It’s a long overdue welcome, to be sure.
After all, you were born in it. You were raised in it. Most likely, every single person in your family tree (as much of it as you can trace, anyway) was also born and raised in it. You’ve probably never set so much as a toe outside of the narcissystem and may have few to zero points of reference that don’t exist within it. But this is exactly why a proper welcome is necessary: living so deep within this manufactured reality makes it nearly impossible to see what it really is.
That’s why I gave it a name: the narcissystem.
The narcissystem is analogous to what people variously call the matrix, the patriarchy, the system, colonialism, the man, etc. I dabble in all of these phrases too, but they’re problematic in a couple ways. First, their definitions are nebulous (it isn’t easy to define the beast whose belly is the only home you’ve ever known) and secondly, that nebulousness can contribute to divisiveness and friction.
‘Patriarchy’ and ‘the man’ are easily interpreted as anti-man (and to explain why this isn’t true for me, I’d have to dive into ancient history and Chinese philosophy so we’ll save that for another time).
’Colonialism’ conjures up images of old-timey white people, which is completely accurate, but also misses a lot of the deeper truths and parallels that we need to understand- if you’re just on the lookout for folks with powdered wigs and breeches, then you’re going to miss what’s happening right under your nose.
And while ‘the matrix’ is elegantly appropriate in the sense of a man-made grid grafted onto real life- and in the fact that it comes from ancient words for mother that were appropriated by people who aren’t capable of giving birth- unfortunately it does smack of people who mistake movies for reality.
The term I always used was ‘the system’ because at least it transcends the divisiveness that drags the others down- it’s bigger than political parties, bigger than sex or gender, bigger than skin color or national borders. The system has been at work since the dawn of civilization (or was the dawn of civilization really just the birth of the system?) and it transcends most of the divisions we’ve been raised to internalize. But as I watched the system and honed my understanding of it, something very interesting began to appear…
I had the privilege of being in a relationship with a malignant narcissist for over a decade. I say privilege because if it weren’t for that initiation, I wouldn’t know what I do. Because as I emerged, blinking, from the cave I’d been in for most of the 21st century, I began to see the very patterns I was so familiar with on a personal level played out against entire populations.
At first I assumed I was projecting- that this was just my trauma seeing trauma reflected everywhere- and I kept my heretical notions to myself. But as I healed- slowly- and regained trust in my mind and intuition- very slowly- the parallels I was noticing didn’t disappear. On the contrary, they only multiplied and became more and more substantial. I started to share what I was noticing- first with friends and then more widely on social media- and found that that it wasn’t just me. Other people could see what I was describing.
The narcissystem isn't just an impersonal system of companies, governments and organizations that happens to be full of narcissisists (there are plenty of those, of course, but there are genuine folks in the system too). If that were the case, it would be much too simple for us to just clean house, fire some people, impeach some others and start fresh. Narcissists are far too tenacious to let that happen.
One benefit of really understanding narcissists is that I don't underestimate them. I've regretted it almost every time I've extended the benefit of the doubt to narc who used to be in my life and he's hardly the smartest of them. They excel at machinations, at playing the long game, at creating disorienting complexities. And as a system, these qualities have been honed and perfected for eons by many great thinkers.
What’s really special about the term narcissystem, is that unlike any of the others, it’s based on clear, identifiable behaviors where the connection from the personal level, in the individual, to the larger societal level is demonstrable and, I think, obvious.
This allows us to make educated guesses about the whole based on our understanding of the parts- the individual narcissists- with the same traits. It shows us what we're really up against and which gears to stick our gum into to foil their plans. So far, it's served me pretty well.
My ever-expanding list of parallels between the microcosm (narcissist) and the macrocosm (narcissystem) is a wild, tangled bramble ranging from general traits (eg triangulation- turning people (micro) or groups (macro) against each other in order to strengthen their position over all of them) to specific oddities (eg promoting sleep-deprivation in their victims by waking people up to start arguments (micro) or glorifying a grind culture that fosters insomnia (macro)).
For an introduction, though- an orientation to help you get your bearings in this strange, strange land- I turned to Psychology Today for a list of widely accepted defining traits of narcissism. Straight from the DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), this list of nine narcissist-specific traits is a general and impartial starting point, independent of my personal experiences:
Grandiose sense of self-importance.
Preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
Belief that he or she is special and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people or institutions.
Need for excessive admiration.
Sense of entitlement.
Interpersonally exploitive behavior.
Lack of empathy.
Envy of others or belief that others are envious of him or her.
Demonstration of arrogant and haughty behaviors or attitudes.
Since this is an intro to the narcissystem- the pervasive narcissism that each of us is collectively facing- I won’t elaborate on how these traits show up in individual narcissists, but I will link to more information at the bottom of this article. If you think you might be dealing with a narcissist in your personal life, I welcome you to this rabbit hole. I’m also here to help you navigate it and turn your horror story into your own initiation.
It’s also important to note, that yes, we all have some of these traits to various degrees. Recognizing bits of yourself here is normal and does not mean you’re a narc. What distinguishes a true narcissist, is not only the quantity of traits (five or more from the list above), but also how strongly they show up. For example, any of us can run out of empathy depending on circumstances (sleep and stress come to mind), but a true narcissist rarely feels genuine empathy- though they can and do fake it.
And then of course, we’re bound to reflect some of the behaviors glorified by this system we were raised by (aka ‘secrets of success’ or ‘how to get ahead in the world’ or just ‘normal behavior’ ; ). While it isn’t a perfect litmus test, I’ve found in my personal experience that if reading this list gave you a genuine concern that you might be a narcissist…. then you probably aren’t.
Narcissists are allergic to emotional self-reflection, remorse, and the idea that there might be anything wrong with them. So if you worry that you might be a narcissist, that’s at least one indication that you might not be.
Now let’s briefly (because really each one could be its own treatise) break down some of the ways each of these nine core traits show up in our world:
1. Grandiose sense of self-importance.
The very fact that you can go your whole life without even realizing you’re inside the narcissystem is testament to this.
The narcissystem will have you believing that their style of education is the only acceptable style (or the only style period), that any other medical or scientific system is is sub-par, that their democracy is the only real democracy, their religion is the only true religion….. and so on. In short: we have everything figured out, no need to look elsewhere (but of course, you have. And if you’ve wondered why our struggling educational system can’t adopt some of the successful methods of Finnish forest schools, or why western medicine seems so adamantly resistant to elements of Chinese medicine that are obviously working…. well, grandiose self-importance is why).
Even beyond- or rather, beneath- these structural elements of the narcissystem, there’s a grandiosity inherent in their fundamental beliefs that they can make you think what they want you to think, desire what they want you to desire, behave the way they want you to behave.
Unfortunately, they’re not wrong! However, they like to think we’re controllable because they’re so much cleverer than us. In fact, it’s because they’ve spent many generations creating systemic funnels (media, government, etc) to coerce us into the responses they want. Narcissists will do anything for control.
2. Preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
Of course, we see this everywhere, from the glorification of billionaires, to the idea of bodies being changed- digitally and/or surgically- to match ideals that are completely independent of biology, to the countless movies and shows perpetuating harmfully skewed ideas of love and relationship.
We can also see this throughout history: the searches for fountains of youth, cities of gold, objects of power. In fact, this preoccupation has driven many of history’s most celebrated people and movements. From the Greeks and Romans to Christopher Columbus and ‘manifest destiny’ to robber barons and ‘titans of industry’. Many of the things we learn about in history classes are narcissystem propaganda.
If saving the planet was really something we valued, wouldn’t we learn about the many cultures who haven’t treated the land like their personal trust fund, instead of the few who have?
3. Belief that he or she is special and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people or institutions.
Rules for thee, but not for me!
Our striated social structure that separates rich from poor, young from old, famous from regular, politicians from the people they work for (and the elite from all all of us!) is another thing we take for granted because it’s ‘always been like this’.
As I mentioned above, what we’re taught in school as the ‘dawn of civilization’ may be more accurately described as the ‘dawn of the narcissystem’- which also make it the dawn of the hierarchy.
In truth, in countless cultures around the world, people live without these segregations. Those, however, are the cultures that you are taught to consider ‘primitive’- a brilliant way of playing to your insecurity to encourage you to self-segregate from the very people who could lead you back to a more holistic way of life.
4. Need for excessive admiration.
The narcissystem invented the worship of objects and other humans. Beyond its borders, worship is reserved for Nature and creatures/ goddesses/ gods that personify Nature.
If we worshiped Nature, though, we’d quickly realize how absolutely absurd the narcissystem is. So they had to give us things to worship that they can control: kings, politicians, celebrities, achievements, popes and saints (many of the latter abducted from those previously-mentioned Nature-based mythological figures), television, technology, shopping, trends, etc. There’s something for everyone!
Reverence grows from connection and connection grows from attention. If you aren’t sure where your reverence is directed, just look at where your attention goes.
5. Sense of entitlement.
They scrape fish out of the sea, dump their chemical runoff into the rivers, and then charge you money to drink it.
They draw arbitrary borders and decide who can and can’t cross them.
They invent money, print it out of thin air, decide who gets how much of it and then take cuts left and right via taxes on income, sales, property, and many more.
They name mountains after themselves, build McMansions on scenic overlooks, cut down ancient trees, and burrow into the Earth with the confidence of a kid with legos. If it even occurs to them that others might object, they don’t let the thought slow them down.
They pretend to care about the planet, while shifting the blame for carbon footprints onto you and away from them (according to an Oxfam study, “the world's richest 1% emit 175x more than the poorest 10% and 30x as much as the poorest 50%”).
I could go on, but I bet you’re well acquainted with the systemic self-entitlement in the world.
6. Interpersonally exploitive behavior.
On the other hand, the narcissystem knows that we don’t share their sense of abject entitlement and they take full advantage of it. They toy with our senses of empathy and responsibility, manipulating our relationships, diets, purchasing habits, medical choices, etc according to what they advertise as ‘compassionate’ or ‘ethical’. Anyone who second guesses their dictates is easily dismissed as ‘selfish’, ‘cruel’, or whatever insult is trending.
This is just one example of the ways the narcissystem exploits people- an emotional one. They aren’t above also exploiting our allegiances, our time and energy, our bodies, fears, ideas, traumas, etc.
It’s just an extension of their entitlement. Really, we’re just another natural resource to them, here to be mined in whatever ways benefit them.
7. Lack of empathy.
Tired of working so hard for so little? You’re probably just lazy- or, even better, maybe YOU’RE the entitled one, unlike all those hard-working billionaires.
Think something’s unfair? Well, you’ll just have to take it up via the ‘proper channels’ (an Oz-like labyrinth designed to discourage you).
Sick? Excellent **twizzles moustache** we’ll charge you even more for help, while penalizing you for working less.
Single parent? There will be no special help for you. Yes, you’re raising our future, but since that future is just another renewable resource, we care more about them being in school than being taken good care of. In fact, the harder their childhoods, the easier they are to manipulate.
Disagree with us? We’re going to have to silence and vilify you.
Feel like the system is specifically designed to make things harder for you? Let me play my tiny violin from my yacht.
If you’ve ever been through our legal system, you know that it’s specifically designed to be devoid of empathy and seems to reward the individuals within it who share this characteristic.
If you’ve been alive for more than a decade and feel like the world is a cold, hard place….. well, it’s not actually the world, it’s just the part you live in- the narcissystem.
I think the push for AI is a logical extension of this. Without a sense of the value of human sensitivity and vulnerability, any narc would prefer AI uniformity to human unpredictability.
8. Envy of others or belief that others are envious of him or her.
I wonder how much of this stems from sincere superiority and how much is PR to encourage all of us to buy into the superiority. My guess is that the line is blurred for the narcissystem itself.
This trait ties back to trait #1: grandiose self-importance.
All the competition between countries and corporations grows from envy of others/ desire to make others envious. Expansion races, space races, arms races, technological races, medical-breakthrough races, etc. These have been going on since the discovery of iron, at least.
And again, competition like this is so widespread it might be mistaken for human nature. But while people who are truly secure in themselves might feel envy, they aren’t driven by it because their self-worth has other foundations.
9. Demonstration of arrogant and haughty behaviors or attitudes.
This also overlaps with trait #1 and #8. Haughtiness is the key here, but that’s interwoven with grandiosity and the assumption of everyone else’s jealousy.
An example of this that stands out for me, though, was something I noticed during the first months of covid.
As western medicine was practically wringing its hands in confusion about contagion and containment and damage control, I was astounded to observe that even under these dire circumstances there was never a question of conferring with leaders in Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine (the elder siblings- if not parents- of our relatively immature medical system).
The fact that we were openly admitting to frantic confusion and helplessness in the face of steadily climbing case counts but still utterly confident that our confusion must be minor compared to anyone else’s confusion- never mind how many lives were lost- was one of the more arrogant things I’ve witnessed.
Of course, this arrogance is pervasive. It’s evident in the assumption that we’ll forever be content with having two lousy choices for president, that we’ll accept corporations being given preferential treatment, that they can put whatever ingredients in our food and we’ll (literally) eat it up.
The veins of commonalities between narcissist and narcissystem are thousands of years long and deep, but we’ve covered enough for a solid introduction.
The first stages of noticing and connecting the thousands of tentacles of the narcissystem can be terribly overwhelming. I assure you, I know the feeling. Dragging myself out of an oppressive home life only to find myself in a larger version of the same dynamic was incredibly discouraging.
But as I say: it’s an initiation. Facing narcissism shows us the places in ourselves where we need to build strength; the places where we’re too willing to capitulate, or hide, or hold our tongues. It’s a painful and radical invitation to incredible growth, for those who can find the inner strength to accept.
The narcissystem carries the same invitation. The only power they wield is the power we’ve given them. It’s our power.
As we overcome our fears and let ourselves expand into our own natural fullness, they will begin to shrink back to their own natural sizes.
We don’t need to dominate or vanquish them- that would be adopting their own abusive practices. It’s also a cop-out- a way of avoiding the personal growth built into the invitation. It’s enough for us to expand beyond our need for them and they’ll have no choice but to adapt. It’ll be a bumpy transition because they aren’t going to part with their entitlement easily, but there’s really no other choice: their reckless misuse of delusional power has gone on long enough,
Stay tuned here for more on the narcissystem and, most importantly, restoring your power to its rightful place.
If you’re struggling with someone who might be a narcissist, the first step to getting your life back is jumping down the rabbit hole to really understand what you’re experiencing.
You can start with the Psychology Today article I referenced above. You’ll find many more there.
Dr. Ramani’s informative and empowering videos are a must.
Healing from Hidden Abuse: A Journey Through the Stages of Recovery from Psychological Abuse by Shannon Thomas is a book that helped me a lot.
I haven’t read these, but my clients tell me that Narc Decoder and everything else by Tina Swithin is great.