September 12, 2020
There's no shortage of evidence to suggest that certain current US presidents are raging engines of narcissism. Maybe this is a bug to you, or maybe it's a feature. That's your call to make. In either case, I think any claim that the man's narcissism is demonstrably there and blazing is fairly indisputable.
I once had a business relationship with a person who reminded me of Trump. Communicating with her, I mean. Being unable to opt out of doing so. And then, inevitably, arguing with her. It's what I imagined an argument with Trump might be like. An argument about something he'd been wrong about. It was infuriating having her in my life, and by proxy, in my family's lives. And I was not especially skilled then at keeping my anger—with her and other of life's unwitnessed injustices—in check. Thankfully, I had only one face-to-face meeting with her. But I went off on her in text messages and over the phone more than once. I did my best to keep my vitriol clean and eloquent. But all I really did was leave out all the "fucks" and "shits" and other unmentionables. And I already knew then what I know now: I was letting my emotions get the best of me, and I was likely the only one carrying the corrosive results around with me, sometimes for days. It annoys me how much the word "toxic" gets attached to other words these days. But there are absolutely individuals who are nearly wholly toxic. She's one of them (as is, in my opinion, our elected president). And she was not undeserving of the vitriol that came her way. But I was still wrong to deliver it. Both things are true.
My parting words to her were something like, May karma come and swallow you whole. To which she responded with something very Trumpian like, It's not karma, it's business. A few months later I was contacted by her lawyer to inform me that she was suing me on a contractual technicality. We settled, and she took a bunch of my money and wellbeing, and that was that. I don't like to think of this person or hear her name. However, I recount this now only to say that it occurred to me when her lawyer came knocking that her karma is here now. It comes for her every day, if it ever leaves her at all. Her karma is just being her. Trump's karma is just being him. I believe this to be true. And that's enough, just believing it, just letting it be, letting it go. More is not needed. Still, a therapeutic thing follows. I empathize with her. I even empathize with him. It's not hard for me to see them as big kids who when small got some raw deal. And in my doing so, whatever that deep blackness that sometimes burns in me is, it starts to dissipate. And I begin to untangle myself from my thoughts and emotions enough to see that they are not me. They are a fly in the room, a cloud in the sky, a wave in the ocean. I can let them pass and be an impartial observer. I can still fight back against those aforementioned injustices, those seen and those unseen. But I can do it from a place of love and not hate. And all the good stuff of my sentience can start to flow freely from there, from that place of mere presence and awareness and love.
There is, of course, also some degree (hopefully a far lesser degree) of narcissism in many of us. And while it can be relatively easy to identify those who radiate it, it can be harder to see or identify it in ourselves, and in our groups. I'm still early in my reading of Scott Barry Kaufman's excellent Transcend. But there's a section on self-esteem and "collective narcissism" ("characterized by the members of a group holding an inflated view of their in-group which requires external validation") that caught my eye and seemed very pertinent right now. While collective narcissism has many negative, unhealthy associations (see the quotes and links below), the closely-related concept of in-group positivity/satisfaction (minus the narcissism) carries mostly positive, healthy associations. It's fascinating stuff, and one of those things I'd love to be able to wave a magic wand and make the world aware of. Is this my own narcissism showing? These sentences here? This whole Think List endeavor? Perhaps. But simply asking myself those questions, and maintaining some awareness of my/our more negative human tendencies, at least gives me a fighting chance at guarding myself against them.
I sit facing a sliding glass door in the English office at my school. The door opens and closes all day to students and teachers moving in and out. Earlier this week, the door opened, moving to my left along the unadorned wall: half white, half beige; both halves in need of a fresh coat of paint. As the tinted glass moved along the wall, I saw the reflection of the things in the office behind me. A portrait of the king. A Chinese calendar from 2016, dangling over the windows. Glass mirroring glass and the oft invisible (to me at my desk) world beyond it. It dawned on me in that moment that that's all it takes, that slight shift, the opening or closing of a door, to hide everything, or to make visible everything, or in other words, to change everything. It struck me that this is true for us all every day. There's no getting rid of it. The best we can do is be aware of it, and try to keep it in mind. This is especially true in those moments when we feel so sure, when we rush to judgment, when we elevate ourselves and our groups over others and other groups. There's always a door there, or a window, or both, with a view into an entirely different reality than our own, but one with roots that nonetheless stretch and twist and dig straight into our own.
Brian Leli, September 2020
The excessive quest for power doesn’t only apply at the individual level; it is also a source of a lot of narcissism seen at the collective level as well. In recent years, psychologists have been scientifically investigating “collective narcissism,” a defensive form of in-group positivity.74 People who score high on tests of collective narcissism believe that their in-group deserves special treatment and insist that their in-group gets the recognition it deserves. Just like individual narcissism, collective narcissism stems from the frustration that comes from the need for control and self-esteem and is an attempt to compensate for such insecurity.75In contrast, self-esteem has been linked to healthy in-group positivity, which is more likely to foster both in-group and out-group love.76 This is ultimately an uplifting message: just as it’s possible to have a heathy self-esteem, it’s possible to have healthy in-group love—where it feels good to be a member of your in-group and in which you have great pride for the genuine accomplishments of your group without constantly experiencing hypersensitivity to intergroup threat and hostility.77At the end of the day, I believe we shouldn’t ignore the seduction of power or pretend that this pull is not a part of our common humanity. But striving for power does not necessarily have to lead to destruction. Almost all humans strive for mastery and to make a difference in the world, but as Adler noted, we also have a striving for social interest. We have both strivings within us. Therefore, the question remains: How can we satisfy our self-esteem needs in the most authentic, healthy, and growth-fostering way?
Scott Barry Kaufman, Transcend
Collective narcissism and in-group satisfaction pertain to positive beliefs people may hold about the status and value of the social identity they share. Collective narcissism is a belief that the in-group is exceptional, entitled to privileged treatment but not sufficiently recognized by others (Golec de Zavala, 2018; Golec de Zavala et al., 2019a)1. In-group satisfaction is a belief that the in-group and one’s membership in it are the reasons to be proud of Leach et al. (2008). This article advances the idea that collective narcissism is uniquely associated with factors indicating low psychological wellbeing: negative emotionality, lack of life satisfaction (Diener et al., 1985) and social connectedness, and the inability to experience self-transcendent emotions that link people to someone or something beyond themselves (Stellar et al., 2017), such as gratitude (appreciating positive aspects of experience, feeling thankful to something or someone, Fredrickson, 2013) or compassion (sympathizing with suffering of others and a wish to relieve it, Gilbert, 2010). Thus, sharing a social identity may not offer psychological resources supporting wellbeing when individuals hold a collective narcissist belief about the in-group. Indeed, it is argued that dispositional negative emotionality inclines individuals toward collective narcissism. Conversely, in-group satisfaction is uniquely associated with factors indicating high wellbeing: positive emotionality, pro-sociality, and life satisfaction. Due to the positive overlap between in-group satisfaction and collective narcissism, the link between collective narcissism and negative emotionality may be reduced and collective narcissism may be indirectly linked to positive emotionality, pro-sociality and life satisfaction.
Agnieszka Golec de Zavala, Frontiers, February 2019