From Britney Spears flaunting her navel in music videos and moaning to InStyle about her breakup with Justin Timberlake, to Bernie Ebbers, former CEO of WorldCom, justifying taking a "personal loan" of $430 million from the very company that he marched into bankruptcy with an almost $4 billion accounting scam, we live in an age of reckless self-regard. The narcissist-as-success-story has become so deeply ingrained in our culture, it's hardly possible to imagine one without the other. Narcissists are everywhere and, for the most part, they also seem to be triumphant. (Despite the fact that Britney was dumped and Bernie's in big trouble, narcissists are rarely truly outcast in our society. Let's face it, Britney's broken heart will surely mend and Bernie could sell a few of his vacation homes to bail himself out.)
I'm not surprised by our obsession with these supreme egotists. In fact, I'm guilty of being awestruck myself. Narcissists are effective and alluring. They're tough. I like the idea of someone who can withstand the storm of rejections, betrayals and humiliations that life is bound to offer and remain convinced that he's special. (And I don't use "he" here lightly; the DSM-IV estimates that 50 to 75 percent of narcissists are men.) The shamelessness of a narcissist -- barreling forward at everyone's expense, demanding more attention than anyone else at the cocktail party, barking opinions without any discernible evidence to back them up -- is offensive but also fascinating. "Narcissistic" -- like "intimidating" -- is one of those bullying insults that contains a hint of admiration, even jealousy, that makes it seem more like a compliment in the end. Though we pretend the word offers a damning assessment of someone's character, it also secretly portrays them as bold, forceful, exciting. So what's not to like?
"Their needs are more important than anyone else's, and they expect to be accommodated in all things. They can't ... comprehend why they might not always come first. Their expectations have an almost childlike quality, yet they can be tyrannically outraged or pitifully depressed when thwarted." So writes Los Angeles psychotherapist Sandy Hotchkiss in the introduction to her new book, amusingly called "Why Is It Always About You?" (a title that fairly screams from the cover before offering its subtitle in a conspiratorial whisper: "Saving Yourself From the Narcissists in Your Life").
Hotchkiss doesn't offer any new news about the cause of narcissism in this guide -- she follows the standard psychoanalytic approach (it's all rooted in infancy; you didn't individuate successfully; it's your parents' faults) -- but she does clearly portray just what the disorder entails. "The Narcissist has no ability to value, or often enough, even to recognize, the separate existence or feelings of other people," Hotchkiss explains. (Notice Hotchkiss capitalizes the "N" in Narcissist. Like the "G" in God.)
The DSM-IV, a reference guide for mental health disorders (also used in a kind of unofficial parlor game to diagnose all the most annoying and disturbed people one encounters in life), offers this entertaining description: "They may constantly fish for compliments, often with great charm." (That strangely sounds like it should appear in a fortune cookie: "May you constantly fish for compliments, often with great charm.")
I have in mind a certain member of my family who is one of those narcissists you have to either admire or hate (and any way you look at it, she's occupying more of your mind than you'd ever want to admit). She once sat down to dinner, told a story about how far she'd come in her career and then shouted, without a trace of irony, "I'm huge!" That's "huge" meaning important, accomplished, a star. It's not exactly fishing, but it certainly brings her audience right to the point. "Yes!" I agreed heartily. (I've never been able to resist obliging narcissists. The sheer force of their egotism pushes me back on myself, into some agreeable psychosis of my own.)
According to Hotchkiss, narcissists construct their personalities chiefly to keep their negative feelings at bay and, in doing so, forfeit their grasp on reality. The trick of the narcissist is to repress self-doubt and self-loathing so deeply, to make them so appallingly painful to experience, that these emotions emerge only rarely and, even then, not forcefully enough to check the rampant egotism of the whole personality. Add this to the fact that narcissists, in constant need of affirmation, adapt their personalities to elicit the approval of those around them, and you've got less of a human being and more of an ego-machine incapable of producing genuine emotion.
"The Narcissist may be intimidating, mesmerizing, even larger-than-life," Hotchkiss warns, "but beneath the bombast or the charm is an emotional cripple with the moral development of a toddler." Judging from the narcissists I know -- and I seem to know most of the estimated 1 percent of the population (again, according to the DSM-IV) suffering from this illness -- it is true that they all exhibit a kind of blunted emotional growth, though this is almost always camouflaged by a savvy veneer of intellect, charm and flattery. (Interestingly, I don't know any witless narcissists who might display the traits of the disorder a little more baldly.)
It's rare, however, that I've actually witnessed Hotchkiss's toddler within rear its ugly head. Though I did once see a narcissist friend of mine throw a temper tantrum, literally kicking and screaming, at the age of 29, when a doorman wouldn't let us into a party because we weren't on the guest list. "Do you know who I am?" she shrieked and then karate-chopped the glass wall dividing us from the festivities. Again, I was impressed, and not only because I'd never actually heard someone use the phrase "Do you know who I am?" and mean it.
And yet there is justice in the world. Narcissists don't just strut through life, conceited and carefree. For one, they're throwing temper tantrums with doormen who could care less, but they're also -- here it comes -- really lonely deep down. (Hey, maybe the reason why it's a clichi is that we've all been quietly chanting it to ourselves for so long as a way of getting through the day, one narcissist at a time.) The very devices narcissists use to protect themselves from reality also starve them of essential human nourishment. They are so trapped in their own strict regime of self-love, they cannot tolerate anyone or anything that disrupts the system.
So when such people are confronted with a seemingly insurmountable bit of reality -- think of my "Do you know who I am?" friend or Bill Clinton thrusting his index finger at the world, declaring, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman" or Michael Jackson's face -- they become insane. In these moments, narcissists are expelled from their womb of self-love and plunged into a free-fall of destructive and uncontrolled impulses, awash in long repressed insecurity.
In a section of her book called "The Seven Deadly Sins of Narcissism," Hotchkiss lists a variety of manifestations for these impulses: shamelessness, magical thinking, arrogance, envy, entitlement, exploitation and bad boundaries. In each case, the narcissist employs a rash tactic to foist hideous feelings of inadequacy off on someone else. Throughout the book, Hotchkiss illustrates these qualities with profiles of the narcissists she's encountered -- a mother who applies for credit cards in her daughter's name and then charges them sky-high, a man who doesn't want to lose his girlfriend (hey, she looks great in a cocktail dress) but won't make any kind of commitment to the relationship, a professor who marries his awestruck student and then prohibits her from having a career or life of her own.
The moral of the story is almost always that these people are missing out on what's really important. Narcissists are so busy loving themselves, they've forgotten to love anyone else. And then there's the cruelest insult to these types: growing old. "Aging is the ultimate narcissistic injury," Hotchkiss grimly explains. "The thinning hair, the sagging flesh, the mind that dumps thoughts and takes too long to retrieve them, the aches and pains that may signal unspeakable terrors yet to come, are evidence that the supply lines for maintaining inflation are drying up." Forget Michael Jackson -- ladies and gentlemen, I refer you to Jocelyn Wildenstein.
And yet time and again people are drawn to these individuals. Hotchkiss calls this condition -- that is, falling prey to the frothy appeal of narcissists -- "narcissistic vulnerability." Interestingly, more of Hotchkiss's book is devoted to the danger of becoming involved with a narcissist than to the hazards of actually being a narcissist. Perhaps this is because, as far as therapists are concerned, narcissists are generally a lost cause. (As a psychiatrist once explained to a friend of mine, narcissists are the bread and butter of the therapeutic enterprise, not because they so often seek professional help -- they're too impressed with themselves to ever think they have a problem -- but because they drive so many of the people around them crazy.)
Or perhaps this is because narcissists rule the roost for a reason -- our whole culture is narcissistically vulnerable and can't help but fall in love. Hotchkiss isn't surprised at the once-rampant popularity of "Ally McBeal," for example. "Most of the characters are some flavor of narcissist ... David Kelley is amazing in what he understands. He's really made a case study of narcissism in this show," she told me in an interview. (Though perhaps the program's decline in ratings and recent cancellation is a testimony to how short-lived the narcissist's appeal can be.) It's a symbiotic relationship between the self-obsessed and those obsessed with the self-obsessed. Why else would reality TV be such a success?
The narcissistically vulnerable are, in many ways, just as loony as their counterparts. They hope to borrow from the power and confidence that radiates from the narcissist or to mend an old wound left by a narcissistic parent by having a happy relationship with a replacement narcissist (a doomed scheme, needless to say) or perhaps they're simply bored. "Sometimes life just seems a little humdrum, a little flat," Hotchkiss muses. "When you haven't felt excitement or motivation for a while, there's nothing like a little narcissism to perk you up."
And that, I realize, is the point I've been driving at all along. I know narcissists are dangerous to relate to in any serious capacity -- someone capable of breaking your heart, for example, or firing you -- but they are interesting in a superficial way. Hotchkiss gives solid advice to those of us dealing with the narcissists inextricably woven into our lives, but she neglects to mention that the ones we need only deal with from a distance -- an acquaintance or colleague or, say, Angelina Jolie and Billy Bob Thornton -- can actually be a a lot of fun. Look, we're not getting over our fascination with narcissists anytime soon -- it's hard-wired into our hungry little hearts -- so why not use them every once in a while? Even better, you can enjoy the perks of narcissism without actually suffering the hangover in old age. So wind one up and watch him go. The brazen sense of entitlement! The mad theatrics! The byzantine needs! Henry James couldn't have written it better.
Or you could just watch the latest installment of "The Osbournes" instead.