There’s a lot of talk about ‘narcissists’ these days – and there seem to be plenty around, especially in politics! But descriptions of narcissistic behaviour also pretty much echo the predominant attitude and values of some men in our culture, when it comes to intimacy and relationships.
The attention-seeking and self-aggrandising of a typical narcissist is generally understood to be rooted in a deep-rooted sense of shame and inadequacy, rather than in self –confidence. I can certainly see those tendencies in my own life. I was taught from an early age to keep my feelings and behaviour within the narrow boundaries of what was considered to be acceptably ‘masculine’ and to feel a sense of shame about my ‘inner feminine’—which, as Carl Jung, is an essential aspect of the psychology we’re all born with, and need to be connected with to be a balanced and whole person.
At some level I’ve envied women’s connection with that feminine element that I was cut off from in myself; and also somewhat afraid of its primal power. Maybe because of this, a part of me has felt, in the past, an instinctive need to try to ‘own and control’ that power in women, which felt somehow threatening to at the same time as being deeply attractive. No wonder I felt ambivalent in my relationships!
This ambivalence wasn’t helped for me by having an emotionally distant father who was too busy out in the world ‘being a man’ to have much time for me. The lack of validation from him probably led to me having an excessive need for affection and acceptance from my mother, fostering a fear of inadequacy and a sense of shame about being a ‘needy’ man. This played out in later relationships as an ‘approach/avoidance’ dance; just as I was getting close to someone in a relationship, I’d feel a powerful need to back away before I felt too vulnerable or got ‘found out’.
In our culture we have no rites of passage to tell a young male in unambiguous terms that he has become a man, and will henceforth be perceived, accepted and respected as such by his community. I can only envy the sense of confidence and security that this must bring to boys in the cultures which have such rituals – removing anxieties about being ‘man enough’ or any need to prove their masculinity with risky acts of bravado or self-harm.
With the decline in industry and manual labour in this country, there is less opportunity than ever for men to express their masculinity in a constructive and productive way, leading to an increase in alcoholism and male suicide by men who are lacking a sense of identity or purpose. The absence of certainty about their masculinity leaves many men in our society perpetually trying to prove they have this ‘manhood’ status. It’s lack creates hollowness at the heart of their identity, which echoes the emptiness at the psychological core of a narcissist, creating a false self, which depends on the affirmation and admiration of others.
The sense of existing mainly in the eyes of others, and always trying to prove their worth in relation to others, seems to be a common feature of mainstream competitive masculine culture. Boys and men are typically praised and recognised for the externals in their lives—how we behave, what we do, what we achieve—rather than for who we are. Never being a ‘loser’ is a state of mind, which can become a matter of life and death for everyone involved in fights of all sizes (from punch-ups to global wars).
A lack of love and caring from their fathers laid the foundation for an addiction to the approval of others which is characteristic of many men, along with a preoccupation with performance, in and out of bed. The need for constant reassurance, and sensitivity to criticism- responding with anger and or aggression to any perceived slight or insult—are patterns of male behaviour which many women will recognise, and which echo in a milder way the underlying traits of clinical narcissism.
It is a cliché to talk about the “fragile male ego”, with the sense that this is something light-hearted and self-indulgent. But the psychological frame of ‘narcissism’ reminds us that this is not a healthy or “normal” human emotional condition, but a distorted view of others and ourselves that can lead to depression and abuse. Recognising it for what it is and providing appropriate support would means that more men could look for, and hopefully find get the help they need to become more balanced human beings – whether that be in a men’s group for example, or from some kind of professional counselling—before creating dysfunctional relationships, or by harming someone else or themselves.
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