Cesarean section as a narcissistic injury

broken egg

Narcissistic injury is a term from psychoanalysis. A narcissist in psychoanalytic theory is different from our colloquial use of the word. Rather than being a person who is obsessed with herself, a narcissist is a person who suffers a deep sense of inferiority and masks it by projecting an air of grandiosity and excessive self regard. A narcissistic injury occurs when reality threatens the narcissist’s carefully constructed facade of perfection.

In reading the work of homebirth and natural childbirth advocates, I am repeatedly struck by the assumption that a not having an uncomplicated vaginal birth is viewed as an imperfection. Hence the use of words like “failed” and “broken”, the insistence on comparing birth to competitive sports, and the use of goofy birth “affirmations” that are all variants of “I can do it.”

I suspect that some homebirth and natural childbirth advocates experience a C-section as a narcissistic injury. A narcissistic injury is not simply an imperfection. It is an imperfection that threatens the narcissist’s protections against feelings of inferiority.

For example, many people need vision correction, but the overwhelming majority are able to accept that their eyes are not perfect without viewing it as a fundamental deficiency. Similarly, many women have C-sections and view the surgery as nothing more than one of many acceptable ways to have a baby. In contrast, a small proportion of women have such a fragile sense of self, and have constructed such elaborate defenses to protect against these feelings, that a C-section is experienced as a “failure,” a sign of being “broken,” and an insupportable assault on a very fragile sense of self-regard.

Experiencing C-section as a narcissistic injury can explain many confusing aspects of homebirth and natural childbirth advocacy, particularly among advocates who have already had a C-section. The refusal to see a doctor (with some women even refusing to see a midwife) can be explained as the inevitable result of regarding even the possibility of pregnancy complications as personal criticism, combined with the inability to tolerate criticism of any kind.

It can also explain the seemingly inexplicable reactions to the death of a baby at homebirth. Reacting to a baby’s death by being “proud” of oneself for having a vaginal birth is extremely bizarre. However, it makes sense if the mother’s overriding preoccupation is to preserve her narcissistic mask of perfection and keep feelings of inferiority at bay.

The real problem, then, for women who view C-section as “failure” is not the C-section, but the outlook of the women themselves. C-section is experienced as a narcissistic injury, not because it really is an injury, but because women with carefully constructed defenses that keep feelings of inferiority at bay feel those defenses threatened by the lack of perfection.

I don’t expect homebirth and natural childbirth advocates to acknowledge this. Narcissists are notorious for their lack of introspection and their insistence on blaming everything on everyone else. They could never acknowledge that the source of their distress comes from within; they are compelled to externalize it to others who are supposedly criticizing them or disrespecting them.

This piece originally appeared on Homebirth Debate in November 2008.