A Society of Narcissists

An essay by Ethan A. Bayer

The Greeks tell a story of a beautiful young man who cast aside the forest nymphs that fawned over him. As punishment for his impudence, the gods caused him to fall in love with his reflection as seen in a pool, so that when he tried to touch it, it would melt away. Eventually he lost all vigor due to his inability to love something real (RSP, 204). Moving deeper than the stereotypical conclusions one might draw from the myth, we find that narcissism is not a simple matter of conceit and vanity; as Lasch explains, "it is this confusion of the self and the not-self-not 'egoism'-that distinguishes the plight of Narcissus" (MS, 19).

In some ways, narcissism has proved itself to be a biological necessity. We must be "selfish" in order to survive. A constant awareness of and response to our internal states, such as hunger, fear, and fatigue is required to keep our bodies in homeostasis. However, our narcissism needs a limit, because survival on one's own is next to impossible. We are able to surrender some of our self-interest for cooperation and expand our circle of narcissism to include an entire group (PR, 120-121).

Present day narcissism gained force in the 1970s. With the political chaos of the 1960s, people moved in the opposite direction and began to escape from the world by creating havens within themselves. The 1970s, the time period Tom Wolfe named the "third great awakening" (CN, 5), were marked by a bare need for survival, which demands a focus into the self and a disregard for large-scale societal issues (CN, 4-6). This "war of all against all" originated and flourished in the lower class, eventually branching upward into mainstream society (CN, 26).

Before going further, narcissism must be differentiated into two types. Primary narcissism is possessed by every infant, and is essentially the "symbiotic fusion with the mother" (MS, 245). He has no interest in the external world because it has yet to be discovered (PR, 118). The mother is a part of himself, and the uncompromising care she bestows on the infant creates in him a sense of omnipotence. Combining the parents' affection with conceptions of power confuses one into acquiring the image of the grandiose self (CN, 37). In contrast, secondary narcissism is pathological. It tries to compensate for the emptiness that results when love is not returned, and implements grandiosity to ward of guilt and weakness (CN, 36). The paranoid person creates a reality from his fears, because he feels they have manifested themselves into the world. Speculation has it that secondary narcissism aims towards the " 'prenarcissistic fantasy of returning to the mother's body'" (PRCC, 351). The difference here is that, to the infant, the external world "has not yet emerged as real," whereas to the patient afflicted with psychosis, it "has ceased to be real" (PR, 119). 

While the majority of this paper focuses on secondary narcissism, it is important to understand its roots. Primary narcissism is the basis for competition and the urge to conquer tasks (MS, 55). The fear of separation from the mother disrupts the process of mergence with the external world, transforming it into a desire to make oneself the world (MS, 235). Alice Miller, however, strays from these traditional views by theorizing that narcissism is the result not of specific mothering skills during infancy, but of long-seeded trends in one's family interaction. If a person is deprived of care and reassurance during childhood, he is forced to move outside the family to find identity and convincing of his grandiosity (RSP, 204-205). 

Primary narcissism is the precipitate of the "ego ideal," a term Freud coined to account for the internalization of certain parental traits which one strives to mimic. Some say the ego ideal is superior to the superego because it transforms desires of all types into soley productive ones, but others call it regressive since it feels omnipotence vicariously through the parents (MS, 178-179). 

In childhood, parents encourage narcissism in their offspring by pressing them to chase after their wildest dreams, saying that failure is impossible (MS, 191). They stress their unconditional love and support, giving children a false, though sometimes constructive, sense of perfection (MS, 191). 

Narcissistic patients often come from families in which the mother took a more prominent role than the father, who was likely substituted for by an uncle or friend as a male role model (MS, 191-192). In adulthood, narcissists yearn for intimate relationships, but ironically they isolate themselves to assert their self-sufficiency. Because "narcissism knows no distinction between the self and others" (MS, 245-246), people are torn between these paradoxical desires.

As suggested thus far, narcissism is far more complex than the labels we normally give it. Simply defined, a narcissist "[sees] the world as a mirror, more particularly as a projection of one's own fears and desires-not because it makes [him] grasping and self-assertive but because it makes [him] weak and dependent" (MS, 33). He seeks to resolve or avoid conflict with the external world, but instead of conforming himself to reality, he creates a new reality that conforms to him (MS, 19). He is compelled "to establish an identity," not just "to submerge [his] identity in a larger cause" (CN, 8). The weakness of his self-esteem can only be compensated for by living in a polar opposite reality-the grandiose self (CN, 10). To appear socially acceptable, he fabricates a fašade that, although outwardly healthy, wears away at his true inner core (RSP, 204). Instead, his narcissism becomes the one unbreakable entity that he holds onto with passion (PR, 120). 

The narcissist is successful in many aspects, but when he falls short of personal goals he becomes flooded with depression and guilt (RSP, 205). Due to inflated pride in his accomplishments, his reason is distorted (PR, 121). This may cause him to respond to criticism with anger or depression, for his precious belief in his own perfection has been threatened (PR, 122). While this arrogance seems non-adaptive, it actually makes him a fairly strong leader; by granting him an oblivion to doubt and carping by others, his egoism gives him full confidence, which subsequently attracts the faith of followers (PR, 123). He looks and feels as if he has a complete grasp on himself and is content with who he is (CN, 40). Such a drive and conviction seems charitable, but his ultimate goal is "to live for [him]self" (CN, 5); he tallies happiness by his own achievements and products, not by contributions to the world.

And yet, beyond this grand front, there lies a plaguing pain of "personal emptiness" (RSP, 21), a gut-wrenching notion that all he has is a "protective shallowness" (CN, 50). Something gnaws at his insides with the message that he is an emotional desert, a nobody. He does not seek to further his perspective in growth that involves struggle, which ultimately result in profound understanding and fulfillment; rather, he treads smooth paths that only lead to superficial peace of mind (CN, 13). Avoidance of this realization of emptiness is possible, though. He fears reflection because it appears to be laziness and failure in the present state-as if his peak has passed. Instead, he puts blinders on to the surrounding turmoil and gazes at the future with anxiety (MS, 15).

While narcissism has a knack for masking itself in young adulthood with energy and youth, it is detrimental in older age. Our society values fresh beauty and vitality to such an extent that those who rely purely on the media and superficial society for their internal happiness will be met with disappointment once they are over the hill, for they will no longer be lauded with "admiration usually reserved for youth" (CN, 41). And though he hates doing it, the narcissist turns away from his physical deterioration by living in the past, depressed and pessimistic (CN, 46).

His intimate relationships are plagued with manipulation and shallowness (RSP, 06). His love is not genuine, and is often parasitic (CN, 40), because he loves a woman only because she is a mirror of himself-a part of him, essentially (PR, 129). He moves in and out of relationships quickly, and understandably so. Indeed, anyone would find difficulty in living with someone with "boundless repressed rage" and "nervous, self-deprecatory humor" (CN, 33).

Our society fosters narcissism in various institutions. Ironically, the politics that once provoked people to hole up in the 1960s has now become an outlet for the narcissistic personality. It channels his energy into a voice that is cheered by a group, enabling him to escape the reality of his own failures (CN, 15). Men especially get caught in this trap because they are confused about the nature of their desires (CN, 29); they may transform sexual desire into the hunger for political power. This projection of inner emotions onto society is evident in political debates, which are wrongly placed disappointments about the self (CN, 29).

The media is a huge contributor to narcissism. They manifest idealistic hopes of fame, giving his narcissism something concrete to latch on to (CN, 21). Commercialization and its propaganda has justified the satisfaction of his every desire, so he needs not feel guilty for splurging and indulging. Consequently, the media has made him unable to cope when he fails to fulfill his desires (CN, 22). It has also furthered the equalization of the roles of women and children in the family, saying that they deserve the same amount and quality of commodities as the father, if not more than him. Its allowing for the complete satisfaction of the id has created a new " 'social individual'" (CN, 43). A lack of confidence in child-rearing (made apparent in the vast quantity of parenting books and magazines) leads parents to be hands-off with children for fear of messing up (MS, 189). Instead, parents befriend their offspring and acquire youthful appearances and attitudes (MS, 191). Left without the traditional mother or father, this independence leads children to effect illusions of grandiosity and self-sufficiency. They wander about with this distorted perception, easy prey for the superficial media (MS, 189). 

Not just kids are susceptible to propaganda and the effects of a commercialized state. Because they think their world is run by intricate machines and bureaucracies and is in constant jeopardy of falling apart, people in general are robbed of the belief that they are self-sufficient and can change the world (MS, 33). They feel they are a small cog in the machine and cannot possibly run their lives by themselves.

Even extensive civilization and expansion of moral agents, which have produced countless benefits in society, have helped narcissism to flourish. We have edified and refined ourselves to such an extent that wildness and savagery no longer occupy our fears; in turn, we are left with a blissfully boring world (CN, 11). This world is not conducive to the taboo emotions we all feel. Since rage cannot be acceptably expressed, people "seethe with an inner anger" that numbs them to a point of feeling at a loss for any emotion (CN, 11).

Narcissism affects our communities from all angles. Some critics say ours is an "Alpha style" society where decisions are logical and result in a balance between winners and losers, and this causes us to be narcissistic at large (MS, 56). However, critics are coming to realize the emergence of a new culture, one that uses "Beta style"-the feminine counterpart to the masculine Alpha. It revolves around human relationships and concern for others. Combined with the recent religious upsurge, they claim we are beginning to turn away from our narcissistic ways. However, this prediction is built on shaky ground: if we deal more personally with the individual and with humanity, and introspection is "narcissistic or escapist" (MS, 57), then are we not just finding more sly ways of manifesting our narcissism? 

Perhaps the most tragic cause of narcissism is the violence and cynicism apparent in our world. The immorality visible in our society (CN, 25) and the consequential wariness of the future (CN, 27) has provoked us to absorb back into ourselves and create a callous to the exterior. Essentially it is a defense mechanism designed to keep us from that which would put us in total despair. We are willing to forget the world outside because of its magnificent horrors-namely the violence it is ready to impose on our self-image-and retreat into ourselves, fashioning a utopia, at least in our own minds. It is a reaction to a shift of the world from an existence that is concrete and obvious in its intentions to one that blurs reality and unreality in a sweep of various ideas and plans (MS, 19). Lasch encompasses the atmosphere by renaming his "culture of narcissism" to a "culture of survivalism" (MS, 57). 

By turning within ourselves, though, we have become increasingly isolated. Although we are shallowly social, mingling at parties and filling our Rolodexes with names, we have neither the desire nor the emotional capacity and strength to be genuinely social. The once unbreakable ties with neighbors and friends are quickly withering (CN, 51). The irony of the situation is that these narcissistic solutions to societal problems are no solutions at all: By investing in our own well-being, we are letting the fate of future generations slip away unnoticed and uncared for (CN, 26). Ironically, the behaviors that result, such as avoiding intimate relationships and living in the moment, are exactly what we were running away from at the start (CN, 27). The outlook recovery is dim, since "a society that fears it has no future is not likely to give much attention to the needs of the next generation" (CN, 50). 

All these factors have contributed to the contagion of narcissism. Our present reality requires that the "self [contract] to a defensive core;" it necessitates a "minimal self" (MS, 15) that can be toted along easily and shoved into a pocket when we need to depersonalize ourselves. Simply stated, it is a "defensive contraction of the self" (MS, 19).

Now that we have seen the personal effects and catalysts of a society that induces narcissism, we can begin to examine the dialogue between the narcissist and groups such as organized religion. Strong leaders (who, recall, are often narcissistic themselves, sometimes bordering on pathology) attract people with narcissistic tendencies because of an opportunity to be merged with someone powerful and great (PR, 129)-the chance to "live vicariously through others more brilliant than oneself" (CN, 23). They look for the chance to compensate for personal shortcomings by feasting off of another's supposed perfection. Members also take pride in the organization as a whole, and must be convinced of the group's importance and superiority over other groups (PR, 125). To retain followers, leaders have to convince them of the personal benefits they are gaining and the ways in which the group enhances their lives. 

The group setting, however, is merely a mask for narcissism. An extreme pride and confidence in one's organization is seen as patriotic and committed, and is supported by other members (PR, 126). However, narcissism rears its head when the group is criticized. Religious wars and violence towards African Americans in the period after slavery was abolished are examples of defense, showing that group narcissism produces the same effects as individual narcissism (PR, 128).

Narcissistic occurrences are prominent in institutions of religious nature; objectively, religiosity is a "quest for validation and appreciation of individuality within the safe context of collective support" (RSP, 209). Small cults in particular attempt to mirror a family, lending a second chance for emotional development to their members (RSP, 206). The leader-member relationship mimics the parent-child relationship, requiring complete submission in return for the promise of care and protection (RSP, 206). However, the leader, unlike a parent, tries to give purely positive reinforcement (RSP, 208). He "embodies qualities of the ultimate ego ideal and also the nurturer, supplementing devotees' fragile senses of self" (RSP, 209). Followers are attracted by a person who resembles a parent, yet who does not disappoint them with flaws or a short temper. 

Members' narcissism is evident in their belief that they are worthy of a relationship with a leader who is magical and powerful (RSP, 207). The leader-member bond as well as the bonds between disciples allow for easing of the inner weakness inherent in narcissists, as well as the encouragement and fulfillment of grandiose fantasies (RSP, 207). 

Contemporary Christianity displays many egoistic characteristics. For example, the notions of being one of the elect and of occupying the constant attention and protection of the greatest Being ever are very narcissistic and elevating (PRCC, 354). Witnessing is a manifestation of reflective narcissism, because one desires to see his own traits adopted by another (PRCC, 354). Even the story of Adam and Eve is narcissistic, because they are reflections of each other in the sense that they are derived from the same flesh (PRCC, 355). 

While narcissism thus far has been connoted pathologically, Jesus Christ is a "symbol of transformed narcissism" (PRCC, 359). The evolution of God from a sort of Oedipal father who demands fear to Jesus whose death denies the omnipotence of God parallels a timeline of our development through each of our lifetimes: We begin with complete reverence towards our parents, especially the father, and gradually learn to view them as a fellow human with their own faults and mistakes (PRCC, 360). Christ is more humanized than the original image of God. This new vision of the Lord enables Him to sympathize with us on a more personal level, and in turn we are able to sympathize more personally with our peers (PRCC, 360). 

This personalization has perhaps gone to too great an extent, as seen in the Eucharist, which gives a sense of power and piety through the consumption of the body and blood of Christ (PRCC, 355). Christianity also promotes narcissism in the belief that through dialogue with God in prayer, we have an insider's scoop on God's plan that will ultimately put us ahead of others (PRCC, 361). The verse "Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave" (Matthew 20:26), though it sounds selfless at first, has as its eventual and utmost goal to come out on top; it seems to advertise servantry and humility simply as a means to gain power.

The Catholic Church has succeeded in creating several devices for taming narcissism. For example, the idea that man is humble in the sight of the Lord puts a cap on our own illusion of omnipotence (PR, 127). We are taught to love not only those in our social group, but even strangers and enemies. This is a very selfless act, because "if the stranger has become fully human to you...you have become truly human" (PR, 130). 

Simultaneously, though, the Church has fostered narcissism in the belief that Jesus is the only route to salvation (PR, 127) and that we must be representatives of such a great Being. An idea such as this floating around in our heads can easily throw us into the trap of identifying with God too much, so that we start to see ourselves as embodying perfection, making God a sort of self-object.

While Christianity seeks communion with the divine, Buddhism pursues self-realization-it is a difference of "union mysticism" as opposed to "self-mysticism" (PRCC, 351). The goal of a Buddhist is to gain a deeper understanding of reality by removing the wool that society has pulled over his eye. This transcending of his narcissism is sketched out as the only way to find happiness (PR, 130). Ironically, though, narcissism is not uncommon in this society. Kakar hypothesizes that narcissism among Indian males is the result of the failed "integration of the grandiose self and the idealized parental image" (PRCC, 357). For the first five or six years of his life, the male is constantly with his mother. Suddenly, they are disjoined and he is forced to mold to the strict disciplines of adult males (PRCC, 357). He is stranded without the only lifeline he has known thus far, and essentially must grow up immediately. With the idealized parent imago not yet completely embedded within him, he rediscovers the need later in life for a role model. This explains why Indian men have a tendency to seek people like gurus to whom they may surrender everything (PRCC, 357). By praising Shiva, whose statue looks like a phallus, we see the symbolic praise of masculinity, which for males is ultimately the praising of oneself. Its erectness and, subsequently, the power it represents are sources of reassurance of the young boy's grandiosity after his separation from the mother (PRCC, 358-359). 

Buddhism has also traced paths that lead towards narcissism. Religious experience can acquire a form where one considers himself divine. This is especially manifest in Zen Buddhism (PRCC, 347). We can trace hints of narcissism all the way back to its founder, Bodhidharma, the 28th descendent of Buddha, who spent nine years gazing at a wall in meditation (PRCC, 349). He displayed the core teaching of Zen, which is to search for Buddha within oneself-his actions and nature-because that is where He lies (PRCC, 350). Following in Bodhidharma's example, monks sit for hours each day meditating (PRCC, 350). The belief that only through introspection and solitude can one reach a heightened spiritual state, satori, creates narcissism. Underlying the narcissism of Buddhism is the rewinding of sexual development: the ultimate goal is to regress to an infantile state where one can discard his sexuality. When sexual libido is transformed into spiritual libido, the disciple reaches nirvana (PRCC, 351-352).

Obviously, narcissism is problematic to emotional and spiritual health. The obvious question is, how do we escape it? Lasch suggests that the only way to free oneself from the shackles of narcissism is to create transitional objects to simultaneously guarantee a person of his oneness with and independence from the mother and nature in general (MS, 246). He also promotes family and group therapies, because they advocate beneficial interaction between people, and also between the internal self and the external world (MS, 54). 

Another idea given us by Fromm is that we expand our narcissistic "body" to encompass not just ourselves but humankind in general, so that we rejoice in and exalt humanity as a whole, not its particular divisions (PR, 131). He dreams of the abolishing of countries and other political divisions, and instead governing the world with organizations like the United Nations (PR, 132). In addition to this decentralization of powers, he goes so far as to suggest a holiday called the "day of man" to celebrate humanity (PR, 132). 

In my eyes, at least, this view appears hopelessly idealistic. Narcissism is defined as exalting oneself; in order to feel exalted, one must be higher than something. The likelihood of exalting the entire human race is slim-who wants to feel a part of and rejoice in people like rapists and child molesters? But, granting for the sake of argument that we could put all people on one giant pedestal, we would have to find something else to tower over. If this something else were a life form (which logically makes the most sense), then the animals of the world could be in danger of serious abuse and neglect.

Narcissism-the "disturbance involving a fragmented sense of self and the search for self-confirmation in the eyes of others" (RSP, 204)-has gouged deep rifts between the individual and the community. Religion has been an active accomplice, yet it makes sincere attempts to compensate for the self-love and grandiosity it can induce in disciples. The one who sees the world as a "mirror of himself" (CN, 47) can never fully integrate into it. We have an immense dilemma on our hands, and a people too apathetic to fix it.

Works Cited