Sunday, April 17, 2005

Narcissism and Society - Part III

Part I is here.

Part II is here.

There is no predetermined time limit for the maturation and reintegration of the Grandiose Self and the Omnipotent Object into a Cohesive Self. For some people it can extend well into adulthood; and for some it is never achieved. For some, the inability to resolve either or both of the developmental lines will result in a full-blown Narcissistic Personality Disorder; others will form some kind of tentative balance between the two poles that is fragile and easily disrupted by events in his or her life or by relationships that reignite aspects of the Grandiose Self or the Omnipotent Object.

Many people never completely resolve all the tension between the two poles; thereby never reaching a fully Cohesive Self. While not Narcissistic Personality Disorders, such people have extremely dysfunctional narcissistic traits that continually interfere with their own and other’s lives.


When the normal development of the Self is interrupted (i.e., the development of either the Grandiose Self earlier in life is disrupted; or that of the Idealized Parent later; or both are disrupted) for whatever reason, it results in what is called a fragmentation of the Self with concomitant Narcissistic Rage or Narcissistic Idealism/Awe -- or both.

Some of the typical expressions or symptoms of the fragmentation are:

(1) The Grandiose Self is dominant, and the individual exhibits:
• Continual claims for attention and admiration
• Cold and uncaring behavior toward others
• Sees others only as an extension of the Self to be manipulated and/or eliminated as needed; not able to relate to people as people or separate from oneself
• Grandiosity
• Hypochondria, or an obsession with individual body parts and illness

(2) When the Grandiose Self is repressed, the individual exhibits:
• Doubt in his abilities
• Low self-esteem and a sense of worthlessness
• Guilt –particularly if successful
• A feeling that one is not entitled to exist; or to be successful
• An erosion of ambition and personal desires

(3) When the Idealized or Omnipotent Object is dominant, the individual exhibits:
• Rigid adherence to a belief system/ Ideal
• Willingness to sacrifice people for the Ideal ("their own good")
• Others are seen as omnipotent and all-powerful or all-good
• Intolerance of mistakes
• Unforgiving of transgressions—especially those against the IDEAL
• Tendency not to acknowledge flaws in the IDEAL

(4) When the Idealized or Omnipotent Object is repressed, the individual exhibits:
• Cynicism
• Inability to believe in anything outside the Self,
• Vulnerability to “religious conversion” experience
• Tolerance of evil and a denigration of the value of human life

As I suggested previously, not everyone with a narcissistic injury to their Self presents to the Psychiatrist's office. Hypochondria is a common symptom of a defect in the Grandiose Self and can lead to frequent presentation to other physicians' offices (the bane of medical practice). Or, alternatively, excessive grandiosity, paranoia, and entitlement can land an individual in jail. Or, a need to find something, anything to believe in can lead to joining a cult or following a charismatic leader against their own long-term interests--even to blowing themselves and/or others to pieces for their particular god.

This leads (finally!) to some of the political and economic implications of Narcissism, a question that has interested me for many years.


All that has been written and discussed in Part I and II sets the stage for this analysis of politico-economic systems and the Self.

We have seen that the development of a Cohesive Self is dependent on two separate, equal and parallel developmental lines that arise originally from the biological and psychological fusion of the Infant and Mother early in life. If each of these lines are not interrupted in their normal evolution the Infant will eventually become an Adult with both narcissistic poles adequately developed and be able to function in the world in a healthy way—both in his attitude toward his own physical and psychic self; and in his attitude toward other human beings.

In some ways, the rise of human civilization from the cave to the present day has resulted because of attempts through the Rule of Law and social controls to set limits on the unrestrained Grandiose Self. This is primarily due to the destructiveness of the Narcissistic Rage generally associated with that part of the Self.

Because of this, the Grandiose Self has received a bad reputation philosophically, morally, and politically. The natural development of Governments and Religions (which ultimately are an expression of the Idealized Parent Image/Omnipotent Other side of the Self)have all too often attempted to ruthlessly suppress the Grandiose Self--much to the detriment of the individual AND the success of the particular society or religion.

In fact, despite the obvious truth that governments, nations, and religions are in a much better position to wreak far more systemized misery and death on human populations, it is almost always the Grandiose Self that gets the blame. As Wretchard at The Belmont Club pointed out in a recent post, a review of the 20th century, for example, shows that all the "people's revolutions" supported by the Left and purportedly for the purpose of "freeing" large populations of people; resulted instead in enslaving them and increasing authoritarian rule.

Without a political or economic framework that is able to incorporate what we refer to as "human nature" into its calculations, all so-called "perfect" societies and ideologies will at best simply fail in the real world; and at worse cause untold human suffering. With the best of intentions (this is perhaps debatable), the social engineers of philosophy, political science, and economics have caused so much more slavery, misery and death on a grand scale--that the grandiose CEO's of the largest corporations can be considered mere pikers by comparison.

When we talk about the individual versus society; or the individual versus the state; or indeed any discussion of individual rights versus the rights of a group, we are also referring to the psychological tension between the two poles of the Self. Any political or economic system that expects to succeed in the real world will have to accommodate that tension, and find a way to optimally negotiate the needs of BOTH sides of the Self--that is, they will have to take into account human nature.

A perusal of any list of economic systems will demonstrate that ALMOST ALL OF THEM are relatively extreme expressions of the Idealized Parent Image/Omnipotent Object. Almost all emphasize the group, the community, the collective, the nation, the state, or god at the expense of the individual. Examples are numerous. Socialism and Communism; fascism and religious fundamentalism.

The major exception is Capitalism, where the individual and the individual's needs are emphasized over the the group. Anarcho-Capitalism is another example, and it differs from Capitalism by its extreme rejection of the Idealized Parent/Omnipotent Object.

There are two general types of political systems--Freedom-based (Libertarian) and Totalitarian-based (Authoritarian)--and everything in-between.

The diagram below hypothesizes how the essential aspects of two poles of the Self, will cause the individual to be attracted to the political and economic system that best expresses the developmental level of their Self.

Image hosted by
NOTE: This diagram is by no means all-inclusive or exhaustive, and is only presented for the purposes of illustration and discussion.

The political and economic system that is optimally compatible with the Grandiose Self and the Idealized Parent; and which maximizes individual freedom, while acknowledging the needs of Democratic Capitalism. When combined with Democracy and individual freedom, Capitalism will provide the greatest measure of happiness and well-being (by encouraging a Cohesive Self)for the greatest number of people. It allows for optimal expression of the Grandiose Self and limits (but does not suppress) it by the Rule of Law. And Democracy limits the power of the state also by the Rule of Law and by specific protection of minorities from the majority. The optimum advancement of each individual person will occur by securing for the individual the greatest amount of mental and physical freedom compatible with the general welfare.

The unique aspects of Democratic Capitalism are not shared by any other political, economic or religious system. To the extent that other systems permit capitalistic endeavors within a fundamentally authoritarian system (e.g., China), individuals will be somewhat better off. But it is still not the optimal combination that maximizes the expression of both sides of the Self.

The healthy individual cannot ignore the Idealized Parent side of the Self either. Many institutions exist to provide meaning and purpose in life. Religion is one of them, but not the only one. Psychological health and a Cohesive Self require this pole of Narcissism just as surely as it requires the Grandiose Side--otherwise even the Grandiose Self will eventually despair at the meaningless quality of his or her life. This is why so many ideologies that reject religion become "religions" for their (true)believers; and why logic and reason cannot sway them from their belief, or make them see the horrible consequences of forcing their IDEAL society on everyone.

There are undoubtedly more ramifications to be seen by the application of the Psychology of the Self to Society. I do not pretend to have all the answers, nor do I believe this analysis is perfect. Narcissism alone cannot explain all of human behavior, let alone all of the evil in the world. There are clearly other developmental lines besides Narcissism that a truly healthy individual must negotiate.

But having said that, I do think that Kohut's ideas have a peculiar resonance to modern society and the current state of the world. When I see the explosion of Liberty and the demands for freedom across the globe; it is as if hundreds of millions of people are suddenly able to express a side of their selves that had been ruthlessly suppressed.

There is a Star Trek episode from the original series that I have never forgotten (I know, I know--but everything I ever learned, I learned from Star Trek!). It is titled "The Enemy Within" and in the story, a transporter malfunction results in Captain Kirk being divided into two versions of himself. One side is grandiose, aggressive, capable, clever, ambitious, paranoid and brutal; the other is kind, sensitive, empathic, passive, and depressed. The personality mix that makes Kirk an effective and capable leader and a balanced man has been completely disrupted by this malfunction. The so-called "good" Kirk realizes that without his so-called "bad" side, he is unable to muster any enthusiasm for life, and cannot make decisions or function with any degree of effectiveness. The "bad" Kirk is only bad without the "good" side; and the "good" side cannot live without the "bad". To be fully functional, balanced and psychologically stable, Kirk must have both both versions of himself united.

And so do we all.

No comments: