Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Sex, Narcissistically

What is narcissistic sex? Is it what Woody Allen called: sex with someone you love? Or is it what Elizabeth Gilbert famously labelled: having your way with yourself.

The question arises from the title of Hannah Seligson's latest article on The Daily Beast: "Do Narcissists Have Better Sex?" Link here.

Actually, the title is a ploy, or, in this context, a tease. The article addresses a more important issue: is the therapy culture responsible for the epidemic of narcissism?

Seligson reports that therapists are increasingly answering this question in the affirmative. They are becoming aware of how they have contributed to producing a culture of narcissism.

One therapist explains: "There is a national obsession with feeling good about yourself.... We have done a good job of teaching people to come up from shame, but we have ignored the issue of having people come down from grandiosity."

Seligson summarizes: "The most recent research on narcissism runs contrary to what the legions of self-help experts have proselytized when it comes to finding love-- that you have to love yourself before you can love someone else."

She adds: "Now that people think more highly of themselves, expectations of what a relationship should be like have skyrocketed into the realm of superlatives."

So, the self-help experts and the therapists... people who have a great influence on cultural values... have gotten it wrong.

They have, as Seligson implies, forgotten that humans are social beings, and that constructing values for autonomous, human units distorts reality and thus induces bad judgments.

A culture that fosters narcissism must deny the value of compromise. When individuals are told that they are paragons of human perfection, they will refuse to settle for anything but the best.

For my own most recent comments on these issues, see my post about the lessons of arranged marriage. Link here.

The therapy culture went wrong in two fundamental ways.

First, it made shame the enemy. It decided that shame was an emotional poison that had to be defeated at any cost. By doing so, it encouraged an epidemic of shamelessness.

The therapy culture made shamelessness into a stepping stone on the path to good mental health.

Yet, shame is the emotional glue that forms the basis for social connection. If you do not feel shame, you do not feel like you belong to a community. Then you will compensate by finding a relationship that affirms that you are too good to belong, too good to conform, and too good to be like everyone else.

If you sacrifice your social being, you will demand a very large compensation.

The therapy culture notwithstanding, a relationship does not involve two self-absorbed, self-gratifying human units. It involves two people who belong to families and communities, who have responsibilities, duties, and obligations to other people.

I have suggested that the root of these problems lies in the social dislocations caused by modern life. Young people especially feel that they have lost their social moorings. They are faced with too many possible mates, and do not know how to make a commitment that feels like settling for something less than perfection.

Psychotherapy could have dedicated itself to helping young people to adjust to cosmopolitan life and to adapt to new communities, even to the point helping them to develop the skills that would make them competent at relationships.

It did not. It chose instead to exploit people's vulnerability.

It has told those suffering from anomie that they are really self-contained individuals who need to fulfill their potential. And it has prescribed romantic love as the cure to all that ails modern youth.

It has told young people that if they find true love they will feel a connection that is beyond anything that a community can offer, a connection that will allow them to express themselves fully, a connection that will cure their anomie for all time.

Find the One, find your soulmate, and you will not have to compromise, negotiate, or work on making the other person happy.

The culture could have promoted the values that make you a good citizen, a good member of a community. It could have promoted good character, modesty, humility, trustworthiness, reliability, and responsibility. It could have told people that building character would help them to adapt to new communities and to develop durable relationships.

If you do not know how to work with others, how to conduct friendships, how to show respect to many people in many different situations, you will be at a loss when the One comes ambling by.

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