Narcissism and creativity

Some skeletal thoughts to stimulate discussion

A popular cliché in our culture is that many of the most creative performers and artists are narcissistic, requiring a degree of self-centredness to develop and nurture their art and to promote themselves. We live in the age of ‘celebrity’. Christopher Lasch referred to American society as the ‘Culture of Narcissism’. Psychotherapy, conceived as the liberation of the individual, has often been accused of playing its part in this by promoting the needs of the individualised self rather than building the ground for collective conscience. I believe we are dealing with a paradox – both cultural and psychological – and with a spiritual and moral issue.

Psychotherapists, particularly analysts, have usually considered narcissism as a personality disorder, involving some sort of arrested development or trauma occurring in the very early years which results in the infant being unable to relate authentically as subject-to-subject to anyone or anything beyond her/himself. In Object Relations terms, key thinkers include people such as Klein, Fairbairn, Kohut, Kernberg, Masterson and Symington. Essentially, we are usually speaking of an attachment-separation problem, where narcissism is a defence against facing abandonment depression. The infant idealises the self-object, usually the mother, is unable to move beyond this and cannot adapt to any reality beyond that figure. Symington sees this as a turning away from the self as ‘lifegiver’. As a consequence, the personality becomes impaired, as the ego oscillates between a grandiose and an enfeebled position. No surprise then that some of our biggest celebrities inevitably succumb to addictions and eating disorders as the ego container is ill-equipped to handle the world on its own terms. Kohut had a more positive view of narcissism, not particularly considering it as pathology, but as something necessary and healthy to develop in order for the individual to progress through life.

I believe that narcissism is not simply the province of those with a developmental arrest or disorder, but that we meet it at a number of levels in daily experience – much of the time we do not recognise it. Masterson offers this scenario from a male client:

When I have sex with a woman, it’s important that she climax or else I feel like I’m a lousy lover. In fact, I’m always more concerned about her response than I am about my own satisfaction because her enjoyment is a measure of my performance, and I’m never happy with one woman for very long if I’m not at my peak sexually. Then, when I finish with one, I have to go after another” (Masterson J: The Search for the Real Self, Freedom Press, NY, 1988: 122-124).

This vignette presents us with a number of conceptual problems: How do we recognise when we are at the receiving end of this personality dynamic? What does it mean when we are in the audience? What does it mean to be in relationship? This is as much a spiritual problem as a psychological one. How do we know when we connect – both inwardly and socially?

I think we meet four different kinds of narcissistic manifestation: (a) Everyday narcissism – this is when we automatically expect or assume that the other knows what we are talking about. “How dare you call me now, you know I take my bath at 6pm”…..”well, no I don’t know that”. (b) Symptomatic narcissism – the sort of clients we recognise who have difficulties forming or sustaining relationships such as the one in Masterson above. (c) Pathological narcissism – the control freaks or ‘operators’ who appear socially well-adjusted, but who ultimately see the rest of the world as pawns in their game – dangerous when such people have organisational or political power, as they end up destroying whole cultures. (d) Social or cultural narcissism – the way our society, in this epoch, encourages us to treat others as movable and expendable figures – “why should I care about the wider society if it doesn’t care about me?” – the challenge for social theorists, economists, politicians and moral philosophers. Social dystopia, Dante’s Inferno.

The opposite end of the developmental spectrum of narcissism is relationality – where I experience and act towards the other as a subject in her/his own right, with independent needs, experiences and agency. Easy to say, hard to achieve perhaps. We are talking here of subject-subject relations rather than object-object or even subject-object. This inevitably means that everything I do has implications for the other and vice versa. This is the networked, interconnected, post- 9/11 world we live in. The meeting of my needs will have implications for the meeting of your needs.

We all know the art student whose view of creativity is “I splurge therefore I am”. Perhaps the yardstick by which we measure artistic merit is on the degree to which the work is capable of moving something in the other. It follows that a key part of the educating process is to facilitate the move towards relationality in the work or performance – as in psychotherapy, self-expression is only a building block, not an end goal in itself.

A conceptual difficulty in all this is that the personality is composite – made up of different parts of us which develop at different rates of ego maturation. Some parts of us are less narcissistic than others – ie. have greater or lesser relational capacities. Work life may be different from, say, romantic attachments. Some parts of the personality slow down or inhibit the others. The difference or gap might be seen as constituting spiritual yearning – itself a meta-driver for creative pursuit. As student counsellors, we are working with those who find the gap too unbearable or difficult to square.


Keith Silvester

10 May 2003