The Epidemic of Narcissism

A few days ago I saw Jean Twenge, author of the Epidemic of Narcissism and The Narcissism Blog on CSPAN/ BookTV. I haven’t read her book yet – it’s still out on loan at the local library.

Here is the link to the Book TV program replay on the Epidemic of Narcissism:

Here is a link to the Google Books preview of the Epidemic of Narcissism. It has most the essential research summarized in the chapters which are quoted:

Here’s what struck me from what she said:

  • In the World War II generation, there was a small percentage of clinically identified narcissists — about 1.5 to 1.75% identifiable narcissists. Now, if Jean Twenge’s stats are anywhere near accurate, and I believe they are, the proportion would be much larger in the twentysomethings — 10% narcissists.
  • Narcissism seems not to be biologically based. Rather, Twenge traces the rise of narcissism to parenting which is overly praising, under correcting and overly permissive — and the narcissistic behavioral patterns (thinking and acting) are therefore primarily learned. The self esteem movement had a large part to do with this, since it took an unvalidated remedy for low self esteem as a symptom of a small minority of abused and neglected children, and applied it to the population as a whole. It’s interesting that she notes that the usual self affirmations that are used as the remedy usually produce the opposite effect in this small minority.
  • According to Twenge, the bills for this epidemic should be coming due in 10 to 20 years, since that’s the age at which reality starts to hit most narcissists.

Here’s the definition of narcissism from Wikipedia:

Narcissism describes the trait of excessive self-love, based on self-image or ego.

The term is derived from the Greek mythology of Narcissus. Narcissus was a handsome Greek youth who rejected the desperate advances of the nymph Echo. As punishment, he was doomed to fall in love with his own reflection in a pool of water. Unable to consummate his love, Narcissus pined away and changed into a flower that bears his name, the narcissus.

In psychology and psychiatry, excessive narcissism is recognized as a severe personality dysfunction or personality disorder. The terms narcissism, narcissistic, and narcissist are often used as pejoratives, denoting vanity, conceit, egotism or simple selfishness.

Here is the definition of Narcissistic Personality Disorder from Wikipedia:

Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is a personality disorder defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the diagnostic classification system used in the United States, as “a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and a lack of empathy.” [1]

The narcissist is described as turning inward for gratification rather than depending on others, and as being excessively preoccupied with issues of personal adequacy, power, and prestige.[2] Narcissistic personality disorder is closely linked to self-centeredness. It is also colloquially referred to as “the god complex“.

Here are the generally accepted criteria, also from Wikipedia:

“A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following:[1]

  1. has a grandiose sense of self-importance
  2. is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
  3. believes that he or she is “special” and can only be understood by, or should associate with, people (or institutions) who are also “special” or of high status.
  4. requires excessive admiration
  5. has a sense of entitlement
  6. is interpersonally exploitative
  7. lacks empathy
  8. is often envious of others or believes others are envious of him or her
  9. shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes”

Here is a summary of what is in Sandy Hotchkiss, Why Is It Always about You? The Seven Deadly Sins of Narcissism.

The sins:

  • Shamelessness: The narcissist seems to have a cool indifference at times, and almost seems to be amoral, but in fact has an extreme shame sensitivity, and has extreme reactions to minor incidents.
  • Magical thinking: The narcissist keeps himself or herself pumped up inside with a great deal of distortion, illusion, projection (shame-dumping), and exploitative idealization of others.
  • Arrogance: The narcissist wears the mask of a superiority complex. He or she competes with and degrades and diminishes others to pump himself or herself up and gain the craved admiration from others. Nothing is acceptable about being ordinary or average.
  • Envy: Contempt and disdain for others is constant.
  • Entitlement: There is no mutuality and reciprocity in a relationship with a narcissist. For the narcissist, others exist to meet MY needs, to agree with, flatter, obey and comfort ME. Denial of this by others leads to resentment and rage. The narcissist  additionally harbors unreasonable expectations of favorable treatment and automatic compliance from others apart from any real demonstrations of competence and trustworthiness and actual accomplishments.
  • Exploitation: The narcissist demonstrates no empathy or compassion for others. There is no capacity to identify with or recognize the feelings and needs of others, and the narcissist deceives and manipulates others without regard to their feelings or interests.
  • Bad boundaries: The narcissist constantly violates the boundaries of others, and is extremely intrusive and interfering.

I’m a member of Mensa myself, and those who are Gifted and Talented (GTs) may seem to some to be equivalent to narcissists. Certainly some GTs may be narcissists as well. There are some strong differences, though.

  • Many GTs are unaware of being GT, and do not consider themselves to be superior to others, entitled to special treatment, etc.
  • Many, if not most GTs, can be extraordinarily compassionate, and are more the objects of envy than those who envy.
  • Many, if not most GTs, do not seek excessive admiration but may in fact be quite modest about their accomplishments and shun the limelight.
  • Narcissists often seek to exploit GTs as much as possible. They often seek to take credit for the accomplishments of the GTs, while disdaining and belittling the GTs and their accomplishments, and emulate them in a sickening fashion. They often seek to monitor everything the GTs say and do, and if in a position of authority, brutally micromanage them.
  • Many GTs are nevertheless targeted relentlessly by narcissists even while the narcissists are trying to exploit them, because they threaten the grandiose self assessment and sense of superiority of the narcissists. This targeting is even more relentless and brutal if the GTs either refuse to be exploited or expose the narcissist. The formula: GTs running, narcissists gunning.
  • GTs also tend to be in reality what narcissists believe they are in terms of abilities and accomplishments.
  • Being GT seems to have nothing to do with a parenting style, but rather GTs seem to be born to parents with all varieties of parenting styles.
  • As a proportion of the population, identifiable GTs seem to have remained constant at about 2%, while Jean Twenge’s statistics show about an eight fold increase in narcissists as a proportion of their age group.
  • Narcissists will try to claim to be or try to ‘fake’ being GT, but GTs can be reluctant to identify themselves as GT until after being identified as such on a standard intelligence test.

The implications for the preaching, teaching and counseling ministry of the church, though, are profound. It is surely no accident that this documented increase in clinically identified narcissists also coincides with the lack of preaching and teaching in the church on pride, envy, and arrogance as sins, and the preaching of self esteem by a number of prominent evangelical pastors and leaders.