A reader of one of my earlier blogposts, an article on a potential relationship between narcissism and autistic spectrum disorders, wrote a fascinating comment. It’s the best explanation I’ve seen yet of what psychologists refer to as theory of mind.
Jan B wrote:
"The part of the brain that learns and recognizes emotions in others is misfiring, not functioning fully. I have read that child psychologists know that there is a distinct milestone that children reach at approximately four years of age when they suddenly learn to differentiate others from themselves. My mother told me that one of the early memories that she had of me was when, one day, I had an epiphany. I told her, "Oh, I see… You are you and I am me!" I actually remember when this happened. I remember where we were, to this day. So that was an awakening. Normal children are supposed to have this at about four years of age. But it could be that ASDs [folks with autistic spectrum disorders] never do. It could be that many NPDs [folks with narcissistic personality disorders] never do, either. Worth considering."
Perhaps the development of theory of mind is like the development of athletic ability, mathematical abilities, or even fine motor skills. Most people eventually can do most sports, math problems, and drawing at a level that enables them to be functional. Some people are highly talented. And with coaching and practice, most people can become increasingly capable at any of these innate talents. Same perhaps with the ability to read emotions on others’ faces, and the ability to understand that what others are feeling and thinking can be very different from what you yourself are thinking and feeling — and that their feelings and thoughts are equally valid.
Many talents are inherited. Alas, so are talent deficits. Narcissistic parents are more likely to have narcissistic children, just like athletes are likely to have kids with athletic talents. In addition, parents with talents foster these in their kids, and those without talents model how to live without that capability.
At the same time, one reason that I love working with narcissistic individuals is that as their therapist I get to see their theory of mind blossom. That’s a goal also of the relationship-success skills I teach in my Power of Two book and workbook. Ability to see and hear a partner’s concerns is one of the key ingredients in experiencing and sustaining close connections with people you care about. Some say it’s even the essence of love.
Thank you Jan B for your memorable description of the dawning of that special awareness we call by the bland but useful term "theory of mind" in your own life!