NARCISSISM: Denial of the True Self
by Alexander Lowen, M.D.
Macmillan Publishing Company, 1983 – Hard cover, 1st edition
NARCISSISM describes both a psychological and a cultural condition. On the individual level, it denotes a personality disturbance characterized by an exaggerated investment in one's image at the expense of the self. Narcissists are more concerned with how they appear than what they feel. Indeed, they deny feelings that contradict the image they seek. Acting without feeling, they tend to be seductive and manipulative, striving for power and control. They are egotists, focused on their own interests but lacking the true values of the self—namely, self-expression, self-possession, dignity, and integrity. Narcissists lack a sense of self derived from body feelings. Without a solid sense of self, they experience life as empty and meaningless. It is a desolate state.
On the cultural level, narcissism can be seen in a loss of human values—in a lack of concern for the environment, for the quality of life, for one's fellow human beings. A society that sacrifices the natural environment for profit and power betrays its insensitivity to human needs. The proliferation of material things becomes the measure of progress in living, and man is pitted against woman, worker against employer, individual against community. When wealth occupies a higher position than wisdom, when notoriety is admired more than dignity, when success is more important than self-respect, the culture itself overvalues "image" and must be regarded as narcissistic.
The narcissism of the individual parallels that of the culture. We shape our culture according to our image and in turn we are shaped by that culture. Can we understand one without understanding the other? Can psychology ignore sociology, or vice versa?
In the forty years I have worked as a therapist, I have seen a marked change in the personality problems of the people consulting me. The neuroses of earlier times, represented by incapacitating guilts, anxieties, phobias, or obsessions, are not commonly seen today. Instead, I see more people who complain of depression; they describe a lack of feeling, an inner emptiness, a deep sense of frustration and unfulfillment. Many are quite successful in their work, which suggests a split between the way they perform in the world and what goes on inside. What seems rather strange is a relative absence of anxiety and guilt, despite the severity of the disturbance. This absence of anxiety and guilt, coupled with an absence of feeling, gives one an impression of unreality about these people. Their performance—socially, sexually, and in the work world—seems too efficient, too mechanical, too perfect to be human. They function more like machines than people.
Narcissists can be identified by their lack of humanness. They don't feel the tragedy of a world threatened by a nuclear holocaust, nor do they feel the tragedy of a life spent trying to prove their worth to an uncaring world. When the narcissistic facade of superiority and specialness breaks down, allowing the sense of loss and sadness to become conscious, it is often too late. One man, the head of a large company, was told that he had terminal cancer. Faced with the loss of life, he discovered what life was. "I never saw flowers before," he explained, "nor the sunshine and the fields. I spent my life trying to prove to my father that I was a success. Love had no place in my life." For the first time in his adult life, this man was able to cry and to reach out to his wife and children for help.
My theme is that narcissism denotes a degree of unreality in the individual and in the culture. Unreality is not just neurotic, it verges on the psychotic. There is something crazy about a pattern of behavior that places the achievement of success above the need to love and to be loved. There is something crazy about a person who is out of touch with the reality of his or her being—the body and its feelings. And there is something crazy about a culture that pollutes the air, the waters, and the earth in the name of a "higher" standard of living. But can a culture be insane? That idea is hardly an accepted concept in psychiatry. In general, insanity is seen as the mark of an individual who is out of touch with the reality of his or her culture. By that criterion (which has its validity), the successful narcissist is far from insane. Unless . . . unless, of course, there is some insanity in the culture. Personally, I see the frenzied activity of people in our large cities—people who are trying to make more money, gain more power, get ahead—as a little crazy. Isn't frenzy a sign of madness?
To understand the insanity that underlies narcissism, we need a broader, nontechnical view of personality problems. When we say that the noise in New York City, for example, is enough to drive one "crazy," we are speaking in a language that is real, human, and meaningful. When we describe someone as "a little crazy," we are expressing a truth not found in the psychiatric literature. I believe that psychiatry would gain much if it broadened its concepts and understanding to include the experience of people expressed in their common, everyday language.
It is my intention to share with the reader my understanding of the narcissistic condition. We need to understand the forces in the culture that create the problem and the factors in the human personality that predispose the individual to it. And we need to know what it is to be human, if we are to avoid becoming narcissists.
My treatment of narcissistic patients is directed toward helping them get in touch with their bodies, to recover their suppressed feelings and to regain their lost humanity. This approach involves working to reduce the muscular tensions and rigidities that bind the person's feelings. But I have never regarded the specific techniques I use as the important thing. The key to therapy is understanding. Without understanding, no therapeutic approach or technique is meaningful or effective on a deep level. Only with understanding can one offer real help. All patients are desperate for someone who will understand them. As children, they were not understood by their parents; they were not seen as individuals with feelings, nor treated with respect for their humanity. No therapist who fails to see the pain in his or her patients, to sense their fear and to know the intensity of their struggle to guard their sanity in a home situation that could drive one crazy, can effectively help patients work through the narcissistic disorder.