Sunday, April 17, 2005

Narcissism and Society - Part II

Part I can be found here.

Part III can be found here.
In the first part of this series, I presented some basic information on the Psychology of the Self and discussed the development of a normal, healthy Self, which is referred to as a Cohesive Self. This is the goal of the two independent developmental lines: to recombine the Grandiose Self with the Idealized Parent Image (sometimes called the Omnipotent Object or the Idealized Object) in a way that permits the adult to feel worthy of existing; have ambition, confidence and self-esteem; as well as to be able to have ideals and meaning in his life; and to establish healthy relationships with other individuals.

What we call Narcissism is a normal part of every human being’s Self. Without Narcissism, we are unable to feel good about either ourselves or other people. In the healthy adult, the Grandiose Self is tamed and harnessed to an appropriate set of ideals and is capable of perceiving others as separate sources of action, thought, and feeling. All humans must undergo this process of maturation, the goal of which is the Cohesive Self.


The Self is developed from a complicated interaction between (1) inborn capability and genetic vulnerability – which will predispose one toward or away from psychopathology; and (2) the environment--particularly the interaction in early years with significant Others, who can either strengthen and support the developing Self of the child, or interfere with its optimal development.

I am not going to talk about genetics, biology or physiology in this essay. This does not mean I think such matters are unimportant. Clearly every psychological process has a biological correlate in the brain. We are born with a set of physiological and biological mechanisms which make us more or less able to be able to function in the world. These biological processes-- for good or ill-- form the basis of our temperament and predispose us toward or away from specific psychiatric disorders; and also influence the way we view the world. But while nature has an important role to play in how we come to view the world, the role of nurture must not be ignored either. And nurture plays a crucial role in determining how the Self develops—i.e., how the child comes to view him or herself in relation to the environment and to other selves. In the end, nurture has an impact on biology(nature), even as nature (biology)has an impact on it.

Basically the child has two (and possibly more) chances to develop a Cohesive Self. The two chances are represented by Mother and Father (or the equivalent) who can adequately respond to the infant’s early needs; as well as the child's needs up to adulthood. As the child matures the environment must provide him or her with two things: First, it must properly “mirror” or respond to him as a whole person--not just a conglomeration of parts; and give encouragement and praise. And second, the child must be permitted to idealize his parents and then slowly over time (and not all at once) grow to understand that they are imperfect, but still good (or “good enough”). This allows the child to keep his ideals but to be able to subject them to reality.

Problems for the individual and for society occur when remnants of the Grandiose Self or the Idealized Parent Image are not fully integrated into the Self and then emerge or re-awaken as an adult.


These two processes are flip sides of the same coin. Both occur because of breakdowns in empathy between the child and the parent or environment. If these breakdowns are not resolved by adulthood, then the adult will continue to act them out.

Kohut’s second break with traditional psychoanalytic theory was his concept of Aggression. Rather than view Aggression as a “primary drive” as Freud conceptualized it, Kohut believed that Aggression with its concomitant rage and destructiveness was not something inherent in the child, but occurs as a result of a failure of empathy on the part of the child’s “SelfObjects”. SelfObjects arepeople or things that the child perceives as extensions of himself, without independent thoughts, feelings or actions.

In other words, Aggression can be thought of as a response of the incompletely integrated Self to the failure of the Mother/Environment to acknowledge his needs. When this happens the child--or adult-- explodes in “Narcissistic Rage”.

One could say that the entire psychological process of maturation is one in which the child is able to form a cohesive sense of himself AND at the same time appreciate the separateness of the Mother and Father --and by extension, all other people. When this process is achieved, true empathy and benevolence toward others is possible.

A second, but equally important reaction to the imperfection of the parents can be thought of as Narcissistic Awe or Narcissistic Idealism.

Basically Narcissistic Idealism is a compensatory mechanism (usually later in the child's development) when an idealized person (such as the Parent) fails to live up to expectations (which inevitably occurs). Not able to adequately deal with this truth, the Self immediately transfers its idealization to a new SelfObject. Rage is kept at bay by focusing on the new person/SelfObject who now receives the excessive awe or admiration withdrawn from the previous Object.

Every therapist has had the "pleasure" of being the recipient of both Narcissistic Rage and Narcissistic Awe and this situation is referred to as “splitting”. The patient either sees you as All Good or All Bad, but never as simply a good-enough person who makes mistakes. Indeed, every parent experiences this with the adolescent child who usually come to the realization that their parents are not perfect (surprise!). The adolescent then searches to find someone who can fill that empty need. These days, their idealization (idolization) falls onto icons of the popular culture--music or sports stars. Eventually they get over these kinds of infatuations as they further mature.

Narcissistic Awe in its extreme form can be expressed as bizarre mystical feelings; hyper-religious awe or hyper-religiosity in general; as obsessive love; as total immersion in a cult or belief system—all of these behaviors can compensate for the fear that one is forever separated from that “perfect” Other.

Remember, we are not talking about appropriate admiration for someone, but an over-idealization that essentially treats the person as a “god” rather than a typical human being with imperfections and flaws.

Neither Narcissistic Rage nor Idealization is able to accept the reality that people can have good and bad qualities co-existing inside them. Neither see other people as acting separately from their own wishes or desires.

The diagram below summarizes these processes:
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Narcissistic Personality Disorder as a clinical syndrome will occur at the extremes. But points A, B, C, D in the diagram signify individuals who have narcissistic defects--either in the Grandiose Self or in the Idealized Parent Image, or both. These individuals function in the real world, but their behavior will alternate between the extremes of Rage and Awe; and they will have considerable turmoil in their relationships; their work; and in their sense of themselves.

Much of the evil that humans do to each other comes as a result of Narcissistic Rage and Narcissistic Idealism. In the former case, we hear about or know individuals who manipulate, control, subjugate, hurt or kill others and they are able to do this because they do not consider other people as human or separate from their own Self; or because they are so enraged they are not capable of empathy.

We see stories of this happening all the time on the news, frequently exclaiming, "How could someone do that?" The ex-boyfriend who cannot accept that the woman has dared to withdraw her love and so must kill her (and often himself); the serial killer who does not experience others as really human. The pedophile who abuses then murders his child victim. Every petty criminal who believes implicitly that his feelings and desires are paramount and justify his behavior.

The second type of evil is more subtle, and it comes from the the opposite side of the Self. This side also does not see other people as individuals either; and instead sees them only as fodder for the expression of an IDEAL or as pawns for an Omnipotent Object (e.g., a dictator). People with this Idealizing Narcissistic defect (and by the way, such people are also capable of Narcissistic Rage when thwarted) completely reject the needs of the individual and enslave him or her to their IDEAL. Eventually, the enslavement--whether religious or secular--snuffs out human ambition, confidence, energy and self-esteem. These "do-gooders" cause considerable human misery and their ideologies can lead to genocidal practices and unbelievable atrocities on a grand scale, all in the name of the IDEAL or GOD.

Or, as C.S. Lewis wrote:

"Of all tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated, but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience."

In Part III, I will discuss the fragmentation of the Self that occurs when adult individuals with narcissistic vulnerabilities (i.e. , those who do not develop a fully Cohesive Self) and the political and social proclivities that our essential Narcissism stimulates .

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