Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Narcissism: ego defence as self-delusion

A friend who practises Chinese medicine put me on to this Webinar by Lonny Jarrett, a Chinese medicine practitioner who runs the Nourishing Destiny website. In it Jarrett differentiates between the authentic self − which he identifies with the life force, the urge to create what was not there before − and the ego, which insists on separation and control. He explicitly evokes Taoist and Buddhist notions in this.

Jarrett argues that the ego is a great barrier to healing because it blocks seeing what is (a point that applies to both patient and practitioner) and, in particular, wants healing without taking responsibility for change, wants to delay doing what is required until it “feels like it”. The ego demands attention to its hurts, traumas and concerns in a way that can block actually fixing the problems.

That is surely true. Jarrett is arguing that the ego is where family and social conditioning resides (or, at least, operates through) and the authentic self is what one can use to break through that conditioning. Which is hard: particularly if one has been, in effect, conditioned to feel bound by one’s conditioning. To not believe that there is something that you have access to by your actions or thoughts which can be relied upon.

If one looks at the ego as insisting on separation and control then narcissism becomes – in its pure form – the complete insistence on separation and control. Including the insistence that reality serve that separation and control or, at least, that how reality is construed does so. The ego reaches out and blocks one’s apprehension of reality from contradicting the needs of the ego. In other words, the narcissist’s convenience becomes their reality principle, the determiner of how they see reality.

Which makes narcissism very hard to heal, since apprehension of reality is, in effect, policed before it can provide a contradicting perspective. There is neither the motive to change (since the harm is generally inflicted on others) nor an avenue for seriously assessing one’s own perspectives. No wonder counselling and psychotherapy can often make narcissists worse. The last thing they need is their emotions validated and it would take a very alert therapist to begin to pick holes in presentation of events that they have no independent verification of. Even if they do so, the narcissist is likely to conveniently reconstrue, or otherwise block, any responses by the therapist that contradict the convenience of the ego.

It can also make dealing with a narcissist profoundly disorienting, since the meaning of all their actions is subordinated to their ego needs. So there is no independent meaning, or even factual basis, to rely on: no consistency beyond their needs and conveniences (which can, of course, change – even from moment to moment). Words and actions do not have the meaning that would be commonly ascribed to them.

Once, however, you work out what is going on, then things suddenly make much more sense. (Though a sense which can be infuriating, in a different way.) One lives in a world where they feel free to contradict themselves and events whenever convenient. As Joanna Ashmum says in her very useful discussion of narcissistic traits:
The most telling thing that narcissists do is contradict themselves. They will do this virtually in the same sentence, without even stopping to take a breath. It can be trivial (e.g., about what they want for lunch) or it can be serious (e.g., about whether or not they love you). When you ask them which one they mean, they'll deny ever saying the first one, though it may literally have been only seconds since they said it – really, how could you think they'd ever have said that? You need to have your head examined! They will contradict FACTS. They will lie to you about things that you did together. They will misquote you to yourself. If you disagree with them, they'll say you're lying, making stuff up, or are crazy.
They are the classic emotional vampires who cannot see themselves in the mirror while being profoundly disorienting, or infuriating, or both to deal with.

Their deepest problem is fear: narcissists are profoundly fearful people. They are so terrified of having to bear responsibility for their actions that reflect badly on themselves that they make their (defensive ego) convenience their reality principle. Their psyche is profoundly out of balance: to be cured of their personality disorder, they need to be punctured from their protective ego-inflation and yet be led to the inner confidence to deal with their own bad behaviour. (Which, of course, mounts over time: so becoming ever more frightening.) This is a difficult double act to say the least: particularly given how thoroughly their sense of reality is policed.

The extent of the self-delusion involved can be staggering. (Do they really think that you do not remember what happened? Apparently not.) But that is the point, really. First there is no you-as-actual-person in all this, there is merely whatever picture of you is convenient for the narcissist at any given moment.

Second, there is no what-actually-happened either, there is merely what it is convenient for the narcissist to “remember” as having happened. Which means there is no conversation to be had, no meaningful interaction. There is nothing beyond the narcissist’s convenience that can be appealed to, that sets some common standard, or even common reality. The narcissist’s armour of self-delusion means that nothing will get through, not in the ordinary course of events. So nothing useful will come out, either.

Which makes interacting with a narcissist more like an unfortunate happening, a sort of personal natural disaster, than a personal interaction in any meaningful sense.

But, of course, they are a person: they speak, they act. It is very disorienting, to have to treat what they say and do as not having the ordinary meanings and consequences. This is why an acquaintance was so right to call narcissists “serial killers of the soul”, since such can so profoundly undermine one’s trust in others and, even worse, oneself.

It is very hard not, at some level, to accept their framing as mattering. They are a person, after all – particularly if they were a person who was emotionally important to you.

But they are not really a personality in quite the way other folk are. That is the first, last and hardest lesson of dealing with people personality disorders – they really do not think as you do.

It is, sadly, a lesson one often has to keep re-learning.

25 comments:

  1. I've had the experience of people close to me exhibiting narcissistic tendencies. It's so frustrating. What do you do when someone lies to themselves and to you? And then denies that they lied to you? What frustrates me most is the total inability to take responsibility. It's always someone else's fault, someone else's responsbility, someone else did it. One just feels like shaking them till their teeth rattle.

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  2. LE The level of insulted frustration involved (since if the consequences of their bad behaviour are not their responsibility, "clearly" they are the responsibility of the person hurt by their behaviour) leads to all sorts of desires to find a way to really get their attention. Shaking them until the teeth rattle seems more of a starting point ...

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  3. There is not only "insulted frustration" but also, over an extended period of isolated contact (and they *will* isolate you, because it's one of the ways they use to "empower" themselves - being one of your few points of contact) a gradual wearing down of self-confidence in worldview and the ability to understand, followed by repetitive, singular abuse. They, of course, present themselves to the world as lovely, approachable, gentle people. Behind closed doors with the people they claim to "love", they are nasty, violent and will not accept anything you voluntarily offer them, yet bleed you dry of the things you choose to keep to yourself.

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    1. I'm another "anonymous": Reading these comments, and the original post, is like being offered a life-belt as I am hurled down the river to the waterfall...I might still drown, but now I've got something that just might keep me afloat. "Insulted frustration" is a perfect description of my habitual mental state since I met my partner.

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  4. Anonymous: you write with the knowledge of serious experience -- my condolences.

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  5. (a different "anonymous")

    I left home when I could not shake the alarming nightmares in which I dreamed that I brutally attacked and eventually murdered my narcissistic parent in an attempt to "get through to them".

    I still have flashbacks of the sense of violent despair and numb futility I experienced as, regardless of the means I dreamed I was using to destroy them physically, their voice continued, and they remained absolutely resolute in their nastily posed declarations that they were right and I, and the rest of the world if necessary, wrong.

    I'm very glad that I got away, but I am far from over the harm they did me, or free of their influence, still.

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    1. That is what has happened to me. I have poured love at my partner, in the conviction that if I just loved him come what may, he would see that he is loved despite childhood experiences, and it would bring down the barriers. As I am almost always met with stonewalling, withdrawal and contempt, interspersed with sudden passionate desire that reverts to contempt again, I have become almost desperate, full of frustration and hurt.
      I have had a horrible nightmare of killing my partner with a spade and burying him in the garden. And I slid a lot of books off a shelf instead of hitting him, and now he says I need intense psychotherapy for my deep-rooted anger. I think it is not deep-rooted, I think it is just now sending out its first tiny roots, and it is a tragic thing.
      I

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  6. Anonymous-the-second: Narcissists engage in such a profound dismissal of others as a person, that violent impulses towards a narcissist who has been powerful in one's life is entirely understandable. (In some ways, it is surprising they don't get murdered more often.)

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    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  7. Yet another anonymous, that is..


    Loving the projected narcissism in these comments!

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  8. Anonymous-the-third: that is a thoroughly unwarranted inference which suggests to me you lack any serious experience with a genuine narcissist.

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  9. Really thought provoking article Lorenzo.

    I dated a narcissist on and off for 4 years and the thing I was unable to understand was his unshaken belief everyone believed his lies.

    Everyday the lies to cover other lies were heaped on each other, the blame game was played, it was always someone else's fault that the bills weren't paid, or that that girl thought she loved him, or that the $100 went missing from the petty cash.

    Even when he was caught out he'd sit there saying "No, you're/he's/she's/they're wrong. That's not what happened."

    You begin to question your own sanity, your own understanding of the world, what's real, whether or not you're the person with the problem.

    It came to the point that I felt that I was going to come undone and commit an act of violence at him, instead I chose myself; at least I couldn't go to jail for that.

    I look back to what little he told me of his past, and he tells a completely different story to everyone now and I wonder "Who the hell did I fall in love with, did he ever exist as a real person at all?"

    I now understand, after reading your article, that no he didn't exist at all, at least not as the person I thought he was.

    Kate

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  10. Kate -- glad you found my post so helpful. Your own comment is very eloquent and sane. (That the narcissist who was so destructive in my life went off and dated a Kate just adds to the resonance.) And no, they do not exist as the person you thought they were.

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  11. I need to know if a narcissist can change, say ,after a breakdown.....i really need to know this because after over twenty years and much damage my partner is now saying he sees himself in a true light. Now he tells me he's horrified by his actions and I have watched the horror comes over his face. He tells me he is afraid and really hasn't a clue who he is but that the big empty space he felt is gone. He also tells me he loves me and will never hurt me again with other women. However i am so wary and horrified myself at what i discovered a few months ago and it has smashed open the illusion of my whole life with him...tho i must say he has been so ruthless over the years i don't know why i never suspected affairs. Can he change? He has apologised over and over again and tells me he wants no part of that sordid, deceitful, selfish world ( his words). HELP!!

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  12. Anon: I am merely a lay person who has had an awful experience and read a fair bit. Yes, there are cases of people overcoming narcissism, at least to a significant degree. It can only happen because they want to and the only cases I am aware of involved love of another.

    What I can say with confidence is: judge them only by their behaviour. It is a good sign if they verbally take responsibility WITHOUT shifting blame on to others. But make it clear they will be judged by how they act, not by what they say.

    I would also suggest they engage in some regular volunteer service to others: the habit of seriously attending to others has to be built up.

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  13. Lorenzo..thank you so much for your reply. I have seen such change in my husband but I can't believe the difference in what I thought he was and the reality. I was so confused throughout our life together..couldn't understand how callous he would be with me...but I thought he was just afraid of his feelings...oh the lies I told myself. On my search to find answers I found myself reading about narcissists and the more I read the more frightened I became...there he was in all his narcissistic glory. The devastation these people leave behind is so sad. Well I'm aware that i am mourning the loss of an illusion...wide awake now and seeing everything and it hurts. I know everyone who is involved with a narcissist comes out with scars but I am alright....I think !!! Best wishes to you and thank you again.

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  14. Anon: My pleasure and I hope it works out. (I particularly recommend Emotional Vampires by Albert J Bernstein.)

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  15. I have recently experienced a full blown narcissist. I had a jesus statue in my window...up comes one in his...a series of events happened like this to manipulate me into thinking we had a lot in common. For three years my intuition told me he was rotten, but finally at a weak moment I was seduced by the illusion, and fell into the trap. He acts angelic and has perfected the image of wounded child..great at facades and the art of person. Actually he's very scary, but what is puzzling is how most everyone with the exception of me can't see his true nature. He has a plethora of enablers and collaborators, but keeps them all seperated so noone can compare notes.

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    1. Not comparing notes: that would be a lot of how he does it.

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  16. Bruno, narcissism is a disease of intimacy. That's why people don't see it, they overlook the little things. Those of us who have been brought near death by them see others very quickly but unfortunately most people really don't care to see beyond the surface superficiality until they have cause.

    Three years your intuition was telling you? May I ask why you didn't listen to it. Not a judgement, both my parents and I've only known what it is in the last few years but I think three years is a long time to ignore intuition.

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  17. I have been doing alot of research on an individual being a Narcissist and for the past year I became involved with a woman and I ended up falling in love with her however as time went on I began noticing that she had NO EMPATHY whatsoever at least not towards me but everything in her life was all important and she was continually obsessed with her appearance etc it didn't ever seem to matter how good I treated her as a man or respected her because she only rejected it. I finally found myself being emotionally drained and in fact I was losing my own identity due to always having to compliment her and deal with her lack of respect to me or any empathy! With her it was always LOOK AT ME AND WHAT I AM DOING AND HER FRIENDS AND ACTIVITIES but when it came to my interests and Friends she always put them down. I had my Friends and Family tell me that something was seriously wrong with her when they were around her and they saw how she tore me down to the point I had to end our relationship of course she said it was all my fault and she just walked away with her delusions! I told my Family and Friends that even though she treated me like I was nothing I loved her and because of that I kept on going back to her and forgiving her but she NEVER admitted any wrong and she always blamed me for everything. I wish that I had never met her and fell in love with her because she used that against me to get her way!

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    1. Being entangled with a narcissist leads to lots of regrets.

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  18. If someone is still here to talk, I could really use help.

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    1. Sorry, the gadget that alerted me to comments died. I am merely a lay person with some chastening experiences. Try and find an open-minded friend, or failing that, a professional counselling psychologist.

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  19. Brett Gyllenskog

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