Most of us follow the rules. We come to complete stops at Stop signs, we wait in line, we put our shopping cart back, we apologize when we are in the wrong. We follow rules, even when they are inconvenient.
As a psychologist whose work has been focused on narcissistic abuse and narcissism, back in March, when the data about the pandemic revealed its scope and impact, it was clear to me, we were in trouble. Not just from the loss of life and the economic and health-care impacts of the virus. That the kinds of behavioral change that would be required via distancing and other restrictions was going to be a tough sell – and prolong and steepen the infection curve.
Narcissism is characterized by a series of behavioral and cognitive patterns that do not work in an era of pandemics and quarantine. Here are the patterns observed in narcissism, extended to the problem behaviors we are witnessing:
- Lack of or diminished empathy. (Why should I have to change my behaviors to protect people I don’t know, or be inconvenienced? I am healthy and don’t need to worry about this. I can’t believe I can’t go out because of this stupid thing.)
- Entitlement. (I am just going to go to the beach or the park even though the beaches are closed and in spite of distancing recommendations, or purchase 10 packages of toilet paper even though I don’t need them and others might, or keep traveling just because I want to, or my business is essential – because I think it is, or I deserve a test for the virus because I just need to know even though I am largely asymptomatic – so I am just going to call this doctor friend I have.)
- Hypersensitivity at times verging on paranoia. (This is all an exaggeration or a vast conspiracy that is out to get me and ruin MY business.)
- Dysregulated emotions, especially rage. (Tantrums and yelling at family, losing patience with people in line and store employees, lashing out at authorities trying to maintain control, abusing domestic partners or other family members.)
- Arrogance. (I know a lot about infectious diseases, I know about epidemiology, I know about ventilators…I know more than the experts.)
- Need to blame others and avoid responsibility. (Engaging in xenophobic or discriminatory or divisive comments blaming others for the situation we are in.)
- Validation seeking. (Going on social media sharing tales of woe as though their quarantine struggles are worse than anyone else’s, or trying to continue to get validation by going to places they shouldn’t and still posting pictures.)
- Superficiality. (Ooverfocus on appearance or other vanity oriented concerns: Woe is me, what will I do, my hairdresser is closed, my gym is closed, what will happen to my abs?)
- Victimization. (This is a plot against me, just when my business was about to take off – why does everything bad happen to me, it’s not fair.)
All of this together adds yet another wrinkle to this public health crisis. I witnessed it here in California: Our Governor and Mayor asking nicely, then making suggestions, then giving guidelines, and then finally issuing more enforceable mandates. Two weeks ago on a sunny weekend, the beaches here in SoCal were still full of people sitting and standing very close to each other. Then they had to level up and close the beaches. The restrictions will end up becoming more restrictive. Why? Because a critical mass of people believe the rules do not apply to them, and do not care about the ramifications of their actions. I am still struck by the number of people who still do not understand that entitlement and narcissistic behavior are a “thing” and a really problematic “thing," especially at times of crisis. The idea of someone with a narcissistic personality sacrificing for the “greater good” (as so many politicians are saying to play to public conscience), is as likely as my Powerball ticket finally hitting.
The Los Angeles Times reported today that in California, Governor Newsom is hoping that people will fall into line from social pressure rather than issued more enforced restrictions. Sadly, and while I understand why Newsom is doing this, he is underestimating the impact of narcissism and entitlement. Narcissistic and antagonistic people will not fall into line from social pressure. Anyone who has ever been in a narcissistic relationship of any kind (partner, family, workplace) knows that narcissists will not abide rules that do not work for them, and will continue to violate them until the consequences become really problematic. Their arrogance means that they know better – and they aren’t going to follow some “dumb politician’s rule” that is inconveniencing them. Their lack of empathy means that they really don’t care that much about family members and others they may infect or systems they may impact from their irresponsible behavior.
Now, where Newsom may be on to something with social pressuring is that narcissists don’t like being shamed (it hurts their fragile sense of self and egos, and results in a loss of some of the validation they so desperately need) – so if they are shamed for whatever it is they are doing by a jury of their peers, they may change behavior (but I would put my good money on the fact that they will actually double down on anger and get even more enraged at the limits being placed on their behavior, and the fact that the world at large is asking them to consider other people’s feelings, and lash out from a sense of victimization that the world is “against them”).
When this is all said and done and we take stock of this crisis and how it impacted our world, I do hope it shines a brighter spotlight on the damage that narcissistic, entitled and contemptuous behavior does to our communities and to us as individuals. That these patterns may very well have contributed to a greater spread of infection, and a greater toll on our healthcare system. Perhaps when there is awareness that these toxic patterns aren’t just about the abuse and harm they are doing to the unfortunate individuals caught in these relationships, but to society at large. This pandemic is a reminder that as individualistic we may think we are, ultimately this grand house of cards is quite interdependent, and if a critical mass is behaving dismissively and selfishly, many more lives are at risk, and more days are spent by all of us living in a quarantined and risky world.
The fact is, public health officials rarely account for personality when making health behavior recommendations, which is why one size fits all guidelines rarely work. It’s time they do account for personality, and sadly, that may mean more restrictive rules all around. Most of us are doing the right thing, but if enough don’t, then all of us are at risk.