Can We Escape Narcissism in America? 5 Possible Antidotes

Back in 1979, the social historian Christopher Lasch launched a bestseller with his book, The Culture of Narcissism, taking its title and subject from a term used by early psychologists in the 1890s to refer to excessive self-love. Lasch identified narcissism as the distinguishing cultural feature of the American post-war era. For Lasch, this trend indicated a new normal that was less about a common psychiatric condition than a general stance of alienated self-obsession that had found expression in a world of cutthroat capitalism and moral malaise.


If Lasch had lived to see the new millennium, marked by increased economic inequality and insecurity, along with trends like self-involved social networking and celebrity culture, he would not have been surprised to hear that the new normal is now pretty much taken for granted as the way things are in America. Many even defend narcissism as the correct response to living with increased competition and pressure to win. According to one study, Americans score higher on narcissism than citizens of any other country. Researchers who study personality find that young Americans today score higher on narcissism and lower on empathy than they did 30 years ago. (Want to see how you score? Take a test here.)

Narcissists fill the ranks of the political arena, the corporate boardroom, Hollywood, and the media. From the predatory executive to the smiling televangelist to the reality television star, they are the people who thrive by manipulating the rest of us — and through our receptivity to being swept along with them.

Narcissism, which transmutes healthy self-regard into domination and the desire to achieve into a narrow quest for self-promotion, is a dangerous mechanism that short-circuits empathy and shuts down the imaginative pathway that enables a person to consider how his actions would impact the other. Narcissists are the bullies, parasites and charismatic seducers who cheat and lie as naturally as breathing. They live to puff themselves in front of the world, and they bolster their own image by tearing down others.

Ever notice that it takes a village to uphold narcissistic fantasies? Narcissists excel in assembling an entourage of enablers who justify and defend their actions. Though they behave as if they are the center of the universe, they are deeply dependent on others. Narcissists can’t stand to be alone, because that’s when things get scary. Underneath the bluster is the terrifying thought, I am nothing.

Why does the narcissist have such a great fear of being nothing? From a cultural perspective, the answer may lie in the history of how the emphasis on the self evolved to replace older forms of identity in which the church, family, historic custom, or some other source of authority told us who we should be and why we are here. Without sure sources of meaning, life seems to dissolve into a disorienting and chaotic journey. Many have observed that the deepest roots of narcissism may lie in a form of nihilism that comes from the terrible burden of living in a world that has no apparent meaning at all. Nihilism sinks us into quicksand where values shift continually, questions of faith and doubt have no answers, and ascertaining life’s purpose or a workable moral code seem impossible.

Herman Melville, often considered the quintessential American novelist, provided a famous portrait of narcissism in the figure of Captain Ahab, the seaman who attempted to escape from nihilism by wresting meaning from the universe in the form of an obsessive hunt for a great white whale. In the end, Moby Dick mowed him down as if he were a blade of grass; the universe was serenely indifferent to Ahab and his maniacal search for meaning. That is a truth the narcissist can’t bear.

If nihilism is the threat, narcissism is the defense. The agony of an atomized existence is mitigated by the fantasy of the sovereignty of the self. The narcissist makes himself the ultimate meaning, a precarious solution in which grandiosity forms a rickety bulwark against depression and shame. In the short run, it often works. In the long run, well, ask Captain Ahab.

Desperate to outrun the sense of meaninglessness, narcissists often take the stance of knowing or being very close to uncovering the secrets of things. You’ll find plenty of narcissists among the ranks of gurus, pundits, artists, and those who find patterns that, while terrifying, provide a satisfying sense of having revealed the truth of the universe to a uniquely receptive intelligence. The narcissist’s fantasies must be reinforced by children, lovers, family members, co-workers, followers, the general public, and in Captain Ahab’s case, his hapless crew. These people — objects, really — are useful as long as they remain in thrall to the narcissist and provide his magical mirror. If they can’t or won’t, they are thrown overboard.

A capitalist consumer culture built on longing and the striving to attain something over the next rainbow provides the perfect breeding ground for narcissists and their prey. As long as you are deeply unsatisfied, you are ripe for the ministrations of any narcissist nearby. And they are always nearby. They will promise you the moon and deliver a dead mouse. Sometimes the only other choice seems to be to emulate the narcissist’s power trip and strike a pose of domination yourself. Eat or be eaten.

Dealing with narcissism may be unavoidable, but are there ways to lessen the damage it does? Perhaps part of the antidote lies in figuring out how to have a meaningful, connected and worthwhile existence, even in a world that breeds disconnection and despair. Easier said than done, but here are a few possibilities.

1. Discern meaning in life: One of the trickiest tasks we face is dealing with the yawning maw of nihilism, which threatens to swallow us up if we don’t have some over-arching system of truth to hook ourselves onto. In their 2011 book, All Things Shining, Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly suggest that we may be able to avoid nihilism (and its narcissistic defense) by focusing on and opening ourselves up to what’s happening around us in the everyday world and connecting to the physical universe. (That's not always so easy to do when technology and consumption culture lure us into chronic disengagement.) They point out that it may be helpful to try literally to touch the world—to handle things, move among them, develop our flexibility and engagement with processes like learning to play a musical instrument, or planting a garden. Doing things that require attention, skill and nuanced responses may interrupt the routine distancing that has become our habit. They argue that our task in life is not to create meaning, but to discover or discern it in what is already around us —cultivating a kind of correspondence with the world instead of trying for brute mastery over it. It’s a kind of heightening of involvement, and discovering meaning through engagement and connection.

2. Practice reverence and gratitude: The ability to recognize the positive things in our situation and respond to people and experiences with reverence and gratitude is anathema to narcissism. If you can cultivate appreciation for the things that you have, and clichéd as it sounds, in the moments of beauty and wonder that life reveals even in the most seemingly mundane and trying circumstances, then the allure of someone who relies on grand promises never to be fulfilled may not be as powerful. Gratitude is the opposite of grandiosity. Of course, even a narcissist can be grateful, but perhaps the salient difference is what the narcissist is grateful for — being promoted ahead of her peers, having the fanciest car on the block, having got one over on a colleague. A narcissist is probably less likely to be grateful for a kindness done to her, for the success of a friend or a neighbor, or simply for the fact that the trains happened to run on time today. Gratitude for things and experiences that benefit not just the individual, but increase the happiness of others, is a richer, more nourishing kind of feeling, and might serve as a corrective to constantly frustrated desire.

3. Be receptive to community feeling: Dreyfus and Taylor urge us to move away from privileging the individual mind and toward a more shared and communal understanding of the world. Whatever we can do to open ourselves to community feeling takes us in the opposite direction of narcissism. Seeing ourselves as intimately connected and practicing empathy helps us learn to drop our defenses and step out of the eat-or-be-eaten mentality. Cultivating citizenship helps us to become oriented to reciprocal obligation and a sense of gratification that, again, comes not from the triumph of the individual, but the success of many. Making a contribution to the community can bring balance to the urge to constantly strive for personal success and act as an antidote to unappeasable envy.

4. Seek relationships based on respect: Being in close proximity to narcissists, who may lurk in your immediate family, your workplace, or the house next door, can be draining and demoralizing. These relationships are by nature volatile, unpredictable and destabilizing. One way to balance out the negative impact they bring is to make a conscious effort to cultivate relationships with people you respect and who respect you in turn. Instead of seeking to use you as an object, such people will have the desire to engage with you as an equal, and deal with you in terms of honesty and reliability. They may not heap you with flowery compliments, but neither will they exaggerate your faults when you cross them or boost themselves at your expense. Even having one close relationship based on mutual respect can make the narcissist’s machinations appear false and superficial, which helps to lessen their power. Narcissists are ultimately contemptuous of others. Respect, the opposite of contempt, is a powerful remedy.

5. Honor the past and the future: Part of the narcissist’s fantasy is that nothing of importance came before or will come after him. The narcissist has a limited perception of time: In the here and now, he is all that matters. He lives in deep fear of old age, death and annihilation. If he does think about the past or future, it is in mostly personal terms, my past glory, my future grandeur. There’s something deep in the American tradition that tends to support this way of thinking, born in a society defined by breaking ties with older cultures. It has its positive side, having set the stage for experimentation and new ways of thinking. But it has a dark side, too, which Christopher Lasch expressed succinctly: "A denial of the past, superficially progressive and optimistic, proves on closer analysis to embody the despair of a society that cannot face the future." Establishing a strong connection to the past gives us a sense of our place and participation in a long tradition of human thought and striving. Connecting to the future reminds us of causality: how what we do will impact those who will follow us. Both these habits of mind provide a sense of perspective that counter-balance the me-now mentality of the narcissist.

There will probably never be a cure for narcissism; it’s part of the human condition and will express itself more or less depending on the cultural contours and economic realities of a society. But scientific research has suggested that qualities like empathy can actually be improved with practice. This indicates it’s not a futile effort to try to build bridges between people, or work to increase our receptivity to others, or practice our engagement with the physical world. Nor is it futile to confront the forces that heighten the inequality and economic insecurity which set the stage for a narcissistic culture. Narcissism may be the way things are in America in this moment, but it’s not necessarily the way things have to be, either on a personal or societal level.  

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