Thursday, July 6, 2017

Is narcissism driven by a need to feel special?

I've been reading Craig Malkin's Rethinking Narcissism and very much enjoying it so far. I'm only at the beginning of the book but it seems to me like it will be a an antidote to a perhaps too extreme account of narcissism that I've embraced. I bring the book up now because Malkin unhesitatingly diagnoses Draper as a narcissist. 

Malkin resists those who see narcissism as a binary quality. That's a good way to think as very few classification systems are binary. In addition, he seems to think of narcissism terms of a single quality: the need to feel special. Therefore, he sees people who have too much need to feel special at the high end of the narcissism spectrum and people who are too self-effacing at the low end.

Then he applies this standard to Don Draper whom he sees as a 9 on a scale of 10.
Think of Don Draper of the T.V. series Mad Men, hopping from affair to affair, desperately seeking excitement and attention; he can't stop even after he sees the damage his lies and infidelity have inflicted on his family.
Is that right? If it is, why does Don twice marry women he doesn't love?

If we go back to the beginning we find a man subject to impostor syndrome. In the Season 1, Don is man who thinks he is nothing and lives in morbid fear that he is about to be found out. There is something self-abasing about his affairs. A half-joking proposal he makes to Midge Daniels in the pilot reveals this. He lists reasons why she would be the perfect wife and they are not crazy reasons. The problem is that Midge is unavailable—she doesn't want to be married. At the opposite end of the extreme is Betty—the woman he did marry—who is a bad match, seemingly everything he doesn't want in a woman except for one thing that I'll come back to.

To stick with Don, however, he hardly seeks attention. He fears it and flees it. When Roger takes Don and Betty out for dinner at Toot Shor's she is elated. Betty has no trouble feeling special. Don is not. He doesn't know what it means. He doesn't feel like Roger trusts him.

At the dinner, he resists every invitation to talk about himself.

I can easily grant that something has gone wrong with Don Draper. What I have a hard time granting is that the thing that has gone wrong is an addiction to feeling special.

I have met people in my life who have an unfailing ability to see themselves as special. No matter how crushing the circumstances, they see themselves as the star of the drama and everyone else as a supporting player. Malkin provides a very good example of this:
Think of Bernie Madoff, who swindled hundreds of millions of dollars from his clients and who, when caught, scoffed at the "incompetence" of the investigators for not asking the right questions. Even faced with life in prison, he still managed to feel superior.
We might add Donald Trump,  Barrack Obama or Winston Churchill to that last. Like 'em or hate 'em, there are people who achieve amazing things because they never lose their sense of superiority. You probably need to be like that to be a politician today and, this is Malkin's point, you need to feel like that to achieve things.

Most of us, however, can only feel that way occasionally and precariously. I'm like that. Likewise Don Draper—for example, when he writes the letter about quitting tobacco without consulting anyone. But neither I nor Don Draper can sustain that sense of specialness in the face of adversity. If anything, Don needs to be goaded into thinking of himself as a star at the beginning of Season 4. And it's telling that, also towards the end of Season 4, Bert Cooper says of Don, "We've created a monster." (Emphasis added.) Finally, when Don goes to Disneyland he abruptly snaps back to type and seeks meaning not in himself but in a woman who gives him a sense of approval that he mistakes for belonging.

Which brings me back to Betty. It makes much more sense to think of Don marrying Betty because she helped him feel like he was no longer an outsider and not because she made him feel special. That's consistent with the larger context of his life than narcissism as Malkin presents it.

I could go on at some length here about Don's complicated relationship with women beginning with his having been raised by a woman who didn't want him. We could go on about both his biological and adoptive mothers having been prostitutes, readily able to give sex for money, unable to give love for anything. I could but I won't because I don't think I need to. Don Draper is a guy who never felt special, a guy was always told that he wasn't. He seeks meaning in life not in being special but in being part of something larger that will play the part of the family he never had. Someone who unfailing pursued specialness would have had no trouble actually marrying someone like Midge in the first place. Only someone desperately seeking approval would marry a woman like Betty.

Some questions 

Is narcissism chiefly a matter of being addicted to feeling special? Well, it could be. But would a person driven by a need to feel special behave in the dark ways that we associate with narcissism? We need to remember that the word comes from a rather odd Latin legend that we know mostly through Ovid's retelling of the story.

And what of the Last Psychiatrist's alternative view that narcissism is characterized by, among other things, an ability to feel only shame, an inability to feel guilt? I think Malkin would be willing to include that in a list of symptoms of narcissism but would see it as an outcome of the more basic addiction to feeling special. 

Why do I think the Last Psychiatrist's view needs to be tempered? It's that way he handles victims of infidelity. He starts off making the legitimate point that to be cheating on will often produce a narcissistic injury. That is to say, it will so disrupt your sense of who you are that you will react in narcissistic ways even without being a narcissist. That seems right to me. I was deeply in love with a woman who cheated on me. It was a narcissistic injury and my reaction is a deeply troubling thing for me even three decades later. But the Last Psychiatrist writes about these things in ways that completely absolve the woman of any guilt. And that, in a guy who insists that the ability to feel guilt rather than just shame is important, strikes me as odd.

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