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  • Published at 11:34 pm January 25th, 2019

What you need to know about narcissism (or maybe you don’t)

In its plainest sense, ‘narcissism’ refers to self-love; and self-love is necessary for psychological well-being. That is primary narcissism, which denotes an acceptance of reality. 

There is a secondary narcissism, which is a withdrawal into the self in the face of a hostile environment, or a breakdown that results from failed nurturing. Secondary narcissism is therefore, not an acceptance of reality, but a departure from it.  

From a certain perspective, it is shame that stokes narcissism, both primary and secondary.  What, then, is shame?  Firstly, it is the fear of disgrace and the anxiety of the danger of being dishonoured; secondly, it is the effect of contempt directed against the self by others or one’s own conscience; thirdly, it is an overall character trait preventing any disgraceful exposure, an attitude of respect towards others and towards oneself. 

Shame, be it conscious or unconscious, is caused by a discrepancy between expectancy and realization: an inner or outer conflict. It is the polarity, the tension between how one wants to be seen and how one perceives oneself as being seen. Shame, the effect, arises when our self-respect is doubted or under attack, whether from the outside or from within. 

Each of us has, within ourselves, a partially conscious image of the way we want to be seen – the so called ego-ideal. The higher the ego-ideal’s demands for perfection, the easier it will be to fall into feelings of inferiority and shame.  The more ambitious or peremptory the ego ideal is narcissistic, the more painful are the wounds about failing, and the more pervasive is the narcissistic anxiety about yet more mortifications of such nature, At the same time radical narcissistic effects prevail like envy, spite, and rage dealing with such shame. 

There is the object pole, in front of whom one feels ashamed, and the subject pole, for what one feels ashamed. Shame avoidance and shame anxiety provide indirect motives for hypocrisy, which in its broadest sense is the strategy for resolving conflicts of interest, albeit one involving deception. The hypocrite’s dread of shame causes him or her to take drastic measures to avoid it, and shame provides a motive for immoral action without release from moral commitments. Heightened (secondary) narcissism compromises values and prompts the immoral action. 

In contrast, perfectionism in secondary narcissism is less related to morals and ideals - rather, it is an attempt by the individual to live up to a grandiose self-image in order to avoid humiliation and shame and the loss of admiration. The obsessive redoing characteristic of the perfectionist may be the way a narcissistic personality assures himself or herself continued contact with the “almost-perfect” self. 

The “tyranny of the shoulds” of the narcissistic perfectionist focuses on the self: “I should be perfect”. The failure to live up to the dictates of the “shoulds” evokes shame. In the case of jealousy, a jealous person’s self-esteem depends upon receiving love, or “narcissistic supplies” from the environment. As jealousy is regarded as a sign of weakness, the pain of jealousy is mixed with shame. Shame and jealousy fuel each other and give rise to more feelings of shame and jealousy and cause further feelings of inadequacy. 

In short, shame is a negative experience of the self it is an explosion of a momentary destruction of the self in acute self-denigration; narcissism is a positive experience of the self; it is the state of admiring oneself. Shame initiates or is created by narcissistic tendencies, or they may develop concurrently, but there can be little doubt that shame and narcissism are companions, consorts, and counterparts.

Chintamoni grew up in Dhaka, where she will always belong, but never quite fit in. She is an enthusiastic traveller, a compulsive procrastinator, and a contumelious raconteur.