In clinical practice it is common to meet patients who consult us not for a circumscribed symptom that afflicts an area of their experience, but for a style of relating with themselves and with others that considerably compromises psychological and relational functioning. The descriptive diagnosis of this condition is often expressed as Narcissistic Disorder or Borderline Personality Disorder. Often it is not they who consult us but their partners. For several years Laura Colangelo and Gabriella Gandino have been conducting research on these psychopathologies within the framework of the theory of family semantic polarities.
Narcissism. Which semantics?
Gabriella Gandino conducted a study on protocols of the Thematic Apperception Test of subjects with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. The stories, which underwent semantic analysis gave the following results:
Narcissistic Personality Disorder does not seem attributable to any of the four organizations of meaning described by the theory of family semantic polarities. Rather, a concentration of frequencies around specific meanings is highlighted in each semantic.
- As far as characteristics attributed to narcissism – such as the grandeur or the importance of external confirmation of one’s identity – lead to the hypothesis of consonance with the semantic of Power, the latter is mainly outlined as a description of oneself as “winning”, and to the relational movement “Adapt-oppose”.
- The meanings associated with the semantic of Freedom focus on the relational movement “approaching-moving away”: the narcissist wants to be looked at, admired, recognized in his superiority, to give consistency to his winning ego, but without the other getting close enough to see imperfections and fallibility.
- The semantic of Belonging is expressed around the relational movement “exclude / yourself”, and the emotions inherent in this semantic, in particular “despair”. The dynamics of exclusion are perceived as an attack on one’s own grandiose image and consequently generate a desperate reaction connected to the loss of confirmation
- The semantic of Goodness highlights how the perception of one’s superiority may be linked to the “strategy of purity”: the narcissist tends to create a strong investment in instinctively neutral areas, which confirm his moral or intellectual superiority.
Borderline Disorder: the semantics of power and the escalation of conflict.
According to Laura Colangelo, it is possible to consider Borderline Personality Disorder as the outcome of a process that involves three interconnected levels: the semantic level, the systemic level, and of the institutional responses that have taken place. The diagnosis places us in front of the amplification of the deviance generated by the effects of the institutional responses (of the school, of the social-health services, the courts, the police, etc.) to the competitive conflict that regulates relationships in a family in which the semantics of power prevail.
At least one of the parents in families with a borderline patient presents themself as if they had been blamed and accused, and in accessing yet another care relationship seems to expect a repetition of such an experience. The escalation of their son’s provocations over time leads to a sort of “export of the conflict”, and seems to be the result of a double betrayal. The patient appears to have been disillusioned with the investment of both parents, since this proved to be instrumental to the parent’s self-definition, to their personal and marital adequacy, and to the balance of unresolved transgenerational claims.
According to Ugazio (1998; 2012; 2018), in families where the semantics of power is central, the relationship with the other is perceived at all times, and in all circumstances as central to the definition of oneself; the events concerning the child and in particular the institutional interventions will acquire meaning with respect to the self-definition of one or both parents. In this way, the involvement of institutions – initially constituted by the normal educational and health structures – will become part of an escalation of the competitive conflict that regulates relations in these families, contributing, in turn, to fueling it.
Here are the main articles by Laura Colangelo and Gabriella Gandino on this topic:
- Colangelo L. (2005) “Il disturbo borderline di personalità come esito di un processo di costruzione sociale”, Terapia familiare n.78.
- Colangelo L. (2018) “La vita è altrove. Narcisismo e polarità semantiche” intervento al Seminario della EIST “Storie permesse, storie proibite: vent’anni di ricerche entro la teoria delle polarità semantiche familiari”, 1-12-2018, Centro FAST -Milano.
- Dipaola, D., Triscio, V., Bosco, E. F., Ferraris, M., Gandino, G. (2019). A study on narcissism: a comparison between the overt and covert typologies using the Thematic Apperception Test. Minerva Psichiatrica, 60(1), 17-23.
- Gandino G., Le semantiche del Narcisismo allo specchio del TAT. Relazione presentata al Convegno “Storie permesse storie proibite. Vent’anni di ricerche entro la teoria delle polarità semantiche familiari”. EIST (European Institute of Systemic-relational Therapies), Milano, 1 dicembre 2018.
- Gandino G., Le storie che i narcisisti raccontano: uno studio sui significati al TAT. Relazione presentata alla Giornatadi studio SIPPR “Metodologia, processi e valutazione: percorsi nella ricerca sistemica”, Bologna, 9 marzo 2019.
- Gandino G., Dipaola D., Bernaudo A., Venera E.M., Ercolin D.M. Overt and Covert Narcissism in TAT narratives. Comparison between two different methods of narratives analysis. Poster presentato al XXII International Congress of Rorschach and Projective Methods, Parigi, 17-21 luglio 2017.
- Gandino, G., Venera, E. M., & Bernaudo, A. (2018). Narcissism and systemic approach. A systematic review. Mediterranean Journal of Clinical Psychology, 6(3).