The narcissistic traps that lie in wait…
We live in post-post-Freudian times; the cheaper and less time-consuming approach of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is preferred to the seemingly endless investigation of an individual’s psyche and its discontents. And yet….neuroscientists often confirm the findings of Freud and his precursors: that the unconscious plays a key role in our attitudes and behaviour (our thoughts are often post hoc rationalisations); we are aware of the subliminal role of advertising and marketing in shaping our desires (it is no accident that a relative of Freud influenced Madison Avenue early in the last century) and we bandy about psychoanalytic terms like projection, extroversion, introversion and of course narcissism.
This last is routinely used to describe leaders from Emmanuel Macron to Donald Trump and according to Maccoby is a facet of many CEOs. Unfortunately, it is misused and understood only in its crudest form: as standing for vanity and self-regard. And it is also possible that we fail to understand how much it permeates our culture as a whole. Perhaps we are all narcissists now?! (Certainly, the selfie stands as a representative of solipsistic self-regard.)
(In the Freudian view, by the way, we all need a degree of narcissism as a basis for healthy self-esteem; it is when this develops unhealthily that it takes on pathological aspects. And it should be noted that certain roles and cultures mobilise our potential for pathological narcissism. Strutting about on the world stage is a good example.)
There are certain features of unhealthy narcissism that inhibit and actively damage the governance of a country: the desire for control; the creation of in and out groups (those providing and those withholding narcissistic support); vanity and grandiosity; and the pursuit of perfection. These are not of course necessarily negative: Macron’s grandiose confirmation ceremony chimed with a certain idea the French have of la gloire française; the state has to have a degree of control; some groups need to be ‘out’ to ensure the security of the nation; and trying for perfection is often laudable.
But: the French have begun to sense that Macron believes himself to be the embodiment of French glory, with a breath-taking assumption of superiority and a monopoly of wisdom; those unfortunates living in dictatorships understand too well how control can shade into totalitarianism; fundamentalist attitudes disenfranchise unbelievers as heretical non-entities; and perfectionism morphs into a fantasy of omniscience in which learning – the need for which implies that one is less than perfect – is seen as a potential source of shame.
Unfortunately, politicians are pushed into a knowingly false omniscience by the press – who act as a mocking and censorious conscience – and by the opposition parties who monitor every utterance for inconsistency or error. (Wilde’s view that ‘consistency is the last refuge of the mediocre’ is blithely forgotten.) For example, any politician in the U.K. who admitted to not understanding the full ramifications of Brexit would be pilloried.
We have applied the concept of narcissism to current affairs thus far but the psychoanalytic and allied professions are by no means immune to its darker aspects. In the Tavistock Institute’s course in Supervision for Coaching and Consultancy for instance we identify and discuss the potential for narcissistic ‘omniscience’ and the defence against the shame of ‘not knowing’ to hinder progress at each internal boundary of the system: between the supervisor and coach/consultant, between coach/consultant and client/client organisation.
We know from Argyris’ work that young consultants from a major firm can be so suffused with arrogance that they tell their clients what to do without allowing themselves to learn from precisely those clients. Coaches are themselves ‘supposed to know’ and this can cause issues with senior clients who are also admired – not least by themselves – for their perspicacity. When it comes to conceptualising a client organisation coaches and consultants often deny the Otherness of a company with all its complexity and history, and try to fit it into familiar frameworks and models: in short, they try to render Same what is Other. They judge from a de haut en bas position, and effectively moralise, telling clients what they should or should not do, while taking no account of idiosyncratic features and realpolitik. Supervisors and supervisees can be caught up in pointless rivalries that undermine progress.
These attitudes and intellectual manoeuvres are rooted in a rigid sense of identity – as the clever person who knows the answer – and the consequent fear of, and shame at, having to learn. Learning implies that one is not perfect and chips away at the ‘omniscient’ identity. The supervisor – while being alert to this tendency in themselves – can help their clients to put intellectual rivalry to one side, absorb information unfiltered by ego and be humble enough not to know.
And of course, all this applies to heads of government. It is interesting to speculate how leaders such as Macron, Trump and May manifest their reluctance to learn in various ways: Macron’s undeniable brilliance has left him blind to the subtler issues of culture and feeling; Trump aggressively vaunts his ignorance; while Theresa May closets herself in smaller and smaller closed systems of group-think, impervious to new ideas and perspectives.
We are now inviting applicants for the next cohort of the Certificate in Supervision for Coaching & Consultancy, a professional development course in 3 modules accredited by the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations.
The course is held at the Tavistock Institute in central London and is non-residential: 3 modules of 2 days each.