Can the Narcissist have a meaningful life?
We all have a scenario of our life. We invent – then adopt, are led by and measure ourselves against – personal narratives. These are, normally, commensurate with our personal histories, our predilections, our abilities and our skills. We are not likely to invent a narrative, which will be wildly out of synch with our selves. We will not judge ourselves by a narrative, which is not somehow correlated to what we can reasonably achieve. In other words, we are not likely to frustrate and punish ourselves knowingly. As we grow older – our narrative changes. Parts of it come true and this increases our self-confidence, sense of self-worth and self-esteem and makes us feel fulfilled, satisfied, makes us feel good and at peace with ourselves.
The narcissist differs from normal people in that his is a HIGHLY unrealistic personal narrative. This could be the legacy of a Primary Object (a narcissistic, domineering mother, for instance) – or it could be the product of the narcissist’s psyche. Instead of realistic guidelines, therefore, the narcissist has a Grandiose Fantasy. The latter cannot be effectively pursued. It is an elusive, ever receding target.
This constant failure (the Grandiosity Gap) leads to dysphorias (bouts of sadness) and to losses. From the outside, the narcissist is perceived to be sick, strange, prone to illusions and delusions, especially self-delusions and, therefore, lacking in judgement.
The dysphorias – the bitter fruit of the narcissist’s impossible grandiose fantasies – are painful and gradually the narcissist learns to avoid them by living without a narrative altogether. Life’s disappointments and setbacks condition him to understands that his specific “brand” of narrative leads to sadness and agony and is a form of self-punishment (inflicted on him by his sadistic, rigid Superego). This punishment serves another purpose: to support and confirm the judgement meted out by the Primary Object (usually, by his parents or caregivers) in his early childhood (and, now, an inseparable part of his Superego). After all, his Mother consistently insisted that the narcissist was a bad, rotten, useless apple. Surely, she could not have been wrong. Even raising the possibility that she may have been wrong proves her right! The narcissist feels compelled to validate this verdict by making sure that he indeed BECOMES bad, rotten and useless.
Yet, no human being – however deformed – can live without a narrative. The narcissist develops circular, ad-hoc, circumstantial, and fantastic narratives (the Contingent Narratives). Their role is to avoid confrontation with (the often disappointing and disillusioning) reality. He thus reduces the number of dysphorias and their strength, though by no means does he avoid the Narcissistic Cycle (see FAQ 43).
The narcissist pays a heavy price for accommodating his dysfunctional narratives:
Emptiness, existential loneliness (he shares no common psychic ground with other humans), sadness, drifting, emotional absence, emotional platitude, mechanisation/robotisation (lack of anima, excess persona in Jung’s terms), meaninglessness. This fuels his envy and the resulting rage and amplifies the EIPM (Emotional Involvement Preventive Measures – see Chapter Eight of the Essay ).
The narcissist develop a “Zu Leicht – Zu Schwer” (“Too Easy – Too difficult”) syndrome:
One the one hand, life is unbearably difficult. The narcissist does have achievements which would have been judged by anyone to be very real (not fantastic) and which could have mitigated the perceived harshness of life. But he has to “downgrade” them as “too easy” to achieve. The narcissist cannot admit that he has toiled to achieve something – this will shatter his Grandiose False Self. He must belittle every achievement of his and make it a matter of course, nothing special, quite routine. This is intended to support the dreamland quality of his fragmented personality. But it also prevents him from deriving the psychological benefits, which usually accrue to goal attainment: an enhancement of self-confidence, a more realistic self-assessment of one’s capabilities and abilities, a strengthening sense of self-worth.
The narcissist is doomed to roam a circular labyrinth. When he does achieve something – he degrades it to enhance his own sense of omnipotence. When he fails, he dares not face reality. He escapes to the land of no narratives where life is nothing but a parched wasteland. The narcissist whiles his life away.
But what is being a Narcissist like?
The Narcissist is often worried. It is usually unconscious, like a nagging pain, a permanence, like being immersed in a gelatinous liquid, trapped and helpless, or as the DSM puts it, it is “all-pervasive”. Still, these worries are never diffuse. The narcissist worries about specific people, or possible events, or more or less plausible scenarios. He seems to constantly conjure up some reason or another to be worried or offended. Positive past experiences do not dissuade him from this pre-occupation. He seems to believe that the world is a cruelly arbitrary, ominously contrarian, contrivingly cunning and indifferently crushing place. The Narcissist simply “knows” it will all end badly and for no reason. Life is too good to be true and too bad to endure. Civilization is an ideal and the deviations from it are what we call “history”. The Narcissist is incurably pessimistic, an ignoramus by choice and incorrigibly blind to evidence to the contrary.
Underneath all this, there is a Great Anxiety. The Narcissist fears life and what people do to each other. He fears his fear and what it does to him. He knows that he is a participant in a game whose rules he will never master and in which his very existence is at stake. He trusts no one, believes in nothing, knows only two certainties: evil exists and life is meaningless. He is convinced that no one cares.
This existential angst that permeates his every cell is atavistic and irrational. It has no name or likeness. It is like the monsters in every child’s bedroom with the lights turned off. But being the rationalizing and intellectualising creatures that cerebral narcissists are – they instantly label it, explain it away, analyse it and predict it. They attribute this poisonous cloud that weighs on them from the inside to some external cause. They set it in a pattern, embed it in a context, transform it into a link in the great chain of being. Hence, diffuse anxiety is transformed into focused worries. Worries are known and measurable quantities. They have reasons which can be tackled and eliminated. They have a beginning and an end. They are linked to names, to places, faces and to people. Worries are human. Thus, the Narcissist transforms his demons into notations in his real or mental diary: check this, do that, apply preventive measures, do not allow, pursue, attack, avoid. The language of human conduct in the face of real and immediate danger is cast over the Narcissist’s anxiety.
But such excessive worrying – whose sole intent is to convert irrational anxiety into the mundane and tangible – is the stuff of paranoia.
For what is paranoia if not the attribution of inner disintegration to external persecution, the assignment of malevolent agents from the outside to the turmoil inside? The paranoid seeks to alleviate his own voiding by irrationally clinging to rationality. Things are so bad, he says, mainly to himself, because I am a victim, because “they” are after me and I am hunted by the juggernaut of state, or by the Freemasons, or by the Jews, or by the neighbourhood librarian. This is the path that leads from the cloud of anxiety, through the lamp posts of worry to the consuming darkness of paranoia.
Paranoia is a defence against anxiety and against aggression. The latter is projected outwards, upon imaginary others, the agents of one’s crucifixion.
Anxiety is also a defence against aggressive impulses. Therefore, anxiety and paranoia are sisters, the latter but a focused form of the former. The mentally disordered defend against their own aggressive propensities by either being anxious or by becoming paranoid.
Yet, aggression has numerous guises, not only anxiety and paranoia. One of its favourite disguises is boredom. Like its relation, depression, boredom is aggression directed inwards. It threatens to drown the bored in a primordial soup of inaction and energy depletion. It is anhedonic (pleasure depriving) and dysphoric (leads to profound sadness). But it is also threatening, perhaps because it is so reminiscent of death.
Not surprisingly, the Narcissist is most worried when bored. The Narcissist is aggressive. He channels his aggression and internalises it. He experiences his bottled wrath as boredom. He is bored. He feels threatened by it in a vague, mysterious way. Anxiety ensues. He rushes to construct an intellectual edifice to accommodate all these primitive emotions and their transubstantiations. He identifies reasons, causes, effects and possibilities in the outer world. He builds scenarios. He spins narratives. As a result, he feels no more anxiety. He knows the enemy (or so he thinks). And now, instead of being anxious, he is worried. Or paranoid.
A Philosophical Comment about Shame
Above, I postulated the existence of a “Grandiosity Gap”. Plainly put, it is the difference between self-image, how the narcissist “sees” himself and contravening cues from reality. The greater the conflict between grandiosity and reality, the bigger the gap.
I, therefore, suggest that there are two varieties of shame:
The Narcissistic Shame – which is the experience of the Grandiosity Gap (and its affective correlate). Subjectively it is experienced as a pervasive feeling of worthlessness (the regulation of self-worth lies at the crux of pathological narcissism), “invisibleness” and ridiculousness. The patient feels pathetic and foolish, deserving of mockery and humiliation.
Narcissists adopt all kinds of defences to counter Narcissistic Shame. They develop addictive or impulsive behaviours. They deny, withdraw, rage, engage in the compulsive pursuit of some kind of (unattainable, of course) perfection. They display haughtiness and exhibitionism and so on. All these defences are employed primitively (or are primitive, like splitting) and involve projective identification.
The second type of shame is Self-Related Shame. It is a result of the gap between grandiosity (or Ego Ideal) and self or Ego. This is a well-known concept of shame and it has been treated widely in the works of Freud (1914), Reich (1960), Jacobson (1964), Kohut (1977), Kingston (1983), Spero (1984) and Morrison (1989).
I think a clear distinction has to be drawn between GUILT (or control) – Related Shame and Conformity-Related Shame.
Guilt is an “objectively” determinable philosophical entity (given relevant knowledge regarding societal and cultural make up). It is context-dependent. It is the derivative of an underlying assumption by OTHERS that a Moral Agent does control certain aspects of the world. This assumed control by the agent imputes guilt to it, if it acts in a manner incommensurate with prevailing mores, or refrains from acting in a manner commensurate with them.
So, shame here is a result of the ACTUAL occurrence of AVOIDABLE outcomes which imputes guilt to a Moral Agent.
We must distinguish GUILT from GUILT FEELINGS, though. Guilt feelings (and the attaching shame) can be ANTICIPATORY. A Moral Agent assumes, similarly, that it has control over certain aspects of the world. But then, it is able to predict the outcomes of INTENTIONS and feels guilt and shame as a result.
Guilt Feelings are composed of a component of Fear and a component of Anxiety. Fear is related to the external, objective, observable consequences of actions or inaction by the Moral Agent. Anxiety has to do with INNER consequences. It is ego-dystonic and threatens the identity of the Moral Agent because being Moral is part of its identity and an important part at that. The internalisation of guilt feelings leads to a shame reaction.
So, shame has to do with guilty feelings, not with GUILT, per se. These guilty feelings are a composite of reactions and anticipated reactions of others to external outcomes such waste, disappointment of others, failure (the FEAR component) plus the reactions and anticipated reactions of the Moral Agent itself to internal outcomes (helplessness=loss of presumed control, narcissistic injuries – the ANXIETY component).
There is also Conformity-Related Shame. It has to do with the feeling of “otherness”. It also involves a component of fear (of the reactions of others to one’s otherness) and of anxiety (of the reactions of one to one’s own otherness).
I think that Guilt-Related Shame is more connected to Self-Related Shame (perhaps through a psychic construct akin to the Superego). On the other hand, Conformity-Related Shame is more typical of Narcissistic Shame.