The Internet has discovered a scourge of narcissism: If only they could look in the mirror
If you ask the Internet, there is an ever-present threat of manipulative narcissism. So much so that therapists, coaches, and other influencers have taken to social media to warn their followers about how to spot a narcissist. However, the real “narcissism” is our inability to see complexity in everyone and stain in ourselves. More specifically in therapy, true narcissism is the therapist’s fantasy of being all good to the all-good subject—in this case, the patient—while ignoring or outright rejecting the complexity of the other.
Early in life, we learn to see complexity in ourselves and others
A task of early life is to develop the capacity to formulate a picture of ourselves and those around us. How do I imagine others think and feel? And how do others imagine I think and feel? Both of these questions are conceptually quite complicated. We form a mental picture of these concepts by developing what psychologists call “theory of mind.”
Theory of mind is the process of imagining what others are experiencing based on observations of their behavior and affect held up against our experience of ourselves. In other words, we form a model—a theory of mind (the mind of an “other”)—in part by making use of an idea of how our own experiences work and making a guess (a theory) that others’ minds likely work similarly. For example, when a childhood friend’s toy truck breaks, we imagine how they feel by remembering how we felt in similar circumstances. Similarly, when a friend seems sad, we imagine or even ask, “Did your truck break?”
A related equally challenging task is that of complexity—learning to understand the world and people, in particular, as nuanced. As we get older, we have to develop a capacity to hold mixed feelings about people (“Mom is great—loving, feeding, warm, and beautiful—but also is sometimes unavailable or harsh”). So too do we have to tolerate mixed feelings about ourselves (“I’m pretty amazing. My parents and caregivers love me, but I broke Sam’s truck because I was angry. That actually was not nice”). Unhealthy narcissism occurs when there’s a breakdown in the intersection of the conception of the self and other and theory of mind.
Healthy narcissism helps us tolerate our own and the world’s shortcomings
Before diving into unhealthy narcissism, it’s worth first defining narcissism. While you wouldn’t think so based on the way narcissism is used as a synonym for all sorts of malevolent behavior, narcissism itself is a core component of healthy functioning. We might think of healthy narcissism—the narcissism we need to endure the challenges of the world—as a kind of reserve or storage tank of healthy regard needed for when we fall short on an important life task. Think of the feeling that follows breaking Sam’s truck or later, performing poorly on a test, not getting that dream job, or breaking up with a partner. This healthy reserve of narcissism helps us tolerate these blows and our own shortcomings (“I’m pretty awesome, but I didn’t study enough so I failed the test”).
It also helps us tolerate the shortcomings of the world, including the shortcomings of other people. For instance, Mom might be angry because she got a call from the teacher that I broke Sam’s truck, but she also might be mad that her boss insisted she work longer hours this week and she’s worried about finding childcare. In the latter option, my reserve of healthy narcissism can get me through (“Mom’s mad, and that doesn’t feel good, but I know I’m a good kid and I know she knows it too”).
Unhealthy narcissism splits individuals between good and bad
This is not to say all narcissism is helpful. Narcissism becomes unhealthy when it is split off. This split can take two forms. First is a split within an individual between good and bad. In this case, an individual oscillates between an understanding of themselves as entirely good and an understanding of themselves as entirely bad rather than holding onto an understanding of themselves as complex beings who can inhabit desirable and undesirable qualities at the same time.
Second is what we commonly think of as narcissistic impairment or a narcissistic personality disorder. In this case, everything that is good is attributed to the self and everything that is bad is attributed to an other. Who that bad other is depends. Sometimes it’s someone an individual feels harmed them, whether an ex, a hurtful parent, or a boss. Often it is, in fact, someone who has been unkind or done real harm. However, the split becomes problematic when it interferes with our ability to see complexity—our role in a bad experience or the good qualities of a person that exist alongside the ways they’ve produced harm.
Warning people about narcissists ironically reinforces this problematic narcissistic split
The irony of warning people about manipulative narcissists, as many therapists are doing over social media, is that it reinforces this problematic split: You (the subject) are all good and he (the other, who is almost always a he) is all bad. And I (the therapist/coach/influencer) am, by extension, all good. This sorts people into two camps—good and bad—with the idea that there’s a manipulative narcissist lurking, cleverly obscured, and waiting to pounce.
Further, this type of warning about narcissistic boogiemen is quite a clever narcissistic sleight of hand. The therapist is tickling their own narcissism by appealing to their patient’s narcissism: I, your amazing therapist, will make you feel good by helping you locate all of your bad feelings and qualities on someone else (aka the “narcissist”) so that you can remain in your fantasy of being pure while I confirm my own fantasy of purity.
Good therapy recognizes people’s complexity and focuses on the patient, not the other
Good therapy certainly helps patients see patterns of harm and recognize bad behavior and intent from others in their life. But good therapy also insists on nuance in two relevant ways. First, the truth is that most people are complicated. We can all be both hurtful and kind. No one is all good and very few people are all bad. There are, of course, some people who are pretty bad that don’t belong in your life and aren’t worth your time and energy. Yet, most experiences aren’t purely victimization at the hands of an all-bad other.
Secondly, good therapy needs to include the work of understanding a given subject’s participation in a bad experience. In a very fundamental sense, the focus of therapy ought to be the patient, not the other. Perhaps an other did some real harm. The work, though, needs to be less on understanding how that other operates and more on how the patient does.