June 04, 2014
Narcissism: The New Cooties?
Think politicians world-wide, many execs and entrepreneurs, 1980s-era bond traders, actors, writers, surgeons, go-getters, workaholics, a good chunk of the freshman class at lots of highly selective colleges, all AUSAs and nearly every effective trial lawyer you will ever meet.
Narcissist. Narcissism. These have been hot labels in the past few years. Lots of articles and literature. Some name-calling, too. Boomers and Millennials are called narcissistic. So are certain bosses. And folks with lots of confidence we just don't like. What gives? Is narcissism like the new Cooties?
Let's think of narcissists in three groups. The first group includes each human being who has ever lived. We all have a touch of narcissism--and we need it to survive. It's healthy. The second group is actual "narcissists". These are people who score high on tests based on traits (symptoms) listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Think politicians, many execs and entrepreneurs, 1980s-era bond traders, actors, writers, surgeons, go-getters, workaholics, all AUSAs and nearly every effective trial lawyer you will ever meet.* The third group is comprised of those with a clinical diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). These are the few, the miserable, the hardcore. See my listing three sentences up. It's the same kind of folks--but now, according to the psychiatric community, they're stuck in the wild blue yonder, and can't get out.
Lack of empathy is one key trait in spotting one of these creatures in any of our groups. Frankly, I've met almost no one with close to zero empathy--but lots of people seem to have the other traits to some degree. Some key ones are success-orientation, feelings of superiority, and seeing oneself as unique and/or special. (To be fair, these three make up a good chunk of the freshman class at lots of highly selective colleges). Again, it's mainly a matter of degree. Do see DSM-IV or DSM-V for yourself to see what they are, and see how you and your friends rate.
True story: About ten years ago, I needed to cross-examine an ousted executive who sued our client and had put his mental health in issue in the case. This was new territory for us--so we bought a couple of DSM-IVs. That summer, three young litigators and a litigation law clerk in our Pittsburgh office got a hold of one of the DSMs. For fun, they went through each of the NPD symptoms. Three of the employees were amused--for lack of a better word--that they seemed to have all or most of the symptoms. One had almost none. Despite everyone's joking around about the self-diagnosis exercise, the "non-narcissist", an ambitious young woman, was disappointed by her low "score" and seemed a bit envious of her co-workers.
This week, narcissism in making the news again. Today, The Independent, the British national morning paper, reports that a well-regarded British novelist and longtime friend of former Prime Minister Tony Blair is now calling Blair a "narcissist" with a "messiah complex" who has abandoned Britain to make money and "hang out with a lot of rich people in America" (presumably other narcissists). On the quality of life side of things, those of you with serious narcissists in your life (or office) can read "How to Make the Narcissist in Your Life a Little Nicer", appearing in the Atlantic Monthly. Query: Why are there so few articles over the years addressed to narcissists themselves? Can they not be saved?
Or do we all just need a few blustery folks to look down on?
*I'm 100% serious about this list--as humorous as the list might be. Moreover, these are the occupations and kinds of a lot of the people I tend to like, admire and hang out with. You can report me to the I'm feeling special and unique today, and I can take the hit.
The Narcissus, Karl Bryullov, Russian, 1819
Posted by JD Hull at June 4, 2014 02:55 AM