Tuesday, August 18, 2015



Leon Seltzer, a psychologist and lit crit, is a self-appointed expert on narcissism. Imagine that. Someone linked to twitter a recent article of his in Psychology Today announcing six “traits” of narcissists that he claims aren’t listed in the DSM. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/evolution-the-self

When I was writing about Bob Scriver, it was obvious to consider him a narcissist, so I read a great deal of material on the subject. Did I miss something? I was curious. It’s one of my most productive narcissisms.

Here are Seltzer’s six behaviors of narcissists
  1. over-reaction to criticism
  2. low self-esteem
  3. self-righteous and defensive
  4. react to contrary viewpoints with anger or rage
  5. project onto others qualities, traits and behaviors they can’t accept in themselves
  6. poor interpersonal boundaries

In fact that last prompts him to lump together narcissism with borderline personality. The article is all negative, quotes only himself, and provides no data nor suggestions for how to either cure these monsters or just live with them. It reads like a dossier for divorce.


Let me reframe the same list:
  1. Tightly focussed on internalized standards of his or her own.
  2. Has very high goals, hard to meet.
  3. Doesn’t let others interfere
  4. Passionate, emotional
  5. Thinks other people are like him or her
  6. Highly empathic

Seltzer has a little kernel story that he applies as though he were a lit crit looking for the key to an author’s work. It’s the script a baby forms before it can talk, about the way the world works. If this version happens to fit the culture at the time and place, as was presented by Erikson in his books about Luther and Gandhi, the author will be very well-received and praised. Campbell’s hero-cycle is an example of a kernel story that still works well.

Seltzer’s kernel describes a flawed genius who is tough and self-serving on the outside, but in pain and vulnerable on the inside. It’s a great plan for seduction: “you and only you can heal this wound and if I were healed, I would be amazingly famous and owe it all to you.” Lovers and therapists — what’s the diff? Possibly the level of achievement of the narcissist, ie whether they can afford the bill. If that person turns out to win prizes and admiration, the helper can claim the hidden credit and justify the cost, which is a sort of narcissism, isn’t it? If the genius falls short, then they were grandiose narcissists, and the helper bought a pig in a poke.

One of my posts that is often visited by others is about obstinate defiance disorders, first defined in children. It amounts to people who won’t do what you tell them to do, not that different from people who resist your advice, help, and — face it — control. “For their own good.” Perhaps the real maladjustment is that of people who insist on correcting everyone else, a kind of authoritarianism.

Closely related in these authorities is a hatred of secrecy on grounds that they are entitled to have all the facts in order to protect everyone. They need control, which is related to advertising, the prescribing of material goods to meet social standards, particularly goods or services (like counseling) that are about presentation, like toothpaste.

“Borderline” IMHO is a junk category meaning “I can’t figure them out.” When I asked for help in understanding why I didn’t fit expectations, this was the diagnosis I got. The better counselors, a male/female set who managed a group of people reflecting on their call to the ministry, said frankly that they were both “borderline” which is why they were psychologists instead of ministers, who are more openly and universally prescriptive. Seltzer didn’t come to this conclusion, but ought to have.

I wouldn’t spend more time on him, since he’s only a writer in a soft-psych pop-mag, except that I think this point of view is very much welcomed by a culture that gender-assigns ideal achievement in a way that casts all men as narcissists, driven to achieve at any cost to themselves and others, and all women as therapists, always feeling around for some wound they can address — often caused in the first place by mothers trying to shape their children. The women don’t go to a professional to change their own behavior so much as they are looking for an ally in a marital turf war in which the territory is the guy’s level of achievement.

This was more intense when marriage was expected to endure. Nowadays, people are relatively willing to just admit the relationship is a bad fit and go find another setting. Or at least they were until the economics turned bad. Even when there were a lot of opportunities for individuals, leaving a marriage on grounds that the partner was a narcissist who wouldn’t share the relationship is a bit of a narcissistic thing to do, isn’t it?


Maybe narcissism is not always so bad, the narcissism of the helper in the end being self-protective if the passion of the defense against control becomes violent. And what about the children, who are naturally supposed to be narcissists and who hope for empathy from parents until it is withdrawn as part of maturation — taking off the training wheels and letting the kids pedal their own bikes.

Early in my own struggles, I found it helpful to reverse the “take” on what was happening. Which one was the bull-headed insister on his or her own way? Which one needed their own achievement? Which was being the secondary helper with her or his own hidden agenda. There’s something covert about being only the modest helper. It’s not always easy to tell what’s going on, though monitoring one’s own level of emotion is always helpful.

In one culture the man might automatically be the grandiose, inflated, egomaniacal seizer of the resources. In another it might be the woman. And sometimes it is the children. Or one assigned sibling may be supposed to fulfill the narcissistic wishes of the whole family. If that genius falls short, the attacks from the “helpers” can be merciless. Some people only know how to “help” through punishing anything that doesn’t meet their expectations, which may have developed under quite different circumstances.


If “deep reading” rich literature is always an opportunity for analysis, so is analysis by lit crits or even therapists just as legitimate to analyze. Dr. Seltzer claims to be a “humanist,” which from the point of those who love God is a form of narcissism, a “nice” way of saying atheist. Now that we know the consequences of the anthropocene, it seems toxically grandiose to make humans the standard.

Anyway, it is not the truly impoverished, abused, oppressed and stigmatized who seek the services of a Del Mar, California, psychologist with literary interests. Rather it is the privileged achievers who are used to being entitled and can’t stand the frustration of challenge who will come seeking advice that lets them define troublemakers as weak losers, wounded people with low self-esteem. Then all they need is a lawyer.


1 comment:

lee woo said...

Self-awareness is not self-centeredness, and spirituality is not narcissism. 'Know thyself' is not a narcissistic pursuit. See the link below for more info.