I’ve been interested in narcissism for a long time, partly ‘cuz I is one, as are we all. Also, because some of the most important people in my life were and are narcissists, big ones and little ones. Narcissism has, one way or another, defined me; and I don’t think I’m the only one. It behooves us to understand it.
I wrote a piece three years ago on one of my other blogs, my first article on the subject, Narcissists. Check it out to see if I learned anything in the meantime. 😉 I doubt this second one will be my last.
I’m not a psychologist, and although I’m interested in the thinking of psychologists, I’m not primarily interested in a psychological understanding of narcissism, but one that enables regular people like you and me to deal with it.
In a nutshell, as best as I can understand it so far, narcissism is avoidance behavior. What are we trying to avoid? The psychic/spiritual pain inflicted on us by internalizing the lie that we are evil. By evil, I mean ugly, despicable, repugnant, harmful, toxic, ridiculous, alien, sinister, pitiful, rejectable, pathetic, bad — and every other negative adjective we’ve ever felt about ourselves — stuffed into an annihilating abnegation of our dignity and condemnation of our worth.
We’re all narcissistic. There isn’t a line that you cross from non-narcissistic to are-narcissistic. It’s a spectrum. We notice narcissism once it gets obvious, but subtle narcissism isn’t a different kind of thing than full-blown narcissism, just a little less of the same.
At the glaring extreme of the narcissistic spectrum, we become so frightened of ourselves that we refuse even to look at ourselves. In fact, we refuse to admit that we refuse to look. We even refuse to admit that there’s anything to look at, refusing the existence of the self that we refuse to admit that we refuse to look at. That’s a lot of refusal going on. In other words, narcissism leads to denial of self, but a very different kind of self-denial than Jesus and other wise men advocated.
Jesus, I believe, did not advocate denying our true selves, but rather the false “self” that refuses to look at one’s true self. I’ll call Jesus’ version false-self denial, as opposed to what narcissists do, which I’ll call true-self denial. Jesus advocated being authentic, honest, and open. He uttered the ultimate of self-affirmations, “I AM,” and it was so powerful that he almost got stoned for it. True-self affirmation is exactly what narcissism is deathly afraid of. False-self affirmation is another matter.
Narcissists dare not affirm their true selves, but they aren’t at all shy about expecting and manipulating others, trying to get them to affirm their various false selves as substitutes obscuring their true selves, disregarding and violating others’ dignity and rights in order to avoid facing the truth about their denial and who they really are.
Narcissists lock their true selves into basement closets of the psyche, build walls to cover up the closets, paint the walls and hang pictures, then lock those basement rooms and bar the doors to the stairs. Then they revise the history of their houses to erase any memory that there were closets in the rooms, make the rooms themselves secret and off-limits, and make entry into their basements a crime. Then they restrict access to their houses to only those who pass rigorous vetting processes, the chosen few. Then they charge admission to their neighborhoods. And on it goes, as far as they can make it go.
Everyone in a narcissistic family, for example, can know about the whole arrangement, the unmentionable secrets that were locked away long ago in the dark, dank recesses of their collective mind and, without a word between them, agree that no one will violate the sanctity of the hiding place. If anyone looks like they might, they get castigated immediately. Even if they had no intention of revealing the truth, simply moving in that direction makes them potential culprits, because everyone knows that you “don’t go there.”
So who convinced narcissists that they are so evil that self-erasure is their only option? Their parents, of course. That’s a hard indictment, but it won’t be long until the evidence we are uncovering gets so clear and voluminous that denial will be impossible. Parents convince their children that they are evil in all kinds of ways, by both commission and omission: abandonment physical and emotional; incessant criticism, implying a kind of moral abandonment; default guilty-until-proven-innocent attitudes whenever their “authority” is resisted; alienation, hatred, and ridicule; bullying; the age-old favorites — physical and sexual abuse; and possibly the most damning and damaging: the stony silence of withholding, the quiet killer of souls.
Most parents acquit themselves because they use the wrong standard of measure. Abuse can’t be measured by abusers, but by their victims. Good intentions don’t matter to children until much later in the game when they have the cognitive capacity to factor them in. Until then, all they know is that it hurt and scared them, that Mommy and Daddy are always right, and therefore, it was all their fault. The harm our children suffer is just as real whether we meant to inflict it or not.
I’ve heard parents react to this by claiming that I’m exaggerating the situation. Really? That’s a defense? We should let ourselves off the hook because it isn’t as bad as I make it sound? So how bad, exactly, is it then, and compared to what? Certainly not compared to how good it could and should be for our children. Wouldn’t, “I hope you’re wrong, but if not, I want to know,” be a more caring, rational reaction? By the way, judging our behavior — in this case, parenting — by standards we define instead of honestly assessing the outcome of our behavior — in this case, our impact on the welfare of our children — is a typically narcissistic tactic. Our children will be our judges. They know what it was like to get parented by us, regardless how well we claim we did.
A characteristic tell that lets you know you’re dealing with narcissism is the fact that narcissists (including us when we’re being narcissistic) are absent from their own stories. What they did and what they accomplished figure prominently, but they never explicitly represent the intentional beings behind the deeds, especially not their motivations. That would be to tell us about the hearts behind the actions; but their hearts are locked away in dark, basement closets. They expect us to infer their intentions and motivations from their behavior. It’s as if narcissists themselves aren’t sure about their own intentions and motivations until admirers reflect them back in appreciation. Then they react paradoxically: on one hand, relieved and assured by the validation; on the other hand, as if to say, “I knew it. I told you so. I’m glad you finally realized.”
When criticism is at play, it’s a whole different story.
Under criticism, narcissists focus exclusively on any and all factors that they were not responsible for, rendering the ones they were responsible for non-existent by omission. They can be bitingly accurate in their criticisms of others, so it’s good to listen to what they say. You learn things about yourself that way. But if you try to point out the role that they played, you get deer-in-headlights responses, as if — invisible to themselves, even unaware of any self at all, visible or not — you simply don’t know what you’re talking about. Then they wrap attention back around to other factors, deflecting the light away from them. If you press the issue, correctly reminding them that they are not non-entities but intentional beings responsible for some of what happened, they react as if you’re out to get them. They suddenly become victims, targets of aggression, even of malicious assault. Just a moment before they might have been pontificating from a superior vantage that only ultimate wisdom could afford, threatening you with consequence as if from the very mouth of God. Now, little old you threatens to annihilate that lately divine emissary unless they vigorously defend themselves against your attack.
This flip from disembodied voice of truth, free from human foible, seeing all from an ultimate perspective on reason and right for everyone involved, into a victim under siege by the dangerous menace you suddenly, clearly turn out to be, is a hallmark symptom of narcissism. It doesn’t matter what authority they stand for — God, Good, Science, Society, Humanity itself — it serves as their Almighty and yours, too, whether you like it or not.
Narcissists make it all about others, or all about you if you cross them, not because they are right about others and you, but because they cannot under any circumstance allow the light to shine on them. That might lead to a series of discoveries that would force them to face the subconscious closets they locked themselves up in so long ago. Ironically, the only solution to this that I know of involves nothing other than getting down to that closet, opening it, and giving their poor, abused, true selves big, never-ending hugs.
I’m very interested in the issue of childhood abuse, because the parallels between narcissism and the way that religions operate, on one hand, and between narcissistic behavior and the behavior of people who were seriously abuse-traumatized in childhood, on the other hand, are just too close to be coincidental.
The facts tell me that we as a society have some serious societal narcissism to deal with:
- Childhood abuse has always been far more prevalent and dire than we have ever been willing to admit.
- Raising the fact that childhood abuse should far and away be our primary, central concern is almost always resisted or downplayed.
- Addressing childhood abuse is far more accessible and effective than any of the complicated theories for human betterment being touted, whether serious or fantastic, whether religious, spiritual, psychological, economic, political, sociological, biological, techno-scientific, or anthropological, (about the extent of my reading so far.)
So why have we opted to ignore the elephant in the room while we concoct and pursue fanciful schemes that theorize esoteric causes and aim for pie-in-the-sky solutions?
We’ve severely and chronically denied the abuse and exploitation first of children, then of women, and then of the poor, both by suppressing information about abuses and by minimizing the gravity and extent of atrocities that become known. We disavow the denial, just like narcissists do. In a sense, the smallest and weakest and poorest of us represent the true selves of humanity, and our treatment of them represents our attitudes towards our own true selves locked away, hiding, weak and helpless and trembling in subliminal closets of the psyche. Our salvation as a species doesn’t lie in eliminating or compensating for the weaknesses of our most vulnerable beings, but in learning to treasure and protect those who most need our care. Instead, we exploit and abuse them, then blame them if they “can’t handle it.”
None of us is better than the worst of us, and none of us is stronger than the weakest of us, because all of us are capable of the worst and best a human has ever done or been. When we start admitting and dealing with our treatment of vulnerable populations — children first — the shift in consciousness that people are making such a fuss over will actually occur. The shift isn’t some pseudo-magical-spiritual event that’s going to happen because we want or will it into reality. It’s a specific shift in our honesty followed by real steps of commitment to address real, immediate problems that we have steadfastly chosen to deny until now.
This is why I don’t believe that any existing theory of spiritual, psychological, or social improvement is a sufficient, full solution: every theory I’ve examined either blatantly avoids the problem of abuse of the weak or focuses on reducing symptoms without serious intent to cure, as if Jesus had said, “You will always have the abusive among you,” rather than “the poor.” I especially don’t have confidence in theories developed during ancient times when societies openly accepted as normal the likes of child murder, child rape, rape in general, slavery, women viewed as chattel, oppression of the poor, disadvantaged, and disabled, and the “divine right” of “nobles” and “kings” (or however privileged psychopaths were variously euphemized) to do all of the above.
How could theories developed in brutal times be effective now, when none of the terrible abuses that were commonplace then are condoned now by normal, healthy people? (Or should I say “tolerated publicly?” My! How we still love our Royals, celebrities, captains of industry and finance, and political leaders, or at least love to hate them! Either way, we give them passes until their scandalous misbehavior and crimes get so grotesque that blind eyes and silence become impossible.) It’s ridiculous to maintain that ancient wisdom was greater than our own. Ancient wisdom even accuses itself:
Their “wisdom” condoned evils that shock us aghast today. We can and should do better than the meager, deficient advice we were handed down.
Many today hold theories that they claim can resolve the problems of the world, including abuse of the weak. Aside from differences in detail, most of them share a couple of common characteristics: remoteness and mysticism. They avoid getting directly involved in the problems, which is exactly the opposite of Jesus’ approach and any approach I’ve seen that actually works. Instead of direct, physical, describable involvement, they claim that their methods will solve problems remotely, mystically. It’s good that many people now expect that a major socio-spiritual shift is immanent; but, then again, one has to be immanent if we are going to survive. But they don’t seem to have a clue how it will happen, except that, if we’d only follow the prescribed recipes of their preferred theories, it will somehow mystically, remotely — dare I say magically? — happen.
I don’t deny the effectiveness of remote, mystical approaches, things like prayer, visualization, “manifesting,” putting “good energy out there,” etc. — on the contrary. But I can’t accept that mystical “cures” which avoid or deny the need to get directly, physically involved with the “sick” can ever be adequate. I also suspect that these theories advocate remote methods not because they are more effective — which would imply that their proponents actually tried direct involvement to compare with — but instead because proponents assume that direct involvement won’t work. Assuming is not knowing, and promoting a method just because it’s the best you’ve got doesn’t make it a good one, let alone good enough to meet the need.
At worst, I suspect that advocates of remote methods are afraid of direct involvement, confirmed regularly by reactions I get when I advocate it. Without having tried, people regularly claim that it won’t work or it’s ill-advised. How can they know that if they haven’t tried? At the same time, they claim that there’s no use trying. Why? Because it won’t work or it’s ill-advised, so why try what you already “know” will fail or backfire? It’s even more interesting when they claim that it’s forbidden, outlawing meaningful contact with the “sick” by implying that they secretly want to be “sick,” and that direct involvement shows we want to participate in it with them.
That kind of circular thinking is precisely the logical merry-go-round that enables entrapment of weaker parties in exploitative situations, from abusive relationships to abusive family dynamics to cults and tyrannies. It’s the same circular logic that prevents narcissists from realizing the lie of their alleged “evil” and the truth of their worth and dignity. For fear, we dare not go; and not going, we remain ignorant that no reason for fear exists; and in ignorance, we perpetuate the lie that our fear is valid; so, ever fearful, we refuse to go. And woe to anyone who tries to make us.
The crux of Jesus’ message, life, death, and resurrection (whether you believe they literally happened or not) was that the only way to fix something is to get into it, go through it, and get intimately familiar with it, so that you understand what needs to be done to restore and heal. Otherwise, you can hardly claim “first, do no harm,” since your inexperience gives you no clue what might cause harm. Jesus’ method — direct, physical, intimate, committed involvement which we also call “love” — is anti-narcissism. It’s to unbar the basement door, unlock the secret room, tear down the false wall, open the closet door, and gently, lovingly, tenderly give the very self that we feared deserves hell-fire a long, warm, heartfelt hug that says, “I’ll never leave you or forsake you.” And then — reconnected, committed, hand in hand, gradually — bring ourselves out into the light so that we can reconnect with each other.
Short of that, it’s all a bunch of bullshit.