A conversation with Jungian analyst and psychotherapist Monika Wikman
Today, we ask Dr. Monika Wikman, psychotherapist and Jungian analyst, to speak about her insights into the deep layers of the psyche and offer her penetrating understanding of the problem of narcissism as it manifests in the personal realm and the world at large. In a culture saturated with provocations for self-aggrandizement, which often seems to value braggadocio over humility, individualism over communal good, most of us have experienced narcissistic harm, with others and within ourselves. As Dr. Wikman points out, the risk of harm is not only to ourselves, but to the planet, which suffers from our withering capacity for empathy.
With compassion, depth, and skill, Dr. Wikman opens new vistas for healing old narcissistic wounds.
In simple terms, we can think of narcissism as a protective, adaptive defense against feeling unloved, unworthy, unseen, not of value, invisible, ineffective/impotent, rejected, abandoned, or empty. Narcissism may be nature’s way of creating another kind of strength when the developing self is challenged.
An analogy might be how scar tissue forms around surgery sites or broken bones. On the one hand, the new tough tissue may seem like a new kind of strength, but in reality, the adaptation limits the flow of life. The growth of scar tissue restricts the flow of blood and creates stiffness and loss of flexibility, although it does bring protection from further injury. This process mirrors narcissistic adaptations in which one’s character can become constricted, stiff, and rote, distorting the shape of one’s life. A “narcissistic feed,” (the need to be admired and feel superior) dominates the interpersonal relationships in the narcissist’s world. The individual unconsciously and part consciously uses relationships to affirm the value of the grandiose self, this false self.
Often there is a great shine and charisma to parts of the narcissist’s personality. When the split between the false public self and the shamed rejected self is fortified, the narcissist feels “afloat,” “looking good.” Praise bolsters a sense of self, but the shadow aspects of personality and the unworked trauma that underlie it remain split.
The rejected self is buried deep in the shadow where unconscious feelings of unworthiness, self-doubt, shame, and psychic pain fester. Often those who live with a narcissist feel the effects of the splitting in disturbing ways. Parts of self the narcissist disowns may come to roost in the psyche of the other. Thus, feeling unloved, unseen, devalued, or used is common for children or partners of a person deeply caught in this narcissistic pattern. The lack of relatedness among narcissists reveals itself in a lack of empathy for others, sometimes including animals. The missing empathy for others is also the missing genuine empathy for oneself. The basement voice of the narcissist cries out: “There is going to be only one of us who survives here, and that will be me.”
Depth psychological ways of relating to the problems of narcissism in our post-modern world are of central importance to issues of our day, including psychopathic explosions of aggression, usury attitudes toward the environment and one another, hierarchy, the polarization of political parties, power problems, lack of intimacy with self, others, and the natural world, (therefore affecting our relationship to climate change), and much more. The works of C.G. Jung add to this dialog by linking the personal dimensions of narcissism in dreams and other unconscious material with the archetypal dimensions found across cultures. The collective problem is what the Hopi people call Koyaanisqatsi, life out of balance.
This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”
If you found this post interesting, you may also want to read “Revisiting the Myth of Narcissus and ‘Healthy Narcissism,’” “Necessary Descents: What Myths Reveal about Darkness,” and “The Imposter Syndrome and Your Hidden Self.”
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