Tuesday, August 21 , 2018, 9:09 pm | Fair 69º


Russell Collins: Is the Age of Narcissism Nearing an End?

A dose of scarcity and humility amid the global economic meltdown may be just the ticket out of societal narcissism

In line at Costco last week, I mentioned out loud that the checkout seemed quieter than usual. A wild-eyed man behind me in frayed shorts and flip flops offered an explanation.

Russell Collins
Russell Collins

“Fewer big-ticket items,” he said in a hollow, raspy whisper that sounded strangely prophetic. He was right. Even amid the shafts of warm midday light streaming in from the soaring warehouse windows,  without the bulky big screens balanced precariously on orange industrial carts or brightly labeled boxes from Sony and Dell sticking out of their baskets, the shoppers looked grim and subdued in their rows.

In the wake of the current financial catastrophe, a new wave of criticism of our materialistic society has erupted. Typical of the trend is the just-published book The Narcissism Epidemic by Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell, which informs us that a narcissism virus has been spreading faster than even obesity and is to blame for everything from overspending and rampant consumerism to the shallowness of the YouTube generation, the increase in cosmetic surgeries and the breakdown of marriage.

Twenge and Campbell make a pretty good statistical case for their thesis that the level of narcissism has increased geometrically in recent decades. Their explanation for this trend is a little less convincing, however. They blame a combination of overindulgent helicopter parenting, celebrity worship, MySpace and an economic environment for consumers and homebuyers that they call “the repeal of the reality principal.”

And now, the authors tell us, in perhaps its tragic last act, societal narcissism may be bringing about the global economic meltdown. Our national obsession with big-ticket symbols of status has come full circle and is devouring its own tail. It went something like this: a) Economic prosperity brought about a materialistic frenzy that, b) drove a supercharged economy to, c) reward crazy, risk-taking behaviors in its leaders in a spiral of greed that, d) had everyone feeling richer and richer. Finally, e) risk-friendly policies and risk-seeking leaders brought down the whole house of cards through their narcissistic denial of the inevitable collapse.

But what is a narcissist, exactly?

Psychological narcissism was invented by Sigmund Freud in 1914 in an essay “On Narcissism: an Introduction.” He took the name, of course, from the story of Narcissus, a youth who fell in love with his own reflection in a pool and died pining for this unattainable love.

Despite the unhappy outcome of Narcissus’ tale, Freud’s theories came eventually to include both healthy and unhealthy forms of narcissism. The healthy kind was a primitive survival instinct (the drive to survive implies a kind of me-first valuing of the self, after all) that all humans share. Freud distinguished this infantile or primary narcissism from a kind that develops later, when the child’s personal survival drive fails to develop into empathy or altruism. The more extreme forms of this secondary narcissism Freud considered a mental illness. The official diagnosis for this problem today is called narcissistic personality disorder.

It is sometimes argued that NPD is over-diagnosed because the symptoms often don’t cause “distress or impairment” in the patient (this is one of the official criteria for the disorder). In fact, narcissistic people often believe that their lives are pretty wonderful. But those who surround the narcissist — family, friends and co-workers, especially — suffer greatly at his lack of empathy and understanding. Children of narcissists make up a special class of psychotherapy patient, often needing years of treatment to heal their childhood wounds.

How the economy made narcissists of us all.

Two journalistic events of the 1970s defined the Age of Narcissism. First, the term “Me Decade” was introduced by novelist Tom Wolfe in a New York magazine article in 1976. A few years later, Christopher Lasch’s book The Culture of Narcissism provided a more substantive commentary on the diminishing ability of modern society and culture to provide a sense of identity and security for its members.

Changes in cultural values, economic structures and personal relationships, according to Lasch, created a society unmoored from historical measures of status based in work, religion, achievement or lineage. As a result, Americans were caught up in a never-ending, never-fulfilling competition for the symbols of status. You’re unsure of your status, and in fact, it’s almost never clear in your neighborhood just who is the boss of who — or at least who is socially superior. So we’re free to fake each other out with houses, cars, clothes, friends, Facebook pages, cosmetic surgery and other “big-ticket items” to satisfy our need to be special, and to matter in the scheme of things.

While Lasch saw our narcissistic culture as the result of having lost our historical bearings, Wolfe saw the opposite. The Me Decade, he wrote (an amazing, funny, eloquent article, if you’ve never read it), was a natural outgrowth of the embarrassment of material riches cranked out in the postwar industrial boom. Having satisfied all of our basic needs and many of our big-ticket fantasies for flashy things, a new generation of Americans decided to just bypass the symbols of happiness, going whole-hog instead for direct access to the real thing through some kind of personal enlightenment.

Gurus, spiritual movements, self-improvement programs such as est and Scientology, Transcendental Meditation, fringe therapies such as Primal Scream — Wolfe saw these as an expression of encroaching societal narcissism. Years after the New York magazine article, Wolfe expanded his critique of narcissistic American culture to include the young financial wizards of Wall Street, or “Masters of the Universe” as he called them in the novel — and later the movie, Bonfire of the Vanities.

How narcissism caused the economy to fail.

Old computer business joke:

Question: What’s the difference between (Oracle CEO and sixth-richest man in the United States) Larry Ellison and God.

Answer:  God doesn’t think he’s Larry Ellison.

Ellison typifies the type of driven, egocentric CEO who in the past 30 years or so has come to represent the ideal business leader.

“There’s something new and daring about the CEOs who are transforming today’s industries,” psychoanalyst Michael Macoby wrote in a Harvard Business Review article in 2000. He went on to name the top tier of charismatic business executives such as Steve Jobs of Apple, Jack Welch of GE, Bill Gates of Microsoft, along with a few of the Wall Street masters of the universe whose names made headlines during the banking collapse.

These men are the stuff of business legends — men who see beyond the horizons that limit the view of lesser leaders. And their defining characteristic has been an unshakeable confidence in their own personal vision. “They are gifted and creative strategists who see the big picture and find meaning in the risky challenge of changing the world and leaving behind a legacy,” Macoby said. But he also saw the dark side of the picture. “The larger-than-life leaders we are seeing today closely resemble the personality type that Sigmund Freud dubbed narcissistic,” he said, and presciently observed (this was in 2000) that by entrusting the leadership of our great business institutions to chieftains with narcissistic personality traits, we might be creating a new problem: in their inability to heed the advice of others, or listen to any warning of danger that contradicts their gut instincts, Macoby predicted, these leaders could someday steer us boldly over an economic waterfall to a catastrophic crackup on the rocks below.

We know how that turned out.

The end of an age.

If the Age of Narcissism began with the upward spiral of the postwar economy, could an epochal downturn (if this is one) signal the beginning of the end of our obsession with ourselves?

Authors Twenge and Campbell offer some hope at least. “With home equity lines of credit drying up, it became harder to finance a nice car or plastic surgery. Fewer people can afford expensive consumer goods. The bursting of the credit bubble might suck the oxygen out of the system that narcissism needs to survive.”

If the big-ticket items of materialism and vanity tempted us into this age of self-absorption, could a dose of scarcity and humility be just the ticket out? It’s a big question for all of us, with important implications for America and the planet. To get an answer, I think, we’ll have to stay tuned.

— Russell Collins is a Santa Barbara psychotherapist and divorce mediator. Click here for more information.

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