Don’t be brilliant

The bubble has well and truly burst but this time its a psychic one. The age of narcissistic omnipotence has been shattered in this economic crisis where previously untouchable people have found themselves unemployed and the culture of aggressive ambition no longer looks like a successful strategy for survival. Omnipotence is a powerful driver for many successful (and presumably unsuccessful) people. If you’re rich/perfect/fashionable/young/beautiful/charming (tick at least 6) then you’re brilliant and therefore valuable. One problem with this is if you’re not brilliant. That sounds almost like failure doesn’t it – admitting that you’re not brilliant.  Although possibly not a great interview strategy why is it so hard to admit to being ordinary? Isn’t being human enough?

This question touches on the dualistic nature of the bubble that many of us have been living in. You’re either fantastic or rubbish and if you’re not entirely fantastic then it must mean that you are entirely rubbish. No other option currently available, computer says no. This is most graphically witnessed during this recession on the impact of senior managers being made redundant. Actually what’s happening to them is no worse in real terms than anyone else but the fall is further and therefore we believe harder. I’ve even caught myself recently feeling sorry for city workers on the Northern Line as they become increasingly dishevelled and demoralised finding it harder to keep up the 16 hour work schedules, total loss of personal life, ability to relate to small animals and children and maintaining an aura of success at all times, including during family events and public holidays.

This punishing approach to work is not just manic, it’s almost bipolar. Bipolar Disorder is where there is a painful movement between a euphoric, grandiose and inflated state of mind to a burst-bubble of depression and extraordinary deflation. This is an immensely painful condition to endure and, in a way one that we can link to a culture of brilliance, success and wild ambition to overcome certain realities. The MDF Bipolar Organisation  has an important perspective on this, linking highly demanding work environments like law and finance to bipolar disorder. In a working environment where people feel they are and have to be masters of the universe it’s not surprising that mental illness is not detected, rather encouraged. How could you tell the difference between someone struggling with BPD and someone who is running a major multinational company?


This brilliant/rubbish logic  can be understood using Klein’s idea of the paranoid schizoid stage of early infancy where good and bad are split in order to protect the good bits of life and project the bad bits as far away as possible into the external world. It’s a way of dealing with the hard facts of life where good things can also be bad things and brilliant things can also be rubbish.


Something similar happens when it comes to mental illness. Most of us at some point have had concerns about our own states of mind and the question is often formulated as strongly as “am I mad?”. This is a common scenario where a patient turns up asking for a diagnosis, treatment and then the removal of madness. This is often linked to the debate about the usefulness of psychiatric diagnostic tools such as the DSM as opposed to a more nuanced and possibly more realistic spectrum approach where people can exhibit both pathological and healthy aspects at the same time and at different points in their lives. Some therapists witness patients move along this spectrum just within a 50 minute session. They are still the same person, but just exhibiting different aspects of their psychic reality. This way of understanding mental health is crucially important because it is these assessments that, hopefully, determine treatment. Crudely put when the assessment is mad/not mad the treatment is essentially (although not literally) to surgically remove this mad stuff and leave an entirely healthy organism to grow.



This is also a fantasy, that anyone can fully rid themselves of all destructive or damaged aspects of their internal world and become transformed into a totally sane, coherent and healthy person. Perfect in fact. Actually the work of therapy is not to make people better, rather to help people know themselves and learn to accept themselves as they really are. It is about being able to be yourself, with all the contradictions, conflict and blatant bad attitude this involves.


Being “fantastic” is literally a fantasy and it obscures the very real possibility that being ordinary is being human and that is quite enough.  The reason why these obvious facts of life are so painful to accept is that it hurts to lose our dreams, no matter if they are actually dangerous delusions, stopping us living in the real world. Unattractive as it might seem, the proposal is that now the bubble has burst and we have our feet firmly on the ground again we have lost our superpowers and now have to rely on our ordinary human powers.


Buck the trend and join us at the LSE on the 27th February 12.30-2pm to think about sex, psychopaths and intimacy in celebration of 100 years of Freud’s On Narcissism.

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