Narcissism -- or as we used to say, being self-centered -- comes in "varieties" as the experts are beginning to say. I want to discuss two kinds in this post: "justified narcissism" and "self-protective" narcissism.
All babies are self-centered because they can barely perceive what is outside their skins and have a hard time organizing what is inside their skin, things like digestion, circulation, and even breathing as crib deaths tragically demonstrate. To ask them to consider others is silly. But they do have an inchoate awareness of care providers and when they do begin to sense the world outside their skins, it is that developing and interacting relationship that shapes their brains. In fact, will probably determine whether their future will be able to reach far beyond their skins into abstract ideas and other life patterns.
But someone who has suffered grievous damage, either physical or emotional or the blend that makes us human, may also need to be narcissistic for a while.
What I'm calling here "justified" narcissism is a reference to a person who is capable of enormous achievement because of concentrating only on themselves and their work. Not only do they demand the time and support to do great things of value to everyone, they reserve the right to define what that is exactly and they demand that all others recognize and agree that it's worth sacrifice and neglect. I lived that out through a supporting role for years. It was true and worth it, and it made me crazy. No regrets. I grew to meet the challenges until they were just too much.
The joker in the pack is that the end result -- symphony, painting, play, architecture -- has to be worthy. Who decides that? Often the work at the peak is time-limited, maybe a decade. It's at the mercy of the larger society who may not approve or may not even know it exists. The rest of the joke is that the whole thing will be judged by money and only money. Most of the people who buy art think in terms of money, what the art is worth. That can go up and down overnight. How does a supporter know they are not wasting their time and effort?
The narcissistic achiever who needs the "narcissistic supply" (see Sam Vaknin) of what the market will bring needs a backup narcissistic supply of praise and service to keep his or her nerve, to keep working. Of course, I'm talking about Bob Scriver and I was perfectly suited to provide narcissistic praise for him. It was sincere. The rez will tell you I helped his career.
But I was the example of the narcissist as self-defense. A counselor once said to me, "It's as though you have NO defenses." I had read so much about all the ways people protect themselves psychologically -- usually presented as criticism and pathology -- and been so determined to evade them, that I was a hermit crab with no shell. So I borrowed Bob's. But he gave me no "narcissistic supply" -- who I was was no concern of his. He didn't really know why I was there and why I hung on. That was my protection: that he didn't try to figure me out or change me, just let me be a child. I paid no bills, I made no decisions or choices, I expressed no wants. I just did what my mother did: be faithful and supportive.
But HIS mother was also narcissistic as a child to keep herself sane. Her husband, Bob's father, had had a mother who was frail and his own mother's mother was dynamic but often seriously ill. Luckily Bob's mother's father was a big, warm, providing, sheltering man. Bob at his best was like his grandfather. At his worst he was like his mother. At his worst when things got really bad, he was dangerous to thwart.
My worst was to hide. Runaway. And Bob's mother at her best made him give me a vehicle. I stayed out on our little Two Medicine ranch that last winter and then went back to teaching. "Well," opined the administration, "Now THAT's over." It never really was. We didn't have the vocabulary or concepts for what really happened. By now he's been dead for twenty years and it's still not over. But there's space, some recovery, and even a bit of understanding.
This is where novels come from, but I'm finding that I don't want to write novels. I'm not saying I don't want to write fiction, but I don't want to rehearse over and over. That's the factor that makes people get so hung up on the authors instead of the novels. Maybe. The uncertainly of our changing world makes us want to see alternatives in stories.
This post used the concept of "narcissism" which is so popular right now, to show that being self-centered can mean survival, a legitimate self-defense that should not be removed without support and understanding. I also mention genetics, which have dominated many conversations in the past few years, influenced by our old rural ideas of breeding livestock and dogs. Our tendency to grab for one explanation and use it in every situation can be either helpful or an evasion of harder but more effective work.
Like our stigmatizing of emotion, while elevating "rationality" and tech, has shut out information we needed and has distorted our grasp of reality. Now the new way of looking at the interaction of body and thought systems confuses some and scares others. Our hierarchies of achievement are confused and our assumption that it is a good thing to ask for conformity is challenged.
Damasio introduces a new term he calls "valence," which in his definition is the overall feeling of "how'm I doin'?" and "how's that workin' out for you?" We hear those phrases. To feel one's "valence", or life satisfaction it is necessary to use every kind of understanding or to risk ramming your head in a corner. When "valence" is operational and dependable, people make good choices and are satisfied. It's not religion, but a religion that is a good fit can help sustain it. (My mother was the only church-goer in that generation. She quit when the church was dominated by social status.)
Families confused by new times, in conflict over the nature of success, inclined to stigmatize outsiders, will burden their children, but it's not hopeless. One is not confined to birth families. Listen to what people say. Map the territories where they are.