Narcissism's Clarion Call - A Dream Interpreted
Frequently Asked Question # 55
By: Dr. Sam Vaknin
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This dream was related to me by a male, 46 years old, who claims to be in the throes of a major personal transformation. Whether he is a narcissist (as he believes himself to be) or not is quite irrelevant. Narcissism is a language. A person can choose to express himself in it, even if he is not possessed by the disorder. The dreamer made this choice.
Henceforth, I will treat him as a narcissist, though insufficient information renders a "real" diagnosis impossible. Moreover, the subject feels that he is confronting his disorder and that this could be a significant turning point on his way to being healed. It is in this context that this dream should be interpreted. Evidently, if he chose to write to me, he is very preoccupied with his internal processes. There is every reason to believe that such conscious content invaded his dream.
"I was in a run-down restaurant/bar with two friends sitting at a table in a large open area with a few other tables and a bar. I did not like the music or the smoky atmosphere or other customers or greasy food, but we were travelling and were hungry and it was open and the only place we could find.
There was a woman with other people at a table about 10 feet in front of me that I found attractive, and noticed she was noticing me as well. There was also another woman with other people at a table about 30 feet to my right, old with heavy make-up and poorly dyed hair, loud, obnoxious, drunk who noticed me. She started saying negative things to me, and I tried to ignore her. She just got louder and more derogatory, with horrible rude and jabbing comments. I tried to ignore her, but my other friends looked at me with raised eyebrows, as if to ask: 'How much more are you going to take before you stand up for yourself?' I felt sick to my stomach, and did not want to confront her, but everyone in the place was now noticing her confrontation of me, and she was almost screaming at me. I couldn't believe no one was telling her to stop it, to be civil, to be nice.
I finally looked over at her and raised my voice and told her to shut up. She looked at me and seemed to get even angrier, and then looked at her plate and picked up a piece of food and threw it at me! I couldn't believe it. I told her I wasn't going to take one more thing, and to stop it now or I would call the police. She got up, walked towards me, picking up a plate of popcorn from another table, and upended it flat upon the top of my head. I stood up and said: 'That's it! That's assault! You're going to jail!' and went to the cash register area by the door and called the police.
The police instantly appeared and took her away, with her resisting arrest the whole time. I sat down and someone at the table next to me said: 'Now you can open up the dam gate.' I said: 'What?', and he explained how the woman was actually pretty powerful and owned a dam and had shut the gate down years ago, but that now she was locked up we could go open it up.
We piled into a truck and I was led into a cavernous room and shown a small room with a glass wall in it and a big wheel, a control valve. I was told that I could turn it whenever I wanted. So I started to turn it and the water started flowing. I could easily see it through the glass, and the level on the glass rose higher the more I turned the wheel. Soon there was a torrent, and it was thrilling. I had never seen such an incredible roar of water. It was like the Niagara falls flowing through the huge room. I got frightened along with being thrilled, but discovered I could lessen the water with the valve if it got to be too much. It went on for a long time, and we whooped and laughed and felt so excited. Finally, the water grew less no matter how wide I opened the valve, and it reached a steady flow.
I noticed the pretty woman from the grill way across the huge area, and she seemed to be looking for someone. I hoped it was me. I opened the door, and went out to go meet her. On the way out, I got grease on my hand, and picked up a rag on the table to wipe it off. The rag had even more grease on it, and so now my hands were completely covered in grease. I picked up another rag on top of a box, and there were wet spark plugs stuck with globs of grease to the underside of the rag, lined up in order as if they used to be in an engine and someone stuck them in this order on purpose, and some of it got on my clothes. The guys with me laughed and I laughed with them, but I left without going to meet the woman, and we went back to the grill.
I found myself in a tiny room with a table in it and a picture window looking out into the area where everyone was sitting and eating. The door was open into a back hallway. I started to go out, but a man was coming into the room. For some reason he frightened me, and I backed up. However, he was robot-like, and walked to the window and looked out to the dining area, making no indication that he even noticed me, and stared blandly at the people having fun. I left and went out into the dining area. I noticed everyone staring at me in an unfriendly way. I started for the exit, but one of the policemen who had arrested the woman from the night before was off-duty in plain clothes and grabbed my arm and twisted me around and shoved me face down on a table. He told me that what I did to the woman was wrong, and that no one liked me because of it. He said that just because I had the law on my side and was in the right didn't mean anyone would like me. He said if I was smart I would leave town. Others were around me and spit on me.
He let me go, and I left. I was driving in a car alone out of town. I didn't know what became of the friends I was with. I felt both elated and ashamed at the same time, crying and laughing at the same time, and had no idea where to go and what I was doing."
As the dream unfolds, the subject is with two friends. These friends vanish towards the end of the dream and he doesn't seem to find this worrisome. "I didn't know what became of the friends I was with." This is a strange way to treat one's friends. It seems that we are dealing not with three dimensional, full-blown, flesh and blood friends but with FRIENDLY MENTAL FUNCTIONS. Indeed, they are the ones who encourage the subject to react to the old woman's antics. "How much more are you going to take before you stand up for yourself?" – they ask him, cunningly. All the other people present at the bar-restaurant do not even bother to tell the woman "to stop, to be civil, to be nice". This eerie silence contributes to the subject's reaction of disbelief that mushrooms throughout this nightmare. At first, he tries to emulate their behaviour and to ignore the woman himself. She says negative things about him, goes louder and more derogatory, horribly rude and jabbing and he still tries to ignore her. When his friends push him to react: "I felt sick to my stomach and did not want to confront her." He finally does confront her because "everyone was noticing" as she was almost screaming at him.
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The subject emerges as the plaything of others. A woman screams at him and debases him, friends prod him to react, and motivated by "everyone" he does react. His actions and reactions are determined by input from the outside. He expects others to do for him the things that he finds unpleasant to do by himself (to tell the woman to stop, for instance). His feeling of entitlement ("I deserve this special treatment, others should take care of my affairs") and his magical thinking ("If I want something to happen, it surely will") are so strong – that he is stunned when people do not do his (silent) bidding. This dependence on others is multi-faceted. They mirror the subject to himself. He modifies his behaviour, forms expectations, gets disbelievingly disappointed, punishes and rewards himself and takes behavioural cues from them ("The guys with me laughed and I laughed with them"). When confronted with someone who does not notice him, he describes him as robot-like and is frightened by him. The word "look" disproportionately recurs throughout the text. In one of the main scenes, his confrontation with the rude, ugly woman, both parties do not do anything without first "looking" at each other. He looks at her before he raises his voice and tells her to shut up. She looks at him and gets angrier.
The dream opens in a "run down" restaurant/bar with the wrong kind of music and of customers, a smoky atmosphere and greasy food. The subject and his friends were travelling and hungry and the restaurant was the only open place. The subject takes great pains to justify his (lack of) choice. He does not want us to believe that he is the type of person to willingly patronise such a restaurant. What we think about him is very important to him. Our look still tends to define him. Throughout the text, he goes on to explain, justify, excuse, reason and persuade us. Then, he suddenly stops. This is a crucial turning point.
It is reasonable to assume that the subject is relating to his personal Odyssey. At the end of his dream, he continues his travels, continues his life "ashamed and elated at the same time". We are ashamed when our sense of propriety is offended and we are elated when it is reaffirmed. How can these contradictory feelings coexist? This is what the dream is about: the battle between what the subject has been taught to regard as true and proper, the "shoulds" and the "oughts" of his life, usually the result of overly strict upbringing – and what he feels is good for him. These two do not overlap and they foster in the subject a sense of escalating conflict, enacted before us. The first domain is embedded in his Superego (to borrow Freud's quasi-literary metaphor). Critical voices constantly resound in his mind, an uproarious opprobrium, sadistic criticism, destructive chastising, uneven and unfair comparisons to unattainable ideals and goals. On the other hand, the powers of life are reawakening in him with the ripening and maturation of his personality. He vaguely realises what he missed and misses, he regrets it, and he wants out of his virtual prison. In response, his disorder feels threatened and flexes its tormenting muscles, a giant awakened, Atlas shrugged. The subject wants to be less rigid, more spontaneous, more vivacious, less sad, less defined by the gaze of others, and more hopeful. His disorder dictates rigidity, emotional absence, automatism, fear and loathing, self-flagellation, dependence on Narcissistic Supply, a False Self. The subject does not like his current locus in life: it is dingy, it is downtrodden, it is shabby, and inhabited by vulgar, ugly people, the music is wrong, it is fogged by smoke, polluted. Yet, even while there, he knows that there are alternatives, that there is hope: a young, attractive lady, mutual signalling. And she is closer to him (10 feet) than the old, ugly woman of his past (30 feet). His dream will not bring them together, but he feels no sorrow. He leaves, laughing with the guys, to revisit his previous haunt. He owes this to himself. Then he continues his life.
He finds himself, in the middle of the road of life, in the ugly place that is his soul. The young woman is only a promise. There is another woman "old, with heavy make-up, poorly dyed hair, loud, obnoxious, drunk". This is his mental disorder. It can scarcely sustain the deception. Its make-up is heavy, its hair dyed poorly, its mood a result of intoxication. It could well be the False Self or the Superego, but I rather think it is the whole sick personality. She notices him, she berates him with derogatory remarks, she screams at him. The subject realises that his disorder is not friendly, that it seeks to humiliate him, it is out to degrade and destroy him. It gets violent, it hurls food at him, it buries him under a dish of popcorn (a cinema theatre metaphor?). The war is out in the open. The fake coalition, which glued the shaky structures of the fragile personality together, exists no longer. Notice that the subject does not recall what insults and pejorative remarks were directed at him. He deletes all the expletives because they really do not matter. The enemy is vile and ignoble and will make use and excuse of any weakness, mistake and doubt to crack the defence set up by the subject's budding healthier mental structures (the young woman). The end justifies all means and it is the subject's end that is sought. There is no self-hate more insidious and pernicious than the narcissist's.
But, to fight his illness, the subject still resorts to old solutions, to old habits and to old behaviour patterns. He calls the police because they represent the Law and What Is Right. It is through the rigid, unflinching, framework of a legal system that he hopes to suppress what he regards as the unruly behaviour of his disorder. Only at the end of his dream he comes to realise his mistake: "He said that just because I had the law on my side and I was in the right didn't mean that anyone would like me." The Police (who appear instantly because they were always present) arrest the woman, but their sympathy is with her. His true aides can be found only among the customers of the restaurant/bar, whom he found not to his liking ("I did not like … the other customers…"). It is someone in the next table who tells him about the dam. The way to health is through enemy territory, information about healing can be gotten only from the sickness itself. The subject must leverage his own disorder to disown it.
The dam is a potent symbol in this dream. It represents all the repressed emotions, the now forgotten traumas, the suppressed drives and wishes, fears and hopes. It is a natural element, primordial and powerful. And it is dammed by the disorder (the vulgar, now-imprisoned, lady). It is up to him to open the dam. No one will do it for him: "Now YOU can open the dam gate." The powerful woman is no more, she owned the dam and guarded its gates for many years ago. This is a sad passage about the subject's inability to communicate with himself, to experience his feelings unmediated, to let go. When he does finally encounter the water (his emotions), they are safely contained behind glass, visible but described in a kind of scientific manner ("the level on the glass rose higher the more I turned the wheel") and absolutely controlled by the subject (using a valve). The language chosen is detached and cold, protective. The subject must have been emotionally overwhelmed but his sentences are borrowed from the texts of laboratory reports and travel guides ("Niagara Falls"). The very existence of the dam comes as a surprise to him. "I said: What?, and he explained."
Still, this is nothing short of a revolution. It is the first time that the subject acknowledges that there is something hidden behind a dam in his brain ("cavernous room") and that it is entirely up to him to release it ("I was told that I could turn it whenever I wanted"). Instead of turning around and running in panic, the subject turns the wheel (it is a control valve, he hurries to explain to us, the dream must be seen to obey the rules of logic and of nature). He describes the result of his first encounter with his long repressed emotions as "thrilling", "incredible" "roar(ing)", "torrent(ial)". It did frighten him but he wisely learned to make use of the valve and to regulate the flow of his emotions to accord with his emotional capacity. And what were his reactions? "Whooped", "laughed", "excited". Finally, the flow became steady and independent of the valve. There was no need to regulate the water anymore. There was no threat. The subject learned to live with his emotions. He even diverted his attention to the attractive, young woman, who reappeared and seemed to be looking for someone (he hoped it was for him).
But, the woman belonged to another time, to another place and there was no turning back. The subject had yet to learn this final lesson. His past was dead, the old defence mechanisms unable to provide him with the comfort and illusory protection that he hitherto enjoyed. He had to move on, to another plane of existence. But it is hard to bid farewell to part of you, to metamorphesise, to disappear in one sense and reappear in another. A break in one's consciousness and existence is traumatic no matter how well controlled, well intentioned and beneficial.
So, our hero goes back to visit his former self. He is warned: it is not with clean hands that he proceeds. They get greasier the more he tries to clean them. Even his clothes are affected. Rags, wet (useless) spark plugs, the ephemeral images of a former engine all star in this episode. Those are passages worth quoting (in parentheses my comments):
"I noticed the pretty woman from the grill (=from my past) way across the huge area (=my brain), and she seemed to be looking for someone. I hoped it was me. I opened the door, and went out to go meet her (=back to my past). On the way out, I got grease on my hand (=dirt, warning), and picked up a rag on the table to wipe it off. The rag had even more grease on it (=no way to disguise the wrong move, the potentially disastrous decision), and so now my hands were completely covered in grease (=dire warning). I picked up another rag on top of a box, and there were wet (=dead) spark plugs stuck with globs of grease to the underside of the rag, lined up in order as if they used to be in an engine (=an image of something long gone) and someone stuck them in this order on purpose, and some of it got on my clothes. The guys with me laughed and I laughed with them (=he laughed because of peer pressure, not because he really felt like it), but I left without going to meet the woman, and we went back to the grill (=to the scene of his battle with his mental disorder)."
But, he goes on to the grill, where it all started, this undefined and untitled chain of events that changed his life. This time, he is not allowed to enter, only to observe from a tiny room. Actually, he does not exist there anymore. The man that enters his observation post, does not even see him or notice him. There are grounds to believe that the man who thus entered was the previous, sick version of the subject himself. The subject was frightened and backed up. The robot-like person (?) looked through the window, stared blandly at people having fun. The subject then proceeded to commit the error of revisiting his past, the restaurant. Inevitably, the very people that he debunked and deserted (the elements of his mental disorder, the diseased occupants of his mind) were hostile. The policeman, this time off duty (=not representing the Law) assaults him and advises him to leave. Others spit on him. This is reminiscent of a religious ritual of ex-communication. Spinoza was spat on in a synagogue, judged to have committed in heresy. This reveals the religious (or ideological) dimension of mental disorders. Not unlike religion, they have their own catechism, compulsive rituals, set of rigid beliefs and "adherents" (mental constructs) motivated by fear and prejudice. Mental disorders are churches. They employ institutions of inquisition and punish heretical views with a severity befitting the darkest ages.
But these people, this setting, exert no more power over him. He is free to go. There is no turning back now, all bridges burnt, all doors shut firmly, he is a persona non grata in his former disordered psyche. The traveller resumes his travels, not knowing where to go and what he is doing. But he is laughing and crying and ashamed and elated. In other words, he, finally, after many years, experiences emotions. On his way to the horizon, the dream leaves the subject with a promise, veiled as a threat "If you were smart you would leave town." If you know what is good for you, you will get healthy. And the subject seems to be doing just that.
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