No one is innocent.
– Ronnie Biggs
In language that mirrors dialogue from The Walking Dead, we decry the destructive rise of narcissism. We write self-help books on how to identify, avoid, manage and escape the narcissists among us. We refine our diagnostic standards for narcissism and we study our navel-gazing young people.
We re-diagnose past dictators, mass murderers and influential leaders through the newly polished lens of narcissism. We talk about our whole culture as a kind of Petri dish in which narcissists happily grow, and in which the rest of us who are not infected are at constant risk of harm.
Narcissism is the current favoured scapegoat for our interpersonal and social ills.
There can be little doubt that narcissism as we have defined it is on the increase, and has been for some decades. A search of everything from song lyrics to peer-reviewed journal articles shows both an increasingly self-focused social and individual psychology and an exponential interest in how to manage this new-found pathology.
But our interest has an edge, often emerging as a kind of punitive diagnostic quarantining of those among us who cannot see past themselves, or a sweeping dismissal of everything from social media to our grooming habits, in the interests of promoting a more empathetic society.
We’re pointing our fingers at the narcissists out there, encouraging the rest of us to limit their supplies and right the individualistic culture that spawned them. They are the zombies, we are the people.
But even as we try to set ourselves apart from “generation me”, our finger-pointing gives our own self-centredness and perfectionism away. The more we describe narcissism as a blight caused by others more traumatised or spoiled than we are, the more we expose our own narcissistic desires to be perfect, to be above and separate from culture.
In other words, we the critics of the rise of malignant self-love also see ourselves as inherently special. Unable to bear our connection with those whose narcissism overtakes them, we respond with revulsion and disconnection, reinforcing their separateness and specialness – and our own.
My mother sometimes tells a story of my first day at school. “All the other kids were crying and hanging on to their mothers’ legs”, she says. “But you looked up at me and asked, "When are you going?‘”.
At five, I had already learned not to ask for support that couldn’t be offered; I had already learned to depend only on myself.
This manufactured fantasy of independence, far from making me strong, gave me an unholy fascination with people who seemed able to bask in the attentions of others. To put it in popular blunted self-help terms, I was primed for a lifetime of relationships with narcissists.
It would be easy for me to stay at this level of analysis, as many self-help books and blogs now do, to leave my self-reflection at the comfortable point of seeing myself as a kind of victim survivor of a personal and social culture of narcissism. But the truth is murkier than that I believe. In my past attachments to people with high levels of grandiosity, I was also able to comfortably sidestep my own.
I never had to feel my own narcissism while it was being so expertly acted out around me. I could simply point my finger, as many of us now do, and there it was for all to see, but not, of course, in me.
My past history may also be part of the reason that I chose a profession that has in some ways contributed to the rise of personal and cultural narcissism. Most therapists sign on in some way to a myth of individual improvement and repair, to individual happiness, restitution and prosperity, when the weight of research into the causes of mental ill health point overwhelmingly to the cyclical influence of social determinants, particularly poverty.
We work with people most commonly within a framework that denies their social nesting and the very powerful forces that influence their health and well-being. This truly is narcissism, peddling the idea that everything that has been broken can be mended, happiness is at our fingertips and we have the power to become whole again and return to our original perfection. This is exactly what Narcissus was looking for in that small crystal pool.
Instead of helping to heal the wounds of narcissistic isolation and harm, our self-righteous diagnosing of toxic self-involvement is perpetuating the individualism inherent in our self-obsessed culture. As we work overtime to set ourselves apart from the scourge of this ugly self-idolatry, we reinforce the collective narcissistic delusion from which we must all in some way be suffering.
No one is separate from culture. All of us have our zombie elements, our rotten parts. We are all infected. If we really want to have an impact on the inherent individualism and isolation of narcissism, we need to avoid at all costs the sweet, sweet temptation of seeing ourselves as special.