Narcissism: The Epidemic of Our Time
Excessive individualism, cult of the private, anxiety for success, image and power... We live in the “culture of the I”, in the “generation of Narcissus”. Left behind is solidarity, “the pass for the we”. What is the cure for this sickness?
José Luis Trechera Herrera
Each social context creates its own lifestyle, a specific hierarchy of values, diverse behavior guidelines and its own pathologies. Narcissistic personality disorder is a typical alteration of our lifestyle today. Two key influences have promoted narcissism's current development: on the one hand, the US context and on the other, the postmodernist philosophical focus. The narcissistic disorder has various characteristics: a distorted self image, Machiavellianism, dominance power, exhibitionism and a lack of empathy. The negative consequences of the narcissistic lifestyle, from the psychological and sociological point of view, are obvious.
Today's Central Cultural Theme
"All narcissism is an ugly vice and an already old vice" (Antonio Marchado).
Some years ago Hollywood delighted us with a movie that looked at the struggle of a deaf mute woman to make a mark in a world of "normal people." She threw out this question from her "inferiority": "Am I a child of a lesser God?" The analysis of social reality takes us to a type of individuals who in their living, thinking and acting show themselves to be children of a God more privileged than that of all other mortals.
Various fields claim that today's society could be living the apogee of narcissism as its central cultural theme. Psychologists also state that the conditions of patients seeking help from them have changed. It is now less common to find the neuroses of conversion and classic hysterics characterized by paralysis, loss of voice or vision, etc. There are also fewer phobias and obsessions, etc.
The new profiles of conditions can be classified into two types of demands. On the one hand, depression: individuals with vital sadness, apathy, without the will to live. On the other hand, people who are spoiled, egocentric, manipulative, socially destructive, with a great need to win admiration and prestige over others, but who at the same time show a strong sense of loss of self, with superficial and unsatisfactory interpersonal relations that they perceive as empty and without meaning. Kohut defined this latter typology as "narcissistic personality disorder."
Narcissistic disorders appear as a diffuse malaise that invades everything, a sense of inner emptiness and the absurdity of life. Neurotic convulsion is replaced by narcissistic floating. And as therapy nears, the attitude of these patients is not to ask for help, but to initiate a spectacle for self exhibition. Great effort is made to invert the psychologist patient roles. "How lucky to have me in the clinic," is the thinking of many. It is important to make sure that the therapist does not end up paying the client's fees.
The US ContextAs with many other issues, the study of narcissism began to incubate in the US context. Since the 1960s, diverse authors have expressed a single reality with different concepts: "the Narcissistic Generation," "the Me Decade," "the Me Generation," "the Era of Narcissism" and "the Me Culture."
Lasch's work, The Culture of Narcissism, stands out in this perspective. According to him, every epoch develops its own particular pathology, and narcissistic personality and culture characterize our time just as repression characterized Freud's. For Lasch, narcissism could be the prime symptom of capitalism's decline and crisis. That is to say, today's psychological man may be the final product of bourgeois individualism. Fruits of this would be the competitive spirit and excessive individualism, the "culture of difference" that separates an elite and makes it proud of itself, the development of "self" or "privacy," the inability to accept old age or human limitations, and the need for triumph and recognition observed in trade and human relations, sports, etc. The "culture of narcissism" reflects the material conditions of life in society and especially post industrial societies, where social level and situation depend less on production than on consumption.
Mazlish suggests the idea of the "democratization of narcissism." No longer the property of a social or artistic elite, the dominant social and cultural structure has developed a prototype of the narcissistic, individualistic and self centered individual. Nelson's 1977 analysis of US society is suggestive. This society seems to have gone through an important change after World War II: the "maturity" of the Victorian period appears to have regressed to the "narcissistic absorption" typical of adolescents. The young rebels and the hippy movement of the 1960s can be explained as adolescent protest against authority and society's traditions. Their rejection of culture represents an effort to construct their own reality. This construction, however, has certain connotations. The choice of the term "flower children" reflects the creation of a child's world; childish, self centered, reactive against parents and society.
Along the same lines, diverse studies note the importance of narcissism in the books, television productions and movies that have had high sales and big audiences in the United States in recent years. Woody Allen movies are a good example. The self centered protagonist, by exhibiting his hypochondria, obsessing over his material situation, describing his "complexes" and seeing upcoming vacations as the only objective of his existence, demonstrates that it is possible to live not only without transcendental values, but without getting out of himself.
The narcissistic pathology appears as a specific phenomenon resulting from modern societal pressures. Narcissism is presented as the archetypal pathology of our time. There is insistence on the danger of excessive self love, considered as a general erosion of confidence in civilization, which becomes an illness of society. Some see narcissistic conduct playing the same role as the hysterical symptoms resulting from the sexual repression of Victorian society at the end of the 19th century. For others, narcissism appears as one of the main factors associated with psychological disorders.
The European Context: PostmodernismNarcissism is not an exclusive phenomenon of the US lifestyle. The European cultural context is not far from the situation described above. Postmodernism has reinforced the narcissistic model. Individualism is promoted, the "second individualistic revolution" has occurred, ethics have been replaced by esthetics and personal commitment and its implications by the society of the "temporal contract"; the "great fragment" (great values) has devolved into the "little fragment." There is no longer "history," except in textbooks; there are only events with no connection between them.
From this perspective, human beings have no future, no project or path leading to a goal, no horizon against which to set reality. We are in the "twilight of the idols"; we live in a "finished time" in which, lacking defined reference points, we are condemned to "uncertain roaming." There is no place today for totalizing cosmovisions; we are trapped by the immediate, captured in the "ectasis of the polaroid," which leads us to live in the superficiality of what already exists, in the "cosmovision of bricolage" characterized by specialization and the apex of pragmatic functionalism.
For postmodernist authors, the general violates the particularity and uniqueness of each individual. With no global project, each subject will be the protagonist and the only one able to decide on his/her own destiny. Hence to save the individual, restraints that do not liberate the subject must be "shrunk." To reach this objective, it is critical to give potential to a "light" individualism that develops autonomous, creative individuals emersed in living for today.
Today's man does not trust the Myth of Prometheus, so exalted in the last century (Fichte chose him as the symbol of his ideology; Goethe dedicated an ode and a dramatic fragment to him and Marx placed him among the saints and martyrs). How have the great ideals served us? Some of the effects--world wars and environmental destruction--are well known. According to postmodern analysis, promethean hope and happiness have given way to the routine and enslaving sense of Sisyphus--Camus believed that the Myth of Sisyphus was the symbol that best described the historic moment halfway through the 20th century--and later opened to Narcissus' private refuge and intimacy. The conclusion is clear: what can seriously take up our time today, if not our own physical and psychic equilibrium?
Homo politicus has come to an end, making way for the birth of homo psicologicus, obsessed by the search for self and well being. Narcissus now only works for his own liberation, and for this will renounce even love. The new revolutionary program will be: loving myself is enough and I need nothing else to be happy. It is thus not strange that a whole personal growth movement has developed since the 1970s: workshops on sensitivity, self knowledge, self esteem, mental control, bioenergy, etc. Everyone becomes the umbilical of the world, searching for the lost Self. Hedonism is personalized and becomes psi narcissism.
The Myth of NarcissusThe concept of narcissism is both used and abused. What do we mean when we speak of it? It is worth going back to narcissism's origins to define what we understand by it and, more concretely, the "narcissistic personality disorder." What was the myth of Narcissus trying to tell us?
The Narcissus myth comes to us through various sources, the oldest version being from Ovid. Given the enormous circulation of this author, his version has prevailed over the others (Conan, Pausanias, etc.) and is the one we know today, whether directly or through recompilations or compendia that were very successful in the Middle Ages.
In Book III of his Metamorphosis, Ovid (43 AD) tells the story of the unfortunate Narcissus in 170 verses. Narcissus is the fruit of the rape of the nymph Liriope by the River Cephisus. The famous prophet Tiresias predicted a sad destiny when he revealed to Narcissus' mother that her son would live a long life only if he never came to know himself. From his adolescence onward, Narcissus' extraordinary beauty attracted numerous young women and men. The nymph Echo was one of his suitors; she could not express her feelings, but could only repeat the sounds she heard.
Narcissus' pride made him reject with indifference and contempt all those who pursued him. One of those rejected asked the gods for clemency and punishment. Nemesis, the goddess of revenge, wasted no time. When Narcissus returned exhausted from a hunt, he leaned over to drink water from a spring and the divine cholera had its effect: the youth fell in love with what he thought he saw beneath the water. After hugging and kissing the vision, he realized that what he was seeing in the spring was himself. Narcissus would perish because of his passion.
In the first century AD, Conan tells a different story of the myth in the XXIV of his Narrations. Narcissus was born in Thebae (Boeotia). His beauty brought him many suitors, but he ignored them all. Narcissus brought his curse down upon himself when he rejected Aminias, a young man. Scorning him, Narcissus sent him a sword to kill himself. Aminias obeyed, but cursed Narcissus before killing himself. The nymph Echo does not appear in this edition, but is substituted by Aminias. Homosexuality plays an important role in this version.
In the third century, Pausanias rationalizes the myth in his Description of Greece. Narcissus had a twin sister, and when she died, Narcissus spent his days contemplating his vision in the water, because the blurry image of his own face reminded him of his dead sister, while everyone else thought he was falling in love with himself.
The story ends differently in each version. For some, Narcissus' body was transformed into the river that carries his name. Others say his body became the Narcissus flower.
What elements can we pull from these narrations? In general terms, the Myth of Narcissus is described as the "great negation or rejection," which reveals Narcissism as negativity and lack. On the one hand, Narcissus is unaware of his own reality--etymologically, Narcissus means "the bewildered one." He is born of violence, never knew his father, and according to the oracle, "will live if he does not discover himself." It is the opposite process of the Socratic "Know thyself." He will survive only if he maintains a "distorted image of himself." His actions have an hysterical style: Narcissus is incapable of maintaining focused attention on himself. He lives only from impressions, which is why he doesn't know who he is or how he feels.
Incapable of Loving Anyone but HimselfThe Myth of Narcissus is not a simple story of excessive self eroticism, but rather the absence of social interaction, which has the following manifestations:
* Narcissus rejects all love relations. Marcuse describes him as the antagonist of Eros, because he disdains the love that makes any union with other human beings possible, and associates Orpheus with this negation of Eros. Faced with a culture that demands strength and solidarity--represented by Prometheus--he closes in on himself and isolates himself from his surroundings. Even so, he has a great passion for self eros, since, in theory, he does not know that he is admiring his own image. The Middle Ages will develop this idea from the perspective of the "self closed in on itself."
* Narcissus shows no empathy or ability to understand feelings or external reality. In the narration, the nymph Echo symbolizes the absence of empathy. She always responds, but distorts everything. She cannot offer an effective empathetic response to Narcissus.
* Narcissus is described as a proud and haughty subject who scorns everyone else. According to Ovid, "no young men or women could touch his heart." This attitude reflects aggressiveness and destruction in his relationships with others. Not only does he not accept love, he rejects his lovers and triggers their elimination--sending the sword to provoke death. This scorn prevents him from accepting anything around him, which also leads him to reject useful and positive aspects that other people can offer him. Narcissus is trapped contemplating something that he thinks is external to himself, but in objective terms is the idealized aspect of his own self. He thinks he is in love. He dies because he cannot separate himself and look to a real being from whom he could obtain what he truly needs.
* In Narcissus the issue is not self love but rather love for a spectacular image that is tragically confused with a real subject. Punishment consists of the inability to love real beings. Narcissus ardently desires the nymph Echo, who helps him leave the forest. Narcissus likes to watch and listen to her, but when she wants to embrace him he recoils in horror. Authentic reality hides behind a facade of rigidity and indifference; Narcissus is unable to express feelings of affection. He appears as a mask characterized by a lifeless gaze. There is no light in his opaque eyes. His expression resembles the lost or empty stare of certain schizophrenic patients. Narcissus is unable to say "I see you"; he can contemplate nothing that is not himself.
* The fear of direct relations with others, of expressing and receiving affection, of embraces and physical contact, appear related to Narcissus' early life. With the exception of Pausanias' description, Narcissus is presented as an only son, the fruit of rape. Thus he cannot count on a father or sisters or brothers for his psychic development. All we know of his mother is that she is concerned for her son's future destiny and for that reason seeks out the psychic Tiresias.
* We are not kept waiting for the denouement of the Narcissus story: death is the consequence of that isolation. Ovid stresses that his recognition leads to a fragmentation of himself, when his tears break up his image as they fall in the lake. The rejection of all love relations provokes the disintegration of the subject and the impossibility of living, because he cannot accept reality as it is. The final result of his action is symbolically expressed as a regression from the human: Narcissus is transformed into a flower--sliding back from human to vegetable species. In all versions of the myth, the water or mirror serve as symbols of the maternal womb to which he will return. Narcissus denies his true self and tries to lose himself in the image that he sees. Death is the logical consequence of setting up a false self.
The moral of the diverse versions appears clearly: the subject cannot truly know and recognize himself without knowing and recognizing the other. When he closes into himself and rejects others, he has only the reflection of his own figure, a destructive and fatal situation.
"A God Complex"Havelock Ellis used the term "narcissism" for the first time in 1898 to describe the tendency to be totally absorbed in self admiration. One year later, Nake used the narcissism concept to refer to a sexual perversion, that of a person treating his or her own body as a sexual object. Since then there have been descriptions of a pathological disorder that includes grandeur, the desire for glory, the inability to love others, egocentrism, null empathy, etc., relating these to a certain narcissistic pathology.
Jones describes individuals with "a God complex," characterized by excessive admiration of self, great confidence in one's own powers, knowledge and physical and mental qualities, omnipotence fantasies, and an exaggerated desire to be loved and admired. Freud defined narcissism even further, proposing it as a developmental stage and relating it to diverse pathologies: homosexuality, schizophrenia (megalomania and disinterest in the outer world), hypochondria (centered on one's own body), etc.
Insatiable Need for AdmirationThe pathological component was stressed after Freud's contribution. In 1925, Waelder was the first to mention a clinical case of an individual who presented a "narcissistic personality," noted by superiority, intense preoccupation with self and no consciousness of others. Fenichel describes the "Don Juan of success," people who feel compelled to seek success and whose narcissistic needs demand constant verification of their ability to excite women. Reich developed the "phallic narcissistic" character that gives rise to ambitious, impulsive, aggressive and arrogant subjects. Nemiah focused on people with "narcissistic character alteration," noted by great ambition, aspirations to high and unrealistic goals, intolerance of criticism and an almost insatiable need for admiration.
Tartakoff describes individuals with a "Nobel prize complex," so characterized by the ambition to win some prize or wealth or to be President that their fantasies of power and being special make them relate to others in an "all or nothing" fashion.
This combination of characteristics was not termed "narcissistic personality disorder" until Kohut (1968) and Kernberg (1970). For both authors, subjects with narcissistic personality disorders are noted for excessive self absorbtion, intense ambition, fantasies of grandeur, a need to be admired for their qualities and lack of empathy. These subjects present chronic feelings of boredom, emptiness and uncertainty about their identity. Their relationships are characterized by exploitation of others as well as by feelings of envy, which they defend themselves against through omnipotence and by devaluing and controlling others.
Echoing this clinical interest, the American Association of Psychiatry included the narcissistic personality disorder in its classification of mental illnesses in 1980. The description of this disorder is based on the presence of a series of diagnostic criteria: a generalized sense of grandeur; lack of empathy; hypersensitivity to other people's evaluations and various alterations in interpersonal relations; a tendency toward interpersonal exploitation; feelings of being in a special category; bidding for attention and constant admiration, etc.
This description of the narcissistic disorder refers almost totally to the American or Anglo Saxon social context. Taking into account the diverse definitions, we propose to investigate which of these features would characterize narcissism in other contexts. Based on investigation and diverse statistical tests we note a series of characteristics typical of the narcissistic personality disorder in other contexts such as the Spanish. They include a distorted self image, Machiavellianism, dominance power, exhibitionism and lack of empathy.
Distorted Image: the Center of the World"I am an important person; better said, extremely important. I am the center of the universe and everyone else lives to rotate around me." (Rocchini)
Narcissistic personalities are characterized by "inflated self esteem," megalomania or "the greatness of me," which translate into egocentrism, feelings of omnipotence, omniscience and special power. Freud already understood "hyper esteem" as "narcissistic stigma." An unbounded self value shows up through this "megalomanic system," which implies the idea of a "special category," a feeling of "the greatness of self importance" that leads them to believe they have special talents and abilities. Narcissists feel that their problems are "unique" and can only be understood by other special individuals. It is not that they consciously tell lies, for example, but that they are convinced of their superior position and the veracity of their false reality.
A typical characteristic of Narcissistic personality is the egocentric perception of reality, through which the only reality that is accepted is that which reinforces self grandeur. Reality is only accepted if it serves as a mirror with a positive self image. Consequently, the narcissistic personality will negate those aspects of reality that question his/her importance or perfection. Thus, "his majesty the baby" is converted into the center of the world and the universe. These subjects are always comparing themselves with others; megalomania brings with it comparisons--having to be greater than others --and therefore envy.
The narcissistic personality experiences unlimited fantasies of success, power, brilliance, beauty or ideal love. They have unrealistically high expectations and great ambition. This situation leads them to live a "hypermanic exaltation," characterized by excessive omnipotence and omniscience, feelings of pleasure with existence and a pronounced optimism. The subject has all the qualities of perfection, glory and triumph. Grunberger calls this state "the joy of living." As one patient expressed it, "When I walk down the street, I have the sensation that people stop around me, as when the Red Sea opened for the Jews."
These individuals present a "narcissistic" language deformation. A manifestation of the distorted image is the egocentric use of language, denoting a deviation in verbal communication in which the primary objective is to impress and increase self esteem rather than communicate. Vangelisti and others refer to "conversational narcissism," characterized by extreme focusing on oneself during a conversation, to the exclusion of anything that concerns others. This attitude is manifested in the excessive use of the singular personal pronoun "I" over the plural personal pronoun "we."
Other consequences of their deformed image can be observed in daily life behaviors: arrogance ("don't you know who I am?") or demands for special treatment (how can they wait their turn in a line? how can they be made to lose seconds of their time?). At no time can they be contradicted or questioned.
Machiavellianism: Anything Goes"His abilities were more useful than brilliant: strength to reach his goals, flexibility to modify his intentions, and, above all, the great art of subjecting his own passions, as well as those of others, to the interest of his ambitions and coloring his ambitions with the greatest pretensions of justice and utility." (Gibbons)
"The results of men's actions are looked at. Thus, when a prince tries to conquer and conserve his state, his means will always be judged as honorable and exalted by all." (Machiavelli)
Gibbons' text, from his work The Fall of the Roman Empire, refers to Emperor Diocletian, but could be used to describe the actions of many political, social or religious leaders. It observes that, to win success, prestige and power, human beings are capable of selling their own soul to the devil, in a "Machiavellian" manner.
Although Machiavelli never used the phrase "the ends justify the means," he has passed into posterity as the inspiration of a mode of acting in which one can employ any strategy available in order to get what one wants.
The "Machiavellian" way of life translates into a tendency to see others as extensions of oneself. Narcissists are characterized by manipulating and using other people and situations for their own benefit. Narcissistic subjects often say, "This is good for me," revealing a "corruptible conscience" in contrast to the moral rigidity of the obsessive personality. These people are faithful reflections of the "plastic age," the "use and throw away" age. In their relations with other people, they function as if they had a "remote control," running quickly and nervously, as if on hot coals, through all channels (people) to see what interests or pleases them.
In the Spanish context, the "pelotazo" (or hard ball) culture has become a popular term in which anything goes in order to get what one wants. Adela Cortina describes this as the "chameleon ethic," according to which the important thing is to be in the right place at the right time. Success is most important and is measured almost exclusively in multi million dollar financial terms. Economic earnings become the objective, reducing lifestyle to a mathematical issue: "income is good, a triumph; loss is bad, a failure." Writer Antonio Gala says that the modern Spaniard "loves not the golden calf but rather the calf's gold."
Dominance Power: Everything Under Control"I am everything. The world is but the stage on which to obtain--by using other people--self pleasure." (Rocchini)
Italian psychiatrist Rocchini's study of Italy's political class is relevant. It is not strange that he calls his work The Neurosis of Power. Other realities are not far from the Italian reality. If we go to any bookstore, the titles that stand out are Assault on Power, Duel of the Titans, Banking and Power, The Ultimate Magnate, The Secrets of Power, Plundering Bankers, The Caesar, The Children of Caesar.... There is no denying that intrigue and power are in vogue.
The conduct of narcissistic individuals is to try to control others. The omnipotence of thought implies the possibility of exercising influence over objects or the surrounding world, which requires negating the experience of the other when this experience limits that omnipotence. The narcissistic person needs and seeks power to counteract the deficiency of his/her own reality. Power and control are two sides of the same coin used to compensate for and protect from their own vulnerability. Narcissism is a synonym for power, which can manifest itself by either depending on others or subjecting others to one's own will. The feeling of having rights over other people, which implies expectations of special privileges with respect to others and a special immunity against normal social demands, translates into pride, conceit and the consciousness of demanding one's own rights.
Narcissists are avid subjects of veneration and will not tolerate even the most minimum questioning of their own dominant position. These individuals show different ways to be parasitic--to invade the psychic space of other individuals --so as to exalt their own omnipotence. They demand admiration for each and every one of their features, demanding at the same time that they be considered the maximum level of perfection, unique beings, and not allowing the external object to look toward anyone else. They establish a relationship of tyranny, trying to force others to give unconditional admiration by controlling their thoughts or actions.
The exaggerated image of self will make the narcissist react to criticism with anger, shame or humiliation, even if not always expressed. According to Fromm, there is no greater fury than that of narcissists whose narcissism has been injured. They will pardon anything except an offence to their narcissism. Even if they do not demonstrate it, they want revenge because it is as if they have been killed. They will accept no dissidence from those under their command.
Freud spoke of the "narcissism of small differences," illustrated in the tendency to suppress what is different from oneself, as in religious wars or many other phenomena of exasperated intolerance. This paradoxically makes them hate those who are only slightly different from one's individual or group identity even more than those who are vastly different. Freud gave as an example the age old conflict between Arabs and Israelis, both Semites and both belonging to the great monotheist religions, to show that a slight difference of identity is more threatening than a major difference. This conduct can be observed in closed or sectarian groups--whether political, religious or social--that annul the ancient discipline by breaking all relations. For having dissented from the group norm, one passes from the earlier "community of life" to the most absolute hatred and indifference.
Envious people always feel persecuted, because when they enviously attack their objects, the latter, according to the projection of the former, cease being loving and become envious persecuting objects. Envious people exhibit anxiety about their own possessions, thinking that others will be envious and take them away. This chronic envy makes them unable to accept the genuine and real support around them.
Narcissistic subjects live a great paradox; they need much from other people, but are incapable of accepting help. It is, in Kernberg's words, "the great tragedy" of narcissists: they cannot demonstrate normal feelings of gratitude and devalue those who offer and what is offered. The existence of envy is incompatible with that of a grandiose self. Narcissistic individuals are incapable of recognizing their envy and use the mechanism of devaluing the qualities of others to defend their own envy and thus augment their grandiose image. On the one hand, they are intolerant of criticisms, because these imply a demand for personal change. And on the other, they appear suspicious, envious and jealous of what others have. Envy makes them feel hostile toward their surroundings. The excluding disjunctive logic rules: "me or them."
Exhibitionism: "I'm the Greatest"In his analysis of current Spanish society, Alfonso Ussia describes a new species of human fauna: "homo sapiens inalabricus," characterized by airing all passions and feelings in public. These people not only have no modesty, but love to exhibit themselves to possible audiences.
Narcissism can be defined as conduct motivated by the pleasure of being admired. Narcissistic exhibitionism is the clinical expression of a childish need for admiration, translated into excessive desire or need for attention or admiration, and a tendency to present oneself as unique or exclusive. Narcissistic people direct their activities mainly toward obtaining maximum appreciation and acclaim. They are motivated to work to exhibit themselves. They thus tend to lean toward social occupations, choosing professions where they can receive public gratification.
This exhibitionist dimension can be seen in Fellini's "Casanova": in a particular scene Casanova, in front of people at a party, is pushed to compete with a servant to determine who is capable of having more sexual relations in a given time period. All of the hero's sexual gymnastics bring him no erogenous pleasure and, when he wins at the end of the competition, there is a pathetic contrast between his narcissistic jubilation and the pain of his occasional partner, simply a vehicle to prove Casanova's narcissistic superiority.
This need for continual approval demands great effort. The "grandiose me" is an insatiable consumer of external experiences. No detail can be forgotten, from being concerned for physical appearance to reading the most recent fashionable author. We cannot forget that the objective is not to "be" but to "seem." Narcissists are afraid of their interior, of knowing themselves inside, and therefore are only interested in appearances. These efforts have a psychological cost that increases the narcissistic person's weakness and fragility.
Lack of Empathy: Without Emotions"Hitler showed the somnambulant security that only an extremely narcissistic person can possess. Hitler did not care about anyone, so he was free from any warm sentiments. He could demonstrate unlimited aggressiveness against his principal collaborators, alternating with benevolent and friendly smiles. In other words, with this conduct he made them feel like small children, offering himself as the idol who knows all, can do all and punishes all." (Erich Fromm)
Empathy is understood as the ability to "feel with" another. It implies sharing emotions perceived in others. Empathy is an emotional response that emerges from the emotional state of another and is congruent with said state. However, we cannot forget distinction as the aspect of the minimum differentiation between oneself and the other. That is to say, we can try to put ourselves in someone else's shoes, but should be clear that we can never become the other person.
Null empathy expresses the inability to recognize and experience what others feel. An absence of empathy is typical of the narcissistic personality. Narcissistic personality disorder is characterized by the negation of feelings. Narcissists are inhibited from expressing feelings and emotions because they think that doing so makes them vulnerable. Narcissists defend themselves against possible pain by not needing or expressing desires.
Narcissistic people have difficulties understanding the unique characteristics of those with whom they have intimate relations: partners, friends, relatives. Narcissists live in the world as if they were from another planet and find it hard to understand what is happening around them. They make deep commitments to no one, and at the same time keep themselves from learning if they could maintain that type of relationship.
Never Letting Go of the ReinsNarcissism is defined not so much by the lack of free expression of feelings as by the retreat from self--no excesses or overflows that could cause one to lose control. Individuals aspire more and more to emotional indifference, motivated by the risks of instability in their interpersonal relations. Their objective is to depend on no one, to get mixed up with nothing. The fear of disappointment and uncontrolled passions expresses what Lasch calls "the flight from feeling." It is no surprise, then, that there is increased "cool sex." Sex is cooled down, eliminating any emotional tension, with the objective of reaching a state of indifference and coldness. It is the end of sentimental culture, the end of the happy ending, the end of melodrama and the birth of a "cool" culture, in which each person lives in a bunker of indifference, well defended from one's own and others' passions.
In our society, we have moved from unfeeling to the commercialization of feelings. It is curious that radio and television programs where people bare their souls to an audience desirous of hearing their miseries and tragedies should be so successful in a society that annuls feelings. We could ask ourselves if the objective of these programs is to communicate, to provoke empathetic comprehension, or is pure exhibitionism.
We cannot forget that, already in 1914, Freud referred to the impossibility of helping psychotics because they are so narcissistic that they cannot build transference with the therapist. They cannot grasp something external to themselves, because the only reality is inside them, in their own ideas and personality, which do not pertain to the outside world.
Enormously Insecure, Always Unsatisfied"Tell me what you assume and I will tell you what you lack," says the refrain. Despite the omnipotence, grandiosity and hyper esteem, narcissism can be considered a magic mirror that falsifies the reality of human beings' abandonment and impotence, reflecting an omnipotence that is not possessed. Narcissism appears as a reactive formation, a defense mechanism through which the subject acts in a manner totally alien to what he/she feels or authentically is. Just as in Oscar Wilde's Portrait of Dorian Gray, Narcissus presents a facade that protects and hides his true identity: insecurity and vulnerability. The image is destroyed when confronted with reality and triggers the subject's destruction. In another work, A Baby's Birthday, Oscar Wilde describes a dwarf whose delusions of grandeur collapse when he suddenly sees his true image in a mirror.
The narcissistic individual appears to have a great sense of security, but it is just a defense mechanism. Narcissists need their narcissism and live to feed it. They are enormously insecure, because none of their feelings, their ideas, nothing of theirs, is based in reality. Narcissists are assured because they are not interested in reality. Their security depends on believing that what they think is true, just because they are the ones who think it. At the same time, they have a great need to see their narcissism confirmed, because otherwise they will begin to doubt everything.
Various authors stress this aspect. According to Svrakic, more than "inflation of the self," self esteem is "fragile." Contrary to common belief, pathological narcissism should not be termed "extreme self love," but rather "chronic and painful lack of self love." Narcissists make insatiable efforts to substitute external admiration for love. Narcissism is not identified with self affirmation, but with loss of identity. It refers to a self threatened by disintegration and to the sense of an empty interior. Narcissists do not love themselves. They want to but are always unsatisfied with themselves; they always see themselves as "manifestly improvable," and therefore feel a compulsive and enslaving need to continuously dress up and embellish themselves.
Horney had already worked on this same idea, distinguishing the "authentic sense of self" from the "inflation of self." True self esteem is based on qualities that a person actually possesses, while self inflation makes one publicly and privately attribute qualities to oneself with no basis in reality. Self esteem and self inflation are mutually exclusive. Narcissism is totally different than self love. Narcissists do not love themselves, are not satisfied with themselves and are therefore covetous. Greed is always the consequence of serious frustration, whether what is coveted is power, food or any other thing. Greed always comes from an empty interior.
Always on the Defensive, Always AloneThe great paradox of narcissistic personalities is that on the one hand they are incapable of comprehending anything outside of themselves, and on the other constantly need external support and confirmation to maintain their self esteem. Romano uses the term "bulwark narcissist" to refer to a defense system that uses the self with the objective of maintaining, in a rigid and stereotyped manner, a structure that avoids reality and tends to keep now anachronistic ideal systems from harm.
When the connection with narcissistic objects is broken for different reasons, narcissistic individuals fall into the extreme opposite and demonstrate a totally different appearance: negativeness, difficulties. The beginning of what Giovacchini has termed "the narcissistic failure" comes when such patients fail to obtain sufficient narcissistic inputs around them. This situation is accompanied by narcissistic anger, devaluation and reaction against the external object or environment. These patients fall into a "great loneliness" and begin to have increased megalomanic fantasies about their qualities and talents.
The cost of narcissism is loneliness, denouncing relations with others, because they would imply a terrible dependence, risk of abandonment and narcissistic injury from exposure to humiliations. The narcissistic attitude learned in infancy facilitates the subject's vulnerability to the loss of love and approval from others, which leads to the permanent search for self referential, solipsistic and solitary affective links. This "narcissistic loneliness"--permanent attention to self--is a precarious, hoarded, exploiting and, at times, blackmailing loneliness. Miller summarizes this idea in his term "inner prison"; the narcissistic subject lives in an "inner prison" that gradually isolates him from his surroundings. Therefore, narcissism's cure can be nothing other than interaction and acceptance of dependence.
Personal Alienation and Anti Social Conduct"We are what we is based on our relations with others." (Mead)
Maximizing individualism made sense given a past that sought to create more uniformity. Charles Taylor called this cage that trapped human beings the "great chain of Being." The social order had been fixed and immutable for centuries. Everything was predestined: those born plebeian died plebeian. This "cage" was supported by a false conception of God as legitimizer of this fixed order. Today, the danger is the opposite: of absolutizing the individual. The principal measures of individual action are self development and personal happiness. The individual has becomes the main objective and yardstick of the formation of values and attitudes. Ideal individual autonomy is the great winner of the postmodern condition, partly at the cost of obligations and commitments related to family and community life in general.
It is hard to accept Marcuse's interpretation, according to which Narcissus refuses to look outside himself to a repressive society, thus presenting him as a fighter against social repression. If he rejects society due to repression, the effects of the rejection do not have positive repercussions on his own subject; they do not free him, but spark his destruction and isolation. Narcissus' own individualism offers nothing positive to himself or to society. It is different from Adam Smith's individualism, which would supposedly benefit society in the long run. On the contrary, narcissistic individualism submerges the individual in personal alienation and antisocial conduct.
In opposition to those who defend individualism's beneficial effects, others describe very different consequences. The result is a "one dimensional" man (Marcuse), fragmented and with "weak thinking," who isolates himself from his surroundings and in privacy dedicates himself to self pleasure. Lopez Yarto has described these new types as "men with little god mentalities." They find their sociological corollary and an ideal breeding ground in current cultural narcissism.
Faced with the lack of a universal project, Western man takes refuge in subjectivity, the private sphere and the cult of the individual. Each subject is the center of the world and the universe. Our Western civilization typically has lost sight of the needs of others. Despite having thousands of windows--television, radio, the press--through which to observe our surroundings, we do not grasp external reality. Through "social anesthesia" and compulsively seeking utensils or experiences that satisfy immediate gratification needs, we see events without being affected by them. It is an "I come first" culture.
The cult of the individual can lead to "egocracy." A culture of this type is an "anorexic" culture, one of deception, expulsion and rejection, with the evident result of an obese, saturated and plethoric phase. Postmodernist thinking would be the expression of a culture tired of "the First World beach." People today submerge themselves in the present and in living life, understood only as "my" present and "my" life. Individualistic narcissism is manifested in a propensity to security and an absence of commitment. Many subjects hide behind individualism and immediate experiences: sexuality, dancing, sports, drugs. As Gonzalez Faus states, life is so hard and unbearable that it is better to "die living well" than to preserve life by avoiding the "good."
Being Human is Being in Relation to...Narcissus' alternative is not valid. Faced with today's reality, Narcissus appears absent minded and acrimonious. Faced with the lack of solidarity among those mistreated throughout history, postmodernity offers us an exhausted and decrepit subject more than just a weak subject. Without accepting others as worthy in themselves, it is hard for a solidarity and reciprocal recognition to emerge that would allow for a Copernican turn from the "me" as the only center to the "you" as the locus of personal realization.
Human development does not take place in a test tube as in a laboratory experiment. People are continually interacting with their environment. A person's authentic maturity demands interpersonal relations. There is no personalization without development of alterity. It is true that the concept of "individual" can be positive and all development that demands that individuals be autonomous and responsible for their actions is positive. Etymologically, however, "individual" means "not divided." Thus it is not the term "individual" but the term "person" that defines the human aspect. Being human is being a person and being a person is being "in relation" and "in dialogue": living in dialogue and interaction with others.
Today more than ever it is necessary to get outside of oneself and accept human interaction as worthwhile in itself, to create a "we" in which each person is free and responsible to others. More than erecting walls to isolate us or mirrors that only reflect our own image, we must promote the "great city of transparent walls." Not to make a paradise on earth, which would be to fall in the "promethean chimera" and is unrealizable. The goal is more modest, but more human: to be there for each other.