Aspects of Narcissism

Narcissism involves a very limited view of life. And sometimes that’s the very reason narcissists take narcissism to their bosoms. They like limits. Life with limits feels safe. Life without limits feels frightening.

It is said that the current President of the United States is a narcissist. That would make him a very limited and frightened man. Limited and limiting. Frightened and frightening.

Narcissism has some close cousins with names like self-love, self-absorption, solipsism, etc. For those heading for the dictionary, let me tell you what Wikipedia says about solipsism. Solipsism is the philosophical idea that only one’s mind is sure to exist. That lets Donald Trump off the hook. The man has never had a philosophical idea in his life. Nor much of a mind, some would argue.

Speaking of minds, there’s a concept perhaps related to narcissism that psychologists call ‘theory of mind’. Wikipedia has a succinct definition of this also. Theory of mind is the ability to attribute mental states to oneself and to others. All going well, we develop theory of mind at the age of four or five. Before that, we are all little narcissists. After that, we are aware other people have minds just like we do, and that the ideas in their minds may be different from those in our minds.

… what an extraordinary idea! At age three or thereabouts, it would appear we regard everything external to us as ‘mindless’. All those people feeding us, caring for us, doting on us, teaching us the rudiments of language, are nothing more than robotic attendants on us. We alone are blessed with a mind …

Psychologists have developed ingenious tests for the presence (or absence) of theory of mind. You can look them up on Wikipedia. They, the psychologists, have concluded that humans, other primates, and certain non-primate animals exhibit theory of mind. Nobody who has been around domestic dogs could doubt that dogs have theory of mind. But as for domestic cats, well, some people might have doubts about them. Is this being uncharitable to moggies?

People on the autism spectrum are often considered to have an underdeveloped theory of mind. So they are lacking to some degree in social skills, and are fearful of moving outside their comfort zone. This does not mean they are less intelligent. Nor does it mean they are mentally deranged. Some people ‘on the spectrum’ have prodigious skills in a particular area, e.g. in memory, or in sitzfleisch (see my last blog but one for an explanation of this useful word). We should learn to understand, and then to tolerate, their deficiencies. And we should respect, and then stand in awe of, their special skills. To wit, Greta Thunberg perhaps.

Back to my musings on narcissism. I’d like to coin the phrase ‘mutual narcissism’. I’m not inventing anything new. In fact, there’s a word there for it already. ‘Tribalism’. To each person in a tribe, his/her fellow members are just his/her reflection returned. Tribalism then, like narcissism, is motivated by fear and a yearning for limits. Right now, in 2020, there is plenty around to be be concerned about. And plenty to incite a craving for limits. Bushfires, Covid, lockdown, climate change, China, unemployment, … The list just goes on and on.

So, rather than deal with these big issues head-on, applying logic and science as necessary, we have an urge to take the easy way out, i.e. retreat to our chosen tribe, wherein we feel safe.

Some tribes are benign, e.g. affiliation to a football team. By way of family heritage I, for example, am nominally a Carlton supporter – we’re talking AFL here – although my support over the years has been lukewarm to say the least. More loyal supporters (one-eyed, it could be said) see everything through the prism of their team affiliation. A Carlton supporter, for example, would never ever see eye-to-eye with a Collingwood supporter. It’s a brand of narcissism that comes with the territory.

Other tribes are not so benign. Some are dangerously counterproductive. Rusted-on affiliation to a political party. Political populism. Zealous Christianity to the exclusion of alternatives, especially (for the times in which we live) Muslims. Ditto for zealous Islam. Racism and all other notions of ethnic superiority. Anti-vaxism. Flat-earthism. Active distrust of science. Adherence to any one of a number of crackpot conspiracy theories doing the rounds. The list knows no end. If you are in want of a malign tribe to which to belong, don’t look any further than the manipulators on social media, or on Sky News after dark, or on shock-jock radio. There’s something there for everyone. With each and every one a poisoned chalice.

Tribalism. It all starts with fear of what we don’t know, or don’t understand, or feel overwhelmed by. Never was a truer word spoken, nor one more crucial for our times, than: ‘the only thing we have to fear is fear itself’.