Feeding Narcissus

Ever since a few proteins and amino acids coalesced into the first single-celled organism, life has been no cakewalk. A couple of billion years of evolution has hardwired suffering into our DNA. As technology and wealth have eased our burden (especially for the rich and famous), some of us have become completely detached from the natural world. For a few lucky (or unlucky, depending on your perspective) elites, a lifetime of pampering and “success” can artificially inflate the ego and create the need to inject danger into their lives. When this process goes unchecked into adulthood, the result can be disastrous — something psychologists diagnose as “Narcissistic Personality Disorder.”

Most of us have never come into close contact with a full-blown, egomaniacal narcissist. Their handlers hide them well! We don’t know any adult who could have whatever they want, whenever they want it — someone who can say or do anything and still be set for life. The vast majority of Americans can only wish we had such a luxury. Almost everyone we’ve ever met (including ourselves) stands to lose everything with one bad tweet! That’s why most of the intelligent people we know rarely, if ever, use Twitter or Facebook to post their personal beliefs and opinions. Indeed, at its core, social media is one huge exercise in narcissism. We also get bombarded with unchecked egos whenever we turn on the TV, in the form of reality shows, which are anything but real. These shows get high ratings because they tap into the repressed desires of the multitudes, who live vicariously through them. The same could be said of politics, which have literally devolved into genital measuring contests.

We’ve all seen (or have) children who seem spoiled rotten and throw tantrums when things don’t go their way. In the natural world, this early onset egomania is checked by parents, teachers and society (the “superego“) before it becomes a serious problem. However, in the la-la land of Narcissus, a sheltered child is completely detached from tempering mechanisms and paired with virtually unlimited resources. This disconnect creates the perfect storm for avoiding consequences which, under normal circumstances, would restrain a person’s ego before things got out of hand.

Growing up near Palm Beach and then walking around the castles of an elite University for six years, I came across several of these elite, self-absorbed characters. I quickly noticed that if they weren’t careful, their lives of excess almost always precluded them from appreciating the simple pleasures of life. A walk along the treasure coast, a romantic dinner/movie date, a dance party, a Ford Mustang — these things become boring to someone who thinks that they have the world on a string. Instead, narcissists get pleasure out of manipulating and treating people like puppets.

With the chips stacked so heavily in their favor, winning all the time becomes too predictable. The egomaniac needs to create a challenge. When life is too easy, they must come up with crazier and crazier plots just to entertain themselves. To the unchecked ego, the world isn’t just an oyster. The world becomes one big game of chess — the ultimate conquest. People (pawns) exist only to serve their interests. Those who get in the way must be bumped. The same is true of ideologies and political parties — they only exist as tools used to win, not ideas for which to adhere. The power of winning becomes addictive. Like a heroin junkie chasing that first high, a runner who now has to do “ultramarathons” to feel the burn or a hunter who needs increasingly bigger and dangerous prey — the coddled Narcissist chases more difficult challenges until he or she collides with  inevitable failure.

When a narcissist attains (or more likely, inherits) a position of power, they inevitably say and do things to test limits and see who’s an asset and who’s a liability. Whereas most people need air, food and water to survive, the egomaniacal narcissist feeds on adulation. They create controversy just to attract attention. Their lives become one big ego trip after another. They were never forced to grow up (e.g. accept things and people they didn’t like). They never learned to care about anyone but themselves. Therefore, the narcissist never made any “real” friends (friendship is a two-way street, by definition). All of their relationships, both personal and professional, have been transactional. Once their mother dies, nobody truly likes (much less loves) the narcissist. People only deal with them to get a taste of what the life of power, prestige and privilege feels like.

What has happened to Freud’s superego? To paraphrase Tears for Fears in their ’80s hit “Everybody Wants To Rule the World”: containing the ego is a lifelong struggle for everyone. In the USA it seems that narcissism has been crowned king. In many ways, our privileged “1st world” lives are unnaturally easy. We feel entitled. We think that we’re superior. Our society has become overly self-centered. Nearly all of the seven deadly sins (pride, greed, envy, lust, gluttony, wrath and sloth) flow from our self-centeredness. When the collective ego of an entire nation the size of the USA goes unchecked, the world is in trouble! Fascism is a convenient tool of the narcissistic trade.

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