“There’s no such thing as a baby” wrote the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, a beautifully put statement on the psychology of babies, and how they exist not as independent psychological beings, but as a world-to-themselves. The external and internal worlds are not differentiated as ours are. The baby assumes magical control of the mother's breast, as if it were a part of its own world. This is the era of infantile narcissism, before the other exists as such, a kind of unity or dyad with their mother.
Winnicott was making a comment for the ages. “I” is something so embedded in human language and experience that we rarely even think of it. We don’t need to explore the excesses of social media to notice its dominance. If a baby is too young to have an I and an other, but by the time it has become a child playing in the sand, they're very much there. The squabbles over who gets what and when. The puffed out chests: I did it! I got there first! My turn. “I”, when it first appears, is filled with narcissism. Then of course, the good-enough parents have to chime back: “Oh yes, well done. No, now you have to share - please give your sister some too.” Good-enough parents have spent a lot of time modelling and teaching self-other interactions: you and me, rather than you or me. The child grows, imperfectly, toward a balance of self and other.
But the problem of I never leaves us. On the sunburned return home, the parent who’s driving swears involuntarily as she’s dangerously cut up by another, selfish driver: a rampaging I who, it appears, cares not a whit for her safety or that of her kids, still arguing in the back seat over who gets what and when. Back home, the news she reads is filled with devastation: wealth hoarding; wars; hatred and environmental destruction. I, I, I, our human gift, our legacy and our destruction. Despite all our progress in other domains, taming the I has proven difficult, to say the least. If the I is a tiger, it’s still very wild indeed.
In psychotherapy, this issue falls under the umbrella of narcissism: the untrammelled dominance of I. The damage done to people who’ve had to survive such an environment is clear. But the great I is not solely found on an individual level. It’s also found on the group level in what is known as group narcissism. That car that cut you up? You notice it’s a group of youngsters, and they are all laughing at you as one, gesturing rudely as you struggle to calm down.
Group narcissism tends to stick out like a sore thumb; it betrays itself because if you understand narcissism, you know what to look for:
Highly narcissistic groups do not display healthy narcissism. They are not devoted to their own collective self while also listening and respecting other groups - quite the opposite. Many groups are psychologically identical in this respect, whether on the playground or the battleground. There’s always a scapegoat, always devaluation of another group, and a dehumanization of those who do not fit the group’s paradigm. There’s always a grandiose idealization of the self-group. On the largest scale, the dynamics of group narcissism play out on both extreme wings of politics, organized crime, cults, nationalism and totalitarian religions.
Cultural narcissism is broader still, and encompasses both individuals and groups within its framework. Our relationship to nature has been broadly a narcissistic one, for example: we have taken without respect, we’ve devalued the other ruthlessly (without ruth, meaning care). Cultural narcissism is also prevalent on social media and exploitative tv shows, and it’s present in the pervasive materialism that so haunted Carl Jung and determines so much about how we view ourselves.
We are acutely vulnerable to narcissism in its different forms. We need an individual I, as well as a group I to which we can belong, and both individuals and groups must swim in cultural waters. We yearn for a sense of self, but the balance between self and other is a delicate one, one we often pay little direct attention to. We make particular and unconscious use of the abstract world and of language to devalue and to idealize: something no other species on earth has to contend with. We don’t think for a second about how we’re living in misery because we have a “perfect” (imaginary) version of ourselves that haunts our every move and leaves us never good-enough. We’re deeply unconscious about how simple and tempting it is for us to paint a picture of the other that is devaluative: it just happens. Slavery, abuse, neglect and devaluative ideology “just happens”. Echoist fawning over cultish, destructive leaders “just happens”: the self evaporates like mist in the morning. But what do we mean by how easy and unconscious it is for us to “paint a picture”?
Along with consciousness comes our power of abstraction. In devaluation and idealization, abstraction (imagination) is key to our methodology. Think of a devaluation you have witnessed, received or committed (everyone does it), and you are probably remembering someone being thought of or spoken about, or portrayed, as something less than they really are. We can reduce people to objects, insects, or worms simply with the power of our minds. Words are the chariots of devaluation. Language is a supreme achievement in our species. It has helped build what I think of as the abstract world, something near to hand, an ever present which we confuse with reality all the time. Think for example of how you view the political party you oppose, a rival sports club, or your enemies. Are these generalised abstract and devaluative representations, or do they accurately reflect the reality of the individuals concerned? Devaluations are often caricatures.
Idealization uses the same mechanism as devaluation. It doesn’t have to be the cultish leader that bewitches us into hero worship; it can be anyone - mother, father, lover, leader. When we idealize we don’t see the person in front of us; we see, without usually noticing it, a god or goddess, their live image projected like gossamer, the abstract world lying on top of the real person in front of us.
Splitting refers to our tendency for binary (black and white) thinking. Splitting good from bad in glib, simplistic ways brings a particular form of violence to human relations. If we’re not frightened by how easily we lose any form of nuance in our relationships, perhaps we should be.
Every human being is narcissistic. What determines so much of our character is the degree - where we lie on the spectrum of narcissism. In my work as a psychotherapist I hold to the concept of “healthy narcissism”. We all have an I that must be respected. We need to take up time, space, to have our own ideas and our own sense of reality in order to be healthy. At the same time, we need to recognize when we’re taking all the limelight, or using grandiosity like helium in a balloon, or using the projections of devaluation and idealization.
The flip side of narcissism is “echoism” or “codependence”, where people are reduced to wallflowers, to pleasing the other obsessively. Echo is a character who uses a kind of narcissism-by-proxy. She knows how to disappear but keeps the central narcissistic requirement of specialness alive by being bound to it externally rather than internally. Such individuals often feel intensely anxious about taking up space-time as an individual. Existence feels dangerous to Echo, so she looks for - and often finds - her Narcissus. Between the extremes of narcissism and echoism lies the imperfect, dynamic world of interdependency, of give and take, existing and loving the existence of others. In mythology, Echo was feminine, and Narcissus masculine. But just as the beauty of myth and art allows us to recognize that these two are not necessarily separate beings at all - they are frequently twin aspects of one person’s psychology - their genders are interchangeable too.
As humans, we live with narcissistic bubbles: individual, group, cultural. Our species has narcissism built into it, as Winnicott knew. Darwin, Copernicus and Freud all brought us up against our narcissism: we came from apes; our planet isn’t the centre of the universe; we’re not even ‘masters in our own home’ (mind). Democracy, environmentalism, the UN...so many of our efforts are, at root, an attempt to overcome our inherent dangerous narcissism. Religion too, often attempts to tackle it; how seemingly impossible it is for a consciousness to wrestle with its own eventual absence. For thousands of years, we’ve adhered to the notion that somehow not just consciousness, but something of our ego could survive death and exist forever in another place. Our own absence is not just frightening to us, it is unthinkable and we’re forever tempted to imagine our way around it.
Okay, so therapists can be a wordy bunch!
Here’s a snapshot of something a little more practical. I’ve sketched out some simple things to think about to challenge your own narcissistic impulses, which is often a better way around than getting angry with those we notice in others. These meditations are not exhaustive in the least - they are just meant as a sample, a beginning if you’re interested. It might be that technology will one day help us out of this pickle, but in the meantime, we have the ability to observe our own narcissism. So, take a quiet moment to self-reflect upon the following:
Bullying, particularly in schools, but also online, in workplaces and in the home, has never been something we’ve been good at combating. There are a myriad of programs and efforts at “increasing empathy” and still more that seek to increase or induce guilt in perpetrators. What appears to be frequently ignored remains unconscious...that people bully because they enjoy bullying. Bullying is intensely narcissistic, on the individual and group level. If we never teach what sadism is, and that yes, as a species we’re fully capable of enjoying being utterly vile to other people, this problem won’t be dented, let alone solved. Ask yourself honestly: have you enjoyed devaluing others? If your answer is no, try again. This time, include yourself: perhaps, like Echo, you habitually devalue your own self in the world. Does this make you feel “good”? Feeling good about feeling bad is the root of sado-masochism. Give it a name. Look it in the eye.
Interestingly, the word “narcissist” itself is frequently used as a devaluation.
At the moment, as it’s always been, there’s no greater societal danger than group narcissism, or tribalism. Today, we live in an era of mass projection, and our responsibility in this is a shared, human one. Here’s a meditative practice through which you can become more aware of your own part in these phenomena on an ongoing basis.
First, be honest with yourself about some of the groups you despise. List a few; trust me, you have some. Next, back to the group narcissism checklist: grandiosity, idealization, devaluation and splitting. You’ll need to pay particular attention to the role abstract imagination is playing. Ask yourself: are you idealizing your own group? In other words, are you seeing it as a projection, rather than the thing in itself? What is the real picture, nuanced, warts and all, without its grandiosity? Remember, idealization is every bit as dangerous as the next issue: devaluation.
Are you devaluing the other group - seeing it as a devalued abstract entity, just like a picture on the wall, rather than the complexity it truly is? What about its individual members: are they accurately reflected, or grouped together under a devaluative projection? Think of the language you use to talk of the other, think of the pictures you conjure with your mind. Finally - and by now some of this will have already been addressed: splitting. How much binary (black and white) thinking is going on in your views of your own group (your beyond-I) and of the other? Remember, language is a giveaway, even if you’re using it within your own mind.
Many clients I meet with have long since given up any formal sense of religion. But how can we cope without the comforts it once offered?
One way of approaching this from the perspective of narcissism is to think about our concepts of individuality. We have a great deal of trouble wrestling with death because unconsciously we’re wedded to the idea we’re special, unique individuals. Consciousness itself creates this perception. Perhaps this is something of a mirage; when you die, another is still alive. Consciousness is not truly “lost” in death - it continues in the psyche of humankind, and probably elsewhere too. It’s not just your children, your work or an afterlife that “continues” you.
In healthy narcissism, we recognize our need to take up time and space, our need for ego...but letting go of some of our narcissism can also be a great relief. An afterlife is right here, right now, in your fellow human beings, and even in other life forms. The historical, binary separation between our self-concept of humanity as conscious, and the natural world as unconscious, and thing-like is breaking down. We are all utterly unique, but also the same as one another. Remember that your own consciousness is going to struggle to imagine its own absence. The binary implications of death are intolerable for us, but we don’t need to conclude an afterlife with an intact ego, including our personal relationships and memories; and neither do we need to strive for genius or children as our only way of leaving a self behind when we’re gone. We can’t all be a Shakespeare or an Elton John; we can’t, and shouldn’t, all strive to leave behind a band of mini-me’s. Neither do we need to. It’s a wonder to be a spark of consciousness, but the flame goes on once the spark disappears into the night. On this planet and beyond, who knows how many flames, what colours, what fireworks...what inferno? Isn’t that beautiful enough?
Psychotherapist, working in private practice in the Annex, Toronto.