Robert Augustus Masters

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Narcissism: A Cult of One

  • July 25, 2015
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What is narcissism?


Morally stunted me-centered individualism that is devoid of empathy.


Narcissism tends to run unbridled in Western culture, commonly masquerading as character-building, “let’s-get-ahead” personal initiative and drive. It is the hub not only of selfishness, but also sociopathy.


Narcissism inflates the notion of “I’ve gotta be me,” especially when coupled with considerable material success. Perhaps its prevailing image is that of a swollen head atop a tagalong body, mirrored from multiple angles for the viewing pleasure of said head.


Unchecked narcissism is quite natural at a certain stage of development — early childhood — but not so natural later on.


Narcissism is not only a caricature and shadow of individuality, but also has an abundance of its own shadow elements — to which it, not surprisingly, turns a blind eye.


One such element is that of routinely dehumanizing others. Another, pushed even further into the dark, is anything within that is we-centered or altruistic. Another is the capacity for real love.


Though narcissism is often described as a self-centered condition, it actually is centered not by self, but by a compensatory flight from self, fueled to a large degree by the effort to get as far away from our shame and vulnerability as possible.


The grail for narcissism is to be established where we are as completely as possible out of the reach of shame.


Where shame deflates us, narcissism and its attending pride inflate us, pumping us up with a compelling sense of entitlement and at least some degree of grandiosity. In this, we conceive of ourselves not just as special, but as very special.


Left unattended, narcissism is an enormously destructive force, because all it cares about is whatever benefits “me,” regardless of the cost to others (and if it does show care to others, it only does so to further itself).


There is no “us” for narcissism, regardless of its propaganda to the contrary; everything that is “not-me” revolves around it, like resources being mindlessly consumed by runaway capitalism.


Also, narcissism is not just personal, but also collective, as in the “person” of massive corporate entities, which more often than not operate as a metastasizing “me,” with no morality other than “what’s good for me is what matters.” Narcissism as such doesn’t give a damn about the mess it leaves, perhaps even making a case for the jobs this creates for others.


Narcissism is ruthless, and doesn’t mind that it’s ruthless, taking the ideal of rugged or otherwise robust individualism into territory where others are but objects to be manipulated for the interests of “me.” Taking care of business, with the mantra of “what’s in in for me?” drowning out other less selfish considerations.


We may decry cults — tightly self-enclosed entities shut off to internal dissent and external feedback — seeing the obvious ones, like Jonestown and Nazism, but perhaps not the less obvious ones, like couples wrapped up in heavy codependency, which could be described as a cult of two.


Narcissism is a cult of one. It is a “me”-knot, just as rigidly encapsulated as any cult of many, over against whatever is deemed to be “not-me.” It is very difficult to convince a cult member that he or she is in a cult, no matter how eloquently accurate we may be — and it’s just as difficult to convince those who are narcissistic that they are indeed so.


“I gotta be me” can at best be the cry of healthy individuation, an evolutionary “yes!” to being more fully ourselves — and, far more commonly, it also can be the rallying cry of narcissism, a shout-out to being a somebody for whom standing out or being clearly special holds far too much importance.


Being “me” is fine, so long as it is not marooned from “us” — and narcissism turns “us” into a distant “them.”


A little narcissism is not a problem; we all have a bit of it, however muted or inert it might be. All we have to do is not let it occupy a central place in us. Getting to know our own narcissistic tendencies equips us to relate more skillfully to the narcissism of others.


The point is not to try to be humble or non-prideful or free of vanity, but to keep our inflationary me-centered tendencies in healthy perspective, celebrating others’ successes as well as our own, taking care not to dehumanize others, learning to expand ourselves not for imperialistic payoffs, but to include others in the circle of our being.


Such inclusion is anathema to narcissists. What they don’t see is that their aversion to including others is none other than their aversion to including all that they are in the circle of their being. Their vulnerability, their empathy, their wounding, their estrangement from their core of being, their loneliness, their shame — all these seem to be “other” to them, and so remain as part of their shadow.


Narcissism is selfishness at its ugliest; others exist only as objects for a narcissistic mindset, to be used or manipulated for the needs or desires of “me.”


Yet this is not necessarily a turn-off for us when being with those caught up in narcissism, because their pull to garnering our admiration — and validation of their specialness — may manifest as considerable charm, generosity, undivided attentiveness, and energetic magnetism, to such a degree that we don’t see that they are in fact using us, devaluing us even as they woo us.


Full-blown narcissism is a concretized deification of “me.” Its credo is “What’s in it for me?” Its demand, however understated, is “See and affirm and don’t question my specialness.”


Its hidden cry is “Don’t shame me.” Its advertisements for itself — an all but uninterrupted commercial break — surround and emanate from it, offering much (great deals!) if we will but buy into it. As such, narcissism is a con artist. And it also is a façade behind which there is immense hurt.


Narcissism is individualization gone awry, as grandiose as it is devoid of real heart. It doesn’t form relationships but rather associations, associations that provide it with the payoffs it craves, like being admired or being in enough control to be relatively unscathed by the inconvenience of others’ displeasure or outrage. It is morally and ecologically illiterate.


We all have some narcissistic tendencies, but we don’t all make narcissism our go-to operational strategy. The potential for narcissism shows up early in life, appearing with the arising of egoity. Young children are, quite naturally, very egocentric: everything, it seems, revolves around them, and they don’t question this. This is a stage of individuation.


Trying to have young children not be egocentric is an error, shoving their innate me-centeredness into the shadows, where it festers and eventually emerges in dysfunctional forms. So how does narcissism build? What are its formative factors?


Consider one example, a three or four year-old child who is clearly loved by one parent and rejected by the other, bouncing between being praised and being shamed. This child is far more likely than most to become narcissistic, feeling safest or most stable when being praised or admired. Furthermore, if this child learns to distrust the incoming praise (because it does nothing to provide protection from the incoming rejection and shaming), he or she will feel a near-consistent insecurity and a compensatory drive to have as much control as possible (so as to minimize being rejected or shamed).


Too much praise can foster narcissism, as can a deeply implanted sense of entitlement — especially when coexisting with a low degree or lack of empathy.

Heavy shaming can also catalyze narcissism, as a compensatory strategy.


It’s easy to get stuck here, to carry this into our adulthood, however much our outward appearance and behavior may seem far from narcissistic. When narcissism begins, moral development gets frozen in its tracks; we may continue developing cognitively and in other ways, but we remain moral midgets.


So let us turn toward our narcissism, not shaming ourselves for having it, and begin examining it, illuminating our history with it and our ways of disguising it, sensing in it a child whose sense of self got seriously derailed, with being special becoming far too important a factor.


There’s a deep wound in narcissism, a splitting off from care and loving connection that drives us into an exaggerated somebody-ness. Our work here is to approach this wound and compassionately contact what lies at its heart.


This is a far from just intellectual undertaking, asking that we open ourselves to such hurt in the same way that genuinely loving and conscious parents do when one of their children has been hurt. The point is not to eliminate narcissism in ourselves — an impossible task — but to relate to it deeply enough so that its viewpoint ceases being ours.