CPPNJ - The Center for Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy of New Jersey

Monday, September 13, 2010

Narcissism Is Us

The recent spectacle of a lunatic Florida minister holding the world hostage by threatening to burn Korans remains disturbing on many levels. Admittedly, "lunatic" may not be a proper diagnostic term; so far as I know, the committee working on DSM-V is not considering Lunatic Personality Disorder as a new entry. (Given all that is going on in this country, perhaps it should.)

I won't speculate about what specific diagnosis might best describe the good Pastor. I do think it's fair to say he is just a wee bit narcissistic. And that our culture of ever-mushrooming opportunities to draw attention to oneself is helping to raise narcissism to new levels.

It's not hard to imagine the delight of Terry Jones, the once-insignificant minister whose tantrum-like media stunt would have been ignored in times past. How powerful this Napoleonic man must have felt as the President, the Secretary of State, the Vatican and, mind-bogglingly, Angelina Jolie (speaking of narcissists), made imploring statements and phone calls to him.

Of course Jones is not the only dangerous narcissist whose hunger for power and attention are currently indulged in our multimedia times. Take Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin -- please. They maniacally tweet and organize marches as testaments to their self-importance. The more attention they get, the more they want, and the more the media gives them.

These are extreme cases, of course. But the popularity of Reality TV, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and ever-present blogs has helped fuel even garden-variety narcissism. (The irony that I am blogging right now is not lost on me. Please ignore the man behind the curtain.)

These days, every mundane thing people do is posted, chronicled and video taped on the Internet, clouding the boundaries between what's truly important and what's just nonsense. Everyone wants -- and can presumably now have -- their fifteen minutes of fame, but why settle for only a quarter-hour? Not when you can bounce from reality show to magazine covers to celebrity rehab and three more reality shows -- simply for behaving badly.

"Attention must be paid," said Willie Loman's wife about her defeated husband in "Death of a Salesman." Loman was a tragic figure, an empty man who turned to suicide when he could no longer prop up his battered ego. Narcissism is about just that -- a desperate attempt to shore up a fragile sense of self by inflating one's importance. Grandiosity temporarily masks insecurity.

The problem is, it doesn't work. Each conquest ultimately leaves the person feeling more deflated, needing more of a boost to his or her self-esteem. Narcissism breeds more narcissism. As Glenn Beck's ratings continue to slip, I suspect his rants will only intensify. I shudder to think about what the Florida minister will do next.

All of us have some narcissistic characteristics; sometimes they are actually healthy. Mental health comes not from being flawless (isn't that the misguided goal of the narcissist to begin with?), but from being more aware of and comfortable with our vulnerabilities.

Humility can tamper hubris; self-awareness can replace self-aggrandizement. These are some of the goals of psychoanalytic treatment. Unlike other therapeutic modalities that do not address the underlying causes of suffering, psychoanalysts are uniquely trained to work with the fragility that fuels unhealthy narcissism. When we engage the frightened adult-child behind the blustery bully, both sides of the personality feel attended to. Shame can give away to genuine confidence.

And that is something worth posting on a Facebook page.

-- Eric Sherman, LCSW

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Flunking Dr. Phil: In Praise of Introspection

Americans like our self-awareness like we like our food -- fast, and in bite-sized McNuggets. We pop pills and turn to self help books and TV "experts" to prop up or moods and pep up our orgasms. Yet we feel more impotent than ever.

How did we become a culture that reveres Dr. Phil yet reviles Dr. Freud?

When smiley-faced emoticons have replaced genuine emotions, and instant messaging trumps introspection, the ability to know oneself has fallen upon hard times. Given how overwhelmed so many people feel, the desire for easy answers is understandable. The idea of looking inside can be frightening when what's inside feels dark and shameful. That's what's so tantalizing about therapies that promise symptom relief without having to look at how the problems got there in the first place.

Yet in their rush to avoid introspection, many people end up feeling more stuck and confused. People who put "positive energy" into the universe (the mantra de jure) with little result end up doubting themselves more. They never understand what's beneath their negative thinking. Someone who cleans up the mess in their house only to re-create it days later is unaware that the mess symbolizes how they feel inside. Part of them unconsciously needs to create mess for many complex reasons. The deep-seated feelings they are trying to get away from are now simply expressed through new obsessions, addictions and phobias.

To borrow a motto from the 1970s, a mind is a terrible thing to waste. Concrete techniques to change destructive thought patterns and behaviors can be very helpful -- I use them in my practice all the time. But without also understanding what the mind is struggling to express and not express at the same time, the root of what causes self-destructive actions never becomes unearthed. Shame, fear and confusion often linger.

Psychoanalysis offers more than just a Band-Aid for multilayered wounds -- although it often does provide immediate relief for disturbing symptoms. Psychoanalytic psychotherapy does something more deep and lasting. It takes you on a journey of self-awareness.

There are potentialities existing within us all. Psychoanalysis is about excavating our pasts, but also about unearthing new ways to be with oneself and others going forward. It is deeply personal and deeply practical. Understanding the genesis of our problems, and recognizing how we unwittingly contribute to their perpetuation in the present, allows us to feel more in control of our lives.

I sometimes catch a glance of Dr. Phil on my gym's large-screen TV. I watch him only in small doses, and with the volume down. Then I look away and see where my mind takes me. It's a nice work out.
-- Eric Sherman, LCSW