Monday, November 05, 2007

Superiority and perfection

The foundation of narcissism is self-inflation. It is hard for someone with normal self-awareness, who acknowledges their shortcomings and vulnerabilities, to understand how someone could have total and unquestioning belief in their own perfection, superiority and greatness. It is inconceivable that ordinary, fallible humans could have such exaggerated beliefs about themselves.

Our inability to understand such delusion leads most of us to assume that problem behaviour must be the result of low self-esteem and over-compensation. But throughout history into modern times countless dictators, religious and cult leaders, aristocrats, royals and tyrants have believed they had the right to control and dominate other people or even the entire world.

The philosopher Bertrand Russell was perhaps only slightly exaggerating when he claimed that all men (and presumably many women) want to be God and that some can’t believe they are not. The narcissist, the heartbreaker, may not be a potential dictator believing they have an inalienable right to dominate (although some are) but their self-images of superiority are not poles apart. The comedian Peter Sellers for example, acted like royalty, insisting on deference and adulation, expecting to be feted and catered to in all things at all times. In the narcissist’s mind they are not only the centre of their own world but the centre of the lives of everyone around them and more important to other people than they are to themselves. They are the star and everyone else the supporting cast.

Just as we might see ourselves blown up to giant size in the distorting mirrors at a carnival, narcissists see themselves magnified, as bigger, better, and more important than they actually are. Narcissists believe they are already automatically whatever they want to be, that they need no teacher or role model to learn from, that they need no achievement to work towards, no maturity or growth to strive for, no ideals to pursue. They are perfect just as they are.

Narcissists truly believe they are more important than anyone else. They may have talent and ability, but never as much as they think. They exaggerate the smallest asset and if they lack some quality, they will create it in their imagination or denigrate it as beneath them. They might, for example, despised and disparaged anything at which they do not excel. They may be the most ordinary of men and women or even far below average yet still believe themselves to be superior to almost everyone. Narcissists believe they are unique and extraordinary and expect others to acknowledge and applaud their superiority whether or not there is any evidence to support it. Such self-inflation makes them immune to self-doubt and allows them to convince themselves they are all the things they have ever wanted to be. They are incapable of seeing themselves as ordinary or average.

Like Narcissus they love and admire an illusion, an inaccurate, idealized self and not the reality of a whole, authentic, if imperfect self. Beyond the image of perfection though, they are hollow because he or she denies, ignores, and neglects any aspect of themselves that is less than perfect and so rejects who they really are. They have no interest in discovering the whole self beneath the image of perfection, preferring to avoid self-awareness and self-examination with the assurance that if they believe something (that they are perfect) then it is so.

Such grandiosity leads to a feeling of invincibility, to recklessness, and an overestimation of one’s ability. The narcissistic girl for example will be casual about birth control because she does not believe she will get pregnant, drugs hold no danger because the narcissist never believes he could become addicted, speeding is OK because he is the best driver and accidents only happen to other people, not him. He or she will not listen to advice or let others contribute to decisions because their judgement is better than anyone else’s. Peter Sellers for example, thought nothing of telling specialist professionals - directors, cameramen, writers, even veteran actors - how to do their jobs. Although he left school at thirteen he didn’t think anyone else was as clever or talented as him and believed no matter what the circumstances or area of expertise, he knew best.

The narcissist may never actually say the words ‘I am better than you, I am perfect, infallible, invincible’. They may not even consciously think such things but they feel, know, and experience them as reality. Such a sense of superiority cannot help but affect relationships. The narcissist does not believe in equality or democracy but a hierarchy with them at the top. They don’t really believe that anyone, with the possible exception of a small elite they may admire, is their equal and they see no reason why they should waste time on lesser beings (unless they are of some use).

Narcissists make poor romantic partners because their lovestyle is so damaging. Any partner is naturally their inferior so can never be their equal and the relationship will never be equal. A partner is expected to be forever eager to please, to be devoted, accommodating, obliging, and singularly focussed on the narcissist’s needs, feelings, and desires. They demand obedience, unconditional surrender and total, unquestioning commitment. They on the other hand give only what they are inclined to, which is never as much as they expect to receive. Once a narcissist defines someone as ‘less’ than themselves (which is virtually everyone) it is impossible to prove, or to convince them, otherwise.

Because the narcissist believes they are innately superior they never feel the need to make an effort at anything. They believe everything should come to them automatically, and by never testing their abilities, never have to find them lacking. They don’t need to study or work hard because with their superiority they will naturally excel, and if they don’t, then the goal is not worth wanting. They don’t need to take care of their health, drive carefully, or weigh risks like ordinary people because nothing bad can happen to them. Their sense of security comes from their feelings of superiority rather than from any real achievements or close relationships.

To sustain their sense of superiority narcissists deny faults, limitations, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities. They never admit to being wrong or to making mistakes. They reject anything that challenges their narcissism because to them, by definition, anyone or anything that does not feed their ego or agree with their view of themselves as superior is automatically wrong and worthless.

Asking for help, advice, or directions is beneath them as that would mean admitting needing assistance, which would mean that they are less than perfect. Anyone needing help is an inferior who can’t survive on his or her own. Narcissists think they should automatically know everything and if they don’t, they will pretend to. It is impossible to learn from mistakes when you don’t believe you make any, and difficult to learn anything when you believe you know it all and in any case, how can lesser beings have anything to teach their superior? As a student for instance, the artist Picasso used to brag that there was nothing he could learn from any of his art teachers. Being perfect means you have nothing to learn.

Ultimate Self

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