[The Clinic] : The Myth of Individual Pathology (Or the Social Conditions for a Flourishing Narcissism)

There is not one simple psychological explanation for what we are witnessing in this country. We are complex people and a complex nation, and there are no facile psychological explanations that we can attribute to one person. On a basic level, we are a people who have increasingly grown further away from one another as a community and have largely become alienated from any type of work that feels meaningful and life-sustaining.

Freud posited that all of us are born into a state of “primary narcissism,” meaning essentially that we come into this world unaware of ourselves as separate from other objects and people. So, for example, an infant does not recognize that its hand is separate from, say mother or father’s face. There is an “oceanic oneness” of sorts where there is no separation between the self and other. This is narcissism—the inability to identify and acknowledge difference between oneself and others. In this original state of oceanic oneness—the infant wants for nothing and perceives all of its wants and needs as magically met. With the institution of language and the development of the ego, the infant recognizes its own distinctness, leading to tremendous separation anxiety as, in a sense, to be a separate being means being ripped away from such a blissful state of unity. Recognizing oneself as separate necessarily brings with it a sense of limitation and finitude that is inherently anxiety-provoking.

Freud posited that such feelings are brought to a crescendo during the Oedipal conflict as the child attempts to overcome separation anxiety by returning to the original state of perceived unity. (Please, let me just crawl back into the womb!) When the Oedipal conflict is successfully navigated, the child is able to experience the anxiety entailed in separating, accepts its limited nature, and overcomes primary narcissism by turning toward objects and people outside of oneself. When unsuccessful, the child compulsively attempts to return to the original state of oceanic oneness, which is, of course, an impossibility. This attempt at return may take many forms, but always involves a rejection of others, a rigid positing of oneself as the only and “right” way of being, and a resulting elaborate defensive system that attacks anyone and anything perceived as a challenge or threat to one’s identity. In quite literal terms, pathological narcissism instates life as a battle of survival: It’s me or you to the death. Your existence as different than mine means death for me; therefore, I must prevail at all costs. Many factors play into the success of the Oedipal struggle, but of utmost importance is that the child feels as though there are people and things in the world that make the break--and the accompanying anxiety--worth it.

Narcissism is therefore limited by one’s social and libidinal ties with other people as well as by the constitution of the ego ideal, or what one hopes to become or achieve in the world. In short, the desire to return to the original state is supplanted by a desire for relationships with other people and for work in the world that one believes will be impactful. In psychoanalysis, this is the capacity for love and work. However, if cultural conditions are such that meaningful relations with others and the attainment of a realistic ego ideal are impeded or simply not available, then attempts to revert to a state of narcissism may occur as the individual strives to overcome separation anxiety by simply pulling inward (there is only me)—unyielding self-identification (narcissism) being preferable to the painful recognition of the inevitable gap that will always exist between people. When there is little in the social world to make the gap more bearable, we see a stubborn hunkering down in the self rather than an open, active engagement with the community.

Thus, on a cultural level, nostalgic calls for a “return” to what once was and to “make America great again” point to a lack of opportunity in our social fabric for engaged work and relationships. People feel disenfranchised and alienated, and there is thus a sort of cultural narcissism that occurs because the very things that allow for an overcoming of such narcissism are no longer readily available to us. People feel distant from one another as our sense of community and solidarity has faltered and work often feels ungratifying as we are divorced further and further from the products of our labor. We have lost connection to one another and to our own creative capacities. People feel powerless, unimportant, and as if they have no way of effecting change upon the world or in their own lives. Given this cultural landscape, is it any wonder that we turn inward and seek a return to an imaginary place where all needs were seemingly magically met, where there was no gap between you and me, where we were the center of the world? Is it any wonder that we seek a paternal, authoritarian figure to tell us what to do, to take away the anxiety we feel? Social psychology experiments such as the Milgram experiment have repeatedly upheld this desire for an authority figure to simply tell us what to do, so great is our anxiety.

In many ways, this is where we find ourselves at present, and it is precisely the platform on which 45 ran. He promised to take care of us, to get rid of all of the “bad” things that plague us, to return us to this blissful imaginary place. And many, lacking real life resources, tired of the entrenched establishment, anxious about the future, bought into this fantasy. But, such oneness is just that—a fantasy—and there is no one person that can save us from the work necessary to grow into a place where one accepts difference, engages with the world through expressive work, and develops the capacity for love.

Our current predicament is not the result of one man—he is but the symptom of a cultural and societal landscape that has emphasized the individual at the expense of community and economics at the expense of human values. Cut off from such things, we seek someone to make it better, but the promise of a “return” will always fail, as illusions eventually do. Growth is not a return to a past where womxn, immigrants, minorities and those who are not “the same” have no rights—this is our own cultural narcissism and our own fear. Growth is acceptance of our separateness, while paradoxically acknowledging our need for one another as a human species. It is an overcoming of our anxieties via love and creative work rather than through one person promising to save us all. This is not achieved by simply “pulling oneself up by the boot straps,” but rather by responsibly creating a society that provides significant connections and offers all people the chance for gratifying work. No one person can create this. It is the responsibility of us all as citizens to create such communities and to cease to believe that all of our needs and wants will be miraculously met by another. This means acknowledging the struggles of all human beings, not just those like ourselves.

We seem to have forgotten how to treat one another with the most basic of respect. Though difficult, we must try to remember that we are all, in one form or another, trying to make sense of this human experience. We clash and frequently disagree, but hatred cannot be the answer or else we have failed as a human species. We must recognize the paradoxical truth that our shared humanity lies in the differences among us and that—in the very act of such recognition—lies human dignity. This must be the foundation upon which we move forward lest the quicksand swallow us whole. We are better together.