Thursday, March 19, 2009

It's Not You, It's Me

"This is the cultural moment of the narcissist," writes amateur (in the best sense of the word) psychologist Emily Yoffe (her "Dear Prudence" advice column in Slate every Thursday is not to be missed). Problem is, that has been true for at least the past thirty years--Christopher Lasch's acclaimed and acute The Culture of Narcissism appeared in 1979, at the end of the "me decade."

Yoffe's piece is a generally accurate and entertaining popular overview, although I would fault it for suggesting that the narcissist himself usually suffers much less than those around him. To be sure, there are the so-called "oblivious" narcissists who are often high-functioning leaders in politics, business, or other fields, and everyone seems to adduce Bill Clinton as an example although as a psychiatrist I'm not ethically allowed to do that (i.e. diagnose celebrities).

But the central point of narcissism is that the grandiosity and lack of empathy both reflect and attempt to compensate for grievous weaknesses in the self, manifested by painful self-absorption and a gnawing sense of emptiness. These so-called "hypervigilant" narcissists are constantly on the lookout for the validation they desperately crave, and lacking which, they often collapse into despondency or primitive rage.

Limited time today, but my pet theory about many of our current ills, narcissism as much as obesity, is that they are the ironic result of society having achieved levels of average prosperity undreamed of by most people for most of history. And it is the capitalistic prosperity itself--the leisure time, the preoccupation with management and appearance, the endless craving for a new external satisfaction--that is responsible, and not any particular political choices made in recent decades. For most of our history the sheer pressure of work and survival protected us from narcissism. Narcissism is a luxury we seem willing and able to afford, even if it doesn't usually make us happy.
Addendum: Just now I found a most emblematic article, courtesy of good ole Arts and Letters Daily, about the woes of contemporary women who are dissatisfied with their lot no matter how rich, well-wedded, or stocked with cherubic children they may be. I won't say this reflects narcissism per se, only the kind of anomic ennui of contemporary success that I mentioned before. The piece also observes, strangely, that men, in comparison, seem content with their lot. I must not know male psychology like I thought I did...


Retriever said...

Great topic. The British journalist was a real twit, tho. Envious, trying to hide it. She should have remembered the wise advice from the recovery movement (?) "Don't compare your insides to someone else's outsides.". If she knew the culture she is reporting on (I do, having grown up in it) she would know that the apparently spoiled and whiney yummy mummies actually have their own real tragedies, and not just the nails or botox or nanny. They whine in public about the bs, and weep in private about heartbreak that crosses all class and economic lines. Where I live now, a group like the one she describes would include women grappling in private with: a husband with a DUI and a mistress, a kid arrested for drug possession, a girl hooking up with members of the football team tho only 14, one with an autistic kid, one trying to fight an oxycontin addiction (begun when seeking relief from migraines), one trying to get an alcoholic and demented mother-in-law into a nursing home after she nearly burned down the house. Another one still anorexic at 45 with an abusive husband who cannot tolerate fat women. She wears a lot of coverstick to hide bruises. Their problems may be personal, but they are not all frivolous or narcissistic.

I think that most of the men around here seem happier and more content with their lot, and I don't know why. Of course I mostly know church rats. :) Perhaps less responsibility for all the emotional crisis management in the family than their wives? Maybe men have better characters? They seem more devoted. Many oF the women have nurturing fatigue after 20 years of dedicating themselves 24/7 to their families, and some do just rebel, fly away, run off with the trainer (yuk). In reaction to the prior years.

Certainly, even when loyal, we women can be very hard to live with, I know I am (see the Monty Python skit where the crazy shrink admits to progressively worse impulses)

Anonymous said...

I would venture to add that conspicuous altruism is also symptomatic of narcissism that has exhausted every other avenue of self-aggrandisement and still feels gnawingly starved of adulation/worship/validation. The monster must be fed on a new level of superficiality masked as wholesome selflessness to compensate for the ever-gaping lack of meaning and numbing boredom.

For eg: The altruistic multi-billionaire donates a million to a charitable cause (a mere drop in the ocean of his/her wealth) and thinks the act exceedingly philanthropic - in reality, it's just a throwaway act of self-love with charity as a useful, but with an unintended side effect (yes, I know that if youre a consequentialist, then the aforesaid ethical trajectory doesn't dent you in the least).

On the other hand, a homeless guy with total assets amounting to $20 donates $15 to a charitable cause (an Atlantic tsunami in the tear drop of his wealth) and thinks nothing of it, despite the gnawing hunger now torturing his empty belly. A comparative tight wad?

...And there you have the essential difference between genuine altruism and narcissism pretending to be altruism.

Not all narcissists lovingly gaze into the abyss of their souls and find the abyss staring back at them demanding more nothingness so that it may paradoxically fill its belly with more....well, emptiness/materialism/consumerism/expensive gym memberships/liposucked lifelessness/expressive paralysis/toydogs & miniature human-extensions as accessories...

Life is a hungry beast of a bitch. That's how we get to death via the scenic route.

Anonymous said...

'...strangely, that men, in comparison, seem content with their lot. I must not know male psychology like I thought I did... '


Men don't feel pain either.

Retriever said...

Anonymous, agree with you on conspicuous good deeds as an expression of narcissism, and on how certain people get fawned upon for gifts that hurt them little.

Your homeless person illustration reminded me of this story:

"And Jesus sat over against the treasury, and beheld how the people cast money into the treasury: and many that were rich cast in much.

And there came a certain poor widow, and she threw in two mites, which make a farthing. And he called unto him his disciples, and saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That this poor widow hath cast more in, than all they which have cast into the treasury: for all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living."

Mark xii, 13-17

And then there's always Matthew 6:3:

"But when you do a charitable deed do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing."

I have a friend in town who is always being asked to sit on committees for all the various volunteer organizations in town (chiefly because of his skill managing difficult people) and he flat out refuses to do anything for the do-good organizations as he says that the people who go into them are far unhealthier (ie: more narcissistic) than the worst pirates in finance or business. Why? The latter group are clear about their motivation, to make a lot of money and produce stuff. The others (he says) are in it for the ego, for a sense of power, importance, etc. Who knows...

Anonymous said...

Retriever, what can I say? I'm more intuitively 'christian' than some real-life ideological Christians...

Leon's current assignment said...

I recently referred a patient for couples work with another clinician who recommended he read this before coming to their session: Why Is It Always About YOU? the seven deadly sins of narcissism by Sandy Hotchkiss.

That he came into my office raving about the book (he is a music teacher not known to enjoy such activities) *and* was able to understand the author's presented material was enough for me to check it out on my own.

If you are not familiar with it, I highly encourage you to give it a look-see.