Our Love-Hate Relationship with Narcissism
The American hatred for narcissists seems to be reaching a crescendo. As of now, it is fast climbing to the top of the US box-office chart of unpopularity, and is likely to supersede paedophiles and racists. More and more Americans seem to be discovering all of a sudden that either their partner is (or was) a narcissist, or it is their parent or their friend — and they are recoiling in horror like they just found a caterpillar in their salad. Before narcissism it was sexual offenders, and before that it was psychopaths and serial killers. It is interesting to see how these ‘hate groups’ keep moving up and down the charts, based on the current public preoccupations reflected and blown up in the news and media.
Many studies do confirm the fact that Americans are perceived as a narcissistic nation — at both individual, as well as collective levels. Americans not only like to worship and flaunt their good looks, fame, wealth, and possessions, but have also successfully exported narcissism as a value all over the world. After all they invented the selfie, Facebook, Instagram, Whats App, and Twitter which aid instant and incessant self-promotion. The medium IS indeed the message.
The sheer pervasiveness and spread of narcissism around the world through the social media, affecting several younger generations cannot be overstated, as it continues to confound and alarm parents and teachers alike. The same social media has been responsible for spreading anti-narcissistic-partner sentiments among the English speaking population around the world, wreaking havoc with ‘unequal’ emotional partnerships. One could venture as far to say that narcissism is the single biggest psychological export from the US to the world.
Either by design or by providence, the US also finds itself with a leader who represents an epitome of narcissism. Collectively following the philosophy of Objectivism , Individualism, and the myth of “The self-made Man”, well elaborated in the books by Ayn Rand, it would almost seem that America was proud to be narcissistic and “looking good doing it”. Then why this sudden discomfiture with self-obsession, and self-love after so long?
This is not surprising as America, as a civilization, has always been preoccupied with simplistic dualities and conflicts that swing like a pendulum — such as good and bad, Indians and cowboys, sinners and saints, losers and winners, black and white, men and women, superheroes and super villains, etc.
With its short and violent history, to define America as a ‘civilization’ is difficult enough. According to a famous quotation (which has been ascribed to various people from Oscar Wilde to Bernard Shaw), “America is the only country that went from barbarity to decadence without knowing civilization”. The story of American colonization, with its cunning betrayal and ruthless destruction of its native peoples, its endemic and blatant political corruption, its covert and overt involvement with many wars, and its subsequent meteoric rise as an economic superpower is well documented. To be fair, America has also been exemplary for its contribution to science and technology, for providing generous humanitarian aid where needed, and for spreading democratic values around the globe.
Do nations have a collective “psyche”? Do civilizations have collective ‘Self’? VS Naipaul famously (and incisively) described India in the 1970’s as a “Wounded Civilization” that was deeply scarred by centuries of conquests, colonization, corruption, bigotry, violence, apathy, and superstition. Many patriotic Indians were naturally dismayed by his scathing and somber critique. I think (and hope) that the collective perception of India 50 years hence would be quite different. In yet another sweeping statement on national character, England was dismissed as “A nation of shop keepers” by Napoleon Bonaparte (although some say he based this on an earlier observation by Adam Smith, the famous Scottish Economist). But is it possible to look further and deeper than simplistic national stereotypes and caricatures?
Back to America, it appears that different collective cultural sense of ‘psyche’ or ‘self’ dominated through different periods of History. Philip Cushman, an American psychologist, in a fascinating paper written in 1990, traces the historical shift of the ‘American Self’, from the “Victorian, sexually restricted self” to the “post-World War II empty self. The empty self is soothed and made cohesive by becoming “filled up” with food, consumer products, and celebrities”.
He goes on to say: “I believe that in the post-World War II era in the United States, there are indications that the present configuration of the bounded, masterful self is the empty self. By this I mean that our terrain has shaped a self that experiences a significant absence of community, tradition, and shared meaning. It experiences these social absences and their consequences “interiorly” as a lack of personal conviction and worth, and it embodies the absences as a chronic, undifferentiated emotional hunger. The post-World War II self thus yearns to acquire and consume as an unconscious way of compensating for what has been lost: It is empty. One can see evidence of the empty self in current psychological discourse about narcissism and borderline states, the popular culture’s emphasis on consuming, political advertising strategies that emphasize soothing and charisma instead of critical thought, and a nationwide difficulty in maintaining personal relationships.”
He goes on to establish how through history, these ‘selves’ are as much products of social construct — further molded, aided and abetted by various vested interests, including the Church, the State — and in the case of America, the post-war economy that desperately needed to generate mass-consumption. Thus the State, in collusion with the consumer industry, and mass advertising (they appear to be indistinguishable now) — constructed the current self as “..empty, and as a result the state controls its population not by restricting the impulses of its citizens, as in Victorian times, but by creating and manipulating their wish to be soothed, organized, and made cohesive by momentarily filling them up.”
Although there are many historical reasons for America’s post-war narcissism, many claim it is largely due to over-compensating for the feeling of being ‘empty’ or ‘vacuous’ as a result of the loss of the intimacy of family and community. It explains the trillion Dollar industry that feeds off this fundamental sense of insecurity and lack of self-worth by providing constant and instant confirmation and fulfillment through ‘viral hits’ and million ‘likes’. But why do Americans hate narcissists so much now? Why are narcissists accepted if they are celebrities and public figures but rejected in personal relationships?
Obviously because narcissists do not ‘give’ what everyone fundamentally seeks — attention and affection. Instead they ‘take’. They demand one’s undivided attention and suck it all up like a black hole from which nothing ever seems to come out. They may appear to be confident, charismatic, self-sufficient, and the center of all attention. But the truth is that they are equally needy and insecure. Here emerges yet another simplistic American dualism of the notion of the “Empath- Narcissist’, or the “Giver” and the “Taker” in a relationship, much popularized around the world in mushy Hollywood films.
Both look at human interaction as a transaction and maintain meticulous mental ledgers of who has given how much and taken how much to maintain their ‘self’. When the ledgers do not balance, there is a break up. The fact is that both Narcissists and Empaths are locked together in mutual neediness and co-dependency and will keep returning to the same pattern again and again to complete each other’s neurosis. Like Narcissism and Individualism, sadly this transactional notion of relationships has too spread like a pandemic around the world, taking its toll. I would not be surprised if the pendulum of public antagonism and resentment swings in the other direction and we might see a lot of the negative side of Empaths in the future media…
Both Narcissists and Empaths could be ultimately suffering from the same pathology — An unhealthy, and fragile sense of ‘self’. This naturally begs the question: What is a ‘healthy’ sense of ‘self’? Is there such a thing as ‘normal’ at all, in these abnormal times? Yes, I believe, ironically, all healthy states are experienced in their ‘absence’ of our own preoccupation with them.
If one’s arm is healthy, one does not give it a thought. But if you have a wounded arm, you will be careful people do not jostle you on the street. You would be constantly worried, paranoid, overprotective. If you think your arm is beautiful or muscular, you would be preoccupied with showing it off and worried if people would notice. It is the same with the ‘healthy’ self. One is neither afraid someone could hurt it, nor hopeful that someone would validate it. A healthy ego does not take or give offense easily. A healthy self is an ‘absent’ sense of self.
One might argue: isn’t the ‘empty’ self of Americans the same as the ‘absence’ of self? Don’t they both describe an ‘absence’, a ‘void’? Far from it. The ‘empty’ self’ induces fear, insecurity, distrust, and indifference to others, while the ‘absence of self’ generates a paradoxical combination of humility, confidence, compassion, and concern for others.
The ‘absence of self’ is not only true for Americans, it is true for the whole of humanity, all life, and all phenomena. The Buddha discovered this extraordinary Truth 2700 years ago for the first time in human history. We are all fragmented, flawed, plural, and unpredictable. We are a temporary collection of body, sensations, perception, habitual impulses, and consciousness. All our ideas of ‘constants’ and ‘wholes’ are a myth, a fabrication, an illusion that arises ‘on dependence’ on infinite factors, the most important of which is our own Mind. Nothing exists independently and truly, free from subjective perception. Everything consists of parts and is further a part of something else, ad infinitum. Not seeing this Truth leads to unnecessary suffering.
How does this realization help people who are trying to run away and escape their “empty self” either through narcissism or self-effacement ? What advice could one give them? Well, we could tell them that it is as pointless as trying to escape one’s own shadow. There is an entire world-wide industry and economy feeding off the fact that you are running scared of your own shadow; afraid to face your own existential ‘absence’. It is sustaining itself by offering you countless ways to confirm and validate your existence through addictive consumption and the neurotically frantic social media. Instead they just need to stop, turn around, and squarely look at their shadow.
One might ask, what happens if one accepts this view of ‘absence of self’? Does one instantly turn into a grey, gooey glob without any personality, direction, and free-will? Does this mean a wimpy existence without any action, purpose, and meaning? Buddhists would say that the real personality or one’s ‘Buddha-nature’ (other cultures might refer to this as Christ or Krishna consciousness) only shines through when the fake one is let go. One’s authentic personality, real action, and purpose are revealed when the socially conditioned and constructed false ones are dropped. This is what Jesus probably meant when he said we need to regain our innocence and become like little children to enter His Kingdom.
Real love and attention pours in when you no longer seek them and are content to be alone with yourself. Real relationships and sense of community develop out of spontaneous concern for the other and not through social, and legal institutions and contracts. When you give real attention without bargain, it is so self-rewarding that you would want nothing in return. You might feel grateful to the other for accepting your love instead of expecting gratitude.
Returning to the theme of national ‘selves’, I wonder what India’s collective ‘self’ could be in the future. It has seen its share of narcissistic leaders, and a few empathetic ones. I personally believe that India, with its ancient, and insightful spiritual traditions, could emerge as a country that can offer a Middle Way to cure the neurotic extremes of the human psyche. If only our nation could shake itself out of its long collective dream of inertia, of knee-jerk aping of the West, and its cacophony of petty internal bickerings, and we wake up to its lost Wisdom traditions, it has the potential to lead itself and the world at large to back to a ‘healthy’ self.