Being Yourself, Part II — Narcissism
Why is it important to break free of your conditioning and be wholly who you are? In most humans, that is the way to be/do/have what you are here to experience, with increasingly conscious choices and decisions. However, there is an exception to this guiding principle, and it can be seen in individuals and in certain societies…
Here is where we circle back to narcissism. A narcissist basically has a psychological breakdown at some early stage. (Each level has its characteristic syndrome(s) depending on where the person’s development has gone awry.) As with autism, narcissism takes place on a spectrum; let’s look at pure narcissism, the most intense variety. A narcissist has a black hole where self-knowledge and self-confidence should be; they attempt to fill this black hole with attention, and it doesn’t much matter whether it is positive or negative attention. The narcissist is often stuck at level one or level two, where they are reacting all the time rather than responding. Basically, they are stuck in a video game where it’s supremely important that they win. They have no real relationship with other humans because anyone else is a character in their game (who must lose for the narcissist to win).
This is one reason why ‘the truth’ is meaningless to a narcissist, just as it is to a baby or toddler: they want what they want, and ‘the truth’ is whatever serves their goal. Narcissists are lazy; they want others to do the work but do not reward that work with respect or loyalty, even as they take credit for whatever is accomplished. Because they don’t ‘see’ other people, they are constantly offending, manipulating, and feeding off the energy of others. (Remember, to a narcissist, all attention is good attention.) They will use accepted human patterns solely for their own benefit, so they are constantly projecting onto others the very failings they exhibit: they are liars, thieves, and frauds, who accuse those who catch them out as politically motivated, with ‘alternative facts’, ‘fake news’, and so on. They do not respect the law or social contracts; they are solely concerned with ‘winning’, for a very low value of victory. Another marker of narcissism is that they always want you to feel sorry for them. If they do something wrong, and get caught, they will always turn it back on the accuser, because in their world, a narcissist cannot be wrong… so they must be a victim of something outside themselves.
At the same time, they can appear charming, charismatic, and effective; my own theory is that the narcissist doesn’t know how to be human, so s/he develops the ability to mimic humans. However, an imitation is never as good as the real thing, and in the end every narcissistic gets caught out – usually after a great deal of damage is done. Thus, a narcissist never truly learns how to be human, and thereby wastes the opportunity for evolving awareness offered by life on this planet.
Why is this part of the conversation? Because narcissists would maintain that they are escaping from social conditioning and therefore being more themselves. Possibly that has some truth, but it’s certainly a low level of human behavior; an example might be a young men being unfaithful, but cheating openly, as if that makes it any better because ‘at least he’s being honest’. Being human involves more care of others, and narcissists are care-less. They are incapable of looking at their own behavior (thoughts/ feelings/desires) in a conscious way, so they are wholly driven to imitate what society claims as satisfaction or success; then they feel cheated or insulted (or opposed) when those around them say, “Hang on… that’s not factual, or ethical, or productive.” So what’s the distinction here between resisting conditioning because it won’t get you what you want, and releasing conditioning because those around you want you to conform to a certain mode? Rather than saying (thoughtfully), “Is this really what I am here to do, be or have?” the narcissist is snarling, “Nobody tells me what to do!”
In many cases, the narcissist has built up a persona based on social expectations of what successful role looks like: CEO, minister, teacher, politician, leader, psychiatrist. This charade only works because most of us have also been conditioned to give automatic respect to those roles; we see the role, and not the person behind the role. And we do this to ourselves as well. It’s pretty much impossible for a child to say internally, “Stop. What is my authentic response to this situation? Is this even my job/responsibility?” In fact, they have thin or nonexistent boundaries; every child thinks the situation is about them, and they want to fix it. For instance, until ten years ago, I was processing both sides of my parents’ divorce, which took place when I was three. That was clearly not my responsibility or my job!
As humans, we need to bump up against other to learn who they are, and who we are, and the impact we have when we are moving unconsciously through the world. Maturation is a process of development from being the only one in your world to a wider and wider circle of care. It’s in the middle part – when you are learning boundaries – that it’s such a challenge to discern what is and is not ‘you’. Yes, you do need to learn decent table manners, how to respond when someone gives you a gift, and that it never hurts to behave in accordance with the Ten Commandments and/or the Golden Rule. Your way of responding will depend on your level of self-awareness. Some have referred to psychological development and/or Spiral Dynamics as a ladder: you can jump a rung or two from time to time, but in general you need to climb every step in order for the learning to stick. And that means learning about self-confidence/pride/respect (level three), discipline and hierarchies (level four), rationality and individualism (level five), and connection (level six) each in turn. [And some never get past level three, like football hooligans, or level four – boy scouts, Marines, or the Christian ultra-right.] Furthermore, it means learning about each level as the person you are, not just as the role that others are comfortable with. When others expect you to stay in their pigeonholes, chances are they are stuck themselves at level four, the natural home of white nationalists, racists, misogynist, and/or the hyper-religious. Level four in particular sees everyone in terms of their roles and punishes people for not staying in them – think of the Spanish Inquisition.
The point is NOT ‘early levels bad, later levels good’; it’s more ‘every level is good in its place and time’. We need to encourage healthy expression at whatever rung your current center of gravity might be on – as a person or a society – while understanding that there is always more to learn. The question is: Are you learning as you, in ways that encourage your unique gifts, genius, and assignments? Or are you staying stuck in your conditioning? Are you in alignment with you? Or exhausting yourself through misalignment? Because misalignment always leads to struggle and suffering.
* Here is a brief summary of Spiral Dynamics.