Jarrett argues that the ego is a great barrier to healing because it blocks seeing what is (a point that applies to both patient and practitioner) and, in particular, wants healing without taking responsibility for change, wants to delay doing what is required until it “feels like it”. The ego demands attention to its hurts, traumas and concerns in a way that can block actually fixing the problems.
That is surely true. Jarrett is arguing that the ego is where family and social conditioning resides (or, at least, operates through) and the authentic self is what one can use to break through that conditioning. Which is hard: particularly if one has been, in effect, conditioned to feel bound by one’s conditioning. To not believe that there is something that you have access to by your actions or thoughts which can be relied upon.
If one looks at the ego as insisting on separation and control then narcissism becomes – in its pure form – the complete insistence on separation and control. Including the insistence that reality serve that separation and control or, at least, that how reality is construed does so. The ego reaches out and blocks one’s apprehension of reality from contradicting the needs of the ego. In other words, the narcissist’s convenience becomes their reality principle, the determiner of how they see reality.
Which makes narcissism very hard to heal, since apprehension of reality is, in effect, policed before it can provide a contradicting perspective. There is neither the motive to change (since the harm is generally inflicted on others) nor an avenue for seriously assessing one’s own perspectives. No wonder counselling and psychotherapy can often make narcissists worse. The last thing they need is their emotions validated and it would take a very alert therapist to begin to pick holes in presentation of events that they have no independent verification of. Even if they do so, the narcissist is likely to conveniently reconstrue, or otherwise block, any responses by the therapist that contradict the convenience of the ego.
It can also make dealing with a narcissist profoundly disorienting, since the meaning of all their actions is subordinated to their ego needs. So there is no independent meaning, or even factual basis, to rely on: no consistency beyond their needs and conveniences (which can, of course, change – even from moment to moment). Words and actions do not have the meaning that would be commonly ascribed to them.
Once, however, you work out what is going on, then things suddenly make much more sense. (Though a sense which can be infuriating, in a different way.) One lives in a world where they feel free to contradict themselves and events whenever convenient. As Joanna Ashmum says in her very useful discussion of narcissistic traits:
The most telling thing that narcissists do is contradict themselves. They will do this virtually in the same sentence, without even stopping to take a breath. It can be trivial (e.g., about what they want for lunch) or it can be serious (e.g., about whether or not they love you). When you ask them which one they mean, they'll deny ever saying the first one, though it may literally have been only seconds since they said it – really, how could you think they'd ever have said that? You need to have your head examined! They will contradict FACTS. They will lie to you about things that you did together. They will misquote you to yourself. If you disagree with them, they'll say you're lying, making stuff up, or are crazy.They are the classic emotional vampires who cannot see themselves in the mirror while being profoundly disorienting, or infuriating, or both to deal with.
Their deepest problem is fear: narcissists are profoundly fearful people. They are so terrified of having to bear responsibility for their actions that reflect badly on themselves that they make their (defensive ego) convenience their reality principle. Their psyche is profoundly out of balance: to be cured of their personality disorder, they need to be punctured from their protective ego-inflation and yet be led to the inner confidence to deal with their own bad behaviour. (Which, of course, mounts over time: so becoming ever more frightening.) This is a difficult double act to say the least: particularly given how thoroughly their sense of reality is policed.
The extent of the self-delusion involved can be staggering. (Do they really think that you do not remember what happened? Apparently not.) But that is the point, really. First there is no you-as-actual-person in all this, there is merely whatever picture of you is convenient for the narcissist at any given moment.
Second, there is no what-actually-happened either, there is merely what it is convenient for the narcissist to “remember” as having happened. Which means there is no conversation to be had, no meaningful interaction. There is nothing beyond the narcissist’s convenience that can be appealed to, that sets some common standard, or even common reality. The narcissist’s armour of self-delusion means that nothing will get through, not in the ordinary course of events. So nothing useful will come out, either.
Which makes interacting with a narcissist more like an unfortunate happening, a sort of personal natural disaster, than a personal interaction in any meaningful sense.
But, of course, they are a person: they speak, they act. It is very disorienting, to have to treat what they say and do as not having the ordinary meanings and consequences. This is why an acquaintance was so right to call narcissists “serial killers of the soul”, since such can so profoundly undermine one’s trust in others and, even worse, oneself.
It is very hard not, at some level, to accept their framing as mattering. They are a person, after all – particularly if they were a person who was emotionally important to you.
But they are not really a personality in quite the way other folk are. That is the first, last and hardest lesson of dealing with people personality disorders – they really do not think as you do.
It is, sadly, a lesson one often has to keep re-learning.