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?  

Watch the video here:

What's the Significance?

According to Cohen, narcissism makes us "unknowingly inherently selfish because we’re always thinking about me." This cultivates, he says, "a very materialistic relationship to life" and to other people.  

So what's the way out? In order to "transcend" this condition, Cohen says people need to become "inspired." In other words, you really need to care about it, and focus on it. The constant self-referencing that is narcissism is habitual, so the cure is a matter of breaking a psychological habit. Cohen says that to successfully overcome this habit we need to be very committed, or else "we probably won't do it."

Are you a narcissist? Take the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI), the most commonly used assessment in social psychological research. Note: while some scholars have recommended this questionnaire be replaced with "more narrow scales measuring grandiosity and entitlement" a new study suggests that "some caution must be used before assuming that these lower-order scales can be used to replace the NPI in the assessment of narcissism."

Follow Daniel Honan on Twitter @Daniel Honan

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