Owning our own narcissism

October 8, 2018

1503683533549It’s the last day of holidays here and I’ve been thinking (again) about narcissism. Particularly about how important it is to own our own narcissism. Perhaps it’s prompted in part by watching the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings and then reading and watching the reaction from liberals and conservatives alike.

Kavanaugh outraged at having his confirmation (and integrity) seriously threatened at the last minute and being accused of sexual assault and also drunken boorishness as an adolescent and young adult. Democrats outraged that someone whose integrity can be so seriously at question and who lied under oath (at least about the extent of his drinking) can be shoe-horned into the Supreme Court with a sham of an FBI investigation. Women and men outraged that getting a Conservative swing-vote on the US Supreme Court appears to be more important than taking allegations of sexual assault seriously. And so on.

I think it’s easy as Democratic supporters to get outraged and discouraged. And I’m not downplaying the importance of righteous anger. Rebecca Traister’s Good and Mad looks like an excellent recent example of how to harness the power of anger.

But what calmed me down in part was realising that my own anger has as much to do with my own expectations, hopes and ideals for the US and the world as a whole. As someone wisely said, haters are gonna hate, and by extension conservatives are gonna carry on being conservatives, and the privileged will continue to protect their own privilege. Socially and politically, the answer seems to be to keep on taking responsibility for whatever influence we have. To keep on trying to change things for the better. And also, paradoxically perhaps, to be more patient of the slow pace of transformation.

People’s ideas and also political systems won’t change easily in our increasingly partisan information bubbles. But if we accept that lasting change takes time, perhaps we can all be more patient and tolerant with ourselves (as we sensitively challenge others).





On Violence (and the silly season)

November 28, 2008

Reading DoctorDi’s blog post today on the terror attacks in Mumbai, I was thinking about our general incomprehension in the face of such extreme violence. (Incidentally, congrats to Di on being long-listed by Veruna in Aus for her novel. I know she’s busy with the rewrites so doesn’t get to leave many comments around the blogosphere, but you should read her stuff.)

Perhaps it’s too early for analysis of the attacks and I’m reluctant to even go there. What’s my interest in this? Why should I sound off on other peoples’ tragedies? But I also think that there’s something to be learned here. Regular readers may know that I’ve been preoccupied for a while with empathy and violence. How violence results from a total lack of empathy. In simple form: Anger – Empathy = Violence.

With high levels of violence in South Africa, it’s not hard to find examples. One of the dominant stories in Cape Town in the past few months has been that of a senior policeman, Marius van der Westhuizen, who gunned down his three children as a way of punishing his wife. Yesterday I read how the forensic psychiatrist described his actions as possibly the most severe example of narcissistic rage that her team had seen in the past few months.

Violence feeds the ego, as Adam Phillips reminds us. And our commercial culture is only too ready to feed our egos with gratuitous violence in the form of violent movies, news images, computer games and hate speech. Di was asking what the perpetrators of the Mumbai violence might want from this horror. And as I read her incomprehension which matched my own yesterday, I started thinking about the need for publicity and self-importance of the perpetrators which links in with the needs of the commercial media to generate media consumption. You don’t need to be a conspiracy theorist to reflect on the rise of the 24-hour news channels in the wake of the Gulf Wars. And then to remember how 9/11 had us glued to CNN and Sky and BBC (or whatever your channel was) for days on end in absolute horror.

So what do the perpetrators want? Reports suggest a surge of hatred and hostility between India and Pakistan for a start. The cooling of ill-feeling between the two countries is clearly not good for the terrorism business. I’m sure other analysts will reflect on a general hatred for Western values which links up with narcissistic injuries of wounded and excluded identities. But I’ll leave it there for today. I know this is rather depressing talk for a Friday. This is supposed to be the silly season after all. One of our wonderfully talented cartoon strips in SA is “Madam and Eve”. The best exchanges occur between Granny Anderson and the cute black girl (whose name escapes me). Granny Anderson, a diminutive gin-and-tonic-swilling expat from England, is usually goaded into locking the cute black girl (CBG) out of the house for disturbing her afternoon nap with funny and pertinent questions. “Now?” asks the CBG. “How about now?” “Now?” She’s wearing a false nose and glasses and is asking Granny Anderson if teh silly season has started yet. Well, it’s clearly not today. But my online Xmas shopping started yesterday. Books and CDs. *purr*

James Joyce: “The Dead”

July 25, 2008

James Joyce’s short story “The Dead”, from Dubliners (1914), touches on the issue of narcissism, one which is central to the “problems of living” that many clients who come for therapy experience.

Narcissism can be defined as an excessive amount of love and admiration toward oneself but in a psychological context it has a more specific meaning. It refers to a psychological condition characterised by self-preoccupation, lack of empathy and unconscious deficits in self-esteem.

Gabriel Conroy in “The Dead” fits this label. He’s in his mid-40s, a teacher and a journalist, happily married with children. He’s well-regarded as a teacher and a journalist and is his aunts’ favourite nephew who is to give the after-dinner speech at their annual Misses Morkan’s dance party. But he’s also preoccupied with what other people think of him and appears a bit bewildered by his own emotions and his effect on people. He appears too wrapped up in himself and whether or not he is highly regarded and so is unable to empathise with others. He is over-familiar with Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, and she takes offence. Dancing with a fellow teacher, Molly Ivors, he’s perplexed that she teases him about being a “West Briton” (an Irishman who looks to Britain rather than his native Ireland). She’s effectively accusing him of not being sufficiently Irish and not taking take enough pride in all things Irish but he comes away from the encounter irritated and perplexed.

His marriage to Gretta is a happy one up to a point but the party provides an example of the miscommunications between them. When Molly Ivors invites him to holiday with them in Galway (perhaps to make up for the teasing), he says he’s going cycling in Europe instead. Gretta is delighted by the idea of going to Galway but Gabriel says coldly that she can go alone if she likes.

Later on the cab drive home and back at their hotel he longs for intimacy with Gretta but she’s full of regret for her first love, of whom she was reminded when one of the guests sang “The Lass of Aughrim”. He feels slighted and sees “himself as a ludicrous figure, acting as a pennyboy for his aunts, a nervous, well-meaning sentimentalist, orating to vulgarians and idealising his own clownish lusts, the pitiable fatuous fellow he had caught sight of in the mirror”.

However, in a moment of epiphany (which Joyce is famous for), Gabriel appears to be able to transcend some of his own narcissism to empathise with Gretta and to feel some of the sorrow that she experiences. After Gretta has cried herself to sleep Gabriel is left wondering about the living and the dead. He looks out at the snow which “was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furley was buried …. he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe, and falling faintly, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead”.

Bill Tucker, who includes this story in his “How People Change”, identifies narcissism as the central issue of the story.

Narcissism is the central issue in the psychological treatment of many patients, usually but not necessarily men, coming in mid-life to treatment for long-standing problems in love or work, sometimes accompanied by specific physiological symptoms. Like Gabriel, such men are unaware of their insensitivity to emotional issues and find themselves genuinely bewildered by the intensely negative responses they continually evoke. Like him they tend to be overly sensitive to slights and to indulge in constant monitoring of how they are perceived, with what we might incautiously compare to a teenager’s degree of self-consciousness. Gabriel is warmly regarded, but he does not feel connected to any of the other guests.

I wondered what a client like Gabriel Conroy might be like on the couch. In some ways he would be an ideal patient – intelligent, articulate, insightful and observant. He would classify as a high-functioning neurotic. Narcissistic patients tend to drone on at length about minor things (a bit like a blog!) but he is also observant enough to be able to apply insights to his own relationships and could make good use of therapy to connect with a rich, inner emotional life.