The most recent book

Symington, a new theory

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Saying No to life 
Creeping out of the cocoon 

Neveille Symington, Narcissism, a New Theory,
Karnac Books, London 1993


There are many theories about narcissism. Symington maintains the existing theories are not valid. He develops a new one which integrates parts of the other theories.

In the chapter "A Bird's Eye View", we saw a line of thinking partly derived from Symington's book. Sigmund Freud made the start, taking a drive as being the cause of narcissism. Melanie Klein also took a drive as a source, but more specifically a phobia, the fear of that drive. Since Anna Freud, one views a trauma as the source, or at any rate as a reason or immediate cause. 

A trauma is the experiencing of a shock, something for which one is - usually still a young child - not prepared or able to cope. A cumulative trauma, i.e. a series of traumas, may also be viewed as the reason. The standard example, for the very young child, is being left by the mother.  But also a cold, unresponsive or a very depressive mother may have the same consequence. A cumulative trauma may also be caused by war, an illness, a flight or famine. 

Anyone who views a trauma directly as the cause thinks in a deterministic way. In that view, narcissism is inevitable and so in fact not curable. However, clinical experience offers another experience: a trauma does not work as automatically. Children, human beings, are able to recover. 

It is the reaction of the child to the trauma which starts narcissism. The child has a choice, albeit an unconscious one. As Anna Freud saw, some children become depressive or otherwise neurotic, other children wait or choose their thumb or a teddy bear as compensation. The latter children are still accessible for contact, they only timely withdraw. 

Because it is a choice on the unconscious level, there is a way back, also on the unconscious level, for instance in fantasy or dreams. The latter are not empty gestures, but emotional acts of the inner self in an adequate language: the analogue one. We don't see the choice itself, which is unconscious. We see only the results. 

The choice of the young child may be a necessary defense, a method to survive. Later, if the situation is better, another choice may be possible. Or if the situation is bad, the individual's personality may have grown stronger. Especially in a crisis, the hidden self can come to light and ask to be seen and accepted. So, a crisis is a chance to abandon the narcissistic mentality.

These are the ideas of Symington. Narcissism is a fundamental choice made early on as a reaction to a trauma. That choice made, many things can go wrong. Narcissism is the basis for many other psychical problems. Everybody has some narcissistic characteristicst, but nearly no one recognizes it, at least not within one's self. The latter is characteristic of the narcissistic mentality. It is a way of viewing and interpreting events.

Having made the narcissistic choice, the ego is split into:

an 'ideal ego', the grandiose self, which is conscious and must be maintained at any cost, 

and the hidden self, which is unconscious and must be hidden at any cost. One projects this self onto other people. This happens frequently, for instance in scapegoating.

The problem is that the trauma, as a trauma, is made invisible. One speaks about it, but standoffishly. To detect the trauma, one has to first break through the defense. One should not so much look for the facts, but rather for the feelings concerning the facts. One should recognize the traumas as being traumas. Then, one is able to find another emotional response. As the first response was unconscious, often the new one will also be unconscious. The language can be the language of dreams and fantasies, for these are psychical and emotional acts done in analogue language.


A deep-rooted ontological uncertainty.

A lack of spontaneity, initiative, self-activity and creativity, sometimes also vitality. This is because there is no longer a connection with the authentic inner self. 

A standoffish attitude, frequently rationalizing and projecting - whatever goes wrong is always caused by external forces of which one believes to be a victim.

A resolute denial that something may be wrong in the inner self, especially denial or unawareness of any characteristic of narcissism.

Manipulation of other people. This can damage the social environment. If one is a key figure, one may make the whole organization or nation narcissistic.

One does not have real and deeply felt relationships, but one also cannot live without other people. Other people must constantly confirm the person.

The person is egocentric, this is, concentrating on and viewing and interpreting things from  one's own perspective. This does not imply that the person is also egoistic. On the contrary, one can look and act very altruistic. In that case, the altruistic ego is the ideal-ego. 

There are frequently scapegoats in the social environment of the narcissist. They must bear the hidden child as a projection.

The last mentioned characteristics are different from autism, which is the most serious form of narcissism. Autistic people don't need other people anymore. They don't fight; they stay passive.

In fact, 'normal narcissism' does not exist, although there are gradations. Children can have narcissistic periods or characteristics, but parents can help them to overcome these. 

What is sometimes termed 'positive narcissism', is really not positive; it is the twin of negative narcissism. They are sides of the same coin. It depends on what the person hides. People are able to suppress also their positive characteristics, for example their sensitivity.

The characteristic egocentrism may give rise to confusion. It means that the the attention is called to oneself, and that one looks to the world and experiences it from that perspective. Typically narcissistic are feelings such as self-pity or, rather, self-admiration. 

According to Lewis (1988), egoism is different. It means that one gives attention to the world, but selects the best of it for oneself. It can not be said that narcissists are egoistic, rather they are egocentric and the outward form of it, the fašade, can look quite altruistic. They are very active on behalf of fellow humans, the country or the church, the destitute or abused child, or humanity - well, they really are 'the great saviors' of all of that,  or so they think.

Most people ask themselves at first how they will be able to be loved, instead of asking themselves how they could reach the ability to love.

Erich Fromm, quoted by Diekstra 2002

Symington uses, through his whole book, Anna Karenin (Tolstoy 1986) as an example. At the end, this woman is obsessed by the question if her husband loves her. In the background, there is the typically narcissistic feeling nobody loves me. However, she never actively took pains to be lovable. In contrast to Miriam, who actively cared for her garden. Anna wanted to consume passively, like Cassius did. In both cases it lead to suicide: doing so, a real living existence is not possible.

Many people are desperately searching for a soul brother or sister. [...]  Their attitude is like the plea: 'When will I ultimately find the one who will be my true love?'
In this approach to love, we see the narcissism of our era: 'When will I ultimately get what I need for my growth and satisfaction?'

Thomas Moore 2001, italics by me.

Saying No to life

"Say Yes to life" is a famous Dutch song. The caring parents or their substitutes invite the child to do so. The caregivers have life-giving forces: procreation, food, relationship, care, trust, a world which invites and attracts. If the young child says Yes  to this, it has also a force to live, vitality as an inner force.

"The stranger who gives us the greatest challenge is life itself, the soul, the face and the source of vitality."

"No wonder that we look double at life: we want to welcome it, but we also prefer to keep it outdoors."

Thomas Moore, 2001, respectively pp 35 & 37 

Symington calls this force "the life giver". This is, if accepted, an inner object, the inner acceptance of and turning to life.

Symington compares this force with friendship: it is present as an inner force as soon as one starts it, as soon as one wants it, chooses it. Even longing for it is an inner force that is able to stir a lot of things.

The crux of narcissism is that the young child reacts to a trauma by, unconsciously but as a far-reaching choice, saying no to that vital force around him, and so to the vital force within himself. In this sense, narcissism and early depression are the same phenomena. Doing so, the child says also no to the life-giving forces around him; the child returns into itself, into an envelope. Around this envelope, there grows a protecting cover - or, as I say sometimes, a blanket. Others speak of a cocoon, a fortress or an ivory tower with sturdy walls. 

The child does so as a reaction to a shock, in order to survive. But in order to survive, a child has to enter into, more or less, relationships with its environment. Thus, the whole ego does not shut itself off from the environment, but only a part of the ego does so, the deepest inner self. The other part of the ego enters relationships with people, but not the cut-off inner self. Thus, the ego is neither authentic nor autonomous; rather, it is discordant, a fašade. Thus, the ego is split into the I, the true but hidden I, and the self, the grandiose image, an illusion.

Maybe our narcissism is partly a symptomatic effort to repair a strongly impaired contact with our inner self.
Thomas Moore, 2001, p. 55

The task of this part of the ego is to maintain this situation, this splitting or alienation, and to hide this from the person himself. Doing so, the person locks up him or her self, blocks him or her self from his or her own inner kernel. So, the narcissistic personality is only apparently a unity; underneath is a deep discord of double being. This has to kept hidden, also to oneself.

The fašade of the grandiose self has to be maintained. Because this fašade is not genuine, one needs constant confirmation by others. However, this confirmation is not a confirmation of the real inner self, as such it only lasts for a short time. Thus, one continually needs confirmation.

A crisis can reactivate that feeling of double being  - and so provide a way out of it. But because this, a narcissist avoids any confrontation, and so is not really open to other humans.

The inner child is in its cocoon and keeps rejecting the vital forces. So, it does not develop itself. In that sense, the cocoon, which is so defended, is in fact a vacuum, a self without a vital principle. One should not notice this, just like Narcissus should not know himself. If one does know himself, the I desires to free itself out of its cocoon, and the narcissism will break. A narcissist will prevent this. Especially the spontaneous and affectionate child, the hidden child that was forbidden to speak - and that still is not allowed to speak. A narcissist does not want to hear his inner child, he or she only wants to hear the grandiose self, the fašade. 

 However, that hidden inner child is and keeps being the kernel of the person, of his aims and acts. This hidden inner self is still able to draw other parts of the personality and other people into its refusal of life's energy and into the hiding of the real I. 

Symington describes an example, the little 'Oedipus', the little boy or girl who wants to possess the mother, or the father respectively, for him- or herself as a love object,  and who wants to prohibit his or her parents from sleeping together. Doing so, the child says no to life, to new life, to a new sibling - the child says no to life's force itself. We know that this little Oedipus also impedes his or her own development - read my essay about Oedipal rumble.

This fašade is tricky. It may look very altruistic - or scholarly, or otherwise beautiful. This fašade is a real pitfall for a treatment process, especially if treatment concerns conditioning and changing behavior. But even if it concerns a real therapy, the patient can easily copy the ideas of the therapist into his fašade. Both therapist and patient are content, but be aware that shortly after ending the treatment, new problems will arise.

This is because the inner emotional I still hostile stays in its cocoon and acts from there. "Many of us", says Symington, come out of psychotherapy [...] still suffering from severe narcissistic disorders. Sometimes such disorders are crippling" (p. 9). "None of us is free from narcissism, and one of the fundamental aspects of the condition is that it blinds us to self-knowledge. [...] Really to recognize narcissism in oneself is profoundly distressing" (p. 10). Nevertheless, everybody will experience these kinds of problems and choices in life.  

Real change is only possible on a deeper level - usually on the unconscious level, so one only sees the results. The crux is to change an unconsciously made choice. This is not possible until one really sees one's self, just like Narcissus noticed that he saw his mirror image and so became conscious of his situation. "When people begin to grasp the narcissistic elements in themselves, these elements will already be losing their hold" (p. 61). Narcissism is a mentality, albeit an unconscious and projected one. As soon as one sees and recognizes it and lets it go, it disappears and one cannot see it anymore. Then, one's way of looking will change. One cannot change the facts of one's life. One can change the way one looks at these facts. As the view of one's life changes, one's biography changes, and thus one's life changes.

Creeping out of the cocoon

Sometimes, a fellow human will be able to entice someone out of the cocoon. In that case, it is important to accept those people as they are. Others say: accept their shadow side. In my dissertation, I call it "Making contact with the person, including his 'dark side' as a person in a shared living situation. Then: recognize, acknowledge and try to accept that shadow side and give it room" and allow for it in the way you act toward that individual. It's the same and a real therapist doesn't do anything else.

A treatment with behavior modification techniques does just the opposite (See my "Helping persons..." article). One patches up the fašade and leaves the cocoon undisturbed. The I that lives there has to stay there. To say it in the terms of my dream: that kind of treatment does not take the elephant out of the cage, but props up the gate and makes a noise barrier. The behavior can be changed, but the inner world is not changed, but only more hidden.

There is a kind of demon who is able to do this, or at least can start the process: a new trauma, shock or crisis. In a crisis, the fašade can break down - a painful process because all illusions and the whole foundation of one's life will crash.

 "Such a crisis can lead to a review of one's existence, and this can end in a fundamental change of one's attitude to life [...]"
Korteweg e.a., 1996, p. 15.

For example a divorce, when the self-image 'I am a mature, successful and married man' crashes. That is the reason for much resistance. But that crash gives room for the hidden inner child in its cocoon. He wants to be free, just as the elephant in my dreams.

There is also a little demon or wizard who is able to create a change: a less drastic event in daily life or a confrontation with oneself or with another human in a therapy process. On the basis of less drastic events, one maybe dares to realize something consciously. The crux is to recognize an illusion as an illusion. This is easier for small events than for more radical events. The grandiose fašade, the wall, breaks down stone by stone. If a great illusion breaks down, then everything is gone. One has completely to learn looking in a new way - one is as a child again, and especially a narcissist will avoid this strongly. To recognize a small illusion can be the start of the bigger project.

The first thing to do is to no longer avoid the pain, but to feel it. Pain is necessary to recover. Painkillers don't work here, or at least they do not cure. Rather, they will prevent healing. One has to go to the bottom of the pit. "It was crucial that he had reached rock-bottom," says Symington discussing an example (p. 92).

Feeling the pain may not be avoided in a therapy process. The therapist, so says Symington, should not comfort the patient. Also, only listening and mirroring is not enough; one should also confront the patient with the therapist's views and feelings. Such a confrontation can be painful but healing.

Symington gives an example of how difficult such a therapy can be for the therapist. In the example, the patient gradually hates the therapist. It's not easy to look at this as a sign of recovery. After all, the patient recognizes an authentic, albeit a projected, feeling and the patient views the other as being another person. This is an act of the psyche, by which one views oneself and the other no longer as grandiose and infallible God or emperor, but as a real person. This is the first step out of the cocoon, the first breakdown of illusions. 

What happens then is painful but fruitful. The real I, the hidden part of the personality, comes out of its cocoon. From then on, acting authentically, real creativity and real relationships from the inside are possible.

Cassius did not dare this. He did not utilize the crisis. He chose to maintain his illusions, staying passive in life, gathering virtual fruits and sleeping with his virtual nymph, instead of starting a real life-giving relationship and cultivating life-giving food with his hands in Miriam's garden. Until the next crisis came. He did not survive it; he was too late. He should have utilized the first crisis.

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