CPPNJ - The Center for Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy of New Jersey

Monday, September 13, 2010

Narcissism Is Us

The recent spectacle of a lunatic Florida minister holding the world hostage by threatening to burn Korans remains disturbing on many levels. Admittedly, "lunatic" may not be a proper diagnostic term; so far as I know, the committee working on DSM-V is not considering Lunatic Personality Disorder as a new entry. (Given all that is going on in this country, perhaps it should.)

I won't speculate about what specific diagnosis might best describe the good Pastor. I do think it's fair to say he is just a wee bit narcissistic. And that our culture of ever-mushrooming opportunities to draw attention to oneself is helping to raise narcissism to new levels.

It's not hard to imagine the delight of Terry Jones, the once-insignificant minister whose tantrum-like media stunt would have been ignored in times past. How powerful this Napoleonic man must have felt as the President, the Secretary of State, the Vatican and, mind-bogglingly, Angelina Jolie (speaking of narcissists), made imploring statements and phone calls to him.

Of course Jones is not the only dangerous narcissist whose hunger for power and attention are currently indulged in our multimedia times. Take Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin -- please. They maniacally tweet and organize marches as testaments to their self-importance. The more attention they get, the more they want, and the more the media gives them.

These are extreme cases, of course. But the popularity of Reality TV, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and ever-present blogs has helped fuel even garden-variety narcissism. (The irony that I am blogging right now is not lost on me. Please ignore the man behind the curtain.)

These days, every mundane thing people do is posted, chronicled and video taped on the Internet, clouding the boundaries between what's truly important and what's just nonsense. Everyone wants -- and can presumably now have -- their fifteen minutes of fame, but why settle for only a quarter-hour? Not when you can bounce from reality show to magazine covers to celebrity rehab and three more reality shows -- simply for behaving badly.

"Attention must be paid," said Willie Loman's wife about her defeated husband in "Death of a Salesman." Loman was a tragic figure, an empty man who turned to suicide when he could no longer prop up his battered ego. Narcissism is about just that -- a desperate attempt to shore up a fragile sense of self by inflating one's importance. Grandiosity temporarily masks insecurity.

The problem is, it doesn't work. Each conquest ultimately leaves the person feeling more deflated, needing more of a boost to his or her self-esteem. Narcissism breeds more narcissism. As Glenn Beck's ratings continue to slip, I suspect his rants will only intensify. I shudder to think about what the Florida minister will do next.

All of us have some narcissistic characteristics; sometimes they are actually healthy. Mental health comes not from being flawless (isn't that the misguided goal of the narcissist to begin with?), but from being more aware of and comfortable with our vulnerabilities.

Humility can tamper hubris; self-awareness can replace self-aggrandizement. These are some of the goals of psychoanalytic treatment. Unlike other therapeutic modalities that do not address the underlying causes of suffering, psychoanalysts are uniquely trained to work with the fragility that fuels unhealthy narcissism. When we engage the frightened adult-child behind the blustery bully, both sides of the personality feel attended to. Shame can give away to genuine confidence.

And that is something worth posting on a Facebook page.

-- Eric Sherman, LCSW

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