Still Ill: Narcissism is Sick Again

Terrible news! Call off the Xmas Party at Men’s Health magazine! Cancel the male strippers and the buckets of (low-fat) blancmange!

Self-love isn’t going to be rehabilitated after all. At least not by the shrinks. Professionally speaking, it will remain the love the dare not speak its name — even as the culture screams nothing else.

According to this piece by Jennifer Allen in The Sunday Telegraph, in the face of strong criticism, the American Psychiatric Association has backtracked on its plan to remove Narcissistic Personality Disorder from the new edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Allen suggests the reason they tried to de-list narcissism in the first place was not down to any recognition of how ‘normal’ narcissism has become in the world outside the consulting room, but because of the American psychiatric trend to biologise mental illness (‘Baby, I was born this way’) and prescribe drugs instead of the ‘interminable’ talking cure.

Allen isn’t impressed though by the APA’s backtracking:

I find the volte-face dismaying, not because I’m for prescribing drugs and against talking cures. You don’t need to be a psychiatrist to see that narcissism has shifted from a pathological condition to a norm, if not a means of survival.

Narcissism appears as a necessity in a society of the spectacle, which runs from Andy Warhol’s “15 minutes of fame” prediction through reality television and self-promotion to YouTube hits.

Well, quite. But then, I would agree as I’ve been saying this for years, darling.

Perhaps, being somewhat cynical, the objection to de-listing NPD was driven precisely by the ubiquity of narcissism. It’s certainly a growth market.

I don’t doubt that NPD, or something akin to it exists, and can be an extremely unpleasant experience both for the sufferer and those they come into contact with — here in the UK we’re only just getting over Tony Blair. But even before the advent of Big Brother, Facebook, iPhones and Immac for Men the symptoms of NPD were vague and common enough failings to be applied to almost anyone who had anything about them.

Or, to quote Gore Vidal, anyone better looking than you. According to the DSM ‘narcissists also tend to be physically attractive on first impression, giving them advantages when first meeting people’.

Here’s the full list of NPD sins provided by the DSM:

  • Has a grandiose sense of self-importance
  • Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
  • Believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)
  • Requires excessive admiration
  • Has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations
  • Is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends
  • Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others
  • Is often envious of others or believes others are envious of him or her
  • Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes

If you thought that just five of these symptoms might apply to you, then you may have NPD. If you found that they all apply to you then you’re probably in prison serving a very long stretch indeed or have your own TV cookery show and supermarket endorsement deal.

Though I suppose a psychiatrist would probably say that someone with NPD would likely not be able to recognise those traits in themselves. At any rate, that’s what I’m telling myself.

So if you found that none of these traits applied to you then you’re probably Jesus Christ. Or Barbara Streisand.

19 thoughts on “Still Ill: Narcissism is Sick Again

  1. Actually, I fibbed a bit there for the sake of a punchline. I too am a compulsory top amongst the gays. And it’s far too late for this arsehole to change.

    Thanks for the Derrida quote, btw. The post-sructuralists did the whole narcissism thing better than anyone before or since. I mean, just look at their HAIR.

  2. LOL I’m sure it does. My asshole is still practically a virgin. But I am working on it.

    And oddly my dating life has taken a turn toward heterosexual polyamory while not being an asshole. I am dating three girls with no boys in my life, I don’t know what the hell has gotten into me. But maybe one of these girls will bringout my inner asshole, because amoung gay men I am a compulsory top.

  3. Matthew: I’ll have you know my asshole has a great sense of humour and mixes well at parties.

    But according to this report in today’s Daily Telegraph, asshole men go down well with the ladies (though I suspect the survey should have also included data on the size of their wallet):

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/8956056/Relentless-optimism-of-ugly-men-makes-up-for-unappealing-looks.html

    HH: I didn’t actually accuse you of mind control as an advertiser, just tinkering a bit.

    Please don’t tell me that advertising is just concerned with finding out ‘what people want’ and pandering to it! Where’s the glamour in that? Back in the 80s I worked for a few days cold-calling people in their homes and asking them what kind of toothpaste they liked. It was the least glamorous time of my life.

    I’ve always wanted to imagine the glamour of advertising is finding out what people want – and probably even more importantly, don’t want – and then using this information to persuade them they NEED things they never even THOUGHT about before.

    I really wouldn’t like to think that the future of consumerism and the global economy rested on people knowing their own minds.

    You have staff? Oh, scrub that, I agree with everything you say. Any vacancies?

  4. @MW. I was unaware that use of the word “blonde” had become politically incorrect.

    @Simmo. I don’t write copy for toothpaste ads any more, dear boy. I have staff.

    But more to the point, if there were any mind-control involved in my job, it would be a lot easier.

    In truth, the surprisingly modest science my industry employs seeks less to control a consumer than to understand her, so we may better pander to her existing tastes. (Or less frequently, his.)

    Of course, nobody believes me. Friends seated me next to an academic pop-culture critic at a dinner party. Naturally, she was eager to discuss my profession, and raise my consciousness about my own vileness.

    “So then, I suppose subliminal advertising is part of your job?”

    No, I said. First, subliminal advertising is illegal. And second, the experimental work on which the practice was based is pretty dubious.

    “I bet they tell you to say that,” she replied.

    @Matthew. Narcissists. Assholes. Objectivists. For my money, not a lot to pick between them.

  5. There is not narcissism and non-narcissism; there are narcissisms that are more or less comprehensive, generous, open, extended. What is called non-narcissism is in general but the economy of a much more welcoming, hospitable narcissism, one that is much more open to the experience of the other as other. I believe that without a movement of narcissistic reappropriation, the relation to the other would be absolutely destroyed, it would be destroyed in advance. The relation to the other—even if it remains asymmetrical, open, without possible reappropriation—must trace a movement of reappropriation in the image of oneself for love to be possible. – Derrida

    As long as we maintain the “cult of the self” which is not going anywhere in America or Europe we are stuck in the mire of narcissisms of various sorts, because “the self” is a utilitarian function. Perhaps NPD should really becalled Asshole personality disorder it would just make the whole thing a lot clearer.

  6. ‘People would rather just take head drugs that talk about real life issues, presumably because no one has real-life lives(they live on their Androids – so I suppose there is no point to having real feelings).’

    Quite so! Most people today being diagnosed with NPD would say: ‘is there an app for that?’.

  7. MS: Gosh, it only occured to me after I exited yesturday that I hadn’t responded to your remarks about psychologists and psychiatrists in the UK vis a vis America. Unlike Britain, Psychologists are a dime a dozen in in America. Due to the popularity of the pill cure, psychology(that which deals with emotions experience etc.) has fallen into unpopularity. People would rather just take head drugs that talk about real life issues, presumably because no one has real-life lives(they live on their Androids- so I suppose there is no point to having real feelings). The expensive Pysicians are competent “talk doctors”- but they are rare. Nearly every American floats around in a druged out trance, it seems and prefers to. My impression is that they are all messed up But like any big business it has a life of it’s own. Be happy if they can’t push ill cures over on you. This should give you some idea as to why my countrymen are all anti-intelectual goofballs. I always think that heroin has had fewer dire efects on the general populace.

    It might be of help in your assessment of the DMS-IX and their diagnoses to note that these folks who compose it rarely talk to real people- but just candidates for pill bombardment- : their determiniation of pschopathology is no more accurate that that of Narcissism: both are character disorder and don’t respond to pills. So it’s all prety irrelivant practically.

  8. HH:”If you’re a Caucasian woman, the blonder you are, the more men perceive you as fertile. Did you know that?”
    Could be more fertile or anytihing worth screwing if you’re Aryan or blindly influenced by that cultural sensabitlity. Remember, up until recently at least, the largest ethnic group in America were the Germans. Recall the Congress voted at one time whether we would speak Deutch or English! English came out by a tiny margin.
    It ‘s remarkable,BTW how ssimilar much of the Bush Administration verbiage came from Hitler/Goebels

  9. You may be right, HH, to put NPD’s indispensability for shrinks down to the scariness of the ‘psychopath’ alternative. But I’d prefer my shrink, if I was seeing one, to let me have it both barrels.

    Someone once contacted me to tell me they’d written a dissertation about me. It was called something like ‘The Moral Psychotic’. He was a Lacanian, naturally. I declined to read the paper. Not because I wasn’t intrigued, I just didn’t want to appear intrigued.

    I think I’d better go an rewrite my resume….

    Actually, I’ve just remembered an example of how I failed the Brand You test in the US. Some years ago, some flunkey at Details magazine contacted me on behalf of their ‘Editor in Chief’ (this is how editors are designated in the land of the free) Dan Peres, asking me to write a column for them about how essentially ‘homophobic’ the word ‘metrosexual’ is.

    This is after Dan Peres had spent a year or two at the height of metrosexmania swanning around as the expert on the metrosexual (though never of course being stupid enough to actually SAY anything).

    I responded politely (which took some effort, as you can imagine with a psycho like me) and suggested an alternative tack for the column. One that I, the father of the metrosexual, actually y’know THOUGHT.

    They didn’t even bother to reply. So I sadistically pressed them for a response. Eventually the flunkey got back to say irritatedly that the commission had gone to ‘someone more willing to tailor their ideas to the marketplace.’

    In other words, someone more willing to channel the ‘thoughts’ of their ‘Editor in Chief’. Such is the monarchical nature of American magazines and the climate of terror they operate that I suspect the flunkey didn’t even dare to forward my counter-proposal to his Glorious Leader.

    God bless America!

    In truth it’s the madness of America that used to appeal to me. But as you get older you find you don’t have the energy for it. It’s only fun if you’re ‘Editor in Chief’. And I’m far too lazy to be a proper American psycho.

    Someone should headhunt you, HH, to write an expose of the American soul. As someone who has tinkered with it it via the giant mind-control machine of Madison Avenue you’re better equipped than almost anyone to write it. Not least because you’re not American

    But it probably wouldn’t make nearly as much money as writing copy for toothpaste ads.

  10. “Fear and madness behind the smiles.” Quite.

    The madness takes many forms. Perhaps, in some circles, rampant NPD. One of those circles seems to be the current Republican presidential field.

    For most Americans, madness takes the form of good old fashioned stress and neurosis. And remember, neurosis is simply a three dollar word for fear.

    What causes good old fashioned neurosis? Our pal Dr. Freud dispensed that answer quick smart, early in his investigations.

    Insecurity, and abuse.

    Let’s talk about insecurity for a minute.

    Absolute security is stifling. We pay a steep price for it. Rules, regulations, restrictions, taxes. Here in Europe, we thought we could enjoy security without paying that price, and it has bitten us on the ass.

    That’s why so many Europeans love America, at least at first. They sense a spirit of promise and possibility. Where the nanny state doesn’t scold you or limit you. It doesn’t interfere with progress, advancement, prosperity. Where the nation values optimism and treasures its dreamers. Where yes, you can.

    But there’s a price to pay for this freedom. It’s insecurity.

    One could argue that living with this constant insecurity drives Americans to the shrinks they see in such large numbers.

    Kids, those shrinks say, need stable homes to grow up into confident, sane adults. Confident, sane adults need at least a measure of stability to stay that way. America challenges its citizens to stay sane in the face of constant change.

    (Many dismiss Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock as mass-market paperback pablum, but in this aspect, he was on the money back in 1970)

    Jefferson wrote that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance. The price of instability is hypervigilance—constant awareness of a potential threat in your environment. It is, by all clinical accounts, the perfect recipe for madness.

    But I digress.

    Invented in the pages of Fast Company, and extolled by no less than Tom Peters around the turn of the century, Brand You is alive and well.

    The notion that you—your personality, character and soul—are a product to be engineered for success in your own personal marketplace, is established fact. It has become, indeed, your personal responsibility to engineer whatever it takes into yourself.

    I have worked in my field for a few years, in many parts of the world, and have a modest professional reputation. From time to time, headhunters will call. Usually, I send them a resume.

    In America—and ONLY in America—was I asked, regularly, to rewrite my resume. To make myself more seductive to the tastes of the prospective employer, they told me to “empahasize” certain aspects of my life and talents, and downplay others.

    After a number of drafts where the a headhunter suggested edits, I would usually tell the headhunter, testily, to write the resume her damn self.

    No, she would reply—for it was always a she—that would be dishonest. But for me to decide exactly who I wanted to be today, and say so, was perfectly acceptable. Nay, Necessary.

    America is founded on the premise of self-invention. Replace that famous phrase from the declaration of Independence, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, with Shirley Polykoff’s If I have Only One Life, Let Me Live It as a Blonde. That’s now copyrighted to Clairol, I believe.

    (If you’re a Caucasian woman, the blonder you are, the more men perceive you as fertile. Did you know that?)

    During my time in America, I worked on the marketing of oral care products. Lemme tellya, what teeth and breath represent to Americans carries baggage it simply doesn’t elsewhere. A great smile is a marker for health, prestige, status, money, social acceptance, admiration. Go through life with a British NHS-type smile, and you’re screwed.

    In America, if you’re not the person you want to be, you have only yourself to blame. Right? Woody Allen, the consummate American neurotic, said that his only regret in life is that he was not born someone else. (Perhaps many agree with him.)

    That’s America today. The psychopaths…er, sorry, narcissistic personalities vs. the neurotics. God bless my native land.

  11. MW: Most of the therapists I know personally are barking, bless them. But I’ll admit I don’t know any psychiatrists. I’m not in the right income bracket.

    Although I said I don’t doubt it, or something akin to it, does exist there is at the same time something very dubious or uneasy about NPD. Partly because it’s a catch-all diagnosis. Allowing the psychiatrist perhaps to, as you say, play God.

    Which may be the reason why they didn’t, in the end, want to give it up.

    But we would say that, because we’re narcissistic.

  12. HH: I’ve never worked in the US, nor anywhere else for that matter. At least, not at a proper job.

    I’ve no doubt that if by some surreal, fantastical malfunction of personnel departments I did find myself in a proper job in NYC I would utterly, abjectly fail to win the favour of the people I met, especially the more powerful ones.

    Apparently, I should wear sunglasses when talking to people. Especially bosses. My eyes give much too much away.

    I’m impressed that you managed to survive this constant selling and judgement. It sounds like the X Factor every day, but without the glamour, or Dermot O’Leary.

    I have of course visited the US many times, and usually I’m encouraged by the optimism and the smiles the flattery and the generosity. For a while.

    And then you begin to sense the FEAR AND MADNESS behind the smiles. Everyone is selling Brand You, of course, but I had no idea that people actually talked openly and quite so madly about it as you report.

    One thing I’ve noticed in the last couple of decades is the particularly scary technique that announcers and voice-overs in the US all employ, seeming to talk through a fixed, inane-insane shit-eating grin – why!-I’m-having-a-GREAT-time-are-YOU? that has become much more common in the UK. Even when reporting the deaths of thousands in an earthquake.

  13. Clearly, for the most part, those qualities listed as aspects of NPD, depending on the psychiatrists vested interests in giving a certain diagnosis (sick/healthy) can be the verty qualities which they attribute to a healthy authenticated personality; generally that of an individual who takes exception to socially acceptable conformity; this wiould apply to Einstein , Freud, Galileo who thought their ideas worth spreading regardless of the prevailing aditudes.

    As far as the DSM note “hat Narcissists tend to be physically attractive. In such a culture, the attractive would be unrealistic if they failed to expect e.g.to get special attention for their appearance, indeed they would be hairbrained to overlook the fact that they were recieving the attentions (good or bad) which they did).
    Certainly a psychiatrist with a beligerant patient who disagreed with the rendered diagnosis would also be tagged with NPD for disagreeing with the Dr. in situations like this the question needs to be begged as to whom suffered NPD, patient or Dr.(as we know, many Drs have raging self images.

  14. “We are so mindful of telling others how great they are, we are just so good at it, but we forget to recognize we are also human, fallible, broken… and we need to say and hear these kinds of things too… Without this kind of honest dialogue, we box ourselves and others into personas that are hard to maintain and hard to break out of… we play an unfair game of make believe where nobody wins…So I hope you find it in your heart to forgive me for not high fiving you and telling you how awesome you are all the time. You are not awesome, and I like you that way.”

    — Melissa Pierce

  15. “More generally, it seems to me that there’s something quintessentially American about the conundrum of NPD in the sense that many of the symptoms could be interpreted as necessary adaptations to the Darwinian way of life in the US.”

    Boy have you hit it on the head there, Simmo!

    When I lived in the USA recently (in that HQ of the East Coast Superego, New York) I got heartily sick of everyone lecturing me on Brand You. How every encounter subjected you to the judgement of another, potentially more powerful person, whose favour you must win.

    This puts incredible pressure on personal appearance, personal deportment, and first impressions. It can eat away at you.

    Unless, of course, you throw off the burden of being judged, and start doing the judging. In short, if you become Leona Helmsley.

    It doesn’t surprise me that the DSM notes that Narcissists tend to be physically attractive. In such a culture, the attractive can grow to think that they are entitled to privilege.

  16. I sometimes see a West/East Coast divide at work here. The New Agey love-yourself West Coast being admonished by the Eastern seaboard super-ego perhaps.

    More generally, it seems to me that there’s something quintessentially American about the conundrum of NPD in the sense that many of the symptoms could be interpreted as necessary adaptations to the Darwinian way of life in the US.

  17. Wow I haven’t seen that Dali painting before, I’ll be making that one my desktop pic I think.

    The new age never gets a mention in this subject. Their catch cry is to “love yourself” and “you deserve it”, and they claim it to be the healthy or healed state.

  18. The last one is me.
    Arrogant, haughty behaviour or attitudes.
    Children and teenage are constantly been told that they are special and unified……most will believe this and indeed people are.

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