Monday, June 1, 2015

Malignant Self-Love: Narcissism Revisited (book and YouTube channel review) (the Crazies, part II)

Title: "Malignant Self-love: Narcissism Revisited" 
Author: Sam Vaknin
Genre: Self-help
Length: 705 estimated pages

Official YouTube channel:

I've wanted to review this remarkable book for a long time. The author of this book is a philosopher who said what my generation needed to hear when they needed to hear it. He is a self-proclaimed narcissist and psychopath who has also been evaluated by professionals according to the documentary, I, Psychopath.

I don't put much weight on the opinions of psychiatrists or other mental health professionals anymore. I don't believe that many of the "facts" in psychology are gained via empirical techniques. I don't believe that the field is firmly grounded in critical thinking or even a genuine concern for others' well being. But I certainly have known many mental health workers who are deeply concerned about the well being of their clients, and generally, mental health professionals have some well thought out insights if they are pure in their motives for counseling others. Nonetheless, I have bumped into about three different mental health professionals who gave me the impression that they were doing what they did for money or in order to build tools for themselves which would allow them to disengage from others' emotions. You can't go around with the world's problems on your shoulders; you'll get crushed. But a balance needs to be struck when it comes to counseling. The temptation is powerful to create models to enshrine one's prejudices in theory. People do it all the time. In fact, it's remarkable how so many people so strongly prefer to turn to models to justify hatred born out of personal vendettas when things like philosophy and the more mystical aspects of religion have worked for milennia.

Vaknin has taken a very interesting approach to the mental health business by becoming a psychologist who is strictly hands-off. If you want to make money, write about sociopaths. That has been a trend since the 1950's. Watch the black and white classic, Sunset Boulevard, and see screenwriter Joe Gillis argue that psychopaths "sell like hotcakes."

Malignant Self-Love: Narcissism Revisited was a book I paid $50 for. The Sociopath Next Door has been on Barnes & Noble's sale counter for possibly over 10 years now- longer than any of the other books I have seen in any of their locations. Mental health is Western-oriented and is not based in skepticism, but faith. It is based not in truth, but in making people feel better for money. Capitalism is always going to encourage psychologists to base their work in trends that make people feel better but aren't necessarily true. I can see more valor in Vaknin's writing these books and making these videos than in someone's attempting to fake interest as a counselor or social worker in mental health institutions. It's a field with a lot of burn-out, so I get it, but still, it doesn't seem right. I left my old career track when it stopped working for me. It's a personal decision, but I think it is the best decision for a lot of people. That was one of my main concerns about continuing to pursue an actual career as a counselor (that and my school's accreditation problems, but of course, I could've just upgraded and gotten more well-respected credentials in the same field if I thought it was right for me).

This is a book that saved me and no doubt countless others from making terrible choices in our attachments with people who seem to be playing by a different rule book than the "do unto others" one most of us were raised with. Attempting decode those rules has been an incredibly draining experience for some of us. But this mystery and fast answer to something that has been so perplexing for so long, is a part of what I see becoming a problem now. In my personal experience, some of these ideas in psychology have gotten too popular, because so people are starting misapply them and don't even question what they're doing or why.

What happens when a really interesting, original idea gets too popular? In tech fields, that usually seems to mean that products become cheaper and easier to access. In artistic fields, that means that corporations will make inexpensive knockoffs of the popular, original work, but in the humanities, what often happens when a cool idea gets too popular is that everyone veers off in their own directions with these ideas and lets their imaginations drive them crazy. By "crazy," I mean they start to think and behave irrationally due to their zeal for the new idea. Reality and the imaginary world blur,  and it takes a long time for massive groups of people to get them to move on from these viral ideas.

I'm going to give you one piece of anecdotal evidence for why I believe this narcissism trend has spiraled out of control. Unfortunately, I think I could give you about five more examples, but this one was by far the most dangerous and disturbing one. The other ones were obnoxious, but this one had me thinking about public safety and my own safety, and also, ironically, weighing the importance of my empathy for this person, because the reasons someone would have for violating another's rights and personhood in this specific manner are sad.

I was a patient at an "Urgent Care" clinic here. I needed to have my blood drawn. I felt that I had a good rapport with the receptionist who ended up being the person who also drew my blood. But things took a sharp dive very quickly when I unrolled my long sleeved shirt and presented my arm. I love tattoos. I decided on a personal philosophy about why I like them a long time ago. I have several, including a sleeve. 

The receptionist's eyes became vacant and she began chanting, “It means you have no empathy! It means you have no empathy! It just means you have no empathy!” over and over again as she drew my blood. 

I found this assumption extremely insulting and also found her demeanor very frightening. While she had a needle in my vein, she did a 180 degree mood flip in seconds and was chanting paranoid statements in a soulless, out-of-control manner.

I dislike complaining to or about a business, but after several months, I finally decided that I need to speak up based on the principle of what had happened. This situation should never happen again, to me or to any person like me who has decided that he or she enjoys tattoos. People who do not have unresolved personal issues surrounding the idea of tattoos, should not have to bear the emotional baggage of those who do have unresolved personal issues that can't be handled appropriately and professionally. Although medical professionals are human, no patient should be forced to bear the brunt of that baggage while getting medical treatment. 

Ironically, the only reason why I didn't speak up about this sooner is because I had too much empathy for her! She was inaccurately and inappropriately trying to apply popular modern theories about narcissism, or its cousin, antisocial personality disorder. I believe I would know if I was a narcissist or not. The ones I've known spoke about it very openly and thought it was the natural outcome of being limitlessly attractive, brilliant, destined for fame, etc. (i.e., "of course I'm highly narcissistic... you would be too, if you were as amazing as me"). I subscribe to the Buddhist belief that the I does not exist, and that belief in the self's superiority, inferiority and equality are all equally conceited. In my opinion, narcissism is an emotion. People have different baseline mixes of emotion, and perhaps the sort of person who plasters pictures of themselves all over their own and other people's walls has developed a destructive habit of indulging that emotion too much.

I can only assume that this woman has viewed herself as the victim of abusive or toxic relationships, and that she has sought counseling or read self-help about it. But in that moment, she impulsively decided to abuse both an interesting pop psychology theory and a patient. Attempting to tell someone how they are or how they should be, contrary to an individual's self-perception, is part of the definition of verbal abuse, according to popular sources like Wikipedia. We need those definitions and those guidelines.

No one put the entire situation into better perspective than my dad did when I told him about the incident. I miss him. He said, “There is no logical correlation between a tattoo and empathy!” My friends and family were all similarly shocked and horrified when I told them what had happened. 

Then, this receptionist began showing up to both of my work places after I left a negative review about the business she worked for on Yelp, even though I had completely preserved her anonymity. I thought it would give her a second chance to clean up her act. She also took it upon herself to begin messaging me through Yelp. My friends and family were similarly horrified at the thought that she might be stalking me in order to pressure me to remove the review. She seemed to have gone to one of my jobs regularly beforehand, according to her Yelp history, but I'd been working at the other one for about 2 years and I had never seen her. She only seemed to have been in town for about 2-3 years also, according to her internet trail. We need to start training more nurses more cheaply so we can get serious about clamping down on poor behavior in those industries. As it is, they can go from place to place every two years or so. I really don't think that getting A's in calculus and chemistry are going to help determine whether or not a nurse is going to do well on the job, and it eliminates a lot of hopefuls who wouldn't misappropriate client information. Nursing programs across the country are consistently impacted.

Anyway, this is only one... one of the alarming examples specifically from Southern California causing me to think that this theory has gone out of control.

This book has beautifully helped me and so many others to combat very alarming behavior. But aside from its becoming too popular, I have more qualms than I can list with this book. Labeling someone a narcissist the way this book does and encourages others to do, or making other devaluing statements about people which suggest that they are intrinsically defective, is dangerous, socially and emotionally, to everyone involved, including the accuser. This is something this book does in a black or white fashion rather than approaching malignant narcissism as a continuum of traits. I have labeled people only out of extreme anger or hatred and after years of evidence pointing in that direction besides. And you know what? I still risk heavy damages coming back onto myself, even after such a long evaluation period for some people. I risk being wrong about that person (which is the worst case scenario) and even if I'm right, I risk making myself look like a complete jerk in front of people who don't get what I've seen and been through with that individual. You have to make sure that what you say is grounded in a set of ethics that will ensure your own safety when you are wrong. You don't even have to be wrong; you only have to appear to be wrong in order to damage your own network. We limit our opportunities with other people when we just look wrong, unfortunately. My horoscope said that we are the stars of our own lives, but only bit players in others. It's true. Very few have the time or the interest in investigating the rightness or wrongness of one or another person in a drama, because that would take years.

One of the things that bother me the most in books about personality disorders are the never-ending blame games and character assassinations that aren't based on anything but subjective impressions and a reluctance to admit that one did not have the mental or physical resources to continue interacting with said individual. Character is irrelevant in assigning blame in everyday dramas, because we all have very different personalities and we aren't always able to decode the rule books others are playing with, even though those rule books are just as fair as ours and usually no better or worse. What we need to determine is the cost-benefit of a given interaction. We need to decide if we, or if our organization has the psychic resources to interact with a given individual.

This book only approaches malignant, or negative narcissism rather than its positive side as well, and it confuses the two pretty regularly. It makes broad generalizations like saying that novelists "are" narcissists, but the thought of labeling J.K. Rowling "a narcissist" shocks and angers me.

So this book goes a little off the deep end with things like that. Also, I just finished reading The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, and I also strongly disagree with this book's consistent use of the original, novelized Sherlock Holmes as an example of a "cerebral narcissist." In addition to how relatively simple, fictional characters can't be accurately compared with the complexity of real people, I didn't pick up that vibe... at all in the books. Holmes did not devalue Watson. He didn't attack strangers or engage in any kind of narcissistic leveling. He was generally a charming, English gentleman. I think Sherlock in the original novels was unusual- an introvert, an "intellectual" and a bachelor. But I don't think he was at all a psychopath. I think that is a resurfacing of our latent desire to expel anyone who might be different- for any reason.

And again with the money and fame thing, I think shows like Sherlock simply turned popular ideas coined by Vaknin's books and other similar books like The Sociopath Next Door into something trendy that could ride the waves of similarly popular shows like Dexter, altering original personalities, motivations, story lines and historical circumstances in order to cash in on other artists' historically successful ideas.

I think back to being 7 years old, and I remember how much everyone in the 2nd grade hated one girl who was sort of pale and sickly who left our school to go to a "gifted" school. Some of the other kids said that it was a "better" school for "smart" kids (the assumed implication being that we were "dumber," as though we were on a gradient of overall, general worth). We all made assumptions about that girl, who kept almost entirely to herself, that were directly based in our own insecurity and garnered attention for ourselves since it united us and gave us something mysterious and dramatic to participate in and bond over. I had literally never spoken to this girl or interacted with her, but I felt it too. I ended up enjoying her company years later when we were preteens, just before she moved. She was patient and quiet, but incisive and unusual.

I enjoy listening to these 700 pages of self-insights Mr. Vaknin has, but I do think they are self-insights most of the time, which are hit and miss, and that deriving all his knowledge from himself leads to mixing up normal things with narcissism. If the author eats scrambled eggs for breakfast, that doesn't mean that someone who eats scrambled eggs for breakfast is a narcissist.

I look back on that crazy nurse in the Urgent Care clinic I went to, and I think about what I've come to think about how this Southern Californian culture is. I recall that she obviously has collagen in her lips. She looks a little underweight. I judge her to have had a smooth enough life to navigate all the responsibilities of college, and I realize... this carries a certain essence of Orange County. I am directly next door to Orange County. I don't know how she is going to manage in the most tattooed city in the world, but I clearly can see the principle of marking "other" as "unfathomably evil" out of convenience. It does not take up as much energy as thinking about it. So this makes narcissism the new "witch" or vampire of our time, which sucks, because there are so many helpful things about the theory which have made me feel better, however irrationally it may or may not be. I look back at those times it has made me feel better and I realize that more often than not, I was unjustified to jump to conclusions about people I disliked. It sucks to realize I was only at a "hunch" level of understanding when I felt like I was at a "conclusion" level.

Anyway, so I think Mr. Vaknin, due to his open acceptance and sharing of his own emotional problems, may sometimes mix feelings we all have into his very excellent insights into the nature of narcissism. Fortunately, Mr. Vaknin makes so much of his background transparent, that we can and should infer this automatically. It's almost like we are watching his journey through life, and it is a very interesting one.

Another example of this book getting too popular in a disturbing way, is in an encounter I had with a soccer mom holding a copy of Malignant Self-Love: Narcissism Revisited and a stroller. We made some pleasant small talk and we were all smiles and lah-dee-dah. But when I said, "I think that is such a great book too! I look at it as a thing of dark poetic beauty from a literary standpoint rather than a book of psychological facts though," she looked at me like I had gotten a step ladder out and slapped Jesus while he was on the cross. The minute I realized how frightened this normal person was of questioning something in print was a moment I realized that we are all in trouble. The minute I realized that this book, linking incredibly destructive traits in people while also holding up "normality" and conformity on a pedestal, was a moment that I realized that an idea that has become too popular will automatically revert into allowing prejudice to flow in socially acceptable ways.

Recently, I was online and mentioned this exact same topic, and a woman with the exact same temperament as the nurse and the soccer mom literally copied and pasted excerpts from this book. This is a great book with great ideas, but this woman did it in a strangely small, narrow-minded, dull-witted manner that didn't quite fit the context. The woman just didn't seem to have a clue as to what I was saying, who I was, what I'm about, failed to heed others' complaints about a tendency towards group think and repetitive, obsessive thinking, yet was completely convinced she knew what she was doing. Indeed, she had several aspects to the concept nailed down remarkably well. To have passages memorized and ready to go is amazing. But what it comes down to from my perspective is that she basically wanted her own way of doing things, was willing to mow over everyone else's freedom in order to get the comforts of the appearance of conformity, and to avoid having to think if copying and pasting thoughts was a possibility. It was all done out of anger, hatred, a need for control, and a lack of facility with psychology under the self-deluded guise of caring. What really annoyed her was the anger minority types were expressing about her own type. Instead of considering the best way to address those issues, it was more immediately simple to scapegoat the anger elsewhere, and that seemed the most obvious route to take for her.

Soon after, a man with the same personality cluster talked about how all the relationships he'd been in broke up due to inherently narcissistic or borderline traits in his partners. For about a year, he did not at all reflect on his own part or take any percentage or nuance of blame for the interaction on himself. I have met another man with the exact same personality take the exact same position.

 I see that pattern in a lot of comments from men on YouTube videos and forums on this topic. But Vaknin has a strong opinion about this when he responds to YouTube comments: they need to review the definition of a narcissist in this system of thought he's created and recall that men are far more often diagnosed with NPD than women. And make no mistake- Vaknin is the original popularizer of ideas on this topic. Today, I believe we get most of our ideas about narcissism from him, even if we fail to acknowledge him.

All of this had me thinking about his mother. In a video interview he did with "an empath," he said he felt that his relationship was more distant with his mother than his father. He's written a book about mothers. I skimmed reviews and descriptions, and I noted that he mentioned they were controlling and that they actively drained their children of attention. Controlling. That is a very interesting recurring belief about mothers of narcissists. Why not avoidant, withdrawn, irresponsible? Those traits could also be non-empathetic. And then I thought of how it didn't make sense to call Sherlock Holmes or novelists like J.R.R. Tolkien narcissists, a priori. And then I thought, what if he has ingested the hatred of his abusive mother so deeply, that he, as an intuitive (my own personal typing of him), has also accidentally ingested and systematized her hatred of those outside of her own temperament, just like the scrambled egg analogy? As a minority, introverted, theorist-type of personality, he may have been subconsciously absorbed her thought processes and tried to win her approval by giving her what she wanted: a system to plug into to justify her hatred and give the appearance of reasonableness. A club to join and thoughts to copy and paste. A group think. We consider and digest the hatred of our abusers and appropriate that information in various ways.

What have we done with this idea about malignant narcissism that has gone so mainstream among the bourgeois, and why is this becoming such a serious problem? Why don't I hear the poor, or racial minorities discussing it here in California? Why has this concept historically been used to attack homosexuals and people belonging to other minority groups? Why didn't anyone know about this book and these ideas in my hometown, and why does everyone at Whole Foods in Southern California backstab their friends and neighbors and ex-lovers and family and in-laws with this idea? Why have people taken this interesting model for human behavior and turned it into a simplistic ad hominem attack?

I think that the reason why people in Southern California are so savvy to narcissism these days is because it is such an extreme problem they have to contend with on a daily basis. The number of incidents I've had to tolerate here involving extreme narcissism here are more than I care to recount. I joined an internet group of people who are often accused of being arrogant. What was one of the first things they accused me of? Being arrogant! We appropriate the language and the ideas of our abuse into our everyday lives. This is why labeling is a very bad idea. It's exactly the same as name-calling, since language is subject to trends and change, and it sows a seed of unreality into the complexity of our lives. I no longer see any point in using terms like "narcissistic" to described most people since they are subjective value judgments with no basis in reality aside from the contempt and hatred I feel or a reenactment of the past abuses I have endured.

I love the ideas in this book, but they are only ideas! Psychology as we understand it isn't reality. We can do our best to describe reality, but we always have to make room for the possibility of being wrong. This is because reality is outside of any one person. It would be impossible for any one person to not possibly be wrong. I don't see a lot of people appropriating this narcissism concept in a theoretical manner anymore, but in a concrete, factual manner that is impossible. How can it be factual? No leap in biophysics is going to narrow down that subjective impression going on inside of a person that would allow for objective measurement (or not in my lifetime, I'm guessing). Psychological labeling helps those in the most dire straits, but now I see most of the DSM as a book of insults with only that grain of truth that every stereotype has.

There is a definite framework for how psychology and counseling can work productively for people, and without some basic rules, it turns into reading the bumps on someone's skull in order to predict who they're going to marry. There might be some comfort in that, but what have you really done? Some basic principles I was taught about how counseling others can be productive are:

1. Unconditional positive regard for the client. Find something to like about the client, because there's something about everyone to like.

2. Don't say anything the client cannot yet handle.

3. When the client is able to handle your insights without sustaining any lasting and unproductive damage, gently guide the client with suggestive questions.

4. Don't hold back the truth when your client feels ready for it.

5. Don't label unless insurance companies are involved, and then label to the advantage of the client's finances.

6. Refer when problems are beyond the scope of your knowledge or beyond your ability to function smoothly and with decorum.

7. Maintain boundaries. Don't get attached. Respond but don't react to anything. Allow the client to use you as a substitute for the frustrating people in his or her life without taking anything personally.

8. Break confidentiality only when there is a serious risk of violence toward others.

One of the biggest contentions I have with this book is the consistent sense of hopelessness about our ability to integrate narcissists and psychopaths productively into our society. I question that. The minute we throw up our hands about a problem is a minute we open the doors to ideas like ghosts and vampires and fairies controlling the world with magic. If personality traits die down with age, as has been noted in a lot of literature about personality, then with the extension of our lifespans that is bound to continue as our technology advances, wouldn't there come a day in which even a self-proclaimed psychopath learned how to navigate this world in peace and happiness? I see how insightful his videos and essays are, and I think that there may be hope for these individuals and society at large to figure out a way to manage these kinds of problems that are deeply embedded in human nature. We'll never be motivated and therefore successful at solving our problems with crime until we stop viewing others as "other," but as people who need rehabilitation. I read an article about an angel of mercy killing patients in Italian hospitals. No one bothered to stop or report her until dozens had been murdered. Why not? How can we systematically prevent incidences like this from happening in the future? Can we do it on a consistent, systematic level? Will it help if we think these of these people as "us" and not "other," since isolating or destroying "other" hasn't worked for us in any context, historically?

We certainly can't deny that Mr. Vaknin has had a strong, imperfect, but largely positive impact overall in his lifetime. I think that's something we can aspire and relate to. These are problems for our generation to consider very seriously.