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.
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.]