The revelations of Jian Ghomeshi’s behavior have led to a complex public conversation about narcissism. Trevor Cole wrote an enlightening post offering his own hard-won understanding of narcissism. Gabor Maté added a developmental perspective and bravely owned up to his own misogynistic narcissistic parts as a way of broadening the debate from Jian to all of us. Most brave have been Lucy Decoutere, Reva Seth, Jim Hounslow, and the many other women and men who have spoken to the police and the media including social media about their experiences.
Now I will take my turn at being brave.
Nancy McWilliams (the therapist’s best friend when it comes to understanding character structure) offers this description of the internal experience of the narcissist.
The most grievous cost of narcissistic orientation is a stunted capacity to love. Despite the importance of other people to the equilibrium of a narcissistic person, his or her consuming need for reassurance about self-worth leaves no energy for others except in their function as selfobjects and narcissistic extensions. Hence narcissistic people send confusing messages to their friends and families: Their need for others is deep, but their love for them is shallow.
…Kernberg(1975) describes such polarities as opposite ego states, grandiose (all-good)versus depleted (all-bad) definitions of self, which are the only options narcissistic persons have for organizing their inner experience. The sense of being “good enough” is not one of their internal categories.
…Remorse about some personal error or injury includes an admission of defect, and gratitude for someone’s help acknowledges one’s need. Because the narcissistic person tries to build a positively valued sense of self on the illusion of not having failings and not being in need, he or she fears that the admission of guilt or dependency exposes something unacceptably shameful. Sincere apologies and heartfelt thanks, the behavioral expressions of remorse and gratitude, may thus be avoided or compromised in narcissistic people, to the great impoverishment of their relationships with others.
Psychoanalytic Diagnosis, 1st ed, Chapter 8, 1994, The Guilford Press
With others. And who are these others? These others who encounter people who cannot care for them? For some of us, it starts early. When a caregiver’s needs are strong and unreined, the child’s needs become subsumed as the child learns to work around their true self in order to survive. Alice Miller writes deeply on this in The Drama Of The Gifted Child. When we are in an intimate relationship with someone who cannot see us, we cannot see ourselves as ourselves. We have been carved out by the glorious person beside us whose needs are so great and whose ego is so fragile.
My experience of violence is imbued with an unconscious malleability to the needs of others that is unique to those who have learned to expertly work around narcissism (I believe this is many of us).
As I begin to put words to my personal experience I am writing against a flow of thoughts that go something like this, “it wasn’t rape…it wasn’t that bad…many women have had it worse…it was only one time.” When my clients speak like this I gently hold the great weight behind these rationalizations. I see the logical fallacies and I appreciate the reasons why they minimize much of their experience. But when I speak the same rationalizations they appear true. “I am the great exception. My experience should be discounted. It wasn’t that bad.” Outrage on my own behalf did not come naturally. It is this work that I and we are up against in speaking out against violence. We are up against our learned stance next to narcissism at the same time as we are up against narcissism itself. Each person who has spoken out about their experiences of assault has had to overcome the part of themselves that dismisses the importance of their own experience.
It wasn’t… It wasn’t… But it was this. About 25 bruises starting at my shoulders, down my torso and ending at my knees. An attuned part of me waits for you to catch your breath. Another part waits for you to click away. Even now I feel (I do not think or believe but I feel) guilty for not meeting his needs well enough that night. I was not a good enough lover. I was not sexually pleasing to this man. Seeing my words in print makes me physically sick. This is the position of the other next to the narcissist. It is this position we must fight, in ourselves. If there is hope in the ugliness of the past two weeks it is that we are helping each other into a new position in relationship to narcissistic cruelty.
And the internal talk continues. “Why bother sharing this? You are just being attention-seeking. Others have it so much worse. What is the point?” Good questions, all. But everyday Jian went on the radio telling us things. What he (or as we now learn his writers and producers) thought. My last memory of his presence on Q was a monologue so defiantly protective of women in the face of violence that I sat in my car and reveled in the feeling of safety. Speaking publicly is what this conversation is about. He spoke publicly. Now the women he assaulted speak publicly. And thank God for Elvira Kurt.
As we speak and are listened to we change. The structure of my self has been built through time with the teachers, therapists, colleagues, and loved ones who have talked with me. Who have spoken and who have listened. For years. And now there is the opportunity to continue to talk. To speak publicly about our experience and to say – it hurt, it mattered, it can’t continue. These voices see and are seen and take us into a new place in relationship to violence.
What is it like to be silent after being beaten? I can’t say. I cannot speak that. For if I could I would have spoken. I will end with the words of another woman, Tracey Emin. I was reminded of her relevance to this conversation by Nina White’s column this week. Emin writes about that ‘other’ position and she doesn’t paint it in pastels. In so doing she gives voice to the response to violence of all kinds that pulsates below much of our discourse. While my outrage has been unconscious until recently, this Tracey Emin print in my living room has sat there for years. Speaking silently. It reads:
Fighting For Love –
I know when the fighting starts – I know that I have Lost –
Every hole in my Body is bleeding – my nose my cunt –
My eyes Are red raw from all the tears –
I’m clutching my stomach, holding
Onto my Self – Trying to STOP my shit
From spilling onto the Floor – I am all
Wrapped up into in my own pathetic
Lonellyness – Desparate to feel Loved again
I can’t eat – I can’t sleep – my mind
Jumps from a grinding numbness to
Some crazy Fucked up out of control
Dog like hell
That’s how it is to live without LOVE.