Archive for the Narcissism Category

Empathy and eros

Posted in emotions, empathy, Eros, intimate relationships, John Powell, Narcissism with tags , on March 10, 2011 by Steve

In a previous blog post, I lingered at some length on why it is so important that finite, vulnerable, and ever-changing individuals care about and esteem those around them with dignity and acceptance. Basically, we need each other because throughout our lives we are interdependent “social selves”, not independently made individuals. We are who we are in relationship to others. In the words of John Powell: “I can only know that much of myself which I have had the courage to confide in you”.

Empathy in this sense of acceptance and maintaining a non-judgmental stance is particularly relevant to the practice of counselling and psychotherapy, and it was client-centred therapist Carl Roger who triumphed this understanding of empathy as the core component of successful therapy. Recently, though, I have been lead to contemplate empathy as a variable central to intimate relationships which are authentic and allow for individual change and growth. In his Eros in a Narcissistic Culture, Ralph Ellis proposes that eros, or the experience of being in love, can occur between two people only where the following three conditions are met:

  1. Both people feel the need for radical existential transformation
  2. There exists between them a ‘space of empathy’
  3. Each of them has decided to be attentive to the other’s sexuality

Thus, in the context of intimate relationships, empathy allows “me to both to be fully who I am in relation to this person, and to become within this space a continually new, changing and non-static person as the conscious progressions unfold and develop.” (p.170) Like the Rogerian therapist, Ellis defines the space of empathy in an eros (erotic) relationship as “an attitude of complete, non-judgmental and non-directive acceptance of all the other’s feelings and attitudes, so that the flow of conscious progressions is never cut off, deflected or forced into inauthenticity.” (p.170)

In contrast to this relationship of authenticity, intimacy, nurturance, and self- and other- exploration, the relationship in which the ‘space of empathy’ has broken down or never existed, the heart-pounding ecstatic thrill of eros is simply no longer possible:

I cannot open myself up to a space of empathy with someone in precisely those cases where I cannot trust the other not to judge me, condemn me, direct me to be different from who I am, and thus require me to pretend to be someone I am not authentically motivated to become – or perhaps even pressure me to deceive myself that I wish to be such a being. (p. 170-171)

Empathy is important not only in this definition based in Rogerian therapy, but also in its more basic meaning as a capacity to understand and appreciate the feelings and experiences of others. Intimate partners need not ‘become one’ in the sense that they renounce any individual differences or non-shared interests and hobbies. Rather, oneness and unity comes from the appreciation and enjoyment of the other’s personhood and uniqueness:

“We want to understand them so that we can see the complete vision of the richness of the being of the other, so that we can contemplate its full beauty and vicariously enjoy the pattern of the flowing of this person’s form of consciousness, and so that we can participate with it and flow together with it.” (p. 91)

Thus, an underlying space of empathy is essential for an ongoing experience of erotic love (not just sexual attraction or companionship) since it allows the verbal and non-verbal communication between the two partners to unfold in an unobstructed, authentic and free-flowing way.

Without empathy, eros is dead.


Ellis, R. D. (1996). Eros in a Narcissistic Culture: An Analysis Anchored in the Life-World. Kluwer Academic Publishers: Dordrecht, The Netherlands.

Powell, S. J. (1969). Why Am I Afraid to Tell You Who I Am? Argus Communications: Niles, Illinois.


Underbelly, Sex & Psychopathy – The case of Terry Clark

Posted in children's sexual development, John Bowlby, Narcissism, parenting, personality, psychopathology on March 24, 2009 by Steve

terry-clark-alison-smallerHaving been watching this series of Underbelly: A Tale of Two Cities, it has been facinating, enthralling and disturbing to see qualities in the relationships between characters such as trust, fear, respect, cowering, allegiance and power working themselves out in such an interesting period of Australian history (1970s-80s).

So far the main character – Terry Clark – has been revealed as the devious drug trafficking-boss; the persuasive and empassioned two-faced person-user; the brilliant and calculatingly cruel mastermind; the perfectly charming seducer and womaniser. Last night’s episode gave particular insight into the psychopathic and narcissistic aspects of his personality. Not knowing any of the true story apart from this series, I am basing my observations entirely on the character of Terry as revealed by the Channel 9 TV series.

Firstly, Terry is characterised by a cold, calculating attitude and remorselessly cruel treatment of anyone who threatens his drug importing schemes. He uses people for his own ends, buttering them up with praise and flattery, only to turn on them when they fall out of his favour. Superficially, he is warm and generous, lavshing money, parties and praise on his “friends”. However, without much warning at all, these so-called friends soon discover the daker side of Terry’s personality, and his perfectionistic standards don’t permit second chances. The result is that those failing to perform or “cracking” under police pressure don’t last long, usually ending up savagely murdered, battered and buried.

The underlying issue seems to be Terry’s incapacity to genuinely feel the reality of another’s emotions – an inability to empathise. This particularly came to the fore on last night’s episode when Terry threatens to kill his ex-girlfriend over her taking their son back to New Zealand: “If you take him away from me, I’ll kill you.” She aptly replies: “What do you think that will do to him? You don’t know how to love him. Until you can feel somebody else’s pain, you don’t know how to love.” Here, Terry’s obvious emotional coldness is verbalised in terms of his inability to feel another’s pain.

Interestingly, this comment seems to make an impression on Terry, since it stops him for a moment, catching him off guard. Momentarily aware of his emotional deadness, it saddens him, thus experiencing a genuine emotion. His super-cool façade is prized open, revealing a instance of grief and perhaps anger over his lost, emotionless existence. This momentarily living in his ‘heart’ rather than in his ‘head’ reveals that he is not simply a purely evil monster after all. He is not a monochrome Dr-Evil-carboard-cut-out villain of darkness. Some part of him is still emotionally alive; he is hurt – with a deep sense of powerlessness – and trying desperately to hide this pain behind his perfectionistic strivings, coldness and accomplishments of power and prestige.

Another facet of Terry’s narcissistic disturbance is reveal in his intimate and romantic exploits – particularly in his performance of sex acts. As revealed in the series so far, Terry has an appetite for women – particularly for having sex with them (the series is very intent on showing us this!). Having impregnated his first girlfriend from New Zealand, Terry is quick to move  in on a younger, more available girl – Alison – while the first is back home preparing to give birth. His lack of genuine attachment is seen in his inability to remain loyal for any lengthy period. Indeed, being alone is probably too painful a reminder of some past abandonment that Terry must find someone to share his lonely nights (bed) as soon as it is empty.

Nevertheless, Terry is an intense lover, and it may seem to stand in contrast to the earlier observations that Terry is emotionally cold to see such a passionate and romantic side to Terry’s personality. Indeed, Terry has the ability to charm and seduce. He knows how to put on sincerity and empathy when it comes to obtaining the sex he wants. He plays his smooth-talker cards and woos the woman with the body he desires. Ultimately, though, the sex is sought as a reflection of his ability to achieve, and the woman who provides the sex meets his narcissistic need to be successful in all areas to which he sets his mind. That he will later decide to have Alison killed reveals the true nature of his “love” for any of these romantic pursuits.

Furthermore, if the intimate relationship for Terry is not a genuinely emotional bond of mutual trust and respect, then the sex itself is not something he is emotionally engaged in – it is but a performance. Terry’s passion and intensity in the relationship is not directed towards her as a prized lover, but it is directed towards himself as a triumphing, accomplished performer. It is a show of his “success” at getting a woman respond positively to him. As Alexander Lowen explains in his book Narcissism about one of his clients, “Being emotionally dead, Erich derived little bodily pleasure from the sexual act. His satisfaction stemmed from the woman’s response… his lovemaking was more a servicing of the woman than an expression of passion.” (pp. 3-4)

However faithfully Underbelly portrays Terry Clark as a ruthless criminal, cold-blooded murderer and grandiose lover, it points us to the reality of the deep emotional disturbance which makes him a tragically fascinating case study from recent Australian history. Many books have now been written about the roots of psychological disturbances, but I would like to refer to one by John Bowlby, a psychoanalysist and attachment theorist, which I happen to be reading at the moment. The book is particularly remarkable since it was written with so much clarity on the topic and yet was written so long ago. Child Care and the Growth of Love is a summary of a World Helath Organisation report prepared by Bowlby in 1951 and details the psychological impact of deprivation in childhood and the importance of love from the primary carer (usually the mother). Written in the context of hospitalisation and institutionalisation of abandoned or unwell children, Bowlby revealed that an absence of motherly love in the critical period of a child’s first years of life will frequently result in depression, excessive demanding, superficial socialising, sexual promiscuity, lying, stealing and aggression, as an adult.

In one example Bowlby described the child who has withdrawn himself emotionally from others, due to the previous intensity of pain of having had his heart broken by the loss of loving relationships (mother, nurses, carers). He wrote (p.63):

To withdraw from human contact is to avoid further frustration and to avoid the intense depression which human beings experience as a result of hating the person whom they most dearly love and need. Withdrawal is thus felt to be the better of two bad alternatives… But experience shows that once a person has taken refuge in the relative painlessness of withdrawal he is reluctant to change course and to risk the turmoil of feeling and misery which attempting relationships brings with it. As a result he loses his capcity to make affectionate relationships and to identify himself with loved people… Thenceforth he becomes a lone wolf, pursuing his ends irrespective of others. But his desire for love, repressed though it is, persists, resulting in behaviour such as promiscuous sex relations and the stealing of other people’s possessions. Feelings of revenge also smolder on, leading to other anti-social acts, sometimes of a very violent character.

Tragically, though such knowledge has been circulating for so many years and though we have more resources and support, we still seem to be unable to escape the cycle of neglect-pain-repression-coldness that continues on throughout the generations. Indeed, until we can find the healing that comes from warm acceptance and unconditional tender love that God wants us to give to and receive from each other, this cycle of pain will go on. Sadly, there will be more Terry Clarks.

So we long for mercy now, and for the healed, whole, resurrection-life to come when Christ returns.