Published September 28, 2017 in Warp & Woof
Moral Struggles: Narcissism vs. Humility
Power and Intimidation
Self-righteousness is the sole property of the narcissist. He is always right. Those who have differing opinions are always wrong. And, he believes that if we are to be moral creatures, righteousness must be enforced. Wrong must be suppressed.
His instruments of enforcement include brute force, legal authority, religious dogma, bureaucratic hierarchies. He may even invent fictitious authority, for instance “history” or “custom” — usually softer than the other more brutal instruments. But, the basic principle is intimidation, or cajolery and persuasion.
His aim is obedience. If he cannot summon sufficient instruments of power to carry the day, the narcissist becomes the submissive servant instead — unworthy, despicable, a loser.
How much does organized society depend on this psychological cruelty? What is the payoff in this system?
An alternative appeared sometime early in the development of human consciousness. It was to foster cooperation. Doing the “right thing” depended not on the force of will, or authority, but on the anticipation of shared rewards. The sales pitch would be opportunity, not fear.
Then God was invented. From a simple concept, the doctrine of humility arose. The highest authority resided outside any one person – indeed, above all flawed humanity. Unfortunately, humans, being narcissists, had difficulty grasping this concept. They projected their narcissism onto the emperor, or some collection of powerful people, like an ecclesiastical hierarchy.
Though the pull of narcissism proved strong, one spark did seem to persist through the ages – the deep desire to do better. Humility became a goal to strive toward. And, the moral struggle became an obsessive challenge for many a monk, and many a slave.
Toddlers discover agency. They can do things, get attention from parents … and soon learn the word “mine” to describe objects they want to control, to own. This creation of “Self” is the beginning of narcissism. I’ve seen my 22-month-old grandson achieve this level of consciousness, with a vengeance! When he appears to offer an object to someone else — a toy, food, or when he points, naming something he sees — it’s an attempt to influence them, to show off, not to be generous. Hopefully, he can relearn these behaviors as generosity when he gets older, but for now, it’s strictly ego gratification! If he doesn’t relearn, he will be in danger of becoming a pathological narcissist. That condition would arise if “mine” is the only idea he understands. In earlier times, it was called megalomania.
While psychologists can describe the symptoms of narcissism, the causes of the Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) are in dispute. The clinical description from DSM-IV is as follows:
Narcissistic personality disorder is characterized by a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, interpersonal exploitiveness, and lack of empathy, beginning in early adulthood and manifest in a variety of contexts.
Like many personality disorders, it seems to be a matter of degree (key judgmental words here – “pervasive,” “need,” “lack”). A 2009 survey estimated about
6% of U.S. population suffers from NPD. But the other 94% of us exhibit some of these symptoms some of the time, throughout life.
Here is an entirely amateur hypothesis, based only on my own introspection, raising two sons, and observing my grandson – as well as other people throughout my life. I think narcissism comes from difficulty reaching one’s Self. Most people can find themselves with a moderate amount of work, as they mature. But, due to various circumstances, some just can’t quite get there. Their Self is either opaque, or visible but unreachable. These aggravating circumstances might have to do with parental expectations, or even parental narcissism. It could be an inherited disorder.
If children are taught to relate to others only through the prism of their own egos, something will remain undiscovered – and that something will likely include empathy. If expectations are exceedingly high for a child, that child may either fantasize that it has achieved those expectations, or surrender to perennial failure, never able to “measure up.” If parents teach children that their whole family is constantly subject to being judged, the child will adopt a persona of constantly seeking approval from others. And, so on. I don’t believe “over-indulgence” of children causes narcissism. Instead, it results in strong egos, not the characteristically weak ego of the narcissist.
What if somebody realizes, as an adult, that they have NPD? What do they do about it? Probably nothing, since seeking help runs counter to their whole world view – they are already either perfect, or hopeless. Could friends and family persuade them to seek therapy? Depends. Greatest likelihood would probably be via threat (loss of job or spouse), but that may only cause them to dig in deeper!
Rather than attempting to get somebody to deny Self, the more fruitful approach might be to teach them to incorporate others into Self – a philosophy that knows no bounds! The whole world could conceivably be viewed as the Larger Self (invoking a vaguely spiritual presence?). If my ego encompasses everybody, what might be the implications for society? For morality, itself?
Healthy skepticism of the “Larger Self” view is warranted, however. We always need to be on guard against false humility. Some of the best examples of false humility are people who make lots of promises, or try very hard to make you feel good. Think about preachers, teachers, politicians! They have all mastered some professional acting skills – they may not convince so much as “stroke” the Self. We naturally find them hard to resist. On the other hand, if we knowingly submit to their wiles, perhaps we are on the way to true humility ourselves – can willing submission outweigh the need for dominance? Sometimes. The secret might be to recognize that we were being manipulated, and accept it – it may be benign.
NPD and the Rest of Us
Of course, most of us would not be diagnosed with NPD by a mental health professional.
“Everyday narcissism” can be described in a similar way as NPD, but can be better controlled. We can engage in a modest amount of introspection when confronted by apparent rejection, or demeaning comments by others. We can learn to ask ourselves about others’ personal agendas, as well as ours. We can acknowledge that we ought to do better, and try tweaking our interpersonal behaviors accordingly.
Two examples of everyday narcissism which many of us experience, and can be considered beneficial to human welfare, are flirting and leadership.
Flirting, though perhaps banal, is based on the principle of physical attraction. It is an intimation of bonding between individuals, but with no commitment to intimacy. Within socially agreeable constraints, it is generally thought to consist of ego “strokes” we find appealing. Both parties to flirtation are indulging essentially narcissistic fantasies. They are presuming worthinessof intimacy, but unconsciously agreeing not to engage in intimacy with each other (if either party consciouslysays “no,” or “are you kidding,” the flirtatious exchange, by definition, is over). The usual social constraints include keeping the flirtation hidden from a spouse, and knowing the prudent stopping point. But, given these rules, flirting is an exploration of getting outside one’s Self, an attempt to reach out. It has the benefit of making both participants feel good, appealing to them with “narcissistic supply.”
More consequential, the quality of Leadership has been identified as a combination of narcissism and humility. True enough, many people occupying leadership roles may show much narcissism, and only false humility. But, the best leaders have goals governed by ego needs, yet know in their hearts that cooperation (teamwork) is the only way those goals can be achieved. This is genuine humility, not exploitation. Steve Jobs has often been cited as the archetype of the successful narcissistic leader, mostly because he managed to come back from humiliating failure, caused by his narcissism, as a changed, humbler, executive. He then achieved phenomenal success up to his death. Social organizations do require leadership, and we cannot deny the role narcissism plays.
The important moral lesson about narcissism is that being good is a quest, not a state. You are on your way when you finally realize that their welfare matters to you. Intimacy depends upon this realization. Leadership depends upon it, as well. Giving is learned behavior, and practice will tend to improve one’s skills. Sometimes, occasional role reversal helps us to understand the dynamics of narcissism. If we are usually ensconced in a grandiose dominance role, try switching to the submissive listener role. If we are stuck in an unworthy ”piece-of-crap” self-image, try being more assertive. Over time, with practice, we may come to understand our ego dynamics better. But, the quest continues … thinking we’ve finally “made it” spells certain defeat!