Prologue to the Coverage of Unwieldy Subject Matter: This is a critical look at narcissism, its origins, and the behaviors that spring from its elementary particles. This is also about the complication of examining things we can never know exactly about. In so doing, we can draw on the wisdom of the stoics, in a style that is direct and unpretentious. Like Marcus Aurelius, their message was simple but extraordinarily powerful: life is short, the past and the future are inaccessible, pain and pleasure have no meaning, but inside each one of us there is a ruling faculty that is touched only by itself. From this core we can mount a proper deconstruction.
In an attempt to think panoramically and get a crack at the wide view, topical subdivisions will be explored for vacancies of unified thought. We will veer away from abstract concepts and jargon on the long stretch toward next-level definitions. Let’s survey a peculiar landscape of human behavior that often defies explanation. Ask yourself—how much of a person’s sense of confidence or self-worth is a delusion?
The uses/abuses of narcissism as power tool/weakness are riven across the late Holocene and early Anthropocene eras. Every generation contains those who think icons and demagogues are forged by entering crowds while scraping the unplumbed depths of insincerity with every handshake. It is massive in its influence, when you put together all the pieces, but its accomplishments are unclear. It wins things without selling well to those it has won over. It rides menacingly through the creaky, wordless depths of evolutionary adaptation, inter-gender relations, alphas and betas (social market value), the cultivation of Game (with its attending mixture of dread, regret and “meta”), abundance and scarcity, the dynamics of desire, the stuff that frustrates regular people, the letting go of invisible friends, the decoding of another’s honor system utilizing theory of mind, identity crisis avoidance, and the bitterness of social lawlessness’s sour edge.
In the annals of war and peace, love and hate, some of our kind have created harsh or triumphant realities romanticized by a warped pride. Others have merely survived them. The pervasive nebulousness of pride’s scarier shades gave evidence to the controversial kernel of narcissism’s primary psychological energy source—one universally reviled yet strangely sought after as a confidence prop in make-or-break moments. When you’re calmly collecting the feedback of a room (or any social scene) it can be detected coexisting with furtive scorn, jealous fascination, sometimes both. It is difficult to be a moral person when you are surrounded by the amoral, left sorting out friends from strangers, echoing back corollary reminders that strangers loiter within friends. In shedding what is naïve, in being tainted by these experiences, would you stay objective and forbearing, and retain a sense of humor?
Humans have the special capacity to step back and survey themselves, and the lives to which they are committed. Without developing the illusion that they are able to escape from their highly specific and idiosyncratic position, a “truth” in the abstract view can develop, one that is at once sobering and comical. In taking an informed, coolly-detached angle of a less clinical nature, we’d inevitably subvert the frames of volatile debate emanating from a DSM-5 Manual. A subject that may go on updating itself in perpetuity is always unfinished, unsatisfied, and contains the pins and needles of trouble…meaning I’m not going to get out of it unless I detect and close credibility gaps. I’m seeking to conceive a total perspective for 2016, to harmonize and humanize a great body of historical knowledge, one which has grown voluminous and fragmented into esoteric specialties. That is psychology. In vitalizing it for contemporary application, I’ll mind a strong word from Spinoza while labeling “healthy” and “unhealthy” narcissism as we go—impartial views don’t run in abundance in such an atmosphere.
We all possess features of +/- narcissism reflected in our endeavors, and we’re colored by its external influence. It’s cobwebbed in the critical thought process, and piques questions of ethics for anyone vying to become expert on the subject (a.k.a, “getting over”). I can’t “undo” a cliff jump, so am I left hustling reckless exposés and haphazard distillations of thought on the Internet? Do I spy the wreckage of rhetorical folly on the horizon? The ability to separate insight from navel-gazing or pedantic skylarking picks up static from biases. A periodic table of biases accrues during the protracted blend of time people spend with area narcissists and the council of a covert narcissistic yeti that lurks inside human minds. To meditate on the mental weaponry of narcissism in wintertime also means tacking through the zeitgeist and grit of society, where all points of reason should be served up cold as ice.
What the text below is not: Let’s assume you already possess the popular wisdom on narcissism, and the world doesn’t need addenda to another cogent Psychology Today take on theory. Relevant psychobabble serves the central function, an anchor of sorts, and we can skip past it in the spirit of Will Durant. A few more “assumption filters” guide the essence of a post-modern analysis. I will distance myself from what is easily found after 11 seconds with Google and Wikipedia (plus the hours/days it might take to process). Foundationally, there is complicity in the flow and context here—I’ve read what those sources offered, and hitched them to several deeper, proprietary information sources including outright experiential observation. From this point we can launch a critical excursion, winging outside the established sphere of influence. Theory of mind allows humans to spot and cope with the vast tapestry of what society produces out there in everyday life, in the interplay.
Let’s also assume to wave off source materials spewing from a thin demographic that classifies under “Analytical Confessionals”—the wounded, occasionally warlike advice of recovering, damaged children of narcissists, some of whom have published fine books as a profitable therapy. We should also eschew the hollow rants of the umpteenth failed narcissist who eventually fell out of his tree, then felt the need to audaciously self-examine in front of the world. This bunch is still working through their shit on Tumblr’s self-help trend lines, have been known to blur objectivity, or want a new kind of attention in a different format—at times encouraging the chronically-afflicted, talent-free narcissist to relapse and jump up on the proverbial stage again. The horror.
Shall we assume the entire spectrum of content has already been digested, including the web universe and whatever has landed on the library shelves of American shrinks since 1884? I’d be the ultimate hypocrite to pretend I’ve cracked every spine on the books, when it’s but an influential fraction that grips my attention. As it turns out, that’s the glaring problem with claiming recognition of any new ground—the ambition to write futuristically about narcissism contains the lofty, sweet and smoky kiss of narcissism within it. Shine the laser light into recursive mirrors and you might burn your eye out. The self-styled “expert” is double-crossed early on, and still dares to enter, as if only to help us see, even clearer, the danger with trying to harness authority on narcissism.
Any discussion of what constitutes matters of power, identity and morals becomes clouded by the self-perceptions of how well we think we align with them. When expressing the fullness of our exposure by capsulizing centuries of narcissism theory, there is the solipsistic compulsion to refine things by judging good/bad. This binary move, in and of itself, is right on the quivering verge of nullifying objectivity. This behavioral trap threatens to weave itself into a form of written vanity that wants to hang out on a dirty street corner with narcissism. Even if you’re considered a noble poseur, you’re a rotten poseur nonetheless. If mishandled, it’ll ensure that what you’re about to read isn’t going toward making me any new friends.
All apologetic disclaimers now rendered, the case is made to move forward with a shred of credibility. Even the act of apology, from within the catacombs of narcissism, can be a plot device—that coy, self-effacing part, a social hacking tool that can be easily inserted to evoke consideration and sincerity where only vapors exist. Just an option we are given in a throw-away microsecond…and the urge can take hold. Even as a mere spectator, you can watch it become useful in polite society wherever the false integrity of “white-lie courtesies” are found. To stretch a topic and get at the young fruit means testing the outer taper of the limb (prone to snapping), and if you find yourself bracing for earth-shattering news in the feature presentation below, you may be underwhelmed.
As a chaotic mental construct arisen from humanity’s archaic victories over all other beasts and a good portion of the land, narcissism has been a perpetual companion throughout history. Early sorcerer-alchemists swore it originated from a hidden, poisonous gland, or that the sufferer was stung by some mythic centipede, paralyzing all emotional pain pathways and dilating a perplexing new route of thought equipped for evolutionary advantage against the mentally unprepared. Darwin never tapped into it, but it was out there, brewing and mutating. As a more disciplined field of study began to form around proto-narcissism in early societies and medical communities, the worst of the kind went down in the books as “megalomania”—a psychopathological condition characterized by fantasies of power, relevance and omnipotence, all of which draw from inflated self-esteem. A common tendency is that they didn’t qualify (for x, y, or z), but act like they did anyway.
Unlike the physically-dominant types in prehistoric times—geared for sheer animal instinct—ancient narcissists proliferated by working duplicitous mental manipulations behind the scenes, and less in the open. Emotionally threatening and scaring others into doing what they wanted is what they did best, to the extent that they were using it as a mating strategy, a shiny new arrow in the quiver. At that juncture, self-selection and early narcissistic tradition begin to encode into DNA and development, and run in families.
The modern version does pretty much the same thing since the end goals really haven’t changed. In several twisted Grimm’s Fairy Tales, those who weren’t overflowing with narcissistically amoral tendencies were not always rewarded for their virtuosity, but somehow doomed to be on a collision course with an outsiders’ malevolent egocentrism at some point in their lives. Often, the Devil was depicted as a brother or something even closer. As if what is moral only belonged to children, and not for long. It still feels like that now. Even when we’re dust and the year is 2336, a scoundrel class will exist that assumes to use lies, fear, guilt and shame to weaken others and force them under their control. It is a uniquely dangerous specimen—close to us and hidden in plain sight. These are generally the ones that are going to feel good when you feel bad, and only in those pathological moments.
We can now sift through the 21st century for revelation…these days the craft of megalomania has grown subtle, yet spicy, more devious, yet practical in its ends. It found a spot in the survival kit, having weathered the storm—narcissism’s legacy stems from hominids’ break-out from the primate realm, speeding up modern society because it wants things, and waking others up to unpleasant possibilities.
Healthy intrinsic narcissism exists in all individuals. The true value of courtesy is revealed in the universal game of humanity, where not all are borne of humility, and where there is much cross-examining, labeling and shelving into the natural order of things. There’s a lot of resistance to that which might create a version of the future we don’t want. A ship that escapes the brisk winds of a Bell Curve (+/- commentary) hasn’t been built yet, and the cruelties of an unfair world come into focus. We manage regardless of where our dot lands on the scatter plot, survival shows many facets, everyone plays by a subset of their own rules, and some delve into the protective/corrosive effects of narcissism. Ideally, the nobility of a man isn’t in how he measures up against other men, but against the former versions of himself, day to day, over the slow process of a life’s time. Ultimately, we’re all vulnerable to losing sight of that. As the lack of stability arrives to intrude upon the frustrated ego, stoic high points worthy of Hemingway have to be preserved at all costs. It doesn’t require a Psych degree to accurately observe narcissist’s transferring stress and cognitive dissonance onto something or someone else, and they’ll turn it into a performance; as an adversary, something of a vampire-at-a-distance, and that’s a very technical term.
On the light end of the spectrum, “healthy narcissism” is a structural truthfulness of the self, achievement of object constancy, synchronization between the self and the superego and a balance between libidinal and aggressive drives (the ability to receive gratification from others and the drive for impulse expression). To sum up what probably could fill several lectures: Healthy narcissism forms a perpetuating, realistic self-interest, mature goals and principles and an ability to form deep relations. It creates fewer conflicts and engenders the feeling of greatness when the occasion is right. This is the antithesis of insecurity or inadequacy, and likely a required element of normal development. Freud says that this is an original state from which the individual develops the love object. He argues that healthy narcissism is essential, and says the love parents hold for their child and their attitude toward their child could be seen as a revival and reproduction of their own narcissism. The child has an omnipotence of thought; the parents stimulate that feeling because in their child they see the things that they have never reached themselves.
We see certain vital positivist narcissisms in the world as yang, and bad “destructive” narcissism in the yin (only without any masculine/feminine distinction), energy expressing the outward and inward flow of self-awareness. But mostly, it means something negative, something not shared, something not referential to love, then topples into NPD.
From this fulcrum, we can check the multifaceted structural integrity of “crazy” in its fortifying descent into the paradox and dark side of narcissism. It gets deep into business, money, and the full constellation of competition. The worst of this ilk issue forth from the contorted logic of self-serving minds and bitter hearts, but at the same time they ply a sober discipline, almost prosaic in the way it tests how different people manage patience, consideration and their own cognitive skills in its presence. The skilled narcissist will plant land mines in a maze of contradictions, at times leaving you thinking “How can such seemingly ‘nice’ people be so damn mean?” They’re nice for all the wrong reasons, and it can be a disaster when they can’t stop doing what they do.
Most of the true narcissists will never stop. Ultimately, their narcissistic projection shows how the biggest problems they have with you will give you insight into what’s actually wrong with them. It sometimes takes a phenomenal effort to stifle the BS of those who’ve mastered what are known as the “weak-minded talents.” (w/ props to Eric Hoffer.) If you can shut down a classical, hard-nosed narcissist in the field, deconstruct and take him out of the game, you might have also hit the Achilles’ heel of a Machiavellian, a psychopath—and now we’ve struck upon the three key personality traits that pave morally-dubious paths to power via the Dark Triad.
At this point in the reveal, by the millions we can observe them teetering away from composure or becoming physically dangerous as their tactics unravel. They lash out. And it’s really no mystery why many of them abuse the Dark Triad, go overboard in their boundary-breaking, and crudely evoke the specter of “adult children” who never get their facts straight when they start arguing—because it doesn’t help them build the illusion of a perfect life, does it? On a dare, you might try to find their trigger points and fight fire with fire. Just don’t do it at the night club on Friday, for everyone else’s sake. Behavior is complicated.
Seven deadly sins of unhealthy narcissism serve as a Dark Triad litmus test:
1. Shamelessness: The feeling that lurks beneath all unhealthy narcissism, and the inability to process shame.
3. Arrogance: A narcissist who is feeling deflated may reflate by diminishing, debasing or degrading somebody else.
5. Entitlement: Narcissists hold unreasonable expectations of particularly favorable treatment and automatic compliance because they consider themselves special. Failure to comply is considered an attack on their superiority, and the perpetrator is considered an “awkward” or “difficult” person. Defiance of their will is a narcissistic injury that can trigger rage.
6. Exploitation: Can take many forms but always involves the exploitation of others without regard for outside feelings or interests. Often the other person is in a subservient position where resistance would be difficult or even impossible. Sometimes the subservience is not so much real as assumed.
7. Bad boundaries: Narcissists do not recognize that they have boundaries and that others are separate and are not extensions of themselves. Others either exist to meet their needs or may as well not exist at all. Those who provide narcissistic supply to these assholes are treated as if they are part of the narcissist and are expected to live up to those expectations.
The English playwrights William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe were enthusiastic proponents of a view—that narcissist’s get ahead in life, much to the chagrin of others, and there’s often nothing you can do about their rapaciousness. Shakespeare’s Gloucester, later Richard III, refers to Machiavelli in Henry VI, for instance:
“I can add colors to the chameleon,
Change shapes with Proteus for advantages,
And set the murderous Machiavelli back to school.”
Those compelled to get close to his power will feel the gravitas and could become his playthings whether or not he’s found in a foul mood—oh, but how peaceful he looks on the surface. Due to their skill at interpersonal manipulation, there has often been an assumption that the highly-Machiavellian possess superior intelligence, or ability to understand other people in social situations. However, as Carl Jung and many others discovered over time, it’s not about IQ—research has firmly established that narcissistic skill in Machiavellianism is unrelated to general intelligence. Even small children and the mentally retarded have their own versions of narcissism, because craving power brings all creatures relief only when it is measurably satisfied. As homo sapiens is programmed and wont to do, we will jump through hoops of contrivance to contract it, to sustain the sensation. Furthermore, studies on emotional intelligence have found that high Machiavellianism actually tends to be associated with low EQ; both empathy and emotion recognition have been shown to have negative correlations with Machiavellianism. Additionally, research has shown that Machiavellianism is unrelated to a more advanced theory of mind—the ability to anticipate what others are thinking in social situations. There is no special cognitive ability as a precursor to the embrace of narcissistic attitudes.
PoMo Concretions about Dark Triad and its Agent Provocateur:
Power and ego are driving everyday life. I’m not the first to observe that the social support system in America is relatively weak, and this leads people to compete mightily for attention. In social situations, they tend to steer the conversation away from others and toward themselves. Conversational narcissism is the key manifestation of the dominant attention-getting psychology in America. It occurs in informal conversations among friends, family and coworkers. The profusion of popular literature about listening and the etiquette of managing those who talk constantly about themselves suggest its pervasiveness in everyday life.
This, of course, goes on to stoke the impenetrable center of gravity that has become our “Culture of Narcissism,” where activities and relationships are fraught by the hedonistic need to acquire the symbols of wealth and expression of rigid, covert social hierarchies. It is a culture where liberalism only exists insofar as it serves a consumer society, and even art, sex and religion lose their liberating power. That’s when it turns destructive, and malignant.
On a more granular level, there’s a Californian version that has become quite the global phenomenon, ruling its own astral plane within the archetypes of power, control and success. Lots of people are held aloft by a heaping dose of it, and it comes back repeatedly because it always has unfinished business.
It would be remiss if I didn’t survey the vital role today’s American youth play in characterizing the negligence and carelessness of narcissism that gets handed down to them as a byproduct of their parents, and form an idea about what they’re going to do to society. I’ve decided to ignore the moral panic about lazy, self-obsessed Millennials, which might sound soft-hearted or forgiving at first. The world might actually be fairer when they run it—ideally, having found higher value in being more meritocratic and better-governed. There’s plenty of polemic accounts out there already, including newer releases like The Road to Character and Generation Me that portray young Americans as deluded narcissists. Having constantly been told they are special, they are now far more likely than their elders to believe that “if I ruled the world, it would be a better place” or that “somebody should write a biography of me ‘cuz I’m awesome.” They are off-the-charts materialistic, too. About 65% of American college students expect to become millionaires, and some are not too fussy about how they get to the top. In one (2015) study of high school students, 95% admitted to having cheated in tests. The millennials’ expectations of life are so out of kilter with reality that they will probably get less of what they want than any previous generation. What will the world be like when today’s young people are in charge? Some worry that it will be more cynical. On the heaviest end, it traces back to a general truism that is blind to age, and the ages…
In the cynic’s domain you are the perfect crime in the Cult of Self. This cult has within it the classic traits of psychopaths: superficial charm, grandiosity and self-importance; a need for constant stimulation; a penchant for lying, deception and manipulation; and the incapacity for remorse or guilt…and this is also the ethic promoted by corporations and unfettered capitalism. It is the misguided belief that personal style and personal advancement, mistaken for individualism, are the same as democratic equality. It is the nationwide celebration of image over substance, of illusion over truth. And it is also why robber-barons, investment bankers and other kings of the world blinked in confusion (with eyes wide open) whenever they were questioned about the morality of the properties or billions they acquired by their riggings, most recently taking form as the selling of worthless assets to investors. We have a right, in the Cult of the Self, to get whatever we desire. We can do anything, even belittle and destroy those around us, including our friends, to make money, to manically chase happiness, and to become famous. Once fame and wealth are achieved, they become their own justification, their own basis for morality. How one gets there is irrelevant.
Alas, a poetic and perturbed nugget rests beneath observable fact and accepted wisdom: As the days creep slowly by, each one can be seen as a little life, a little death, a microcosm of our full timeline bundled up in a 24-hour cycle. For others, life is the only thing worth focusing on—there will be no scenic drives past the graveyard, no dares to go peering into the chasm, lots of smoke and no early warning system or circuit-breaker when the cool embrace of self-interest begins to lock out the ability to breathe normally or feel pain. It’s an increasingly common form of craziness masquerading as balance and achievement…
“Vanity is the greatest seducer of reason: when you are most convinced your work is important, that is when you are most under its spell.”
–Marcus Aurelius, “Meditations”
“What you got ain’t nothin’ new. This country’s hard on people. You can’t stop what’s coming…there ain’t no waitin’ on you…that’s vanity.”
–Cormac McCarthy, “No Country for Old Men”