In 1914, the U.S. Historian Daniel Boorstin observed, "As individuals and as a nation, we now suffer from social narcissism. The beloved Echo of our ancestors, the virgin America, has been abandoned. We have fallen in love with our own image, with images of our making, which turn out to be images of ourselves." The foreboding of this quote has come to pass as more and more leaders, heroes and companies in our country reek of narcissism.
The news these days commonly feature stories about Exxon-Mobil's huge profits during a time when many "little guys" are struggling to put gas in their tanks, CEOs who take huge bonuses while the common person's pensions are cut, and John Edwards' affair during his wife's cancer treatment. And these tragedies can't even compare to world leaders ordering wars, genocides and torture. People wonder: Are these people heartless?
Well, kind of. It is common for leaders of companies, politicians, movie stars, world leaders, professional athletes and even some religious leaders to have what is called Narcissistic Personality Disorder. This is a fancy term describing people who are desperately insecure deep down but overcompensate by developing grandiose notions of themselves. They believe they are special, smarter and more deserving than others. Their relationships are either "mirroring relationships," which means with people who also believe they are special and flatter them, or with "idealized self-objects," which means with people they think a lot of and feel flattered by having a relationship with them. The term comes from the Greek myth of the young man who becomes lost to the world because he is content to forever gaze at his own reflection in a pool of water. More recently, a good example is Ted Turner who commented, "If I only had a little humility, I'd be perfect."
The most disturbing feature of individuals with narcissism is their incapacity to empathize with others. The only people they relate to are the people who "mirror" them or who they idealize. Otherwise, their insensitivity to the thoughts, feelings and situations of others can be unfathomable. It's not necessarily that they want to hurt others, its' just that they don't let others get in their way on the path of getting what they want. So, ordering deaths or torture, or financially devastating vulnerable people, simply doesn't bother them to the degree it should.
These are extreme cases. Narcissism falls along a continuum from people with some of these personality traits in milder form to staunch self-centeredness. We all know, love, and work with people with milder forms of narcissism. For instance, the colleague who is very willing to step on heads for that promotion, or the wife who can't ever admit faults or apologize to her husband.
We love Narcissists in America. We elect them, promote them, pay outrageous amounts of money to watch them play sports, and buy magazines about them. We want to fall in love with that 'larger-than-life' figure. Why? They make us feel special by having them for our leader or our representative. For example, we typically elect politicians on the basis of "likeability" or "charisma" rather than someone who can do a good job. Also, Narcissists play on our insecurities: They are experts at telling us what we want to hear, and their self-confidence comforts us.
When we really get into trouble is when we let their value system of "me first and only," impact our value system. Narcissists are willing to break the rules, ignore facts, and mislead people to get what they want. As C.G. Jung, the famous psychiatrist stated, "Nothing has such a convincing effect as a lie one invents and believes oneself." Hence, because the Narcissist becomes so convinced of what they are saying their lies become intoxicating and effective on others. This Narcissistic attitude is infectious in companies where the top leader often gets underlings to go along with fraud and other misbehaviors. We, as Americans, have gone along with narcissistic leaders on many occasions.
Our political system actually attracts Narcissists. To be a viable candidate you have to be willing to do negative campaigning, to take contributions from people who will later expect you to compensate them with political favors, and desire the power and adoration of millions.
I believe most people are good and do things for good reasons. Ironically, though, we are being lead by many narcissistic individuals. As my mom and dad used to tell my sisters and me, "If you lay down with dogs you're going to get fleas." It's time for our nation to remember this by starting to demand principled leadership: Choose qualified leaders rather than charismatic ones, insist our political leaders make ethical decisions that are best for everyone, and mandate campaign reform. If we do not hold our leaders in check we, as a country, will become more and more narcissistic.
- Fresh Ideas: Starting conversations by sharing personal perspectives on timely and timeless issues. Lisa Keating, Ph.D., is a Carson City clinical psychologist.