Deb and I have a general distaste for pathology-based diagnoses, like narcissism, as well as almost all the other diagnoses that are so popular these days. We have watched as society has come to frequently identify with ADHD, depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, learning disabilities, and various personality disorders. I hesitate to write this blog using this “N word” (narcissism) because it is so nasty. Narcissism suggests selfishness. But real narcissism is actually quite different from this simple understanding. There is a kind of selfishness that we see with narcissism, but to look deeper into what narcissism really means is important because it means much more than selfishness. In fact, it means the absence of self. Let me explain
Emotional development in early life
Let’s start with how human life begins: in the womb. Think about it. When we were in utero, we didn’t have to breathe, much less do anything else. It must have been quite wonderful, if we say that in the general sense of the wonder. Then, during birth and for most of the first year we are hopefully properly cared for. Proper care for an infant is safety, comfort, and nurturance, about in that order. During this first year of life the only emotion that a human has is fear or the absence of fear. No joy, sorrow, or anger. Just fear. Why is that? To protect myself. I need to be afraid in order to be alive, and when I’m afraid as an infant, I do what infants do: cry. These cries are not for attention, at least for the most part. They are cries of felt danger. The “felt danger” could be that rumbling in the stomach (hunger), the dry sense in my mouth (thirst), or even simply being alone. I cry because I am scared.
The second year (perhaps later in the first year), things don’t change much although now I can walk and talk (a little). So, during this second year of life I feel the emotion of joy. Joy is the feeling of having something, whether that “something” is a doll, a blanket, or a hug from a parent. During this second year of life I learn to love things, like dolls and blankets and hugs, and this loving feels joyful. Then the big change occurs in childhood:
About age 2 or a bit later, I enter the “narcissistic time of life” or “natural narcissism.” This is a time where I love a whole lot more, lose a whole lot more, and don’t like it whatsoever. Think of it this way: during my first year of life I get mostly all of what I want because I don’t want much: just comfort, safety, and nurturance. Just a bottle, a hug, or a blanket. During the second year of life I want a few more things, but still I get most of what I want because I still don’t need much, I don’t want much and I get most of what I want and need. Not so when I turn about age two. Now, largely because I can walk, talk, run, and grab, my wants magnify by a magnitude of 100 or more. I simply want more. I want more ice cream. I want more toys. I want more hugs. I want, want, want. Fine. Wanting is fine. But what happens during the ages 2-5 is crucial: I don’t get most of what I want. Why is that? Because I want everything, certainly 100 times more than I wanted when I was an infant or a toddler. So, good parenting knows that the child who is 2-5 can’t have, and shouldn’t have all that he or she wants. So, good parenting says “no” 100 times to every “yes.” Consider how difficult this must be for the 3-year old. What’s wrong with the world? What’s wrong with my parents? I used to get pretty much everything I wanted and now I don’t get much of anything. It doesn’t occur to the young child that he or she wants so much more. So, the task of parenting of a 3-year old (or 2-5) is to limit, limit, limit. Not punish, punish, punish. Not give in, give in, give in. This no easy task for any parent because you hear things like I heard from Krissie when she was five having just come home from a store where she wanted everything and I bought her nothing: “I want a new Daddy.” This was her solution to not getting what she wanted. Seems reasonable if you consider that her previous daddy had given her most of what she wanted. Of course, that “previous daddy” was me. Must have been hard for Krissie.
This time of life 2-5 is the cause of adult narcissism. This same time of life is a time for “natural narcissism,” namely wanting everything and essentially being “selfish.” But we don’t use the term selfish for 3-year olds (hopefully) because 3-year olds should be selfish. They just shouldn’t get everything they want. In fact, they shouldn’t get most of what they want. This is where a lot of good loving parents go wrong: they do one of three things: give in too much, punish a child for wanting to much, or “explain why” the child can’t have everything s/he wants. Ideally, a parent simply allows the child to want, not get what s/he wants, puts up a fuss, still doesn’t get what s/he wants, and feel sad. To be angry at not getting everything you want is normal because anger is the central emotion that needs to be felt during these “natural narcissistic” years of 2-5. Anger is normal. But if a child is allowed to be angry…and not get what s/he wants…, that child will eventually become sad. Sadness is the most important emotion to learn, and it should be learned by the time the child reaches age five or six. The first year: fear; the second year: joy; the years 2-5: anger. Then for many years to follow, the school years, you learn to be sad. Most kids don’t reach sadness. They get stuck in fear, joy, or anger. What we then have is emotional immaturity.
An interesting phenomenon that I often see in my office is what I have come to identify as “emotional immaturity.” Essentially, this means that an individual, whoever young or old, has not fully integrated the early emotions of fear, joy, and anger, and thus has not achieved the maturity of being able to be sad. Simply sad. This must sound rather odd: being sad is emotionally mature? What? Is it good to be sad all the time? No, this is not what I am saying. Rather, I am suggesting quite clearly that sadness is the most mature of the four basic emotions. This does not mean that you are sad all the time, but it does mean that you are frequently sad. You are frequently sad because you have lost something, failed at something, or have been criticized in some way. These experiences happen every day to every person. Thus to be “emotionally mature” you have to be able to have something that you love, lose this something, feel sad about having lost this something, allow this sadness to run its course, finish feeling sad, and then love something else. This experience can take seconds or minutes. It rarely takes hours, but can take even longer for more significant losses. If I am disappointed because I spilled my coffee on myself, this disappointment, which is sadness, should last seconds, maybe a minute or more. If I lose a job opportunity that I was hoping for, the sadness associated with this loss may take minutes, or perhaps hours. If I lose a job that I have had for years, this sadness may take days or weeks. The death of my daughter has taken four months.
Emotionally immature people fail to move past the fear, joy, and anger that always occur during a loss. Thus, they fail to simply and profoundly feel sad about a loss. They remain afraid of dying (which is what an infant feels when s/he is hungry, wet, or alone); they remain joyful because they think they will have the something that they love forever; or they will remain angry because they have lost this something. It might make some sense that people can get stuck in fear and anger, but it must seem odd that people can get stuck in joy. Yes, this can happen. People get stuck in joy by pretending that they still have the something that they have lost. They pretend that everyone likes them, that they can do whatever they want, or that they can have whatever they want. People who are stuck in joy tend to live in a kind of a dream world often typified by imaginary dreams of being some kind of perfectly satisfied person in a perfect relationship, perfect job, or perfect place. Nothing wrong with imagining that one can have a satisfactory job in life, or even feeling the joy of such a thing. The difficulty is living that dream rather than the reality that there are true moments of joy and perfection in a moment but never forever. When people are stuck in the early life emotions of fear, joy, and anger, these emotions tend to dominate how they enter the world. They remain “narcissistic.”
Narcissism properly understood is not some kind of diagnosis. It is not something wrong. It is emotional immaturity. It is the failure to find sadness as the central ingredient in having a happy and satisfied life. Think of it this way: if I am expecting that I should have everything I want, I will experience fear (that I won’t have everything), joy (that I will have everything), or anger (that I didn’t get everything). This condition leaves the person in a constant state of fear, joy, or anger with one of these things dominating depending of where the individual got stuck in his/her early life. Thus, narcissism has three possible appearances depending on where people failed to integrate an emotion into their lives, or perhaps where they were indulged in emotional expression. If you look at yourself, you will find that you will be inclined to reside too much in fear, joy, or anger. We all do that in some way depending on how we were raised and what emotions were repressed or indulged. If I am raised in a family in which I feel danger, I will retain fear as the predominant emotion (instead of sadness), but I can also be raised in a family where fear was indulged, where everyone felt and talked about dangers all the time. Other families repress or indulge joy or anger. No one escapes these emotional traps because no one has a perfect infancy or childhood. There is no shame at being “emotionally immature” because we are all immature emotionally in some way. It is just good to know what your “go-to” emotion is so that you can work on moving beyond the early emotions into the mature emotion of sadness. In simple terms, the more you allow yourself to be sad, the less you will be angry or afraid. Yes, you will also be less joyful because you will give up living in a dream world where everything is perfect, but you will have great times of joy at really having something, not everything. The harder work for most people is to get beyond anger or fear that tend to dominate most people. This is what we have in our present culture: a dominance of fear and anger, but also a subtle dominance of imaginary joy.
The narcissism of our present culture
The phenomenon of President Trump is a phenomenon of narcissism. Yes, President Trump is most certainly narcissistic, but it is not helpful to “diagnose” him as having a narcissistic personality disorder despite how accurate this diagnosis actually is. No one is some exact copy of the so-called narcissistic personality disorder. Everyone has some “narcissism” in him/her, but this narcissism should be seen as emotional immaturity, not some kind of disease or diagnosis. I certainly cannot speak with any authority of Mr. Trump because I have never met him, nor do I know much about his family background to see how he has failed to mature emotionally. What we see on the surface, however, is the phenomenon of being dominated by fear, joy, and anger with little or no ability to feel sad. Trump displays great joy when he has what he wants or when someone likes him. He has frequently said of someone that they liked him including dictators like North Korea’s Un, Russia’s Putin, or the current right wing leaders of Hungary and Brazil. Simply put, he really enjoys it when someone likes him and it doesn’t seem to matter who that person is. I imagine him as a little boy saying, “He likes me! He likes me!” when someone likes him. And then, perhaps minutes or hours later, he is angry because someone doesn’t like him, or disagrees with him. It seems clear to me that underlying all of Trumps joy and anger is a good bit of fear, but this is just a psychological conjecture not based on any real evidence.
What Trump has brought out in the country, as narcissistic (emotionally immature) dictators all over the world have done, is a commonality with people who, themselves, are just as narcissistic (emotionally immature) as Trump is. Think of it this way: Trump says that everyone can be a billionaire, which of course is nonsense, but it is attractive to people who are “stuck in the joy of thinking they can have everything they want.” Then, just as quickly, people can be angry at someone or something that is “wrong” because they don’t like it. Most importantly, the underlying fear that is always at the heart of narcissism is abated by this artificial joy and undue anger. Trump’s message is this: “You can have everything you want. You just have to hate the people who are keeping you from having it.” This is the 3-year old still thinking that s/he can have it all.
So what is really happening in narcissism, this phenomenon that displays such a sense of entitlement and selfishness? Self-less-ness
The self-less-ness of narcissism
Deb and I wrote a chapter a few years ago in a book where we discussed the heart of narcissism, namely that on the surface it seems selfish but under the surface it is really self-less. Self-less is not the same as the more positive selfless, as in when one is generous, kind, and self-giving. Self-less is the lack of “self.” What we see in narcissistic people (which, to some degree or another, we all are) is the lack of a true sense of self. If I have a good sense of “self,” i.e. having a central “core self”, I will be able to be generous and kind, but more importantly, I will know how I feel, value how I feel, express how I feel, and ultimately communicate how I feel as well as have times knowing what I feel but being able to properly govern any expression of how I feel. This knowing, valuing, expressing, communicating, and governing feelings is the essence of the book Deb and I are finishing. Few people truly know how they feel so that they can express or choose not to express their feelings depending on the environment. By the way, when I use the term “feelings,” I am using the larger term that includes emotion but is not limited to emotions. The task of becoming a mature person includes emotional maturity, but it includes much more, like knowing how you feel physically, being able to think clearly without emotional intrusion, and ultimately to be able to do something meaningful in life. Maturity is not singularly emotional maturity, but if I am not emotionally mature, I most certainly will not be able to be cognitively mature or actively mature. I will think but my thoughts will not be meaningful. I will do things but I won’t do anything meaningful. So what can be done? Maturing beyond childhood narcissism.
Maturing beyond natural narcissism
What does this mean? It means becoming aware of how I feel, including how I feel emotionally, valuing how I feel, and having a place for all basic emotions: fear (of infancy), joy (of toddlerhood), anger (of preschool years), and ultimately sadness of the rest of life. The central ingredient in emotional maturity is to recognize what you feel and allow it to be there. Thus, if anger is your go-to emotion, allow yourself to be angry. Then you will eventually see that you are angry at something you lost and have not yet grieved. If your go-to emotion is joy, realize that joy comes from having something but all “somethings” are eventually lost, and then come to the knowledge that this joy is real but temporary. If your go-to-emotion is fear, realize that you were originally in an unsafe environment and have retained that infantile fear. Then, you will be able to see that the world is no longer unsafe: just a world where you will have something and lose something.
Much of emotional maturity has to do with people, namely with what other people say and do, or what they might say or do, or what they have said or done. If I am caught in the joy of attending to what one person says or does, I will be enthralled for the moment, but that moment will end. If I am caught in being angry with what someone has said or done, I will be angry, but need to realize that he or she just doesn’t like something. If I am caught in fear, I will worry about what this person might say or do to me. I need to come back to reality: he may like me; he may not like me. If he likes me, it will be joyful; if he doesn’t like me, it will be sad.
Brock and Johnson (2011). Narcissism as evil. In Evil explained, Vol. 1: definitions and development. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.
Johnson, R. and Brock, D. (2017). The positive power of sadness. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.
Johnson, R. and Brock, D. (2020 forthcoming). I need to tell you how I feel. Madison, WI: Midlands Psychological associates
Lowen, A. (1983). Narcissism: denial of the true self. New York: Macmillan.
West, M. (2016). Into the darkest places: early relational trauma and borderline states of mind. London: Karnac.