The BEST: Narcissism: A New Theory
Reviewed by Elie Jesner
Neville Symington (1937-2019) was a British psychoanalyst best known for his work on narcissism, which he considered to be the central obstacle to our emotional growth and development. Symington did not see narcissism as some narrow clinical condition, which only affects a few disturbed individuals. Rather, it is an inevitable aspect of the human condition, something present to some degree in all of us. Although difficult to access and be conscious of, awareness of it can enable us to get a clearer picture of our emotional and spiritual state.
Narcissism is not so much to do with self-love as it is to do with being closed off from the world of human relationships. It is a defensive response to pain or fear, and one which is likely to begin quite early in life. And, in common with other defenses, it tends to have a deadening effect on emotional and spiritual growth
Symington was very frank in acknowledging that psychoanalysis often fails in addressing this narcissism, or in even beginning to help the patient acknowledge it. He lamented this as a failure of the profession, and set out to write the book as a call to action in that direction. This resulted in the work for which he is most well-known, Narcissism: A New Theory (1993).
Why this is the BEST?
Psychoanalysis sees itself as the deepest tool we have for understanding the human psyche, and this book lives up to that promise. It incorporates, as it ought to, some of the finest emotional wisdom that Western culture has bequeathed to us.
Narcissism, to develop its themes, cannot be discerned though behavior alone. It is not merely about acting selfishly, thoughtlessly or ungenerously. A person could act virtuously and avoid these failings but still be subject to the tyranny of strongly narcissistic internal currents.
Narcissism is more to do with an excessive preoccupation with one’s self. This is usually born of a sense that that self is somehow brittle or fragile, that it is extremely vulnerable to criticism. Narcissism does not involve holding oneself in high regard, as is often thought. Rather, it is to do with an awareness, often unconscious, that there is something lacking or deficient at the core of the self.
One might, therefore, act with tremendous generosity, but be doing so out of a concern for how one will be perceived by others, or in order to avoid criticism. Our narcissism finds criticism extremely painful, taking it as amplification of already punitive internal voices and lacking any ability to process it.
To illustrate the distinction, we may generally feel satisfied if the people around us act with generosity. But after a while I think we become sensitive to quite how deeply felt that generosity is, whether it is a genuine generosity of spirit or a carefully calculated, rule following, or performative generosity. And I think that in the long run we have a strong preference for those who are genuinely and deeply generous. We gravitate towards those people and move away from those who give us a sense of straining against some inner blockage or limitation.
Symington articulates this by saying that overcoming narcissism involves getting in touch with our creative core, which is spontaneous and life giving, and which gives rise to genuine healthy love. He does not mean that we should take up painting or musical composition, though these things certainly might help. Rather, he means that at a very deep level we are trying to live life in a way that is open hearted, vital and properly receptive to the people and phenomena around us.
Living like this involves a great deal of trust in ourselves, and it is probably not possible without getting to know our demons and facing up to them. Only once we have done some work on our destructive, aggressive and envious parts might we be able to greet life with a strong sense of internal confidence. At that point alone will we be able to trust that our open-hearted and natural responses will bring positivity and light to those around us.
I was, in part, inspired to write this piece because someone once asked me why I was reading this book on Yom Kippur. What follows would be my response.
Yom Kippur ought to be a day of intensively addressing our spiritual state and attempting to break down the blockages and barriers we have erected there. These are to do with the ways in which we have disappointed ourselves and others, with our sins. But they are also connected to our traumas and our fears, which beget our hidden angers and hatreds.
We attempt to open ourselves to a force which is loving and life affirming, and we access this force through our spiritual and emotional sensitivities. Communal ritual and prayer can help in this regard; they can provide a powerful jolt or shock to the system, a piercing wake up call. But the real work cannot be done unless we know what we are looking for, and unless we have the courage to undertake that search. Symington’s book helps us to develop a beneficial road-map, and it inspires us to stay strong when the going gets tough.
Elie Jesner is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist practicing in London, and serves on the teaching faculty of the Philadelphia Association, which offers a philosophically informed psychoanalytic training.
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[Published June 4, 2020]