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The narcissist and the codependent (2020)

You can listen to this musing here, or read it below.

During the past year, I have been studying how to live in contact with nature. It’s a childhood dream seeing how the deep Swedish woods shred its skin through the seasons. Held by the wild, around the smoky fire, we came together as a tribe. I learnt to survive off beaver fat, tiny fishes, and leafy greens. This lifestyle brought me so far away from BDSM that an old question from a friend came echoing back.

Isn’t BDSM just a club for narcissists and codependent people?

To this question, I will dedicate my weekly musing. First let’s unpack the question – being codependent in the sense of enabling another person’s addiction, for example, a narcissist that is obsessed with themselves. To an outsider, it may look like the dominant is the narcissist enforcing their will onto an obedient submissive. But the concept is equally applicable the other way around when a narcissistic submissive attracts a codependent dominant that is craving to give their undivided attention to the experience of another. I think it is a well-known dynamic that a submissive suffer for the recognition of their dominant. Narcissism and codependency create a powerful polarity together that can generate a lot of arousal, excitement and stress. Physiological these states are very similar, and you can read more about arousal in my text In search for awe.

But is this healthy?

The boring answer could be a simple yes, as long as there are two consenting adults than anything is okay. Consent is, after all, the difference between BDSM and abuse, but I want to dig deeper. A line of thinking that is functional for me is to see this polarity is a roleplay. Inside the roleplay, one can learn about both their narcissistic and codependent tendencies, because I believe that we all have them to some degree. But there is a danger that behaviours established inside the roleplay “bleed” out into other aspects of life. For example, if a dominant partner starts to demand that a submissive also should serve them and submit their will outside the play. Or if a submissive keeps demanding the undivided attention of the dominant after they returned to being equal again. The bleed is often unconscious, and a way to avoid it is to clearly define a frame for your roleplay, as I describe it in the text Playing safer. The benefit of exploring ones narcissistic and codependent tendencies is that one can hopefully avoid them in other aspects of our lives – this is when BDSM becomes a profoundly transformative practice.

Carl Jung wrote: Knowing your own darkness is the best method for dealing with the darkness’s of other people. One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious. The most terrifying thing is to accept oneself completely.

In my experience, a polarity, like the narcissist and the codependent, often loses its power over time. Using Jung’s language, that once you have seen and understood a part of your darkness, then it transforms into light. Or into an experience that is “had” rather than “wanted”, and therefore it becomes safe and unexciting. It can happen in-between two people, but also in-between a person and a subject altogether. I like to think of it as moving on in my journey of experiencing my sexuality. It is possible to get stuck and almost addicted to a particular part of one’s shadow – this can be a way to consciously or unconsciously keep the polarity as a catalysator for arousal and excitement. It is also possible that one didn’t yet encounter the core of the subject, and therefore are not ready to let it go. In my more therapeutic work, I experience that one often has to visit a topic over and over again, and each time experiencing themselves a bit more. But I also believe that some parts of our darkness is simply a part of whom we are, and not all things in life’s mystery should be logically understood. Ultimately the question is what should I fix and should I accept, and in my experience, the answer is another questions – does it serve me? There is a passage by the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr called the Serenity Prayer that nails the issue entirely.

God, grant me the serenity to
accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference.

But there is also an entirely different perspective – that our conscious darkness isn’t reality but rather a parody of the greater darkness in our world. So roleplaying the narcissism and the codependency then becomes a rebellion against a capitalistic society. Similar to Theatre of the Absurd that emerged out of post-World War 2 Europe to investigate the evils of humanity. Or all the gruesome horror movies in the wake of the Vietnam War. And to make this parody becomes a way to understand and reclaim ownership of one’s darkness.

In a meeting with a new play partner, I find it very interesting to see if my role will be more narcissistic or codependent. When I’m codependent, I find myself deeply fascinated by my partner’s journey. All the BDSM tools and tantric techniques that I’ve acquired become guides along our way. When I’m narcissistic, I tend to focus more on my physical pleasure, and it requires much more trust on my side as a dominant to allow myself to be that selfish. However, I think this is very individual. It also makes me wonder if there is a connection between narcissism and surrender, and codependency and submission, as I think about it in the text called Surrender vs. Submission.

Finally I’m returning to my experience in the dark winter woods. During this time, I didn’t feel any interest in narcissism or codependency, and neither of BDSM in general. I think it is because I didn’t focus on myself, but instead on my tribe and the simple life we lived. This confirms my old belief that BDSM can be understood as a rational reaction to counterbalance the ego-centered society – one that draws on the wisdom of ancient esoteric rituals and the knowledge of modern science.