Sunday, March 19, 2017


One of the best things about Sam Vaknin (among several) is his willingness to accept change.  His pivot-pole issue of narcissism changes over the years and he sees that, accommodates it.  But all along he has been aware that there IS an element of suffering and has wondered what would help.  Also, what people would pay money to find out.  His current solution is a system he calls “Cold Therapy,” which is actually a slightly more sophisticated version of the “talking cure.”  The idea is that revisiting the point of origin, and re-experiencing it, will provide the insight in order to change.  It works for some, but not for others.  Workshops for professionals are advertised online.

His idea is that in early childhood when we form our first categories and systems of thinking about the world, our “cosmic premise” (my phrase) we might get into a blind alley or maybe just don’t finish the process.  He proposes that one can finally stop being a child, which is a sort of definition of narcissism.  But he also proposes that a kind of re-enactment of the early trauma can be more than just talk, perhaps a little skit.  And he reminds us that this can be dangerous.

In another pre-ministerial group therapy situation I had begun to feel safe and welcome, though I was a newby and the others were at a later stage in their educations.  A little inflated and overconfident, I launched into some sort of narrative from the past.  The counsellor, this time a big Baptist black man with no identified syndromes, said, “You’re taking up too much time and space.”

Unexpectedly I fell completely apart, sobbing, out-of-control.  Only much later did I see it was a little version of a big trauma, exactly what Sam is talking about.  In my family and at school I was seen as someone who took too much space and time, that I should settle for much less attention.  The leader of this group had not planned this and was alarmed.  To him a prosperous white woman with a good education was unlikely to ever be rebuked.  She was always right.  Sam would say I was a revealed narcissist, who had been compensating for insecurity and feelings of worthlessness, and he would be right.

The next summer this counsellor hired me for the summer to be a secretary working under his other secretary, a young black woman whose opinion was that all white women were corrupt devils.  To her UUism was not a real religion anyway so I didn’t get points for seminary.  This was a familiar position to be in because of being on the reservation for a decade (as Bob used to say, Indians think all white people are crazy) and because a very mild version of this was my family’s idea of who I am.  You could say that all these people were demonstrating narcissism by imposing their categories on me.

Narcissism as a moral concept, like empathy, recently has expanded into something almost religious, a template for how one “ought” to be. Richard Grannon calls himself a “spartan life coach” but in his interview with Sam at he reveals himself as a type of youth group minister and the conversation soon uncovers many parallels between contemporary “online narcissist culture” (which is really about the victims, usually female, rather than the “narcs” as they call them) and polarized Christian categories.  As Grannon says, “They think of narcissism as a handsome young man driving a fine red sports car who tries to stop and pick them up for the purpose of screwing them over.”  This is so classic that Abraham might recognize it.  Except that in the Old Testament the narcissist tends to be a woman stripped for bathing where someone can see her.

Psych and religious categories and labels are simply attempts to understand something that is essentially opaque: the human connectome which we are only beginning to access as electrochemical and anatomical connections and processes.  It remains to be seen what impact this will eventually have, but right away I would challenge Vaknin’s idea that “empathy” (often misinterpreted as “pity” or “compassion”) is just a psychological concept.  I think he has not read about “mirror cells” and other secondary vicarious experiences of another person’s doings when presented visually, as in watching a performance or sport.  

In acting classes I’ve done exercises in “transference” in which one is face-to-face with another person and trying to get them to feel what you are feeling.  As you bring them closer to your state of mind, they will often unconsciously assume your posture and imitate your gestures.  If their brains and muscles are hitched up to instruments, this reflection can be seen in the electrochemical actions of the body.  You can “feel” this transference happening.

Vaknin, in trying to step away from the understanding of empathy as a kind of pity -- which is more technically “sympathy” and which easily devolves into what AA calls a “pity party” -- denies empathy of that sort.  He substitutes the term “cold” empathy for what I think correlates pretty closely with “theory of mind” which is the ability to predict what another being will do — not necessarily why or with insight into their motivation.  These near-adult cats in my house are pretty good at chasing each other because they can see what the pursued playmate is likely to do next.  It’s hunting skill knowledge.  Vaknin likes it because it is not “emotional” which is why he calls it “cold.” 

But human empathy is located in the prefrontal cortex — that’s where the mirror cells are.  The prefrontal cortex is also where rationality and morality “dwell.”  Cats don’t have prefrontal cortexes.  They have no foreheads, which is where the prefrontal cortex is just behind the bone, probably the development that pushed out the skull into becoming a forehead in the first place.  Cats operate on instinct and conditioning, an instinct to pursue, and experience in what and how to pursue.

Another thing a cat does not have — at least not in human dimensions — is a culture.  Another VERY interesting dimension of the talk between Richard Grannon and Vaknin is their awareness of the “culture” of narcissism victims, who reinforce each other and inflate the concept to the point of transforming it into a sort of religion, a source of righteousness and solidarity.  To me this relates both to the fervour of Trump fans and the reciprocating solidarity of hating and accusing him.  It also accounts for the obsession with literary “hoaxes” and “trespasses.”  

There begins to develop a sort of unifying theory that may grow into a new religion or a new source of political power.  Pretty scary stuff.  But some people think this is where evolution is taking us, deeper into empathy and grouping, because they contribute to survival.  But I'm startled to see that Grannon fans have started a competitive attack on Vaknin that is eliminating his presence on social media.  This is worth another post later.

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