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Narcissism as a motivational structure: The problem of personal significance / Commentary / Comme...
Shaw, Jon A;Shapard, Barbara;Waugaman, Richard M
Psychiatry; Fall 2000; 63, 3; ProQuest
pg. 219
Psychiatry 63(3) Fall 2000
Narcissism as a Motivational Structure:
The Problem of Personal Significance
Jo:"-r A. SHAW
AN L'NDERSTA:-\DING of individual life is contingent on understanding not
only man's tradition.ll motivations but also the individual strategy for resolving
the problem of personal insignificance. Man's sense of personal insignificance
comes from two primary experiences: (a) the developmental experience with its
increasing awareness of separation and loss, transience, and the sense of lost felt
perfectibility; and (b) the increasing cognitive awareness of the immutable laws of
biology and the limitations of the self and others in which idealization gives way
to painful reality. Each individual seeks narcissistic reparation through the elabora-
tion of a personal narratiYe or myth, a story, which gives one's life a feeling of
personal significance, meaning, and purpose. \-Vhat is relevant is not the presence
or absence of a myth or personal narratiYe but within which myth one chooses to
live one's life. "vlyths are not explanations rooted in scientific evidence but rather
are belief systems lived as if they were truths. ;vlyths provide the individual with
a personal sense of identity, and they confirm and affirm memberships in a group
or community, and provide guidelines and an idealized set of behaviors within
which to operate. Lastly, they may endorse an explanation for the mysterious
universe. Three motivational strategies in which the aim is to create a personal
myth or personal narrative that ensures a sense of personal significance are described
in this article: (a) transcendental or spiritual myths, (b) group or interpersonal
myths, and (c) humanistic or personal myths.
TVe are tbe deepest dri,'es o(tbc bl/II/all
-,ph'it to make o/ll:\'ch'es more t/;all tlllimilted dl/st,
lilld «'f 7111/.11 bi/ve II -,1orr to tell abollt 71:bcrc 7::e
([{IllCfrOIll, ilild ,dJY «'e ,;re bere. (\ Vilson 1(98)
didn't feel that he loved the woman. He has
consistently struggled with the purpose oflife.
lIe has accrued all the trappings of a very
successful professional and financial life.
First Clilliwl Vi(f}/ette
A 38-year-old scientist entered analysis
with a history of dysphoria following an afLlir.
I Ie is surprised and puzzled by his upset as he
JOIl "-I, S'b({71:, ,HD, is Professor of Psychiatry
and Pediatrics, and Director, Division of Child and
Adolescent Psvchiatrv, C niversitv of '\:Tiami School
of .vledicine, P.O. B;n 016960, FI 33101.
If you accept the view that there is no tran-
scendental meaning, where does that leave
you-nihilism or hedonism? I have no per-
sonal signitlcance. l\'aturc doesn't care about
me. There is no meaning. \\11cn I was
younger I thought there ;as a purpose to
life and that I would accomplish something.
I wanted to make a difference. I know I have a
personal signifiGll1ce to my \\'ife and children
but so what. I think I see the world as it
really is. \Vhen I readAllilllill Fllnll, I realized
ever)'body exploits everybody. I feel nature
chipping away at me, decay, why not give
in, it's all purposeless .... You spend your
life trying to achieve personal significance.
It's just ashes to ashes, dust to dust, that's
the way it is.
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He noted rhetorically, "People would kill for
my success." The youngest of three children,
... he felt he was an "afterthought." :His
mother was cold and impersonal. He never
felt loved although he knew his parents loved
him. \-Vhen he was a young boy he dreamed
of being either a sports hero or a Crick or
Watson. He doesn't know what would make
him feel successful today or what would give
his life personal significance. He stated, "I
have tried morality and amorality-there is
no difference. \\That's the purpose? 1 don't see
any purpose in everyday activities. \\That's the
point? The world is not pretty, so why bother?
\\That popped into my mind, I am omnipotent,
and when it is challenged I become negative.
\\-'hat am I supposed to do, become humble?
It's thrown into my face every day, I am not
omnipotent. "
Second Clillical Vignette
A 56-year-old engineer, forcibly medi-
cally retired, was seen in psychotherapy for
feelings of being "lost." He noted, "I can't
believe this is all there is .... 1 feel I am not
doing anything purposefully .... I am yearn-
ing for something, I feel I am floundering; I
need to fill the void .... People looking over
my shoulder would say, 'I wish r had that
problem.' " He further noted, "I am content,
but not happy." He stated that there are "no
bells and whistles." This is a man who is very
successful financially, who can do anything
he wants. He has a happy and a very stable
marriage. He has two successful daughters
who look up to him as the model of a man in
their lives. I Ie plays golf two times a week,
goes to a trainer three times a week, partici-
pates in teaching at a major university, does
some forensic work in his specialty, and travels
extensively with his wife and daughters. He
states that he has achieved all his goals.
I Ie denied strong feelings or passionate
interests. He stated that since his retirement,
feelings that previously had been contained
are now coming to the surface. He doesn't
like them. lIe feels "frustrated" and "empty."
He doesn't know what to look forward to in
his life. He doesn't know how to fill the time.
He complains that he is not "vital" and that
he "just vegetates, that he is floundering." He
feels that he is ignoring his drive "to excel."
He wants to be, do something that brings him
gratitude, purpose, and meaning. He feels that
he is not needed.
Third Clillical Vignette
A 16-year-old boy with attention-defi-
cit hyperactivity disorder and identity con-
flicts, steeped in the satanic bible and gothic
cult, has displayed an increasing history of
antisocial behavior. He noted the following:
At one time I wanted to be accepted, just to
be a face in the crowd. Now, I don't want
to just be one sheep in the flock .... It is
better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven.
I have developed strong hatred for people
who want to fit in .... I want to give orders
like Adolf Hitler. I am comfortable with me,
I can go out and live life, I want to be some-
one who makes the best of his own drives,
one who doesn't care if people think he is a
sick fuck, doesn't concern himself with the
rules of society. I want to do what I want. I
love the dark I am not into being op-
pressed and self-mutilated .... \Vho doesn't
want to he a God, sit on a golden throne,
and have servants around them .... It's good
to think of yourself in that way, to hold high
views of it's never bad .... It's not
a myth my head .... I am a God; I am my
own (;od .... LaVey said that.
"All animals want, but only man con-
cerns himself with the nature of his own
wants" (Tomkins 1962, p. 28). To understand
the various motives that impel behavior is to
understand man himself. It is the motive that
gives direction to behavior. Motive has been
defined as "some inner drive, impulse, inten-
tion, that causes a person to do something or
act in a certain way" (Webster's New Twenti-
eth Century Dictionary, unabridged, Second
Edition, 1980). In psychoanalysis, motive usu-
ally refers to a need, drive, or wish, conscious
or unconscious, which activates the organism
toward the pursuit or attainment of a goal. It
is possible to conceive of need, drive, or wish
as an increasingly more abstract conceptual-
ization of the same process as one moves from
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predominantly a biological to a psychological
want or focus.
One can divide "the inner drives, im-
pulses, and intentions" that cause people to
do things, in a number of different ways. Moti-
vational structures have generally been con-
ceptualized as certain behaviors varying along
a spectrum from psychophysiological regula-
tory needs to active exploratory behaviors to
affiliative behaviors to sexual and aggressive
motivational structures.
The traditional motivational structures,
though they have been valuable in their expli-
cation of many human behaviors, are limited
when one addresses man's strivings to achieve
some degree of personal significance, which
gives one's life some sense of meaning and
purpose. The early psychoanalytic model with
its emphasis on internal conflict, as articulated
by Freud (1909/1973) failed to take into full
account man's existential dilemma. The life
cycle is time bound. The individual can only
be understood within the context of his life
cycle. A ~ \Vill and Ariel Durant (1968) ob-
served, "The laws of biology are the funda-
mental lessons of history ... History is a frag-
ment of biology, the life of man is a portion
of the vicissitudes of organisms on land and
sea (p. 18)." The universe makes no distinction
between Jesus Christ and Genghis Kahn.
In his later writings, Freud (1927/1973)
realized the developing child suffers not only
from his inner drives but also by the nature
of the world. He spoke of the "human perplex-
ity and helplessness in the face of nature's
dreadful forces ... the terrors of nature ...
the painful riddle of death ... our anxiety in
the face of life's dangers and the necessities
of fate against which there is no remedy" (p.
16). Thus Freud recognized the personal in-
significance of man's life confronted by capri-
cious chance, the unpredictable power of na-
ture and the inevitability of certain death.
Our fundamental response to this exis-
tential truth is, as Becker (1973) has suggested,
one of denial. IIe wrote: "\Ve don't want to
admit that we are fundamentally dishonest
about reality, that we do not really control
our own lives. \Ve don't want to admit that
we always rely on something that transcends
us, some system of ideas and powers in which
we are embedded and which supports us ....
It need not be overtly a god or openly a
stronger person, but it can be the power of an
all absorbing activity, a passion, a dedication to
a game, a way of life, that like a comfortable
web keeps a person buoyed up and ignorant
of himself .... [It's a] kind of lie we have fash-
ioned in order to live securely and serenely"
(p. 55).
The existential dilemma has been artic-
ulated by Becker (1973): "Man's body is a
problem to him that has to be explained ....
He doesn't know who he is, why he was born,
what he is doing on this planet, what he is
supposed to do, what can he expect" (p. 51).
IIeidegger (1977) believed that man's basic
anxiety was related to being in the world with
all its uncertainties. Joseph Campbell (1988)
has written, "The secret cause of all suffering
is mortality, which is the prime condition of
life. It [mortality] cannot be denied, if life is
to be affirmed" (p. xi). Man is the only animal
that sees himself as object, who can dwell on
his own experiences and his own fate.
It will be my thesis that human beings,
in an effort to deny personal insignificance and
the limitations of the self, seek a narcissistic
solution, that is, a personal myth or a personal
narrative that will enable us to minimize vul-
nerability before an uncertain fate. It is my
assumption that an honest intellectual assess-
ment of the human condition and the immuta-
ble laws of biology suggest that our fate is no
different from that of any other living creature
and that much of our psychology is an attempt
to redress this shattering discovery. The dis-
covery of relative helplessness results in vary-
ing attempts to restore omnipotent fantasies
in which one attributes to the self-varying de-
grees of personal significance.
It is the increasing conscious awareness
of the limitations of the self relative to
the immutable laws of biology that creates the
narcissistic dilemma. The limitations of the
self may be experienced in terms of biological
fragility, separation from loyed objects, failed
love relationships, and/or failures to live up
to an idealized or grandiose self. Narcissism
appears to be a uniquely human experience
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insofar as it implies self-consciousness and
awareness of self.
The individual's struggle to define his
own personal significance is the bedrock upon
which the narcissistic motivational structure
evolves. \Vhat signifIcance do we attribute to
self? I am reminded of a cartoon in the Ne-w
Yorker, depicting the image of a small man
standing on the planet earth gazing out into
the firmament and stating proudly, "I exist";
the caption notes "There was no reply." I con-
ceptualize narcissism as a motivational struc-
ture, whose impetus is concerned with defIn-
ing a personal myth, or a personal narrative,
that gives one's life a feeling of personal signif-
icance, meaning, and purpose.
The search for a personal significance
that transcends biology innriably takes the
form of a creation of a myth or narrative
within which life has signitlcance. Humans are
mythmakers. It may be impossible not to have
a myth. :\lyth is a "way of making sense in a
senseless world" (Nlay 1991). They are "narra-
tive patterns" that give personal meaning and
significance to individual life. ,vlyths are not
explanations rooted in scientific evidence but
rather are belief systems lived as if they were
absolute truths. :\Iyths provide the individual
with a personal sense of identity, confirm and
aftlrmmemberships in a group or community,
provide guidelines and an idealized set of be-
haviors within which to operate. Lastly, they
endorse an explanation for the mysterious uni-
verse. It is my belief that the development of
the self is intrinsically associated with the loss
and the re-creation of personal myths.
Psychoanalytic developmental theory
has generally concepulalized the child as ini-
tially embedded in the psychological matrix
of the early maternal caretaker. This early self-
object relationship is characterized by an oce-
anic feeling, which Anna Freud (1965) re-
ferred to as the "narcissistic milieu." It is as-
sumed only with further development and
cognitive maturation is there an increasing
awareness of separation, relative helplessness,
and a dawning awareness of the limitations of
the self and others. The development of a self
is reflected in the increasing ability to define
the self as different from the surround. In the
various subphases of Mahler, Pine, and Berg-
man's (1975) separation-individuation phase
the psychological self progressively separates
from the maternal object. In the practicing
subphase the ambulating toddler, although
able to geographically separate from mother,
continues to borrow a sense of psychological
invulnerability from the early caretaker. I Ie is
oblivious to danger and real threats of bodily
injury. He heedlessly runs off from the
mother, magically protected by an illusion of
safety and an imagined sense of infantile om-
nipotence. The emerging child has no aware-
ness of his parent's biological vulnerability to
injury and death, nor is he aware of the limita-
tions of the self and the object.
At about 18-14 months the child begins
to recognize the self in the mirror and have
an emerging concept of "I." It is with the
rapproachment crisis that the toddler sud-
denly becomes aware of separation in a new
and more complex way. There is a heightened
sense of danger. The myth of infantile omnip-
otence, with its protective shell of narcissistic
invulnerability, slowly becomes titrated away
by doses of painful reality. The child begins
to shadow mother, is afraid to be out of her
sight, clings to her skirt, and becomes insis-
tently demanding. As ,\tahler and colleagues
(1975) observed, the young toddler discO\us
that, "the world is not his oyster, that he must
cope with it more or less on his own, very
often as a relatively helpless, small and sepa-
rate individual" (p. 78).
Thus development brings about the
narcissistic dilemma. A sense of personal vul-
nerability begins to dawn on the child. It is
this discovery of vulnerability, which leads to
attempts at narcissistic reparation. There is
a yearning to restore a self-object state of
perceived perfectibility with its denial of sepa-
rateness, helplessness, biological fragility and
personal insignitlcance. There may be a height-
ened interest and increased clinging to the
transitional object, which symbolically repre-
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sents the idealized self-object and represents
narcissistic reparation.
\,Vinnicott (1953) noted, "The task of
reality acceptance is never complete." There
is always a part of us that yearns for the earlier
self-object state of symbiotic merger. Proust
observed that the only true paradise is the lost
paradise. "\hhler (1979) noted the ubiquity of
this longing to recapture the earlier self-object
merger when she wrote, "One could regard
the whole life cycle as ... an eternal longing
for the actual or fantasized ideal state of self
with the latter standing for a symbiotic mother
who was at one time part of the self in a blissful
state of well being" (p. 130). She observes that
"man is both fully in and separate from the
world out there. Consciousness of self and
absorption without the awareness of self are
the two great polarities of human develop-
ment" (p. 131).
The toddler's increasing awareness of
separation, relative helplessness, and height-
ened sense of vulnerability may mobilize om-
nipotent fantasies as a defense (i.e., the grandi-
ose self or the self-object merger with an
idealized imago). \Vith further development
they maybe be transformed structurally into
an idealized self-representation and eventually
into a cohesive self with realistic aspirations
and talents.
The child's increasing awareness of sep-
aration, consciousness of self and recognition
of the limitations of the self and others, leads
to the struggle to definc the self. The child
begins to experience and perceive the self in
different contexts vis-a-vis different relation-
ships and begins to build up self-images of
"who I am" and "what I am." The first self-
representation is a "me" or "mine," the object
of the attitudes of others, the product of a
reflected appraisal.
'1 'he conccpt of identity was introduced
into the psychoanalytic literature to describe
how the child has to elaborate a sense of self
and constantly find and experience himself
anew (Akhtar, 1992). Erikson (1959, 1968) has
defined identity, as the experiencing of one's
self as having a sense of continuity and samc-
ness through time, which is confirmed by the
self and others. He wrote that the concept of
identity is composed of three strands: (a) a
conscious awareness of oneself as having a
sense of uniqueness which makes one different
from others, (b) an unconscious striving for
continuity of identity experiences through
time, and (c) the sharing of a group ideal or
belief system.
In middle childhood one's personal sig-
nificance is increasingly enriched through re-
flected appraisals, family, and sociocultural ex-
pectations. This process of labeling begins to
configure the experience of self. Identity for-
mation is strengthened greatly in the middle
school years as the child searches and finds
new idenficatory pathways and models for
identification. There is a gradual differentia-
tion between the realistic and the wishful self.
If the child is fortunate, he learns to define
himself by, "I am what I do" rather than by
"I am what I wish" or "I am what others expect
me to be." As he moves into the community
of peers, his status is no longer ascribed by
loving parents but r.Hher must be earned
through competition and performance. There
is a more realistic appraisal of one's personal
significance in the larger culture. The child
begins to identify himself or herself by what
he or she is able to accomplish. In adolescence
there is an increasing urgency to consolidate
a sense of self, as new social and cultural im-
peratives now demand choices and commit-
ments that require the matching of "who I am"
to what is now possible in the larger society.
The adolescent has to come to terms
with what is possible given his capacities, apti-
tudes and talents. Idealized and unrealistic
ambitions with which one has cloaked one's
personal significance now are confronted with
painful reality.
Historically narcissism has been con-
ceptualized as the investment of libido in the
self, implying a love of the self. Freud (19141
1973) borrowed the concept of narcissism
from Nacke (see Freud, 1914-1973, p. 73),
who used it to describe an individual who
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treated his own body as a sexual object. Pres-
ently we define narcissism as the concentra-
tion of psychological interest on the self. It is
well to remember, however, that narcissism
is not inherently good or bad. Narcissism is
essential if one is to actualize one's interests,
ambitions, and talents.
The early impetus to the consideration
of narcissism as a motivational structure is de-
rived from Freud's early monograph, Ou Nar-
C l ~ ' s i s m (191411973). He suggests that there is
an intrinsic compelling need to attempt to
restore the lost sense of felt perfectibility asso-
ciated with early childhood. He wrote that the
individual "is not willing to forgo the narcissis-
tic perfection of his childhood, and when ...
he is disturbed ... by the awakening of his
own critical judgment, so that he can no
longer retain that perfection, he seeks to re-
cover it" (p. 94). At another point Freud sug-
gested that the "development of the ego con-
sists in its departure from primary narcissism,
and gives rise to vigorous attempts to recover
that state" (p. 100), that is, the lost narcissism
of childhood. There is a powerful yearning to
restore the lost narcissism of childhood, that
is, earlier states of perceived perfectibility,
ideal love and omnipotence. This sute would
be a precognitive state before one is aware of
the limitations of the self, others, and the
world at large-before awareness of uncer-
tainty, biological fragility, certain death, and
the realization that chance governs all things.
Just as most affects are intertwined with
cognition, so narcissism generally entails a
cognitive appraisal of the self. This cognitive
appraisal reflects a value placed on the self
related to one's own judgment vis-a.-vis the
ideal self or the reflected appraisals in the eyes
of the other. Humans continuously attempt
to define the self relative to the surround.
\\/hat is the significance of the self to the self
as well as to others? We saw in the first clinical
vignette in which the scientist patient defined
himself in his mother's eyes as an "after-
thought." Paradoxically, any definition of the
self is predicated on defining what one is not.
One has only to think of Freud's writ-
ings on the narcissism of small differences.
Freud (192111973) wrote of the narcissism
associated with small differences: "Closely re-
lated races keep another at arm's length: the
South German cannot endure the North Ger-
man, the Englishman casts every kind of as-
persion upon the Scot, the Spaniard despises
the Portuguese" (p. 10 1). Identity formation
involves not only in defining the self in terms
of what one is but also in terms of what one
is not. Each positive identity fragment is de-
fined by negative images, which may be pro-
jected out as unacceptable to the self. Exces-
sive idealization or narcissistic investment in
what one is (i.e., religious, cultural, ethnic,
political beliefs) in contrast to others leads to
both moral righteousness and a fragile sense
of self.
One's sense of personal significance is
juxtaposed to a sense of insignificance. It ulti-
mately becomes a question of how one defines
one's own personal signitlcance. If you define
something as real, it is real in its consequences.
How you detlne a situation determines your
emotional response to it. If you define yourself
as an "afterthought," that will have enduring
effects related to the self and others. Or, as
Freud observed, referring to Goethe, the child
who is the undisputed favorite of his mother
goes through life with the feelings of being a
conqueror and often has that belief in success
which induces real success.
One's sense of personal significance
resonates with a number of relatively enduring
but unstable images of (e.g., the biological self
negotiating the life cycle, the actual self in
relationship to the ideal self, the self in rela-
tionship to others and the self in relationship
to the larger contextual world). There is a
continuous cognitive-affective reappraisal of
these dimensions of the self (i.e., the self I
believe I am, the self I feel I should be, the
self others imagine me to be, the self in rela-
tionship to the future as one envisages oneself
moving through time and, lastly, the biologi-
cally fragile or dying self).
Although I have approached the ques-
tion from a psychoanalytic perspective, it is
well to remember that there are genetic and
biological determinants impelling the organ-
ism to maximize his/her status in the animal
group. Status is integral to all animal groups.
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The pursuit of dominance, rank, territory, and
sexual prerogatives has been correlated with
the genetic fitness hypothesis, that is, the most
widely distributed traits of a culture confer
advantages on the genes that predispose them
(\\Tilson 1998). The Oedipal strivings encom-
pass these strivings.
The elaboration of an idealized and
unique self, relative to an experienced self,
leads to constant self-reappraisal and is associ-
ated with what has been called the narcissistic
or self-conscious affects. The self-conscious
emotions evolve concurrently with the devel-
opment of a sense of self, self-awareness,
and a capacity for inner observation. The self-
conscious atlects are "guilt, shame, pride, and
hubris" (Lewis 1995). These emotions are pe-
culiarly related to narcissistic issues. These
affects become manifest secondary to an inner
scrutiny, a judgment of the observed self rela-
tive to an idealized self. The self-conscious
emotions have little to do with reality and are
contingent on the individual's definition of his
or her situation.
Shame arises when individuals evaluate
their own behavior relative to an idealized sclf-
representation and feel that they have failed
to live up to their own high standards. Shame
is related to global or totalistic attributions of
self-blame or failure. These are feelings of
worthlessness and, most important, feelings
of being exposed-exposed not only to the
imagined harsh judgment and global devalua-
tion attributed to others but also exposed rela-
tive to one's own perfectionistic standards.
Guilt appears to arise from less global
attributions and to be more specific in terms
of defined failures. There is less global devalu-
ation of the self and more of a devaluation of
specific acts committed by the self. Because
the acts are experienced as part of the self
rather than as a total failure of the self, there
is less diminution in self-esteem, less intensity,
and more of a readiness to take corrective
action (Lewis 1995). There is less of a failure
to live up to an idealized self-representation
and more of a failure to live up to rules govern-
ing the self. In this sense Kohut's distinction
between tragic man and guilty man is of inter-
est, as it seems to imply the difference between
failures of the self, i.e., narcissistic vulnerabili-
ties vs. failures in one's acts, a conflict model.
Self-evaluations can result in positive
assessments of the self-leading to feelings of
pride or hubris. These valuations of the self
can vary from a realistic appraisal of one's
capacities to an excessive overvaluation of the
self. Lewis (1995) has suggested that hubris
is related to self-inflation of a global nature
related to grandiosity and excessive narcis-
sism. These individuals display a readiness for
intolerance, contemptuousness, and disdain-
fulness of others. They exhibit a sense of enti-
tlement and imagined uniqueness, which they
feel is specially deserving of tribute from
Pride is thought to be related to a feel-
ing of pleasure associated with the assessment
of one's specific action, thought, or feeling in
a positive manner. In this sense pride is based
on a more realistic measure of one's self rela-
tive to the achievement of a specific goal.
vVhen individuals are unable to manage
their anxiety regarding their biological fragil-
ity, their degree of personal insignificance,
transience, and death, they may, in a compen-
satory manner, attempt to narcissistically cre-
ate a heroic image in which there is a relative
denial of the human condition. Narcissism im-
plies a set of attitudes varying from realistic
self-regard to megalomaniacal omnipotence.
Although a certain amount of narcissism is
normative and integral to survival, there is a
propensity for one's inherent egocentricity to
lead to varying degrees of overvaluation of the
self. Becker (1975) has suggested that man's
inordinate need to deny the human condition
in an effort to overcome his limitations results
in him wanting a destiny that is impossible
for any animal. He wrote "The problem is
that man wants an earth that is not an earth
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but a heaven, and the price for this kind of
fantastic ambition is to make the earth an even
more eager graveyard than it naturally is"
(p. 96).
For the purpose of this article I descri be
three motivational strategies in which the aim
is to create a personal myth or narrative that
ensures a sense of a personal significance. The
division into three possibilities is arbitrary and
reductionistic, but I do so with the intent of
facilitating discussion. The three categories of
myths are the (a) transcendental or spiritual
myths, (b) group or interpersonal myths, and
(c) humanistic or personal myths. The specific
myths vary considerably in the intensity of the
narcissistic entitlement and their impact on
others. In each category myths vary along a
number of dimensions (i.e., egocentric-
decentric, rational-irrational, tolerance-intol-
erance, idealistic-materialistic, and altruistic-
Tmll.l'ccndClltal or Spiritual
Although narcissism is essential for sur-
vival, it may become used by individuals as an
indispensable counterpoise to their frighten-
ing irrelevance in the universe. Vis-a-vis the
vastness of the globe, which they inhabit, and
the still greater vastness of the firmament to
which they extend their gaze, humans without
a healthy narcissism would be crushed by the
infinities that surround them. Pascal (#347)
in a brilliant rationalization of his narcissistic
vulnerability claims victory over death. He
wrote in Pew'res, "\\,rhen the universe has
crushed him, man will still be nobler than that
which kills him, because he knows that he is
dying, and of its victory the universe knows
nothing" (Pascal, 1995, p. 86).
'Ne have an inherent need to create a
God metaphor. Humans strive to create a
"meaning" that transcends their biological fra-
gility. They yearn to find or create a world-
view, a personal narrative that gives the pass-
ing years a sense of purpose. llow else could
they, who alone are cognizant of their death,
endure the passing of time, which brings them
irretrievably closer to it? Thus narcissism
serves to convert a world that is unknowable
in its explanatory purposes into an abode that
was created by God expressly for his purpose
and pleasure. The search for spirituality, a
personal religious faith, or a transcendental
experience, provides meaning and personal
God as myth may mitigate the pain of
individual life. An example of such a transcen-
dental myth is provided by vVilliam James
(1958) who quotes the religious experiences
described by Jonathan Edwards:
The appearance of everything was altered;
there seemed to be, ,IS it were, a calm, sweet
cast, or appearance of Divine glory in almost
evervthing. (;od'5 excellency, his wisdom, his
an:llove, seemed to' appear in every-
thing; in the sun, moon, and stars; in the
clouds and blue sky; in the grass, flowers and
trees; in the water and all nature (quoted in
James 195H, p. 216).
\\Tilson (1998) has observed that if a
religious mythos did not exist, it would be
quickly invented, noting that it has been in-
vented "thousands of times through history"
(p. 281). lIe has even suggested thatthere may
be a genetic propensity, which determines a
yearning for a transcendental experience. The
tragedy is that man's narcissism quickly leads
him to pronounce his transcendental religious
belief as unique and specially deserving.
Gould (1999), has observed that organized re-
ligion in the \Vestern world paradoxically has
been associated with both "the most unspeak-
able horrors and the most heartrending exam-
ples of human goodness in the face of personal
danger" (p.9).
Spirituality may extend beyond orga-
nized religion and find substance in other
transcendental experiences. One has only to
note the element of mysticism woven into life
experiences, (e.g., the creative process, the
glorification of ideal beauty, the spiritual love
of nature, and the idealization of love). In my
mind spirituality implies a self-object relation-
ship, a transitional phenomenon in a \Vinni-
cottian sense. It is the experience of being part
of something that extmds beyond the self, a
transcendental oceanic feeling in which the
narcissism of childhood is restored. I will pro-
vide one example from another source: the
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poet's love of nature, as evidenced by \iVilliam
\iVordsworth's "Lines, composed a few miles
above Tintern Abbey on revisiting the banks
of the Wye during a tour,July 13,1798" (Hart-
mann 1970).
And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused
\\'hose dwelling is the light of the setting suns,
And the round ocean ,md the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;
A motion and a'spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thoughts
And rolls through all things. Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadow and the woods,
And mountains; and all that we behold
From this green earth: of all the mighty world
Of eye, and ear-both what they half create
And what perceive; well pleased to recognise
In nature and the language of the sense
The anchor of my purist thoughts, the nurse
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being.
In the spiritual myth we stand in awe
before the mystery of creation and find suste-
nance in being part of something larger than
the self. The God metaphor may vary from
that of an anthropomorphic god created in
man's image to the mystification of nature, a
fundamentalistic pantheism in which God is
everything in nature, and everything is God.
Other religious myths may take the form of
a search for personal redemption, for example,
the fallen angel myth in which man seeks re-
demption and moral salvation through his
good works or commits himself to a humani-
tarian ideal (Postman 1995)
Man's attempt to be the Olpnpian by
reaching for the support of religion, however,
is fraught with danger and ultimately uncer-
tainty. He never escapes the frustrations of
this world, its cruelty, its imperfections and
the earthly clash with one's religious vision.
As Eiselev (1975) has noted, "In the world
there is n ~ ) t h i n g below a certain depth that is
truly explanatory" (p. 249).
Group or ImcrpcT.I'oJial lVlyth.l'
One pathway to restore a sense of per-
sonal significance is to develop interpersonal
or group myths in which one's personal signif-
icance is defined vis-a-vis the relationship to
others. This emotional dependency on others
to define the self varies from the realistic eval-
uation of the other to irrational attributions
of power, omnipotence, and omniscience to
others. The anxiety that one is not all that
one would like to be may lead to a wish for a
self-object merger with a group ideal. The
self is then sustained by submission to group
authority, which confirms the individual's
yearning for a special and heroic character.
The membership in the group is then used to
confirm one's own narcissistic value, special-
ness, and entitlement. This subordination to
the group ideal leads to "collective narcis-
sism." \iVe see this invariably in our associa-
tions with others and the elitism associated
with membership in special groups such as the
psychoanalytic institute; the country golf club;
or an ethnic, cultural, or religious group.
Narcissistic aims associated with collec-
tive narcissism may lead to the exploitation of
others and the denial of their human rights.
In an earlier article (Shaw 1998) I suggested
that it is when man is unable to face existential
anxiety as a universal experience that he feels
impelled to assert his right over others as a
means of denying his own limitations. It is
then that he is likely to participate in genocide.
The collective narcissism of Nazism sustained
the individual delusion of a heroic self. The
shared group ideal is maintained by the pro-
jecting out of the unacceptable identity frag-
ments onto a scapegoated group. An "as if"
identity is consolidated on the basis of inter-
nalizing the identity fragments most valued
by the group ideal, and the projecting out of
the unacceptable identity fragments onto the
hated group.
In our own lifetime we have seen com-
munism, fascism, and Nazism as collective at-
tempts to detlne a heroic self that has domin-
ion over others. In our own time we have seen
the flight into tribalism, religious fundamen-
talism, and other self-interests group, each of
which claims moral superiority and dominion
over other groups. Politics has taken prece-
dence over principal.
The idealization of interpersonal love
Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.
as a defense against the reality of the world is
nowhere more eloquently stated than in the
poem, "Dover Beach" by Matthew Arnold
(Untermeyer 1996, p. 400), a stanza of which
Ah, love let us be true
To one another' for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help from pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggles and flight,
\Vhere ignorant armies clash by night.
In our relationships with others there
ultimately must be some coming to terms with
the imperfectability and limitations of human
relationships but with some emergent capacity
for mutuality and interdependence and accep-
tance of the human condition.
There is a range of interpersonal and
group myths along the continuum of egocen-
tric-decentric, rational-irrational, and altruis-
tic-narcissistic dimensions. Other personal
narratives that may give group life a sense of
personal significance are those associated with
being a member of such a family, nation or a
group. Examples might be the Hispanic ideal-
ization of the family, membership in the
American Dream with its commitment to the
fundamental rights of the individual not to be
tyrannized by authoritarian religions or insti-
tutions, and the metaphor of the planet earth
as a spaceship in which we are all bound by
the laws of biology and share the same wishes,
longings and are doomed to the same fate.
Schweitzer (1933) spoke of his kinship with
"the fellowship of those who bear the mark
of pain" and gave rise to his profound sense
of empathy for the human condition.
Humallistic Personal A 1 y t h ~ '
Joseph Campbell (1988) suggested that
it is not the meaning of life that is important
but rather the experience of meaning. Every
society endorses and creates a number of ac-
ceptable narratives or personal myths. In our
own time many of the traditional personal
myths have been attacked as flawed and fraud-
ulent. Postman (1995) has suggested that man
is the "God maker," but he notes our "old
Gods have fallen, either wounded or dead" (p.
23). There is an attempt to create new Gods.
Man as symbol maker and "God maker"
invariably creates a personal myth or nar-
rative, which provides his life a sense of
uniqueness and personal significance. Man is
not free to choose whether or not he will
create a personal myth, an ideal self, or a per-
sonal narrative. Each one of us creates a nar-
cissistic solution to the problems intrinsic to
man's limitations, transience, and personal
significance. A humanistic narcissistic resolu-
tion is to create a self, which resonates at dif-
ferent levels of interaction with the world.
The difficulty is that many personal
myths are fundamentally flawed as they repre-
sent a denial of the human condition. In addi-
tion to their failure to recognize and accept
our existential personal insignificance, they
fall in the spectrum of the egocentric, narcis-
sistic, and irrational myths in which personal
significance is defined at the expense of the
other. \Ve see the creation of new cults, split-
off religious groups, the deification of self-
interest groups, and what Schlesinger has
called "tribalism." One sees adolescents de-
void of personal myths with altruistic ideals,
dreams, or future visions. Instead they are
jaded by early sexual experiences without af-
fection or love. Some strut into an unknown
future distorted by cult values and negative
identity fragments, such as our young man
who's idiosyncratic Darwinism of self-interest
reflects his personal narrative.
In our own time we have seen the myth
of the technological or rational universe and
the devaluation of the spiritual essence intrin-
sic to art, religion, and humanism. In other
instances we see the myth of consumerism:
The one with the most material possessions
or the most toys has the most personal signifi-
Psychoanalysis in a peculiar way repre-
sents a process in which individuals attempt
to unravel their own personal narrative or
myth. It is predicated on the psychoanalytic
ideal of "knowing thyself." I would state that
one facet of that experience is to unravel one's
Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.
own narcissistic strategy to define personal
The sense of personal insignificance
may in some instances be cloaked under an
array of personality traits, a character struc-
ture that we generally know as narcissistic per-
sonality disorder. Although the concept of
narcissistic personality disorder is relatively
recent, the description of this character type
is well known in the psychoanalytic literature.
Jones (1913-1964) used the term "God Com-
plex" to denote "excessive admiration and
confidence in one's own mental and physical
powers," "wishes to display," and "exagger-
ated desires" for love, praise, and admiration.
Others have noted the condescending superi-
ority, the sense of entitlement, lack of empa-
thy, the exploitation and contemptuousness of
others, the shallowness of interpersonal rela-
tions, the inordinate need for tribute, self-
aggrandizement, the search for glory, envy
of others, and a readiness for devaluation of
Mahler and Kaplan (1977) has related
this character type to certain developmental
conflict, (i.e., the search for perfectibility in
oneself and others; a reenactment of the early
symbiotic merger experience with the mater-
nal caretaker; the inability to tolerate ambiva-
lence, both affectively and cognitively, toward
the self and others; and the contradictory and
split-off self-images of great worth and total
worthlessness). There is a failure to accept the
limitations of the self and others.
The 38-year-old scientist featured in
the first clinical vignette demonstrated many
of these personality traits. Although much of
his nihilism may be related to narcissistic is-
sues, it is also apparent that nihilism serves as
a defense against the enormity of his appetites
from which he has to distance himself.
A personal myth is possible that is pred-
icated on enhancing intellectual honesty, self-
awareness, and acceptance of the limitations
of the self and others with recognition of one's
actual talents and capacities. Kohut (1977) has
stressed the existence of an independent nar-
cissistic line of development and delineated
certain phases in which the child attempts to
come to terms with emergmg awareness of
personal insignificance. He suggested that in-
dividual narcissistic aims of self-aggrandize-
ment may be transformed into human traits
of a more adaptive and humanistic quality.
He described four strategies for dealing with
personal insignificance. Creotivity is a strategy
in which one extends beyond the self and uses
one's propensity for perfection and ideal form
in the service of synthesizing something new
which will represent us symbolically after we
are gone. Acceptollce of trilnsie1lce is the recog-
nition that everything passes away or in the
words of Freud (191511973), an acceptance
of "the proneness to decay of all that is beauti-
ful" (p. 305). Intrinsic to this process is the
capacity to mourn and to let go and to enjoy
the gifts that the world has to present with all
its wonderment. Humor is a strategy in which
one is able to enjoy with a sense of irony
one's own pretensions and the absurdity of
the human condition. Finally, fVLI'do711 allows
one to accept the reality of the life cycle with
all its inherent limitations and to enjoy and
experience life.
In the final analysis, and I realize that
it is a double entendre, one has to be aware
of one's own personal myths and avoid becom-
ing a "true believer," one who submits and
subordinates oneself to a narcissistic belief in
which the self is lost, not out of conviction
but as a desperate defense against existential
anxiety. \Ve create a personal self and we select
our Gods. We choose our personal myths and
create our personal narratives. The patient
chooses ways of achieving personal signifi-
cance whether it is found in humanistic or
religious pursuits, duty, honor, nationalism,
sexual conquests and pleasures of the moment,
a large bank account, or reverence for life.
Schweitzer (1933) developed as his narrative
a commitment to the preservation of life. He
wrote, "I am life that wills to live, in the midst
of other life that wants to live .... The think-
ing man feels a compulsion ... to preserve
life" (p. 186). He would define his personal
significance by ministering to other life. Abra-
ham Lincoln's personal narrative was painfully
articulated during the time when he was out
of public office and working as an attorney in
Springfield, Illinois, and before the idea of the
Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.
presidency was even on the horizon. I Ie wrote,
"How hard, oh how hard it is to die and leave
one's country no better than if one had never
lived" (quoted in Donald 1995, p. 163). Fortu-
nately for us, his day \vould come when he
would be able to serve his country.
How do we serve the patient in the se-
lecting of his or her personal myth? Wnat
are the narcissistic aims, and how are they
encoded in personal myth; character type;
group membership; and one's vision of self,
others, and the future?
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