People who experience life as meaningless often make the mistake of seeing that as a philosophical problem. And it is true that philosophy guides and deepens us, but they are wrong: it is first of all a practical problem. Do you want to live a meaningful life? Then work out what the most meaning things are that you can do with your life, and do them. In hindsight the problem of life's meaning vanishes, at least for any psychologically healthy person. However there is more to a good, flourishing life than creating of meaning. There is what philosophers call "the problem of evil": the denial of meaning and the suffering that is inflicted by some people on others through callousness or malevolence. When a person experience that, in a way which harms their life, it is often through an encounter with a narcissist. You may experience such people in your work, romantic life, friendships, or family. To deal with the effects on you requires multiple ingredients, and today I talk about some philosophical ideas which can help you protect yourself or heal, by helping you to think about the meaning of narcissism.
I was speaking with a fellow counsellor this morning and he used a phrase, "narcissistic genius," to refer to their ability to manipulate and fool us. He was talking about how several of his clients have developed PTSD-like symptoms after working under narcissistic bosses. In turn I shared the story of a dear friend I had known for years who I thought was a really decent person. That is, until he used another friend's generosity and trust to callously betray him in a deep way. It was astonishing and appalling to all of us, especially over time as details emerged. For example I later heard the same story from several of his ex-partners, who did not know one another, about how he controlled them, trying to end their male friendships and control their behaviour around other women, trying to get them back and then callously leaving them, putting one in thousands of dollars of debt for his cafe expenses, and more besides. Most shocking to me were his malevolent actions which emerged later, and which I won't go into here but which took everything to a different level. Narcissistic genius: he fooled us for years, until he went too far and it all came out. But he fooled himself too - he was utterly self-righteous about all of this. When I confronted him he responded in a detached, high-minded tone, expressing sorrow that other people are so deluded and lacking in resilience. He had said that the friend he betrayed would "be happy for me if he were actually a good man." I suspect he will remain forever self-righteous, going through life repeating his appalling behaviour. The depth with which we thought we knew him has left a number of us reeling.
People sometimes complain that the word "narcissist" is over-used in popular culture, and they can be right, but nonetheless it is an important concept for people to have access to. For people need a map to protect themselves or to take sense of what has happened and to heal. There are also different styles of narcissism, such as the overt kind which most people think of, the vindictive sort who does the most damage when they have power over others, and the covert narcissist - people of seemingly good character, whose covert nature enables them to gain trust and through that they do their harm. My friend was a covert narcissist. I spoke with a young man once, who struggled with the fact that despite his father's cruelty at home, he had also to undergo the constant praise by others to him of what a good man his father was, such a generous pillar to the local community.
I often recommend Sandy Hotchkiss' classic book Why Is It Always About You? That's a work of applied psychology and it's excellent. We need more, however. For when a person encounters a narcissist in a way which harms them, they need to make sense of what they have encountered, and of what it says about life - says at a painful gut level. They need to make meaning. Meaning that can help them heal and live well again in a world of other people. For what they have encountered, which so deeply disturbs them even if they the lack words for it, is the problem of human malevolence, or what philosophers call "evil."
In Dante's Divine Comedy, in the first book the Inferno, the deepest level of Hell is reserved for those who betray. Many people experience the harm of a narcissist through some kind of betrayal. Suddenly so many things that mattered so much - your sense of value as a person, your sense of goodness in life, of what your past means, your ability to trust people, even your grip on who you are - is shattered. Such people are plunged into Hell for a time. They have to make a fundamental choice and work very hard to get out of there, and that can take a long while and be very painful. Of course the alternative is that you become distorted or bitter through from confusion and pain. Fortunately this experience can also be a profound source of growth, but that is a discussion for another day. Whether it is a case betrayal, or bullying, or abuse, we need a way to contend with the meaning of what has been done, with the callousness or malevolence which has harmed us, so that we can once again experience the world as a good, a place with many decent people in it.
The English writer G. K. Chesterton once wrote that "the mad man is not the one who has lost his reason, but the one who has lost everything but his reason." This is the "genius" of narcissism, the ability to weave a convincing tale, to fool us all. But as I say, they also fool themselves. Narcissism is a rigid set of defences against shame and vulnerability, whereby they view themselves as superior, because otherwise they see themselves as inferior in the most terrible way, and by through upholding this self-delusion they become entitled and lose empathy. What confuses people is that covert narcissist can appear to be the opposite - a wonderful person, or somebody full of humility, or self-doubts - but this is simply a defensive function, for when it comes to the crunch they have no integrity and will readily act callously or malevolently. With a healthy person what you see is what you get, but a narcissist has two selves, which in psychology are referred to the true self and the false self. The true self is the person behind the mask, living in a psychological state that feels like a pit of snakes and an empty hole. To avoid feeling that, they create a false self in which they can believe, and which they present to others, and this false self can look like a saint. This is mostly done without self-awareness - they are deeply lacking in insight into themselves and their motives. And of course they cannot hold the charade in place permanently, so that especially in times of stress, or temptation, the facade collapses and they show their snakes, often in callousness or malevolence. Even then, however, they may only show them to a few people, which is why they come out only at home, or why they can convince some people of their innocence even as they do terrible things to others. Very quickly they will reassert their false self and refuse to see the truth of their actions, reframing these once again in terms of their goodness - an image of themselves as a person who never does significant wrong - and who therefore is a victim. When they are confronted with the cruelty of their behaviour, narcissists will point the finger at their victim, or at life itself.
What do I mean by "life itself"? This is where we begin to get philosophical, to look at the structures of meaning that apply to narcissistic behaviour. There are two philosophical categories for bad events in life: tragedy and evil. Tragedy is the name for things that go wrong, sometimes terribly, which are the result of natural forces or accidents or facts of nature, including human nature. A tsunami which kills people is a tragedy. A new disease which kills many is the same. Deaths on the road are mostly tragedies. Good people doing their best but making terrible mistakes amounts to tragedy. When narcissists are not blaming their victims, it is often tragedy which they blame for the consequences of their actions. Evil, however, is the age-old word for human actions which purposefully or wilfully bring about suffering. The person who treats another merely as a means to an end, violating basic decency for the sake of self-interest. Or who takes pleasure in the suffering of another, or at least feels entitled and righteous about it. In short the narcissist.
We can take this distinction further by adding more terms that correlate to tragedy and evil. For example, corresponding to tragedy is insanity. And corresponding to evil is malevolence. These are the mental states of people which correlate to those metaphysical categories that we encounter in the world. A person does not choose to be insane, it is a tragedy. But a malevolent act is a choice, an evil.
In one of his dialogues the philosopher Plato invented a myth to illustrate a point. The point is unimportant here but the story is useful. He imagines that people exist before their birth, as souls in the heavens. Before entering into birth in a body, they make choices about the life they will embark on. I think of this myth when I think about whether narcissism is a case of tragedy or evil: imagine such a soul deciding what kind of life they will live, and then imagine them saying, "You know what? I would like to be somebody who harms the lives of those closest to me. To violate, manipulate, to hurt, to leave those who loved me most wishing they'd never met me, to never live a life of genuine truth and goodness...." I cannot imagine anybody knowingly and freely putting their hand up for that. It must be a form of insanity.
And yet a central part of what disturbs and harms people who are harmed by narcissists, is the experience not of their insanity but of their malevolence. Are they simply misinterpreting things? In once sense yes, but in another, no. This should become clear below.
What we are contending with in this distinction between tragedy and evil, and insanity and malevolence, is also the distinction between determinism and free will. Would a healthy human being freely choose to be a narcissist? I think not. And yet, somehow, narcissists do choose their actions, and their core problem, which can hurt us so much, is precisely their failure to take responsibility for what they do. Furthermore, they operate with a degree of cleverness that my counsellor friend rightly called "narcissistic genius." For many people who have been harmed by narcissists, the difficulty in defining their abuser as either free or determined is an important part of their struggle. It is important because it affects how they perceive life and the world from then on.
Above is an ambiguous image which is well-known in philosophy and psychology. Is it a duck, or a rabbit? Different people will give a different answer, and then look again and see the other animal. Your perception may shift back and forth. It's a little uncanny. This is a model for thinking about whether narcissism represents tragedy or evil, insanity or malevolence. Regardless of the (often bad) debates about free will versus determinism, everybody acts, thinks, and feels as if we are both free and determined. Of course where and how the line is drawn between these categories is complicated, and in an important sense mysterious. Are they responsible for their crimes or could they plead insanity? It depends on how you are looking at them. At one moment they are so disturbing because they represent the experience of a malevolent will, which has entered into your life and stabbed you emotionally. But from another perspective they are insane such that they "know not what they do." They are like the duck-rabbit.
I suggest that if you have have been harmed by a narcissist then you should choose, from between these two categories, the one which helps you most in the moment. And I suggest that you need to be able to hold both of them: sometimes see the duck, and sometimes the rabbit. This means accepting that you cannot create an all-seeing, fully coherent account of reality, but that you can hold some important things together in harmony or at least collect them together and use them even if they do not fit.
You need to acknowledge the evil, if that is part of your experience. You need to find a way to live with the fact of it, because there is no escaping it - it is a part of human reality - and you need to find a deep and good way of living with that fact. Of thriving despite that fact. Or at least living a meaningful life in its context. In doing so the particular challenge you face will offer you opportunities to learn in a way that becomes wisdom. For example you may feel that the narcissist's behaviour says something about you, as though you occupy a bigger, more important place in the fabric of reality than in fact you do. Evil says nothing about you. You simply get in its way. To become humble about this is also to free yourself from a dark, useless, wrong road of enquiry. If it does say anything about anybody, it only says something about the narcissist.
An experience of evil is also an occasion to grow in strength and courage, and to make yourself even more bent on living a good life. This may involve a psychological or spiritual warfare against the instinct to hate. Narcissists are broken people and unlike the majority of us, who by looking at ourselves can constrain or steer our darker forces for the sake of decency, they merely spread their brokenness into the lives they touch. The instinct to hate within you is a narcissistic poison which they have injected into you. But it is also your own, the snakes within you that you need to wrestle with. To successfully wrestle with these snakes is to become a far more virtuous person than you may have been if life had simply gone well. So there comes a point where you need to voluntarily accept the fact of your suffering, a point where you can become grateful for the fact of it, as a training that makes you better. And, after all, perhaps people need you, or will need you up ahead, to have gone through this fire and developed the strengths required to serve them. There's a lot in that!
People are broken in all sorts of ways, twisted out of their potential to be true human beings, reduced to the level of snakes in the grass, living a life which despite their righteous appearances is fundamentally self-serving and bad. That's a tragedy. The great philosopher Socrates famously said "Better to suffer evil than to do it." Echoing him we could say, better to be harmed by a narcissist than suffer the harm of being a narcissist. Better to be a source of goodness in people's lives, and to suffer, than the other way around. It is the difference between living a meaningful life or not. Of being able to genuinely - that is, in your actions - love others and improve their lives. And what matters more than that? Don't believe the appearances - in their heart the narcissist is a dark hole of fear and envy and rage. That is a Hell they cannot escape. Like Dante you, on the other hand, are capable of ascending out of Hell. But you have to consent to your suffering, draw on your courage and hope, and pursue meaning and love. Getting your thinking straight is an important part of that process, and that is why a philosophical exploration - a practical struggle with meaning, and with getting your mind and heart on track - is so important.