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Darkness (in)Visible, or On Dangers of Narcissistic Blindness

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The worst U.S. mass shooting in the 21st century. Unimaginable and ungraspable -- but sadly familiar already.

Ever sadder, there will be more, with greater numbers of victims, because this bloody contest is one about numbers. The next wannabe-martyr strives to outdo the last one in the scope of damage inflicted, to underscore the specialness of his grievance and assure his unique place in the roster of men like him.

Looking for the reasons, along with the requisite finger-pointing, has commenced, as it always does after these regular-now events. We are hurt and heartbroken, and we want to understand -- but never enough to change. This horrific massacre will soon become part of our constantly updated dreadful historical record, but we will continue straight to the next one, and the next, because we must. Our narcissistic blindness, which always makes us project blame on outside forces and see ourselves as blameless, demands that.

We ask "why?" but we don't want to know true answers as they would challenge our worldview and our existence, even though such challenge is overdue now, since our persistence in going about life the usual way is what has created the deadly problem on our hands. But we cannot see what ails us, because this blindness is a feature of the defect that's written into our society and our psyche, shaping both in predicable ways to enable its perpetuation. Like cancer, this malignant defect will eventually destroy its helpless host unless urgent and radical means are implemented to stop its virulent spread. We would have to first acknowledge, however, that we are sick and properly diagnose our malady.

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Among the reasons listed for the massacre are homophobia, terrorism, Islamic radicalization, self-loathing, toxic masculinity, our gun culture, security failures, and just plain hate, the last one coming closest to the truth, although we don't want to examine it too closely. All these reasons are correct to various degrees, and they are connected through a thread that we are not able and/or willing to see.

As it is always the case, mental instability of the shooter is being blamed as a matter of course and mental illness is brought up, along with the reasonably-sounding and necessary matter of keeping guns from the mentally ill. But we never talk about what mental illness is, how to identify it, whether it is really dangerous, and what to do about it. That's because we use the mental illness crutch / excuse just as we use the other ones, to push the issue away and remove ourselves from the responsibility for it, because once we name it that, it becomes the experts' job to deal with it. This too is part of our narcissistic blindness, which makes us believe that "they" are unlike "us," and that we are better, and certainly not responsible.

It is correct to assume that a person who does such evil is mentally disturbed, although their problem is not mental illness.

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People who are mentally ill -- those suffering from psychoses and mood disorders -- are usually not violent, which means that our attempts at blaming the problem on mental illness are unfair to the mentally ill and to ourselves, since we remain in the dark about the causes of such violence and ways to prevent it.

Sure enough, there were no signs of mental illness in this shooter's life, even though he was seriously disturbed and that disturbance manifested early in his life in aggressive behaviors directed at others. However, we rarely name that disturbance and educate people about it. Not surprisingly perhaps, as, at the core, it is the very same character defect that affects the less outwardly and violently destructive men (and women) who occupy positions of power and prominence, and influence the whole society and culture at large; and one that shapes our society and culture in multiple and all-encompassing but no longer noticeable ways. Like fish to water, we are blind to its presence and influences on our lives.

That defect is narcissism in its many gradations, the most of extreme of which wipes out a conscience and thus ties in with psychopathy and often sadism. It manifests early on in life and its core symptoms are related to the impairment of conscience, most notably lack of empathy and compassion, lack of the capacity to experience guilt, impulsivity, aggression -- emotional and physical, arrogance, and an elevated view of one's own attributes and importance. A narcissist knows he is special, better than others, and his behavior reflects that. His sense of entitlement, unchecked by feedback from reality -- a sign of narcissistic blindness that is a feature of the disorder -- grows along with his anger at the world for not recognizing and accommodating his specialness through entirely deserved, in his mind, fame, power, and adulation.

Depending on the severity of narcissistic disturbance and the narcissist's individual strengths and weaknesses, social milieu, and life opportunities, he may with time become a small-town mayor, a real-estate developer turned presidential candidate, a Fortune-500 CEO, or a mass shooter.

The malignantly narcissistic disturbance of mass shooters has been well documented and described in the psychological literature and the media, but for some reason it is rarely, if ever, mentioned in discussions after each massacre; just as the presidential candidate's profoundly narcissistic character defect and its ramifications are not openly discussed; and just as we don't talk about the dangers of narcissism affecting our politicians, religious leaders, beloved heroes and public figures, and our entire culture. Yes, we sometimes note it in passing, but we do not stop to discuss what it really means. It is the last taboo in a society that has proudly disposed of its taboos.

Narcissism has become so normalized that we no longer notice it. The analyses of American narcissistic culture were performed, repeatedly and at length; but they were then put aside and largely forgotten, leaving little influence on society whose narcissism continues to grow, along with the necessary blindness that enables its spread. The normalization of narcissism was probably best reflected in the proposals of the DSM-V writers to remove Narcissistic Personality Disorder as a diagnostic category, given the ubiquity of narcissism as a character trait in the American population. At the end it was decided that NPD should stay in after all. For now.

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And that's a good thing, all things considered, as we have already disposed with a conscience as a requirement for mental health by removing psychopathy as a psychiatric disorder in 1980, just in time for the "greed is good" era. At least we are still acknowledging, by keeping Narcissistic Personality Disorder as a diagnosable condition, that deficits of conscience combined with high self-regard are not normal or healthy. Our society, however, disagrees as evidenced by our culture that is inhabited and run by narcissists and psychopaths in nearly every aspect of it, from households to politics. They are the dangerous types who should be prohibited access to lethal weapons and any forms of power; unfortunately, as a society we not only do not recognize their pathology as dangerous, we promote them and reward them with privileges, which include an unfettered access to all kinds of deadly weapons of their choice.

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Although their deficit of conscience makes them inherently destructive, not all narcissists and psychopaths are physically violent. All mass killers, however, are driven by narcissistic rage. Whatever the ideological rationalizations, political or religious, attached to mass shootings or large-scale (and not) acts of terror perpetrated by psychopathic individuals, underneath them there is always a sense of entitlement and seething, vengeful anger that comes from its perpetual frustration. Narcissistic entitlement and rage manifest in a belief that "I am special and deserve to be recognized as such, and if the world fails to deliver this well-deserved recognition, I will force it to do so by any means at my disposal."

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Born in Poland and trained as a clinical psychologist, I currently live in the US, working as an educational consultant. I specialize in giftedness, psychopathology, and human development.

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