Insecurity, Narcissism, and the Culture of Victimhood

Why the plague of mass shootings will not end.

Posted Aug 06, 2019

It won’t end.  I teach my university students this after every shooting. 

Around America, we wring our hands, we cry, we light candles, we construct makeshift memorials. We make anemic offerings of “thoughts and prayers.” The mantra of the helpless. 

Psychological science has accumulated mountains of data examining preventative interventions. We teach people about health risks, and sometimes, we can shift behavior.

Not this. 

Gilroy followed by El Paso in one week. Two shooters with similar resumes—late adolescence, living at home, young White men. 

We pore over the ever-accumulating piles of data about mass shootings. Researchers, news agencies, public health experts all knit the data together, thinking there will be a signal in the noise. The largest commonalities are gender and ethnicity (nearly all mass shooters are men, most are White), and of course, access to a gun. But the data are limited, and mostly comprised of sociodemographic factors (gender, age, ethnicity, years of education). 

That leaves the fine art of speculation, which scientists loathe. But let’s indulge and speculate. The other commonalities that cut across these cases are anger, resentment, their victimhood, entitlement, the vilification of the “other,” contempt, alienation, disenchantment, the inability to manage or appropriately articulate their feelings, frustration, and unfettered rage. In some cases, this is articulated via manifestos, in other cases through a cobbling of malicious social media posts. They leave behind confused families, teachers, and communities. All asking the same question. 

Why didn’t we see it?

I want to tell them you probably did but didn’t know what you were looking at. They may have written it off as adolescence, boredom, growing pains; “that’s just how he is” rationales, they have felt helpless in the face of it. I write this as a psychologist who is deeply concerned about the scourges of narcissism, and frankly, that maybe what this is about. 

Covert, vulnerable narcissism is endemic amongst young men. It is a narcissism that is less showy and grandiose, and more sullen and resentful. These are men who are contemptuous of working in jobs they perceive as being beneath them, who are prone to hostile sexism, who spend hours on laptops and devices surfing the back alleys of hate, who are incapable of tolerating frustration, disappointment, or responsibility, who deride intimacy, who bristle at the idea of having to be adults, but expect the perks of adulthood. Men who feel let down by life.

It is a toxic manifestation of deep insecurity and coupled with their impulsivity and incapacity to be self-reflective and regulate themselves, it can be dangerous. This vulnerable fragility translates into a need for a target onto which to shift blame, because of their entrenched inability to take responsibility. 

The likely targets are women, immigrants, people of color, LGBTQ+ groups, and religious minorities. These are soft targets, and easy scapegoats for all of their woes, fears, and disappointments. It is for this reason that insecure, entitled, impulsive, poorly regulated men are prone to other patterns such as domestic violence. Their self-righteous rage makes it difficult for them to hold jobs and adhere to rules and expectations. 

Honest clinicians know that these patterns are not amenable to change. Folks like this often lack insight and maintain contempt for therapy and any discussion of mental health. On the long shot, you get them into a therapist’s office, it’s likely they will drop out. As with any low-frequency behavior (most people will not become shooters), true positives become difficult to systematically identify, so early detection is not likely to happen.  

To even begin addressing this means pushing back and requires several things we can’t or won’t enforce as a culture—teaching children self-regulation, getting kids off devices, adults modeling healthy communication, building empathy, fostering discussions about meaning and purpose, integrating emotional awareness and self-reflection into K-12 curricula, de-stigmatizing mental health services, ceasing the glamorization of violence and dominance, and moderating a media environment that glorifies incivility and polarizing discourse.

This isn’t entirely about mental illness. This is about patterns that fly under that threshold. Patterns we do not diagnose. A culture of victimhood reinforced by our politicians. These patterns are a commentary about our culture, our society, institutions, gender, parenting, educational systems, media, and yes, in part, mental health. The angry man has become a leitmotif of the modern age. 

This will not end. There is no magic pill. None of us should be naïve enough to believe lawmakers will address gun control. Everyone is too entertained by the media circus of incivility to look away or call it out, and in that way, we enable these patterns. This isn’t about the mental health and sanity of an individual, it is about the mental health and sanity of our culture. And clearly, it needs help. The question is whether we are willing to band together, foster empathy, and push back on entitlement and incivility in our little corners of the world. It may be all we can do. 

Thoughts and prayers are optional. 

Last night I went to sleep. I woke up. In Dayton, nine more were dead.