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Clarification of Narcissism, Response to LA Times Daum Op-Ed

January 6, 2011

I read LA Times columnist Megham Duam’s OP-ED piece this morning, “Narcissist – give it a rest”, and was struck by how general her comments were and how defensive. Let’s take a look at what she says and then actually explain narcissism.

Ms. Daum expresses her annoyance that ” a whole lot of people are accusing a whole lot of other people of being narcissists.” However, she never explains narcissistic behavior, NPD (full blown narcissistic personality disorder), socially reinforced narcissism, collective cultural narcissism, or malignant narcissism (typically found in sociopaths) – so there is no clear cut point of reference. In an op-ed where a person is making a point, it helps one’s position to state the referencing factors to support their opinion. Instead, she simply goes on and on venting her annoyance at this trend. She comments, ” any behavior you don’t like can be dismissed as abrasively, idiotically, dangerously self-centered.” She goes on to then state, “The term has been misused so flagrantly that it’s now all but meaningless.” She ends her article by saying, “After all, we’re not a nation of narcissists. We’re a nation of jerks. Which happens to be easier to spell.”

I will make a little bit of a leap here. It’s possible Ms Daum’s annoyance comes after psychoanalyst, Bethany Marshall appearing this week on the Joy Behar Show stated that Brett Farve, a well known, admired NFL quarterback, may be a narcissist. She said there is such a thing as socially reinforced narcissism and this propels people to behave in narcissistic ways. In the NFL such an environment would not be hard to imagine where football players are adulated, receive high quality focused attention, arrogance and swagger is admired and encouraged, and many players act as if they are special and above others. Ms. Marshall did briefly explain the nature of narcissism. With Farve’s recent problems of being sued by two former NFL female employees for sexual harassment, Ms Marshall stated she thought Farve was craving attention by soliciting a three-way sexual tryst with the women. When they refused they found themselves unemployed shortly thereafter. A sexual harassment lawsuit has been filed against Farve.

To Ms. Daum’s comment about ‘ANY behavior being called self-centered’, i.e. narcissistic, it is quite the opposite. Narcissism is something very specific with specific traits and accompanying behavior. I explain in my book that unhealthy narcissists (a person with a fragmented, disordered personality who has specific set of traits and is known by a persistent pattern of behavior), are driven by two main things: (i) high quality focused attention; (ii) the need to be dominant, or to dominate. Many narcissists show up in professions where they can have both. Typical professions would be acting, attorneys, doctors, politics, psychologists, ministry, and celebrity-oriented professions, like professional sports. The classic narcissist is highly competitive as they strive to be dominant (this makes them feel secure), and place themselves in situation to receive attention (this helps support the grandiose-false self). In all actuality, narcissists are not so much self-centered as they are focused on managing their self-image, one that is a projection of their grandiose false-self. Much of their behavior is unconsciously driven.

The term ‘narcissism’ unfortunately is thrown around loosely and used in a perjorative way, but I would say, it may be warranted to some degree as we do live in a society where people like Farve are idolized; we have a show called American Idol; the long running show Survivor basically shows that it is ok to backstab your teammates to get what you want (the prize money); celebrities like Lindsey Lohan, Michael Jackson, and Brittany Spears are showing up on the nightly news regularly because of their narcissistic behavior; politics is rife with arrogance, back stabbing, and rule-breaking; in the documentary, Inside Job, a psychologist said the Wall Street culture was very narcissistic and the gross entitlement behavior was instrumental in the collapse of the markets. Where do you want me stop?

There are many aspects of common American life where socially reinforced narcissism exists. These behaviors are not happening in a void. They are socially reinforced by the people who admire these narcissists, who see their arrogance and swagger mistakenly as confident and self-assuredness – which is a very common misperception of narcissists. The narcissist insistence on having their way is also seen as a ‘knowing’ trait. People are attracted to confident, knowing, strong personalities. Many narcissists are charming, but their charm is a control tactic, used to bring people into their orbit. This is exactly how many people get involved with narcissists. Then down the line the narcissist will cease being charming and start being manipulative, aggressive, oppressive, and abusive. They become accusatory using sarcasm, put downs, slights, insults, and insinuation.

As to Ms. Daum’s last comment…. we’re a nation of jerks, this I find somewhat disturbing. To categorize all people as jerks is overstating anyone’s position. She also says earlier in a vein of sarcasm, I am afterall, a you-know-what. Why would anyone even humorously reference themselves as a narcissist? My own analysis here is not to psychoanalyze Ms. Daum though, but to clarify narcissism for what it is and how the behavior of narcissists destroys families and ruins lives — and particularly the life of the narcissist.

To peel away the layers of what makes narcissists who they are would take a whole book to explain. I did just that when I came to realize both my parents exhibited narcissistic behavior. I spent one year of intense research studying everyday and another two years to write and publish my book. I am working on a second book about collective cultural narcissism to be published later this year.

Want to know more about narcissism? You can buy my book, It Has a Name! and you can also click the Narcissism category for related posts.

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