The PhD day photo – your eyes look guarded, held in, vulnerable, like you’re holding a difficult secret. You’re bigger physically, as if that’s a soft armour. The recent one, you look harder, wiser, much more solid – your soft armour has hardened into solid muscle, emotionally as well as physically. There’s a boy in both as well as a man. In the recent one, the boy has gone through it and come out the other side. In the PhD one, he’s in it and still being squashed by it. More masculinity in the recent one. More firmness.
That we live in a Culture of Narcissism is one of the more obvious tenets about our current environment. During this pandemic, for example, the idea that we are a world which has fought together to survive the ravages of Covid-19 is a lie behind which rich countries have gathered their unfair share of vaccines (and booster shots) in order to ensure they and their populations are cared for. All this whilst other nations suffer vaccine shortages and the fullest ravages of this horrible pandemic.
It is this type of cultural protectionism which means some cultures benefit more or faster than others when faced with this type of existential crisis. To expand upon this further and explore how I have linked narcissism here to culture, narcissism is one of those terms which is overused whilst often being massively misunderstood within popular culture. Within the world of psychotherapy the idea is that we all move through a stage of primary narcissism, where the omnipotence of the baby over its main caregivers presents it with a mirage of some kind of power over its environment (Freud, 2014). The baby though hopefully moves out of this stage in its relationship with the other, recognising that it has an impact with the mother and those others charged with its care (Weil & Piaget, 1951). It develops empathy, feelings of shame and guilt might emerge, and it tempers its behaviours accordingly and healthily.
As Besser and Priel state though in their exploration of two types of narcissism whereby, ‘grandiose narcissism is associated with vulnerability to achievement setbacks. In contrast, vulnerable narcissism involves sensitivity to shaming interpersonal experiences, (Besser & Priel, 2010, p. 874). This contrasts though with Kernberg (1975) who viewed narcissism as a ‘character structure marked by grandiose fantasies, overdependence on external admiration, and exploitativeness and ruthlessness toward others’ (Krizan & Johar, 2012, p. 1418).
Moving this forward slightly, the idea of omnipotence and exploitation brings with it ideas of the other and how we relate to that which is not us. One avenue to understanding this is via the lenses of projection and splitting. For example, ideas of splitting and projection are nothing new when it comes to how we negotiate the world we all live within. As children, we split full objects in to part of objects, often in to good and bad objects, as to consume them in their entirety would be too much, the role of our parents being to help us manage this interaction with the external environment (Mitchell, 1986).
Yet, splitting also occurs as we get older. We choose not to see the fullness of the world we engage within when we leave home, or when we travel abroad, as much out of ignorance of the fullness and complexity of the cultures and personalities that we encounter as by our fear and anxiety provoked by said new interactions. We make the world into smaller parts in order to better digest it. When we meet someone new we stereotype for example, and only when we are comfortable do we allow ourselves the rare luxury of knowing more about them, the real them, as they in turn get to know us. We fail to acknowledge our fear of the outer world, so instead we make it as if the outer world is more scary than it actually is, and we vilify it as such. Or as an act of abuse, we subjugate and control it.
You look so much younger and healthier. In the first one you looked like a Grampier Gramps. Now you just look like Gramps!
The two pictures which sit alongside this month’s blog were taken some four years apart. To give you a brief historical context to these pictures, the first one was taken during my doctoral graduation at the University of Northampton in 2017, the second one was taken this summer during lockdown. To reveal a little more of my history, that first picture was taken whilst in the midst of a relationship where I endured regular narcissistic abuse, whilst the second one was taken when I was in recovery from said experiences.
Narcissistic abuse at its deepest metaphor is an incredibly maddening creeping willow that ties itself to your soul over time whilst you don’t even realise it is doing so. Sometimes over years, the narcissist’s early attempts to garner control by challenging boundaries, to their growing realisation that they needed their omnipotent fix by dragging you into a conflict, means that they spend a lot of time in the subjugation of the other as they attempt to break the other to their will. Looking back now, from those first seemingly innocuous arguments about nothing, disagreements which grew in stature over time, my own lifeforce was slowly being dragged out of me to a point where my own sense of self, the things I used to like to do and love, the friends I had and adored, because figments of a past history. I became an unconscious shell in my own psyche.
Angry outbursts at random times, the twisting of history, the silent treatment, meant I was often walking on eggshells within my own home. And yet, like some of you reading this, for whatever reasons we decide to find ways to cope with the horror of living within such environments. Some of the means employed as survival tactics included increased eating, working late, avoidance of any intimacy, or just spending much of my time from morning until night obsessively thinking of ways to manage a situation which edged ever more increasingly out of my control, performing the ‘mediating role of experiential avoidance, such as between abuse and later depression (Carvalho et al., 2015, p. 35).
That I survived the enduring of this trauma is as much down to the power of my own psychotherapy as it is to the willingness of the ancestors to metaphorically slap me around occasionally and wake me back up! So, it was not only the separation from the past which reminded me of Me. It was the return through the shadows, through my dreams, of my fire, my passion, and my love of beauty, and gave me the willingness to confront my own narcissistic tendencies to save and serve the un-saveable which in turn saved Me. Whilst alongside this my once severed, once silenced, vocal chords reawakened from their self sacrificing slumber as I screamed out at injustice meted out against myself and others, my willingness to look and act right in the service of those who most deserve it, to stand tall and be a role model for the many Others.
So, returning to the picture accompanying this month’s blog, this not particularly scientific experiment carried out here was not so much to show you, the reader, how hot I look in red! It was to remind you that we all hold the internalised cost of narcissistic abuse, be it personal or cultural. Shaking off the shackles of my past did not totally end the abuse, but it did loosen the interpersonal bondage restraints designed to not only make me psychologically supplicant, but also to painfully draw out the noetic and emotional obedience of a 47 year old black man. The pictures are therefore a presentation of the return to self which can occur when one is free of both the internalised and externalised experiences of interpersonal narcissistic abuse. Yet, what about when we struggle to face off against the abuse meted out in the name of cultural superiority? What then?
You are the man you were always meant to be. You were there before but you just couldn’t see him because you carried the weight of an abusive narcissistic relationship that kept you trapped inside. Now you are free.
For the Subject though, the idea that the other is there to serve itself remain. For whatever reason, be it the trauma of childhood, attachment traumas, or the enforced too early separation from home, this stage, this movement from a stage of omnipotence to one of a more collective, relational experience has not occurred. The other is invisible. The other is a part object of the psyche of the Subject placed there to hold projections of those aspects which it does not wish to own, or that would make it feel bad were it to fully recognise its impact upon the other. Any sense of humanity of the other is denied, as this means that it might be on a par with the subject, and given its mirage of omnipotence this surely cannot be.
Whereas for children, these stages can be worked through and moderated, for adults who have not had this experience of recognising the humanity of the other, other means of consistently reminding the world of their superiority therefore come into play. For example, the rewriting of history, or its whitening or making more masculine and heteronormative, are just a few of the facets of the Cultural Narcissistic Abuse which persons of otherness endure on a regular basis. Their experiences are not just dismissed, they are often erased from being altogether out of a sense that for the Subject to need the other that is must not be as special as it has previously thought itself to be.
Another means the Subject employs as it distances itself from the other is by projecting any badness outwards onto other groups, races or cultures. These issues though are only often acknowledged when seen out there, somewhere where the cultural other is bad and we can be seen as good, where the oppression of gender, sexual and cultural minorities in say Hungary, China or Afghanistan is rightly vilified, but where these same oppressions and judgements of said mirror have no reflection back home. It is this cultural immaturity which sits at the centre of cultural narcissism; this myopic belief that ones own culture is the best in the world, that we are world leaders, and that anything we do is the best, when the evidence is often overwhelmingly contradictory.
For example, as we watch as our own government engage in an aspect of the culture war where the denial of institutional racism and the vilification of Critical Race Theory has become one of the cornerstones of policy (Gillborn, 2005). Simultaneously, the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities in their recent report decided that Institutional Racism did not exist in the United Kingdom, a conclusion widely condemned by many including experts from the United Nations who saw this as normalising White Supremacy (Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, 2021; Sagir, 2021). These kinds of reports are nothing new though during this current age. The stalling of this same government when challenged over the delay in the outlawing of Conversion Therapy pending yet another review, will in my mind lead to a reversal of any said political promises around this issue, and the struggle for our institutions to acknowledge the continued oppression and lack of safety women, the narrative often being there is no problem. From Climate Change to disability rights to how this country see itself on the world stage, its belief that it is at the forefront, that it is a world leader, or that no other nation is doing as much as we are, is like the partner who believes they can do no wrong, that their abuse is the victims fault, that they did not mean it and as they are good people. It comes from the strangest type of destructive grandiosity that actually leaves said originating culture doing none of the things it said, nay it promised, that it would do.
These are just a snapshot of the many symptoms of narcissistic abuse endured by the other in the face of cultural narcissism. With the creeping cultural gaslighting, the racial or gendered passive aggression, the class put downs and manipulation, the collective silencing, or the projections onto to the other of badness, the other is left gradually broken, gradually distraught and lost. The symptoms of the impact of cultural narcissistic abuse are no different to those of the personal, but they are more subtle and cut far deeper. So, as we collectively endure so much psychological maddening, increased levels of powerlessness, deepening senses of fear and anxiety, sleepless nights and problems with food, drink and/or drugs, the reader needs to note which of these impacts upon themselves directly, seeing them as being strong symptoms of said cultural abuse experiences. The means we employ to survive them will vary from person to person, but self care is essential, be it spiritual self-care, psychological, physical, emotional or practical, engagement with ourselves as we wade through this morass is prerequisite to our survival as the other and to our humanity.
Still cute, only now you’re hotter! 😊
Besser, A., & Priel, B. (2010). Grandiose Narcissism Versus Vulnerable Narcissism in Threatening Situations: Emotional Reactions to Achievement Failure and Interpersonal Rejection. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 29(8), 874–902. https://doi.org/10.1521/jscp.2010.29.8.874
Carvalho, S., Dinis, A., Pinto-Gouveia, J., & Estanqueiro, C. (2015). Memories of Shame Experiences with Others and Depression Symptoms: The Mediating Role of Experiential Avoidance. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, 22, 32–44. https://doi.org/10.1002/cpp.1862
Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities. (2021). Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities: The Report (Issue March). https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/974507/20210331_-_CRED_Report_-_FINAL_-_Web_Accessible.pdf
Freud, S. (2014). On Narcissism. Penguin Limited.
Gillborn, D. (2005). Education policy as an act of white supremacy: whiteness, critical race theory and education reform. Journal of Education Policy, 20(4), 485–505. https://doi.org/10.1080/02680930500132346
Krizan, Z., & Johar, O. (2012). Envy Divides the Two Faces of Narcissism. Journal of Personality, 80(5), 1415–1451. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-6494.2012.00767.x
Mitchell, J. (1986). The selected Melanie Klein. Penguin Limited.
Sagir, C. (2021). U.K. Conservative Party government report says “Institional Racism” doesn’t exist. People’s World. https://www.peoplesworld.org/article/u-k-conservative-party-government-report-institutional-racism-doesnt-exist/
Weil, A. M., & Piaget, J. (1951). The development in children of the idea of the homeland and of relations to other countries. International Social Sciences Journal, 3, 561–578.