In recent weeks Kanye West has shared that he is: “God’s vessel;” too busy writing history to read it; and is the voice of his generation. He adds that the greatest pain in his life is not to be able to see himself perform live.
Just like his new wife (“The most beautiful woman … in human existence.”) Kanye clearly understands something. In pursuit of center stage, narcissism sells. But the self-obsession we accept and encourage for those who find their way to the spotlight is bit tougher to handle off it—when it finds its way into our lives.
Pick a public-facing profession, and the narcissists are likely to flock to its upper tiers.
Kurt Cobain said: “I don’t care what you think unless it’s about me.” Madonna said she neutralized radiation at a Ukrainian lake. Lindsey Lohan offered: “Beauty, grace and confidence. I’ve learned to accept and appreciate what nature gave me.” Do a fly-over of the sequential train wrecks from Clinton to Spitzer to Petraeus to Weiner, and they are brothers bonded in the belief that the rules are inconveniences suffered by those who wash their own cars.
Wonderful stuff. But the great thing about celebrity narcissism is that we hold the clicker. When we’ve had enough, we can simply move on to another distraction. In our lives, the closer the narcissist is, the hard it is to escape the vortex.
According to Dr. Drew Pinksy, celebrity narcissism is communicable. In his 2009 book The Mirror Effect: How Celebrity Narcissism is Seducing America, he and co-author Dr. Mark Young argue that the excesses of celebrities—punctuated by the public implosions—are not only riveting. Nourished by social media and realty TV, they are infectious. Vanity, exhibitionism and entitlement and the other hallmarks of narcissism are spreading to the population at large.
If celebrity narcissism is the social pathogen they describe; then it has a large and willing host.
Few of us have made it through life unaffected by the narcissists that walk among us – mothers, fathers, friends, co-workers. Even ourselves. If you’re curious, you can find various versions of the Narcissistic Personality Inventory on line. (Before you take it, heed the prominent cautions that the results are not good or bad; an indication of personal worth; or a reason to a run to a therapist.)
So: a narcissist is part of our lives. So what? What’s wrong with self esteem? In fact, it would seem that a little narcissism is a useful quality in anyone who thinks they are qualified to lead.
There is a simple difference between high self-esteem and narcissism. Those with high self esteem use their confidence as a tool to forge relationships. True narcissists could care less. They don’t want relationships. They want an entourage...
Psychologists well answer quickly that true narcissists warp the orbits of all around them. Cornered by a narcissist at a party, you can wait for them to take a breath, create a diversion, and make a run for it. When the narcissist is in the family—or at work—they are more problematic.
Narcissistic parents are positioned to do the worst psychological damage. Children throw themselves against the rocks, trying to please a parent who can take no pleasure in the accomplishments of others—even their offspring.
A good friend, a baseball player in high school, had a mother who is the definition of a narcissistic parent. “In any situation,” he said,” if it wasn’t about her, she would find a way to make it about her. When I would pitch—and remember we’re not talking about a future pro career here—she would say she was too nervous to watch. So she would go out to the car, and my brother would have to come out every inning to tell her the score. Whether I pitched well didn’t matter. Whether we won or lost didn’t matter. Putting a barrier between her and the rest of our family didn’t matter. What mattered—all that mattered—was that attention moved from the field to our car.”
From a young age, that kind of narcissistic indifference plants questions: Why am I not good enough? Why am I not loveable? What does it take? The sorry irony here is that those questions can be the building blocks of a next-generation narcissist.
Narcissists can also be especially disruptive to the workplace.
The dynamics are similar to the family. They will be the center of office attention, regardless of the damage done to get there. Workplace narcissists can be engaging, confident and creative. They can even be motivating in the sense that employees strive to achieve the recognition that doesn’t come. They can just as easily be manages from hell: easy to anger, distrustful, isolated, controlling, unwilling to listen to ideas that are not their own. They can be emotional vampires, feeding on the commotion they create.
Celebrity narcissism is under our control. It’s entertainment we can consumer or pass by. In our lives, it takes awareness and adjustment.
First, we have to understand when narcissism makes that departure from the strong self image that can rally others, to a self-obsession that relegates others to the cheering section. Understand that, for a narcissist, you are part of a plan, and your worth depends on their ability to make you play a supporting role. As a family member, create perspective—don’t make your self-worth contingent on their approval. Your inability to make them happy is not about you. Trying harder probably won’t help—but they will get a kick out of watching your attempts. At work —if you have to play the game—play it well. In any request, make sure you are clear that neither the benefit or the potential attention is about you. Hard to swallow, perhaps: but effective. Narcissists are notoriously susceptible to reinforcement of their own elf-image.
Can a narcissist change? It’s possible. But once a person is convinced they are the center of the universe, it leaves little room for perspective.
Peggy Drexler, Ph.D. is a research psychologist, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Weill Medical College, Cornell University and author of two books about modern families and the children they produce. Follow Peggy on Twitter and Facebook and learn more about Peggy at www.peggydrexler.com