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Our mirror-kissing culture

Posted: June 8, 2012 8:53 a.m.
Updated: June 11, 2012 5:00 a.m.

Psychological experts are engaged in a heated debate over a curiously underappreciated issue of our times: should “narcissistic personality disorder” continue to viewed as a mental illness? Or should we concede, in my view, that mirror-kissing personalities have become not only the norm but a national passion.

Narcissism is generally defined as an exaggerated sense of one’s own wonderfulness, a self-love so intense that, even when alone, the narcissist can barely resist the urge to hold his or her own hand. Narcissists constantly seek attention, treasure material wealth, worships good looks and put up with the rest of us only as long as we feed their appetite for praise and appreciation.

And when times get tough, they are left befuddled as to why they don’t have any friends.

The narcissist “loves himself more than his analyst,” as psychiatrist Thomas Szasz put it, and successful treatment depends on the patient “learning to love the analyst more and himself less.”

Historian Christopher Lasch’s “The Culture of Narcissism” became a surprise best-seller and cult classic in 1979. Today its prophecies of an increasingly self-absorbed society sound almost modest. This is the age of MTV’s “My Super Sweet 16,” where you can watch rich kids bling up their birthday parties with, for example, rock stars; an $800 manicure with real diamond inlays; or a featured appearance by Cirque du Soleil.

Or, if you’re a less fortunate kid, you can try another narcissistic craze: commit a crime and post videos of your act on YouTube. The certainty that police also watch YouTube amazingly fails to dawn on these young perpetrators.

Each of these slices of modern American life is grounded in a fundamental shift in American culture, a trend that research psychologists Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell describe in the title of their 2009 book as “The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement.”

Campbell sat on one of the committees that decided to drop narcissistic personality disorder, or NPD, from the 2013 edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the diagnostic guide used by psychiatrists. Yet, he told me in a telephone interview and email exchange that he opposed the deletion, which caused such a backlash from fellow researchers and clinicians that the condition has since been reinstated with some new technical changes.

“When the NPD cut happened and was noted in the press, I watched the online comments,” wrote Campbell, a University of Georgia psychologist, by email. “Most people assumed it was because narcissism has become normative in society.

“On the other hand,” he quipped, “the second most prevalent comment was that it was a plot by (President Barack) Obama, and the third was ‘I guess I am OK then.’ “ The anti-Obama paranoids can be easily dismissed as bitter Internet trolls. But Campbell and numerous other experts caution that narcissism should be taken seriously as a disorder in individuals and as a cultural threat to our social fabric.

“We see in the research that narcissism in politics is very good for emerging as a leader and becoming a celebrity,” he said. “But narcissism can also lead to all sorts of negative outcomes on the part of leaders, many of which boil down to putting one’s own need in front of the group’s.”

Yet, I would suggest, we also have examples like mogul and pseudo-politician Donald Trump to show us how to turn bold, audacious and even obnoxious narcissism into pure gold.

Think of it: he soared to the top of early Republican presidential polls, buoyed up by his appeal to the wacky birther movement, without ever coming close to actually declaring his candidacy. He may not be a serious office seeker, but he knows how to build his brand.

Yes, in today’s world of cutthroat business, hardball politics, YouTube fame and speed-dating, some narcissistic traits -- such as self-confidence, indifference to critics, narrow-focused vision -- can bring big benefits. The inventive narcissist only needs to remember at least one rule of thumb: Playing an obnoxious egotistical jerk on TV can be entertaining. Trump knows. But when you forget how to stop playing one when you get home, you may need to seek help.

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