Narcissism and the Bottomless Pit.

In thirty years of practice as a psychotherapist I never came across an indigenous person with a Narcissistic Personality Disorder. The reason is that native people generally have a way of raising their kids that is  radically different to parents in the ‘civilised’ West.

This does not mean that Western women are bad mothers, but that they have to contend with a split reality endemic in our culture that makes it difficult for baby to cross certain developmental thresholds.

On the one hand the child, as depicted in the majority of psychoanalytic literature, is a voracious power hungry little monster who battles mother for dominance and has to be brought to heel at all costs.

”Babies have become a sort of enemy to be vanquished by mother…on the premise that every effort should be made to force baby to conform when it ’causes’ work and ‘wastes’ time.’ J. Liedloff

On the other hand, and by way of compensation, we have the effusive and liberal face of Dr Spock, whose sales of his book ‘Baby and Childcare’, come second only to the Bible on the best seller list. Spock advocated ‘childcentric’ households which effectively have children ruling the roost. Detractors claim he cultivated Narcissism in millions as the most trusted name in childcare and parenting since 1940 and even hold him personally responsible for the moral decline of  western culture.

”When a society becomes out of control, it is because its members elevate self-indulgence and lack self-control…and [have] come to see gratification as a right.” R. Bradley.
 These radically polarised veiws of parenting presented by Freud and Spock, often operating without reference to one another under the same roof, have something strangely in common. Both the liberal, anti-authoritarian mandate of currying entitlement in children and the cold hearted philosophy of ‘you did it to yourself’ inherent in Freudian theory, marginalised the fact that women have been having babies for seven million years without the input of opinionated men in lab coats.
 Both men’ knew better’ than the feminine soul. To the extent that these theories were imposed upon women’s natural instincts, their innate knowing, their connection to their own mothers and to the Divine Feminine that presided over childbirth and motherhood, so too was their role undermined, ancient wisdom eroded and intrinsic understanding of what was right and proper, subverted and injured.
So whilst it may be true that excessive permissiveness fosters narcissistic tendencies and a sense of entitlement, it is also the case that narcissistic wounds are inevitable when the bond between mother and child is intruded upon by someone who thinks they know better than Nature herself, irrespective of the received ‘wisdom’ under consideration.
You’re probably familiar with the educational maxim ‘would you teach a fish to climb a tree?’ but we forget that its even more undermining to teach a fish to swim.
A centiped was happy, quite!
Until a toad in fun
Said, ‘pray which leg follows which?
This raised her doubts to such a pitch
She fell exhausted in a ditch,
Not knowing how to run.
“If we have learnt certain [things] so that they have sunk below the level of conscious control, then if we try to follow them consciously we very often interfere with them so badly that we stop them”. Carl Popper.
It follows that if mother has it instilled in her that she doesn’t know her job  without instruction from a clipboard wielding MD then baby will be similarly confused and struggle with developmental tasks, understandably preferring the relative safety of remaining partly fused with mother in a state of  ‘symbiotic omnipotence’. (M. Kahn).
This interupts the process of separation and healthy growth, preventing the child from crossing the threshold associated with ‘symbol formation’. This is significant because it is symbol formation that is responsible for the experience of others as persons in their own right, and for the development of values associated with feelings about others having their own purpose and destiny. The child can get eternally caught  in the concrete thinking of symbolic equations where, for instance, worth is measured in terms of money,  loveability in terms of sexual conquest, power in terms of domination of others, all the things we recognise as symptoms of NPD.
‘No-one loves me, because you don’t wipe my chin.’ Liedloff.
The figurative representation of ideas, conflicts or wishes cannot be experienced and so metaphorical notions of honour, faithfullness, duty, empathy and so on remain conceptual ideas rather than lived and experienced realities…
”from which intellectualism is only to ready to emancipate itself.” C.G. Jung
This is most obvious in our relationships because Narcissism does not really experience the Other as such. Their humanity remains conceptual. The notion that others have equal rights is an abstract idea to be rationally concluded without actually being lived.
Racism and sexism are the most common outcome of such a mind set, but the irony is that the Narcissist has equal trouble conceiving of ‘his own’ in fully human terms unless they remain entirely joined at the hip. Humanity is not experienced, it is deduced, much as Socrates ‘worked out’ that one day he would die.
‘Socrates is a man. Men are mortal. Therefor Socrates will die.’
On the basis of such abstract deduction ordinary instinctual care for one another is occluded. One’s own self barely exists in its own right, how shall another fare any better?
The developmental threshold of symbol formation affords not only the recognition of the otherness of the Other, it also affords value and significance to the otherness of oneself, in other words to the fantasies, intuitions and aspirations emerging from the archetypal layers of the psyche that take over the job of feeding the child, as it were, from within.
This leads to a lack of faith, not only in others but towards life itself which cannot be trusted to provide. The child becomes a consumer…
‘clinging to objects and people, investing them with magical powers, ferocious in [the] demand to possess and control.” Liedloff
Asking Narcissism to share is thus experienced as an attack on all that is holy because money and resources have been imbued with a kind of spiritual manna. Losing hegemony over it is tantamount to desecration. The paranoid tendency of the Narcissist  is not simply that someone is out to get him, but that all he holds sacred is under attack.
And so the predominant experience of life is one of being a victim, no matter how much one has, nor how much there is available. It is like being a planet without a sun, or worse, having a black hole to revolve around which threatens to drain and crush at every turn. Without the inner ‘other’, there is nothing to mediate the dark forces of the cosmos.
”Our connection with a sacred centre [gives] a sense of real existence that counters the terror of chaos and nothingness, helps [a person] find their bearings and makes order of the Universe’. Bizint
Since what we cannot integrate is invariably projected it will seem to those who stub their toe on at the threshold of symbol formation that some illegitimate other has stolen the key to happiness. He lives, not only in a state of lack but as if his divine inheritance is being withheld. And because he’s in the bind of having to deny what he needs, his lack and being witheld from is acted out in the world, which perhaps explains the conundrum of how it is possible for the richest and greatest nation in the world to sweep one of its most powerful men to high office on the shirt tails of the  slogan, ‘make America great again’, as though it were a mere dispossesed guttersnipe on the fringes of the stage.

Soul Loss, Soul Retrieval.

When I was an ardent young fascist and subjugating already impoverished people on their own ancestral lands, a Commanding Officer from HQ came to give us macho fighting lads a pep talk in the bush.

In those days and in that part of the world most people smoked but you could only buy two brands of cigarettes. Madison was for your man’s man, ‘strong and full of flavour’, Kingston was for women and Madison smokers trying to give up.

The tobacco company noticed the trend and decided to capitalise on the gender variable so they launched fags-for-girls, Berkeley.

The C.O. arrives, men at attention, eyes front. He invites us to stand easy and to smoke if we wish, producing a pink packet of Berkeley, removing the wrapper with all the curiosity of a novel occasion, oblivious to the faux pas unfolding. He lights one, coughs a bit and then delivers his spiel for as long as it takes the cigarette to burn down to clenched fingers behind his back.

It wasn’t just the social gaff, not just that we Madison guys would rather gouge out our eyes with a rusty spoon than be seen smoking Berkeley. It was his clumsy attempt at manipulation, the pretence of the man trying to be one of the lads which he assumed everyone was too stupid to see. But more than this, way more, what he actually did, despite his intention, was to suck the life and vitality out of the very group he was ostensibly there to enrich.

As he spoke, words slithering, tone masticating, hands ever hidden, I could feel something essential being drained out of me. It seemed that for the duration of this brief and otherwise unmemorable speech, all the soul consuming influences of my young life suddenly condensed about his quietly malevolent person; my deceiptful father, the toxic pedagogues of my hateful schooling, the cold calculation of imperial culture that sends its youth to their deaths for profit. By the time his Berkeley had burned down to nothing, so too, had I.

Whilst the C.O. was not playing the traditional narcissistic gambit of dumping his inferiority on us, something he reserved for the contemptuous enemy, to be in his presence was still an ennervating experience given his need to fill himself up with other people’s energy.

It took me decades to make sense of the experience…

… his covert agenda was to feed from the buoyant mood that already existed amongst the men to quell his own unacknowledged fears and insecurities.

This garnering to oneself of another’s qualities or energies is the flipside of narcissistic ‘gaslighting’. Gaslighting is when a person disowns their own behaviour or motivation by calling any attempt to point to it ‘projection’. It’s not me it’s you. What the C.O. did was the opposite, he filled up the gnawing gaps in himself with our morale.

The fact that we can be intruded on and depleted both by the Unconscious and by one another is what gives rise to the universal use of protective amulets against the ‘evil eye’. We can only understand these apotropaic objects as superstition if we fail to take into consideration the psychic fact that this kind of inter-personal robbery is a real thing.

When C. G. Jung was in Kenya he asked the headman of the village he was visiting if the people there had dreams. ‘No,’ replied the elderly African, ‘the District Commissioner has our dreams for us these days.”

We are uncomfortable with the permeability of the Psyche because it suggests us humans are a great deal less discrete from one another than we’d prefer to imagine. Our feelings of superiority depend on the conviction that consciousness is master of its own house. And yet somehow the collective imagination is still repleat with the mythologems of blood sucking vampires, brain eating zombies and witches that eat children, archetypal containers for the reality of the fact that people can get inside you and gobble you up.

You might experience it as finding it difficult to think clearly in another’s presence,  knowing what to do or how to respond, or simply that you feel drained and exhausted by some apparently innocuous exchange.

The chronic form of this is the ‘negative introject’, an undigested and internalised complex of unacknowledged attitudes from significant others that got inside you as a child and made its home there, like a parasite, but one which also serves as a nucleus of identity to which a person can become attached and with which they identify..

”as though it were something precious.” F. Perls.

…despite the fact that a nasty  introject can spend a life time cutting ego consciousness to pieces and gobbling down its confidence/wellbeing/autonomy from within..

This devouring aspect, can lead to a very real sense of loss of soul, as though one’s very essence had been stolen.

”If you ask a group of people, “How many of you feel you’ve lost part of your soul?” it’s typical that everybody raises their hand.” M. Harner.

To the extent that Narcissism is endemic in our society, so too is there this sense of loss of soul, and the need to go find lost or denied aspects of oneself.

In early development the ‘special’ child can’t realise at first that their elevated status is a trade off, compensation for being robbed of a unique destiny that invariably leads away from family and so..

”never gets a chance to develop his own personality, because he is so busy holding down the foreign bodies he has swallowed whole.” ibid

‘Close’ relations can sometimes be no more than that the child’s own path has simply been hobbled by co-dependant parents whose sense of self includes the attributes and qualities of their children, and thereby smothers the child’s unfolding destiny.

But sometimes its not historical. You just meet someone who has this practiced ability to drain the life out of you, your new best friend with a knack for ferreting out and spoonfeeding your deepest needs whilst plundering your inner grain store.

What to do?

There’s any amount of advice out there. My suggestion is that what’s required is a primal response, something ‘primitive’.The intellect is useless in this territory. The lost part of Soul has to be grabbed back in active imagination, acknowledged through ritual, tended in symbolic ways such that the malaise which draws our attention to that missing core, to its value, also mobilises our quest for Wholeness.

For years after I had bought myself out of the military I had a repeating dream  of truncated men, men with limbs missing, ripped torsos, agonizingly incomplete. Throughout these scenes the recurring image of a deep, dark, menacing pool. No amount of interpretation seemed to hit the mark.

I decided on a radicle course of action. I knew of such a pool in a dark wood, so I went there one winter’s evening with the intention of spending the night, to see what happened. It was freezing. I walked around the pond endlessly trying to keep warm. A spontaneous phantasy arose in my mind that my ‘treasure’ lay at the bottom and that it was guarded by a troll like the one from the story of Billy Goat Gruff. It felt important and I paid attention to it. He had a lot to say for himself and so had I. We argued back and forth most of the night. Eventually he said, ‘well, if you want it back you have to come and get it.’

Dawn. There were patchy sheets of ice on the pond. I stripped off and waded in.

On the way back home, having ran the four miles back to the train station to get warm, I realised I had slept fitfully at some point in the night, curled up in the roots of a great Oak to take shelter from the wind. While I slept I had dreamt.

”Paying the Unconscious tribute more or less guarentees its co-operation.” C. G. Jung

I was visiting a ‘half-way house’ for damaged and handicapped men. There was a great party going on. Their wits had returned and they had all grown dense and luxurious beards. Then they gathered around the pond and pulled out a wealth of fish. A grand old man appeared on a white horse and magically drained away the dark water. I went over to him, seeming to recognise him. I shouted in delight, ‘I am your grandson!’ He looked at me with infinitely compassionate and twinkling blue eyes, reached down his hand to me and said,’ Of course you are.’