Look at how we normally talk about the various kinds of mental illness or personality disorder. We say that someone “has” schizophrenia, or that they “suffer from” depression. It seems we think of mental illness as a thing, a malignant entity to which we are subjected; perhaps there is an echo of the old theory of mental illness as demon possession in there. Sometimes we also think of mental illness as a distortion, a “disorder”; the elements of the mind are thrown out of whack.
But perhaps a better way of thinking is that mental problems arise from absence. The things that make a full, abundant life are just not all there.
I’m no psychologist, of course, but in the past decade I’ve had a fair amount of experience dealing with people of various, colorful forms of mental health problems. The one I’ve struggled with the most is narcissism; of all the mental health issues, I think it’s the most destructive. Most of the time, people with mental health problems can’t do too much damage because they undermine themselves. Unless they can manage their problems, they can’t maintain a regular life, and stuff up themselves and those around them. This is always tragic, of course, but at least it is somewhat limited.
Narcissists, perhaps alone among those with serious mental issues, are often not dysfuncional at all, and in fact their conviction and forcefulness makes them very effective in jobs that require authority. Politics, business, celebrities, and yes, religions, are full of narcissists. They are singly focussed on getting and maintaining power, and are often much more successful at it than people with a more balanced approach to things. And when someone with a clinical narcissistic disorder is, say, running a country or a corporation or a Buddhist organization, trouble is never far away.
What struck me recently, though, is how predictable narcissism is. The same thought patterns, same ideas, same obsessions. If you’ve been bullied by one narcissist, you’ve been bullied by them all.
What kinds of things am I thinking of? Well, there could be lots of examples, but here’s one that I’ve noticed. A narcissist will always want power over others, who are inevitably seen as a threat, unless they acknowledge the narcissists unquestionable superiority. One way they assert power is to make some kind of criticism of the other. It doesn’t really matter what, anything will do. Now, there’s nothing unusual about that; just ordinary petty putdowns. Normally, however, this behavior is checked, because if the criticism is incorrect, the criticizer looks bad.
But this isn’t a problem for the narcissist. They just make the criticism and move on. While the other party is responding, they just make another criticism. The lack of factually is irrelevant. A true narcissist can never be wrong, for truth is defined by their utterance. Recall the words of the Bush aide (believed to be Karl Rove) talking to a journalist:
… when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out.
This is narcissism in a nutshell. They are not subject to reality; reality is subject to them. I’m sure we can all think of plenty of other examples of this kind of thing in the political sphere.
So the usual patterns of thought, which pretty much all of us use, become ossified, hardened. We define the world by our thoughts; and those thoughts are mean, small, and hard. And incredibly boring.
This is a way of being human that is so tiny. We are capable of so very much, yet we fulfill so little of our promise. Making a self is hard work; that’s why the Indian traditions speak of “I-making” (ahamkara). Ego is not something that you have, it’s something you create, continually, every moment. And you create it by building boundaries; cutting yourself off from parts of yourself, limiting your possibilities.
If there’s any truth to this, perhaps it might be useful in thinking about how to help people with troubles. Maybe it’s not the ego as such that is the problem; its the absence of all the other things that make up a fully rounded person. Instead of fixing the “problem”, we should encourage growth. Become more, become fuller. The more round, more abundant our lives become, the less we feel the need to build such high walls to protect our selves.