Take her, please, I say. Do you have any openings? But she is not mine to give away, and if she leaves me, if she says that perhaps she would be better with another therapist—for narcissistic patients are notoriously particular and there is always something wrong with the one who came before, to which you are the antidote, until you, too, are replaced—then it means I have failed. But to keep her on is also to fail.
The conundrum presented by this patient is a question that political psychology can answer in both a more expansive and a more contextualized way than individual psychotherapy. Revolutions, as Hannah Arendt wrote in The Origins of Totalitarianism, eat their own children. When the loyalty is absolute, the mirroring becomes too perfect. When the mirroring becomes too perfect, there is no area in which the individual or even the mass can operate.
All the air has been sucked out of the room. It is at this point that splitting must occur in order for the infant—or the populist mass—to survive. It mutates, it dissociates, it splits, it rejects the all-good leader for the all-bad one from which it has been trying to protect the all-good internalized partial object. Which is how Mike Pence nearly ended up on the scaffold—he inhabited the all-bad to Trump’s attempt to continue the non-nuanced, unintegrated, all-good.
The problem with a mirroring—any mirroring—that is too seamless is that it forecloses negotiated psychological space. It shuts down dialogue. How can I tell you I am hungry if you don’t let me learn what hunger is so that I can communicate it to you? It is the overfed child. it is the child who cannot recognize its own hunger because its mother shuts that hunger down before it can manifest itself as an experience that the child is having that is separate from the mother’s own experience and separate from the experience of the child as being experienced by the mother. Discomfort is how identity and independence develop. It is through discomfort that we come to know who we are.
However, the narcissist sees only perfect mirroring from the therapist. Anything that is imperfect is rushed past, skimmed over, which is ironic because that is precisely what the patient is here to discuss: life’s imperfections. In the narcissist’s wash of words, of endless petty complaints, of inconsolable whining, the patient says to me that if we have any issues between us at all, it is probably that we are just too similar. We are, in her mind, co-professionals.
The Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, in his novel Things Fall Apart, describes, in a chapter on the Igbo cosmology, the notion of the chi. Chi is the arbiter of our fate or destiny, with whom we forge a pre-natal contract that the individual makes with his or her destiny.