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The Epidemic of Narcissism by Cathryn Polonchak, L.C.S.W.

Thursday, September 15, 2016 12:44 PM | Jung Society of Washington

C. G. Jung states in his essay The Psychology of the Child Archetype:

…we are confronted at every new stage in the differentiation of consciousness to which civilization attains, with the task of finding a new “interpretation” appropriate to this stage, in order to connect the life of the past that still exists in us with the life of the present, which threatens to slip away from it.  If this link-up does not take place, a kind of rootless consciousness comes into being no longer oriented to the past, a consciousness which succumbs helplessly to all manner of suggestions and, in practice, is susceptible to psychic epidemics.  (1959/1977, para. 267)

Our culture has succumbed to the psychic epidemic of narcissism (an alienation from the self) which simply perpetuates itself as it is handed down from one generation to another.  Where did it all start?  How did we get to this place?  By the use of will,  civilized man’s consciousness has become more and more differentiated, more one-sided. He has lost touch with his roots, both the compensating feminine principle and the experiencing realm of the young child.

Our Western, masculine-dominated culture, with its emphasis on progress, shuns anything that may resemble a regressive movement.  Innately, we are driven toward the light, toward a differentiated consciousness of the masculine principle.  Jung’s theory of the psyche is based on the idea that consciousness arises out of the unconscious (generally associated with the feminine, the irrational, the undifferentiated, the body, the instinctual, relating to, experiential knowledge,  completion and darkness). This is illustrated in both the phylogenetic and ontogenetic development of the human brain.  In both the historical and individual brain development, the last part to develop is the cortex region — known as the executive center and biased toward the rational, the differentiated, the mind, the spiritual, controlling of, abstract knowledge, perfection and light— all are considered aspects of the masculine principle and associated with the conscious realm.  We as a people needed this developing movement to advance our civilization via the scientific discoveries and new technology. However, our culture’s psyche appears to have a malfunctioning self-regulator which has resulted in an increasingly greater imbalance between the masculine and feminine principles — between the collective consciousness and its compensating unconscious.

Carl Jung indicated in the above statement that our past still exists inside of us (the unconscious psyche which encompasses our subjective nature of emotions, bodily sensations, perceptions, and images) and that we need to find a way to “connect the life of the past” to “the life of the present”.  Failure to do so will result in a “rootless consciousness” that is “no longer oriented to the past.” This means that we would no longer be grounded in our subjective experiences (in a sense of an embodied, experiencing self as a culture).  I describe this state of rootless consciousness as having no sense of self and would call it a narcissistic disturbance.  Without our embodied/feeling/subjective experiences to ground us in who we are as individuals, we are prey to all sorts of suggestions from outside ourselves as to what we perceive, what we experience, what we feel, how we should respond, what we need, and what we want.

According to Jung, it appears that the “new interpretation appropriate to this stage of differentiation of consciousness” needs to include the linking of the present state of differentiation (masculine aspects) with the past (aspects of the feminine realm and the state of early childhood). This linking would only come if we can overcome our propensity for the light and soaring heights of consciousness and dare turn inward toward the deep and darkened realm of the unconscious. 

I suggest that it is the devaluation and depotentiation of the unconscious, irrational feminine realm by our patriarchal culture that has resulted in our current psychic epidemic of narcissism— a culture that breeds emptiness and souless-ness.  We are currently in the midst of a psychic epidemic.  Is the enantiodromia in view?  Can we as a culture meet the task Jung mentions above  of “finding a new interpretation appropriate of this stage in order to connect the past that still exists in us to the life of the present which threatens to slip away from it”?  Can we hold onto both realms — and let them inform each other?

Cathryn Polonchak is a certified Jungian Analyst and a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the state of West Virginia. She has a private practice in the Shepherdstown and the Charles Town/Harpers Ferry areas of West Virginia. In addition to her membership in JAWA, Cathryn is the Director of Seminar for the Philadelphia Association of Jungian Analysts (PAJA), and a member of IRSJA, IAAP, and NASW. She is particularly interested in the interface between body and mind, particularly at the psyche-soma level of trauma. 

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