Most of us probably hear the word “narcissism” in conversation with some regularity, often used to refer to a distant, disembodied other. Here, D. Michael Louderback (MACP, ‘13), an analytic psychotherapist and ongoing contributor to this blog, argues that it is all too easy to separate narcissism from its context. Michael pulls from the voices of psychoanalysts who influence his own work, inviting us to recognize and engage the currents of narcissism that flow through each of us.

From the beginning of my clinical career, a psychoanalyst named Neville Symington and his books have been upon my office shelves and incredibly impactful on me as a young therapist. It seems to me that his mission in the hard work of psychoanalysis is to make emotional contact from one human being, with another, in order that a healing conversation might emerge. Within this healing conversation are the conditions for which the (re)creation of a person, of a life, can occur.

Of course, this is easier said than done—for all of us.

I had the fun delight of consulting with Neville just a few short weeks ago. Despite my giddy—quite nerdy, really—enthusiasm of being able to speak with him, he helped me better understand a long time patient I’ve been working-with in psychoanalytic psychotherapy. However, what I am most indebted to him is his reworking of an old word and disorder in the human mind: narcissism.

Narcissism is that all-too-familiar psychiatric term that is strongly alive and present in our culture today; perhaps you’ve heard it or even used it yourself to describe someone? (I know I certainly have!) However, the way this word is thrown around is, in my opinion, divorced and misunderstood from the severity of what it actually stands for and symbolizes and means to the personality. Which is to say that narcissism has all too easily been separated from its context—trauma, shame, and defense—and used as a flippant, degrading word to describe someone that we most likely don’t like.

In his highly insightful book, Narcissism: A New Theory, Neville explores and redefines the ways in which narcissism reveals itself in patients and in our own selves. His thesis is that narcissism is an unconsciously chosen defense against trauma or, in more ordinary language, overwhelming and shocking emotional experience. While this defensive organization protects one from knowing or feeling that appalling pain, it also envelops (traps) a person in a position of psychically-closed passivity, deep hatred of the other/an-other/relationship, and an obliteration of intimacy and vulnerability with the real self, and therefore the world. It casts the mind into an extreme rigidity.

Narcissism, in this light, is a deeply personal problem.

Narcissism, in this context, is something that we all hold the responsibility of addressing within ourselves.

“Narcissism is a deeply personal problem.”

For as Neville suggests, we all have trauma and we all have opted—in certain pockets of psyche—for the narcissistic protective strategy. In this narcissistic situation, the other represents, re-presents, the original trauma—the uncontrollable and overwhelming pain that’s already there inside. A great shame swells as a result, indicating that everything is not well within the personality and must be covered up and hidden. The only apparent relief for this terrible shame is to fully alienate, to withdraw, to refuse having to know this internal situation. Hence the defense, and the structure that gets chosen and built without the person even really being aware. (Of course, this is simply a sketch of the complicated wholeness that Neville unpacks throughout his theory.)

A mutual analyst and artist Neville and I enjoy—Marion Milner— writes, “It will be a sore fight letting go and letting the sea in.”

Regarding the healing of narcissistic currents running throughout the self and choosing to deal with our pain— yes. It will be a sore fight.

Yet, I believe, as Neville suggests, that this is our creative work to be done; this is our context, our calling—for each one of us to let our seas in. Our seas of pain, our seas of despair, of shame and salty tears. Our wave after wave of what has happened, of what it has been like to be ourselves in this world, of all that we have lost and endured.

When we are able to do that, our world and the world shift and transform. We are then able to go beyond simply surviving—the basic purpose of all of our mental defenses and structures—and live.