Yes, I’m this Awesome all of the Time
“As individuals and as a nation, we now suffer from social narcissism. The beloved Echo of our ancestors, the virgin America, has been abandoned. We have fallen in love with our own image, with images of our making, which turn out to be images of ourselves.”
This is the dialogue of Daniel J. Boorstin, an American educator and historian, and surprisingly enough this quote is from 1914. Now I have to imagine that if Mr. Boorstin had to spend but a few hours in today’s society his brain might fall right out of his skull. I mean this guy thought we were full of ourselves in 1914. Imagine what he’d do when we slap a pair of True Religion jeans on him, match it up with a Lacoste polo, and for the hell of it put an iPhone in his pocket.
The truth is narcissism is becoming an epidemic in today’s society. Just a few weeks ago The RedEye Magazine in Chicago dedicated an entire layout to tackling this very subject matter. I would like to do the same today. Undoubtedly all of us know someone that we might consider a narcissist (and if you can’t think of a person you know who fits this bill it’s probably you, sorry). We might call them a friend, coworker, acquaintance, or that tool at the gym whose shirt is too small and hogs all of the machines you’re trying to use. Since more often than not we are forced to interact with narcissistic people it should be helpful to understand them a little bit better.
The Narcissist Debate
Most cognitive researchers agree that there is a great deal of incongruence between how narcissists act and how they really feel deep down. Jean Twenge, author of The Narcissism Epidemic, debates that narcissists actually think and believe they really are that awesome. Wendy Behary, director of The Cognitive Therapy Center of New Jersey, debates just the opposite believing that underneath the bravado of a narcissist is really a high degree of insecurity. Fellow Chicagoan and psychoanalyst, Frank Summers holds the view point that narcissists are overwhelmingly addicted to affirmation.
As you can see there is a good amount of diversity in regards to narcissists, and rightfully so. After all, no two people are exactly the same, so why should we pigeon hole our ego-inflated friends and lump them all in with a singular motivation. I’ve dealt with a variety of people who exhibited narcissistic qualities and all of them had drastically different motivations that could fit the descriptions of any of the three specialists listed above.
Social Intelligence and Narcissists
Perhaps one of the most frustrating things about dealing with a narcissist is their ability to succeed. All exhibit this booming confidence that over time has developed from their skills and abilities. Daniel Goleman, Harvard PhD and leading social intelligence researcher, has linked narcissism to three main motivations: Dreams of glory, adoration, and self righteousness. Surprisingly enough Goleman maintains that succeed in our society today narcissism can go a long way to helping you make difficult decisions. He refers to this as “healthy narcissism” and the key descriptor in healthy narcissism is that this person has to ability to take criticism and ideas that are not their own.
On the other side of the coin we have unhealthy narcissism. The motto of this narcissist is that others exist to serve me. They act with little to no concern for people around them. If the motto of social intelligence is “seek first to understand and then to be understood” their motto would be “you should always understand me”. The goals and motivations of this narcissist are front and center in their life, and other people’s goals and motivations don’t even register on their radar. Unlike their healthy counterparts if you challenge these narcissists they will explode on you. Further these narcissists do no handle constructive criticism well at all (in fact most children today don’t either).
Babies and Narcissists
When we’re infants we lack the cognitive ability to understand that others’ needs exist in this world besides ours. Seriously, we’re these selfish little creatures that act impulsively and make a stink if we don’ get fed, changed, entertained or whatever it is that babies want. However, as we develop we begin to realize that other’s have motivations like we do and we attune to those needs and motivations. This is perhaps our first and one of our most important lessons in social interaction. Children who perform the best socially are willing to share and take time playing with others and wait their turn. They’ve learned in a way to table their impulsive selfish needs for the whole of the group or their friends. Hearing me describe the selfish infant almost sounded like I was describing a narcissist. Perhaps narcissist failed to properly acquire these social skill set as children.
We all have Selfish Brains
Our old brain, our most primitive brain that we share with all mammals, is selfish and it serves us right to be so. In evolution if we did not act quickly for our own interests we were usually gobbled up by some large animal. Over time we developed more complex brains on top of this brain, however the old brain still runs the show because it the decision making center of the brain. Thought helps guide this process but when push comes to shove emotion chimes in our old brains says yes or no. Studies on organizational behavior have suggested that in turbulent and stressful situations people resort back to more selfish motivations and actions. This is not surprising at all because we have to ensure our own safety in times of peril. Now let’s look past this false bravado of any given narcissist. If underneath it all these people possess a high degree of insecurity there is probably a fair amount of stress and threat that is motivating their selfish repetitive actions.
Morrie Schwartz (Tuesdays with Morrie) said “The culture we have does not make people feel good about themselves.” He was speaking to the false pressures that our culture places on all of us; Pressures like being the prettiest, the skinniest, the smartest, the wealthiest, and the most successful. A lot of people today, especially our impressionable youth, feel this pressure and in the struggle to become something they desire place a lot of stress on themselves. This stress can be one of many routes to narcissism. The other half of Morrie’s quote is, “…And you have to be strong enough to say if the culture doesn’t work, don’t buy it.” It would seem to me narcissists have the confidence to besomething their not, but lack the confidence to be who they really are.