Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Narcissism and Resistance

By Steven Pressfield | Published: November 7, 2012

I’m aware that there’s an official definition of narcissism in the Psychiatric Handbook. The following is my unofficial definition—and a theory of how narcissism comes about in the first place.

Narcissus

It's not incurable

Narcissism is self-iconization. To control our internal terror, insecurity, etc., one mode of coping is to erect an icon in our minds. This icon might be a mentor, a role model, a guru. It might be a lover or a parent, a teacher, a coach. I’ve done it. We’ve all done it. Sometimes it’s healthy. It’s a stage in the progression toward independence and self-command.

When we set someone up as an icon, we say to ourselves, “Well, I might not be able to handle my life by myself, but X is really strong and smart and brave. X can guide me.” That’s the iconization of others.

Narcissism is when we iconize ourselves.

We decide (unconsciously) that we are the center of the universe. In our minds–and in our closets, our garages, and our bank accounts–we begin erecting an edifice of adoration for this new god, ourselves.

We convince ourselves that we are smarter, prettier, meaner, cooler, hipper, etc. than anyone else (or at least that we’re smart enough, pretty enough, and mean enough to handle any problem.)

In a way, this mechanism is healthy. In its benign form it’s simply self-confidence. And it’s often true that the narcissist’s beliefs about herself are valid, within reason. Often the narcissist is indeed brave, smart, strong, savvy, and so forth.

What is really happening inside the narcissist?

What’s happening is Resistance. On some level, usually unconscious, the individual knows that he possesses a unique and special gift. He is potentially great at something, and that something is very, very important to him. He is also terrified of the effort, the pain, and the exposure to failure that he knows are necessary if he is to realize his gift. How to protect himself from becoming aware of this terror—and thus of experiencing his own shame at his failure to confront it?

One answer is self-iconization. The individual makes the leap in imagination to the realized person he would be if he had confronted his terror, self-sabotage, self-doubt, etc.—and decides that he is that person already.

It’s not really accurate, in my opinion, to label someone a narcissist. Rather, narcissism is a solution that a terrified person takes in the face of the fear of realizing his dreams.

Narcissism works. I’ve lived it myself, for many years. Narcissism doesn’t have to be arrogance or excessive self-regard. We can live it out as an addict or as a “beautiful loser.” We can self-iconize as a nerd, a geek, an early adapter, a goth, a mook, you name it.

If narcissism didn’t work, there wouldn’t be X gazillion people relying on it every minute of their lives.

The problem comes when other people enter the equation. Because the narcissist needs so desperately to believe in the idealized version of herself, she insists that others buy-in to this vision as well. They must defer. They must assume a role. Have you ever felt like a bit player in somebody else’s movie? The “star” is the narcissist.

If the narcissist is a parent, she may recruit her children to play supporting roles in the movie of her own wonderfulness (or geekiness or trekkie-ness, or whatever). There is a word for this. It’s called child abuse.

The other problem with narcissism as a solution to Resistance is that narcissism is very brittle. The tower is made of glass. The narcissist can be hysterical in defense of this edifice.

What can save the narcissist? Is there a way forward?

The answer, in my opinion, is to turn pro. I’m speaking from experience. Shuck the bullshit and the games and the clever manipulation of others via charm, threat, etc. Release all supporting cast members, stunt personnel, bit players and extras. Drop out of the fake movie and start facing the Second Act Problems in the real film of your life.

The greatest description I’ve ever read of a Turning Pro moment is the one from Rosanne Cash’s memoir, Composed. Here’s the short version:

I had awakened from the morphine sleep of success into the life of an artist.

Narcissism is not incurable. It’s not an irreversible condition. We can awaken from it if we’re willing to pay the price.

[Here's the full version of Rosanne Cash's moment.]

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

21 Responses to “Narcissism and Resistance”

  1. Basilis
    November 7, 2012 at 1:22 am

    Eight years ago I talk with a well known writer of my country who told me in a part of our dialogue “Nobody (in the editing world) is waiting for you”.

    He surely knew better than me about the publishing process and the Narcissism part of the writer.

    From the other hand, if you don’t believe that you are doing something you will not go much further to your goals.

    Narcissism, resistance, self believe, where are the limits of them. Which is which and what in every occasion I don’t know.

    So I’ll just work and shut up!

    I guess somewhere in there the meaning “Pro” is found!

    • Basilis
      November 7, 2012 at 6:49 am

      Sorry, a small correction: “Nobody (in the publishing world) is waiting for you”.

    • November 7, 2012 at 3:58 pm

      Don’t be concerned with the correction…. keep working and keep moving. Those who quit will NEVER reach their objectives.

      • Basilis
        November 8, 2012 at 7:59 am

        ;-)

    • November 8, 2012 at 5:01 pm

      Hello Basilis! I don’t need to correct anything on your post. YES! YES! YES!

  2. Rolim
    November 7, 2012 at 3:49 am

    Cool! Thank you a lot!

  3. November 7, 2012 at 8:40 am

    Would it be fair to say that to overcome narcissism, one needs to take a good look in the mirror?
    Sorry. Couldn’t resist.

  4. November 7, 2012 at 8:42 am

    This is the only site I frequent where the comments can be as insightful and helpful as the post–nice job everyone.

    I sometimes feel like a narcissist because of the focus required to complete a project. I’ll have blinders on to everything except the book, the book, the book, and that can easily slide into what the book needs from me, me, me.

    In this case it is narcissism in the selfish sense, which might fall in line with “Saying No” and “No More Mr. Nice Guy.” Maybe?

  5. Sonja
    November 7, 2012 at 10:49 am

    Wow! This is powerful. How easily we delude ourselves with so many shiny little tricks, when all it really turns out to be is another form of Resistance.

    Thank you so much Steven. I’ve been spinning my wheels, but now it’s back to the life of an artist (and back to work).

  6. November 7, 2012 at 2:20 pm

    Wonderful post.

  7. November 7, 2012 at 3:22 pm

    I know its root is fear, but not all ‘narcissists’ face that. Good for you for turning pro. If one’s parent is a ‘narcissist’ & the best way to break free from their abuse is to label their parent a ‘narcissist,’ I say label ‘em.

  8. Mary Jo Coyne
    November 7, 2012 at 7:05 pm

    Great post.

  9. November 7, 2012 at 7:13 pm

    Another good piece, Steven! Don’t you think many people, as they age and mature, simply drop the bullshit as a natural process? Let’s face it: It takes a lot more energy to pretend than to be real.

  10. Vijay
    November 7, 2012 at 7:25 pm

    Nice one!

  11. November 8, 2012 at 10:10 am

    In some ways, reading Rosanne Cash’s excerpt also shook me. I think my form of narcissism used to be that I wanted to be thought of as “nice,” no matter what. I even wanted that—without being aware of it—at the expense of my art. It took a long, expensive, and painful lesson (called “grad school”) to drop that bullshit. I’m poor now, but happier for the lesson.

  12. November 8, 2012 at 5:10 pm

    I really needed to read that today! WOW! It’s so ironic I love irony–I get a guttural laugh on that. I am actress/writer and I am writing a play on Egoistic Growth and Social Justice and It never fails that, if you listen to your heart, you must transform along with the art you channel. I try so hard to avoid this at times.
    I am laughing still at this. Confounding and beautiful! I have read A LOT of your books PRESSFIELD! THANK YOU! Laura

  13. November 9, 2012 at 7:11 am

    I read a lot of The Last Psychiatrist’s blog, and he talks a lot about narcissism. It’s great to see how similar, yet different both writers are in their analysis.

  14. November 9, 2012 at 6:37 pm

    FYI Narcissism is being taken out of the DSM5 in May 2013……that’s one way to respond to the narcissism…..

  15. November 14, 2012 at 1:03 pm

    This is excellent. Really good meat. Love it. Thanks!

  16. Janis
    November 24, 2012 at 12:51 pm

    It’s weird — I’ve seen Resistance take the guise of narcissism in some other ways as well. “I can’t do the work needed to realize what I’m put on this Earth to do because XYZ needs me.” My husband, my kids, my family, my job … Aren’t we just Oh So Central to all of these other edifices, who of course just CAN’T get along without the one and only us, that we don’t dare start off on our own path. HowEVER will those other creatures do without us? I mean, they’re all so incompetent and helpless that they’re fall off a cliff without us! The Earth itself needs me to wake up every morning and give it a push in order to keep spinning — I can’t shirk from that by going off and following MY dreams!

    Resistance can keep us from doing what we’re supposed to be doing by pumping a load of sunshine up our asses about how very indispensable we are to everyone else in our current unfulfilled state, to. And it’s a load of rot. It’s an insult when we use others as convenient bullshit excuses to keep from living the life we’re meant to live.