Viewpoint: In defence of narcissism


Narcissism is reviled as a pathological state, but Mark Vernon argues that it may be necessary for our emotional survival.

In the early months of 1914, as war in Europe was brewing, a famous picture from an exhibition at the Royal Academy gripped the mind of Sigmund Freud.

It showed a street scene. Two policemen were holding up the traffic. In between the horses and carriages that filled the streets strolled two figures. A nanny and her charge, a young child. The infant was dressed in fine, fluffy clothes. The nanny carried its toys. The picture said: the world must stop so that the child might pass. It was entitled His Majesty the Baby.

Freud was writing one of his most important papers, On Narcissism. It explored the self-love with which human beings are born. It leads them to treat their primary carers - be they parents or nannies - as serfs to supply their every need.

Narcissism is a necessary form of love, Freud argued, because, as is now understood, human beings are born too early. A current theory in evolutionary biology suggests that we have to be born long before we are able to look after ourselves so that our oversized heads can navigate the birth canal. Dogs and cats, dolphins and apes, do not face such difficulties and so become independent relatively speedily.

As infants and then youths, we demand parental servitude not for weeks or months but years. His or Her Majesty the Baby.

Narcissism is, then, the first form of love we know and to us such self-love appears to perform miracles.

You feel thirst and scream. As if by magic, sweet milk falls onto your expectant tongue. You experience discomfort and moan. The wetness and chill disappear. You want to sleep. Warm sheets and blankets enfold you.

The whole of life seems to be for the infant - in a way, to be the infant. It and the world are one.

Observations of babies indicate that they are born primed to expect that the world will be at their beck and call. After only 15 hours, they can distinguish their mother's voice and prefer it to that of strangers. Similarly with mother's smell and face. Other experiments demonstrate that the infant is calmed by hearing recordings of its own cry, and becomes upset at the crying of other babies. They like to hear the sound of their own, or their mother's, voice.

This command-and-control mentality has been lent support by other ingenious research. In one experiment, an infant is trained in the delusion that it can turn music off and on. What happens is that when the infant is sucking, music turns off and on according to the rhythm of its sucking.

The child soon comes to assume that it can turn the music off and on by varying its sucking patterns. Only next, the experimenters turn the music off out of sync with the sucking. The sound fails to "obey" the child. The infant becomes distressed, crying and whimpering. His, or her, majesty has been defied.

Image caption Babies assume the world is at their beck and call

What you might call narcissistic concerns hover just beneath the surface for quite some time. Think of sibling rivalry, the hatred and rage that simmers between young brothers and sisters. In the hothouse of the family, there is a competition on for mum and dad's love.

I was recently at a friend's house, eating with his three kids. The youngest suddenly started to choke on a spaghetti ring. It wasn't serious, though enough to make us momentarily worried. However, the two elder brothers - lovely kids that they are - turned to their slightly distressed sibling and spontaneously started chanting: "Die, die, die!" Dad was shocked. But the kids, including the youngest, now recovered, started laughing, thinking it funny. Presumably it was relief that something usually repressed had been expressed.

Narcissism lodges itself very deep. It's rooted in the body. Jean Piaget noticed how one child solved the problem of opening the lid of a box only when it opened its mouth. Its own movement prompted the idea of how to open the box. In other words, the body provides our first template for the world. We assume that our body and the world are intimately connected.

Little wonder that in our language, bodily metaphors dominate. We digest ideas. We consume products. We routinely use expressions like "on the one hand" and "on the other hand". We say the love was sweet before the relationship went sour. We wring our hands in despair and stand tall when we feel proud.

And yet, the word narcissism carries ugly, disparaging connotations. My thesaurus lists vanity, conceit, self-importance and self-absorption. It's a shame in a way because primary narcissism, as Freud called the infant variety, is normal, healthy and good. Things go wrong psychologically for the young child when it does not feel the centre of attention. Without that comfort and protection, it comes to dwell in a state of perpetual fear and learns that life is a threat.

An infant must know that it's loved because only then can it trust the risky business of coming to love others. This first love resources us as life unfolds, bringing confidence and courage, spontaneity and drive, a sense of safety and of being grounded.

The nature of narcissism was explored in the ancient world too.

The myth of Narcissus, for example, tells of the beautiful young man whose problem was not that he loved himself but that he couldn't love himself. In the story, he catches sight of himself in the forest pool and becomes transfixed by the image the still water reflects back. However, as he came closer to the face, and the face came closer to him, it disappeared at the moment their lips might have touched. As he reached out to hold the statuesque body, the lovely form dissolved in ripples of water.

Ted Hughes brilliantly translates this crucial section in Ovid's Metamorphoses: "Not recognising himself/ He wanted only himself."

This child, then, had not learnt to know himself as he was, and know that he was loved as he was. He had not developed the kind of narcissism that allowed him to feel comfortable in his own skin, at ease with himself.

Aristotle picked up the theme, explaining that good self-love is vital for intimacy. For one thing, he noted, if you cannot befriend yourself, warts and all, then how can you possible expect to befriend anyone else, warts and all. After all, you are closer to yourself than anyone else. I remember myself as a teenager feeling anxious when meeting new people. Looking back, I can see now that the difficulty wasn't the new people. It was more that I was a stranger to myself.

What good self-love achieves, Aristotle continued, is the capacity to get over yourself. Then you are liberated to see that there's a world around you. You are not king or queen. Instead, you know you are one of many, and those many are there to love and be with, to be known by and to get to know. You have time for others because you do not need to have all the time for yourself. You are a delight to be with, having taken in the first love of your parents and now being able to live it yourself.

It's worth asking why narcissism carries such automatically negative associations today. It may have something to do with religious injunctions around the notion that it's better to give than to receive, though I suspect it's too easy just to blame religion. For one thing, the religious law is to love your neighbour as you love yourself. That is the mature understanding of self-love captured in a nutshell. Love others as if they were yourself, yes. But also, love yourself so that you can love others. Proper self-regard resources other-regard.

It's also striking that the word "altruism" - the opposite of selfish egoism - is only 100 years or so old. It was invented by the 19th Century sociologist, Auguste Comte. It was as if he felt the need to distinguish the good love of selflessness from the supposed bad love of selfishness and drive a binary opposition between them. It's a modern division.

The evidence, too, suggests this is a contemporary issue, witnessed by the way problems to do with self-esteem and self-image often appear in the psychologist's and psychotherapist's consulting room.

A seminal report was published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation about a decade ago. It showed that low self-esteem is a risk factor in cases of suicide, attempted suicide, depression, teenage pregnancy and bullying - major social problems that are all on the rise. Low self-esteem - or troubled narcissism - is not the only risk factor. But it looks like the crucial one.

Image caption Aristotle: "If you cannot befriend yourself, how can you befriend anyone else?"

Interestingly, the report shows that self-esteem does not vary that much between the genders: men preen themselves as much as women. Academic success or failure does not have a large impact either. Nor does socio-economic background or genes, or perhaps I should say selfish genes.

What the report clearly concludes is that the strongest influence upon self-esteem is the individual's parents. Approval and acceptance is vital - not a trivial acceptance, as if everything the child does is good and wonderful. That, too, is undermining because it's unbelievable. Rather, the kind of acceptance that builds good self-love is that which accepts warts and all, which means that the warts and all are acknowledged, and the person is still loved.

Perhaps our understanding of ourselves has become too individualistic, too mechanical. We worry about autonomy more than connection, about freedom over commitment, about individual rights more than the common good.

It's as if the default image that the Western mind has of itself is the billiard ball. We jostle and bounce off each other for fear of touching and holding one another. Could the wariness of the word narcissism be because our culture is secretly, unhealthily, narcissistic? That's why we retreat from the word.

Similarly, if being loveable is viewed as a possession or performance, and so a question of our image or success, then that would put a block on receiving and discovering love through receiving and discovering the love of another person.

The quest for the perfect body repeats Narcissus's fate in that it's absorbed with the image on the surface. It's caught at the level of the ephemeral and becomes stuck in the shallows. Such an individual cannot see the depths of another's soul because they have never gazed into the depths of their own soul.

The Rowntree report concludes that claims made for interventions that can solve problems of self-esteem should be viewed warily. Short-term interventions are particularly suspect. It takes time, like the time it takes to raise a human child. Also, the kind of self-love that enables human beings to flourish cannot be demanded or programmed. It must be given to us as a gift, like the mother who gives her child the capacity to love others by loving her child herself.

Such love is empty if it's not a personal exchange. Manualised attempts at therapy, the kind that teach exercises and procedures like telling yourself that you are lovable, lack the very quality that is most needed and desired. Relationship matters.

So there's no easy way out of this predicament, though perhaps a more careful analysis of self-love provides some insight and hope. The work of Freud and the psychotherapists who have developed and critiqued his insights and methods provides a key resource. The story of Narcissus does too.

Image caption In the Narcissus myth, the flower first grew where the young man fell

It appears to end badly. The beautiful young man realises that the image in the water is a reflection of himself. He then realises that he cannot break the habit. The only way out is to die.

But where the body of Narcissus had wasted away, a flower appears - a narcissus, a soft yellow bloom. What the myth suggests is that early narcissism must die and sink into the ground of our being where it can feed us like the soil does the flower. This happens when the young infant has a good enough parent. Our primary carers do at first comply with our illusion that we are His Majesty the Baby. But only so we can then take the risk to overcome the illusion.

Taking the risk to love others is the crucial step, perhaps second only to the risk of allowing others to love us. On the whole, it's worth it. It makes for life in all its fullness.

This piece is based on an edited version of Mark Vernon's Four Thought.