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Between the Lines

Kim Anderson, MSW, LCSW, ATR-BC

Narcissistic Altruism

Beginning a blog is a lonely endeavor. It’s rather like journaling in the hope that several hundred people stumble upon it and feel validated by each word of narcissistic altruism imparted.

I talk about narcissistic altruism in many of my trainings and have written about it in books and articles. I have shared my conviction that it is the root of all vocational evil for those of us in the business of helping. Blogging is likely the hottest vehicle for that evil, and yet one must keep up with the times.

We enter into helping professions because we wish to right wrongs, fight the good fight, fix, teach, help! Yes, we most definitely want to help, but sometimes helping becomes a hindrance and our projections get in the way of what our clients or students see as their own outcomes. This type of self-absorbed altruism often blinds us as helpers and prevents us from progressing in our chosen field.

Helping others is a good thing, but when our professional identity is built solely upon our good works and our personal identity is dependent upon them, we are at risk of narcissistic altruism. We believe that no one else can help or teach as well as we can: No one else can understand this student as well as I can . . . I have more experience with this type of client or this population . . . I can handle this challenge because I’m tough. The greatest risk of narcissistic altruism is recklessness. When we think we know it all, we are at greatest risk of not knowing what we don’t know we don’t know.

In 1997, Gardner wrote about “the true teacher’s defining affliction: ‘furor to teach’ (p. 3). He was referring to teaching in spite of students, maybe even to spite them (Tieman, 2007). Anna Freud (1930/1974), Sigmund’s daughter, gave four lectures to teachers during her lifetime. She warned against blindness toward and defense against exploring one’s interior life, yet offered very particular frames for interpreting the dream of education including “rescue fantasies, altruistic surrender, hostility toward the student, and the difficulties of remembering one’s own childhood researches.” She should know; it could be argued that she came from a family of altruistic narcissists.

I often wonder what the late great thinkers (and great helpers) would blog about because there is no doubt they would blog. After considering the cybernetic impact upon the id’s compulsive need to drive or the shadow’s impulse to troll, they would likely extol the virtues of their own theories while at the same time never wanting to be one of their devotees. In other words, they would probably get the hang of it pretty quickly.

As for this little slice of free-write heaven, having baseball and Carl Jung on my mind this afternoon brings sardonic thoughts of a field of dreams. If I blog it, they will come.

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