January 26, 2009

Can Narcissism Be Cured?

The wrong question.


"Dear Alone: I read your descriptions of narcissism, and it sounds exactly like me.  I'm terrified I'm a narcissist. It's just like you wrote:  unlike other people, I can't seem to make meaningful connections with people, and when I try it indeed seems unreal, scripted.  Other people seem to have legitimate emotions, be happy, or in love, or angry, or guilty, and to me it always seems like I'm-- just a little bit--  faking it."

Narcissism says: my situation is different.  I am not like other people, who are merely  automatons, shuffling towards oblivion.


 "Why are you so obsessed with narcissism?"

Describe the march of history over the past 100 years.  Answer: Fascism, then Marxism, then Narcissism.

What distinguishes the three?  Technology. 

What followed fascism?  War.  What followed Marxism?  War.


"But I want to change, I want to get better."

Narcissism says: I, me.  Never you, them.

No one ever asks me, ever, "I think I'm a narcissist, and I'm worried I'm hurting my family."  No one ever asks me, "I think I'm too controlling, I'm trying to subtly manipulate my girlfriend not to notice other people's qualities."  No one ever, ever, ever asks me, "I am often consumed by irrational rage, I am unable to feel guilt, only shame, and when I am caught, found out, exposed, I try to break down those around me so they feel worse than I do, so they are too miserable to look down on me."

If that was what they asked, I would tell them them change is within grasp.  But.


"So all is lost?"

Describe yourself: your traits, qualities, both good and bad. 

Do not use the word "am." 

Practice this.


Instead of asking, "why do I feel disconnected?" ask the reverse question: "what would I feel if I wasn't disconnected?"  Be specific, say the answer out loud.

Go ahead, take some time, think about it.  What does connecting feel like?  I'll wait.

Let me guess: you have no idea.

All you have for an answer is images, fleeting thoughts.  Nothing concrete.  Some words, some phrases, bits and pieces of conversations you may have heard or that you daydreamed.

Now ask yourself, where did you get these images and phrases?

Imagine two people: real, or from TV or movies, that are in love.  Pick two people whose love you'd like to emulate.   Imagine them kissing, looking into each other's eyes.  Imagine them making love.

You wish you had a love like that, but you don't, and every time you try, to get it,  it is failure.  Here's the reason: are you imaging real people, or TV characters?


The 1980s said: "TV is a bad influence, pushing our children down the wrong path."  Of course, it's Newton's First Law: a body moves in the direction of the force unless it is opposed by another force.

Where will they learn about love?   They could learn from TV, or they could learn it from the generation adults with the highest divorce rates in history.  They could learn about the difficulties of raising kids from an ABC/Disney Special, or from the generation with the lowest birth rates in history.  They could learn about morality from Sesame Street, or... but Dad always remembered to send in his pledge to PBS. 

Parents had no time for any of these lessons.  So instead, to feel like parents, they worried that too much sex on TV would turn everyone into sluts.  That didn't happen, I spent most of my twenties checking.  What did happen, however, is that a generation of males started overtly, without shame, craving sluts, and a generation of women would often pretend to be sluts.  Think about this: the act was that they were sluttier than they actually were, not more pure than they actually were.

Parents were right: TV could influence kids.  But not in the expected way.

But wait-- could TV be so powerful?  No, of course not. But how much force do you really need to push a child in a polyester snow suit across a frozen driveway?

People ask: "why do you focus on pop culture?"  Because that's all the culture 300 million Americans ever received for 30+ years.


Imprinting was famously depicted by Konrad Lorenz who had a gaggle of geese following him, behaving like him, in love with him.  Less famously known: it took him only 48 hours to alter their identity. 

And without the use of TV.


So now what?  TV taught you how to love, it showed you what love looks like, feels like.  But when you're actually in love, it doesn't look like that, so you secretly suspect you don't have the capacity for love, that there's something wrong with you.

Same goes for sadness.  And it's worse when you're in the presence of someone else's sadness, you have no idea what to do.  All you really know about experiencing these emotions is the script you got from TV.  "Oh your husband died!?  Oh my God, that's terrible! I'm so sorry for you!!"  But you don't feel any of that.  Nothing.

So you think to yourself, what the hell is wrong with me?  This woman's husband died-- sure, I can fake it, but am I such an empty monster that I feel nothing?

Of course you feel nothing.  Why would you?-- it's not your loss.  What's wrong isn't your lack of feeling,  but that you think you have to feel something, that you have to tell this woman, remind this woman, how horrible is her loss.  You think the only way to connect with people is to have their emotions.  You think she wants to connect with you.  You think she wants your help.

The problem isn't your lack of feeling, it is that you think that unless you feel it's not real.  You forget that she has a life that doesn't have you in it.

What you should say is, "I'm very sorry to hear that.  Is there anything I can do?" and that's it.  But that feels insufficient.   You think this because you think that there is something you can do, that the sadness is not real for you so it must not be real for her and you thus have the power to change it.

She's not looking for you to be sad, she's not looking to you for anything, her loss is bigger than you.  If she needs anything from you, it's sympathy, not empathy.

But no one taught you this.  So you fall back on the character "man helping grieving widow."  Action!

The problem isn't that you don't know how to connect; it's that when you do connect at all, you don't know what to do next.  It's your unrealistic expectations of what connecting is supposed to be.   TV is always about beginnings, not middles.  Like love.  The love you feel doesn't resemble the TV love because the TV love is the first three days of love, copied and pasted into a decade of episodes.  But since you have no other reference point, after a real decade, you think, "I guess must not be in love anymore."

You are so unsure of your own identity that you don't know if you are supposed to be feeling, what you are supposed to be feeling, when you are supposed to be feeling.  This is the same trouble actors have when rehearsing a character.  They want to get it just perfect-- would Tom feel this?  What's his motivation?  And similarly you ask: would I-- the person I am pretending to be--   feel this?


Narcissism is imitating by being.  It is method acting all the time.


The problem wasn't TV, the problem was the absence of adults, real adults who took seriously their responsibility to the next generation, who lead not by words, but by behavior. Who, even if miserable or unfulfilled or unconnected had the decency to fake it for the next generation, for the people they touched.   Who didn't cheat on their wives not just because they loved them, not just because it was ethically wrong, but because what kind of an example would that be to their daughters?

I know, everyone will disagree.  Everyone, except daughters under 20.  


I killed a mosquito yesterday, because it bit me and it hurt and I am not the Dali Lama.

The narcissist, however, says, "It's just a bug."

VIII.  The Solution No One Will Like

"I feel like I am playing a part, that I'm in a role. It doesn't feel real."

Instead of trying to stop playing a role-- again, a move whose aim is your happiness-- try playing a different role whose aim is someone else's happiness.  Why not play the part of the happy husband of three kids?  Why not pretend to be devoted to your family to the exclusion of other things?  Why not play the part of the man who isn't tempted to sleep with the woman at the airport bar? 

"But that's dishonest, I'd be lying to myself."  Your kids will not know to ask: so?

The narcissist demands absolutism in all things-- relative to himself. 


"But I had really good parents!"

Sorry, Leonidas, you were simply outnumbered.

The best of parents can't beat the overwhelming influence of everyone else, of everyone else's parents, of TV, of journalism-- of a culture that says, "well of course!  The old ideas were wrong, we know so much more now!  We are touching up the last pages of history, from now on things are different..."

18 years of the best parenting still can't beat the morality lesson at the end of an 80s sitcom, presented as if it were a fundamental truth, known to all, incontrovertible.

So what about the next generation, those under 25?   If the problem was the unopposed influence of TV-- not the TV, per se, but the lack of opposing influence-- then the solution is some opposing influence.

I am nervous about recommending "the Classics" because it sounds contrived and pretentious, but anything that has withstood the test of time and is not something that was created to be consumed by current narcissist adults is as good a place to start as any.

Do the opposite of what the narcissists did.  They wanted to know enough to fake it.  They read just enough to use the book to build an identity, so they read about books, but not the actual books. 

If nothing else, reading will keep you out of trouble: every moment reading those books is a moment not doing something your current adults created for themselves that you're stuck with by default.


"Why do you waste your time with pop culture?"  Because you may not be interested in pop culture, but pop culture is interested in you.