Jean-Paul Sartre refused to eat lobsters because they resembled giant insects. Fresh fruit and vegetables, he felt, were also too…
Love yourself. Believe in yourself. And your dreams will come true.
A few decades ago, psychologists began documenting the appearance of a new personality that was showing up for therapy. Well-groomed, personable, typically successful, this social character didn’t suffer the bread and butter phobias of the past, the obsessions or hand-washing compulsions; they didn’t plunge into emotional outbursts or excitability. The problem for this new breed was that they didn’t feel much at all. Emptiness, a lack of feeling and chronic boredom was the plight of society’s new social individual.
“I’m tired of dealing with anxiety problems,” relates a contemporary female doctor about her never-ending line up of patients suffering from what one could roughly label… numbness.
Do more of what makes you awesome
As technology has spewed forth a world of images from TV sets, movie screens and the Internet, we have increasingly focussed on the one thing and the only thing that matters to us – ourselves. The belief in self-esteem as the pinnacle of the human condition – you can move mountains, believe in yourself – has been the cornerstone of the 21st century mindset.
Self-esteem training has seeped into child-rearing strategies – children are told that they’re “unique” and “special” – and buried itself deep within self-help books and courses, therapies, corporate training sessions, and mainstream media: love yourself and the rest will follow. Advertisers bleat about the importance of satisfying every craving, desire and impulse, however pointless, extravagant or morally suspect (because you deserve it), while fame and fortune have become the end goal of life for vast numbers of the population.
“This self absorption defines the moral climate of our contemporary society,” writes historian Christopher Lasch in The Culture of Narcissism. “The conquest of nature and the search for new frontiers has given way to the search for self fulfillment.”
The narcissist epidemic is noticeable not just in those piling into mental health clinics. It’s also evident in bookstores with the rise of the memoir and the decline of the novel; in “vanity publishing” such as personal blogs and social media pages where individuals broadcast their images, thoughts and accomplishments to an unseen audience; and in the growing length of people’s self-proclaimed titles: director, scriptwriter, designer, wunderkind.
Indeed, the digital world, an environment where users can create their identity from the ground up, pixel by pixel, and live out what professors Hazel Markus and Paula Nurius term their “possible self,” or “ideal self ”, is fertile ground for narcissistic tendencies to flourish. The self-regulating activities endemic with narcissists – such as turning conversations back to themselves and bragging about their achievements – is the operating code of social media technology. Users eliminate undesirable information, hide unflattering photos, and tailor messages to maximise admiration from others.
“Victorian culture fostered strong feelings but imposed definite and heavy restraints on their expression, especially in the area of sexuality,” writes Alexander Lowen in Narcissism: Denial of the True Self. “This lead to hysteria. Our present-day culture imposes relatively fewer restraints on behaviour, and even encourages the ‘acting out’ of sexual impulses in the name of liberation, but minimises the importance of feeling. The result is narcissism. One might also say that Victorian culture emphasised love without sex, whereas our present culture emphasises sex without love.”
Today’s society stimulates and encourages the hot pursuit of every craving in the name of ‘liberation’ – live like there’s no tomorrow. Every whiff of titillation is tracked down and devoured by the liberated person who knows no boundaries. Driven by media images and advertising slogans, being liberated means severing ties to both past and future generations to live in the moment. Such ‘liberated’ thinking is particular to our time.
“Narcissism appears realistically to represent the best way of coping with the tensions and anxieties of modern life,” writes Lasch. “The prevailing social conditions therefore tend to bring out the narcissistic traits that are present, in varying degrees, in everyone. These conditions have also transformed the family, which in turn shapes the underlying structure of personality. A society that fears it has no future is not likely to give much attention to the needs of the next generation, and who in any case give priority to their own right to self-fulfillment.”
Life for the narcissist is like living out one’s days in a house of mirrors. Forever on the quest for newness – a new image, fame, new admirers – the narcissist looks at the world around them but can only see themselves reflected back. Incapable of really “seeing” others, lacking curiosity about the planet and its people, unable to cheer heartily at another’s success or feel pain at their loss, the narcissist’s mind is a white box, a sensory deprivation chamber, where boredom is rife. When the world for a narcissist is just the self – rotating on its personal axis – life feels empty, unfulfilling, and unbearably dull.
Insanity describes the state of a person who is out of touch with reality, notes Lowen. Since feelings are a basic reality of human life, Lowen believes that to be out of touch with one’s feelings is a sign of insanity.
“There is something crazy about a pattern of behaviour that places the achievement of success above the need to love and be loved,” he notes. “There is something crazy about a person who is out of touch with the reality of his or her being, the body and its feeling… and there is something crazy about a culture that pollutes the air, the waters, and the earth in the name of a ‘higher standard of living’. But can a culture be insane?”