Discover more from Hacking Narcissism
How outsourcing your authority keeps you stuck
and how to avoid going into denial
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I have been recharging for a week in a little spiritual oasis in India, far from city life and the usual conversations about institutional betrayal and narcissism. Being away prompted thinking about the many ways demoralisation manifests itself in a community or population. For example, toxic workplace culture can be seen as a function of group demoralisation or bullying within a friend or professional group.
Then there are less defined groups within a population based on a shared belief system or an ideology. These demoralised groups tend to employ a number of tricks to regain control and safeguard against future betrayals and disappointments. These tricks include denialism, cynicism, skepticism and devising conspiracy theories to reinforce that there’s ‘us’ that is more trustworthy and superior than ‘them’. Some groups use subversion to corrupt formerly trusted institutions to enforce a new right think and eliminate threats to the burgeoning Better Future™. Rigid views about how the world and higher (human) powers operate, and their anointed authorities and messiahs who will lead us to A Better Future™ are chosen.
Denialism took on new forms since the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic and continues to guide us into a modern Dark Ages where feelings, discomfort and personal views are data defining a new evidence base of reality. Another wave of breaking down convention/tradition through active and intentional corrosion is occurring to create an imagined fantastical future. Substack has a plethora of writers on the political, ideological, socioeconomic problems of these times contributing to collective narcissism, so I’ll spare you more of that here.
I want to zone in on the microcosm of denialism and examine what is happening within an individual that contributes to this collective destructive phenomenon.
Denialism is the group version of an individual in denial. Denial is a belief and an action rooted in doubt, loss of faith and betrayal of trust by a human, institutional or ideological authority. When these emotions remain unexamined, they can easily guide someone to deny the truth of reality against facts and mountains of evidence.
As a truth seeker, how do you safeguard your mind and heart from self-deception when your beliefs about an authority are challenged or betrayed?
How do you know which authorities to trust when a different authority betrayed your trust?
I believe life presents opportunities to cultivate discernment, commitment to upholding our moral principles and trust in in ourselves as an authority of your own life’s choices on your quest to uncover the truth. Or at least, what’s true enough at the moment that is worth trusting.
I will describe what can occur when certainties of life betray or mislead you and the process of navigating the disruption, as well as the traps at each step that will trick you to cling to the past and hide from the truth. I’m focusing on this because so many people are distressed and demoralized, are unaware of their emotional turbulence, and externalize their distress in ways that look a lot like malignant narcissistic behaviour toward anyone who doesn’t see things their way, including people who are close to them.
At this point in a piece, I usually present a scenario about a problematic relationship.
This time, I want to invite you to draw on your own problematic relationship or situation that didn’t have a happy ending or an easy decision to make.
Remember a moment when you realised that something felt off with a friend, workplace situation or in a community. You saw, heard and experienced something that challenged your view of that person or the community to which you belonged. The moment catalysed a chain of events that eventually led you to reduce your investment in the relationship or cut ties with that person or the community altogether.
Hopefully you have someone in mind by now.
The moment in time that I’ve asked you to recall is the beginning of the long process that I’ll call DISRUPT. That moment is a disruption of the world as you knew it that catalyses the unfolding of a disruptive process meant to shake you out of status quo, re-examine your priorities, values and moral principles, and cause a change in your direction or identity and relationships. DISRUPT ends when you reach a decision about what you will do about the relationship - ie. changing a role you play in a relationship, how you will proceed with the other person/group or leaving a relationship/situation.
DISRUPT transitions into the next phase of EXTRACT that will require you to action the decision you arrived at during DISRUPT about the relationship/situation in question. EXTRACT involves you executing your decision and navigating the backlash of disrupting the status quo of the relationship/situation without going back on your decision. EXTRACT then leads to the final phase of RELEASE, where you put some distance between yourself and the situation that you just extracted from and assess the impact on you. RELEASE involves mourning the loss of relationships/important figures you left behind, the broken dreams and fantasies and glimpsing new possibilities for yourself and planning your future relationship dynamics.
These 3 phases form what I call the Liberation Cycle necessary for a person to individuate from relationships with now false, restrictive or outdated authority figures. Authority figures can be:
a social group
a social cause
a political ideology and group
a belief system
an identity and identity group
a parasocial relationship ie. a political leader
a professional relationship
an institution (including family) or
a role you play in a relationship defined by the other person/group.
The individual that emerges from each pass of a cycle is more mature, has deeper trust in themselves, has greater adherence to their convictions and moral principles and you guessed it, less likely to initiate or engage in narcissistic power struggles with others.
The Stages of DISRUPT
Let’s go through the stages of DISRUPT drawing on your own scenario.
1. A shock rocks your world. It can be a traumatic experience, betrayal by someone you trusted, or a morally distressing incident. It can also be subtle, like a gradual change in a friend’s behaviour when they begin acting differently with you, or you catch someone in a lie that they deny, or you gave some feedback and they DARVO’d you. Whether it’s obvious or subtle, this sudden change has enough of a destabilising effect on you that heralds the beginning of DISRUPT process.
2. You have an emotional reaction and instant interpretations about what happened. You might feel upset or worry about others as you try to make sense of the situation and what to do about it. Depending on who you talk to about your feelings and who you trust as an authority figure in your life, you can end up shutting those feelings down and denying ever having the emotional reaction in order to pretend that the shocking experience was no big deal or that it never happened. Your doubt about the event having occurred invites different perspectives to confirm your doubt rather than maintain openness to multiple interpretations.
3. An inner conflict develops because you now see the person/authority in a different light than before. The old reality/perception is in conflict with the new reality/perception. You now have a dilemma that is bringing up mixed emotions, including grief from losing the fantasy you held about that person/authority. Doubt can feature at this step to resolve the inner conflict by making excuses for the authority figure’s misconduct or convincing yourself that what you experienced is all in your imagination. This can easily result in denial of the original shocking event ever happening or being influenced by others who are denial about the shocking situation.
4. Cognitive dissonance occurs. You feel doubt about what you experienced and search for reasons to cling to old reality/perception of the authority. This is often where people say to have faith or to draw on your faith in the prevailing authority figure. Self-deception involves searching for the Bigger Picture Explanation or higher truth/teaching to bypass discomfort of uncertainty. Your willingness to discard what you experienced increases to prevent returning to feeling challenged or inner conflict.
5. The weight of the new reality sinks in as does fear for its implications in your life - things you’ll need to let go of (people, ideas, project, relationships, beliefs). If the prospect of ending a relationship or letting something go is too scary, you might deny the gravity of your situation and look for redeeming qualities of the betraying person/authority in order to avoid making any changes in your life or the now problematic relationship.
6. You begin to loosen your grip on the old reality and lose interest in the authority figure that was so important to you before the disruption began. You also start to feel like you’re losing your mind or that your current perception of your situation can’t be trusted. You’re at risk of feeling guilty because you’re thinking about letting go of friends/job/project/group/belief system. You might feel like you’re betraying the authority figure/group that meant so much to you/influenced you in the past. You might convince yourself here that your choices can’t be trusted while you’re in such a confused state.
7. You search for theories, meaning and explanations that you haven’t yet considered. You ask questions. You look at different information sources – authorities – to put faith into because you’re ready to discard the old authority. The trap in this step is to seek a replacement for the old authority without examining your own guiding principles. The risk is that you discover a shiny new object/authority presenting a new paradigm that gives you hope, purpose and something to emotionally invest in. If you’re so disillusioned by the betraying authority figure, it’s likely you’ll find comfort in others who are also disillusioned by the same authority figure and have found a New Way that will have appeal to you. This is the route to denialism.
The alternative is that you will grasp a different paradigm that emerges from your principles - your inner authority - that will give you a direction that is sustainable and won’t make your life worse or cause a massive overhaul of your belief system.
8. You orient toward the new paradigm/reality armed with ideas about the actions you now need to take to bond with and live into it.
Where does denial fit into this process of DISRUPT? Denial is a strategy to abort the process at any step to avoid or suppress the range of emotions that arise from inner conflict.
A brief scenario - morals DISRUPTED
You watch a documentary on the cattle industry and realise at a deep level that it’s harmful to cows and you feel morally distressed about it. You start to do your research and speak to specific authorities about what you can do to resolve your dilemma. You come to the conclusion that you need to become vegetarian because you now believe it’s better for your health and the ethical treatment of cows. This will lead you to overhaul your current dietary practices, clothing choices, enlist in activism and change the people you hang out with. You feel good about your decision because you now believe that eating beef is bad for the cows, environment, your karma and for humanity and you no longer want to contribute to this problem.
The other way you might go about it is that you research about the cattle industry, examine your moral principles and consider implications on your health should you change your diet. After careful consideration and consultation with nutrition experts, you decide you will still eat beef but sourced from ethical practices. You still feel unsure that this is the right thing given you still feel conflicted about eating beef but you recognise this is the right choice that enables you to follow your own ethical principles while avoiding unintended consequences to your own health. You decide to reevaluate again in 6 months time.
Another scenario - a friendship DISRUPTED
You have a long term friendship with someone you believed shared your values. As time went on you started to notice that your friend seemed to piggy back on your interests and started to develop programs for their clients based on the things they’ve learned from you. You didn’t mind at first because friendship is about supporting each other’s interest and encouraging each other’s success. As you pursue new interests, you decide to keep them to yourself. After some time you share some of the insights you’ve had from delving into the area of interest (ie. narcissism) and your friend seems to feel challenged by them. Your friend confronts you about the conversation a week later telling you they felt really uncomfortable and that they needed to put some boundaries in place about what you are allowed to talk about with them. This is not the first time your friend has put some restrictions on the relationship that surprised you. In the past, you went through the DISRUPT process and stalled at step 3 and decided that the friendship was worth preserving, and that you were overreacting, but that you would tell your friend how you felt about their rules and try to negotiate another way of doing things. Your friend agreed but you felt that the conversation was superficial to placate you rather than genuine. You let it go for the sake of the friendship and go back to business as usual.
This time, however, you feel shocked at the chutzpah of this friend. After you pick your jaw up from the floor, you come away from the conversation feeling confused and upset about being imposed rules on what you thought was a mutual relationship. You undergo the steps of the DISRUPT process and come to the conclusion this time that this friendship hasn’t been fulfilling your needs for a long time, it’s restrictive and your values have diverged, making the friendship unsustainable. You decide that your next step is to emotionally distance and begin the process of exiting the friendship.
For truth seekers, the process doesn’t end at the completion of DISRUPT. You will want to understand HOW you ended up in the relationship dynamic, what or who influenced the role you played, where else is the issue occurring in your life and what you’re willing to sacrifice to no longer participate in those situations or relationships.
There are two more phases that will involve actioning the decision that you arrived at the end of DISRUPT and navigating the backlash of implementing actions that will disturb some relationships in your life. You will also need to resist the temptation to return to familiar relational and behaviour patterns while you’re in the process of interrupting or dismantling those familiar patterns that you became aware of during DISRUPT. Each of the steps in the process of EXTRACT and RELEASE are filled with traps and pitfalls that will cause you to doubt, question your faith in yourself and urge you to go into denial to abort the process.
I will discuss the phases of EXTRACT and RELEASE in future posts.
Does this sound familiar to you? If so, which step of DISRUPT are you in right now regarding a situation or relationship in question? Comment below!
Change can be painful and challenging to navigate. It’s habitual to give others authority (or enable someone to assume a role as authority figure in your life) to influence your decisions, especially when you’re unclear about your own principles and values, or your direction. Life presents challenges and opportunities to develop discernment and commitment to being guided by your own moral principles and faith (not necessarily religious) as the most important authorities in your life.
This process of change beginning with DISRUPT is part of a wider individuation process. Individuation from the authorities who conditioned or influence you to act according to their ways and their principles, while unintentionally devaluing or ignoring your own way.
Individuating is moving away from assimilating into someone else’s ideal, resisting external influences and moving toward a liberating paradigm guided by your own authority - your own moral principles, faith (not necessarily religious) and evidence that fits your philosophical or ethical framework.
Denial is the authority that can lead any of us down a route away from truth when desperately seeking to find it.
If you’re uncomfortable, uncertain, not sure where you’re heading and can tolerate those feelings…just keep going.
Thank you for reading, sharing, commenting, subscribing and supporting my work,
Nathalie Martinek, PhD
The Narcissism Hacker
Hack narcissism and support my work
I believe that a common threat to our individual and collective thriving is an addiction to power and control. This addiction fuels and is fuelled by greed - the desire to accumulate and control resources in social, information (and attention), economic, ecological, geographical and political systems.
While activists focus on fighting macro issues, I believe that activism also needs to focus on the micro issues - the narcissistic traits that pollute relationships between you and I, and between each other, without contributing to existing injustice. It’s not as exciting as fighting the Big Baddies yet hacking, resisting, overriding and deprogramming our tendencies to control others that also manifest as our macro issues is my full-time job.
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