The Rise of Narcissism and the Loss of Meaning II

“As individuals and as a nation, we now suffer from social narcissism. The beloved Echo of our ancestors, the virgin America, has been abandoned. We have fallen in love with our own image, with images of our making, which turn out to be images of ourselves.”

– Daniel J. Boorstin


Individualism does not have to be selfish and uncooperative. On the contrary, individual integrity while communing with the whole is what being human is all about. Whereas conforming to a bland, homogenous consensus of selfish dictates that defines so much of economic and cultural discourse is one sure way to lose one’s conception of self. What society seems to be growing is an unhealthy and destructive self-obsession that is rapidly normalised as a symptom of a “dog-eat-dog” world. To “be someone” means that we have to play the game and it is a one that gradually brainwashes you into thinking that this is what you do – for the rest of your life: be one of the herd or be an outsider that attains “success.”  Yet, perhaps those two avenues are really just the same? What does it mean to groove oneself into a routine of 9-5, TV, weekend peace and family life with barely the time to think? What of that desire to have wealth, status and to be adored? The latter is directly mirroring the Establishment perception made up of corporate leaders, politicians, members of the monarchy and endless TV shows like X-factor and American Idol that tell us if you are not wealthy and do not have power and influence, you do not exist – you have no significance.

You must conform to the idea of success and love as defined by our culture. In effect, your we do not have the time, space or energy to truly shape our own identity outside the bubble of cultural dynamics within which we are immersed. Urban life and present technology is only reinforcing that largely unconscious existential crisis.

It is a tired cliché that success does not define individual integrity any more than integrity can define the type and quality of that success. To have personal integrity automatically places value on the type of success you wish to attract and pursue.  Which is perhaps why, despite the obvious material advances for many, we are not getting happier. This is especially true for young women. As we get more unhappy, yet more affluent the unhappiness becomes a form of aggressive entitlement for material acquisition, status and the ease and comfort this provides. No one wants to be a pauper either but there appears to be a serious displacement of core needs lying deep within societies; a spiritual yearning that is not only being ignored but actively subverted.

In 1999 a comprehensive study was carried out in the UK on the incidence of: “…common mental disorders such as anxiety, depression, panic attacks and anhedonia (loss of capacity to experience pleasure). The results showed an increase in these disorders with a significant increase for girls from 19 percent to 32 percent. But the latest sets of results are even more dramatic. There has been an increase for both sexes: boys are now on 21 percent, and girls are at a staggering rate of 44 percent.” [1] Reasons for such a change left most social scientists and psychologists floundering ranging from: “… declines in family life, rises in inequality or reductions in social cohesion.” However, all of those factors seemed to be the effects rather than the cause.

Enter American Psychologist Jean Twenge: “…whose most recent work has been to analyse what she describes as a ‘narcissism epidemic’ in the US that is disproportionately affecting women. Her meta-analysis covered 37,000 college students. It found that in 1982, 15 percent got high scores on a narcissism personality index; by 2006 it was 25 percent – and the largest share of this increase was women.” And further: “…in the 1950s only 12 percent of college students agreed that ‘I am an important person’, but by the late 80s it was 80 percent. In 1967, only 45 percent agreed that ‘being well-off is an important life goal’, but by 2004 the figure was 74 percent.” [2]

Twenge and W. Keith Campbell’s findings are included in their 2009 book: Living in the Age of Entitlement: The Narcissism Epidemic that describes  that: we are living through the results of something very rotten indeed being expressed with increasingly alacrity through the minds of the young. They reveal that: “Nearly 1 out of 10 of Americans in their twenties, and 1 out of 16 of those of all ages, has experienced the symptoms of NPD. Even these shocking numbers are just the tip of the iceberg; lurking underneath is the narcissistic culture that has drawn in many more. The narcissism epidemic has spread to the culture as a whole, affecting both narcissistic and less self-centred people.” [3]

Authors Twenge and Campbell paint a picture of Western culture in dire need of a sense of meaning and purpose away from the thrall of artifice:

On a reality TV show, a girl planning her sixteenth birthday party wants a major road blocked off so a marching band can precede her grand entrance on a red carpet. A book called “My Beautiful Mommy” explains plastic surgery to young children whose mothers are going under the knife for the trendy “Mommy Makeover.” It is now possible to hire fake paparazzi to follow you around snapping your photograph when you go out at night — you can even take home a faux celebrity magazine cover featuring the pictures.

A popular song declares, with no apparent sarcasm, “I believe that the world should revolve around me!” People buy expensive homes with loans far beyond their ability to pay — or at least they did until the mortgage market collapsed as a result. Babies wear bibs embroidered with “Supermodel” or “Chick Magnet” and suck on “Bling” pacifiers while their parents read modernized nursery rhymes from This Little Piggy Went to Prada. People strive to create a “personal brand” (also called “self-branding”), packaging themselves like a product to be sold. Ads for financial services proclaim that retirement helps you return to childhood and pursue your dreams. High school students pummel classmates and then seek attention for their violence by posting YouTube videos of the beatings.

Although these seem like a random collection of current trends, all are rooted in a single underlying shift in the American psychology: the relentless rise of narcissism in our culture. Not only are there more narcissists than ever, but non-narcissistic people are seduced by the increasing emphasis on material wealth, physical appearance, celebrity worship, and attention seeking. Standards have shifted, sucking otherwise humble people into the vortex of granite countertops, tricked-out MySpace pages, and plastic surgery. A popular dance track repeats the words: ‘success, fame, glamour” over and over, declaring that all other values has “either been discredited or destroyed.[4]

An important point is made in the introduction that “Narcissism is a psycho-cultural affliction rather than a physical disease, but the model fits remarkably well.” Indeed it does. This understanding is vital for comprehending the depth to which psychopathy has filtered down from the top after similarly infecting the centres of power within all institutions, something we will explore in depth. For now, what do the authors consider to be the causes?

Twenge and other psychologists believe one of the primary drivers is parenting supported by the competitive world of the consumer market. Aside from the mass-market entertainment industry that thrives on narcissistic themes, the constant drip-drip of pathologies in both public and private institutions and governing bodies which are preventing alternative and more integrative frameworks from appearing. Meantime, parents and teachers will inevitably pass on learned behaviour and unconscious narcissistic traits.

Benczur-narcissus

Narcissus by Gyula Benczúr

The very nature of parenting in British and American societies will be fraught with difficulties. The happy, well-adjusted and emotionally nourished child seems to be disappearing. Due to the emotional osmosis that occurs from the womb to the formative years and beyond, parental influence deeply imprints the child’s emerging personality. If the parents have any number of unconscious fears or unresolved character deformations they will certainly appear in their offspring to a greater or lesser degree. The modifying properties will be dependent on the child’s inherent will, strength and spiritual capacities to overcome such influences and forge his own unique destiny. As s/he proceeds through schooling these parental influences will rage for dominance in the mind until such time as developmental thresholds are surmounted and integrated. If not, then the personality health is held back by a number of traumas, large or small, that nevertheless have a direct connection to early childhood parental influence. These internal and external influences meet and cause all kinds of fears, insecurities, anxieties and confusion to manifest along with the atrophying of natural emotional development. By fourteen or fifteen it will be evident that a fully-rounded out individual who is able to make his or her way in the world is not present, or if it is, it is the narcissistic false personality that is empty within and sporadically capable without. His parental pathologies, minor or major, now mix with his own to create the false image and the commensurate pain and suffering that ensues to keep that façade alive.

Clinical psychology 101 will tell us that the absence of self-awareness and blind-spots in the parents regarding their own fears and neuroses, emotional traumas of the past and present will seed themselves in the new-born as unconsciously learned behaviours. It is vital that would-be parents seeking the best for their unborn child understand that the only way to reduce the danger of one’s child developing a narcissistic personality disorder in our present times, is for them to embark on a process of self-knowledge and self-awareness prior to the birth so that unresolved psychological “blockages” or underlying disorders are recognised and a method of healing initiated.  If the parents can reduce the level of problems within and mitigate their transference to the arriving child, perhaps this is the greatest parental gift one can give to an emerging soul.

Why is it that we are seeing serious personality disorders in teenagers and young adults that seem to come from families with no presence of overt abuse? The above describes a new form of dysfunction that is quite different to the overt emotional, physical/sexual abuse that can occur within the family environment. What we have here is a type of parental position within the family that confers a covert-narcissism, where the needs of the parents take precedent of the needs of the child or children which is sacrificed for the good of “family appearances.” This is a largely unconscious dynamic on the part of the parents (or single parent) and usually occurs sometime during the developmental stage of differentiation between child and adult i.e. when the child begins to assert his identity and seeks to become individual.

What is interesting is that the needs of the child within these types of families are certainly met when they are babies or toddlers. As s/he grows up a more skilful parenting based on self-knowledge is required and when the true nature of the relationship becomes known. Psychologists Stephanie Donaldson-Pressman and Robert M. Pressman describe the process:

As the child’s psychological needs become more of a factor in the life of the family, the narcissistic family truly develops. The parent system is unable to adapt to meet the child’s needs, and the child, in order to survive, must be the one to adapt. The inversion process starts: the responsibility for meeting needs gradually shifts from the parent to the child. Whereas in infancy the parents may have met the needs of the child, now the child is more and more attempting to meet the needs of the parent, for only in this way can the child gain attention, acceptance, and approval….the needs of children, especially the emotional needs, increase geometrically as their tractability decreases. [5]

A host of reasons from the parents’ point of view can interfere with this process where their own needs – due to stress, mental illness, work demands etc. – are placed before the needs of their child. This largely refers to emotional nourishment rather than material demands. As the child feels misunderstood and neglected he begins to draw attention to the fact and a battle is set in motion between the parents’ needs and the child with the result that in sometimes subtle ways affection and attention are withheld so that the child is forced to confront his own emotional confusion. This means the child’s emotional needs go unattended and his independence and opportunity to learn about himself and the process at work is denied. He waits and reacts to parental expectations which relates to passivity and reaction rather than an emerging healthy independence. This breeds dependency and insecurity based on the reflection of the parents’ needs and expectations rather than his own.

This frustrated need for validation becomes a driving force in all external relations along with an undercurrent of anger and unhappiness leading to depression, chronic dissatisfaction, poor self-esteem and lack of confidence. As he sought to find his true personality the absence of an emotional foundation comes back to haunt him as indecisiveness and indecision due to an over-reliance on external cues and with no role-models to show him the way forward. If others’ needs and expectations have taken over his own then it is those to which he will identify, further eroding his sense of self. The net result of all this is the loss of the child’s true identity and the appropriation of a number of pathologies, the most common of which is overt narcissism.

The only way forward for such an individual is via acceptance and responsibility. Acceptance arrives when he understands that what happened was beyond his control and the chance to take responsibility for your his own psychological health. Most of all: forgiveness. Parents are immersed in the same world as their children and they are victims of the same to varying degrees. But victim-hood, as we will discover, must not become an escape from reality or an excuse to repeat the same patterns. The only way to break the hold of narcissistic tendencies and pathologies in the world at large is to heal our emotions and accrue knowledge of their presence in ourselves and our environment. Without this will to heal, we all become “preformatted” to fit into the emerging narcissistic culture. The factors leading to parental ignorance of these matters derive from the pathologies we have looked at previously and will go into greater depth as we continue.

What is perhaps even more disturbing is the twist on reality dispensed by the American Psychological Association who believes that because narcissism has become so ubiquitous it should be re-evaluated as a personality disorder.

Andrew E. Skodol, MD, chair of the DSM-5’s personality disorder work group and a psychiatry professor at the University of Arizona College of Medicine believes: “There is a fair amount of literature suggesting that narcissism is a dimension varying amongst people and across disorders,” and: “not necessarily a disorder in and of itself.” Yet according to Thomas Arthur Widiger, PhD, a University of Kentucky psychology professor who served on the DSM-5’s research planning committee the new decision was not “… based on a systematic or objective review of the data and, if implemented, would have a chilling effect on personality disorder research.” Widiger is unequivocal as to the result of such a ruling: “By turning narcissistic personality disorder into a list of traits that will lack official coding within a medical record, you are essentially relegating it to a sidebar that will unlikely draw much research or diagnostic interest.” [6]

Many psychiatrists and psychologists concur as it will play right into the hands of further pathologies arising like building blocks on the firm foundations of normalised narcissism.

What if extreme entitlement and exploitation of others makes these individuals more likely to extreme forms of rage, aggression and violence against innocent people even in the absence of provocation? In fact, recent scholarship has identified this probability in narcissists along with some researchers suggesting that pathological narcissism may actually be psychopathy: “…when egocentricity, lack of empathy, and sense of superiority of the narcissist blends with the impulsivity, deceitfulness, and criminal tendencies of the antisocial, the result is a psychopathic individual who seeks gratification of selfish impulses through any means without remorse or empathy.”  [7]

 


Notes

[1] ‘The narcissism of consumer society has left women unhappier than ever’ by Madeleine Bunting, The Guardian, July 26, 2009.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Living in the Age of Entitlement: The Narcissism Epidemic by Jean M. Twenge PhD and W. Keith Campbell PhD. Published by Free Press, 2009.
[4] op. cit. Twenge, Campbell, (p.1)
[5] The Narcissitic Family: Diagnosis and Treatment by Stephanie Donaldson-Pressman and Robert M. Pressman, Published by Jossey Bass; 1st Pbk. Ed edition, 1997. ISBN-10: 078790870.pp.28-29.
[6] ‘Narcissism and the DSM’ February 2011, Vol 42, No. 2, page 67 American Psychological Association.
[7] Personality disorders in modern life. By T. Millon and R. Davis 2000. Published by John Wiley & Sons. 1st edition.
[8] Cocaine:An Unauthorized Biography byDominic Streatfeild. Published by St. Martin’s Press, 26 Jun 2002 |  “On May 16th, 1499 Amerigo Vespucci set sail for the New World. Three months later, having navigated his way along the coastline of Brazil, he washed up on an idyllic desert island fifteen leagues from the mainland. There he was appalled to discover a tribe of hideous Indians, their mouths stuffed full of leaves “like beasts.” The leaves were coca, source of the drug cocaine.Five hundred years later, the effects of the discovery are still felt. In 1999 South America produced 613,4000 tons of coca, with a potential yield of 765 tons of cocaine. Last year a United Nations report estimated that the global cocaine trade generated $92 billion per year – $20 billion more than the combined revenues of Microsoft, Kellogg’s and McDonald’s.”

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