Saturday, June 16, 2007

Narcissism is alive and well.

A topic of much clinical interest back in the '80s, it has experienced a resurgence with the advent of Gen Y'ers (the cohort born between 1979 and 1994).

My colleagues on college campuses are noticing a sense of entitlement in students that appears to ignore traditional climbtheladder approaches to success. They want what they want, and they want it now. They have high expectations of themselves and others, are both highperformance and high-maintenance.

Brought up in the most childcentered generation ever, they need constant feedback and attention and are upset when they don't receive it. They are 70 million strong and already making an impact on their postmodern world. They place a much higher value on self-fulfillment after 9/11 because "life is short."

These are stereotypes of course and do not characterize everyone in this generation. However, the message of looking out for oneself continues to be promoted by our consumer culture and political rhetoric which hails the United States as the greatest nation and greatest people on earth.

Poet Tony Hoagland often explores the subject of narcissism in his work. He believes that "American culture encourages selfinvolvement to a degree that makes it difficult for us to pay attention to anything but ourselves."

Where is this leading? When there is a pathological focus on self, there's not much room for healthy relationship to others. Per psychiatrist James Masterson, "Normal narcissism is vital for satisfaction and survival; it is the capacity to identify what you need and want," but the "deeply narcissistic person feels incomplete and uses other people to feel whole," according to psychiatrist Gerald Adler.

Narcissism is never completely fed- it requires continual admiration and support from others. When not attended to, narcissistic needs progress into depression, rage and deep feelings of inadequacy. Whoever is in range is in danger of being attacked, and marriage can bring out all the emotional vulnerabilities of the narcissist.

Most of us do not suffer from pathological narcissism, thankfully. However, we are all somewhere on that narcissistic continuum, from extreme selfsacrifice (also pathological) to extreme self-indulgence.

Narcissism can show itself in a variety of forms: perfectionism, wrong priorities, disregard for the opinions of others, to name a few. We are all familiar with attentionseekers, but how many of us would recognize the narcissism of someone who appears to do everything well and strives for perfection or who is unable to accept criticism? What we do recognize is that they are not pleasant to be around and, in fact, cause us to feel our own inadequacies more deeply. When I asked a husband whose wife was divorcing him what her chief complaint about him was, he replied that "I'm always right."

Wrong priorities are another indicator of a kind of narcissism. A client spends most of her time redecorating her house and is unable to entertain unless everything is perfectly in order. Her priorities include having the best food and wine rather than personal interaction. The most offhand comment regarding the way her home is kept, her outfit or even her cat, can be interpreted as critical, and she takes care to distance herself from the offender. She is unable to get together with others unless her closet has been organized, her bills paid and other, crucial- to her- homemaking tasks have been accomplished. Thus, family and friends take a back seat to maintaining her preferred lifestyle. It probably won't surprise you to learn that she often complains of loneliness.

We are a lonely society these days. We strive for the best of everything, but we are starved for connection. There is an inherent narcissism present in all of us, and we need to be aware of how it operates in our relationships. Self-esteem can easily become self-aggrandizement.

Many parenting experts are now questioning the emphasis placed on developing self-esteem in children, noting an increase in selfishness and lack of realistic self-appraisal in the current "me generation."

As always, moderation is a good thing. Too much narcissism can drive others away; too little can impact our feelings of selfworth and healthy adjustment to life stress. If you're worried about having too much, I saw a T-shirt slogan that may help: "You Aren't a Narcissist If You Really Are Better Than Everyone Else."

By Deborah
Deborah Barber, PhD, is a clinical psychologist specializing in individual adult and couples therapy, with a private practice in Oak Park. For more information, call (818) 512-7923.