Caravaggio,+Narcissus

Narcissus by Caravaggio. 

 

‘He constantly goes on about his own stuff and never listens to anybody else’

‘She is so fond of the sound of her own voice’; I can never get a word in sideways’

‘Their children are so wonderful, I can’t quite believe it’.

‘He just needs an audience. It is so boring.’

 

When I was growing up, there was nothing worse than to be big headed. It echoed the other big taboo: being spoilt. We all recognised it; the boy who told us how wonderful he was, who insisted on having his own way and was not interested in anybody else except himself; the girl who was constantly preening herself, going on about all the friends she had, all the boys who lusted after her. It was Sigmund Freud, who first called this ‘narcissism’, after the myth of Narcissus, who spent so much of his time gazing at his own reflection in a pool in the forest.

The prince who fell to earth.

Everything came so easily to Jake; he never needed to try. He had achieved top grades at school and won a scholarship to Harvard, where he obtained a first class degree in economics. He was, it seemed, guaranteed a brilliant career. If Jake is given a target to aim at, he would excel, but he finds it difficult to motivate himself; he plays computer games, surfs the internet; anything except working.  At weekends, he goes to parties and gets high on drugs. Despite his natural brilliance, his life is going nowhere. He tells me that he is working on a project that could net him millions but he never seems to get on with it

An their only child, his parents had viewed him as the embodiment of their own frustrated ambitions. His father had a job on the railways, his mother in a shop. They worked hard and saved their money in order to give Jake the best education they could afford. Although he realises how much he owes his parents, he blames them for controlling his life and not letting him find his own way.  Jake still lives at his parents’ home. He has the best bedroom, converted the garage into his personal gym and uses the living room as his office, but he continues to persecute his parents for not giving him the ‘space’ to work.

Jake contacted me to help him get some direction in his life. At his first visit, he was  agitated and never stopped talking.  He listed his numerous achievements, not only in the academic world, but also as a skier, mountaineer and competitive motor cyclist. It seemed there was nothing he could not do, except get on with other people. He finds most people boring and either escapes into his computer games, obsessive work or gets high on drugs. He has a girl friend but finds her boring and only good for sex. He seems lost and lonely.

The essence of narcissism.

The essence of narcissism is self-centredness. People with a narcissistic personality tend to exhibit a grandiose sense of self-importance, exaggerating their achievements and talents and expecting to be recognized as superior. This may not always be without reason. Some, like Jake, have achieved a great deal.

Driven by fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love, their personal standards often seem unreasonably high. They are ‘the chosen ones’, entitled to be the focus of attention, attracting special treatment and only associating with high-status people or institutions.

Since their focus is on themselves, people with a narcissistic personality show little empathy with the feelings and needs of others, whose achievements are often derided. Nevertheless they are often oversensitive to being ignored or criticised.

The bigger the front, the bigger the back: a narcissistic personality often conceals a profound emotional fragility; their boastfulness compensates for a severe lack of self confidence; their fragile personality is over-dependent on the approval of others but does not trust it.  Self aggrandisement can oscillate with self deprecation and self denigration. If things are going well and people respond to their extravagant and impulsive behaviour, they feel confident and happy, but if others fail to respond or are critical, they may easily become depressed.  So people with severe narcissism may oscillate between ‘exuberance and depression’ as they try to navigate their way through the world.

In their narcissistic world, everything that happens is perceived with reference to themselves; they not only feel specially privileged when things go right but also unfairly treated when things go wrong. They lack the empathy to see things from the others viewpoint and understand, forgive and forget. This may cause them to slip into paranoia.

Personal relationships are largely superficial and serve to enhance their own self importance rather than any genuine care or interest in another’s personality or opinions. Men may chose trophy girl friends or wives; women – successful husbands. The lack of any emotional connection between narcissistic partners inevitably leads to disagreement and disappointment and may culminate in hatred and rejection.

What is the origin of narcissism?

Narcissism depends on consciousness of the self and that only arises with the development of episodic memory somewhere between the ages of two and three. It is then that the growing infant realises that they are not the same person as their mother and cannot do exactly as they wish. ‘No’, is the most important word, any of us ever hear; it launches us into a life of increasing separation and independence. We are not the only pebble on the beach; there are others to be accommodated; not just mum and dad, but brothers and sisters, grandparents, aunties and uncles, friends, colleagues and acquaintances. Self awareness might be said to mark the beginnings of socialisation.

Narcissism can be thought of as a failure of socialisation. If children are overly praised and incompletely sanctioned, they can grew up thinking they are the most important person in their world. Perhaps they were too much desired; conceived to enhance their parents lives or fulfil their ambitions.

Too preoccupied with their own needs, narcissistic parents may never allow their children to develop their own separate identities, but keep them close in order to enhance their own self regard. Parents who sacrifice themselves to educate their children, may rear children who are programmed to succeed in order to obtain love, but feeling they don’t exist if they fail. Unable to be loved for themselves or even to know themselves, they may come to feel there is no real meaning or purpose in life. This may explain why Jake not only attacks his parents but also tries to annihilate the person they had produced by dangerous activities and self destructive behaviour.

So are narcissists the children who have never grown up? Is their whole purpose in life to fulfil their parents ambitions and succeed? Do they tend to attract similarly narcissistic partners who see themselves reflected in the regard of their attractive and talented partner?  ‘What is falling in love but the mutual expression of narcissism?’

Can we all be narcissistic?

The American Psychiatric Association estimates that Narcissistic Personality Disorder is present in 6% of people living in America. This figure might seem unrealistically low, but it only represents those people who have such persistent narcissistic behaviour that it is a dominant feature of their personalities.

Narcissistic behaviour is pervasive throughout our society. We all have acquaintances who are so ‘full of themselves’ they never listen to anybody else. We are all familiar with the daily exhibitions of self aggrandisement on social media sites. We all know people, who are constantly obsessed whether somebody likes them or not, or those who continue to carry a sense of personal grievance for years. These are all aspects of narcissism.

It can seem we are living in a narcissistic world, where so many people tend to talk at each other and compete rather than engage, where all of their stuff is put out on ‘Facebook’, which serves as a poster board rather than as a vehicle for communication, and where everybody aspires to be a celebrity. Is this the result of increasing cultural insecurity, greater opportunity and reward for self advertisement, the prolongation of a state of childhood, or a combination of all three?

We can all exhibit narcissistic behaviour at times. Who among us cannot recall a time they were so carried away with their own exuberance after some particular achievement that they felt ashamed? Who has not been in situations where feelings of inadequacy has led them to overcompensate? Who has not felt ostracised because of something they might have said or done? Narcissistic behaviour depends on what happens, especially how other people behave. Promotion, reward or praise may release the brakes on self publication. Conversely, feeling ignored or treated unfairly may consolidate a sense of grievance or paranoia.

Self-centredness should not always be seen as a negative quality. When we are threatened and in danger, it can ensure our survival and the survival of our dependents. And, off course, we all need a degree of self belief if we are going to manage in the world; we cannot always expect to be looked after. The aim of socialisation might be expressed as the ability ‘to be ourselves in the company of others’, which implies sufficient self awareness and belief to survive in society. Like everything else, narcissism is a matter of degree and balance.

There are of course certain occupations where narcissism is encouraged and rewarded. Actors, politicians, sportsmen, performers of any sort, captains of industry, military commanders, all need to express a strong sense of self belief, which they do not always feel.  We respect and admire their narcissism and even wish we were not held back by conscience and could be like them. My friend and fellow university lecturer, David Rumsey, understood this, when, on the occasion of my appointment as Professor, he said, ‘we are all delighted that Nick has got a shiny new chair, because when he sits down, we shall get the reflected glory.’  We all need friends who can contain our narcissism with gentle humour.

Not only promotion, recognition and achievement, but in particular falling in love can be seen as an expression of narcissism. There can be nothing as intoxicating as perceiving your reflection in the eyes of your beloved; it beats staring into a forest pond.

The occasion flush of narcissism is quite normal and can feel wonderful but needs to be managed in order to remain healthy and survive in the society of others. Too much of it can lead to unreality and therein lies a form of madness. This may explain why so many celebrities find it difficult to survive failures and reversals without self doubt, extreme depression and escape into addictions. I used to encourage my more ambitious research students to dream with their head in the clouds, but always to keep their feet firmly planted on the ground.

Managing narcissistic behaviour.

Extreme narcissistic behaviour is like drug addiction; it perpetuates itself. If narcissistic people are getting attention they crave, why would they want to change? And if they get it wrong and are ignored and disapproved of, all they want is to do is to make themselves feel confident again. Unless they crash, there is no incentive to correct their behaviour. But narcissistic personalities crash all too commonly; marriages fail, children are damaged, the career that was so brilliant, can collapse because of the one hasty decision  that didn’t work out.

Time and life experience can provide the opportunity to reflect on life’s reversals, understand others’ points of view, appreciate the consequences of their behaviour and change. But patterns of behaviour consolidated over a lifetime rarely change unless they get help. Psychotherapy can help people gain that sense of perspective and control over their own behaviour by creating the mental space to reflect with a therapist on what has happened.  A combination of mentalisation to promote understanding and empathy and cognitive behavioural strategies to modify responses, may correct patterns of socialisation and normalise mood and behaviour.

The British psychoanalyst, Melanie Klein, coined the term ‘the depressive position’ to describe the developmental phase, when an infant realises his own limitations. He (or she) can’t do just what s/he wants to do and has instead to conform to the mores of family and society. This leads to feelings of depression, which nevertheless encourage thought, course correction and learning. People with narcissistic personality disorder may never resolve ‘the depressive position’ early in life and are most likely destined to repeat it later, often many times.

 

They said this thing just couldn’t be done.
With a smile, he said, he knew it.
But he tackled this thing that just couldn’t be done
and he couldn’t do it.