A SYTYCB Entry
Narcissism pervades our culture at an epidemic level. We feminists need to learn to identify it and call it out when we see it, because it underlies most (if not all) of the social issues we tackle. Abuse, economic injustice, racism, distorted body image, and rape culture – to name just a few – are symptoms of systemic narcissism.
First, let’s define what I mean by narcissism. In everyday speech, it’s often equated with simple self-centeredness. But narcissism is more than mere solipsism. It’s a spectrum of personality issues that range from the normal flaws of being human to truly disordered personality. As psychologist Rokelle Lerner wrote in her book The Object of my Affection is my Reflection:
Pathological narcissism develops from early childhood wounds that manifest in a hunger for perfect attention and admiration that can never be satisfied…A person suffering from narcissistic wounds has little, if any, identity. They need to see their reflection in people’s faces and reactions to know they exist. A narcissist…must have a host: a person or group of people who can provide perfect, unconditional admiration and can focus on the narcissist’s needs, to the exclusion of their own. This is the narcissist’s ‘supply.’
So why is narcissism a feminist issue? Because hatred of women is part and parcel of a narcissistic worldview. In the words of expert (and self-described recovering narcissist) Sam Vaknin:
Narcissists are misogynists. They team up with women as mere sources of secondary narcissistic supply…They hold women in contempt and abhor the thought of being really intimate with them…This leads to a vicious cycle of neediness, self-contempt (“How come I am dependent on this inferior woman”) and disdain directed at the woman. Hence the abuse. When primary narcissistic supply is available, the woman is hardly tolerated, as one would reluctantly pay the premium of an insurance policy.
In relationships, male narcissists abuse women, always psychologically, often physically. In the workplace, narcissists’ charisma and grandiosity often gets them promoted to positions of power, which they subsequently abuse. As parents, narcissists use their children as primary sources of supply, denying them the opportunity to take critical steps in their development. The children of narcissists are more likely to seek out abusive narcissistic romantic partners, perpetuating cycles of physical and psychological abuse that scar generations.
Narcissism is also a major issue in modern American politics. In the recent HBO film Game Change (which is not a documentary) McCain campaign manager Rick Davis summed things up nicely:
Rick Davis: Listen, I too wish that the American people would choose the future Abraham Lincoln or Thomas Jefferson, but unfortunately, that’s not the way it works anymore. Now it takes movie-star charisma [emphasis mine] to get elected President, and Obama and Palin, that’s what they are – they’re stars.
Steve Schmidt: Primary difference being Sarah Palin can’t name a Supreme Court decision, whereas Barack Obama was a constitutional law professor.
Rick Davis: Fuck you.
Narcissists are notoriously charismatic and succeed in business and politics because they are adept at managing others’ perceptions of them. The problem with this is that – once empowered – they often carve a path of destruction that those in a position to stop them only notice too late (George W. Bush, anyone?).
And because grandiose narcissists lack empathy and abhor vulnerability, those elected to high office promote policies that are abusive toward the most vulnerable members of our society: women, children, the poor, survivors of rape and domestic abuse, prisoners of war, trans people, gay and lesbian people, the elderly, racial and religious minorities, the mentally ill, etc. Todd Akin’s recent comments and lack of empathy for rape victims are a great illustrative example of this aspect of narcissism at work in public office.
Feminists need to be concerned about how our culture and our politics are impacted by narcissism. We need to point out its characteristic grandiosity, charisma, and lack of empathy when we tear apart the aspects of our culture that we seek to change.
Finally, we need to have more compassion for narcissists than they have for us. This is because pathological narcissism is an genuine mental illness brought on (most experts agree) by incalculable childhood suffering, and while recovery is possible, narcissists don’t often get the help they need because they don’t want to admit they need it.
So while we do not excuse their behavior, we must know that compassion, acceptance, and strong boundaries are the only ways to effectively manage narcissists wherever they exist in our lives. And that’s why we need to continue to set our boundaries clearly with our narcissistic elected officials: no more rape culture, no more infringement on our reproductive rights or social equality, and most of all, no more policies that promote the interests of the powerful at the expense of the vulnerable.