YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

June 8, 2014

“Narcissism”: healthy vs. unhealthy

Filed under: Uncategorized — clarelspark @ 7:30 pm
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Echo and Narcissus: Waterhouse

Echo and Narcissus: Waterhouse

These sources are what I found in a quick search around the internet: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Narcissism
http://psychology.about.com/od/psychiatricdisorders/a/history-Of-narcissistic-personality-disorder.htm (NPD excluded from DSM-5.)
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22729454 (on narcissism and S-M behavior)

None of them steps outside of personal psychosexual development in the family to explore the institutional or ideological context in which “narcissistic personality disorder” either occurs or never shows itself.

My blog on the subject constitutes my personal experience and is not the result of clinical training, though the word “narcissistic” is thrown around in popular culture, sometimes to characterize women, but lately to characterize the grandiosity attributed by classical liberals and conservatives to Barack Obama. “Progressives” return the favor by describing all classical liberals and conservatives as heartless, uncompassionate individualists, oblivious to cries from their [imagined communities].


First, “healthy narcissism.” All my work has been driven by the search for creativity and how to impart it to students of all ages. In my view, such originality and discovery is linked to a healthy sense of self, that is, a person with healthy narcissism is not afraid to plunge into deep and uncharted waters to gain an accurate picture of ourselves and the institutions in which we function, no matter what pathology powerful professionals attribute to this search for truth.

But in the [neoclassical] Greek myth, Narcissus is so captivated by his image in a pond, that he is oblivious to the voice of Echo (society), so that he thoughtlessly falls into the pond and drowns. That is how Melville’s character “Ishmael” (the foil to narcissistic Captain Ahab) describes the tale in the first chapter of Moby-Dick: “Narcissus is the key to it all.” And indeed, Ahab does drown, strangled by the rope with which he would revengefully harpoon the White Whale, oblivious to the crew who will also perish. (The link to progressivism’s emphasis on social relationships as opposed to personal self-absorption should be obvious.) [Wikipedia dates the painting by Waterhouse as painted in 1903, after Ovid, in time for the progressive movement: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Echo_and_Narcissus_(Waterhouse_painting.%5D

The insult of the narcissism label is often felt by women. On the one hand, women are supposed to be protective mothers and wives, attuned to the most subtle emotions and symptoms of their charges, while they are simultaneously driven to defy aging and yet to be well turned outward to the opinions of relatives and then future mates. When the late academic Christopher Lasch wrote his famous The Culture of Narcissism (Norton, 1979) I bristled. It was an obvious slap at the fashionable notion that “culture” had been “feminized” since the emancipation of women. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Culture_of_Narcissism which argues that Lasch was reacting to militant student activists and to the decline of the family.)

Narcissism and attachment theory. It cannot be emphasized enough that pathological narcissists are unable to form attachments to others, whether these be persons or causes. In order to maintain their self-images as high achievers, for instance, they need a steady stream of “narcissistic supplies” from an adoring public. Although they tend to vacillate between idealizing and demonizing other persons, they can’t take criticism, even of the most tactful kind. For as “perfectionists” in the face of deflating errors or rejection, they are incapable of soothing themselves, for they are devoid of internal good objects (i.e., the mother’s unconditional approval).

I don’t know what a psychoanalyst would say about my claim, but every mother knows that the management of separation from young children so that they may attend nursery school or play with other children (out of mother’s sight), is a challenge. This process gets even more complicated when weaning is premature, or when a succession of nannies are the primary caretakers of children, for “object constancy” is vital to building self-confidence in the child who is expected to stand “alone” apart from mother. The resultant “separation anxiety” can be experienced by either the child or the mother or both. (See my essay https://clarespark.com/2009/11/16/panic-attacks-and-separation-anxiety/.) I often wonder how many Sixties radicals embraced collectivist ideologies in hopes of finding a stable, nurturing family that would compensate for feelings of abandonment by parent(s) and society alike. Had socializing institutions not idealized authority, would these often privileged youngsters identified with causes that were seemingly designed to punish them by losing caste?


Second, which leads to me the question of narcissism and sadomasochism. I have known several men of high intellectual attainment who were 1. panicked at the thought of criticism but who sought punishment in sexual situations. (They might take the role of sadist or masochist, depending on their personal histories with mom), and 2. lived with simultaneous feelings of grandiosity and worthlessness in their psyches, hence were unable to enjoy their achievements in the eyes of others; moreover they were exceedingly manipulative in personal situations. Whether these symptoms were caused by particular family practices and configurations or are institutionally-induced, are beyond my capacities to identify. But here is one quote from my research in the Sadomasochism Collection at UCLA, that sums up the gratification that follows the beating administered by a mother-substitute:

[excerpt from a fantasy by Steadman Thompson, middle-management at the Armstrong Cork Company, Akron, Pennsylvania, in the Sadomasochism Collection, UCLA:] “As I stood up, she came forward with the silver collar. I was aghast at what I had said and done but I stood still and let her fit the cold metal around my neck. As the lock clicked with an icy finality my misgivings rose to an apex.
“Now look, Vivienne,” I whined.
The wand whistled and struck stingingly before I could flinch. “Speak when spoken to, slave and address me as “Mistress” unless I give you another title to use. Now take a hold of the back of my robe.
As I timidly obeyed, she raised her wand and from the wand and the ball on her crown came a light so intense it washed away all our surroundings.”

Steadman Thompson had been subjected to a magic wand, to a “switch” and after taking his punishment, he was returned to the lap of benignant authority, or what I have called elsewhere “Conservative Enlightenment” (a form of pseudo-enlightenment that fails to liberate us from illegitimate authority). How many of our “professionals” in middle management are sadistic with respect to the students (or others) in their charge, while being masochistic with respect to the orders and curricula dished out by their powerful superiors in administrative capacities?

Or, as Melville’s Ishmael queried? “Who ain’t a slave? Tell me that.” (https://clarespark.com/2011/04/10/who-aint-a-slave/, and/or https://clarespark.com/2012/12/02/index-to-sadomasochism-blogs/.)




  1. Although you weren’t misinformed by “clinical training,” I assure you that you have a much better grasp of the essence of narcissism than many who do.
    The following paragraph struck me as quite rich: “First, “healthy narcissism.” All my work has been driven by the search for creativity and how to impart it to students of all ages. In my view, such originality and discovery is linked to a healthy sense of self, that is, a person with healthy narcissism is not afraid to plunge into deep and uncharted waters to gain an accurate picture of ourselves and the institutions in which we function, no matter what pathology powerful professionals attribute to this search for truth.”
    However, there is one critical point in which you fail to muster your usual incisiveness and precision. Instead of saying that narcissists are incapable of forming relationships, you would do better to say that they are incapable of forming “non-exploitative” relationships. The difference goes directly to the essence of pathological narcissism as I understand it.

    Comment by Shlomo Dror — October 16, 2016 @ 12:26 pm | Reply

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