- Narcissism is a malignant societal reality that affects everyone.
- Even mature adults are susceptible to narcissistic thinking and behavior when under stress, especially in cultures where leaders normalize it.
- Narcissism leads to cascading trauma and is the root of bigotry and other profound social problems.
- People need to educate themselves about human development, narcissism, and trauma so they can mount an effective societal response.
Narcissism isn't just a personal problem or a relationship problem. It's a human problem with a malignant effect on our children, our families, our institutions, our leadership, and our collective humanity.
Narcissism is a state of alienation that turns us against ourselves and one another and weakens both the individual and the group, leaving profound trauma in its wake.
4 Ways Narcissism Is a Societal Cancer
1. Narcissism is people in survival mode. Narcissistic patterns of denying what we don't want to see or deal with, projecting our own uncomfortable feelings or actions onto someone else, and shoring up our feelings of doubt and vulnerability through narratives of superiority over others are human defenses, are not just the province of people we call narcissists.
As children, we all go through developmentally normal phases in which we use denial, projection, and tribalist thinking and behavior to protect the self. But on a healthy developmental path, we mature out of such behaviors and replace them with self-awareness, personal responsibility, respect for boundaries and fairness, and compassion for ourselves and others. Yet when stressed or threatened, even emotionally mature adults are susceptible to lapsing into narcissistic defenses, particularly if people in positions of influence or authority are modeling and condoning such behavior.
2. Narcissism may be normalized, but it isn't normal. In many cultures, narcissistic values and behaviors have become normalized, or treated as acceptable. Particularly in influential arenas like politics and media, valuing appearance over substance, competition over cooperation, individualism over shared responsibility, and dominance over empathy have become institutionalized as ways to solidify power and sell products. Yet if we understand how humans work we know that substance, cooperation, responsibility, and empathy are what nurture children, support families, sustain social structures, and promote individual and collective health and well-being.
3. Narcissism is at the root of bigotry and other profound social problems. Sexism, racism, queerphobia, and other forms of prejudice and bigotry are all rooted in the same narcissistic mentality that elevates one group by dehumanizing another. Narcissistic narratives of superiority and entitlement are used to justify scapegoating people who differ from us. By shutting down our empathy and objectifying certain groups of people as subhuman, we create a common "enemy" (actually a victim) to rally around, exploit, and violate for our purposes. Arrogant entitlement, denials of convenience, projected shame, and emotional disconnection rationalize and support not just bigotry but income inequality, segregation, mass incarceration, and ecological holocaust.
4. Narcissism leads to cascading trauma. Abrasive or seductive, openly domineering or slyly passive-aggressive, narcissists are bullies who elicit a fear response in those around them. Family members and others within the narcissist's orbit experience long-term hyperarousal that drains the body and leads to devastating health outcomes, including ongoing anxiety, depression, chronic pain, immune suppression, illness, and a significantly shortened life span. Children in narcissistic families experience complex developmental trauma that hinders healthy brain development, emotional regulation, self-esteem stability, and identity formation and individuation. Such children are also more vulnerable to addiction and further bullying in their adult relationships. And the damage doesn't end there. Narcissistic trauma cascades through families over generations, reproducing itself like cancer.
Recognizing and calling out narcissism should matter to everyone, but blaming narcissism on narcissistic people won't solve the problem. The fact is that narcissism begets trauma, and trauma often begets narcissism. As a society and a collective mind, we need to educate ourselves, in particular our children and families, about what humans need for healthy development and what unhealthy development—specifically trauma—looks like so we can mount an effective response.
Awareness and early intervening support can change the course of pathological narcissism and those traumatized by it, leading to healthier outcomes for individuals, families, and societies.