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Narcissism and Today’s Society
“It is not love that should be depicted as blind, but self – love.” – Voltaire
The subject of ‘Narcissism’ has intrigued us for many decades, but social scientists now claim that it has become a “modern epidemic”. The term ‘Narcissism’ originated more than 2000 years ago when Ovid wrote the ‘Legend of Narcissus’, which tells the story of a beautiful Greek hunter, Narcissus, who, one day, sees his reflection in a pool of water and falls in love with it. He becomes obsessed with his own beauty and is unable to leave his reflected image until he dies. The concept of Narcissism was first introduced by the famous psychoanalyst, Dr. Sigmund Freud’s essay ‘On Narcissism’. He popularized this new concept through his work on the ‘ego’ and its relation to the outside world. Narcissism can be defined as the pursuit of gratification from vanity or egotistic admiration of one’s own attributes. The ‘American Psychiatry Association’ has classified this as ‘Narcissistic Personality Disorder’ (NPD).
Narcissism lies on a continuum from healthy to pathological. Healthy narcissism is part of normal human functioning. It represents required self – love and confidence based on real achievements and the ability to overcome setbacks. But, narcissism becomes a problem when one becomes excessively preoccupied with the self and seeks complete admiration and attention, with complete disregard for others’ feelings. Lack of satisfaction of this need leads to substance abuse and major depressive disorders. In adolescents, this causes ‘Substance Dependency Disorder’ (SDD) – they display overt narcissistic and prosocial behaviours, which show a connection between self – centeredness and addiction. These substances include sedatives like alcohol, psychedelics and hallucinogens like marijuana and LSD, stimulants like cocaine, narcotics like opium, heroin, and morphine, and anti-anxiety drugs like Xanax.
“Narcissists unconsciously deny an unstated and intolerably poor self – image through inflation. They turn themselves into glittering figures of immense grandeur, surrounded by psychologically impenetrable walls. The goal of this self – deception is to be impervious to greatly feared external criticism, and to their own rolling sea of doubts.” This is how Elan Golomb describes NPD, in her book ‘Trapped in the Mirror’. The narcissists fail to achieve intimacy with anyone as they view other people like items in a vending machine, and uses them to serve their own needs, never being able to acknowledge that others might have their own feelings too.
Narcissism is filled with irony and paradox, whether as a character trait or as a clinical disease. Emily Levine says, “I thought Narcissism was about self – love till someone told me there is a flip – side to it… it is unrequited self – love.” It must be remembered that, Narcissus weeps to find out that his image does not return his love. This indicates that, a loving engagement with the self does not, and cannot, come from putting on lofty airs, acting with self – satisfied arrogance or being obsessed with assorted fantasies of ideal brilliance or beauty. Healthy, non – egotistical self – love arises from an unconditional acceptance of the self, without having to declare superiority over others. Deep down, the narcissists know, albeit unconsciously, that they are not really what they project. In fact, one of their central defenses is to endlessly project onto others the very flaws and fears that they are unable or unwilling, to allow into awareness. They are critical of others’ shortcomings, but completely blind to their own – their self – love must be seen as an illusion, a spectacular triumph of self – deception. They can only love their false, idealized self – a mirage that cannot possibly return the fantasy – laden love. Their flawed self, hidden beneath their outward bravado, remains locked up and placed in permanent exile. And, to continuously safeguard themselves from a reality that so frequently contradicts their grandiose assumptions and pretensions, they are forced to employ a massive defense stratagem, with extraordinary rigidity.
Although very few of us are actually diagnosed with NPD, almost all of us are guilty of sharing certain narcissistic tendencies. So, Todd Solondz says, “Narcissism and self – deception are survival mechanisms without which many of us might just jump off the bridge.” For true narcissists, the defenses are absolutely necessary to compensate their ego deficits and reduce feelings of shame. Without them, they might result in a state of suicidal depression; for, narcissists do not really like themselves – the more they boast and demean others, they are more likely to cover up for their deeper, largely hidden feelings of inferiority and lack of love. Blinded by their idealized self – image, they try to project themselves as gifted, exceptional and unique – that in turn makes them egotistical and arrogant. According to TS Eliot, “… half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don’t mean to do harm but the harm [that they cause] does not interest them. Or they do not see it or they justify it because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves.” This shows a distinction between narcissists who are malevolent, and those who simply lack concern of how their behaviour might adversely affect others. It is yet another way of gaining attention to their supreme self – absorption, which makes it impossible for them to identify with others’ feelings.
Kurt Cobain says, “I don’t care what you think, unless it is about me.” This shows the narcissist’s indifference to the outer world unless it specifically relates to them. They are completely incapable of a genuine interest in others’ matters unless they are needed for the former’s assertion of superiority. Narcissists are also great con – artists; after all, they always succeed in deceiving themselves. It becomes particularly painful when they suffer from memory loss, when, they lose out parts of the person they love the most. In general, a narcissist “devours people, consumes their output, and casts the empty, wreathing shells aside”, says Sam Vaknin. Hate is a complement of fear, and the narcissists like being feared – it provides them with an intoxicating sensation of omnipotence. The difference between Narcissism and self – love is a matter of depth. Narcissus falls in love not with the self, but with an image or reflection of the self, with the persona, the mask. Narcissists see themselves through the eyes of others, changes their lifestyle and behaviour and expression of feelings, according to others’ admiration. Narcissism is voluntary blindness, an agreement not to look beneath the surface. Yet, Oscar Wilde says, “To love oneself is the beginning of a life – long romance” – this notion of self – love leans towards the pathological and the auto – erotic as well.
Prof. Jean Twenge differentiates narcissism from the idea of self – esteem. One high in self – esteem, values individual achievements, but they also value their relationships and caring for others. Contrarily, narcissists miss out on valuing and caring their relationships, as they lack empathy. Prof. Twenge and Keith Campbell, a specialist on Narcissism, joined hands to investigate whether people born in more recent generations score higher against Narcissism measures, than in previous generations. The tool they used to assess their subjects is the ‘Narcissistic Personality Inventory’ (NPI), created in 1988. It is the most widely used measure of Narcissism in social – psychological research, where a 40 item forced – choice version is the one most commonly employed.I Following Freud’s and Kohurt’s theories, individuals would be diagnosed clinically as patients of NPD, if they fulfil the following criteria:
A. Grandiose sense of self – importance or uniqueness
B. Preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
D. Cold indifference of marked feelings of rage, inferiority, shame, humiliation or emptiness in response to criticism, indifference of others or defeat
E. At least, two of the following characteristic disturbances in inter – personal relationships:
I. Entitlement – expectation of special favour without assuming reciprocal responsibilities
II. Inter – personal exploits
III. Relationships that characteristically alternate between the two extremes of overidealisation and devaluation
IV. Lack of empathy
F. Vulnerability to shame, rather than guilt
G. Denial of remorse or gratitude
In this regard, reference can be made to Hotchkiss’s ‘Seven deadly Sins of Narcissism’, which include shamelessness, magical thinking, arrogance, envy, entitlement, exploitation, bad boundaries.
The ‘narcissistic dilemma’ is seen when, being criticized, the narcissists show themselves pitifully incapable of retaining any emotional poise or receptivity. But, these disturbed individuals also display an abnormally developed capacity to criticize others. Their dilemma is that the rigidity of their defenses, their inability ever to let their guard down, even among their closest people, guarantees that they will never get what they most need, which unfortunately, they are themselves oblivious to. People are never born narcissist, it is powerful environmental influences that make them so. Being neglected and ignored, or constantly disparaged or berated by parents in childhood, they form unrealistically high standards of behaviour. Unable to meet up to their parents’ unreasonable, perfectionist expectations, they create an imaginary “ideal self” that could receive the parental acceptance, even adulation, which they yearn for. The main elements of narcissism are narcissistic supply, narcissistic rage and narcissistic injury, and narcissistic abuse. Narcissism can be of various types, and its causes are not yet well – known. Inherited genetic defects are thought to be responsible in some cases, along with environmental factors –
1. Childhood abuse or neglect
2. Excessive parental pampering
3. Unrealistic expectation from parents
4. Sexual promiscuity
5. Cultural influences
A study shows the changes in levels of Narcissism over the past few decades, among the college – going students, i.e. the youth; it is seen rampant in the society of USA today, because these youths are the future leaders, and Narcissism is very harmful to the society as a whole and can cause failure in academic and other endeavours. Twenge and Campbell conducted a survey in American institutions from 1979 – 2006 and found an upward shift in scores on the NPI, meaning that, now the average college student embraces narcissistic tendencies more than their counterparts, two decades ago. The rise in Narcissism in the American population might be because now, from a young age, Americans are taught that they are very special and unique, that in turn increases their self – esteem. Extroversion and assertion are the key factors of Narcissism. It is also due to the large emphasis on materialism and wealth, with a focus on individual’s pleasure and success, in the current American society.
Today, Narcissism has gripped the entire world, as indicated by the rapid change in society that occurred during the industrial and post – industrial times. The past few decades have witnessed a societal shift from a commitment to the collective to a focus on the individual or self. Here comes in the ‘self – esteem movement’ which became the key to success in life. The parents tried to “confer” self – esteem upon their children rather than allowing them to achieve it through hard work. The rise of individualism and the decline in social norms that accompanied the modernization of society, led to a shift from the concept of what is best for the others and family to what is best for “me”. The commercial world with total focus on wealth and fame, created an “empty self, shorn of social meaning”. Today, the generation of young adults – the ‘Generation Y’ – also known as the ‘Millenials’ and ‘Generation Me’, comprising of individuals born between 1975 – 1995, are condemned for being narcissistic, selfish, self – entitled, and having unrealistic expectations from life.
The rise in technology and the advancement of immensely popular social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, MySpace, YouTube have changed the way we now spend our leisure time and communicate with others. Internet addiction is a new area of study in mental health and many researchers show that addiction to Facebook, Twitter is strongly linked to narcissistic behaviour and low self – esteem. The notion that the current generation is increasingly becoming narcissistic, as a product of the “like effect” (a theory where the number of ‘likes’ on social media produce greater self – esteem) has been widely debated. This effect creates negative self – esteem contrary to egotism due to modern youths constantly comparing the quantity of ‘likes’ or the quality of a picture to that of another. The ego can never be satisfied with increasing number of ‘likes’. Also, the total control over one’s perception of social media allows modern youth to see an unrealistic, distorted image that they will compare themselves to. Thus, regular posting of ‘selfies’ on social media promotes Narcissism, that is actually a cry of ego – satisfaction. Social networking sites are believed to be outlets for narcissistic expression, and Gen Y, aged between 17 – 21 years, are particularly vulnerable to its negative effects. Lucy Clyde says, “If you are a narcissist, you are looking for a positive reflection of yourself, the world is your mirror and you are constantly looking for affirmation. For this reason, you’re probably curating your own life very heavily on social media.”
Named ‘Word of the Year’ in 2013 by the Oxford English Dictionary, the term “selfie” has become very common among all teens and young adults, in today’s technological era. A “selfie” is defined as “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken by a smartphone or a webcam, and shared via social media”. For Gen Y, taking selfies and posting them on social media has become inevitable parts of daily living, promoting Narcissism. Millenials, aged 18 – 33 years, are hyper – connected with little awareness or concern for the others. “Generation Me”, today, is a victim of the ‘Selfie Syndrome’ – they post, tag and comment on self – portraits, believing that others are interested in their daily activities, and they want to tell others what they are doing. Selfies symbolize that shamelessly flaunting your Narcissism is trendy; if you put an inspirational quote under your selfie, no one can see your Narcissism. A selfie a day keeps insecurities away – “constantly taking selfies will not make you prettier; may you someday find someone to love you as much as your selfies indicate you love yourself.” Today, the confidence level is measured by “a selfie with no filter”. Never before has a generation so diligently recorded themselves, accomplishing so little – “if you could take selfies of your souls, would you find it attractive enough to post?”
It seems, those people who constantly post selfies must not own mirrors like the rest of us; but again, mirrors should not be taken too seriously, as one’s true reflection is in his heart. Increase in Narcissism pose a threat to the emotional and psychological health of the youth – it results in self – enhancement and self – promotion, preventing them from establishing lasting intimate relationships. Also, they tend to be prone to respond with violent and aggressive behaviour after being criticized. Online relationships may appeal more to narcissists, who are otherwise unable to, or unwilling, to form meaningful relations that demand any time or emotional attachment. The increase of smartphones and many new sophisticated gadgets allow people to access social media very easily, contributing to widespread Narcissism. Managing and revising one’s online profile content is a vital aspect of the youth’s online identity and “e – personality”. Social networking sites give narcissistic individuals the chance to keep the focus of their profile’s content solely on themselves. By this, they post status updates, comments and photos that depict only themselves, and not others, perpetuating their selfish nature. The online profiles allow them to achieve a type of social identity that they wish to portray, through exaggeration of certain character traits, and present a persona that they believe is appealing to the world, at large.
Lack of empathy for others cause preoccupation with the Gen Y’s own frustrated selves and emotional distresses, while growing up – they go out of their houses, but focused on themselves only, taking selfies – and thus, can never completely come out of their own selves. They lose out on moral values, and find it difficult to come out of their own fears. The increasing demand for plastic surgeries, worldwide, to look better in the eyes of others, is also an unfortunate consequence of the rise of Narcissism. They always remain emotionally and spiritually unfulfilled, hungry for a nebulous something they cannot even conceive, and project a constant detachment in all relationships, even in the most intimate ones.
Treatment of ‘Narcissistic Personality Disorder’ (NPD) is possible through psychotherapy, or talk – therapy. But Narcissism has certain beneficial effects too. It has a fundamental connection with leadership, as both the notions have the common factors – dominance, extroversion, confidence and power. Because of these, narcissists become good and successful leaders, provoked by their desire for self – assertion, glory and power. But today, individualism is co – related to materialism and Narcissism. So, together, the world’s Narcissism is huge – the collective Narcissism results in the destruction of the planet. Together, we are wiping out one species after another from this world, fuelled by consumerism and our growing self – importance. Our Narcissism may eventually turn out to be our Nemesis, in the end.
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