Narcissism describes both a psychological and a cultural condition.
On the individual level, it denotes a personality disturbance characterised by an exaggerated investment in one’s image at the expense of the self.
Narcissists are more concerned with how they appear than what they feel. Indeed, they deny feelings that contradict the image they seek. Acting without feeling, they tend to be seductive and manipulative, striving for power and control.
They are egoists, focused on their own interests but lacking the true values of the self . These are self-expression, self-possession, dignity, and integrity. Narcissists lack a sense of self derided from body feelings. Without a solid sense of self, they experience life as empty and meaningless.
It is a desolate state.
On the cultural level, narcissism is a loss of human values. A lack of concern for the environment, for the quality of life, for one’s fellow human beings. A society that sacrifices the natural environment for profit and power betrays its insensitivity to human needs.
The proliferation of material things becomes the measure of progress in living. Man pits himself against worker, worker against employer, individual against community.
When wealth occupies a higher position than wisdom. When notoriety is admired more than dignity. And when success is more important than self-respect. The culture itself overvalues ‘image’ and can be regarded as narcissistic.
The narcissism of the individual parallels that of culture. We shape our culture according to our image and in turn we are shaped by that culture. Can we understand one without understanding the other? Can psychology ignore sociology or vice versa?
It’s well known now that therapists saw a marked change in the personality problems of the people consulting them from the 1960s onwards.
The neuroses of earlier times, represented by incapacitating guilt, anxieties and phobias, or obsessions, are not seen today.
Instead, more people complain of depression. They describe a lack of feeling, an inner emptiness, a deep sense of frustration and unfulfilment.
Many are quite successful in their work, which suggests a split from the way they perform in the world and what goes on inside.
Often enough there is a absence of anxiety and guilt, despite the severity of the disturbances. This absence of anxiety and guilt, coupled with an absence of feeling, gives one an impression of unreality about these people. Their performance socially, sexually, and in the work world – seems too efficient, too mechanical, and too perfect to be human.
They function more like machines than people.
Narcissists are identifiable by their lack of humanness. They don’t feel the tragedy of a world threatened by a nuclear holocaust. Nor do they feel the tragedy of a life spent trying to prove their worth to an uncaring world.
When the narcissist façade of superiority and specialness breaks down, allowing the sense of loss and sadness to become conscious, it is often too late.
One man, the head of a large company was told that he had terminal cancer. Faced with the loss of life, he discovered what life was. “I never saw flowers before,” he explained, “nor the sunshine and the fields. I spent my life trying to prove to my father that I was successful. Love had no place in my life.”
For the first time in his adult life, this man was able to cry and to reach out to his wife and children for help.
Narcissism denotes a degree of unreality in the individual and in culture. Unreality is not just neurotic, it verges on the psychotic.
There is something crazy about a pattern of behaviour that places the achievement of success above the need to give and receive love.
There is something crazy about a person who is out of touch with the reality of his or her being – the body and its feelings.
And there is something crazy about a culture that pollutes the air, the waters, and the earth in the name of a “higher” standard of living.
But can a culture be insane?
That idea is hardly an accepted concept in psychiatry. In general, insanity is seen as the mark of the individual who is out of touch with the reality of his or her culture. By that criterion (which has its validity), the successful narcissist is far from insane.
Unless…unless, of course, there is some insanity in the culture. Isn’t the frenzied activity of people in large cities – people who are always trying to make more money, gain more power, and get ahead – a little crazy?
Is frenzy a sign of madness?