In an earlier post I talked about people wanting to feel like they’re special. Then I suggested that disappointment and life, generally, gets in the way of this. I then suggested that because our sense of specialness is frustrated we may decide to attach our specialness project to our pain. In this post I wanted to talk a little bit about maintaining our sense of uniqueness in the face of reality. I wanted to talk though more about narcissistic features and difficulties in engaging with the reality of life.
Now I don’t think of myself as being a narcissist but I can certainly act like a narcissist at times. I view myself as being intelligent or educated and sometimes, by extension, I think that I am entitled to certain things or to special treatment because of those things. I remember being asked whether I was an introvert or an extrovert and suggesting that the two need not be mutually exclusive. This was because I could have an interest in other people as projections of myself. This was me being narcissistic. Comparing myself to historical leaders another example of me being narcissistic. Also any ideas of reference I might have. The occasions where I might interpret something as about me when it is not about me. I find that narcissism acts as a counter-depressive defence for me. This is certainly borne out in Stephen Mitchell’s book on Relational concepts in Psychoanalysis which devotes an entire section to narcissism.
Mitchell surveys literature on narcissism and discusses the different models of the narcissist. He notes that ‘Kernberg’s narcissist lives in an embattled world, in which he and all others are experienced as sadistic, self-serving and exploitative. The only possible security lies in a devaluation of others, disarming them of their power to hurt them.’ ‘ Kohut’s narcissist, on the other hand, is a brittle creature who lives in a harsh and continually bruising world.’
In my own experience ‘narcissistic illusions’, as Mitchell refers to them, help me to deal with the disappointments of life. There is more to it though. The illusions also protect you from the disappointments of yourself. The times when your problematic pattern of relating ruins your chances for success. It is difficult to see these patterns and even more difficult to face them. The vague awareness that I missed all my own opportunities and they were not denied to me. But that’s where I’m at now…Let’s take you back into a more narcissistic world view. I am being denied opportunities. People are not trustworthy and I will never be understood by them. So I turn to television. It furnishes me with characters who romanticize loneliness. Their penetrating intellect isolating them from the rest of the cast.
1) House MD –
In this hugely popular television show, we find the ultimate narcissistic masturbatory exercise. The character of Wilson is often there just to explain the internal House’s internal workings. There are entire sequences where House’s unconscious is manifested in hallucinations of other characters into the outside world. The last episode features House interacting exclusively with his own introjected versions of characters who argue either for or against him committing suicide.The show is so House heavy that it can’t even kill off House properly. His death is just another intelligent trick that he pulled on everyone else only to have more adventures with Wilson. His aloneness is okay because he has a piano and he can masterfully enjoy many solitary pursuits like playing the guitar.
2) Deadwood –
Same deal in this other extremely popular television show. Al Swearengen is again distanced from the festivities surrounding the opening of a theatre. His instrumental approach to people and his logic means that he is unable to relate to people. In this scene below he is left alone singing a lonely tune and barely able to keep a lid on his more difficult emotions.
So when I watch shows like this my experiences are made poetic. My difficult emotions are a feature of my being a powerful person with a penetrating intellect. I am a man who is able to decide the fates of others. I negotiate between powerful factions but I still keep the ship on course. My flaws just make me more interesting. I am a moody and enigmatic Real Hero like Ryan Gosling in the film drive. My self-destructive impulses are laden with symbolic importance like the story of the scorpion and the frog.
I have a jacket to represent that symbolic importance.
But then I might run up against a more realistic depiction of narcissism like Howard Moon in the Mighty Boosh. And sometimes that’s a little too close to the bone. Two examples should serve to illustrate this more realistic depiction. The first clip relates to Howard’s envy of adventurer Dixon Bainbridge.
The second clip relates to Howard’s ego going through the roof when he knocks out a child in preparation for his fight against a kangaroo. His view of his abilities is instantly inflated out of all proportion and the boxing trainer quietly reminds Vince that Howard is going to be destroyed when he fights the kangaroo. When he finally fights the kangaroo his immense confidence is shattered by one punch from the kangaroo and the awful intrusion of reality. Howard immediately tries to exit the ring and return to security.
What to do then about narcissistic illusions?
Stephen Mitchell in the book uses the metaphor of attending a dance to capture the attitude the analyst should adopt in response to these ‘narcissistic illusions’. At one point he says you can either attend the dance or not. Which means that you can in one sense either attend to the illusions or not. At another point though he suggests though that while one who attends a dance does not go to complain about the music he can still ask questions. He can still ask ‘how it came that the analysand learned no other steps? Why does the analysand believe that this is the only desirable dance there is? Most analysands need to feel that their own dance style is appreciated in order to be open to expanding their repertoire.
Besides the attitude that the analyst should adopt in the face of ‘narcissistic illusions’ Mitchell makes another interesting point.He says that:
The determination of emotional health as opposed to psychopathology, when it comes to narcissistic illusions, has less to do with the actual content of the illusions than with attitude of the individual about that content. The problem of narcissism concerns issues of character structure, not mental content; it is not so much what you do and think as your attitude toward what you do and think, how seriously you take yourself.
Here for me lies the solution to the problem of narcissistic illusions. It is not the ‘illusions’ themselves that are the problem. As Winnicott points out they are wrapped up with creativity, etc. They are also part of the narcissist’s experience. To try and do away with the illusions would be to remove apart of that person and that experience. It is the seriousness with which they take those ‘narcissistic illusions’ that is the determining factor. Do they insist upon the illusions or can they see them for what they are. Engaging with reality may be difficult but it is a lot more difficult when the illusion is so different from it. With an acceptance of our own responsibility for our own position there is less of a need to protect and over inflated version of ourselves. We can defend the more modest borders of ourself and work on smaller more realistic goals. We can gradually raise the bar on ourselves as we begin to improve and we can develop a mental framework that allows for things to go wrong.