An Inner Odyssey – The Why and How of Narcissism

Cristina Preda

For a while now I have been encountering online stories asking me if I have a narcissist in my life. They tell me how to spot one and advise me on how to recover from a relationship with one. I always find these articles frustrating because the voice of the narcissist is lost, and I wonder what ‘narcissists’ think of this. Of course a cynic would tell you that they think nothing of it because they don’t see themselves as narcissists. So when I was asked to write an article for Frontiers Magazine I knew that I wanted to speak for the narcissist. Not to excuse the harms that they cause, but to understand and demystify them.

I knew that I wanted to speak for the narcissist

But the more I read on the subject the more I realised that the simplistic titles were just that, simplistic. It seemed to me that narcissism is an incredibly fertile subject, and my curiosity is unable to focus in on one factor to explore in depth. Each book or article throws up ever more questions:

• we know the story of Narcissus but what and who made him how he was?
• why do we bristle at the suggestion that we have narcissistic traits?
• is it true that therapists are high on the narcissistic spectrum and would transpersonal therapists be even higher?
• where are the female narcissistic heroines in myths and stories?
• is there really a link between narcissism and eating disorders/body dysmorphia?
• how do we gain acceptance of our own narcissism and how would this help on our journey of becoming?
• what is the transpersonal purpose of the narcissistic journey?
• why am I convinced that ‘The Beauty and the Beast’ is better suited to our age than the original myth of Narcissus?

All of these questions seemed worthy of an investigation but I decided to keep my own narcissistic, heroic qualities in check and start small, at the beginning: an understanding of how narcissistic traits develop both from a psychodynamic and a transpersonal perspective and the odyssey of finding our Selves beyond narcissism.

The psychodynamic school of psychotherapy presents the issue of narcissism in an elegant, clear and logical fashion. Winnicott (1967) stated:

“what does the baby see when he or she looks at the mother’s face? I am suggesting that, ordinarily, what the baby sees is himself or herself.”

This process of the baby being reflected back by the primary carer is called mirroring. Sometimes this natural process does not occur because parents who lack a sense of their own identity are unable to mirror the baby and actually want the opposite, to be mirrored by their child. Young children are incredibly sensitive to their parent’s needs so will feel this desire keenly. Instead of following their own developing personality, these children will try to become someone that will make the parents feel secure. The children’s uniqueness and specialness would trigger parental envy so the children will subvert it by giving back responses that keep the parents comfortable, feeling liked and held in high esteem.

Instead of following their own developing personality, these children will try to become someone that will make the parents feel secure

Unless this mirroring takes place, the child will not readily have the inner ground for development. All change will be fraught with anxiety and fear, and her sense of identity will be weak. On growing up, the adults will have an unconscious sense of themselves as dangerously inadequate and feel vulnerable to blame and rejection. They will defend against these uncomfortable feelings by exhibiting qualities most often described in the psychoanalytic literature as a triad of vanity, exhibitionism, and arrogant ingratitude. The individual will become stuck in a perpetual need to be mirrored back, but as what he presents to the world is a mask, he can never be completely satisfied.

Although narcissistic characters can have a strong effect on others, and are often seen as confident and powerful, they themselves seldom feel any power or effectiveness at all. They are often amazed at being told of the effect they have. According to psychoanalyst PM Bromberg:

“Living becomes a process of controlling the environment and other people from behind a mask. When successful it is exhilarating; when unsuccessful there is boredom, anxiety, resentment, and emptiness. But the critical fact is that an ongoing sense of full involvement in life is missing, often without awareness. The intrinsic experience of accomplishment is transformed into one of manipulation, exploitation, and a vague feeling of fooling people. Existence becomes either a search or a waiting period for that moment not yet here when real life and true love will begin. The present is always imperfect.”

Opposing the classical elegance of the psychodynamic view, the understanding of the origins of the narcissistic traits in transpersonal psychotherapy appear overblown in their complexity. In telling the story of narcissism from this perspective, I will rely mainly on the descriptions offered by Nathan Scwartz-Salant in ‘Narcissism and Character Transformation’ (1982) and on James Hillman’s view on archetypes.

In the transpersonal framework, importance is placed on the role of the narcissism in one’s life. In Jung’s view, people with neurosis and character disorders are ‘chosen’, as they are forced to deal with their unconscious issues and this carries the seed to a new conscious experience of the Self.

These transpersonal views do not discard the psychodynamic ideas but enrich them with knowledge of the collective unconscious. This is the part of the unconscious mind derived from ancestral memory and experience and is common to all humankind, as distinct from the individual unconscious. Archetypes form the structure of this realm and are universal patterns which can be recognised in religions, myths and stories.

If the mother can properly mirror the child she will help constellate the positive Self as an internal reality for the child.

In this framework, the narcissistic character does not only result from insufficient maternal empathy. A mother is also the first carrier of the archetypal Self image. In Jungian psychology, the Self is the archetype of wholeness and the regulating centre of the personality which transcends the ego. If the mother can properly mirror the child she will help constellate the positive Self as an internal reality for the child. For the child, ego and Self have not yet separated, and when the child demands “Look at me” the ‘me’ is special as it is the Self, one’s essence that is being exhibited. In a perfect world, if a child is properly mirrored so that she feels really seen and listened to, then a healthy ego-Self relationship can begin to form. In Scwartz-Salant’s words:

“The growing ego will gain a sense of power and effectiveness in the world, and ambition will develop in realistic proportions. Moreover, a sense of self-esteem will exist, rooted in stability in outer tasks, and especially in creative and instinctual functioning. Life will be entered with body-awareness and vitality. As individuation proceeds and the Self is experienced as the true centre of the personality, the ego becomes a vessel that mirrors the glory of the Self.”

When the mother is unable to appropriately mirror, the child experiences in herself a ”black hole”, a “vacuum” that is terrifying and which he tries to fill. In these circumstances, some parts of the ego are unable to differentiate and remain fused with archetypal energies. The child will develop a grandiose defence to shelter against the unrealistic power of archetypal images which can never be fitted into the ego. As a consequence, the numinosity of the Self will be seen as a threat as its power is far superior to that of the ego and could easily defeat her grandiose self. So the narcissistic character has to defend against what it perceives as two great threats: outer object relations (psychoanalytic view), and the inner world of archetypal reality.
We can then say that narcissistic structures are found both within the personality and in any archetypal pattern entering the space/time reality. Because of this duality, the narcissistic character structure is a pattern that is a link between the personal and the archetypal realms.

On this epic inner battlefield between the ego and the Self, other archetypes interfere in the healthy development of the psyche: the spirit (the Puer with its masculine energy), the soul (the feminine aspect of our being with the anima and the animus being soldiers in her army) and The Other.

The Puer aeternus (eternal youth)/Puella (eternal girl) archetype merges the Hero, the Divine Child, the figure of Eros, the King’s Son, the Son of Great Mother, Mercury-Hermes, Trickster and the Messiah.

The overwhelming male force is an essential attribute of the narcissistic condition, crushing the feminine capacity for being in both men and women. The narcissist lacks an “I am” awareness which is central to individuation and in its place there is only compulsive doing; according to Scwartz-Salant: “ask the narcissistic character who he is, and he will usually tell you what he does.”

“ask the narcissistic character who he is, and he will usually tell you what he does.”

The Puer instigates in a person a need for hasty access to peak experiences and direct spiritual transcendence
‘look up, says spirit, gain distance, there is something beyond and above and what is above is always and always superior’. (Hillman)
In psychotherapy this is called ‘spiritual bypass’. For the narcissistic character the shiny peaks of sainthood are too much to resist and he will readily try to escape the demands of ordinary life, the lowly condition of the soul. This is maybe one of the reasons why strong narcissistic traits are so common amount gurus, spiritual teachers and their followers.

According to Hillman, the journey of individuation is not through the peaks of the spirit but through the vales of the soul. For a narcissistic character this is an enormous threat.

The feminine realm of being (the soul and the body) is absent in the narcissistic character. The ego had to negate the value of the Self in what it has perceived as self-protection. This leads to a denial of the positive significance of suffering, of our feminine energy. The soul is vulnerable, passive and holds the qualities of remembrance, imagination and fantasy, it is pain, trauma and pathology. This is the realm of Persephone, Demeter and Isis, Dionysus, Hades and Osiris, of body consciousness and somatic unconscious, of lunar vision and the underworld.

The burden of transforming the narcissistic character falls on the anima (for men) and animus (for women). But this internal battlefield needs an external force: someone (the therapist?) who brings to the inner war the balanced feminine quality which is lacking in the narcissist.

Only by being seen and mirrored, held and contained, can the narcissistic character finally start transforming. When the narcissist is seen in his real depth without his mask by someone who can withstand the controlling force of his ego, then the feminine functioning of his psyche can develop. Thus, compulsive doing can give way to reflection, the exhibitionistic-grandiose self allowing for a capacity for being. The ego can finally accept the power of the Self and slowly allow itself to be in service to the Self.

This puer-soul marriage will allow the person to carry his own reflective mirror and echo. In this process, the Self becomes a mirror for the ego, reflecting a stable yet changing identity, while the ego becomes a source of consciousness and transformation for the Self. The sense of identity the ego gains from looking into the mirror of the Self is transpersonal, beyond the time/space reality.

In this new relationship with the Self, the ego feels alive and joyful in its contact with people, and at the same time aware of the domain of the feminine underworld. It becomes aware of the importance of social life and relationships while being grounded in the knowledge of the “unseen” world of archetypal energies.

In writing this article my own narcissistic tendency of self-sufficiency and wanting to know it all right away have been challenged. I don’t pretend that the story I have told is the whole story of narcissism, only what I have grasped from where I stand. What can you see of a giant? It all depends on where you stand. In my case with the giant that is narcissism, maybe only the tip of its toe.

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