On Narcissism

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Sigmund Freud only published a single paper exclusively devoted to narcissism, “On Narcissism: An Introduction” (Freud, Sigmund, Vienna, 1914). This paper, not surprisingly, is a seminal work on the subject. In it Freud defines narcissism as a perversion as well as a normal and healthy process which can be found in all human development. Therefore Freud recognizes the existence and necessity of a healthy narcissism and the danger of destructive narcissism.

In his essay “Ich und Du” (I and Thou, Buber, Martin 1923, Vienna) Martin Buber explored how our narcissism often leads us to relate to others as objects instead of as equals. In Martin Buber’s words, the malignantly narcissistic insist upon “affirmation independent of all findings.” p 80 Self-criticism is a call to personality change…The evil are pathologically attached to the status quo of their personalities, which in their narcissism they consciously regard as perfect. I think it is quite possible that the evil may perceive even a small degree of change in their beloved selves as representing total annihilation”. p 74

In “People of the Lie” (Peck, M., Scott, M.D., 1983, New York, Touchstone) M. Scott Peck M.D.  clearly describes the soul killing nature of evil.  Peck writes “When I say that evil has to do with killing, I do not mean to restrict myself to corporeal murder. Evil is that which kills spirit. There are various essential attributes of life — particularly human life — such as sentience, mobility, awareness, growth, autonomy, will. It is possible to kill or attempt to kill one of these attributes without actually destroying the body. Thus we may “break” a child without harming a hair on its head”(Please see his video on the nature of human evil.)

Freud, Buber and Peck view evil as a diagnostic category and believe that studying it as a disease can protect those who are sliding into narcissism as well as those who are victimized by it. It’s possible, then, to see narcissism as a spectrum that ranges from healthy, and necessary self-esteem to pure evil. Along this spectrum are people who behave narcissistically at times but who don’t rate a diagnosis of a full blown narcissistic character disorder. In Family Law cases we often see good people at their worst. The opposite can occur in Criminal Law cases where sociopathic people are usually on their best behavior during the court process.Therefore, during divorce, it’s important to be able to differentiate between behaviors that are self-serving as opposed to true pathological narcissism. Dr. Peck’s description of true narcissism as evil and soul killing is apt. A true narcissist has no capacity for empathy and will lie when the truth would serve just as well. As Dr. Peck’s points out in “People of the Lie “these are people whose whole existence is a lie. They self-aggrandize themselves while devaluing others and are exquisitely sensitive to any form of criticism.

A person with insufficient healthy narcissism is vulnerable to the superficial charm of the narcissist. They are unable to defend against the narcissist’s “power” of perceived confidence and superiority. They may even envy the narcissist’s ability to not feel emotions and the seeming ease with which they cut through people like a warm knife through butter. The narcissist doesn’t exhibit the fear and insecurity that the person with insufficient healthy narcissism is tortured by.

A pathological narcissist or their more destructive cousin the sociopath will destroy your soul if you let them. They will consume you to feed their own needs and discard you when you’ve served their purpose. So yes, evil does exist. But at its core is supreme fragility and weakness. This is crucial information to keep in mind as you stand your ground against the narcissist’s rage during divorce. They are not the powerful people they pretend to be but rather potentially dangerous people who, despite outward appearances to the contrary, dwell in a world of their own faded glory.

For helpful information about dealing with the narcissistic personality during divorce please read my books; “The Custody Manual” and “Change Your mind, Co-Parenting in High Conflict Custody Cases”.

Leo Terbieten MFT