Me All the Time: The Epidemic of Narcissism

Andrew Cohen says narcissism is a culturally conditioned epidemic. How is it harmful and how can we break out of it?

What's the Big Idea?


In psychoanalysis, narcissism is regarded as a normal stage of childhood development. Freud saw narcissism as "a protection against falling ill." That is known as primary narcissism. Secondary narcissism, on the other hand, is seen as pathological. This condition is regarded as a personality disorder. Its characteristics include an exaggerated sense of one's own self-importance and a dependance upon others for the reinforcement of self-image. Narcissism is commonly identified in people with antisocial personality disorder. 

Andrew Cohen defines narcissist as someone who is, metaphorically speaking, "always looking at their own image in the mirror of their own mind."

And yet, Cohen expands the defitinition of narcissism to describe it as "a cultural epidemic," which he strongly associates with the baby boom generation and the emergence of postmodernism. Cohen says that his generation is very different from other generations because "we have grown up in the age where life is really about me...I grew up in a cultural environment where narcissism, we were almost conditioned to become and be very narcissistic."  

Another term for what Cohen is describing is an inflated sense of entitlement, which is one of seven common factors identified with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (the others include vanity, exhibitionism and self-sufficiency). Cohen tells Big Think:

When I was a young boy, my parents said, 'Sweetheart, you should do whatever’s going to make you happy.'  And teachers at school, when we spoke about what are you going to do, it was always, well, what do you want? I was never told that maybe you have an obligation to help those who are less fortunate than you.

In other words, Cohen says narcissism is a culturally conditioned epidemic. In what ways is this harmful and how can people break out of it?  

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