Before I start, I must give credit where credit is due. My understanding of identity and narcissism comes mainly from The Last Psychiatrist. If there is one internet rabbit hole you go down it should be his blog. It won’t be fun, but it sure is important.
This post is a personal attempt to summarize everything that I’ve learned about identity and narcissism over the past few years. In a way, this is really me taking notes as a student of Alone (the author of The Last Psychiatrist) since I’ve found it difficult to comprehend what he was getting at in many of his posts even if I felt like his analysis was spot-on. I could tell that his analysis was based on some conceptual framework that he developed from his years studying and practicing as a psychiatrist. My goal here is to outline this framework as comprehensively as possible so as to help others understand his work better. Think of this post as a companion or primer to his blog.
Why did The Last Psychiatrist dedicate his entire blog to the topic of Narcissism as opposed to depression or some other psychiatric disorder? Why am I taking so much of my time to write about Narcissism when I could be doing any number of far more enjoyable things?
Narcissism is Widely Misunderstood
The general public equates narcissism with grandiosity, vanity, and an excessive need for attention. The DSM-V does the same thing but in more formal, psychiatric prose:
The World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10) has pretty much the same definition:
And while Narcissism can manifest these symptoms, this definition does nothing to articulate the cause or most important characteristics that define the illness. It feels a lot like someone cobbled together a bunch of symptoms and associations, named it after a Greek myth, and stuck it in the DSM.
There’s also the psychoanalytic definition, as given to us by Google:
Again, wrong. Narcissism is not self-centeredness, even if it can cause self-centered behavior. Narcissism does result in a failure to distinguish self from other, but again, the failure to distinguish is not a cause, it’s an effect. You can start out by defining an illness by its symptoms, but if you really want to address the root of the problem, you have to understand what is causing the symptoms.
So what is Narcissism, then? It’s quite simple. Narcissism is fitting the data to the model. More on this in the next section.
The Last Psychiatrist gives a great example of a case where Narcissism doesn’t result in grandiosity or self-centered behavior, but is still Narcissism none the less:
Imagine a crowded subway, and a beautiful woman gets on. Hyper-beautiful, the kind of woman who can wear no makeup, a parka, earmuffs and a bulky scarf and that somehow makes her look even prettier. A handsome man about her age in an expensive suit gets up and says, “please, take my seat.” She smiles, and hastily sits down.
What happened? Raise your hand if you think this is a sexually motivated act, i.e. Christian Grey isn’t so delusional that he assumes she’s going to have sex with him, but in a Hail Mary, longshot kind of way it’s worth the price of standing for three stops.
Now raise your hand if you think he was just being nice — he would have done it for any woman. Huh. Really? Then why was he sitting at all?
But why does the woman think she got the seat? Does she think, “the only reason he gave me his seat is because the Hail Mary is worth the price of standing for three stops?” Or does she think, “no, come on, he was just being nice.”
We can’t be certain why Hugo Boss gave up his seat. But if the woman picked b, we know something about her: she sees the world as intrinsically nice, it’s a place where random kindness exists and hence must be a reflection on the physics of the world, not her specifically — “New Yorkers are so nice!” she says, and she actually believes it.
In other words: the goodness is in him, not in her.
If you think of narcissism as grandiosity you miss the nuances, e.g. in her case the problem is narcissism without any grandiosity: she is so consumed with her identity (as not pretty) that she is not able to read, to empathize with, other people’s feelings. She doesn’t care to try because it conflicts with how she sees herself. Ergo: Giorgio Armani was just being nice.
Narcissism is widespread
This is a point that The Last Psychiatrist makes consistently. When analyzing ads, he almost always identifies the target demographic as the aspirational 14%, the class of people below the top 1%, and describes them as such:
Those people have the unique problem of too much freedom, too much money (which is to say they are still living paycheck to paycheck, but only because they are spending it all on keeping up the identity), too many options and, most importantly, nothing to define them.
— From Why We Love Sociopaths
If the media is a mirror, it follows that we can understand how the target demographic thinks just by looking at what they watch and listen to. And what is getting played over the airwaves is increasingly aspirational content (our product makes you this person), as opposed to inspirational content (go buy our product), which indicates an sharp uptick in narcissistic worldviews among the target demo.
Narcissism Causes Harm
In the process of forcing the data to fit the model, the narcissist will prioritize the maintenance of their identity over the well-being of those around them. This is not a conscious process, either, which is what makes it almost impossible for the patient to recognize in themselves and treat.
Narcissism occurs when the subject in question tries to force his or her environment to be congruent with their identity instead of updating their identity when new information comes in. In other words, Narcissism is fitting the data to the model instead of the model to the data. For a more in-depth explanation, see here, here, here, here, and here.
This process of fitting the data to the model instead of the model to the data requires lots of energy and a wide variety of techniques which are known as Narcissistic Defenses. These include irony (see here, here), projection, gaslighting, avoidance, misinterpretation, and if all else fails, violence (see here, here, here, here, here, and here).
In the process of exercising these Narcissistic Defenses, the subject in question will often hurt others around them. When they are exposed for their wrong-doings, they will feel shame and rage, both of which are reactions to the exposure of their wrong-doings as opposed to the act of the wrong-doing itself. Noticeably absent are feelings of guilt, which should occur following the act, or anger. Guilt and anger are replaced by shame and rage.
You and the World
There are two models that we develop throughout our lives — a model of the world and a model of ourselves. Our model of the world helps us act in the world, predict what will happen and plan accordingly. Our model of ourselves helps us make decisions, predict future behavior, and plan based on our tendencies, preferences and abilities. The environment plays two roles here. The first, as the object of our observation as we develop a model of the world, and the second, as a mirror we use when developing a model of ourselves.
We use both models in order to determine the boundary between self and other. When we think an internal phenomenon is coming from outside, it’s called projection. When we think an external phenomenon is happening inside our heads, it’s called gaslighting. A boundary in this context is the implicit separation that occurs when you place phenomena in the “coming from you” or “coming from other” categories, not a line that you explicitly draw between you and your environment.
The Story of Echo and Narcissus
In the story, Narcissus’s parents received the prophesy, “He will have a long life, if he never knows himself” when he was born.
And so when Narcissus’s parents heard the requirements for their child’s long life… they would have done everything possible to ensure that he didn’t know himself.
No one knows what Liriope and Cephisus did, but whatever they did, it worked: he didn’t even recognize his own reflection. That’s a man who doesn’t know himself. That’s a man who never had to look at himself from the outside.
How do you make a child know himself? You surround him with mirrors. “This is what everyone else sees when you do what you do. This is who everyone thinks you are.”
You cause him to be tested: this is the kind of person you are, you are good at this but not that. This other person is better than you at this, but not better than you at that. These are the limits by which you are defined. Narcissus was never allowed to meet real danger, glory, struggle, honor, success, failure; only artificial versions manipulated by his parents. He was never allowed to ask, “am I a coward? Am I a fool?” To ensure his boring longevity his parents wouldn’t have wanted a definite answer in either direction.
He was allowed to live in a world of speculation, of fantasy, of “someday” and “what if”. He never had to hear “too bad”, “too little” and “too late.”
When you want a child to become something — you first teach him how to master his impulses, how to live with frustration. But when a temptation arose Narcissus’s parents either let him have it or hid it from him so he wouldn’t be tempted, so they wouldn’t have to tell him no. They didn’t teach him how to resist temptation, how to deal with lack. And they most certainly didn’t teach him how NOT to want what he couldn’t have. They didn’t teach him how to want.
The Story of Echo and Narcissus is the fallout of the parents’ efforts to prevent Narcissus from ever knowing himself. This story illustrates the purest form of narcissism. Narcissus had such a poor understanding of himself that he didn’t even recognize his own reflection. He literally (and figuratively) didn’t know who he was.
So why did Narcissus turn out the way he did? More broadly, what happens (or doesn’t happen) between age 0 and now that pushes someone towards or away from narcissism?
When you’re young you don’t know much about yourself. A lot of times you can only guess how you’d react to a certain situation because you’ve never been in any situation like it. This guess is what we’ll call a “stopgap identity” — stopgap because it’s meant to be replaced as soon as something more concrete is available. Stopgap identities are meant to be replaced with an evidence-based identity based off your observations, experiences, and interactions with the world once said evidence becomes available.
A person’s identity as a whole can be thought of as a patchwork combination of stopgap identities and evidence-based identities. When you’re young, your quilt starts out as mostly stopgap patches. As you grow older, these stopgap patches should slowly be replaced with evidence-based patches as you gain more experience and learn more about yourself.
The process of ripping out a stopgap patch and replacing it with an evidence-based patch is painful. It takes a fair amount of time and energy, too.
Issues arise when this process of replacing stopgap patches with evidence-based patches is slowed down or halted. This happens when someone is unable or unwilling to collect the evidence necessary to create an evidence-based patch to replace a stopgap patch. The longer a stopgap patch stays on the quilt, the less willing someone is to give it up and the harder they will fight to keep it. This is how narcissism develops. Eventually the person reaches a point where they will force the evidence to conform to their stopgap patch instead of collecting evidence in order to replace to stopgap patch.
Narcissism occurs on a spectrum. On one extreme is Narcissus whose identity was all stopgap patches; on the other extreme is someone whose entire identity is evidence-based patches. Most people lie in between and are narcissistic to a degree. When you’re young, you’ll have a lot of stopgap but also a high turnover rate. As you get older, your identity should slowly become more evidence-based and your turnover rate will decrease. If too much of someone’s identity is stopgap and the turnover rate from stopgap to evidence-based is too low, that’s when people start getting hurt.
When The Last Psychiatrist calls someone a narcissist, he’s saying that either a) your identity has too many stopgap patches and/or b) your turnover rate is too low. Usually they come hand in hand. If you’re young, you have time to increase your turnover rate, but it’ll be painful. If you’re too old and your identity has too many stopgap patches, there isn’t enough time left to swap them out for evidence-based patches. At that point, the best you can do is minimize damage by “faking it”.
This process of replacing the top-down portions of your identity with something based on evidence can be seen as the process of learning about yourself while dealing with the demands of life. Your identity (i.e. model of self) and your model of your environment are the two main inputs into your decision-making process, and you need to decide in order to act. When you’re young, you don’t have very much data to work with, but you still need an identity in order to act, so you just come up with something as a stopgap solution until you have more evidence. As you gather more experience, you can start replacing the stopgap portions of your identity with something based off of the data you’ve collected and continue to refine this with data you collect later. If, for whatever reason, you never manage to replace the stopgap portions of your identity, a vicious, self-reinforcing cycle will emerge whereby you expend energy in order to these portions of your identity (which necessarily involves avoiding, misinterpreting, or destroying anything that contradicts this identity), skewing your data set and further reinforcing your stopgap identity which was only meant to be temporary.
Stopgap patches and evidence-based patches have different properties as well. Stopgap patches are subjective and defined in relation to others (e.g. I’m a good friend), while evidence-based patches are objective descriptions of ability, preference, and tendencies (e.g. I can run a five minute mile). See here and here for a more detailed explanation.
Oh, The Possibilities!
Narcissus was never allowed to meet real danger, glory, struggle, honor, success, failure; only artificial versions manipulated by his parents. He was never allowed to ask, “am I a coward? Am I a fool?” To ensure his boring longevity his parents wouldn’t have wanted a definite answer in either direction.
Narcissus was never given a chance to collect data about himself which is why his identity remained a bunch of stopgap patches well into adulthood.
What did Narcissus do when he saw something beautiful in that pool? He fantasized and dreamed all the different possibilities of that person, all the things that person could be to him. He didn’t stay there for years because the reflection had pretty hair. He stayed because daydreaming takes a lot of time.
Narcissus did not recognize himself at first when he started at the pool of water, but once he realized he was staring at his own reflection, he still sat there until he wasted away. What was so alluring about his reflection that made him sit there for so long?
He was going through all the possibilities about who he could be, and in his case, he had an infinite number of possibilities to daydream about. His upbringing gave him no data on himself, and as a result, his whole identity was untethered from the constraints of evidence and free to roam in the realm of possibility. He could choose to be whoever he wanted to be because he had no evidence to the contrary. When you’re young and don’t know much about yourself, the possibilities about who you are and could be are endless.
Developing identity is about eliminating possibilities. If you don’t, you end up like Narcissus, doomed to endlessly trying on new identities because he never really learned who he was.
You think Narcissus was so in love with himself that he couldn’t love anyone else. But that’s not what happened, the story clearly tells it in the reverse: he never loved anyone and then he fell in love with himself. Do you see? Because he never loved anyone, he fell in love with himself. That was Narcissus’s punishment.
And why did never love anyone else? Because the person you choose to love tells you something about yourself, and Narcissus was trying to avoid learning about himself at all costs. By not choosing to love someone else, by not gathering data on himself, he could continue to imagine who he could be indefinitely.
Sidenote: Borderline Personality Disorder
Borderline Personality Disorder is closely related to narcissism in that they both stem from the same root cause, a lack of data on self. In the case of narcissism, the person adopts an identity and tries to make the world congruent to this identity. In the case of Borderline Personality Disorder, the person never adopts or develops any kind of lasting identity but relies on others (usually one other person) to give them an identity. The narcissist will fight to the death to protect the identity he or she has adopted. The Borderline, on the other hand, changes out identities as easily as he or she changing clothes. Both are pathological and stem from the same cause but manifest and distinctly ways.
So if the DSM-V missed the mark with their definition of Narcissism, how does one actually go about diagnosing the condition?
I have no clinical experience, but my guess is the diagnosis process centers around identifying Narcissistic defense mechanisms. Narcissism forces the data to be congruent to the model, which is an uphill battle that never ends because there’s always new information out there that can threaten the congruence you’ve worked so hard to maintain. Narcissistic defense mechanisms are ways that people subconsciously (or unconsciously) avoid, change, or destroy incongruent information.
Irony (Defense Mechanism)
Irony is used when your identity is incongruent with your actions. It allows you to distance your identity from your actions, to think of yourself in one way while participating in something that clearly contradicts your chosen identity.
…in exchange for this self-defense, [irony] puts all of the ironist’s energy in the service of the thing it is defending against; that while he affects a distance from “all this”, he participates 100% in it.
Irony is relatively straightforward to detect in your own behavior and others’ behavior. It is a telltale sign of an incongruence between the person’s actions and their identity, which may be a temporary coping mechanism or (if it goes on too long) a sign of Narcissism.
Projection (Defense Mechanism)
Projection occurs when you misattribute an internal phenomenon as coming from outside. The best example of this is the die-hard Christian who hates gays but is secretly gay himself. The gayness is the internal phenomenon that he thinks is coming from other people, and in the process of suppressing it, he starts hating “the gays”.
To use the frequent example of “homophobia”: a guy feels gay impulses and can’t “handle it” but he doesn’t get rid of them by putting them onto someone else, he confuses them as coming from someone else. He smells gayness, “Where is it coming from? Me? Impossible! Jesus washed my feet. Must be that guy.” Sorry, wildman, whoever smelt it dealt it. Projection is the most primitive of defenses, circa age 2, and the description should make it clear it is a narcissistic defense: one’s perception of the world is inextricably, concretely the result of one’s inner states. There is no “objectivity” possible.
The purpose of projection is not to get rid of the feelings, but to explain their presence, to defend the self against a label: “I’m not gay….. even if I have gay sex once in a while.” The point isn’t to avoid gay sex, the gayness isn’t intolerable to them — e.g. observe the high hat Christians caught in various rest stops across our land — but even though they’ve committed the act, it doesn’t affect their identity.
Projection happens when your model of yourself is underdeveloped. In the example I just gave, the secretly-gay Christian didn’t know that he was gay which is why he started suspecting that the gayness was coming from somewhere else. An underdeveloped model of yourself is another way of saying that you don’t have enough evidence-based patches in your quilt, and not having enough evidence-based patches in your quilt is indicative of Narcissism.
Gaslighting is the opposite of projection. Projection is the mistaking of an internal phenomenon as coming from outside. Gaslighting is the mistaking of an external phenomenon as coming from within. The classic example of gaslighting occurs in the film Gaslight, when the main character manages to convince his wife that the flickering lights and footsteps she hears are actually occurring in her head. She starts to believe that she is descending into insanity when, in actuality, he is stealing her stuff from the attic.
Usually the term is used in the context of someone gaslighting someone else, but it is possible to get gaslighted without the intervention of a nefarious party.
Imagine a girl goes to a summer camp that is 95% boys and 5% girls. At the camp, she gets an insane amount of attention from the boys and she concludes that she must’ve hit her growth spurt and suddenly become much more attractive. When she goes back to school, the attention suddenly disappears and she realizes that the attention was the product of the skewed gender ration as opposed to her increase in innate beauty. In this example, she gaslighted herself by misattributing the increased attention to her increased attractiveness instead of the skewed gender ratio.
Projection usually occurs because of a lack of self-understanding. Gaslighting, on the other hand, is usually a result of a lack of understanding about the world (not enough data, not enough variety in the data) and resolves itself once enough data comes in. If someone continuously has a problem with gaslighting, it may be a sign that they have not collected enough data in general or are avoiding the collection effort, both of which are possible signs of Narcissism.
Avoidance (Defense Mechanism)
Avoidance in this context is specifically entails avoiding situations that could yield unwanted information. For example, if something believes they are the most athletic person in a gym, avoidance (as a narcissistic defense mechanism) would mean never putting themselves in a situation where they would have to test this hypothesis. No head to head competition, no public displays of athleticism, and certainly no seeking out stronger and more athletic people.
Misinterpretation (Defense Mechanism)
Misinterpretation as a narcissistic defense mechanism is used when unwanted information is unavoidable. The idea is that if you have to encounter it, you can still misinterpret it in order to keep it congruent with your identity. Misinterpretation is a subconscious act that is difficult to catch yourself doing but easy for other people to see since other people have no incentive to misinterpret information to fit your identity.
The Last Psychiatrist often points out that people don’t understand his message because they subconsciously misinterpret the message to be congruent with their identity. In most cases, this means that the readers misinterpret his message to mean that others are Narcissistic (not them) when he is really saying the they are Narcissistic.
Violence (Defense Mechanism)
Violence is the last resort defense mechanism when someone’s stopgap identity is backed into a corner. When this person has tried all other defense mechanisms but still cannot avoid the incongruent information, they are faced with two choices: give up their stopgap identity entirely, or lash out violently in a last-ditch attempt to repel the information that threatens their identity. The first is painful, takes a long time, and requires you to admit fault; the second, by contrast, is a quick short-term solution that does not require nearly the time or energy commitment.
Violence in this context is not limited to physical violence. It encompasses verbal attacks, emotional manipulation, gaslighting, and any other act that seeks to hurt someone else. This is how narcissists end up hurting those around them, and this is why narcissism is an important pathology to study.
Rage over Anger
What is the difference between rage and anger? Like many other emotional counterparts that are difficult to tell apart and often mistaken for each other (e.g. shame and guilt, jealousy and envy), they do actually describe different things. Rage is not an extreme form of anger. Anger can be triggered from frustration or offense, when something (or someone) frustrates you excessively or offends you in some way. Rage is triggered by a perceived threat to identity (read: stopgap identity). Both are aggressive emotions that lead to violence, but the difference is in the trigger.
Narcissism is closely tied to rage because it requires such careful maintenance of one’s stopgap identity. The amount of energy expended in maintaining identity and the number of possible threats to this identity make rage an inevitable occurrence.
Shame over Guilt
Shame is a universal emotion. People feel shame when they are exposed for doing something that others think is wrong or bad. Someone feels guilt when they’ve done something that they know is wrong. In the case of narcissism, there is a noticeable lack of guilt because, in the narcissists mind, the only wrong is that which contradicts their stopgap identity, and since they are always looking to force the world to conform with their identity, they can do no wrong. All shame and no guilt is the sign of an Enslaved God, a superego enslaved by the Id to always rule in its favor.
When Nietzsche said “God is dead” he meant that God is not necessary for our morality anymore. When he says we killed God, he means that our science, skepticism, education, have pushed us past the point where believing in miracles is possible; but as a consequence of this loss we are lost, have no goals, no aspirations, no values. God was made up, but he gave us a reason to progress.
The resulting nihilism requires us to either despair, return back to medieval religion, or look deeper within us and find a new source of human values.
Yet… none of those things happened.
The post-modern twist is that we didn’t kill God after all: we enslaved him. Instead of completely abandoning God or taking a leap of faith back to the “mystery” of God; instead of those opposite choices, God has been kept around as a manservant to the Id. We accept a “morality” exists but secretly retain the right of exception: “yes, but in this case…”
Overreaction to Slights and Fixation
Overreaction to slights often ends in violence, but not always. This overreaction as it appears to others is a reaction of proper magnitude when seen from the Narcissistic’s point of view. The Narcissistic views the slight as a real threat to their identity which they’ve worked so hard to maintain. Everyone else views the slight as possibly insulting or irritating or uncalled for but definitely not a threat to them in any way. These overreactions are easy to see as an outsider but far trickier to gauge as the person who is overreacting.
Fixation is another outside observation that seems completely reasonable to the person who is doing the fixating. Narcissists fixate on certain, seemingly arbitrary things (like white pumps) because they play a role in maintaining their identity. In the example the Last Psychiatrist gives, someone might insist that their wife wear white pumps not because he thinks of himself as the type of person who would be with a woman who wears white pumps. Messing with these fixations will likely lead to an overreaction and possibly violence.
The Last Psychiatrist’s view on treating Narcissism is that the outcome depends entirely upon the intention. Any treatment that is pursued for self-interested reasons is the Narcissism at work trying to prove that they, in fact, aren’t a Narcissist, or that they are a Narcissist but are working on improving. The issue here is not whether they accurately described themselves, the issue is the fixation on identity.
According to The Last Psychiatrist, treatment is only possible when the patient recognizes that their actions are hurting those around them and wants to stop this from happening. The role of the psychiatrist is to help someone with the right intentions reach their goal; otherwise, the psychiatrist and the patient will be engaged in an endless charade that does nothing and only serves to reinforce the patient’s pre-conceived identity.
“But I want to change, I want to get better.”
Narcissism says: I, me. Never you, them.
No one ever asks me, ever, “I think I’m a narcissist, and I’m worried I’m hurting my family.” No one ever asks me, “I think I’m too controlling, I’m trying to subtly manipulate my girlfriend not to notice other people’s qualities.” No one ever, ever, ever asks me, “I am often consumed by irrational rage, I am unable to feel guilt, only shame, and when I am caught, found out, exposed, I try to break down those around me so they feel worse than I do, so they are too miserable to look down on me.”
If that was what they asked, I would tell them them change is within grasp. But.
— from Can Narcissism Be Cured?
“Help me, please, I think I’m a narcissist. What do I do?”
There are a hundred correct answers, yet all of them useless, all of them will fail precisely because you want to hear them.
There’s only one that’s universally effective, I’ve said it before and no one liked it. This is step 1: fake it.
You’ll say: but this isn’t a treatment, this doesn’t make a real change in me, this isn’t going to make me less of a narcissist if I’m faking!
All of those answers are the narcissism talking. All of those answers miss the point: your treatment isn’t for you, it’s for everyone else.
If you do not understand this, repeat step 1.
— from The Other Ego Epidemic
The conventional methods for treating Narcissism (after you’ve been diagnosed using the DSM-V criteria) include psychotherapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, medication, and a whole list of other less common therapies (mayo clinic, healthline).
But, as we discussed previously, the effectiveness of any of these treatments is contingent on the patient’s motives. If the patient genuinely wants to stop hurting those around them, it might work, but otherwise, the best doctor and the best techniques won’t do anything.
Now, assuming you have the right intention, treatment is relatively straightforward.
Narcissistic severity is measured by a) what percentage of your identity is stopgap vs evidence based, b) how slowly you are transitioning stopgap patches to evidence-based patches, and c) how “past due” the stopgap patches are. “Past due” in this context means how long ago the stopgap patch should’ve been replaced with an evidence-based patch.
The key to treating Narcissism is to replace stopgap patches with evidence-based patches and increase the rate at which this replacement is occurring. In order to replace stopgap-based patches with evidence-based patches, you need evidence, which is another way of saying you need experience interacting with the world.
The solution here is to replace your identity with a schedule of activities that you follow diligently. The activities in this schedule must be activities that directly relate to your stopgap patches. For example, if you believe that you’re a creative person but never had the opportunity to nurture your creative side, you could dedicate three hours a week to painting in this schedule. Three hours a week of painting for a year is one way to actually test the idea that you are a creative person. If, several weeks in, you say, “well, I don’t think painting is my thing” but you still think of yourself as a creative person, find another creative activity to do. The idea here is to go out and test your stopgap patches as much as possible. In the process you’ll learn more about yourself and be able to slowly transition your stopgap patches to evidence-based patches.
The real benefit of a schedule of activities is that it shifts you from an “I am” mindset, where everything you do is done to support your identity, to an “I do” mindset where your identity is based on what you do. The reversal here is the solution to the Narcissistic reversal of fitting the data to the model. You can think of the “I am” mindset as collecting evidence that agrees with your model (identity) while the “I do” mindset is collecting evidence to build your model (identity) on.
The Last Psychiatrist’s solution is even simpler: fake it. By “fake it”, he means pretend to be the type of person who doesn’t hurt the people around them. You’re pretending to be someone right now, so how hard is it to pretend to be someone else?
Instead of trying to stop playing a role — again, a move whose aim is your happiness — try playing a different role whose aim is someone else’s happiness. Why not play the part of the happy husband of three kids? Why not pretend to be devoted to your family to the exclusion of other things? Why not play the part of the man who isn’t tempted to sleep with the woman at the airport bar?
“But that’s dishonest, I’d be lying to myself.” Your kids will not know to ask: so?
— from Can Narcissism Be Cured?
The difference between the activity schedule solution and the “fake it” solution is the timeline. If you don’t have the time to completely redo your entire life (e.g. 40yr old father of two), then you need to do damage control right now and fake it. This solution channels the Narcissism in a direction that doesn’t hurt others but doesn’t get rid of the underlying condition.
The activity schedule solution takes a long time to implement. You have to undo years of Narcissistic thought processes and then rebuild from the ground up. This does get rid of the underlying condition, but it takes a long time, time that many people don’t have. If you’re lucky enough to have this time, start now.
Narcissism and Media
“But I had really good parents!”
Sorry, Leonidas, you were simply outnumbered.
The best of parents can’t beat the overwhelming influence of everyone else, of everyone else’s parents, of TV, of journalism — of a culture that says, “well of course! The old ideas were wrong, we know so much more now! We are touching up the last pages of history, from now on things are different…”
18 years of the best parenting still can’t beat the morality lesson at the end of an 80s sitcom, presented as if it were a fundamental truth, known to all, incontrovertible.
Earlier I asked the question, “what happens (or doesn’t happen) between age 0 and now that pushes someone towards or away from narcissism?” Part of answer here lies in the media that people consume growing up and that adults consume after work.
Media nowadays is aspirational, not inspirational. Aspirational means it makes you want to be somebody and inspirational means it makes you want to do something. Ads used to make you want to go out and buy the product, now they make you want to be a certain kind of person who, by coincidence, is the type of person who would buy that product. See here for a more on advertising.
The more time someone spends in front of the TV, the less time they spend interacting with the outside world and learning about themselves. As The Last Psychiatrist points out, the best parenting in the world won’t do much if the kid spends four hours a day in front of the TV.
TV is the modern day equivalent of Narcissus’s pond. Instead of interacting with the world and learning about themselves when they grew up, children spend most of their time in front of a TV where the content is aspirational in nature and the possibilities about who you could be are endless. What are you left with, then, at age 18, after countless hours of TV and not enough everything else? Someone with a weak to non-existent understanding of themselves whose brain is filled with stopgap identities they absorbed from the TV. The next ten or twenty years becomes either one long string of Narcissistic Defenses (likely spent in front of a screen), or, if they’re lucky, a painfully accelerated journey of learning about themselves where they have to make up for a decade of lost time.
Note: When I talk about TV, this also includes YouTube, TikTok, or any other TV-like medium.
Watching TV after work is a form of procrastination. It allows the person watching TV to put off interacting with the outside world, which would inevitably provide them with unpleasant information that runs contrary to identities they were given by TV. Essentially, they get to continually stare at their reflection in the pond (now: screen) and dream about who they could be instead of going out and finding out who they really are.
I’ll conclude this section with The Last Psychiatrist’s observation about Don Draper in Mad Men:
That’s what we envy in Don Draper. That he can exist as himself without ironic detachment, that he can be defined as something. And what they are and what they do match up perfectly, even if it’s “bad.” The truth you must face, now, immediately, is that if you were put in Draper’s clothes, in his relationships, in his job, you yourself would immediately affect that cynical detachment: “A partners’ meeting? What for? Come on, I see you guys in the hallways all the time” and you’d be as miserable as you are now. But until you accept this truth about yourself, you’ll think changing other things could save you.
— From Why We Love Sociopaths
How Narcissism is Exploited
The formula for exploiting Narcissism is straightforward: provide an identity for someone to adopt, associate whatever you’re trying to sell with said identity, and watch as said people buy what you’re trying to sell as they seek to reinforce the identity you gave them.
This process (as far as I understand) is not being masterminded by a single person or organization. Rather, it is a natural result of capitalist and governmental organizations seeking to sell things and keep everything running.
What is being sold this way? College, paying taxes, beer, cars, restaurants, and writing for the New York Times for free, just to name a few things. Anything can be sold this way and most things are, especially things that are advertised through print or digital media.
So not only does Narcissism hurt the people around you, it also leaves you vulnerable to exploitation by organizations who want your time, energy and money. The funny thing is that you’ll think that you’re the one who wanted what you want, but the reality is you were taught what to want, and now you’re a battery in the Matrix.
Don’t worry about who you are or what you could be, worry about what you do and what you will do. Other people decide who you are, you decide what you do.