It’s Narcissist Friday!
“When all you have is a hammer, everything is a nail.”
The old saying means that we tend to explain life by the tools we have learned, even if we have to make things fit from time to time. Once we learned about narcissism, we started seeing it everywhere. It explained so much about the various relationships of our lives. In fact, the culture seems overrun with narcissists.
So what do you think? Do we really have a narcissistic culture? Several books have been written suggesting that our nation and our culture has become narcissistic. Is this thing large and growing, or are we just seeing it more because we are more alert?
Well, I think both are true. We are beginning to see it, to experience it in our relationships, but not just because we know what to call it. Narcissism has been around for a long time, and there are more narcissists now than ever before.
Before I explain why I think that narcissism in our culture is growing, let me give a very brief overview of my perspective. Narcissism is a learned response to stress, a way of coping with fear and anxiety. In the midst of such struggles as abandonment, conflicting expectations, and severe family dysfunction children must find ways to cope. Some of them learn to hide what causes them pain, their hearts. They push others away to the point of depersonalizing them. Nothing can hurt, no one can cause pain, if no one is real. These children learn that they are on their own in life, that they should entrust themselves to no one, and that they either win or die. Not all children choose this way to cope, but those who do see no other options. Thus the narcissist is born.
I have always believed that narcissistic behavior is a choice. But it may not be a current choice. It may be the natural behavior of someone who chose to cope with life that way many years ago. It can be unlearned, but there must be serious desire and willingness to really look at both causes and alternatives. Few will do what it takes. Every failure, every disappointment becomes support for the narcissist to choose his old behavior.
I believe narcissism is more prevalent today because the things that create and support it are more prevalent. Consider some of these:
- Pressure produces narcissists. Financial and environmental stresses are hard on families and today’s families experience more separation, more divorce, more abandonment. Teachers report that fewer children come out of traditional families every year. Many children are under almost constant stress. Many parents came out of dysfunction and have few skills and little interest in promoting the emotional well-being of their own children. If narcissism is a learned way of coping with childhood stress, we will almost certainly continue to see more narcissists.
- More people=more relationships=more stress. While I have never been an advocate of population control, I do believe that we are only beginning to adjust psychologically to the greatly increasing numbers of people around us. We complain regularly about the traffic, the job situation, the crowded airports, and the violent crime rates. All of these are part of the growing number of people in our culture.
For the narcissist, survival in a growing population can be accomplished only by more hiding and more victimization. Only when the people around are viewed as tools, toys, or obstacles does the narcissist find ways to cope. We may think that the narcissist is encouraged and blessed by the growing supply, the people to use, but he is also afraid and his need to use others is increased. For the child who wants to hide to protect himself, adding more people does not help.
- Empathy doesn’t pay. Let’s face it. We do live in a culture that rewards narcissistic behavior. Those who are ruthless are seen as committed and energetic. Those who use others are progressive and able to get the job done. The company CEO who can fire thousands of workers and find a way to cheat them out of their pensions is rewarded with a multi-million dollar severance package even when the company struggles. It doesn’t pay to think of others as people, to worry about their needs. It only pays to give the appearance of success. This is the narcissist’s world.
- Computers and computerized thinking have reduced all of us to numbers. For a computer, a name is just the same as a number in the code. A story is just a formula, a set of parameters. A life is just a file. And computers run our world. Health care, work, stores, law enforcement, mass transit—all of them see us as numbers. We are depersonalized and narcissists know how to live in a depersonalized culture.
Even more, depersonalized people tend to depersonalize others. Notice the check-out clerks at the stores. Many of them are gruff, tired, mechanical; and, as you walk away from them, you feel the same way. I have often chuckled at the bumper sticker, “Caution: Baby on board!” Can you imagine any driver today who would see that and say, “Oh, I will have to be more careful with my driving”? What would the narcissist say?
I realize these thoughts may be depressing, but there are things we can do. We may not be able to change a culture, but we can understand the need in the hearts of others, particularly children. Don’t be afraid to reach out and help. Encourage people. Smile more and laugh more. Be a little extra kind to the waitress or the clerk. Wave at the policeman. Express your appreciation and gratitude. Help in children’s ministry and show that you care. Visit those who are lonely. Treat others as people, the way you would want to be treated. (Sound familiar?) A narcissistic culture needs love.
Most of those who read here have been hurt by narcissism. Perhaps, as you heal, you can find ways to combat the monster just by trusting in the Lord and living out of your health. Most people are not narcissists and don’t want to be narcissistic. They just don’t want to be afraid and hurting. Your little acts of love and kindness might be far more profound and effective than you can imagine.
A culture is simply the general thinking of the people, the values and lifestyles and beliefs they live with. But that doesn’t have to include every person. And one can make a difference, if only to one more.