Thesis, Antithesis and Synthesis in Human Evolution
The Natural Order (Thesis)
The Destruction of the Natural Order (Antithesis)
Reductionism and Moralism
Repression and Perversion
Love vs. Split-Love
The Disintegration of Sexual Paraphilias
Parent-Child Codependence and Emotional Child Abuse
The Oedipal Mold and Oedipal Culture
Mysticism and Atheism
Denial of Complexity
The Plague of Sadism
Conspiracy Thinking vs. Critical Thinking
The New Natural Order (Synthesis)
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What is Narcissism?
How to Identify Narcissism?
Narcissism and Soul
The Origin of Narcissism
What is Narcissism?
I have learnt about narcissism at first through the books of Alice Miller and Alexander Lowen, back in the 1980s. Both psychiatrists were specialized on narcissism and it was through their unique input and unwavering efforts that today the seriousness of the narcissistic affliction has been recognized in mainstream psychiatry. This was namely not the case when they started out to publish on this matter, back in the 1970s. At that time, narcissism was as good as overlooked in psychiatry, and was not thought to be a serious affliction. Today, while health care professionals recognize the seriousness of narcissism as a psychiatric disorder, the general public maintains a state of confusion and misinformation about the very term and the nature of the narcissistic affliction that I have hardly seen for any other psychiatric problem.
It’s dumbfounding when you see that popular encyclopedias explain narcissism with assumptions that actually are pure nonsense because if narcissism meant abundant love of oneself, there would not be a problem. But fact is that narcissism is the very contrary of love of oneself, it is the very denial of self-love — and that makes that it’s a problem.
What is Narcissism?
Perhaps it was an advantage that I never bothered too much about the term itself, as it is confusing and misleads many people. There is about no other subject where the clash between professional knowledge and the half-knowledge of lay persons is so large as with narcissism. Everybody seems to know what narcissism means, but when you inquire further, you see that people maintain the strangest misconceptions about this pathology.
Most people have heard about the ancient myth of Narcissus that is at the origin of the term. But what does this myth tell us? Here is where the misconceptions start. Most people somehow got an idea and extrapolate from the little knowledge they have, and the result is a standard answer like: — Oh yes, this strange guy who looked in the water and saw his mirror! He loved himself too much, he was fallen in love with himself …
And then they go concluding narcissism was a hangup of people who ‘love themselves too much,’ who are fixated upon their own self-image, who are fallen in love with themselves. Needless to say that all of this is sheer nonsense. The very contrary is true.
Narcissism is a pathology where the person, through a deep hurt suffered early in life, is unable to love himself or herself, and thus lacks even a basic level of self-love. And what is worse with this affliction is that the true self of the person, their self identity, their feeling ego, their I-AM, and also their body image, have been buried deep down in the unconscious. The result is that narcissistic people do not know who they are or, as it is expressed in psychiatry, they deny their true self.
This denial of their own intrinsic being, their character, their values and oddities, their depth and dignity is what lets them appear like shadow dancers. They are generally fluent talkers and take up new ideas quickly, but they don’t integrate novelty, because there is nothing they could integrate it into, as they are out of touch with their true identity, the fertile soil of their human nature, their grounding.
I use to call them for this reason narcissistic comedians, as they actually behave as if being on stage, as if life was a huge stage where everybody performs a role — but where nobody plays the role of himself or herself, but always another. A plays B, B plays C, C plays A. But life normally is that A plays A, B plays B and C plays C.
People who suffer from narcissism tend to appear aloof, they appear to float, as if their feet never touched the ground. There is often something Peter Pan like about them, something fragile and strangely youthful, often accompanied by a sunshine smile that seems to suggest that they know no sadness. While in truth, they are the saddest people on earth, only that they can’t even feel their sadness, alienated as they are from their feelings.
In exchanges with narcissists I also found that they often deny the reality of emotions, trying to grasp all of reality with their pure intellect—that usually works brilliantly well with these men. But that makes that they are truly alienated from humanity because they more or less consciously discard the irrational out of the world. For them, all must be rational, clear and straight, and they tend to condemn irrationality in people, out of touch as they are with their own irrationality.
We humans are at times rational and at times irrational. We are as good as never only rational or only irrational; we are a steady mix of many qualities and oddities, and it’s our vivid emotions that bring the necessary kaleidoscopic change in our lives so that we are not for too long rational and not for too long irrational. But for the narcissist there has to be only rationality, and all the rest is as it were human weakness …
How To Identify Narcissism?
You can identify rather quickly if you suffer from a narcissistic fixation. Simply check if you play yourself in your life, or if you play a role that fakes it is you. Then, when you ask this question and it rings like ‘But who is me?’ you are getting on the right track. When that question feels odd and strange because somehow you have never asked who you are, and if in the game of life you as good as never play the Me-card, then you know you have a problem with narcissism.
Another reality check would be the obsessional idea to be altruistic and ‘always good’ to others, to a point of self-forgetfulness. If that rings true to you, you should check if it’s a moral duty for you to be always concerned about others and to put yourself behind. If this is the case, you probably have a hangup with narcissism, and you are denying your true self, replacing the vacuum in yourself with the vacuum at need with person A, friend B or relative C that you have to help out, to save from bad luck, rape or incest, to heal, to comfort, to look after, to console, to protect, and so on.
Narcissism is really not a complicated pathology and it’s not difficult to grasp. It has been made difficult to understand through popular psychology that loves to use strange and fancy terms and abhors to express simple things in a simple way. It’s much more difficult to explain what neurosis is or psychosis than to explicate what narcissism means and what makes persons afflicted with narcissism suffer so much in life. They really suffer!
Narcissism is not a party affliction, not a gentleman’s ailment, and not an outflow of vanity, while it is often belittled as such. Narcissism is an affliction serious enough to be put on priority by most of today’s psychiatric services. For when you’re out of touch with yourself and your deepest emotions, you live a life that is not yours, you live as it were an empty life. This inner vacuum, this emptiness when it’s constant is something that can trigger other serious afflictions such as substance abuse, chain smoking, depression, chronic fatigue, alcoholism, anxiety, phobias, and sexual obsessions, aggression and perversion. It also can trigger somatizations, which means that the body gets ill for reasons that are not physiological, but merely psychological.
Narcissism and Soul
Another corner of the vast literature on narcissism is what spiritual-minded people say about it. Their terminology is different, and that unfortunately also contributes to the general confusion about narcissism.
I have in mind a particularly successful and brilliant author, Thomas Moore, whose most famous bestselling book, Care of the Soul (1994), basically is a manual for healing narcissism.
But the problem is one of terminology. Moore speaks of ‘soul’ and of ‘lacking soul’ when he describes narcissism. His ideas are brilliant, and he has pointed the finger on the wound when he says that narcissism cannot be healed through pushing the person into a growth cycle or by otherwise suggesting the person ‘to grow up.’
Narcissism has no soul. In narcissism we take away the soul’s substance, its weight and importance, and reduce it to an echo of our own thoughts. There is no such thing as the soul. We say. It is only the brain going through its electrical and chemical changes. Or it is only behavior. Or it is only memory and conditioning. In our social narcissism, we also dismiss the soul as irrelevant. We can prepare a city or national budget, but leave the needs of the soul untended. Narcissism will not give its power to anything as nymphlike as the soul. (Id., 58–59)
I have coached narcissistic and highly problematic individuals over the Internet, free of charge, for a period of almost ten years, considering this as the ‘social’ part of my mission as a coach, and I found invariably that these individuals wait for society to accept them, instead of doing the first step and accept themselves. Moore explains:
What the narcissist does not understand is that the self-acceptance he craves can’t be forced or manufactured. It has to be discovered, in a place more introverted than the usual haunts of the narcissist. There has to be some inner questioning, and maybe even confusion. (Id., 60–61)
And I made an astonishing discovery. I found out that I had myself a narcissism problem over many years, since my childhood actually, and it was not cured in a psychotherapy, but I could cure it subsequently, virtually by talking to the trees. It was when living in the Provence, France, I took the habit to go for nightly walks, and I would address speech to some of the trees in an alley with sycamores. There were three huge sycamores that I felt attracted to, and what I would do, late enough so that no cars would pass by, was to put my left hand firmly against the trunk of the tree, and talk to the tree, either by thinking or by whispering my ideas. Now, what happened to my surprise was that not only was I greatly energized through this unique kind of conversation, to a point to not being tired when coming home, but I also had dreams where the tree was talking back to me. And I learnt amazing depths of wisdom from these dreams. Now, I was of course very surprised when I found the following passage in Care of the Soul (1994):
I suspect that this is a very concrete part of curing narcissism — talking to the trees. By engaging the so-called ‘inanimate’ world in dialogue, we are acknowledging its soul. Not all consciousness is human. That in itself is a narcissistic belief. (Id., 61)
And indeed, through my talking to the trees, I felt a sudden interest in shamanism and went on a spiritual quest that took me several years. I engaged in a tedious research on shamanism and went to Ecuador, two years later, in 2004, to drink the traditional sacred Ayahuasca brew.
I left this initiation transformed. I have regained the whole range of magical beliefs I once fostered as a child, and this really has completely healed the narcissistic condition.
Now, Thomas Moore has put a particular stress in this book on the danger of collective narcissism and being an American, he investigates deeply in the culture of the United States of America, to identify it as a model narcissistic culture. Moore writes:
Nations, as well as individuals, can go through this initiation. America has a great longing to be the New World of opportunity and a moral beacon for the world. It longs to fulfill these narcissistic images of itself. At the same time it is painful to realize the distance between the reality and that image. America’s narcissism is strong. It is paraded before the world. If we were to put the nation on the couch, we might discover that narcissism is its most obvious symptom. And yet that narcissism holds the promise that this all-important myth can find its way into life. In other words, America’s narcissism is its refined puer spirit of genuine new vision. The trick is to find a way to that water of transformation where hard self-absorption turns into loving dialogue with the world. (Id., 62)
When we look at how present-day America, with its strongly narcissistic government, faces this ‘loving dialogue,’ we indeed see that the puer spirit is strong. In addition, Americans somehow like to choose their presidents among puer personalities, and that may one day result in a fatal outcome! Mature cultures choose mature leaders, senior personalities, people who have grown out from an adolescence where Peter Pan is the dominating archetype. I have to think of Terence McKenna’s views on the psychedelic revolution, expressed in his book The Invisible Landscape (1993), and the need for looking over the fence, when reading in Care of the Soul (1994) that curing narcissism involves an expansion of boundaries.
Narcissus becomes able to love himself only when he learns to love that self as an object. He now has a view of himself as someone else. This is not ego loving ego; this is ego loving the soul, loving a face the soul presents. We might say that the cure for narcissism is to move from love of self, which always has a hint of narcissism in it, to love of one’s deep soul. Or, to put it another way, narcissism breaking up invites us to expand the boundaries of who we think we are. (Id., 63)
And here again, when we look at present-day reality in the United States, boundary-dissolving substances, from DMT over LSD to Marijuana have all been declared illegal, which shows the degree of narcissism at the top government level in the enlightened nation. Only that the light seems to come from the wrong source. Plus the enlightened nation is an action nation. All is action! Anthony Robbins, the major coach-actor of the nation performs in shorts, jumping around like a school boy. When all is action, everybody is an actor. Not himself. And everybody acts out his or her life, instead of living it.
This timelessness of the nation, which is embodied in its business values, business standing for busyness, is one of the symptoms of its cultural narcissism that is not a present-day phenomenon. The action-nation was born in New England. When there is no more time, there is no more soul. Moore explains:
A neurotic narcissism won’t allow the time needed to stop, reflect, and see the many emotions, memories, wishes, fantasies, desires, and fears that make up the materials of the soul. As a result, the narcissistic person becomes fixed on a single idea of who he is, and other possibilities are automatically rejected. (Id., 67)
Peter Pan resisted to grow up, yet astonishingly, Thomas Moore writes that growing-up is not a cure for narcissism, in the contrary:
But the solution of narcissism is not growing up. On the contrary, the solution to narcissism is to give the myth as much realization as possible, to the point where a tiny bud appears indicating the flowering of personality through its narcissism. (…) Narcissism is a condition in which a person does not love himself. This failure in love comes through as its opposite because the person tries so hard to find self-acceptance. The complex reveals itself in the all-too-obvious effort and exaggeration. It’s clear to all around that narcissism’s love is shallow. We know instinctively that someone who talks about himself all the time must not have a very strong sense of self. To the individual caught up in this myth, the failure to find self-love is felt as a kind of masochism, and, whenever masochism comes into play, a sadistic element is not far behind. The two attitudes are polar elements in a split power archetype. (Id., 71)
When we apply this truth to the Peter Pan nation, we learn that we have to let them run where they run and let them break even more glass everywhere in the world, right? I am not sure if Thomas Moore wanted to say that because once of a sudden, after having expanded into collective narcissism, he again speaks of the individual. But our daily news about the hero culture really seem to suggest that Moore’s analysis of collective narcissism, that is shared by number of depth psychologists, would lead to an abysmal accumulation of Peter Pan like acts, performed as a nation-narcissist on the world at large, in order to gain depth. Honestly, I doubt that this psychological solution is going to work out politically, because even the most optimistic of Peter Pans around in the great nation may get a hint of stretching the bow too much … and the international repercussions may not permit Peter Pan to continue his puer game infinitely …
Anyway, from the soul perspective, and leaving political realities untouched, Thomas Moore writes:
The secret of healing narcissism is not to heal it at all, but to listen to it. (…) I am stuff. I am made up of things and qualities, and in loving these things I love myself. (Id., 73)
This is in accordance with a general soul-based healing approach that was the prevalent approach to healing during the Middle-Ages and the Renaissance. Moore writes:
Robert Burton in his massive self-help book of the seventeenth century The Anatomy of Melancholy, says there is only one cure for the melancholic sickness of love: enter into it with abandon. Some authors today argue that romantic love is such an illusion that we need to distrust it and keep our wits about us so that we are not led astray. But warnings like this betray a distrust of the soul. (Id., 81)
The Origin of Narcissism
If we wish to realize our personal identity and become whole human beings, we have to be able, still in childhood, to form a genuine personal identity. This is however impossible if we are reared by narcissistic parents, those namely that are indifferent to the unique person of the child they have brought to life. But this is not all there is in the etiology of narcissism as a cultural perversion. We are formed and deformed not only by the influence of our milieu, our background, and our caretakers, but also by the influence of society as a whole.
Modern society is not set to let children grow into who they really are, but conditions children according to the requirements of a consumer culture, and molds them accordingly. This is primarily done through indoctrination and, secondly, through gradually alienating children from their bodies. The most effective way to indoctrinate children is to implant in their mind a deeply rooted doubt about who they are. This doubt which creates a vacuum will then be filled with magic formulas such as ‘Be not what you are!’
The next step is to force the child to play roles for pleasing their parents. The main role in this drama which is the Drama of the Gifted Child, as Alice Miller called it, is the role of the child as father or mother of their own parents.
—Alice Miller, The Drama of the Gifted Child (1996).
This education that I like to call ‘rearing narcissistic comedians,’ is very common in Oedipal Culture. This is precisely why narcissism is rampant in Western nations, especially in the United States.
However, few researchers see that the main etiology of narcissism is to be found in our child-rearing paradigm. Those who do, such as Alice Miller or the late Alexander Lowen are not representing mainstream psychology, despite the brilliance of their work. They have, inter alia, found that education that typically leads to narcissism is rich in inventing and executing magic formulas that are given to the child within the context of ‘good education’ but that are in reality hypnotic injunctions.
These injunctions have been found by TA as highly destructive for the child’s emotional, cognitive, motor, skill and sexual development. They are voiced often nonverbally, by implication, through examples given, through confused and imprecise language, through reproaches and through comparisons that may or not be true. Some of these are:
—Be adaptable and flexible until self-alienation; — Never be yourself in front of your parents; — Be not child-like, but adult-like; — Be mature in immaturity; — Understand what your parents don’t understand; — Be logical and uncomplicated; — Respect your parents while disrespecting yourself; — Mistrust your intuition; — Follow authority without questioning.
I see another etiology of narcissism in the lacking symbiosis between mother and infant during the first 18 months after birth. Regularly, with mothers who themselves suffer from narcissism, clinical research found a reduction or total absence of eye contact between mother and child, absence of breastfeeding or when the breast is given, the mother feels revulsion, disgust or aggression toward the child; in addition, such mothers tend to be hostile to the child’s first steps toward autonomy, thereby creating in the child a pathological clinging-behavior that has very nasty consequences later on in the development of the child and young adult.
Often what happens in such relationships is that the mother manipulates the child into a real codependence where she projects her longings for love that are unfulfilled in the partner relation, upon the child. This then in many cases leads to emotional abuse.
Narcissism thus is often the inevitable result of emotional abuse suffered in early childhood, and that fact may help to understand the gravity of the affliction of narcissism.
What this results in is that the person unconsciously later tries to heal the lacking primary fusion by repeated pseudo-symbiotic relationships, which are relationships where love is replaced by dependency or where love is confused with dependency. However, since those persons that are invested with that role of ersatz mothers and fathers can never give the lacking primary fusion, disappointment and depression will invariably loom over those relationships.
Narcissism is an inevitable by-product of patriarchy, and its etiology is wrong relating. Wrong relating to self. Wrong relating to others. It is built on what Joseph Campbell called the solar worldview and ignores the many shadows of the soul — and thereby ignores its own shadow.
Narcissists, therefore, are tragic figures. They are tragic in the sense that they run into the abyss without the slightest idea of what they are doing because they are not grounded and have their feet in the air, like the Fool of the Tarot. They are lunatics, because they have not integrated their own Luna, their Moon energy.
They are the eternal Peter Pans of sunshine movies, and present themselves to the public smiling, broadly smiling, most of the time, but in haphazard moments you see their true face — while they themselves ignore it.