The Rise of Narcissism and the Loss of Meaning I

 By M.K. Styllinski

 “Every age develops its own peculiar forms of pathology, which express in exaggerated form its underlying character structure.”

Christopher Lasch


According to Greek mythology Narcissus was a hunter from Thespiae in Boeotia, central Greece, renowned for his astonishing beauty. Everywhere he went the Greeks would marvel at his perfection, overcome with love and desire. The adoring stares became so commonplace that he began to expect the praise and admiration. Before long his vanity and pride came to match that beauty. A nymph called Echo (of the soul) fell in love with Narcissus but he rejected her. Heart-broken, she slowly shrivelled to nothing save her voice. Nemesis, the dark Goddess and Spirit of Divine justice or retribution chose to teach Narcissus a lesson. She led him to a tranquil pool as still as glass mirror and revealed to him an image of a beautiful man. Narcissus promptly fell in love with the image not understanding that it was his own reflection. Unable to leave his image of self-love he remained fixed to the spot until he died. When his body had gone all that remained in its place was a white flower – the narcissus.

The narcissist believes he is not only better than others but somehow special and destined for greatness. He may fantasize about power and exaggerate his achievements to attain it. Due to an essential lack within, he takes on the role of the archetypal vampire that must seek energy from others in order to function. Boastfulness and haughtiness hide poor self-esteem which means constant praise and validation is vital. Everything is focused on externals without any attempt to address the inner self; to do so would be to tear down the huge façade that has been carefully created since childhood. A hyper-sensitivity flows through all of his interactions often creating an anxiety that his façade will be breached at any time and people will discover the awful truth – that he is devoid of any substance within.

Intellectual superiority is all important for maintaining his own conviction that he is significant. This cements the perceived right that he should have special attention and admiration. Whether the narcissist is a spiritual guru, lawyer or bank manager, an automatic sense of entitlement will exist. Therefore, everyone is inferior if they do not match up to his own grandiose visions however impractical and subjective they may be. He becomes jealous if he feels that others are advancing in matters of money or love and expects others to go along with his plans, taking advantage of their good will and if necessary, projecting an image of a person that is tough or unemotional, though inside he is emotionally weak and immature. What is more, if success seems to elude him, his bitterness and cynicism will increase to the point where relief will only be obtained by remorselessly criticising others. Yet, if the tables are turned and you criticise or disparage his carefully maintained goals and self-image he will often become highly aggressive in the defence of his precious, subjective realm. [1] (You can imagine the implications within the field of high-level politics).

Narcissus-Caravaggio_(1594-96)_edited

Narcissus by Caravaggio depicts Narcissus gazing at his own reflection.

Narcissists lie so often and convincingly that they come to believe their own fabrications. Ans since lying is intrinsic to their need for pathological self-validation one might as well equate it with eating and drinking. People are seen as tools to get to where he wants to go; they are a means to an end, only worth interacting with insofar as they reflect and augment his own image. Making mistakes and seeking perfection is the endless loop that keeps the narcissist forever chasing his own tail not realising that to obtain anything genuine there must be an authentic emotional interaction.

We may recognise symptoms of the narcissist within ourselves and it should come as no surprise that to varying degrees we all play the narcissist game. Pathological narcissism or Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) means that such a façade is so deep, so hard-wired that is almost impossible to change and indicates a personality that has been almost entirely fabricated. There is no genuine, authentic representation of a person only a protective shell that was never left behind in childhood, possibly due to narcissistic parents and / or emotional trauma.

To make matters worse, many pathological narcissists do not seek treatment as they see nothing wrong. To diagnose yourself with “problems” means to breach your own “perfect” image and thus be vulnerable. The narcissist will brook no criticism of his false personality, a monstrous ego that acts as his only navigator of the outside world. It is a very real prison that casts the individual down a dark hole away from the light of self-awareness.

The above descriptions are generalised and there are different forms of narcissism that enhance certain attributes over and above others. For example, the compensatory narcissist derives his pathology from: “…an underlying sense of insecurity and weakness, rather than from genuine feelings of self-confidence and high self-esteem.” [2] The American psychologist Theodore Millon listed the primary categories of narcissism that can be increasingly found in populations today:

  • Unprincipled narcissist: including antisocial features. A charlatan—is a fraudulent, exploitative, deceptive and unscrupulous individual.
  • Amorous narcissist: including histrionic features. The Don Juan or Casanova of our times—is erotic, exhibitionist.
  • Compensatory narcissist: including negativistic (passive-aggressive), avoidant features.
  • Elitist narcissist: variant of pure pattern. Corresponds to Wilhelm Reich’s “phallic narcissistic” personality type.
  • Fanatic type: including paranoid features. An individual whose self-esteem was severely arrested during childhood, usually with major paranoid tendencies who holds onto an illusion of omnipotence. These people are fighting delusions of insignificance and lost value and are trying to re-establish their self-esteem through grandiose fantasies and self-reinforcement. If unable to gain recognition or support from others, they take on the role of a heroic or worshipped person with a grandiose mission. [3]

It does not take a huge leap of imagination to know that we are immersed in that same pool, all of us sharing to some degree or another, an image of ourselves we have mistaken for truth and meaning, where adorning the body and its material extensions is seen as the path to contentment and satisfaction. Many of us lead what we perceive to be perfectly healthy lives without a narcissistic bone in our bodies… But is that really true?

How much have we been changed by a culture that glorifies narcissistic themes and related pathologies as normal?

All psychopaths are narcissists but not all narcissists are psychopaths, the former having at least a vestigial conscience. But pathological narcissism – the “unprincipled narcissist”- is a hair’s breadth away from psychopathy and lies at the extreme end of the personality disorder scale. But varying degrees of this condition are astonishingly widespread, eroding our ability to live loving, mutually beneficial lives. Narcissists can congregate around the psychopath like tug-boats to an ocean liner and will pave the way for more invasive psychopathological reconnaissance into normal human territory. The widespread growth and dependence of info-tainment technology and the internet is only increasing the risk.

The late psychologist and social commentator Christopher Lasch believed that there was something very wrong about the foundations of society that produced such increases in narcissism. Though Freudian at heart, Lasch presented some fascinating psychological insights in his book: The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations. He argued that it was the imposition of two social changes that brought the narcissistic personality to the front line of “normality” the first of which was the rapid changes in US society since the start of the 20th century and the second the institutions that began to redesign society according to those principle changes. He also highlighted the intrusion of the state into peoples’ lives, the commoditization of education, the rise of corporatism and the erosion of responsibility, all made possible by the reliance on fear as a tool of coercion.

Lasch mentions the rise of the self-help culture that, far from empowering and revealing the root causes of societal malaise, has ultimately given rise to a form of spiritual materialism and an unhealthy self-absorption that tranquilises the possibility of facing deeper work within the self. It represents another crutch that goes only so deep.

This is very much still a problem in much of the New Age movement [4] and various snake-oil sales techniques riding on the principles of the “Law of Attraction” and the publishing phenomenon of The Secret and its sequels which offer highly seductive marketing saddled to a veneer of spirituality. [5]  It is not that there is no truth in much of what passes for human potential, simply that it has been twisted and distorted to serve egoistic desires rather than the deeper issues inside. All is predicated on external desire and getting something you want and righteously deserve. As Lasch observes:

“The importance of such programs, however, lies not so much in their objectives as in the anxiety to which they appeal and the vision of reality that informs them – the perception that success depends on psychological manipulation and that all of life, even the ostensibly achievement-oriented realm of work, centres on the struggle for interpersonal advantage, the deadly game of intimidating friends and seducing people.” [6]

Our culture habitually turns the potential of spirituality into a commodity that can be bought or sold on a $500 course supplicating at the feet of the latest guru. The point of ancient spiritual wisdom is that it should be accessible, even though the application of those clear-cut truths may not be so easy. Nor is it something that can be neatly categorised into a concept or ready-made construct. In the words of Rabbi Alan Lurie: “It transforms us. It changes how we act, think and feel in all environments. And it is a connection, a profound contact with something and someone outside of ourselves.” [7]

In so much of the present New Age discourse, self-love and external gain becomes the primary objective often dressed up in seductive, feel-good modalities. Trusting in the ability of things to work out by themselves if we leave them alone seems lost in the chase to extract the pot of gold from external enticements rather than to focus some of that energy on addressing the negative traits within. New Age courses and products feed into such a preoccupation where the avoidance of struggle and growth is masked for proffered instant gains.

Kobutsu Malone from the Zen Buddhist perspective observes this dichotomy in blunt terms:

In our Western society materialism has become so all-encompassing that we have no clue as to any alternatives, since our foundation, our psychology, our spiritual leanings have all been contaminated by materialism. We have no way to relate to things other than materialistically. The New Age phenomenon is very much a materialistic approach in fact it is a thinly disguised system of conquest applied to what we perceive as the spiritual. In so many cases, our thirst for meaning, our need for fulfilment, can only manifest in terms of wanting to appropriate more “stuff.” In the New Age this means appropriating the spirituality of other cultures because we are so impoverished and have squandered our heritage and fatally polluted it with our materialistic attitude of conquest and ownership. [8]

Alongside spiritual capitalism it is the integration of East meets West which offers fertile new ground for unscrupulous gurus to take advantage of the well-intentioned, sensitive but naive individual. Parallel with the rise in sexual “freedom” and spiritual emancipation is covert authoritarianism in another, more subtle form. In understandably rejecting societal constraints in favour of perceived spiritual liberation it has opened the floodgates for financial and emotional extraction. True spiritual freedom rarely comes from adopting the role of devotee, it seems. When you are stripped of your values and conditioned “rules” you are in a fragile and susceptible state, ready to accept things that appeal to the conditioned self or ego. New identities form based on perceived trust, faith and belief. Yet more often than not, it is just another authoritarian structure developed from the personality of the guru with overtones of intellectual, emotional and/or sexual liberation as a means of spiritual ascension. Sometimes it is very difficult to know where a cult begins and where it ends.

Authors Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad from their book The Guru Papers talk about the rationale behind many spiritual movements headed by gurus at the top of a hierarchical structure of “devotion” with some unorthodox ways to metaphysical freedom. In some instances, the quickest path is through experiencing all desires under the guise of:

“… modernizing ancient esoteric methodologies (sometimes referred to as ‘tantric’) that attempted to bring self-realization through ritualistically breaking taboos. In the name of freeing people from their limitations and ‘hang-ups,’ this path is presented as the fastest track for contemporary Westerners to achieve spiritual goals, without undo austerity.”

The authors believe that this “ intoxicating message” feeds into the familiar belief patterns of “You can have it all” which means you can:

“… live out hidden desires and fantasies, experience any pleasure, break taboos around sex and even violence—and be spiritual besides. The assumption is that if one has or cultivates the right attitude (detachment), then ‘Anything goes.’ This seemingly liberating stance of “you-can-have-it-all” gurus has attracted many highly intelligent, experimental people. […]  This is but another example of the great myth that an external authority can be the source of inner freedom.” [9]

It is also another facet of a narcissistic culture bypassing spiritual authenticity in order to embrace the goodies of sensation.

Children are in the frontline to absorb the rise in pathologies inherited from society. It does no good to blame education or parents because they are already “victims” of the same and so the transference goes on at the family and institutional level. It is not that human beings are naturally out for themselves contrary to what the outdated Darwinists will tell you. It is learned behaviour. In fact, we are hard wired to cooperate with empathy, love and compassion but this wiring is easily co-opted given the right circumstances. [10] But when allowed to flower without pathological infection, altruistic intent and the resulting action not only gives meaning and substance to a person’s life, the transition from selfish to a form of selfless-ness is deeply rewarding for most who involve themselves in more than just the fulfilment of their own desires. Those special “mirror neurons” of empathy get firing and develop a feedback loop with the idea that when you benefit yourself and reach out with financial, mental, emotional or physical support the positive effects are perhaps far more potent that we may realise. [11]

Such a natural human dynamic has been lost and distorted however. And we will soon see why.

 


Notes

[1] ‘Studies Find Narcissists Most Aggressive When Criticized’ by David Peikan, American Psychological Association, July 1998.
[2] David Kelly at http://www.ptypes.com
[3] Personality Disorders in Modern Life by Theodore Millon, Carrie M. Millon. Published by John Wiley & Sons; 2nd Edition edition, 2004. ISBN-10: 0471237345.
[4] The New Age or Human Potential movement is a very wide-ranging, heterogeneous phenomena of individuals and groups that traverse the fields of self-help; counselling; psychotherapy; astrology; channeling; psychic or clairvoyant interpretation; spiritualism; healing (spiritual / Reiki / crystal / earth) alternative or complimentary medicine; new physics; scared geometry; ufology; divination (I Ching, Tarot, Runes etc.); Crypto-Egyptology / anthropology; cosmology; neo-paganism; eco-psychology / deep ecology… to name but a few.The concepts that form the bedrock of the New Age include very briefly:Reincarnation – where the soul incarnates into a different human form in order to learn certain lessons and to offset the individuals karmic debt.The energy field or aura which encompasses all living things.Pantheism – Spirit resides in all things. The idea that we are all essentially “One” derives from this belief as well as other aspects listed below.
Multi-dimensional consciousness – the belief (and a certain amount of scientific support) that one may exist in different dimensions and thus experience different levels of perception and / or lives.Karma – the actions in one life that will determine the quality and type of your next incarnation i.e. your destiny.
“You Create your Own Reality” (YCYOR) – the belief that one can create one’s own reality by thinking positively and changing one’s perceptions about oneself and the external influences we encounter. This follows from the idea that “energy follows thought” and the related concept of the “Law of Attraction.” By extension, this posits the idea that the reality you now experience is a product of your own perception / thinking and thus you alone are master of your destiny. This is a primary pillar of New Age thought and is in my view, one of the most important tenets of New Age beliefs.
The “critical mass” / 100th monkey concept This is where an exponential momentum in awareness results in a collective change in consciousness and thus a socio-cultural revolution across the planet, as a whole.
Gaia theory – earth as living entity with consciousness. Systems theory, self-organization, and dissipative structures play a part in the new science. Environmental activism is obviously a close partner.
“The Great White Brotherhood” or “Masters of Wisdom” – a hierarchical “overshadowing” of a group of enlightened individuals said to include Buddha, Lord Maitreya, Sanat Kumura etc. that are said to direct human evolution. (These are occult concepts sourced from esoteric Tibetan Buddhism, freemasonry and Theosophy, among others).
“The Age of Aquarius.” A phase which refers to one procession of the astrological zodiac, said to lead to an age of enlightenment or – “New Age.”
Universalism / collectivism including the concept of a “New World Order.” Sometimes known as “globalism” or “One world” which proposes a new, Utopian age of enlightenment and social equality where disease and suffering are finally eradicated. This New Order includes the formation and implementation of a one world government, a one world religion, one world education system, one bank and one global economic system as well a one world spiritual philosophy. Group consciousness is the endlessly repeated theme and objective of this so-called spiritual New Order.
[5] ‘The Secret: The Spirituality of Narcissism’ by Stuart Davis, http://www.stuartdavis.com Apr 17 2009:  “The Secret uses valid (but partial) suppositions such as: Our thoughts and feelings are powerful and inflates them to a Kosmic (and false) scale, giving us: Our thoughts are the most powerful things on Earth. The secret takes a statement like Thought can influence reality and amplifies it to “Thoughts create reality.” Not just any thoughts, but YOUR thoughts. (By the way, are you a rape victim? I guess you created that reality with your thoughts. Was your family member killed in Iraq? I guessed you created that experience for yourself so you could learn from it. Wow. You are one sadistic cat.)  The Secret takes a truth like The Self is one with the Universe, and then immediately inserts the wrong self; The Ego.”
[6] p.66; The Culture of Narcissism. American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations by Christopher Lasch. Published by W. W. Norton & Company; 1982; Revised edition, 1991 |  ISBN-10: 0393307387
[7] ‘The Allure of Narcissistic Spirituality’ Rabbi Alan Lurie,The Huffington Post, Jan 2011.
[8] ‘Narcissism and Spiritual Materialism: The New Age Legacy’ by Kobutsu Malone, Engaged Zen.
[9] From the chapter ‘Gurus & Sexual Manipulation’in Part One of The Guru Papers by Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad.
[10] ‘Mirror Neurons and the Brain in the Vat’ by V.S. Ramachandran, http://www.edge.org January 10 2006.
[11] The Heart of Altruism by Kristen Renwick Monroe, Published by Princeton University Press, 1998 | ISBN-10: 0691058474.

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