The term narcissism originally emerged from a first-century story about a young man named Narcissus who falls in love with his own reflection. In 1898, Havelock Ellis was the first psychologist to use narcissism to describe the condition of one of his patients. Over the next several decades, the psychiatric professions began to use narcissism to describe pathological egocentricity. While it is estimated that only 1% of the population has pathological narcissism, recent research is revealing that narcissism comes in more subtle and pervasive forms. Everyday narcissism infects most of modern society and is the central barrier to our psychospiritual development.
Everyday Narcissism vs Pathological Narcissism
Everyday or fundamental narcissism differs from pathological narcissism because it is socially accepted and perpetuated by most of humanity. Pathological Narcissism is characterized by a grandiose sense of importance and uniqueness, attention-seeking and manipulative behavior, as well as a lack of empathy for others. Everyday Narcissism exhibits the same characteristics, but in a milder form. To some degree, we are all selfish, manipulative, and have a desire for recognition. Of course, when these characteristics aren’t deemed to be excessive, we don’t consider them a problem. Most of us aren’t aware of our everyday narcissism because it is considered to be the normal way of living and interacting with the world. Yet if we look closer at our lives we will find that the suffering we experience and create always comes from these subtle narcissistic patterns.
The Ego and Narcissism
To understand narcissism, we must understand the ego. The ego is a structural mental system that enables the filtration and organization of consciousness. In most humans, the ego emerges around 2 years of age. Its purpose lies in allowing us to make distinctions so that we can act in the world. It also grants us the ability for self-reflection. We can now think about the past and the future and organize a coherent narrative to help us make sense of our experience.
Part of the ego system is a process known as self-representation. Self-representation allows us to identify with memories in order to form a self-image. A child’s early interactions with its parents provide the bulk of the material for building the self-representation structures. These experiences become memories in the mind composed of a self-representation (image of the self), an object-representation (an image of an important other), and an affect characterizing the interaction.
Most of us cannot experience ourselves separate from the self-representation. When moving through the world our minds automatically conjure up and identify with the self-image. This process is highly implicit, so we usually aren’t aware that it is happening. Self-representation binds us to certain objects and divides us from others. This creates a sense of separation and inevitably suffering. Narcissism is a natural by-product of this process.
What is Narcissism and Where Does It Come From?
Mirroring and idealization are required for the ego to develop properly. Children need their grandiosity to be reflected back, and they need to idealize a figure to share in this perfection and power. Gradually, a child is weaned off this sense of grandiosity and begins to develop a more realistic sense of self. The idealized object (the parent) must also gradually break down the idealization allowing the child to develop a more realistic sense of the parent. When this process is done abruptly or unskillfully it often leads to a narcissistic disturbance. While highly attuned parenting may protect against pathological narcissism, everyday narcissism is all but inevitable.
Narcissism is the identification process of the ego. It is a sort of grasping and fixating that keeps the illusion of the ego alive. The development of the ego requires a fall into narcissism; a forgetting of our true nature. The ego is born out of the narcissistic wound, a betrayal of not being seen for who we really are.
Narcissism vs Self-Esteem
In recent years, narcissism has been looked at as a spectrum of self-esteem. Those with a healthy level of narcissism are considered to have a healthy level of self-esteem, while pathological narcissists are deemed to have excessive self-esteem. Overtly narcissism may look a lot like self-esteem but it is merely a fragile and contingent form of it. The self-esteem of narcissism is completely dependent on external support. In pathological narcissism, the ego is gluttonous, in constant need of narcissistic supply. Yet all egos operate off narcissistic supply. The less true self-esteem one has the more narcissistic their personality will be.
The difference between narcissism and self-esteem is that the latter doesn’t come with a sense of superiority. It is also not contingent on external support. Self-esteem must initially be reflected to a child but if it is done unconditionally, then it becomes an intrinsic quality of one’s being. One knows themselves as valuable not for what they do but for what they are. Usually, parents are able to reflect back the quality of unconditional value to their babies. However, as their children grow older, that reflected sense of value becomes increasingly distorted and contingent on the child’s performance and behavior.
The Issue of Identity
Narcissism is directly related to the issue of identity. But why is identity an issue? Because we don’t really know who are. Most spiritual traditions consider “Who am I?” to be the most important question one can ask themselves. It is said the answer to this question makes all other questions obsolete. This is not to say it solves all problems in conventional reality – it doesn’t. But it does solve the issue of identity which is the central issue of existence. When existential anxiety is alleviated, problems cease being problems to solve and become paradoxes to play with.
Identity can be understood as the basic sense or feeling of “I-am-ness.” This sense of identity starts to emerge with the development of the ego. It is experienced through the self-representation and gives us the self-reflecting capacity. The feeling of identity can also be understood as all the combined representations within the ego. Any identity based on ego structures is extremely fragile and requires external support. Without adequate mirroring or idealization, ego identity begins to break down.
Who Are We Really?
We cannot go deeper into our exploration without asking “Who are we really?” Most of us believe we are our egos yet we clearly existed before we had this self-reflecting capacity. When one asks themselves “Who am I?” thoughts may arise, yet there is an awareness that is there before, during, and after the thoughts. There is a sense of an unchanging self that knows itself without any self-reflection or identification. This self is often called presence, essence, or pure awareness, and its recognition is an essential part of working through our narcissism. In fact, without at least some recognition of presence, this subtle form of narcissism may completely elude us. Luckily, everyone can experience presence as it has always been our true nature even before ego activity began. You may have noticed moments in your life when there was a free open flow. Your mind was still and things seemed to happen on their own. The strong sense of self or mental chatter just wasn’t there how it usually is. It is in these moments we are operating from presence. This happens more often than we realize, but because it is so subtle we don’t recognize it. Learning to notice and recognize these moments is the key to unraveling our narcissism.
Working Through Our Narcissism
Narcissism doesn’t get eradicated overnight. Our narcissistic patterns are deeply ingrained in our psyche and fuel our interactions with the world. The ego is always trying to maintain the self-representation. We move towards situations that prop up our self-representation and away from those that disintegrate it. We may think we are committed to this inner work, yet for many years fall into patterns of spiritual bypassing; avoiding people and situations that are vital for our spiritual growth.
Working through everyday narcissism is usually done through a meditation or inquiry practice. Many of these practices work through the process of disidentiying. Disidentifying can happen in two ways. We can learn to tolerate more distance from our self-representations, or we can make our self-representation so complete that our identity becomes highly malleable. The more we learn to disidentify, the more we experience the essential presence that lies underneath our self-representation.
At a certain level of development questioning, our identity becomes inevitable. Our patterns of intellectualizing and rationalizing become increasingly tiring. We realize that the issue of identity cannot be resolved with more thinking. As we begin to inquire into our true nature, our narcissistic tendencies become increasingly exposed. We are starting to unveil the subtle but pervasive patterns of everyday narcissism.
Confronting our narcissism is an uncomfortable process that requires feeling emotions on a deep level. Many of us have been closed off from emotions for so long that we have a hard time accessing them. This is where modalities such as bioenergetics and somatic experiencing can be helpful for opening up the emotional system. As we open to our emotions, we may experience fear and shame along with meaninglessness, pointlessness, and depression. We begin to see that who we thought we were our whole lives was a lie. We start to feel the sense of fakeness that is inherent in ego identification. We recognize that we have come to identify with what our environment wanted us to be instead of being who we really are.
Is It Possible to Be Completely Free from Everyday Narcissism?
Once we recognize how subtle yet pervasive our narcissistic patterns are, we may begin to doubt that we could ever be completely free of them. Maybe this kind of experience is possible for great mystics or monks but surely not for a regular person living in our modern-day society. While this kind of doubt is a natural part of a process eventually it too can be seen through. Liberation is not reserved solely for saints and sages. It is possible for the layperson and is increasingly being realized by people all over the world.
Through continued inquiry and meditation, we are capable of recognizing our true self and becoming free from everyday narcissism. In Self-realization, content can arise in consciousness without consciousness taking itself to be the content. Images, memories, and associations come up, but we are no longer identified with them. Our experience becomes increasingly free-flowing, spontaneous, and effortless. The ego is still here but it has become transparent.
Self-realization resolves the issue of identity. The question of, “Who am I?” isn’t answered in words as there is nothing that can be said about who we are. Yet, it can be directly experienced. We finally recognize that there is nothing we can do to be ourselves. We know ourselves by being ourselves. Being ourselves is simply being. In this being, there is an unshakeable and unquestionable certainty. We no longer need external support for inner peace. This is freedom from everyday narcissism. This is true liberation.