the male heart wound requires a radical shift in how we live. "Men need to make space in their lives for more than their work. Many men can't imagine this since work is the only space in their life where they feel in control. Many men live with broken relationships and feel inadequate in the relational realm."  

"You have to make the healing process a whole way of life," reflects Heyoka. "You have to radically change just about every area of your life, including what your priorities are, how you eat, how you exercise, having time for daily meditation, your habits, and how you live your daily life. The male heart  wound can't be healed on the therapist's couch. There is no quick fix." 

Heyoka also acknowledges the importance of ceremony or sacred rituals in daily life. "All of our spirituality is locked up in the brain. We need ceremony to get it down into the body. Without ceremony, we are not whole human beings." Meditation, ceremony and sacred rituals allow us to attune to nature, the life force and our own highest self. Living from this place of attunement inspires following a higher road and a deeper consideration of what our responsibilities are as human beings to self, other and the natural world.

Other men I have interviewed feel we need to make it emotionally safer to be a man. Men need to be feel effective in making things happen and need to be supported in making their dreams real. Men need to be appreciated for what they do. The 42 year old father of three children noted, "Collectively, we need to understand the pressure society puts on men. We are breakable and we have learned to hide it." We need to make it okay for men to be in therapy. Therapists need to learn to balance confrontation with empathy, and individual men need to endure taking responsibility for their own  actions and their own impact on the other people in their lives. Sadly, men need a personal crisis, usually achieved through failure, serious illness or the collapse of an important hope, to find the impetus to go inward and do introspective work. 

"How can we redefine what we call male power and see that there is really a vulnerability and even an oppression behind it?" asks Sparrow Hart. "One of the fundamental things men learn is that they are disposable.  A boy walks on the outside of the road with a girl on the inside. It's not as great a tragedy if he gets killed. Men get the message that their lives don't count. To have a conversation with a man about self-care is almost an affront. 


Thanks goes to the author of this important works.

Linda Marks, MSM, is a body-centered psychotherapist practicing in Newton, MA who works with  men, women and couples. She is writing a new book along with her colleague Brenda Bush , HEALING THE MALE HEART. You can reach her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. 

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