There is no question that narcissism has made many great men and women in many different fields. However, recently many have asked me about narcissism gone wrong. This post is about that.
“Whether toxic shame or overindulgence is the root of Narcissism for an individual; the bottom line for them is: ‘I deserve this and more is not enough’.”
“We live in a culture of personality and have lost the culture of character. Sadly, what is written on our resume is more important that what will be said in our eulogy.”
“A narcissist has to be so much more; since deep inside they believe they are so much less.”
Toxic Shame and Entitlement – Roots of Narcissism
Like many things in life, Narcissism seems to have its roots in two opposite causes. The first is toxic shame and the other, toxic shame’s opposite: entitlement.
Toxic Shame based Narcissism
Toxic shame based narcissism can be born of neglect, shame, sexual or emotional abuse. It can result from repeatedly showing and telling a child that they are worthless and useless, or that they are the cause of all the fighting in the parents’ relationship. A child with that history will “introject” (i.e. take in as a core trait of their identity) that they are worthless, useless and the cause of great pain. That child will grow into an adult whose core identity holds these negative attributes as “truths.” The result will be: toxic shame and the sense they better look out for themselves as no one else will. A person with some variation of the above constellation of introjects runs the risk of developing Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) or Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD.) Here, let’s focus on Narcissism.
Healthy shame acts as a guidepost to correcting behavior and developing character. Toxic shame leads to anger, hurt, substance abuse, and possibly suicide. The narcissist has to reach ever more grandiose markers of beauty, wealth, fame or other such external attributes. In essence, a narcissist has to be so much more since deep inside they believe they are so much less. They are the quintessential over compensators.
They strive to be, and most believe they are: “God’s gift” to the world. In everyday intercourse they interrupt and don’t listen. They are selfish, and by definition; self-absorbed. Yet ironically they are often very charismatic and well liked. They believe themselves to be natural born leaders. At least until the illusion starts to unravel. That is when the hunger for attention and power reveals itself to be a poison growing ever more destructive. Frustrations of that exalted image (whether through a breakup or an unrealized or failed level of achievement) lead to outbursts of rage in order to cover the extreme hurt and toxic shame they feel in their core. They make excuses and pass blame onto others for their “failures.” They act out: substance abuse, sexual excess, etc. to kill the pain. If that fails they kill the pain by killing themselves.
Many successful narcissists are proud of being a narcissist and don’t see being interested in only themselves as a flaw. The people they date, their car, their station in life, their grooming, etc. are a mirrors of their personal worth. More is never enough.
Many serial killers are unsuccessful narcissists.
Overindulgence as a Root Cause of Narcissism
Narcissism that is a result of over indulgence is a different animal. Entitlement is the one word summation that applies here. Rarely is there a sense of shame in narcissism that is entitlement based. In fact, healthy shame is what is missing. These Narcissists aren’t overcompensating to block out worthlessness and toxic shame. They have just been given everything from a “participation” trophy for coming in last place in Little League to the B that many studies of private schools reveal is the lowest grade they’ve given (talk about the cost of academic success.) The Achilles heel for this version of narcissism lies in the inflated ego grown from over indulgence. True confidence is built on being nurtured and supported during the painful period while one is learning. Normal healthy self assurance grows out of overcoming failure and attaining eventual success.
When the world doesn’t affirm this inflated ego; many of the sequelae are the same: rage, substance abuse and possibly suicide. Moreover, since many parents are trying to raise happy children rather than healthy adults, these children are often bratty and ill mannered when young. If they achieve success when they are older; they tend to be insensitive. Their mates are often married to a person also married to a mirror.
Modern Day Narcissism
Modern day narcissism is an interesting beast. Having briefly described the “recipes” for growing a narcissist I want to discuss the contribution of our cultural values.
We live in a time where fame, wealth and youth are the new holy trinity. Many worship “resume virtues” rather than “eulogy virtues.” Resume virtues are exactly what the name implies. They are skills attained, positions held, awards and salaries earned. Eulogy virtues are qualities spoken of after one is gone: the qualities of one’s character in life.
Our modern culture is a “culture of personality” rather than a “culture of character.” Football players doing chest bumps for a two yard gain is a good example of the aggrandizement of self. Paris Hilton is famous because she is Paris Hilton. The same is true of the Kardashians. Narcissistic reward is the reward of a culture that worships personality (youth, fame, money, beauty, success.) More and more the heroes of our day are Lindsay Lohan/Justin Bieber types. Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani 15 year-old that was shot in the head for daring to going to school while being female, is a hero of character. She did something because she believed it was the right thing to do, not for fame.
A contrasting example of doing the right thing for a “resume based” reward in our culture of personality follows. When Sean Penn went to help Katrina victims, he showed up with a camera crew in tow to film all his wonderfulness. Hello culture of personality. In a culture of character he might have donated money anonymously. Perhaps he’d have gone to New Orleans as just a man; not THE MAN.