Thursday, April 27, 2006


Because I'm stuck in a conference all day, I though I would recycle what I consideer to be one of my best posts on Narcissism. This is Part I in a Three-part series. Links to the other two parts are below.

[Part II is here; and Part III is here.]

For some years now, I have been thinking of way to reconcile my observations on human nature and psychology with my understanding of economic and political systems. Since I first studied it back in the 70's and 80's, I have thought that one particular psychological theory--Kohut's Psychology of the Self (as presented in his books and writings, particularly The Analysis of the Self and The Restoration of the Self )-- has some important implications for understanding why certain political systems are successful and compatible with human nature and why some are grossly incompatible with it.

So at the beginning of this essay I will make the following disclaimer: the basic ideas discussed about the Psychology of the Self belong to Heinz Kohut; and the political applications of his theories and concepts are my own thoughts. Don't blame Kohut for any errors or misstatements!

I also apologize in advance for the use of some esoteric psychiatric language. In general, I have mostly tried to explain the ideas as simply as possible (believe it or not!). My hope is that it can generate some discussion and debate.

What is Narcissism ?
I think we should start at the beginning. The term "narcissism" was coined by Sigmund Freud, who named the phenomenon after the Narcissus in Greek mythology. Narcissus was a handsome young man who rejected the desperate advances of the nymph Echo who loved him. As a punishment, the gods doomed him to fall in love with his own reflection in a pool of water. Unable to consummate his love, Narcissus pined away and changed into the flower that bears his name. (Incidentally, Echo also wasted away until she was just a whisper, barely heard).

The clinical syndrome of Narcissism (Narcissistic Personality Disorder) is described in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders - Fourth Edition (DSM-IV) of the American Psychiatric Association as: "A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy."

According to the DSM-IV, the disorder begins by early adulthood and is indicated by the subject exhibiting at least five of the following:
1. An exaggerated sense of self-importance
2. Preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or
ideal love
3. Believes he is "special" and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)
4. Requires excessive admiration
5. Has a sense of entitlement
6. Selfishly takes advantage of others to achieve his own ends
7. Lacks empathy
8. Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him
9. Shows arrogant, haughty, patronizing, or contemptuous behaviors or attitudes

Everyone has some Narcissistic traits, and a certain amount of Narcissism is a necessary and healthy thing. What’s different about the personality disorder is that the symptoms are prominent and persistent over time and pervade every aspect of the person’s existence. It can be very disabling in extreme cases; and in others those who have this personality can make the people around them thoroughly miserable, since some narcissists can be manipulative, predatory and completely lacking in empathy. Narcissists are notoriously spiteful and vicious and usually alienate anyone close to them.

Why is Narcissism Important?

All over the world, on a daily basis we see the horrible results of Narcissistic behavior. Individuals and groups; religions and nations act out their Narcissistic rage at various insults--real and imagined-- and people suffer and die for the purpose of the grandiosity of the tyrant, or the glory of the religion. It has been said that the 20th century was the “century of the Narcissist”, but the 21st is well on its way to outdoing the horrors of the past as a seeming epidemic of malignant Narcissism caused by a crushing of human nature and the human spirit--all for the purpose of serving the self-aggrandizing vision of the few.

Tim Hall of the NY Press writes:

Narcissism is hot. In the wake of the dot-com implosion and recent business scandals, many are focusing their attention on what otherwise might have remained an obscure psychological disorder. Much of the New Economy bubble seems to have arisen from narcissism run amok: The grandiosity of crooked executives and their haughty contempt for business and accounting procedures; the relentless manipulation of (and by) investors, analysts, and employees; the utter lack of empathy for others; the complete and total denial of any wrongdoing when everything fell apart.
For many on the Left side of the political spectrum, it is axiomatic that Narcissism is inextricably linked to business, Capitalism, individualism, and the pursuit of profit. The Left has idealized certain social and political systems because they suppressed the individual and elevated the state, insisting that individuals had no right to exist for their own selves, but only to serve others.

Executives, such as The Rigases of Adelphia Corp; Samuel D. Waksal, the socialite founder of ImClone Systems; Dennis Kozlowski, of Tyco International; Scott D. Sullivan of WorldCom; and Ken Lay of Enron, typify the ugly Narcissist of the business world with his or her extreme grandiosity; selfishness of unbelievable proportions; and complete lack of empathy towards the people they cheated. While the majority of businessmen are ethical and honest individuals, only a few “bad apples” are needed to demonstrate the havoc that malignant Narcissism in the business sector can wreak.

But what is not generally or readily seen (either on the Left or Right) is the flip side of "selfish" or "grandiose" Narcissism-- and that is what I will call Narcissism rooted in idealism, rather than selfishness, or "idealistic" Narcissism. This second kind of Narcissism (the flip side of the coin, if you will) is less obvious to an observer, since it is disguised with a veneer of concern for others. But it is equally—if not more—destructive and causative of human suffering, death and misery. Both kinds of Narcissism are a plague on the world; and both are well-traveled avenues for limiting freedom and imposing tyranny. The "grandiose" Narcissism is the stimulus for individual tyrants, while the "idealistic" Narcissism leads to groups imposing their will on others. We will talk more of this in Part II.

First, I need to explain what healthy Narcissism is and how it develops. The political and economic implications follow after the foundation is set.

Healthy Narcissism and Kohut’s Psychology of the Self

This part of my discussion is based on the theories of Self Psychology by Heinz Kohut. Kohut was a psychoanalyst (he died in 1981) whose controversial theories had a considerable impact on psychiatry and psychoanalysis. He was an innovative thinker (and a rather opaque writer) who broke with Freud in some important areas. His ideas have influenced me tremendously, both in the way I approach patients and understand their concerns, as well as the way I treat them. Every day in my psychiatric practice I see the truth of his ideas in the interactions I have with my patients; and in the interactions of my patients in society-at-large.

Freud’s view of Narcissism can be summed up by saying that true psychic health requires a complete dissociation from the primary Narcissism inherent in the infant and child. The individual during his or her development tries to find and maintain a form of self love that is compatible with healthy relationships with other(this is called “object relations” in psychiatry).

The bottom line is that Freud considered Narcissism quite negatively. He saw it as only associated with severe pathology and considered it the antithesis of being able to achieve normal and healthy relationships.

Some have referred to Kohut’s Psychology of the Self as "psychoanalysis without original sin"—i.e., the “original sin” that Freud considered Narcissism. One of Kohut’s breaks with Freudian tradition is that he considered Narcissism affirmatively, as an essential part of the Self; and described how it develops in the healthy individual.

What is the “Self”? The “Self” can be thought of as a content of the mental apparatus; a structure within the mind that has continuity in time and a specific location. The “Self” is therefore analogous to how one represents other people within the mind. Some people mistake the “Self” with Freud’s concept of “Ego”, but “Ego” (along with “Id” and “Superego”) are agencies of the mind, rather than a specific content of it. “Identity” can be thought of as the Self’s socio-cultural position in the world.

A healthy Self has two fundamental and equally important parts:

1) Self-Esteem – or a sense that one has a right to Life and success; ambition; a healthy exhibitionism and comfort with one’s body. This part of the Self supplies the instinctual fuel for ambition and purpose; and for enjoyment of Life’s activities.

2) Ideals – a belief in something outside the “Self” that guides and gives meaning to one’s Life. Having ideals make developing one’s goals in Life possible. It is this part of the Self that also makes healthy interpersonal relationships possible.

The development of BOTH parts is essential to psychological health. When one part develops at the expense of the other—it has grave consequences for the individual and society.

The Diagram below summarizes the normal development of the Self; and as you can see, there are two equally important and parallel lines of development that have their origin in human biology and dependence of the infant on an adult for survival during the first years of life.

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The infant is born with what is called “Primary Narcissism”. Mothers know that the newborn child is not able to differentiate between the Mother (referred to as “Other”) and himself (referred to as “Self”). For example, the Mother's breast is treated by the infant initially as a part of himself. Slowly over months and years, the child begins to differentiate himself from the Mother; and as he goes through normal biological development he becomes more and more independent and self-sufficient.

At some point, the Self and the Other--once "perfectly" merged--are now two distinct objects. This important process of separation-individuation is facilitated by the normal shortcomings(i.e. imperfections) in maternal care, which spur the child's development as an individual. For example: baby demands food, but mother is unavailable right now and doesn’t feed baby until her schedule permits (but doesn’t let him starve either!). Such natural and normal imperfections of empathy with the child are actually healthy. I won’t go into a full discussion of this, but suffice it to say that the Other must not be too perfect, nor too imperfect, as either extreme carried on for too long will interfere with the developing Self of the child.

It is because of the slow separation of Self from Other that the two developmental lines come into being. The first line Kohut refers to as the “Grandiose Self”(or idealized self image) and the second is referred to as the “Idealized Parent Image”. Both of these images represent psychological attempts to save the original experience of "perfection" by the infant when the Mother (Other) and the infant (Self) were “one”.

The “Grandiose Self” will develop over time (if not disrupted) into healthy Self-Esteem; and the” Idealized Parent Image” will eventually lead to the development of Ideals that give meaning to the individual’s life; and to healthy interpersonal relationships.

In Part II, I will discuss how-- when either or both of these two developmental lines are disrupted during the child's development (either through biology or environment)--they can seriously impact the individual, his/her family and even the wider society. It is my contention that these two developmental lines suggest a powerful reason why individuals may be attracted to one type of political system or another, and I will also discuss the implications of that.

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