On Narcissism

Donald Trump has sparked interest in the phenomenon of narcissism. The characteristics of narcissism are:

  • grandiosity
  • sense of entitlement
  • lack of integrity
  • lack of empathy
  • manipulation (lying, blackmail, gaslighting)
  • superficial charm
  • impoverished internal world, emptiness

Narcissists suffer from an inability to regulate their self-esteem, which leaves them caught between grandiosity and feelings of shameful inadequacy, always struggling to find external sources of validation. For this reason they are constantly preoccupied with status, power, wealth, and physical attractiveness. Developmentally, narcissists have failed to develop the ability recognize others as separate from themselves. They may know intellectually that other people are separate individuals, but emotionally, they are convinced that they are not, and thus feel entitled to transgress any boundary in their interactions with others.

Psychologists theorize that children grow up to become narcissists if they have narcissistic parents themselves, who use them as narcissistic extensions. This means that the parents use their children to maintain their own self-esteem. They effectively teach their children that only the outer appearance counts, and that their parents’ love is conditional and depends on the child’s performance. But it is also believed that unstable, abusive families, or alternatively parents who over-indulge and fail to enforce boundaries support narcissistic tendencies in their children. Nevertheless, it remains mysterious why some children from such backgrounds grow up to be narcissists and others do not. There are many factors that influence the outcome.

Narcissism is equivalent to a dreadful lack of maturity. Interestingly, maturity and intelligence are separate dimensions of personality, with little apparent correlation. Narcissists can be highly intelligent and professionally successful, but still at the level of a little child in terms of emotional maturity. Western societies are also quite forgiving when it comes to narcissism – the idealization of success means that there is less interest in how the success was achieved. In the United States in particular, there is a tendency to forgive any moral transgression, if it eventually leads to success – ruthless individuals may even be admired for their cunningness.

Narcissists are not nice people. They like to put down others, they laugh about them, and they belittle their achievements. They manipulate others into doing what they want, they lie and blackmail to achieve their goals. They attack other people’s psychological weaknesses to destabilize them. They try to convince other people that they are crazy. They cynically exploit goodwill and empathy.

It should not be forgotten, however, that narcissists pay a terrible price for their self-centeredness. Their relationships are shallow, and their ability to perceive beauty are stunted. An awareness of the beauty of life, as well as true love and concern for others, require us to transcend the confines of our self, and to extend ourselves, which is not possible for narcissistic people. At heart, they are terribly afraid of losing control, and terribly alone.

Now, it is individuals who exhibit high levels of narcissism who are labelled narcissists. But the truth is that we all are narcissistic, some to a larger, some to a smaller degree. We all have the need to cover our weaknesses and to support our self-esteem by convincing ourselves that we are special and superior, because we are all afraid.

To see the more subtle levels of our narcissism, we must look very closely at ourselves. Our narcissism shows up in our unwillingness to consider other people’s point of view, our need to be right, our need to judge others, to condemn them. It shows up in our attachment to our political opinions, our knowledge, our physical attractiveness, our position. It shows up in our willingness to lie and to distort reality to cover up our mistakes and shortcomings. It shows up in our aggression, our anger, and our jealousy. We feel that we are entitled to be successful. When someone else fails, we say that everybody makes mistakes, that it is ok, but if it happens to us, we find it unacceptable, and get angry and defensive. Often, these patterns are so deeply engrained, and so widespread that we are unable to see them, or we feel entitled to behave in such ways.

Obviously, the world is just the way it is, regardless of our opinions and judgements about it. If we fail, we fail. If we succeed, we succeed. If others have different opinions, they have different opinions. No need to make a fuss about it.

Put in another way, to the degree that we are narcissistic, we sacrifice others for our selfish agenda. For example, if I assume a judgmental attitude towards someone, I use his/her situation to feel good about myself. With this judgmental attitude comes a sense of separation, a feeling that I am here and that other person is over there, and that it is impossible to connect. I also hurt that other person.

Note the difference between making a judgment and being judgmental. Making judgments is necessary: we have to judge people, situations, institutions, jobs, etc. to take good decisions in our lives. If someone is toxic and destructive, it is a good idea to stay away from that person to protect yourself. If someone is aggressive and hurts other people with his/her behavior, we should oppose them and prevent them from doing so, but without hate and contempt. If we are judgmental, we condemn that person to feel better about ourselves, to solidify our idea of ourselves as a “good person”, and that is something “extra”. Shunryu Suzuki, a Zen teacher, said we should be like a clean, pure flame in everything we do. The flame should be so pure that it utterly consumes itself and does not produce any smoke. If we judge and act without condemnation and attachment to our opinions, we burn like a pure flame, without smoke. Any need to condemn and to be opinionated is “extra”, and produces smoke.

The problem is that we are all constantly sacrificing each other for our selfish agendas. Being sacrificed hurts and leads us to sacrifice others in turn, and this gives rise to an endless cycle of aggression.

Please help to stop this cycle of aggression and counter-aggression.

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