You might have noticed that an awful lot of people are talking about narcissism these days, enthusiastically labelling each other in typical narcissistic style. I hear them projecting their own weaknesses onto others, even firing off diagnoses of ‘narcissistic personality disorder’, without much idea of what that really means.
The truth is that we all live in, and suffer from, a deeply narcissistic culture – almost all of us contribute to it, and we’re all degraded by it. As with most of our collective problems, if we’re not actively working to create something better, we’re encouraging this sad condition.
So….I expect you remember the story of Narcissus – unsurprisingly I think it might be the best-known Greek myth these days. In case you want it, here’s a reminder. Narcissus was a beautiful young man, desired and adored by everyone who saw him. But he had no interest in anyone. One day while walking through the woods he came to a pool of extraordinary stillness and clarity. Leaning over it to drink, he saw the most beautiful face looking back at him, and for the first time he fell deeply in love. He reached for this lovely boy, but as he disturbed the water the vision disappeared. As he waited, it returned, but as he bent to kiss that fabulous face, his lips met only cold water and again the face vanished. This went on until Narcissus finally realised that he could never have his beloved. In despair he pined away and died.
Hmmm. The despair of Narcissus is an important part of the story, because of course narcissism makes real intimacy impossible, and leaves the narcissistic person desperately lonely. Like that poor boy, the person loves, not the other, but the image of themselves which the other provides. And this is the condition we’ve been brewing up in our society for some time now. Several studies show increasingly narcissistic attitudes among young adults, and articles link the escalation of the condition with social media, lack of active play, disconnection from nature, etc. (Not to mention the horrifying symptoms of RSD – Repetitive Selfie Disorder, which hasn’t yet made it to the psychologists’ Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, but no doubt will soon!)
I don’t want to repeat what other people have said, so I’m just going to consider this: does it matter? What’s the harm in narcissism, to the individual, to the people in relationship with the individual, and to us all collectively?
Well, the individual suffers because their self-esteem is not grounded in their self-experience, and they live in constant fear of being found lacking. Whether we are talking about a painstakingly created physical beauty, or the investment in success and status, the person suffers from a desperate hunger which can never be satisfied. Because they are dependent on the approval of others, which ultimately they can’t control, they need it to be constantly repeated. You may be desirable now, but will you be desired in an hour’s time? You may be loved today, but what about tomorrow? Time for another selfie.
Anyone in relationship with the narcissistic person suffers, because they are co-opted into bolstering that person’s self-esteem and distorted reality, without feeling truly seen themselves. Sooner or later they realise that they are functioning not as a real partner, or child, or friend, but as an instrument to provide the self-image the other person needs them to reflect. It’s worth pointing out that a defining characteristic of narcissism has always been held to be the lack of empathy. But many narcissistic people are capable of empathy – the problem is that, in order to escape their own pain and self-doubt, they use understanding of others to their own advantage and self-glorification. Caring professions such as psychotherapy and healing include many such practitioners.
There have probably always been a fair number of narcissistic people, trying their best to deal with the wounds they received in early life, without this causing problems for humans at large. But what happens when narcissism becomes the norm? A society composed of narcissistic individuals is not only unsustainable, it’s barely a society at all. In such communities the only real allegiance is to what will gain approval for the individual from those seen as most powerful in the society – whatever will guarantee safety and success. People in this situation believe what they are told without question, because there are no overriding loyalties to values beyond the individual. Advances in human rights can then be reversed overnight. In the UK and elsewhere we are seeing the removal of civil liberties protected for generations. Are narcissistic societies deliberately being created within this culture, so that the people will have no motivation to offer serious opposition to social and political control?