Narcissism

Narcissism is not associated with any one Lowenian character but rather with a style of life based on not feeling. Narcissism is not a character (neuro-muscular) defense but an ego defense. However, it is so deeply structured into most modern people's functioning, that any character analytic work requires addressing narcissism as a first layer --that is why Alexander Lowen wrote a book by that name. Narcissism has a particularly potent interaction with the inspirer character, which is why that character is sometimes called the 'narcissistic character', but in my opinion there is not a narcissistic character but rather a narcissistic condition.

Narcissism describes both an individual and a social condition. For an individual, it means putting the self-image ahead of the self. The term 'image' comes from imagination. The actual use of imagination supports creativity and growth. In its psychological sense, however, 'image' refers to a static idea of what is successful or desirable. An image is not necessarily visual but is any ego-based standard of how things should be or standard that is believed to be special or lovable.The image will be be influenced by the underlying energetic character. When one is trying to live up to an image, imagination is not being used at all. Rather one is trying to conform to rules or expectations from the outside that have been taken inside. This type of striving may provide some motivation to achieve, but in the long run it is detrimental to the person.

At some point, the person has to choose image over his or her self. Since the self is known by feelings, in the operation of narcissism, feelings which in any way seem inconsistent with the image, are denied, suppressed, deadened or compensated. Narcissists are more concerned with how they look than with how they feel. Narcissism brings people into war with feelings, their own feelings and the feelings of other people that challenge the denial. And it can happen the other way round, absence of feeling for any reason will tend toward narcissism. Narcissism leads to an interest in power and control, over people and situations, both to avoid unwanted feelings, and to provide motivation in the absence of strong feelings. Along with this comes seduction and manipulation which well may be unconscious.

Low feeling is not the same as low affect. Where suppression of feeling is severe, such as the creator character, affect and expression does tend to be low and flat. Denial is an ego function in which what one refuses to deal with will be blocked from consciousness but still present in the body. Denial of feelings in narcissism can allow for a more lively appearance overall than with suppression or deadening of feelings but any actions or responses lack feeling. Still there is a background affect and vitality that can verge on charming. Denial of feeling can be somewhat selective. For instance in narcissism, feelings of fear or longing are usually strongly denied, while feelings of triumph are not.

However, in any undertaking, a definite lack of conviction, passion, or true desire is evident. Principles may be espoused to fit an occasion, and violated casually or actually reversed shortly thereafter. The image is considered the ultimate truth. There is a hollowness and superficiality to the feeling. Denial is less impervious than suppression, there will always be 'sore-spots' which, when touched on, elicit 'narcissistic rage.' As a result of that, there is usually considerable behavioral adaptation in the service of bypassing sore-spots and manipulating others to do the same. Group and family 'norms' often arise to protect narcissists within them.

In narcissism, recognition is a key problem. Recognition not just in the weak sense of being able to name something, but recognition in the diplomatic language sense--taking a person to be a fully legitimate, separate, and recognized member of the community and family. A narcissistic injury is a failure to fully recognize the 'otherness' and the legitimacy of a child at a critical time in emotional development. Such injuries initiate what can be a life-long problem with recognition. It is known that lack of unconditional acceptance is damaging to a child, but the conditional acceptance (really disapproval) that fills the void at least is a type of recognition. Conditional recognition is even more damaging. Even disapproval will be withheld, it is as if the target did not exist. Narcissistic injuries lead to narcissistic functioning as described below, including in turn, only recognizing others conditionally upon their providing the desired type of mirroring.

Attention is a related concept but not the same as recognition. Attention may or may not be craved and may or may not be monopolized, but recognition is always either craved or rarely, phobically avoided. Conversely, attention gained by 'putting on as show' will never feel like satisfying recognition. The affected person desires recognition but also fears it, because the true self believes itself to be in danger if recognized. Hence the over-involvement in images described in the paragraph above that goes along with an obsession of the recognition of the image by others. Evidence inevitably emerges that the person is not this chosen image. This is usually so anxiety provoking that unconscious or or even conscious efforts are made to destroy or ignore the evidence. In that way, narcissism brings people into war also with the facts and with the positions of others. Ironically, the fragility of narcissistic functioning make for a tendency to constantly experience a secondary-type of narcissistic injury when the image is invalidated by people or events.

With narcissism, there may be recognition seeking, which in present day culture is accepted or even considered virtuous, or there may be recognition demanding, which is somewhat abrasive (for the time being), but the engine driving either is the same. In past eras, there have been hero stories. In the present era, there are success stories. A hero embodies an attribute, which is demonstrated by an adventure. The hero doesn't seek recognition, but rather just to address, with integrity, obstacles that arise. In a success story, the protagonist wants to excel and get results superior to others in order to be recognized. There are 'status symbols' and conspicuous consumption. Success is not succeeding in an achievement only, but being recognized for it. Most recently success has been streamlined to celebrity. With celebrity, the achievement is dropped in many cases leaving pure recognition. We no longer have heroes, we have celebrities, and this is an aspect of social narcissism which dovetails with personal narcissism.

Although equity with others is always a problem, narcissists do understand an exchange. They do not understand sharing, however. Sharing is consciously having the same experience as someone else at the same place and time. It can be a good or a bad experience, but it requires mutual recognition. Since love is based on pleasure shared, the capacity to love is devastated. A definite eeriness pervades most joint occasions because of this inability to share experience

So in briefest terms, narcissism is organizing life around recognition and power rather than pleasure. There is a tendency to confuse narcissism with psychopathy. With each, there is a potential for others to be hurt. As mentioned above, narcissism is an ego defense, while psychopathy is a character defense. Moreover, The narcissistic position is against feeling (and via that against reality.) The psychopathic position is against others. The two can co-exist of course but each can exist by itself in a person.

It should be mentioned that almost all psychotherapists chose that profession because they are consciously trying to overcome (or subconsciously trying to undo) a narcissistic injury. Three results of this can be a real slowness in recognizing narcissism, difficulty confronting it, and a tendency to act narcissistically toward clients.

As for clients, the more pathological narcissists will rarely undergo therapy, but when they do they view it merely as an opportunity to pick up a few tricks to control the responses of others. Where narcissism is milder, the seemingly adaptive stance of offering oneself up to be tweaked or perfected is still the problem and not the solution. The task is not to become perfect but to become real, and allow others to see oneself as such.

Where the developmental conditions of narcissism are present but ego strength and aggression is less, an incomplete condition, referred to and described by Stephen Johnson as the symbiotic character, and by Lowen (and many psychoanalytic writers) as the 'borderline personality' seems to arise. More factors are involved in the formation of the symbiotic character than just a narcissistic injury and compensatory striving. However, due to an insufficient felt sense of self the symbiotic gets a sense of identity only by merging with others. This leads to confusion about boundaries and confusion about who is responsible for what. There is a danger or tendency to take on the affects, thoughts and beliefs of others, but this is never a stable situation. The blurring in the boundaries between self and others tends to lead to two solutions: 1) externalizing all responsibility onto others. This solution may have to do with 'less ego strength'. It leads to frequent conflict and perhaps the label 'lower functioning' symbiotic (or borderline in the public mental health sense). 2) internalizing all responsibility onto the self. This may have to do with relatively more ego strength. As ego strength varies from situation to situation, the two solutions may alternate, providing an erratic presentation. While the 'successful' narcissist shifts the basis of identity from self to image, the symbiotic disavows the self but seeks others to project and instill images in them. It is common for a narcissist and and a symbiotic to form an enmeshed relationship--this is the apex challenge of couples' therapy.

On a cultural level, narcissism is evidenced by a loss of human values. The feeling based values of dignity, integrity, and self-respect become replaced by the ego values of power, performing, and productivity. What is valued is not that which is human but what is superhuman or unusual. Success has become more important than good-feeling. A human 'given' is the need to feel some potential or promise in oneself (and this is part of humility). Quite tragically, with narcissism, the urge is always to be complete or finished. The more severe the narcissism, the harder it is to answer the question, "What are your hopes and dreams?" Hence there is always tension with any long term formation process, or any formation process which entails a great deal of correction from someone else. Compiling knowledge is usually not much of a problem, but psycho-motor or sensori-motor skills often are. Real creativity is undermined.

Alexander Lowen made the point that in Victorian times, behavior was strictly controlled while strong feeling was idealized. This led to hysteria in the Freudian sense in which feeling forced toward a different outlet than direct action. But in modern times, Lowen asserted, behavior is much freer but feeling is often removed from it. This leads to narcissism. In the present day, hysterical disorders are rare, but narcissistic disorders are commonplace. Perhaps civilization has a hard time permitting high feeling and free behavior at the same time. This is perhaps sometimes a draw toward those fundamentalist communities that exist today--behavior is restricted but feeling, including sexual feeling, can be quite high.

From the foregoing we can discuss five patterns of narcissism, which I term narrow narcissism, 'adhesive' narcissism, broad narcissism, powerlessness, and victim-role.

Narrow (or exhibitionist) narcissism is what, in lay terms, is usually meant by the term narcissism. Sometimes the phrase 'pathological' narcissism is used. Feeling is so blocked and ignored that there is a decided lack of empathy. Yet self-interest is very active leading a tendency to exploit and use others. In this setting, self-images tend to be grandiose, and due to impairment in reality testing, the person believes they are the image. Others will be coerced or seduced in various ways to make them affirm the image. Along with the belief that one is great is the belief that being great should be easy, so there is an intolerance of learning and struggle. A narrow narcissist has an internal locus of control but externalizes responsibility. Stated another way, he or she internalizes credit and externalize blame. This combination dominates relationships. There will be entitlement, which is an expectation of favorable treatment that is divorced from what is happening in the relationship or with the other person. A frequent format for entitlement is the victim. The narrow narcissist will not style him- or herself a helpless victim, rather he or she will imply that they are victimized by the incompetence or malfeasance of others. Real accomplishment is sparse although the illusion of accomplishment is strong among casual observers. There will be an intolerance for criticism--not just a dislike or defensiveness about the content of the criticism, which is very common among all people--but rather the act of criticizing them is seen as an intolerable offense. Actually, moderately poor reality testing, coupled with robust aggression, in a complicated culture can be an asset, because narrow narcissists can act contrary to circumstances, which is inspiring to others and sometimes, the group 'pushes through' to actual unexpected accomplishment, for which the narcissist takes the credit. Failures, on the other hand, are shrugged off and the cleanup is left for others. As mentioned above, the character of the inspirer is closely aligned (but not identical) with narrow narcissism.

Broad (or closet) narcissism is the disorder of our age. This affects most modern people and is now not only not outside social norms but is actually encouraged by social norms. Grandiosity is always detectable if one is not confused by the low self-esteem In this setting feeling is limited but not completely blocked. It leads often to a vague feeling of not being enough. Everything is about performance, and in fact everything is about the last performance. Except, unlike narrow narcissism, the person doesn't really believe he or she has yet become the image they strive for. Also unlike the narrow narcissist, others are not coerced or seduced, rather the broad narcissist works desperately to achieve the image 'honestly' but of course this is unrealistic. Some manipulation and considerable pleasing of others will happen. Life is organized around finding sets of expectations to live up to. These expectations may be railed against as if they were foisted upon the broad narcissist--the insight is often missing that these expectations are self imposed. The broad narcissist is willing to work, which can lead to real accomplishment. Even with external success, he or she often feels like an imposter. They can name but they cannot feel the accomplishment. There is usually a conflict around receiving recognition: recognition is sought out persistently but feels uncomfortable when received. This obviously complicates relationships and puts others off. Broad narcissists are very susceptible to suggestions of what they ought to do because they seek acceptance. Considerable activity and actual good works are spurred by this, but all to the naught as far as satisfaction goes. Broad narcissists often end up in relationships with narrow narcissists because the narrow narcissist seems to have exactly what the closet narcissist wants.

Adhesive Narcissism: This is sustained only with the help of a relationship. Frequently it exists in a primary or romantic relationship, but it can also exist in a parent-adult child relationship. Both partners have narcissistic injuries but one has adapted with a false sense of self (narcissistic) while the other has had trouble developing much of a solid sense of self (symbiotic condition) In a sense narrow narcissism is similar in that a 'narcissistic supply' is constantly needed from others, but in that pattern, the turnover of suppliers is fairly regular and painless to the narrow narcissist. In adhesive narcissism strong symbiosis ensues and the 'supplying' partner cannot be disposed of without great upheaval. The adhesive narcissist desires constant mirroring and idealization from the symbiotic partner, while also projecting human limitations and problems onto him or her. The symbiotic partner lives within the initiative and agenda of the narcissistic partner. There is a shared belief that the narcissistic partner has the special ability to bring both partners to a happy state. There is a strong shared belief that they are working as a team toward shared life goals, but under the surface is a great deal of sabotage. The symbiotic partner will start to become obsessed with the narcissist's imperfections, and obsessed with getting him or her to 'own' them, but will be unable to take initiative or unilateral action. The narcissist will both deflect criticism and project problems back onto the symbiotic. These relationships tend to exclude other people and influences, and more and more time is spent together even though the time is strife-filled. Often a way is found for the partners to work closely together in a business as well as live together. The enjoyment is low but the bonding is strong. Ego-boundaries are blurred. If therapy is sought, there will be an insistence for couples or family therapy rather than individual work. It is the relationship makes it possible for a broad narcissist to function as a narrow one.

Powerlessness: This is a 'collapsed' or 'symptomatic' state of narcissism. .A distinction must be made immediately between helplessness and powerlessness. A person who is in a dire situation and cannot fix it her- or himself may need the complete help and good will of others. This is helplessness, but it is not really a common situation, however, in everyday life. More common is a situation in which something is wanted from others, but not getting it should be survivable. In a mature relationship, people influence each other, but the nature of that influence is always uncertain. In narcissism, the relationship, that is, the tolerance and enjoyment of uncertainty, is missing. Therefore narcissism leads to wanting to control the responses of others. The stance of powerlessness comes from having, simultaneously, enough reality testing to know that others' responses can't be controlled, but also the compelling belief that one should be able to control them. Powerlessness is demonstrated in sarcasm of others' responses, harsh demands, entitlement, feelings of one's self being controlled, and complaints of powerlessness. The problem is not the absence of this type of power, but the belief one should have this type of effect. The desire for power stems from the desire never to be humiliated again. However, like all compensatory mechanisms, the use of power actually evokes the feeling of humiliation internally, and a vicious circle ensues. The real antidote to humiliation is dignity not power. With the sense of powerlessness, opportunities to cooperate, influence situations, or get help are often ruined by a belligerence and resentment that turns others off. Powerlessness is like a 'decompensated' form of broad narcissism. Instead of being loyal to an image of success, one is loyal to an image of failure.

Victim-Role Like powerlessness, this is a collapsed or decompensated form of narcissism. This is a type of functioning in which the narcissist keeps others involuntarily involved and pinned down by constantly returning the narrative to injustice and injury. Because all people naturally respond to someone who has been hurt by setting aside their own interests and point of view, this is a way of forcing one-sided recognition. While presenting as a victim seems to be the opposite of grandiose, the grandiosity is evident in the implied entitlement because normal social friction or reasonable acts of self-interest by third parties will also be complained about as injuries to the victim-narcissist. The narcissist demands more than to be heard or acknowledged--they demand merger where the listener forgoes his or her own self. Occasionally episodic merger may be appropriate and part of emotional intimacy. However, with the victim-narcissist there is a demand, usually evident also in the tone of voice, that the listener merge with his or her point-of-view. If the merger does not happen, the listener is labeled as another victimizer and the victim-narcissist often breaks out.

To repeat, all narcissism comes from an early lack of recognition (which is called a narcissistic injury and which is a specific type of rejection-- not all rejection is a narcissistic injury). The person does not feel adequate in and of himself or herself, and is always performing and exhibiting in an attempt to be lovable. Attempting to obtain love of course is quite human. In narcissism, though, there is an indirectness and often a deception. All indirect ways to get love are includable in a very broad definition of narcissism.

The Role of the 'Hardbody' in Narcissism

In our time, a hardbody is an aesthetic ideal. In earlier times, a softer body was the aesthetic ideal. Though this is thought to be a random change, it is not. It is due to the rise of 'power' as an ideal. To use power successfully, it is often necessary to act with disregard for feeling.

The connection between the ideal of the hardbody with narcissism is intuitive but it can also be explained in functional terms. Narcissism, like the use of power, depends on the suppression of emotion. Real emotion produces an impulse which is translated to the muscles to prepare for movement. The person may or may not carry out the movement but the readiness is there, in the supple but ready muscles. To suppress emotion, the muscles are contracted against the feeling. Eventually this becomes automatic.

Chronically tight muscles become hard. A person may have a large amount of body fat but the muscles underneath may still be hard. In narcissism, however, a lean appearance is usually part of the image because it represents control and self-control. Muscles can be increased in size but still hard and contracted. The purpose of exercise changes from feeling good to looking good (The endorphin high during exercise is misleading in this regard--the belief arises that looking good in a hardbody sense and feeling good are the same. Endorphins in the brain mask pain in the body, that is their purpose.).

A lean hardbody is seen as someone that is powerful because they can act towards a goal without interference from feeling. Women in general, have softer bodies, and in general, are closer to feelings. However, since hardbodies are now associated with success, both socially and in career, women understandably have become desirous of hardbodies. It certainly is possible to be lean and healthy without being 'hard.' Both yoga and pilates produce supple, ready muscles. This contrasts with aerobics and weightlifting that produce hard muscles.