Implicit narcissism

I’ve no idea why YouTube started assailing me with psychologists’ guides to narcissism some months ago. They do that sometimes, the algorithms suddenly deciding to deluge you with clips on “carpentry tips” maybe, or some obscure Australian band. But it has become very apposite, since a possibly narcissitic relationship at the very top of society has been in the headlines for the last week or two, suspected as such by many lay people as well as pundits.

Nevertheless, the titles of the recurring video offerings on narcissism reminded me just how much wasted time, effort and pain arise from the controlling behaviour of narcissists. Foremost, I guess, were those examples I encountered in general practice. Not only did the patients themselves risk taking up an inordinate amount of surgery time if they latched on to me as their doctor, but their suffering families – particularly the spouse victim – suffered dreadfully from the chronic abuse that endangered their very sanity.

But some of you will also know how narcissists can monopolize the time of those engaged in pastoral work in churches, as their victim mentality creates perpetual concern about mistreatment by other church members, guilt about the pastor’s own “lack of understanding,” and even doubt about the validity of the teaching programme. The church setting is worse than the medical, partly because pastors are seldom savvy with the psychology of the manipulation they are undergoing, and partly because an environment of compassion, humility and “going the second mile” is highly conducive to such manipulation. And unlike GP surgeries, pastoral networks don’t close.

The subject is too big to explain fully here (maybe you could find some YouTube videos…), but perhaps the simplest understanding is that the narcissistic personality (and the condition is as deep as the personality) sees others not as fellow human beings with whom they empathise, and hence towards whom they inevitably practise the Golden Rule to some greater or lesser degree. Instead, to the narcissist others are sources of psychic power to be exploited and absorbed to maintain the narcissists’ own need for control.

So, rather as happens with banks nowadays, a victim will be drawn into the net by excessive displays of love and affirmation, but will soon find their financial and/or psychological resources being completely subordinated to the other’s warped version of reality. The abused will find the abuser increasingly difficult to please, disloyal, accusatory and rejecting. Since the normal person is empathetic, the abused will assume there is substance to the accusations and try ever harder, and less successfully, to please, or to use rational persuasion to justify themselves – all to no avail.

Things are made worse because the narcissist, being superficially attractive and reasonable, usually becomes surrounded by a circle of friends who will take the side of the abuser as he or she weaves a convincing tale of their victimhood. For a spouse, that means they become socially isolated (their own supporting friends and family having been excluded from the relationship early on), and their psyche can eventually be all but destroyed. For a doctor or pastor, this phenomenon will often take the form of communications from carers or church members demanding that something be done for the hard-done-by “victim.”

I’m told that, in most cases, narcissistic abusers lack any insight into their own behaviour: so the feeling that an elderly relative of the spouse has been admitted to hospital purely to thwart the narcissist probably actually is “their reality.” And it is that strong delusion which makes the current culture of subjectivity and victimhood so enormously dangerous.

One of those twee proverbs vicars quote says something about the value of walking a mile in another’s shoes. But I don’t recommend walking in a narcissists’ shoes, because if you actually achieved it by some alchemy, you would and up trapped in a self-obsessed distortion of reality, and if you attempt it in a more realistic, empathetic, manner you will almost inevitably be drawn into the web of abuse. The narcissist thrives on – indeed, craves – empathy.

The greatest tragedy of narcissism is the trail of innocent (real) victims it leaves in its wake. There are few more potent causes of psychological distress and damage than the guilt and loss of confidence from being at the butt-end of another’s psychological power games. The perpetrator himself, or herself, is also a walking tragedy, because so unwilling to challenge their false sense of victimhood, since it succeeds so well at procuring power over others, and its abandonment appears to risk losing everything.

But what has happened in our society is worse than an individual personality disorder, because it has been discovered by perverse persons that narcissism can be taught en masse through education and social media. Consequently it has somehow become the prevailing moral norm. For “social justice” cannot for less be told – it encourages, even coerces, certain groups to experience life entirely as victimhood. Even more damagingly, the postmodernist insistence, via Foucault etc, that all relationships are solely power relationships, legitimises the kind of abuse of others which is instinctive to the true narcissist.

The wife who, for ideological reasons, sees her marriage as a power struggle with a patriarchal oppressor is, in practice, very little different from the woman whose “lived reality” is that her man is deliberately failing to consider her needs as he works all hours to hold the family income together. Even the fashionable phrase “your reality” (as used by Oprah Winfrey in her introduction to a certain recent interview) is not merely coincidentally applicable to a personality disorder and a moral system at the same time. The same pathology is at play.

That recent interview apparently divided the world between “woke” and “unwoke” (though apparently almost as accurately between non-royalist Americans and patriotic Britons). One’s prior sympathies leaned one towards taking alleged remarks about the possible skin colour of future children as implicit racism, or as normal family chat. So it is no surprise that it is possible to train minorities, given the right educational environment, to perceive every interaction as a manifestation of white supremacy, or homophobia, or the rape culture. The very epithet “woke” is a sign that such prejudices are instilled, rather than inherent. The net result of the perceived victimhood, however, is not far different from the personality disorder: one can never be truly happy because one becomes incapable of escaping the victim role. The most caring and accommodating spouse remains, through those very attributes, an entrapping abuser, even as one’s own abusiveness breaks all bounds.

But when, as now, woke culture is applied across the whole society, the suffering it causes to the majority who are not persuaded by the ideology, and who live in the real world of multi-faceted human interactions, is the same kind of psychological damage that harms the victims of the narcissist. Only in this case it’s not the relatively rare child or spouse (or pastor or doctor) of a narcissist – it’s the whole population that becomes caught up in a pathologically destructive system.

In Britain nowadays even people who see through the charade are nevertheless likely to find themselves visited by the police and permanently registed as a “non-crime hate offender,” risking future job prospects and more. Those who, living in the real world, buck the “lived reality” of rather narcissitic-seeming government scientists and ministers, are likely to find themselves ostracised, to the extent that even their scientific papers may be removed as “not appropriate to the current situation.”

You will no doubt perceive now how it is significant that presenting actual evidence about, say, an alleged slave-trader, or violent deaths in US cities, appears to make no difference to the way things are handled by the activits, the media or by governments enmeshed in the social justice pathology. In just the same way the narcissist’s victim is wasting their time in presenting evidence against their abuser’s false accusations: facts simply do not negate their “lived reality,” and so are simply ignored. Palace investigations or jury trials or double-blinded studies: all are so much dross when those playing the power games are allowed to choose their own reality over the rest of us.

And so it must remain the case that, as long as we allow truth to be purely a matter of subjective perception in our society, then there can be no public peace or health to speak of, but inevitably discord, distress and the loss of productive relationships of all kinds – economic, political and personal. Fortunately, the truth can free victims of institutional, as well as psychological, narcissism, spiritually at least. And it seems to be the case that even acquired narcissists themselves can sometimes be deprogrammed, ideology being less deep-rooted than personality.

I’ve been saying for a year or two that deception is becoming the hallmark of our times, and have noted that the Bible predicts that the devil’s final dice throw, leading to his final overthrow, will be to spread near-universal deception. You have to wonder if Satan is, in the end, just a high-order, and particularly grandiose, narcissist.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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2 Responses to Implicit narcissism

  1. Ben says:

    The fascinating thing is that things that 40 years ago seemed to be just loopy possible theoretical outcomes of relativism, like denying ‘facts’ as well as ‘truth’ (“that’s crazy, stop being so pessimistic, it will never come to that!”), are now really and truly out there: science, logic, facts are now part of the ‘patriarchy’, or ‘white privilege’, just used to exercise power over others, and can be freely ignored.

    I actually think this might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Because (paraphrasing Jordan Peterson), if you fight reality (by lying or denying facts), it fights back. And also because there are still quite a lot of scientists out there who really do believe in objective truth (possibly more scientists than priests/pastors?!). It may well be that amongst those scientists there is currently only a small percentage who perceive that the short-term gain of keeping their heads down would be totally negated by the eventual disappearance of their domain, but there are already people fighting back. Hard.

    Could it be that scientists and people of faith could return to their relationship at the origins of science, where both were united by a faith in objective truth and its marriage with material reality? That would be cool: after a century of bickering to rediscover that we are actually mostly on the same side.

    (Painful reading about narcissists)

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      You’re not the first to notice how Enlightenment science and Christianity have, to an extent, become co-belligerents. The reasons for this are obvious, in that the Enlightenment grew out of the claims-about-truth of Christianity, and one of the symptoms is the rapid fading of New Atheism’s positivism.

      On the down side, COVID in particular has shown how susceptible scientific institutions are to the political and ideological forces of the age. It sometimes looks as if there is a quiet civil war withing science itself (contrast, for example, the editorial content of the Lancet and the BMJ on lockdowns).

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