Friday, July 24, 2015

Some thoughts about narcissism

1. Is narcissism too useful for explaining moral failure?

Any time we find something that is really good at explaining human behaviour (or physics or biology for that matter) we should get suspicious. If it seems like a really good explainer, it just might be too good to be true.

2. To analyze is to take apart

Human behaviour is individual and varied and we diminish other people by slotting them into a category like narcissism. A human being is a rich and varied creature who should not be reduced to a bundle of motives and tendencies. 

3. Narcissism is a syndrome

That is to say, it is a group of characteristics that go together. For example, according to the Mayo Clinic narcissism is:
I think that list could use some editing as it seems repetitive to me. 

In any case, any honest person, never mind narcissists, should reasonably worry that some of those apply to them.

I go with the Last Psychiatrist school that links narcissism with an inability to experience guilt, a lack of respect for others boundaries and a tendency to see yourself as the star with everyone else a bit player. I think you need all three but the most important is the inability to experience guilt.

4. Moral emotions

While many emotions are linked to morality, the two most important are shame and guilt. Shame is the primary moral emotion, the one that we learn first. As children we feel shame when our mother is unhappy with us and this is the beginning of our moral development. 

To develop guilt we must first develop an internal moral compass, more commonly known as a conscience. Guilt, while often maligned, is our friend. This chart, which I've used before, gives a good idea why.

Where guilt and shame are at odds are the corners where we need guilt. Consider the top right corner where I believe I did a morally bad thing but others don't. Imagine how much worse you would be if you didn't have guilt. Guilt, like any emotion, can be misplaced but you'd never question your actions except when there was a chance of getting caught if you were incapable of feeling guilt.

The lower left corner is even worse. To live there is to live in a personal hell. That said, it happens to everyone at some point in their life. And think how much worse it would be if you were incapable of experiencing guilt because you had a poorly developed conscience. Then you'd only feel shame and you'd be forever at the mercy of what others thought or at what you feared others might be thinking.

5. Anticipatory shame

It took me a long time to develop a proper moral compass. One of the reasons I was attracted to, and later married, the Lemon Girl is that she does have a strong moral compass. Watching her when we first worked together, I could see that, contrary to what I'd believed all my life, her well-developed conscience gave her greater moral freedom than I had.

I thought a conscience was a burden, a thing that would constantly hem you in. I thought that because, not having much of one, I was using anticipatory shame to do the work that guilt would do. I never really examined my conscience but instead scared myself straight by imagining how awful it would be if others knew the worst about me. That way of thinking really was imprisoning.

6. Was I a narcissist then?

I considered the possibility very seriously. For a narcissist, shame is something to be deflected, thrown back at others, and few things could be as shameful as confronting your own narcissism. I forced myself to consider that I might be. In the end, I think I'm what Dr. Robert Glover called a nice guy. 

Why? Because of the nature of my problem with boundaries. Narcissists have a problem in that they fail to respect other people's boundaries. Instead, I failed to defend my own. I didn't stand up for myself. Far from lacking respect for other people's boundaries, I was letting them build them halfway up what was, metaphorically speaking, my own front lawn.

And that is why I propose to stop talking about narcissism. Looking forward at my own moral development, it has no use. 

7. Conscience is mostly an anterior phenomenon

We think of conscience as something that comes after the fact; we think of it as that niggling sense of guilt or, just as likely, anticipatory shame that comes after we've done something. And that is certainly one thing conscience does. The problem is that we think of it as the main thing.

The rest of the time, we think of conscience as the right to hold or express our most cherished beliefs.

The primary job of conscience is to keep you from doing wrong in the first place. That's why "moral compass" is such an apt expression—it directs towards what is right and away from what is wrong. In fact, even the part of conscience we imagine to be after the fact is really a before. Guilt, the stuff of conscience, of a real moral compass, is a call to do something. If you are guilty, you need to seek redemption by apologizing, doing what you can to right the situation and seeking reconciliation with God. Shame, on the other hand, is entirely out of your hands.

The way to start developing our conscience, I believe, is to ask ourselves the following question: Why be a moral being in the first place? That's next week's topic.

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