In his seminal book the Culture of Narcissism, Christoper Lasch lamented the degree to which the Western Psyche had shifted toward traits that by any measure would be seen as predominantly narcissistic. In spite of his grim assessment and dire warnings, even he would be impressed by how deeply we have plunged into the emptiness of narcissism.
What impact do narcissistic traits and characteristics have in the face of the ongoing economic crisis? First of all grandiosity and denial are common features of the condition which I think can easily be seen as the two horsemen of the apocalypse that lead us down the path to our current situation. How could we have thought that mortgages would magically be paid when there was no evidence of the basic requirements for this to be so? How could a bank offer such a loan and moreover how could a consumer have the hubris to take on the loan? There were powerful financial motivators to be sure. However to participate in that market required quite a bit of denial and a grandiose sense of invincibility. When one examines the Psychology that allows this to occur you can't help but see the shadowy consequences of narcissism on our society.
What is even more interesting to me is to watch how we respond to the current crisis and the degree to which narcissism fosters feelings, which color our response. Another common characteristic of narcissism is a sense of specialness. Well, interestingly enough a common manifestation of this feature that I encounter nearly every day is a panicky sense that the world or at least this country has never seen anything like the current crisis. One needn't be much of a student of history to know how self-absorbed one must be to take such a point of view. The Narcissist is wrought with anxiety and often lacks the healthy skill of turning to others to foster one's ability to regulate overwhelming emotion. The narcissist often misses the sources of nourishment and real meaning in life, our close relationships with other human beings. As such he or she is left emotionally unregulated with a grandiose sense of specialness to buffer anxieties about reality. However, in the current crisis, specialness evokes a sense of catastrophe rather than a more measured response, which can more realistically assess our current crisis in historical context.
I have some hope for the potential of the financial crisis to refocus our priorities. My most sincere hope is that we do get down to the business of recovery but that this historical moment causes us to stop and reflect about what is important in the human experience. It is the people we love and our ability to make a difference in one another's life that gives life its richness and meaning. This message has been passed along in myth and scripture throughout human history. Whether you hearken back to the epics of Gilgamesh finding his way back to serve his kingdom or... it is the other that provides meaning to life. I often ask my addicted patients a philosophical question, which has frequently been asked. If I could render you a brain in a jar and as the brain in the jar use my hypothetic infinite powers to dial in to your brain the perfect existence, would you sign up to do it? Would you agree to be the brain in the jar? Most people would forgo the perfect existence if it meant becoming a brain in a vat. When one examines why this is so one discovers that the primary reason is that you would cease to exist to others. Although as the brain in the jar you would think that others were responding to you the fact is you would not exist to anyone else. Our sense of self and meaning is so tied to others that for us not to actually be a part of the human experience, to exist to others and be of service to them, would cause us to forgo continuous pleasure. In fact pleasure should not be the goal of a flourishing life. Rather a life of meaning, a life of significance and that means a life with others, especially those whom we love.
Dr. Drew Pinsky is a nationally renowned addiction medicine specialist, the host of the popular radio show Loveline and the star of the VH1 hit Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew, its spin-off Sober House and MTV's Sex with Mom and Dad. His new book THE MIRROR EFFECT: How Celebrity Narcissism is Seducing America was recently released.