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Narcissism Seems Rampant

Quite a number of people were revolted watching the manner in which Brett Kavanaugh so self-righteously behaved as though victimized by having to defend himself against allegations made by Christine Blasey-Ford. From all accounts, he went to a prestigious prep school, and seemed groomed to live and work within the upper echelons of society. How outrageous, thought he, that he was placed under scrutiny by the FBI and the Senate Judiciary Committee. How dare he be questioned at all? And then there was the Stanford athlete, Brock Turner, who had been accused of sexual assault on Stanford’s campus. Turner was convicted of three charges of felony sexual assault. Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky sentenced Turner to six months confinement (of which he served half) and three years probation. Seeing his father so affronted on the news at the prospect of his son being punished was pretty striking.

How is it that a man accused of sexual assault turns into a victim? What is it that allows that process to happen? These are two examples of people who feel very entitled to be given whatever they want, because they seem to have grown up believing they deserve it, and nothing should stand in their way.

Here is an abridged definition of narcissism, as defined by the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual Fifth Edition (DSM V):

Individuals with NPD (Narcissistic Personality Disorder) have a grandiose sense of self-importance. They routinely over- estimate their abilities and inflate their accomplishments, appearing boastful and pretentious. They often under- estimate the contributions of others. They are often preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty or ideal love. Individuals with NPD believe they are superior, special or unique, and expect others to recognize them as such. Their own self-esteem is enhanced by the idealized value they assign to those with
whom they associate. They require excessive admiration; their self-esteem is almost invariably very fragile. A sense of entitlement is evident in these individuals’ unreasonable expectation of especially favorable treatment. They expect to be catered to and are puzzled or furious when this does not happen. Individuals with NPD generally have a lack of empathy and have difficulty recognizing the desires, subjective experiences, and feelings of others. They are often contemptuous and impatient with others who talk about their own problems or concerns. Arrogant, haughty behaviors characterize these individuals: they often display snobbish, disdainful, or patronizing attitudes. Although they may not show it outwardly, criticism may haunt these individuals and may leave them humiliated, degraded, hollow, and empty. They may react with disdain, rage, or defiant counterattack.

It is interesting to note that those who live and work with them often feel exhausted, exploited, as though they must walk on eggshells, and never authentically connecting.

We know of at least one very obvious example, though I won’t mention his name. He speaks to others in an offensive tone, often blaming someone else, and when confronted with his words, deflects what is asked of him and then retaliates.

According to Freud, it is thought that all human infants pass through a phase of primary narcissism, in which they assume they are the center of the universe. This phase ends when the baby is forced by the realities of life to recognize that it does not control its parents or other caregivers but is in fact entirely dependent on them. Normally, the baby (at between 15-22 months) gives up its fantasy of being all powerful and becomes emotionally attached to its parents rather than itself. What happens for the NPD patient is that the fantasy persists that the world is his oyster and revolves around him. In order to protect this illusion, he must seal off those perceptions of reality that do not fit or resonate with this grandiose self.

The psychiatrist Kernberg views narcissism as a child’s defense against a cold and unempathic parent. Emotionally hungry and angry at the depriving parents, the child withdraws into a part of the self that the parents’ value, whether looks, intellectual ability, or some other skill or talent. This part of the self becomes hyper-inflated or grandiose. Any perceived weaknesses are split off into a hidden part of the self. Splitting gives rise to a lifelong tendency to swing between extremes of grandiosity and feelings of emptiness and worthlessness.

Additionally, a person with NPD frequently externalizes what s/he cannot allow themselves to feel – so others must be wrong, blamed, or the ultimate cause of their distress.

It is not only privileged individuals who display this disorder; I have seen NPD exhibited among people who have lived under harsh socioeconomic circumstances, and somehow believe that the world owes them, that they have suffered through no fault of their own, and subsequently blame others for their plight.

What compels me to write about this topic is that individuals with this presentation exist in all facets of society, in varying degrees. In my own psychotherapy practice, a large percentage of my clients are adult children of narcissists. They come in time and again feeling completely used up, having spent their lives in the service of one or both parents. These are people who don’t know what they want or need, because their own needs have been tucked away for a lifetime. And they also feel guilty for having needs. In terms of healing, it can be a long and painstaking process, but definitely worth it. Through hard work and dogged persistence, clients will say they finally feel “free,” no longer hobbled by the constant needs and wants of those they formerly catered to.

American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition. Arlington, VA, American Psychiatric Association, 2013.

Masterson, James F. The Narcissistic and Borderline Disorders: An Integrated Developmental Approach. New York, Brunner/Mazel, Inc. 1981

http://www.minddisorders.com/Kau-Nu/Narcissistic- personality-disorder.html

Race in America

I recently watched a program on a daytime talk show, Dr. Phil, called “Deconstructing Privilege,” an emotionally loaded though very important topic regarding race in America. On it, he had a panel of distinguished guests and included audience members. There was a white professor from Wellsley who coined the term “white privilege,” a black professor of sociology from Georgetown, a black civil rights attorney, a white police officer, and a Latina professor of law.

Phil had a young man perform an exercise where college students were given a set of 35 questions, and were instructed to either step forward or backward on the stage, depending on whether or not they had experienced first-hand racism.

The show was quite fascinating, and a critical subject for nationwide dialogue. Questions ranged from whether one was ever stopped by police, either on foot or by car for no apparent reason, were followed upon entering a retail store, or surprised a white person by being well-spoken and articulate, etc.

I can say with absolute certainty that many of these aggressions are outside of my everyday experience, as a Caucasian woman. I often pay close attention and observe scenes when I am in public, bearing witness to how people of color are treated.

There was a white woman whose job was to make sure street vendors had or applied for a license to sell their wares. Some bystander accused her of racism and posted what she was doing on a social media site. That woman lost her job. She was there with her attorney. No one on the panel seemed to empathize with her, so Dr. Phil commented on it. The sociology professor then pointed out that this was typical: a white person defending another white person.

At one point, there were two audience members who were both Caucasian, and who stated that they did not believe they were recipients of “white privilege,” that they had both worked hard to achieve the life they had.

One or two of the black panelists, in responding to these two audience members, appeared very heated. One of the panelists called the audience member defensive. But she behaved defensively as well. She raised her voice and stressed, “LISTEN!” Yet she wasn’t listening to them.

I find the phrase “white privilege” offensive. I literally bristle when I hear it. The term makes enormous assumptions about white people. If the goal is to get Caucasian people to understand the obstacles and experiences of people of color, it does not help to use an expression that makes them feel blamed or guilty. This will only shut people down.

Additionally, it doesn’t seem a good idea to me to compare whose group has suffered the worst atrocity. For blacks it’s slavery, for Jews, it’s the Holocaust, for Irish, it’s the Famine. Many whites struggle with poverty and class discrimination.

It is thorny to start a dialogue when one group claims their victimhood is more damaging than another’s. However, I think it is extremely important to listen to each other. And I think it is equally important that people need to be able to disagree without being shouted down.

I will never know what it is like to be a black man or woman in America. And we’ve seen case after case on the news of white people calling the police, such as when a black man went into Starbuck’s waiting for his friends and the manager made him leave. This is outrageous. It happens far too often. As a deeply caring individual, I want to know what that feels like. But I don’t want my own experience of being female and invisible as a 67-year-old to be dismissed.

We all want to be listened to, and deeply understood. And it behooves all of us to listen.

On the current political atmosphere

As a therapist, I am both curious and disturbed by national politics, as well as how it has impacted my psychotherapy practice. The past two years have had clients reeling from all the high drama coming from the White House. I include myself in that group.

This blog is not meant to persuade or criticize those on the right or left. Nor is it meant to judge. This is to be a place where there is no vitriol, no attacks.

Ever since the 2016 election, many of my clients have been deeply troubled by the political ethos. In fact, the day after the election, my office felt like a morgue. People were left shocked, scared, and rendered helpless, similar to how a person feels after a traumatic incident, where the memory feels frozen in time.

Nowhere is this truer than for the Me Too Movement. After the Kavanaugh hearings in the Senate, many women were again activated. Seeing Christine Blasey Ford appear in front of the judiciary committee, with a look of what I would describe as terror, and based on the committee’s actions not believed, brought into sharp focus what women live with all the time. She came forward because she believed she had to, and the Senate voted that they believed she had been assaulted, but not by Kavanaugh. In fact, Susan Collins remarked that she KNEW it wasn’t Kavanaugh who assaulted her. That astounded me.

A client recently asserted that we as women have been rendered powerless. I don’t believe that. What I see is male bastions being challenged, and in their effort to do so, clamping down on a movement that simply will not be thwarted. In fact, I see many of these folks as quite weak and scared beneath the loud bravado. They feel deeply threatened. But there will be no going back.

But how do we take care of ourselves? I admit that I get caught up reading and listening to the press, and then being anxious and upset. I have had friends and colleagues suggest taking a break from the news. I think we need to find ways to take special care of ourselves. This can include massages, time with good friends, meditation, and exercise. It can also include becoming an active citizen.

We are living in a psychological state of cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is defined as the mental discomfort experienced by a person who simultaneously holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas or values. This discomfort is triggered by a situation in which a belief of a person clashes with new evidence perceived by that person. For example, Ms. Blasey Ford’s testimony was believed by the Republican members of the judiciary committee, yet they chose to forward Kavanaugh’s nomination anyway.

This is a time when truth is not held by the culture as a high value. And it is deeply troubling. There aren’t “alternative facts.” But what people choose to believe seems to hold sway over what really ARE facts. How it is that Trump concluded that Kavanaugh was rendered innocent is baffling. Nothing was proven; no effort was made to get at the truth. Not based on what he or she said, but on a thorough investigation.

I can understand why Republicans were angry that the Democrats wanted a public forum for Christine Blasey Ford, as opposed to a private meeting. I can also understand why the Democrats wanted this to be a public display, feeling rendered powerless when the Republicans refused to hold hearings for Merrick Garland.

What I want to see in our public officials is civil discourse, accountability, and of course, lose the sanctimony.