Lately I’ve been intrigued with the topic of narcissism. Maybe it’s the current election cycle with its clash of giant egos, the sparring of would-be megalomaniacs. Maybe it’s the book I’m reading, “Narcissistic Supply: The Narcissist’s Drug” by Sam Vaknin.  

Turns out its author is no psychologist, but his leading credential is that he is himself a narcissist, twice diagnosed by experts. Nevertheless, this book seems rich with insight into the condition, containing plenty of food for thought.     

Narcissism is not a single phenomenon. There is the clinical form, recognized generally as a personality disorder referred to as Narcissistic Personality Disorder.  Even that takes many forms. I wish I had the space here to describe them. They are all fascinating. 

Instead, let me offer a simple definition. NPD is extreme self-centeredness. It’s characterized by an inflated sense of self-importance and a deep and overwhelming need for admiration. Lack of empathy is also present. The confident exterior of the narcissist is a false mask. Underlying it is a very fragile sense of self worth that is vulnerable to the slightest criticism. There is also a more general, less extreme form of narcissism that some call “societal narcissism.”

Narcissists can be found in many settings, but they often gravitate to professions and interests with high attention- grabbing potential and access to power. Politics is rife with them, and so are the arts, including show business. 

Donald Trump fits the profile pretty well. The crucial question to determine if he meets the clinical definition for NPD would be this: Does he lack empathy for others? Is he racist and a misogynist? Does he mock the handicapped for their deformities? All that is helpful but not determinative. 

It’s more important to ask how he regards those closest to him. If he uses them as tools that primarily exist to meet his needs, both physical and psychological, then it’s a pretty sure bet he is a classic narcissist. I don’t know the answer to that question. Others in politics may be equal in scale to his supposed degree of narcissism, but better at hiding it. Trump only differs from this group in his almost complete lack of self-awareness and filter, though in fact many will out-perform him in arrogance and lack of empathy.       

A really skilled narcissist may take an entirely different tack and impress others by practicing extreme humility and apparent compassion and altruism, demonstrating willingness to suffer for some higher cause. 

This is where diagnosing NPD from afar gets really tricky, and also fun. Was St. Francis of Assisi one of the holiest men to ever walk the planet or a charlatan looking for approval and secretly coveting veneration? Was Vincent Van Gogh motivated by his love for beauty or was he a martyr to his own peculiar love for himself and disappointment over rejection? In the end it really doesn’t matter. Their achievements were great and long lasting. What should we care if they managed to poison all their closest relationships out of self-loathing and the twisted egotism that it spawned?  

Determining societal narcissism is much easier. When a society turns narcissistic, it devalues, then replaces long-held standards for newer ones. Free spending replaces thrift. Modesty is overthrown for conspicuous consumption. Accomplishments are meaningless and empty if they lack the pizzazz to spark envy in others. Building character is replaced by building an impressive reputation. Wisdom takes a back seat to academic credentials. Good looks count for more than a good heart. Aging is associated with decay, and youth is everything. Hedonism is celebrated. Personal responsibility is evaded, and once purely personal prerogatives transferred to an all-consuming state. You get the picture.         

When a society turns narcissistic, it’s often the last to know. Just like a narcissistic individual, part of their condition is that it is incapable of self-diagnosis, and will resist the diagnosis when confronted. The narcissist is a master at building defenses around that fragile ego. The narcissistic society is likewise ruthless in suppressing reminders of its own inadequacies. Standard bearers of the old order must not be tolerated. They are not just wrong; they must be evil. They are not just ignorant; they are stupid. They are deniers. They are hateful reactionaries.

The problem with narcissistic societies is that they are not self-sustaining. They are a sure sign of a civilization on its way downward. The societal values that they place the greatest store in, when antithetical to established values, undermine them. The values essential to building and sustaining a working society are extinguished and forgotten. The question is: When do we reach that tipping point?