Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Narcissism, the Grandiose Left, and the Missing Strawberries

We're continuing from yesterday with our discussion on narcissism. If it looks as if I’m not addressing the questions directly, it’s because I’m probably not. Gotta set things up first.

By the way, it seems to me that Both Dr. Sanity and ShrinkWrapped have written some excellent posts on this subject. Perhaps I can just direct you to their sites and take the morning off. Let’s see.... This looks good. Here’s one from Dr Sanity, entitled Narcissism and Society. And here’s one from ShrinkWrapped, a little thing he calls Narcissism, Malignant Narcissism, and Paranoia: Part I.

Whew, after that, what’s left to say? I don’t know, because I don’t have time to carefully read them at the moment. Probably nothing. So here goes.

Besides trying to outdo Dr. Sanity and ShrinkWrapped, what is narcissism, anyway, and why is it here? Obviously animals don’t suffer from it. It’s something that can only afflict humans, so there must be something about pathological narcissism that touches on the essence of our humanness. In other words, it must be a pathological transformation of something that, in itself, is healthy and normal.

Narcissism in itself is simply “self regard.” Seems like an obvious need, but it really wasn’t until the 1970’s that psychoanalytic theorists began to understand its developmental basis, and how the innate need for self-regard can go awry. There is still some confusion, because the same word--narcissism--is used to describe a fairly varied population. In my opinion, it is probable that the truly malignant, antisocial narcissist is explained by a different theory than the more garden variety narcissist. One way to think of it is that narcissism can be situated on a vertical developmental axis, with very primitive aggressive and antisocial types, borderline types, and neurotic types. Most people have some narcissistic issues, but they’re more of the neurotic type.

I hope this isn’t getting too pedantic, but the breakthrough in understanding narcissism came with the evolution away from "ego psychology" to a "self psychology" model. There was a time, not so long ago, when it was assumed that infants came into the world in a state of what is called “primary narcissism,” in which they are completely “self-absorbed,” so to speak, and incapable of relating to others beyond havng their immediate biological needs met. In part because of advances in infant observation, we now know that this is untrue. Rather, the baby is not only capable of relating to others from the moment it is born, but this is its primary need.

In the old model, it was thought that the baby was just a sort of instinct-driven machine, a matrix of primitive drives out of which the ego only later emerged. Now we know that there is a subtle “reciprocity dance” between infant and caretakers from the very beginning, and that the infant is building its model of internal and external reality based upon these interactions.

It seems that narcissism is built around two main axes: on the one hand, a need for grandiosity and exhibitionism; on the other hand, a need to merge or fuse with an idealized person. We now know that, unlike the adult narcissist, the baby is entitled to these things, just as he is entitled to food, warmth, and nurturing. Oddly enough, this means--especially from the infant’s point of view--that he owns the breast--as well as whatever it is that the breast happens to be attached to. (The word “breast” is a term of art to describe the infant’s perception of things. Do not think of it as a literal breast, but much more like the “source of life” or of “all that is good.”)

Given “good enough mothering,” the baby will be gradually “disillusioned” and be able to relinquish the breast, but only after it has been internalized, thus assuring a cohesive foundation in the personality. In other words, it is now understood that healthy narcissism is, ironically, built on a foundation of entitlement, grandiosity, and omnipotence, without which the self never becomes secure, vital and robust. Instead, the person may spend his or her life searching for what they missed out on in childhood: a sense of entitlement, mirroring of their grandiosity, omnipotence, etc. These are all things that the pathological adult narcissist craves or acts out in one way or another.

Although this is a simplification and there is much overlap, a neurosis is considered a psychological conflict that is more or less confined to one’s own head, whereas personality disorders, such as narcissism, always involve other people. In the case of pathological narcissism, it is thoroughly intersubjective, and therefore always involves disturbed human relationships. Because of the projective space we discussed yesterday, people with personality disorders are always looking for other people to enlist into their psychological dramas, with whom they can act out their conflicts (rather than simply being neurotically conflicted about them.)

Recall that the structure of our childhood narcissism involves the two drives described above--the need to have one’s grandiosity mirrored, and the need to fuse with a powerful, idealized other. Usually one pole or the other will predominate in a particular narcissist. However, because of the dance of projective intersubjectivity, he or she will often require the other type of narcissist in his life, in some form or fashion. For example, the narcissistically grandiose celebrity will require narcissistically damaged fans who wish to repair their own psychological damage by "fusing" with him. I’ve never thought about it before, but in extreme cases I imagine this can lead to an obsession, such as celebrity stalking. Often it is the dymamic between narcissitically driven politicians and the damaged hordes of people who idealize them. Bill Clinton comes to mind.

Remember, there is a healthy aspect to all of this. We never completely outgrow our narcissistic needs. We all need idealized heroes, people we can look up to. One of the baleful effects of modern education is that everything and everyone is deconstructed, leaving nothing left to idealize. Thus, the cynical drive toward deconstruction itself can be seen as a narcissistic mechanism that flows from bitter childhood disappointment and traumatic disillusionment. Likewise, if we do not give children heroes and institutions to idealize, we are actually committing child abuse--literally. The leftist is doing to them what was done to him. (I am especially thinking of "civil rights leaders" who teach black children that America is a racist country, that white people hate them, that they are victims, etc. This is a profound assault on the child's healthy narcissism.)

Obviously, this is a pervasive problem on the left, which cynically devalues everything it touches. Religious ideals are “fairy tales.” Marriage is an economic agreement. Sex is just an animal act with no spiritual connotations. Human beings are just motivated by material needs. The founding fathers were self-interested slave owners. America is a colonial empire. With everything spoiled and nothing left to idealize, the Left can rush into the void to save the day, so we can merge with the Great Collective.

That is one aspect of the Left’s narcissism. The other aspect is its grandiosity--its impractical and unworkable dreams of utopia, of a heaven on earth that is actually only possible (or desirable) in the eden of infancy. The great James Taranto had a hilariously astute take on this yesterday, John Kerry and the Problem of Evil:

“U.S. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., who was in town Sunday to help Gov. Jennifer Granholm campaign for her reelection bid, took time to take a jab at the Bush administration for its lack of leadership in the Israeli-Lebanon conflict.

‘If I was president, this wouldn't have happened,’ said Kerry during a noon stop at Honest John's bar and grill in Detroit's Cass Corridor.

“Now, our first thought when we read this was: Yeah, if Kerry were president, he wouldn't spend his days moping around some bar in Detroit. But then we realized that's not what he meant. He meant that if he were president, Hezbollah wouldn't be waging war on Israel. Just like, as John Edwards said in 2004, ‘we will stop juvenile diabetes, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and other debilitating diseases. . . . People like Chris Reeve will get out of their wheelchairs and walk again.’

“If Kedwards have the power to eliminate war and disease, why don't they use it? This is the age-old problem of evil:

“Why does John Kerry allow evil? If He is all powerful, then He should be able to prevent it. If He is omnipotent and does nothing about evil, then we suspect that there are limits to His goodness, that there is something wrong with Him, that He is not all good. Perhaps He has an evil streak, or is truly malicious and we are merely His toys--expendable and counting for nothing.”


What a beautiful description of John Kerry’s--and the left’s--malignant narcissism, always disguised as empathy or caring. There is an extremely silly book out now by an extremely silly man, John Dean, entitled Conservatives Without Conscience, that naively attempts to psychoanalyze the conservative movement, "proving" that conservatives and neoconservatives are all authoritarian, bigoted, irrational, amoral, and steal all the strawberries....

".... You know, we liberals tried to run the ship of state properly by the book, but selfish conservatives fought us at every turn. If conservatives want to walk around with their little flags on their lapels, that's all right, let them! But they encouraged the right wing talk show hosts to go around, scoffing at me and spreading wild rumors about contradicting myself. And then 'Old Yellow stain.' They said liberals and their appeasement were to blame for the rise of al Qaeda. President Bush was the perfect Commander in Chief, oh, but not Lieutenant Kerry. Ah, but the hat! That's, that's where I had them. They laughed at me and made jokes, but I proved beyond the shadow of a doubt, and with, with geometric logic, that, that I was in Cambodia. And I would have produced that hat if only they hadn't Swiftboated me... and stolen the key to the Diebolds... I-I-I know now they were only trying to protect some fellow Skull & Bones guy and.... Naturally, I can only cover these things from memory... If I've left anything out, why, just ask me specific questions and I'll be glad to answer them... one-by-one..."


Anonymous said...

"One of the baleful effects of modern education is that everything and everyone is deconstructed, leaving nothing left to idealize."

But I think it's more that they leave nothing Western to idealize. Try reconstructing Gandhi or Che, and you'll find that they do want us to idealize stuff, just nothing that deserves it.

Lisa said...

Is modern education also creating many more malignant narcissists because of the "self-esteem" movement where no one is a loser and everyone is great? A specific case comes to mind when they refuse to name a valedictorian because they don't want to hurt the other kids feelings. It seems to create a false sense of grandiosity and non-reality. It also never lets children learn to cope with losing once in a while or feel the pride and accomplishment of actually winning! I am sure this "self-esteem" movement was started with good intentions but has probably created more problems in the long run. It is a very feeling oriented movement that could only be created by the Left.

Anonymous said...

Agree with Bunnies. My deconstructionist friends didn't dare deconstruct Foucault -- and while they loved deconstructing "dominant" culture, they never dared deconstruct their own behavior. As Gagdad shows, idealization and deconstruction are two sides of the same coin.

This post goes a long way towards answering the previous questions about "What are the effects of having a narcissistic parent?" Well, most likely 1) your own grandiosity was never appropriately validated, since it made the parent jealous; and 2) you were forced to merge with your parent in order to feel safe and loved, since they could not tolerate difference or disagreement.

This pattern tends to repeat when the child becomes an adult and is looking for a partner. They seek out grandiose exhibitionists who demand merger, because they have an unhealthy sense of their own "appropriate" narcissism and can only access their rejected grandiosity and emotional needs for closeness via identification with the narcissistic other. This takes YEARS to work through in analysis (take it from me) and many embarrassing realizations that, all along, one has been a rather grandiose exhibitionistic narcissist in one's unconscious, harboring an overwhelming need to control others and make them totally dependent upon you.

Becoming conscious of one's own narcissism -- rather than having to locate it in another -- slowly allows one to develop an appropriate, healthy narcissism, and an ability to be close to others who don't need constant merger and validation. Frankly I don't think this kind of change can happen (if your parent was a severe narcissist) without a really long time in analysis or an analytically-grounded psychotherapy. The good news is, it CAN be done.

Anonymous said...

So true bunnies. They idealize and romanticize the most horrible people and events.

karrde said...

Narcissus--the hapless young man staring at the reflected image of his own face in the pond, adoring the beauty he saw there--it is only possible for a person to imitate Narcissus if he is blind to his own faults.

The malignant narcissism you describe seems rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of the fallen side of every human.

Anonymous said...

>>"Given “good enough mothering,” the baby will be gradually “disillusioned” and be able to relinquish the breast, but only after it has been internalized, thus assuring a cohesive foundation in the personality."<<

Thus the quandry of leftist socialism; the delicate balance of how to give just enough bad mothering to keep its minions on the hook and them in power without creating the disillusionment which leads to narcissistic rioting and/or independent freemen.

Anonymous said...

"I am especially thinking of "civil rights leaders" who teach black children that America is a racist country, that white people hate them, that they are victims, etc. This is a profound assault on the child's healthy narcissism."

So, like last Sunday here, they can grow up and highjack a middle-aged woman and her semi, forcing her to lead the police on a four-county car chase, just to publicize the national conspiracy against Blacks.

I hope his three hours of felonious celebrity were worth it. Somehow, I don't think the Revs. Jackson and Sharpton are going to go his half-million $$ bail for him.

I think narcissism prob'ly also had something to do with the morons lining the access roads and overpasses while this was going on.
It's a show for me!

And, I won't get back the two hours of my life spent reading "High Priestess", a mystery novel whose sleuth is an ex-Weatherman, who's been on the run for thirty years. He lives in Berkeley, on his Microsoft profits, and reads Tarot cards for pocket change on the weekends. He has a genius hacker girlfriend who was honorably discharged from the Army after she was paralyzed from the waist down by a drunk-driving general's son. Her hobby is diverting funds from organizations she doesn't like into ones she does. He drives a very fancy motorcycle and wears silk shirts. He's also manic-depressive and self-medicates.

The author dedicated his book to Congresswoman Barbara Lee and Sen. Barbara Boxer.

I know, that should have warned me. But the desire to see how many leftist cliches he could work into the story won out.

Anonymous said...

As I understand it, Narcissism develops when a child is relentlessly devalued by the parent(s): told in word and deed that he or she is not worth the powder to blow them to hell.

Those internalized feelings of worthlessness are so painful that the child says inside, "I'm not worthless; I'm the most important person there is!" This dramatic over-compensation results in the personality disorder.

My father was terribly abused and devalued as a child. He absolutely cannot admit to making a mistake of any kind, because it would mean that his father was right about him all along: worthless to the core. All or nothing. The Most Important or the lowest of the low.

For an example of the fruits of the self-esteem movement, just watch the American Idol auditions. The kids bluster and brag on camera that they're IT, but when they perform, it's truly cringe-worthy. Either these kids are Narcissists already or they're unaccustomed to being told that they're not All That.

Anonymous said...

I came here for the strawberries. I want strawberries!

Alan said...

Show me a parent unwilling to say NO to his/her child, and I'll show you the parent of a future narcissist.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Alan, you're absolutely right. The Freudian Leonard Shengold has a fascinating account of this phenomenon in his book "Soul Murder Revisited," a sequel to his pioneering book about the effects of actual child abuse.

Shengold found that a small percentage of his patients only FANTASIED that they were physically or sexually abused by their parents or guardians. In reality, the work of analysis discovered that these patients' parents all had one thing in common: they had never said no. They were all-giving, always-generous, nurturning, available... in other words: there were no boundaries, no separation between generations, no optimal frustrations...

To the child, a parent who can't say "No" is, in the unconscious, equivalent to a parent who rapes and beats them in real life! The psychic legacy is the same.

Kerry said...

"I" can hear those steel balls clicking...Next week Bob, will you revisit the cheese mystery and its implications for the Democrats & Howard Dean?

Anonymous said...

Obviously animals don’t suffer from [narcissism]. It’s something that can only afflict humans

I see you don't own a cat.

Sue said...

Alan, you are so right about parents who won't say No.
The child 's normal narcisssism escalates to self grandiosity, like a king or queen who has absolute power. With out the normal boundaries and limits the child is forced to conquer the instabilities to survive. As they grow older and mature these means of coping are no longer rquired, as thre child is out of danger and Has survived despite the parents.Yet this behavior has become inbeded with the ego and cannot be seperated from the true self. Hence the narcisisst, the most incureable condition known to man .

Anonymous said...

As a psychologist, Gagdad, I'm sure your familiar with this term: projection.

There's plenty of it to be found on the American right, as your extremely lengthy (obsess much?) post amply illustrates.

And your self-chosen name, Gag dad? I'm sure Freud would have something to say about that.

Gagdad Bob said...

Could you be a bit more specific about your fantasy? We can't read your mind.