Monday, April 23, 2007

The Narcotic of Narcissism

If you want to know what’s wrong with the West, a good way to begin is simply to watch a bit of so-called Reality TV. A few episodes of Big Brother would suffice. We appear to be raising a generation of young people who seem to think the world revolves around them. We have seen the proliferation of hedonism, egotism, self-centeredness and narcissism. We have become obsessed with ourselves, and seem to think that everyone else should be as well.

If you try to tell one of these young narcissists that “It’s not about me,” that life is more than their narrow little world, they look at you with a quizzical expression on their face. They have for so long been raised on a diet of lessons in self-esteem, therapy, victimisation, Political Correctness, welfare-ism and MTV that they have lost their moral centre of gravity. They have lost all perspective. They think everything centres on them, their needs, their wants, their feelings, their sense of self-worth.

But life does not quite work that way. For most of human history notions such as personal responsibility, hard work, self-sacrifice and consideration for the social good were more highly valued. The emphasis was clearly not on how I feel, how I look, what kind of tan I have, how thin I am, how well-dressed I am, and so on.

But today the curse of narcissism has taken deep root. It is a sort of narcotic, where we live for they next hairdo, tanning session, and wax job. Paris Hilton has become the epitome of this disease. And it shows no signs of going away. No wonder why so many people hate the West. Its many virtues have been lost in a sea of narcissism and selfishness.

Of course I am not alone in these concerns. Nor are they recent ones. Back in 1966 Philip Reiff wrote The Triumph of the Therapeutic in which he chronicled the tendency to turn all our problems and social ills into therapy sessions. Faith and self-reliance gave way to a new religion, focusing on self, and self-satisfaction. “Religious man was born to be saved, psychological man is born to be pleased,” said Reiff.

And in 1978 the late Christopher Lasch wrote an important volume called The Culture of Narcissism. In it he lamented the movement away from community and family toward the self and narcissism. He reiterated some of themes of Reiff: “The contemporary climate is therapeutic, not religious. People today hunger not for personal salvation, let alone for the restoration of an earlier golden era, but for the feeling, the momentary illusion, of personal well-being, health, and psychic security.”

More recently Christina Hoff Sommers and Sally Satel wrote an important book entitled One Nation Under Therapy (2005). The authors show how we have become a generation of therapy junkies, full of fragile egos and crippled emotions. Instead of self-reliance, personal responsibility and fortitude we have become a nation of victims and psychological basket cases. “What healthy children need most,” they argue, “is guidance on how to be civil and ethical – not how to be self-obsessed”.

And this obsession with self is of course happily being fed by the pharmaceutical industry, pumping millions of Prozac, Ritalin, or numerous other mood-altering drugs into our young people every year.

While these authors may be dismissed as more or less conservative social commentators, their concerns have been substantiated by a comprehensive new study by five American psychologists. Their study of 16,475 American college students who completed an evaluation called the Narcissistic Personality Inventory between 1982 and 2006 found that they are more narcissistic and self-centered than their predecessors.

David Crary picks up the story in (February 27, 2007): “‘We need to stop endlessly repeating “You’re special” and having children repeat that back,’ said the study’s lead author, professor Jean Twenge of San Diego State University. ‘Kids are self-centered enough already’.”

According to the researchers, NPI scores have risen steadily since the current test was introduced in 1982. “Narcissism can have benefits, said study coauthor W. Keith Campbell of the University of Georgia, suggesting it could be useful in meeting new people ‘or auditioning on American Idol. Unfortunately, narcissism can also have very negative consequences for society, including the breakdown of close relationships with others’, he said.”

Other problems are associated with narcissism: “The study asserts that narcissists ‘are more likely to have romantic relationships that are short-lived, at risk for infidelity, lack emotional warmth, and to exhibit game-playing, dishonesty, and over-controlling and violent behaviors’.”

“Twenge, the author of Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled - and More Miserable Than Ever Before, said narcissists tend to lack empathy, react aggressively to criticism and favor self-promotion over helping others. The researchers traced the phenomenon back to what they called the ‘self-esteem movement’ that emerged in the 1980s, asserting that the effort to build self-confidence had gone too far.”

Of course neither I nor the authors mentioned believe that there is no place for counselling, therapy, psychology, and so on. However it has become a religious obsession. The truth is, most of our problems at heart are spiritual and moral. But in a secular world that says only matter matters, it is hard to offer real cures for the soul when it is no longer believed in.

But surely the rejection of Christianity with its emphasis on service to others, personal responsibly and dying to self has lead to this increase in selfishness, hedonism and narcissism, and the therapeutic culture we are now immersed in.

In a secular world, therapy has replaced salvation. After all, if there is no longer such a thing as sin, then all we can do is tinker around with people’s self-esteem and self-image. But those have taken a beating in a goo-to-you world of materialism and purposelessness. No wonder shrinks are working overtime.