Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Why are we in love with ourselves?

All About Me: Loving a Narcissist

by Simon Crompton

ISBN-10: 0007247958
ISBN-13: 978-0007247950

To be published 2 July 2007

Narcissism is on the rise, particularly among men. In the first of two extracts from his new book, Simon Crompton holds a mirror up to the nation.

This is the age of the narcissist. But narcissism is about more than the way you look. We all know about the David Beckhams, the Frank Lampards, who are happy to admit that they shave their body hair and pluck their eyebrows.

But they are narcissistic softies compared with the real narcissists; people who are so obsessed with projecting a glorious image of themselves on to the world that they tend to forget reality. Think of Ricky Gervais as David Brent (left), or Jeffrey Archer, maybe even Tony Blair.

Narcissism is a form of arrogance and emotional self-containment which, at its most extreme, is defined by psychiatrists as a form of personality disorder affecting one person in a hundred. Therapists report that narcissism is on the rise, perhaps a reflection of a society that prizes celebrity and pushing yourself forward above “fitting in”. This is the Big Brothersociety, defined not by Orwell’s vision but by a television programme showcasing egotists.

Therapy-literate Americans use the word narcissistic to explain acts of cruelty, selfishness and grandiosity. “My former boyfriend is a narcissist,” wrote one woman on an American website. “He’s an empty shell who must feed off others. He isn’t capable of love.”

Over here, we’re realising that narcissism is more than metrosexuality. Narcissists are people who are full of themselves and their big ideas but who need others to reflect their sense of rightful glory. They find empathy almost impossible, which means they’re trouble when it comes to relationships. And most seem to be men – possibly the combined result of their genetic make-up and the way they’re brought up.

Perhaps the best way to understand narcissism is to think of a two-year-old. For all their allure, babies and toddlers are unable to see the world from anyone else’s perspective apart from their own. Don’t get what you want? Then throw your rattle out of the pram. It’s quite natural and programmed into all humans. This self-protective narcissism is what Freud called primary narcissism. As we get older, through the influence of our parents and others, most of us lose that self-regarding streak to a greater or lesser extent. We learn that there are consequences to our actions, and that we must take into account the needs of others if we are to be happy.

But some of us don’t and develop personalities where we continue to act like self-centred toddlers. There’s a theory that it can happen because parents emotionally neglect their children. Failing to gain the love or attention of their parent, the child is ill-equipped to understand others and, feeling insecure, creates a self-protective shell of grandiosity around itself.

We all know how it feels. We all revert to primary narcissism when we’re feeling upset because it protects us from further hurt. Say you have had an argument with someone you love. You’ll make a scene and make demands on friends you wouldn’t normally make. You might even exaggerate a bit to boost your sense of power, and compensate for the vulnerability you feel. “I’m too good for her, and she knows it.” That’s reverting to a primary narcissistic state.

The thing about adults with strong narcissistic traits is that they are like that most of the time. Narcissists really do believe they’re King of the World, and that has some interesting – and sometimes positive – consequences for society. Narcissists have such drive to prove a point about themselves that they often acquire positions of real power or public prominence. They are the sort of people who, given the right circumstances, can doggedly work their way to where they want, regardless of what anyone else thinks. They have a glorious image of themselves to fulfil, and their lack of empathy can be a positive boon when it comes to making tough business or political decisions.

Here’s a list of some of the people who’ve shaped our lives, according to Michael Maccoby, author of The Productive Narcissist (Broadway Books, £14.15) partly as a result of their narcissistic traits: Bill Gates, Napoleon Bonaparte, Leonardo da Vinci, Abraham Lincoln, Richard Nixon, Coco Chanel, Orson Welles, Marlon Brando, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Vincent Van Gogh, Henry Ford.

A force for good then? Possibly when it comes to achieving big things, but not always where spreading harmony is concerned. The problem for narcissists is that, sooner or later, the trail of human damage they leave in their wake tends to catch up with them. So do the fantasies they weave to prop up their glorious images of themselves. Clinton had his Lewinsky. Blair had his Iraq. Napoleon had his Waterloo. The American political psychologist Betty Glad has pointed out that once rulers have established positions of power, their reality-testing capabilities diminish. Narcissistic fantasies that have been held in check until they gain power are likely to become guides for action once they have achieved it, and the inevitable result is downfall.

A long way from that toddler? Not really. We all exist on a spectrum of self-centredness, and we meet narcissists of greater or lesser degree every day. They might not be Napoleon, but they’re in our office, in the pub, even in our bed.