We are never so defenseless against suffering, as when we love. -Sigmund Freud
As all of us know there are many deaths that befall us in our lifetime — the most feared, perhaps, being our physical death. So wounding is the loss of someone we love, so painful as we rest him or her back into the care of mother earth, that it overshadows all other pain. But there are other ‘little deaths’ that befall us in life. To have one’s reputation subject to slur and innuendo is a loss, to forgo the presence of former friends, – usually because of small but hurtful misunderstandings — is even called the death of a friendship. Obviously to experience a major financial loss can be experienced as a death. But there is a more ominous killer among us, a killer that can alienate us not only from our friends but also from the struggle to make our way in our very complex world. A killer which can distract us from the struggle to find what makes us REAL, in life, rather than just reactive. It can close us off from what opens our minds to mystery rather than to mere formulas. Like a mutating virus, this menace has many forms: one of which analytic depth psychology speaks about as the ‘defense of specialness.’ It is also characterized by the shorthand term ‘narcissism.’
Narcissism is the excessive need to be noticed. It seen in an excessive need to be right, to be adored, to be always the best. The unexamined conviction, for example, that only by holding absolutely to one’s own interpretation of what is going on in the world does one thereby achieve some kind of lasting personal significance. There is something truly profound in the human quest for truth, yet simultaneously tragic when we are convinced we 100% have it. Narcissism is ultimately, as Freud noted, an attempt to avoid suffering. The problem, of course, is that it only brings more suffering. And it closes us off to love.
The goal of a liberal education, throughout history, has always been to bring such a paradox to full consciousness. When one does not appreciate the complexity of human experience, one can easily experience sharp suspicion if someone, for example, questions one’s worldview. Narcissistic righteousness dismisses alternate opinions. This is a tendency we see at play culture-wide, now, as social dialogue has grown increasingly shrill and polarized.
And you don’t have to be a narcissist to suffer from this. All we humans are subject to falling sway to our own, small, narcissism at times. But if you, or someone you know, has this wound as their primary approach to the world, then you know how limiting and disabling it is. And you also know that the first hurdle the sufferer must clear on the way to recovery is simply realizing, much less admitting, that they have the problem.
Those who live with narcissists can find help in such approaches as that devised by Wendy Behary, LCSW in her book, Disarming the Narcissist.
But as I mentioned, everyone is prone to the growth of “small N” narcissism. And pervasive social media use makes us more susceptible. So, can we protect ourselves from such a psychological virus? Narcissism closes us off from the world, and from other people. So, certainly to allow ourselves to be truly known & loved by those close to us, offers some protection. To allow ourselves to be fully known by another is healing, in and of itself. And it counters narcissism because we know that the other loves us, warts and all. Because of all of who we are, not just the parts we think are acceptable, or ‘perfect.’ This is something we receive in a good, long-term therapeutic relationship, as well as in caring friendships and, of course, from spouses. And, as well, the love we absorb from those who love us for who we are mirrors the love of our Creator, for us. Everything in creation is special, not because of what it does, but because it was called into being by the One whose love is infinite. We can receive this love, but we can’t bottle and hang onto it.
As many thinkers have noted, we humans are prone to try to ease our existential anxiety by ‘stealing immortality’– By seeking certainties, or power, that give us the illusion that we aren’t mere contingent human beings. But by so doing, we close ourselves off to life. Here in this holiday season, a commitment to stay open to love, right in the midst of our vulnerability, can go a long way toward bringing true happiness & contentment.