The roots of narcissism may not be what you think. Typically we equate the narcissistic personality with somebody who is “full of himself”. The truth is the opposite. There is a vacuum where a self used to be. Therefore everything a narcissist does is motivated by filling the vacuum. Everything and everybody is recruited to shore up this primal emptiness. Everything becomes “about him/her” because s/he is afraid that nothing is about him/her. Without obsessively making things about themselves the narcissistist fears that s/he will be confronted by an unbearable emptiness.
In the Greek myth, the youth gazes into a pool of water, sees himself looking back and falls in love with his image. But the narcissistic person doesn’t love himself. He just can’t see anything but his own reflection even when he gazes out at the world. Others serve only to reflect back to him that he is somebody, because deep down, he has been set up to believe that he is nobody. His image is cultivated to get a response that reassures him that he is a somebody, not a nobody.
One of the most common sources of trauma that I hear about in my practice originates with mothers and fathers who appear to be giving but are actually on the take. There is a sickening feeling in the recipient of this false love that a vampire is actually sucking their life force. She feels like he’s be used instrumentally to fill a void, like her purpose is to be there for the parent. When we’ve been parented by narcissists, we haven’t actually been parented.
This happens when parents themselves have been taken from by their parents. The children are fed upon to make up for an absence of love in their own lives. And on it goes, from generation to generation, this unbearable sense that I have no independent existence, that I am nothing but a reflection of them and a resource for the gaping void in the ones who are supposed to love us. We keep looking at the image we’ve constructed of ourselves thinking the problem lies there. It doesn’t.
The deepest trauma is that this is often called “love”. Look at all I gave you. Look at what I’ve done for you. All the sacrifices I made. But the truth is that you were never actually seen in your exquisite and radiant otherness. The truth is that this so-called love was actually exploitation.
Much is made these days about not “othering” others, that is, setting those who are not “one of us” apart and then treating them as outsiders, as if they had no intrinsic worth, thus justifying violence toward them. But the real trick is in the first place allowing otherness, and allowing that absolute otherness of the other to evoke in you, not indifference or scorn, but care and concern.
One of the ways we defend ourselves against the narcissistic vampirism of parents is to tell ourselves we don’t care. We do this because it’s too painful to care. We love, but we are not being loved in return. We are being taken from under the guise of “love”. When we other the other by pretending we don’t care, this sets us up for violence directed against self and others. We have walled ourselves off from the other, and love is replaced by resentment and rage. The other becomes not just invisible but a threat whom we need to defend ourselves against.
But this not caring is a pretence. We actually care. Deeply. We are hard-wired for care. It is actually by allowing the other to be other, and then to bridge this exquisite others with true care, that is the secret of our own liberation from solipsistic self-referencing and recruiting others to fill us up.
Emmanuel Levinas was a Jewish philosopher (1906-1995). He was taken prisoner by the Nazis and endured hard labour in a concentration camp for five years. His wife and children were secretly hid from the Nazis, and so when the war ended he was able to rejoin them. The experience shaped his philosophy of the Other.
It is his philosophy, more perhaps than any other philosopher, that provides the antidote for rampant narcissism. For Levinas, ethics was the first philosophy. But by ethics he didn’t mean any kind of moral agenda for good people to follow. He meant that the bedrock of Reality was an actual experience of an Other human shattering, disrupting, capturing, holding us hostage in their profound vulnerability. It is this shock of others actually existing, and of their otherness being infinitely other, that is calling us into Reality, out of the prison of egoic self, as their Otherness evokes in us a sense of absolute responsibility for them, born of care. This is not “service” to the other, which so easily and inevitably defaults to a posture of the ego (and therefore narcissistic). This is being shocked into Reality, Reality that we cannot see because we’re locked in a prison of ego. Being locked in ego is torment, pure hell.
It is through the disruptive, vulnerable, “face” (meaning their embodied vulnerability) that I discover an “I” that transcends “me”, but it is an “I” that is comes into being only by seeing and being claimed by the infinite and absolute otherness of the other. This is the Great Escape from narcissism. In my responsibility to the Other, I discover my freedom. As e.e.cummings wrote “I am, through you, so I”.
For Levinas, this isn’t a choice. It’s the way things are for those who have eyes to see and a heart that is open to being claimed. It is a primordial ethic that precedes religion, philosophy and metaphysics, even language. There is no “self” that exists independent of this claiming. It is called into being by the Other.
This would make no sense to me were it not for a psychedelic experience. In this journey I set about the task of building a metaphysical system that could be reduced to two principles. I have no idea why. But again and again I failed, until I made myself sick. I literally threw up on the carpet. When I opened my eyes, I “saw” my therapist. Then the two principles were delivered to me. “There is an Other”. And, “I care”. I was genuinely astonished. I couldn’t get over it. I looked into his eyes and saw this Other. And I knew I cared. I was laughing and crying at the same time.
What it revealed, first off, was the depths of my own narcissistic looping. I couldn’t get outside myself. I was in the hell of my ego trying to think my way to freedom. When I received the second principle “I care”, it was like I had to travel back to my body from light years away. I had convinced myself unconsciously that I didn’t care, and this whole experience was calling bullshit on that strategy that I used to keep myself from sobbing at how the narcissism of my mother broke my heart. (But of course, what suffering had I myself caused because of my own entrenched and unconscious narcissism?)
Levinas warns against the temptation to turn the Other into the Same. Fancy language maybe. But what he means by “Same” is the “totalizing” impulse, which is to reduce the unfathomable enigma of otherness into categories, numbers, labels, and images, thus to disappear them, an thereby eliminating our natural propensity to have our ego disrupted by their otherness. In other words, the “totality” are all the systems and all the egoic consciousness that reduces us to: wife, husband, child, psychiatric labels (including “narcissist”) woman, man, black, white, feminine, masculine, trans, straight, etc. These labels are potentially used to eliminate otherness. If I have a category that I can fit you in, I can prevent being called into responsibility for you by your irreducible otherness.
Identity politics, it seems to me, is a totalizing impulse. I am reduced to identifying solely by my gender, my race, my sexual preference, my ethnicity, etc. A movement that was intended to facilitate the experience of uniqueness in others can quickly deteriorate into an ideological reduction of otherness. This capturing of the other in a category is actually the “totalizing impulse” that Levinas warns against, a form of cultural narcissism. It serves to keep otherness at bay for fear of seeing an actual individual who transcends labels and makes an experiential claim on us, commanding us to respond with care.
There is another cultural fetish that has claimed us which is totalizing and keeps us narcissistically imprisoned. And that is the self-improvement industry, the bio-hacking movement, even evolutionary spirituality. All of these assume a “self” that exists independently of others and whose purpose is to grow, expand, improve or whatever. But this is merely self-referential and allows no authentic experience of the other, who alone can liberate me by their subjection of all my self-inflating projects (even if the project appears ostensibly “good”). We keep on the treadmill of improvement, but don’t realize that we are imprisoned in ego.
It is a radical philosophy grounded in an ethic of responsibility for the other, but a responsibility that transcends the exertion of my will to be good, to be “of service, to build character, etc. It is a primordial command that disrupts me and shocks me out of my narcissistic agenda. It is an experience, not a theory.
It is the experience that by nature all parents should naturally have in response to the miraculous disruption of a baby. Were it not for trauma, we would fall on our knees in astonishment before this other’s claim on us and experience emancipation from ego. Another reason why getting to the bottom of our own trauma is critical as we take our next step as a species.