Sanctuary for the Abused

Monday, October 23, 2006

Narcissism and the Human Condition

Narcissism is a normal feature of human development. All human beings are born narcissistic.

Narcissism is experiencing life in such a way that the real, external world is experienced as unreal, with the self alone as real. The narcissistic person does not accept that the real world has autonomous existence and is populated with real independent human beings; rather, all is some construction of their own mind, experienced only in terms of their own thoughts and feelings, hopes and desires. And when the real world demands some response, they either fail to respond, disconnecting themselves from it, or respond solely in terms of themselves.

Narcissism is universal in primitive cultures. Human social evolution is the gradual overcoming of narcissism.

The universality of narcissism as an aspect of psychological development is due to the fact that all human beings are conscious. The self, which is to a person the most important thing in existence, is not a fixed entity, since it is created over time from millions of interactions with other people: in other words it evolves. But consciousness is experienced very soon in a person's life, beginning between the ages of one and two (before this time an infant is not separated from reality, experiencing no 'I'). So, since consciousness is not first experienced at the end point of psychological development, it is experienced by a person during the creation of their self, when they are not yet authentic and whole. In this situation, of self-awareness simultaneous with development of the mental model, the self is at first experienced as more real than reality, and more important, since it cannot be allowed to fall apart; if it did, the person would die, would become insane from self-annihilation. Narcissism can therefore be seen as an inevitable consequence of consciousness.

The urgency of constructing a self gives rise to narcissism. Human narcissism is the experience of consciousness by the inauthentic self. The inauthentic self is one not complete; one with a less than whole understanding of itself.

Narcissism is therefore an inevitable and unavoidable part of psychological development. An evolving self is incomplete, and therefore more self-directed than reality-directed. Narcissism is therapy for the fragile self; to counterbalance the felt incompleteness self-directed behaviour comes into being. Narcissism is a force bringing fragmented parts together when they are not yet composed into a whole, and the more fragmented the parts, the stronger the required force, and thus the more intense the narcissism. But the penalty, the necessary penalty, of making the self more real than reality, is that reality is demoted.

Narcissism can be imagined as the glue holding together individually repelling fragments, fragments that have not been synthesized into a whole by experience and natural development, and which, since they must somehow be made whole to create a coherent entity - a conscious self - have to be forced. It is this artificial conglomeration into an inauthentic entity that results in the narcissistic self.

Consequences of narcissism

The main consequence of narcissism is the inability to understand that reality is autonomous. For the narcissist, stimuli from the external world are filtered through the self until they become more suited to the narcissist's needs. The real world is not experienced as an objective, independent entity, rather as a construct of the narcissist's mind. The world is seen in terms of the self; of the self's own thoughts, desires, needs, feelings. The force holding together the fragmented and inauthentic self, narcissism, like the glue holding together mutually repelling parts, directs all experience toward the self, at the expense of reality.

Narkissos himself can be understood from this wider perspective. It was not so much that he thought he was lovely and wonderful, though he surely did, rather he was only able to experience the real world through his reflection; he could experience it only in terms of himself. In his mental model of reality there existed one solid, real person: himself. All others were ghosts, shadows of no importance, and the world was merely a construction of his own thoughts and feelings. He was thus never able to interact with the real world on its own terms; nor through human terms, for the real world contained many other people, and that is why he was unable to tear his gaze away from the reflection.

So the prophesy of Teiresias implies this meaning: When Narkissos first experienced himself as an actual entity - in the myth analogy, when he first saw himself - he cut short his life. It is almost as if his youth was his pre-conscious life, and his first experience of consciousness came at sixteen, by the lake. (It is common practice now to test for consciousness in animals and babies with a mirror; when an infant understands that a paint dot seen on the reflected head is in fact upon its own skin, it understands at some level that it is a self.) The analogy is that Narkissos was unable to understand the real world around him, remaining in a stupor, because his own self had become the one and all of existence. As such, this Greek myth shows tremendous insight and has great relevance today.

This inability to comprehend reality, and the overpowering need to place the self above all else, means that the narcissist, existing in reality and with no choice but to interact with it, must reach out to control reality. Since reality cannot be felt to be independent, it must come under the control of the narcissist in order that it more fall into line with what the narcissist desires. In other words, narcissism is the fundamental source of all desires for power over reality; for control, manipulation, exploitation.

Power - that is, the control of others and of the external world - is the method of changing an independent reality to suit the desires of the narcissist. Through the mechanism of power, for example colonisation in patriarchal society, individual narcissists or narcissistic groups can try to mould reality according to their own wishes. They must do this. If reality is continually experienced as independent of the narcissist, then the mechanism of keeping the fragmented self together, by ranking it above reality, is destroyed, and self-annihiliation results. As a consequence, control must be exerted.

All forms of power wielding at the expense of others and of reality are rooted in narcissism: dominion, control, exploitation of others and of the environment. These are forms of therapy for the narcissist; they are required activities.

But ultimately reality can never be changed. It is independent of the narcissist. Though it can be controlled by human action to a small extent, to a useful extent, it is in the main autonomous. So the narcissist must convince themself that reality has been changed, and is amenable to such change, and this is done by hiding the truth. The narcissist will come up with all sorts of rationalisations and reactive behaviours to hide the truth. Again, this is essential therapy. Not doing it would expose the self to reality's truth, and destroy the mechanism of narcissism. In other words, narcissism always acts to preserve itself.

A third consequence of narcissism also derives from the inability to test, understand, and accept reality, and this is the certainty in the self and in the self's schemes that all narcissists feel. Once more, such a conviction is required. Since reality is filtered through the self, in the process becoming unreal and as the narcissist desires, all actions and schemes acquire an overpowering sense of certainty. Without this, their truth in relation to the world would become apparent, and the narcissist would be forced to see their own true character. This would destroy the mechanism of narcissism.

Certainty in itself is no bad thing. But, apart from the overpowering quality that exists to compensate for internal fragmentation and uncertainty, one aspect of narcissistic certainty sets it aside, and that is its lack of an origin in reality. The mature person will, to become certain of some thing, test it in reality, or experience it for a long time and with connection to understand its truth. The narcissist never tests in reality. Narcissistic certainties can occupy the full range from real to unreal; mostly, they are unreal. Since they have no basis in reality they tend to the unrealistic.

To protect themself from reality, the narcissist must deny truth. Internal certainty at the expense of reality means twisting what is experienced to suit personal needs. This is second nature to the narcissist.

As a result, certain qualities appear in narcissistic people. They are arrogant and righteous. They expound their own plans and theories at the expense of others, regardless of what reality, and the testing of reality, shows to be true. They try to destroy other systems so that their own can flourish. Their inner certainty, which over-rides everything, makes them self-important, pompous, conceited.

There are other forms of self-directed behaviour. Because the narcissist has to put self above all else, selfishness follows; and grandiosity, self-obsession, and the most commonly imagined type of narcissism, with its source in the the Greek legend, that of obsession with appearance. Over-concern for the self, in whatever form, compensates for the inauthentic self held together in a fragile clump by the glue of narcissism; no narcissist can afford to be ordinary.

There is one concept that illustrates the way narcissism puts the self at the centre of reality as a compensating mechanism, one that has existed for as long as civilisation, and that is the idea of destiny. Destiny is the ultimate in self-centred thinking. By imagining that some unique destiny awaits in the future, the narcissist reverses reality until it becomes a servant of the self. Destiny is the way that the narcissist accounts for the fact that the real world exists, and consists of events, without displacing the self from its centre. The narcissist imagines that the real world has some special place reserved for them, when nothing could be further from the truth. It is imagined that events revolve around the self, small parts of some great plan in which the narcissist plays the chief role; the opposite is true. To have any sense of personal destiny is to deny the real world's autonomy.

Another consequence of the narcissistic outlook is the inability to accept uncertainties. Again, as mentioned above, there is nothing bad in desiring certainty. But the narcissist, divorced from reality, takes this into the realm of extremes. An uncertain, that is, real and independent world, shows up the equivalence of the self and reality; the self is seen for what it is, and this destroys the mechanism of narcissism.

To counteract this, control can be exercised; control allows the creation of a certain world; power moulds others. Also, money can act to create certainty, for example in the construction of artificial environments insulated from the real world.

The world cannot be a certain place. To desire this is to turn away from its truth. To desire certainty, particularly of the absolute variety, is to experience the self as more important than the reality in which it exists.

Hence authoritarianism is a consequence of narcissism. This social structure is the method by which power (the unreasonable power of the narcissist, not the reasonable potency of the human being) is exercised.

For the narcissist, controlling reality and others is a required procedure, and within the authoritarian structure this is made easy. The corollary is the acceptance of the power of others higher up the hierarchy. For the narcissist there are various ways of coming to terms with this. The future can be considered, when the narcissist hopes to be in a higher position. The narcissist can be wholly immersed in the hierarchy's philosophy and desires, and thus does not mind submitting (this happens within the narcissistic group). Or the narcissist can be so lacking a core of human identity that such submersion in another is required to stop the self falling apart.

All authoritarian structures, operating by and large through hierarchies, though they can be simple, brutal domination, are based on narcissism. The wishes of others, who are not perceived as real and worthy, are ignored by those at the top. The self, and the self's created world, is all. Because of this, all authoritarian structures operate at the expense of reality, attempting to forge it into whatever the desired shape happens to be.

At the top of every authoritarian structure is a figurehead. This is usually a lone person - king, leader, priest - though it can be a group, and sometimes it can be a concept. It is into this that narcissists place parts, even all, of their selves.

In general, the more revered the figure, the more intense the narcissism and the resulting authoritarianism. The reason for this comes again from the dynamics of narcissism. Placing less emphasis on individual freedom and humanity, as the narcissist does, means placing more emphasis on the guiding figure, since this figure has so much more to achieve and to control. The amount of freedom lost by the controlled is proportional to the veneration of the figurehead and the intensity of the authoritarianism. As a result, weakly authoritarian systems have less important, less revered leaders, or less dogmatic ideologies; strongly authoritarian systems have glorified, lone leaders and harsh, usually fundamentalist, ideologies.

As an example, it is noteworthy that during the 1980's the economic systems of Britain and America, both of which were markedly authoritarian and conservative, actually acquired names; Thatcherism and Reaganomics. This need to bestow a name indicates the strength of the authoritarianism that the systems embodied.

These figureheads of authoritarian systems suit the individual narcissists in the hierarchy very well; they suit ordinary, humane people very poorly. For the narcissist, a world distinct from reality is created, in which a life can be led. There are opportunities for power and for exploitation. For humane people there is no opportunity, and, worse, such systems, since they are opposed to freedom, go some way to blocking the overcoming of their own narcissism. Human freedom is required for that task.

Narcissism also leads to isolation and remoteness. The rejection of, withdrawal from, or attempted moulding of reality means that the narcissist does not fully exist in reality. From the point of view of all others, there is a gap. In human terms, this gap can be experienced as remoteness, or as isolation, particularly as emotional, or human, isolation. The narcissist is unable to participate fully in the real world, as it exists for others, since it cannot be experienced on its own terms.

Other related symptoms include antipathy for groups, wholes, for connection of any sort, co-operation, consensus, and so on.

It is often the case that the narcissist has a reduced sense of humour, or even none. This is most often apparent when the humour concerns themselves. The narcissist has to conceal truth from themself. This is essential, since the truth of the self and of the real world would bring into focus the true relationship between these entities, and thus destroy the mechanism of narcissism. Humour, with its natural mechanism for deflecting pain that at the same time points to a truth, cannot be tolerated by the narcissist since they are so sensitive on the matter of their selves. Their selves are so fragile, assembled by a force that has to disregard reality, that they cannot face the truth. Even the underhand truth of humour is too much. By and large it is the severe narcissist who loses all sense of humour. Humour is so vital to human functioning that it is a drastic measure to quash it.

There come times in every narcissist's life when, despite the withdrawal from or changing of reality, the real world does intrude into the self. The reaction is rage.

So much anger and violence comes from puncturing the unreal narcissistic bubbles in which many people live. When such an event occurs, the frustration felt at the threat, or threatened change, to the narcissist's world is experienced in terms of the emotion of frustration: anger. Rage is the consequence of the truth, of reality circumventing the narcissist's self-deception. The threat to the narcissist's mental model requires an emotional reaction to convey the knowledge of frustration, frustration that reality is trying to change, even deny, and thus deconstruct, the internal model.

It is no accident that the 'terrible twos' period of a child's life is characterised by anger. Here, the child has just achieved consciousness and is at its most intensely narcissistic. The continual intrusion of a still largely unknown reality provokes much rage.

An alternative to rage, for example if the narcissist finds emotion difficult to experience, or cannot confront the source of their rage, is revenge. All revenge has its source in narcissism. For the narcissist, revenge is the great leveller. Revenge is the mechanism by which real or imagined insults are reversed or neutralised.

In the mind of the narcissist any personal slight, any criticism or remark, or any perceived attack on the narcissist or their group or world, must have a response. To leave be is again to experience an unwelcome truth. An insult, a remark or comment which seems to lessen the narcissist, make them unworthy or inferior, has to have a reversing response. Hence, revenge. In revenging themselves for some act, the narcissist changes the perceived alteration in self and reality, and returns, in their own mind, the sense of importance that previously existed.

As a corollary, the narcissistic person is sensitive to the possibility of insult. Frequently such slights will exist only in their imagination, or they will twist what really happened to make it an insult, in order that their self be confirmed as important. Over-sensitivity to criticism, and the inability to accept that something has been done or is wrong, are two of the more obvious signs of narcissism. In severe cases, a person will be unable to admit that anything they have done might have been wrong.

Another symptom of narcissism is voyeurism; vicarious experience through the actions of others. Narcissism and voyeurism are related because of the narcissist's inability to participate fully in the real world; this inability, the felt abyss between the self and the real world, combined with the realisation that events do happen in the world, means that vicarious experience is the only option.

Sexual voyeurism is far from being the only form. Sexual voyeurs are unable to participate realistically for the same reason that emotional voyeurs are unable to be emotional. Emotional voyeurs feel there is something wrong with being emotional because this is what they have grown up to believe. The huge popularity of soap operas reflects the inability of modern society in a media age to express and to accept emotions. Soap operas are undiluted emotion. Their exceptionally high emotional content exists because television people know how attractive, how compulsive, it is to experience the emotions and turmoils of others, when so little can be expressed and accepted in reality. It is through the lives of these "screen others" that an essential part of being human can vicariously be experienced. So it is not surprising to find the tabloid press frantically trying to make any connection possible between soap opera stars and their real life players.

Explained too is the American use (and increasing British use) of emotional manipulation on television. For the reserved British this sometimes has to be seen to be believed. The reuniting of people long sundered on screen, people confessing to things on screen, people telling their stories on screen, the confrontation of opposite sides on screen (trash TV or confrontainment), the screening of court proceedings; all these variations have the common purpose of deliberately creating emotional scenes. And as would be expected, when emotion is explicitly refered to on American TV it usually turns out to be sentimentality of the worst sort. (note: this same mechanism is what draws so many narcissists to the internet to prey on others, their emotions and utilize their voyeuristic needs.)

Voyeurism is the result of an inability to fully participate in the real world owing to narcissism. Many of the most narcissistic of people were voyeurs: Josef Stalin and Salvador Dali, to take two examples. It was their rejection of reality, their simultaneous control of and withdrawal from the real world, that made them voyeuristic.


"...narcissism is dangerous and psychotic if it persists into adulthood..." Simone du Beauvior on Freud
shared by Barbara at 5:05 AM



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