The fairest of them all… or what narcissism looks like

It’s not as if I literally see auras. (Not without ingesting psychedelics.) And yet, at some times more than at others, I sense them. For instance, during a long-ago visit to Sydney while living on the Tasman Peninsula, I noticed from a bus that most pedestrians seemed enclosed in bubbles, as if their awareness reached only a metre or so beyond their bodies. Distance had given me perspective. And so, back in Tassie, I noticed how the auras of rural folk spread out further than those of urbanites.

Since returning to Sydney, I’ve witnessed sweeping changes – the rollout of smartphones, war on terror, the GFC, global viral contagion – and if I’d tried to predict the effects, I probably would have guessed the psychic shells around urban dwellers would shrink even more. But no. As pandemic panic settles and business as usual (or what still survives of it) resumes, my impression is that many folk don’t know where their boundaries begin and end. They invade my space, bump against me, don’t sense my presence as I pass through their space. The intensity of their engagement in the virtual world accessed via their phones has induced disembodiment. Dissociation. Disorientation. Could this general off-centredness account for insanely self-centred behaviour? What if the need to be mirrored, to recognise one’s reflection, points to doubt re one’s actual existence?

It’s all a simulation, a friend, a conspiracist, once informed me, as if this tech analogy ought to provoke an epiphany, or the mere idea should make a difference. As if real life, the original version, were elsewhere, and we the ignorant victims of some demiurgic sleight of hand – as if we hadn’t all lapped up the crap that capitalism keeps selling us. Treat yourself. Take some me-time! You deserve only the best. Antioxidant superfoods, anti-ageing elixirs or serums, brow or chin lifts, hair or breast implants, liposuction, skin peels and fillers… And some goods and services even come with the added benefit of political correctness: ethically sourced and butchered beef, gender-affirming surgery…

Each time we go online, the environment urges us to buy, offering helpful suggestions in case we don’t know our own mind, e.g.: ‘People who bought this also bought’ or ‘Frequently bought together’. Yet, like a narcissistic parent or partner, capitalism gives conditionally. Should you see something tempting, you can often try before buying, or claim a discount, provided you consent to a 24/7 barrage of marketing, whether from a news site, a clothing or homeware retailer, a health and wellness practitioner etc. You get a taste, or just a whiff, of what you didn’t realise you craved, along with the ongoing message that without this product or service, you’re worthless. Become a valued customer or get daily reminders that you’re not enough.

‘You love yourself!’ was a common taunt during my schooldays. Not that kids always said it to your face. ‘Dick/Jane loves him/herself,’ they’d sneer if some kid appeared vain. I was safe. Painfully shy and racked with self-hate, I lost whole days to shame and angst, knowing I didn’t fit in but not how to fix it. No-one used the word narcissist then. Pride was a mere deadly sin, not a symptom of dread mental illness. The curriculum included a weekly scripture class; old-school religious indoctrination. Today, bombarded as we all are with self-help advice – how to tell if you’re on the spectrum, how to spot a psychopath etc. – it’s easy to forget that the study of psychology is newer than the art of photography.

Once the stuff of Freudian theory, narcissistic terminology now colonises public discourse. Narcissism as cultural norm has been a think-piece staple ever since selfie sticks began to intrude on public space. Meanwhile, the #MeToo movement is rattling the patriarchy. So, what does narcissism have to do with a patriarchal view and its apotheosis in capitalism? Though these themes overlap, they receive separate treatment in our compartmentalised media – giving us hollow politics and shallow psychology.

In this often loveless and traumatic culture, therapists offer help to those sufficiently functional to pay for it: a conditional arrangement, ergo, more of the same. Though the message has changed, the medium of money and power remains. Equality can’t exist in a therapeutic relationship. Which isn’t to say it can’t be useful for those willing to bare their souls to someone suitably qualified yet essentially unknown – not unlike the narcissistic parent whose power resides in withholding. I once did 18 months of group therapy led by the adult child of a narcissist. More than half the participants were overtly narcissistic and the therapist routinely gave them more time. A co-narcissist, they hadn’t healed their own wounds. Yet so much waiting and listening plugged me in to mine. Predictably, that therapist was stunned and incensed when I left the group. Narcissists tend to make poor critics of a self-obsessed culture that mirrors their unconscious assumptions.

On her website, trauma counsellor Amanda Robins, citing The Life of I (2014) by Anne Manne, laments ‘the current conception of narcissism as a cultural phenomenon rather than an illness’. As a fan of Manne, who writes on the origins of the illness in a perceptive essay entitled ‘What About Me?’ (The Monthly, June 2006), I’m not sure it needs to be either/or. Robins continues: ‘The clinical is in danger of being subsumed by the cultural.’ But how are they distinct? After all, the personal is political and vice versa – it’s the difference between private and public; one-on-one work behind closed doors with voluntary clients vs. being accountable to a whole nation, part of which voted for your opponents. Robins explains:

The real problem with this kind of cultural analysis is that it adds to the public discourse around the idea of narcissism and posits narcissism as an idea, a concept, rather than a human failing, and an illness.

Yet doesn’t the sharing of ideas raise awareness? Intrigued, I downloaded one of Robins’ free e-books. ‘Reclaim Your Authentic Self’ contains helpful descriptions and tips for the daughters of narcissistic mothers, with whom Robins prefers to work, being one herself. Which may explain the curious blind spot evident in her choice to pad out the brief text with photos of slender, young, fair, Anglo females who look like a narcissistic mother’s ultimate dream. These slick, bland, saccharine pics could hardly be less suggestive of authenticity.

And let’s not forget how the medicalisation of narcissism (or spiritual crises or melancholy) benefits mental health professionals. Nonetheless, Robins shares a wealth of wisdom on her website. And despite her misgivings, her insights re the individual also apply to our society. At the heart of narcissism, she notes, lies a lack of substance and identity… And the answer is identity politics on steroids. Lack of boundaries, or enmeshment, typifies narcissistic family systems… Hello, digital surveillance. And children of narcissists can lose touch with their own feelings and become alienated from themselves… Welcome to virtual reality. Children of narcissists must be perfect… When did ‘photoshop’ morph from a brand name to a verb? Narcissists can’t accept others as they are… Cancel culture, internet censorship, vaccine mandates, frozen bank accounts. Narcissists prioritise appearances and status, so their children, to avoid rejection, must look good and achieve while they’re at it. Use or be used: the model for narcissistic family dynamics… And social relations under capitalism.

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2 Responses to The fairest of them all… or what narcissism looks like

  1. Interesting. The Shaping of Identity. So much is formed by what and who we see and admire.,,always trying on options…and our world is so expanded from the local. Ages ago I wrote a poem/reflection on similar. Was encouraged to begin putting these up yesterday from a conversation with a friend. So, I have put the second one up today in response to this.

    • Thanks for your response, Annette. Your poem eloquently sums up patriarchal hollowness. Delighted if anything I write prompts others to circulate their words & enrich the great collective conversation…

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