Narcissism Misunderstood

A recent New York Times Op Ed piece by Roger Cohen, “The Narcissus Society,” makes some good points about health care and the importance of working together as a society.

In lamenting how community has eroded, Cohen says, “In its place have come a frenzied individualism, solipsistic screen-gazing, the disembodied pleasures of social networking and the à-la-carte life as defined by 600 TV channels and a gazillion blogs. Feelings of anxiety and inadequacy grow in the lonely chamber of self-absorption and projection.”

As one of the “gazillion bloggers” I could imagine that the way things are changing might be experienced as a threat to the old order, especially if one had carved a niche within it, say as a provider of content in mainstream media that sees it’s viewers declining; however, I’m not sure that blogging and reading other blogs is necessarily more alienating that the non-connecting of the past—watching the nightly news and imagining that one was experiencing a sense of community… sponsored by Coca-Cola or Depends.

At least with an à-la-carte menu of potential connection we have many more people potentially experiencing and building community in a way that mass media may have killed more than facilitated.

And as for poor old misunderstood Narcissus, he keeps being accused of self-absorption when in fact his fatal flaw is unconsciousness—being oblivious about who he actually is altogether.  He thinks he’s staring at a beguiling stranger, not his own damn self, in that water.  He doesn’t even realize that it’s a reflection.  “Run Narcissus, Run,” perhaps, but life is no box of chocolates for clueless Narcissus who, by legend, grows into a plant (… the Narcissus, that grows along streams and ponds) because he lingers so long he grows roots.

I like plants and there are worse things one could be accused of than of being a plant.  As a culture we probably should just call self-absorbed and arrogant people that, rather than “narcissistic,” since it muddies the waters of the core problem of a lack of self.  (for more on this see:  How is narcissism like footed pajamas?)

In true narcissism, a person doesn’t really know who they are, and as a result tends to appear self-absorbed, when in fact they are better understood as lacking a self in the first place.

Cohen suggests that we are entering an age of narcissism but my view is that we entered that age in the 60’s when Dionysus, Hermes and Jack Nicholson showed up at the sit-in and turned it into “The Party” with Peter Sellers.  We are more convincingly in the Age of Autism at the moment and, hopefully, creating community and transcending our narcissism in a million small ways; these may look like society fragmenting to stake-holders in the reigning power structure, but it may equally be simply what the zeitgeist wants at this current moment.

Perhaps we are entering into a truly New Age—one that deconstructs the previous dominant culture by… increasingly ignoring it.  As any child can attest, lack of attention is worse than the most negative attention (evidenced by stridently cruel pundits and anything-for-attention contestants on lurid reality shows).

In parenting, the key elements to help children surmount the dangers of getting stuck in narcissism (i.e. not knowing who they are, and in turn being able to get past seeming self-absorption) is to “mirror” them:  be the reflecting pond, only don’t just lie there, smile, ask questions, give hugs, attention, compassion and sincere interest.  Active and engaged attention is exponentially more comforting than the mirror of a still pond, and a child will come to know not just that they are loved, but that they truly exist through consistent “mirroring” of this sort.

Also, be the bowl—as a container for our kids’ emotional overflow, we help them re-integrate all the various emotions and dimensions.  In parenting, it is we parents who “complete” our children by feeding their own dropped, rejected and over-flown thoughts and feelings back to them.  In mentally holding our kids in all their opposites and contradictions, we strengthen their senses of self.

Cohen reports that he found reprieve from his little screens as well as a sense of community by serving on a jury, where he got to mingle with real and diverse people; as fun as Jury duty might be, deliberately choosing to interact with diverse fellow parents in the blogosphere, or by whatever other categories of identity we might gather around, does to me seem like a legitimate sort of community—one that exists in some parallel form to the conventional communities of the past.

While receiving good parenting is a great way to be “cured” of natural narcissism (natural because we’re all born quite clueless about who we really are), giving best Self parenting is also a powerful potential cure for those of us who missed out when we were kids.  After all, in attuning to the needs of our children, we become acutely and painfully aware, through exhaustion, sleep deprivation and economic stress, that our child is not at all one and the same with ourselves.  The screaming infant is about as far from the still calm waters of a pond as we are likely to find; even Narcissus would have probably turned tail and ran away from that, never realizing that it was he who was crying himself a river.

So, let’s dedicate today to compassion for those who don’t know who they are.  There may be clouds in our collective coffee, but as a group, when we drop the ball on what’s important (be it education, health care, or supporting each other to love) it’s not that we’re so vain, it’s that we’re so clueless.

The jury may still be out on whether blogging may build or erode community, but my hope is that through reading, talking, parenting and caring about each other—taking an interest in each other’s dreams and ambitions, and validating each other’s small struggles and triumphs even if they are not mass-marketed or mass-consumed, we may actually be healing our narcissism, individually and as a group—in the service of all our collective children (who need us to pay attention and not just need attention).

Namaste, Bruce

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6 Responses to “Narcissism Misunderstood”

  1. Lauren Says:

    I’ve been hearing so much about your blog and now I understand why. Such meaty stuff here. I tend to think that social networking might in fact be the solution to (but in any event certainly not the cause of) our collective narcissism. I think you hit the nail on the head when you point to not knowing one’s self as the root of narcissistic behavior, which is why I think blogging can be so restorative — through blogging, we discover ourselves more deeply, which in turns makes us better citizens of the word (brick & mortar as well as virtual). All that to say – great thoughts here. So glad I finally made it over to POP.

  2. Linda Says:

    Bruce, really a fascinating post. I’ve never thought of Narcissism as a lack of self but how interesting. And since the people I’ve known are always in a mad fury to fill their world with the appearance of what everyone else actually has, it makes sense.

    The blogging world has connected me to other parents and created a warm, supportive community for me but it doesn’t do so without a price, and the price is time, time spent on the computer away from my family. But when a blog contains information that can make me a better parent, like what I just read here, I have to say that it’s time well spent.

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      Yes, I too hope to find a right balance between time spent in this world and in the so-called “real” world. Perhaps we’ll eventually find that it’s all one world, and that, hopefully, we will have found a way to be present to all of it.

  3. The Bliss Oblivion (Day #36) @ EMBRACE THE DETOUR Says:

    […]  For a thought-provoking discussion of our society’s collective narcissism, check out “Narcissism Misunderstood” on The Privilege of Parenting.) Comments (0)Cancel replyLeave a CommentYour email is never […]

  4. Putting the self in self-esteem « Privilegeofparenting’s Blog Says:

    […] hinges on having a solid and cohesive sense of “self” in the first place.  Having written on narcissism in this blog, I have worked to differentiate self-absorption and arrogance from cluelessness.  […]

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