How narcissism got to be a thing.

This article was originally posted on October 7 and 11, 2015 in two parts. It has been updated and merged.

narcissist_nation

Disclaimer:  It was pointed out to me that this post may seem overly critical or stereotyping of Baby Boomers.   I’m aware that the selfishness and lack of empathy we see today extends across ALL generations.  Also, many Boomers were never narcissistic and some were, in fact, abused or neglected, especially toward the end of that generation (which I myself am a part of).   But it is a fact that on a societal level, this was an especially indulged generation that led to an overall entitled mindset, even if many individuals never fit that trend.  As far as the neglectful parenting so rampant during the 1970s that is described, most of these parents were actually Silents, not Boomers (Boomers were more likely to indulge their Millennial children). 

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When I was compiling my lists of songs about narcissism, it didn’t pass my notice how few songs there were prior to the 1980s that focused on it. Oh sure, there have always been a few here and there (Carly Simon’s 1972 hit “You’re So Vain” immediately comes to mind) and there were always those “you/he/she done me wrong” love songs, but songs specifically about narcissism were pretty rare.

I think the reason for this is because it wasn’t until the 1980s that narcissism became so dominant in western (especially American) culture that it became a new virtue–something to aspire to if you wanted to be financially and professionally successful. And it wasn’t until the 1990s that narcissism became recognized as a real problem and websites, blogs and forums about narcissistic abuse began to spring up all over the Internet.

But I think the problem really started long before that, back in the post-WWII days when the Baby Boomers started being born. Of course there are exceptions, but as a generation, the Boomer generation was raised to be grandiose, entitled and lack a collective sense of empathy for others. As the Boomers aged, their collective sense of entitlement bled over into everything they touched–politics, business, and the culture at large. Today this narcissism affects all living generations, but generations older than the Boomers generally frowned on it.

Ripeness for the rise of a culture of narcissism.

I need to add that America was ripe for the rise of a culture of narcissism long before the hubris created by our WW II victory and our subsequent rise to the most powerful nation on earth and the arrival of what some believe was the most indulged generation of children, the Baby Boomers.

As a nation, we have always adhered to principles of “rugged individualism” and the “Protestant work ethic.” We have always eschewed communitarian values at the expense of individual achievement. But in the past, we were nicer to each other. People were expected to at least get involved in their communities when neighbors were in need and to show some grudging respect for those with less. Today, not so much. People were generally less about themselves and more about building strong families and communities. Even in the 1920s, another era of hedonism, greed, and other holdover values of the Gilded Age, these values had less hold on the population than they have today. That’s why during the Great Depression, someone like Franklin D. Roosevelt could rise to power and his New Deal (which allowed a prosperous decade like the 1950s to happen) was able to be implemented, though it certainly had its critics. Today, I doubt anything like the New Deal would be voted in by the majority of people, which is tragic.

1950s.

boomer_girl

After our WWII victory, America became very hubristic. We had become a superpower to be reckoned with the world over, and American life never seemed better. Life was very different than it had been even a decade earlier, and most newlyweds now had TVs, new kitchens with modern appliances that made a wife’s job much easier and left her more time to spend with her children, and often two cars. Employment was high and jobs paid well compared to the cost of living at the time. Young husbands were able to afford to buy tract homes and new cars on the GI bill, and could afford to support a wife and children. Of course, these were very conformist times too, and “keeping up with the Joneses” was a thing.

Enter the victory babies born in this national mood of optimism following the war: the Baby Boomers. Raised according to Dr. Benjamin Spock’s indulgent philosophy of “feeding on demand” and “Johnny will clean up his room when he feels like cleaning up his room,” Boomer infants and toddlers were pampered, indulged, and trained to be entitled. They were given anything they wanted and discipline tended to be light and consist of trying to “reason” with children. There was an endless array of new toys and snacks marketed to children, and mothers were made to feel like bad parents if they refused to comply with what advertisers told them to buy. The kids caught onto this attitude of entitlement, and if Sally got the new Barbie doll or Eric got the new battery operated toy truck, then Debbie and Paul had to have them too. The culture at the time was child-centered. It was a given that a child’s needs and wants always came before the parents’ and children were constantly told how “special” they were.

All that being said, I don’t believe on demand feeding in itself leads to feelings of entitlement; in fact it does just the opposite:  In an infant who hasn’t yet learned to separate themselves from the mother, such “indulgence” nurtures a child with high self esteem (NOT the same as narcissism) who is capable of healthy attachments to others. The problem is when the child continues to be indulged when older (spoiling), and many little Boomers boys and girls were, though certainly not all.

As they entered school, young Boomers’ attitude of entitlement and specialness carried over into the classroom. As a generation, they expected to be treated as little gods and goddesses, just as their parents had treated them.

1960s.

hippies

As the Boomers entered their teens, they began to rebel against the parents who had showered attention and material comforts on them. I believe this rebellion was due to a collective fear of engulfment by overindulgent parents. They were attempting to break away by reacting against the very lifestyle that had given them so much. Of course not every child had overindulgent parents, but teenagers always try to emulate what’s popular or cool. Rebelling against “the Establishment” or the Vietnam War (which also represented the values of their parents) became hip and cool. Adolescent Boomers, having been raised to believe they were unique and special (and most of those middle class and above were able to attend college and were often the first in their family to be able to do so) embraced causes that were anathema to the values of “the old fogies” and at first, really believed their causes were superior to those of their parents. They tuned in, turned on, and dropped out. They experimented with marijuana and LSD. They dressed in hippie clothing and wore their hair long, which horrified “The Establishment.” They listened to rock music, the louder and harder and more offensive to the older generation, the better. They protested the war, attended “love ins” and participated in campus sit-ins, and eventually riots. Young Boomers believed their values were exactly what the world needed, but their attitude was based on entitlement rather than realism. They were idealists who believed the world could be changed by smoking pot and listening to the right sort of music.*

* I’ve amended my attitude toward Boomer idealism some since I wrote this post. Idealism in itself isn’t a bad thing, and some of the youth movements of the ’60s had wonderful intentions–surely there’s nothing wrong with peace and love, and the anti-war, women’s, and civil rights movements (the latter which had actually started in the late 1950s with the Silents) all had their positive points and changed society for the better in many ways. The most disturbing thing about early Boomer idealism was its shallowness–the way it was so quickly abandoned when they entered full adulthood and as a generation they were able to move so quickly from “make love not war” to its polar opposite, “greed is good.”

Due to the sheer size of the Boomer generation, anything they did got a lot of national attention. Besides the many disapproving and negative news stories about the Vietnam protests, communal living, and recreational drug use, others were also beginning to emulate them. The next-older generation (The Silents), who had been largely ignored as they came of age, tried to seem younger by emulating the Boomers in their dress, tastes, and general lifestyle. The Boomers were never short on collective narcissistic supply (both negative and positive), and this continued to feed their attention-getting behavior.

Parents wondered where they had gone wrong, and why the children they had raised so lovingly had turned so rebellious and so insistent on “doing their own thing.” They wondered why this new generation seemed to hate them so much.

By the end of the 1960s, the “hippie lifestyle,” like everything else the Boomers would ever start, had become a lucrative market. But by the time The Establishment caught on, the Boomers were beginning to move on to other things, including embracing what they had rejected.

The power was still in the hands of the older generation of course, so narcissism had not yet become a noticeable part of the culture (although hubris and conformity definitely still was). By the 1970s, the first signs of a growing narcissistic culture would begin to make themselves felt.

1970s.

disco_ball

Boomers, now entering their 20s, had by now largely abandoned their earlier hippie incarnation for a more subdued “back to the land” movement, in which they opted for whole foods, fresh air, and healthy living. Others began to infiltrate the job market, often with degrees in esoteric subjects. Having children was something to be avoided, as Boomers wanted to prolong their adolescence or make a mark on the world. The Pill and newly legal abortion made all this possible. Around the same time, women began to demand equal rights in society and the workplace. The 70s wave of feminism was very anti-child and pro-career. If you preferred to marry and raise children, you were looked upon as a throwback to the 1950s.

Around the same time, various forms of non-traditional, humanist psychotherapies (EST, Esalen, etc.), grassroots religions, and cults became popular. Collectively known as “the human potential movement,” self-improvement and self-development became a priority for Boomers. Putting your own needs before those of others was not only normal, it was considered healthy. New York Magazine dubbed the 1970s “The Me Decade” for this reason. Couples opted to cohabitate rather than marry(because it was easier to break a commitment), and divorce was becoming very common. But the true victims of all this self-discovery were the children.

“Non-parenting” in the 1970s.

Children raised during this time (Generation X and tail-end Boomers) found themselves pretty much ignored, treated as second class citizens, or sometimes even abandoned by their self-involved Silent Generation or Boomer parents, who seemed to put their own needs ahead of theirs. This was a generation full of latchkey kids and kids prematurely taking care of themselves and their siblings while Mom attended to more interesting and “fulfilling” things.

To be fair, it wasn’t all the parents’ fault. The new “me” culture and the women’s movement, which gave women more options that just being mothers and housewives, gave them permission to turn their kids into second class citizens. Second-wave feminism especially (though this movement was probably for the most part a good thing) literally threw out the baby (Gen-X kids) with the bathwater in the 1970s. In spite of then-recent discoveries made by psychologists in the field of early attachment, women–including mothers–were encouraged to put their own needs first. I remember some “child-care” book my mother was reading that I thumbed through that actually advised mothers to not be “slaves” to their children–this attitude extended even to babies! Kids were considered to be small, demanding tyrants who hobbled women’s needs for independence and fulfillment in the outside world, rather than vulnerable little people who happen to have many needs. It wouldn’t surprise me if it were found that disorders caused by emotional neglect and failed early attachment (C-PTSD and personality disorders) are especially high among Generation X and “Joneser” (born 1955-1965)adults. Given the ages of most narc-abuse victims on the web, I suspect this is the case. These were the scapegoated kids of an increasingly dysfunctional society.

Around the middle of the 1970s, a new kind of music (disco) became associated with materialism, hedonism, and over the top sexuality. By now, Boomers had done a 180 from their emergence during the 1960s as hippies, and now embraced the crass materialism they had once rejected. They were ready for a President who would encourage their pursuit of luxury and material success.

At the same time, fundamentalist Christianity, which had been “rediscovered” by some Boomers as an outgrowth of the Jesus movement of the 1960s, was becoming increasingly popular, and the new conservatism was using it as a way to attract newly saved Christian voters.

The new narcissism wasn’t lost on Christopher Lasch, who published his book, “The Culture of Narcissism,” in 1979.

1980s.

yuppies

Ronald Reagan popularized trickle-down (or “supply side” economics), which basically meant allowing people to pay less taxes and keep more of what they earned. This played right into the hands of financially successful, entitled Boomers, who didn’t want to share their newfound wealth. The hippies had become the Yuppies–young urban professionals who had to “dress for success,” live to impress, and have the best of everything. Clothing wasn’t acceptable unless it had a designer’s logo on it. Housewares weren’t acceptable unless they were handmade in Outer Mongolia by native women. Food wasn’t acceptable unless it was “nouvelle cuisine.”

Having the perfect body was a priority, and Boomers started going to the gym or even personal trainers to tone and sculpt their bodies, sometimes to the point of unhealthy obsession. Boomers, mostly in their 30s by now, were finally deciding to have families, but children themselves became a status symbol, and getting your child into the “right” preschool or having the “right” designer clothing, or the “right” dance instructor became all-important. It was common for Boomer parents to watch other people’s children closely, to find out what they needed to do to “one up” each other as parents.

We were all enthralled by TV shows about fabulously wealthy people. Dallas, Dynasty, and its imitators became wildly popular and its stars became icons to imitate and aspire to. With the exception of emsemble shows like Cheers (a show about bartenders) or Taxi (a show about taxi drivers), there were hardly any popular TV shows about the poor or working class or anyone else of humble means. In the 1980s, you would not be able to tune into a new Little House on the Prairie, Sanford and Son, or The Honeymooners, except in reruns.  Teenagers in shows were more likely to be privileged prep-schoolers than inner city toughs like those in Welcome Back, Kotter.   Situation comedies no longer focused on middle or working class people, but on the comfortably upper middle class. Even the cops on police shows were somehow (and unrealistically) fabulously wealthy and always dressed for success.   The rich (or at least aspiring to be rich like the characters in thirtysomething) just seemed more interesting…and worthy of our time.

In 1987, a popular movie called “Wall Street” was released, in which its most famous quip, “greed is good,” became a national meme. While it was intended as a joke at first, “greed is good” quickly became a new philosophy of life, in which greed was not only good but became a virtue. Greed may have been one of the seven deadly sins, but even Christians made an exception for it, and we even had a Christian president who encouraged as much of it as possible. After all, it was the American way and America was a Christian nation, right?

In summary, during the 1980s, narcissism came out of the closet, with the election of a president who encouraged greed, materialism, and entitlements for the wealthy. At the same time, empathy, neighborliness, and general goodwill toward others seemed to become almost quaint, a naive relic of the past. The juggernaut was the new “greed is good” philosophy, normalized by a popular film. Narcissism was no longer something to be hidden; now it was almost something to aspire to.

1990s.

cast_friends

The greed worshipping culture begun in the 1980s continued during the 1990s, as Boomers rose to power and we elected our first Boomer president, Bill Clinton, in 1992. Under Clinton, the economy boomed, and a new breed of Yuppies, the Dot Com entrepreneurs (who were mostly Generation X), rode on the coattails of the newly born Internet, and they made money hand over fist until they went bust several years later. But people still went shopping and the culture at large was becoming increasingly exhibitionistic, obnoxious, and in-your-face (reality shows were born during this time), while corporations grew bigger and more unwieldy (unlimited growth, like a cancer, was encouraged, and smaller companies merged into megacorporations the size of small governments). Meanwhile, government institutions built in the more sedate and community-oriented 1950s and 1960s began to splinter and crumble. The government, especially the part of the government that tried to help its less fortunate citizens and attempted to even the playing field through fair taxation, became The Enemy.

But a backlash was beginning to silently bubble under all the glitz and bling of the ’90s. Back in 1983, a psychiatrist turned born-again Christian named M. Scott Peck published his groundbreaking book, “People of the Lie.” Here, for the first time, was a self help psychology book that focused on “evil”–specifically, people who were evil. The traits described in the book are exactly those of malignant narcissism. The book resonated with many, particularly with Gen-Xers and later born Boomers (Generation Jones), who had been raised by narcissistic parents. In some cases, especially for younger Boomers and early Gen-Xers, these kids had been betrayed by initially doting Silent generation parents who suddenly, during the 1960s or 1970s, seemed to suddenly care only about their own self-development at the expense of their confused and hurt adolescent and preteen children who they no longer seemed to even like much (this is exactly what my experience had been growing up in the 60s and 70s: my parents changed and no longer seemed to care).

But in the early 1980s, Peck’s “evil people” were not automatically equated with narcissists or people with other Cluster B disorders. Until the mid-90s, narcissism–or more specifically, NPD (Narcissistic Personality Disorder)–was simply a psychiatric label given to certain patients with a certain set of traits, who may or may not have been evil. NPD wasn’t demonized yet.

Then along came Sam Vaknin in 1995. Vaknin, a former white collar criminal and self-confessed narcissist, had written a tome about narcissism called “Malignant Self-Love: Narcissism Revisited.” Written initially to obtain supply and a guru-like status for himself, Vaknin’s book actually helped many of the narcissistic abuse victims who read it and recognized their abusers in its 600+ pages. Vaknin’s idea of NPD didn’t fit that described in the DSM: he mixed in with NPD several traits of psychopathy, antisocial personality disorder (ASPD), and Borderline personality disorder (BPD), to describe a particularly dangerous type of malignant narcissist that made the toxic people described in M. Scott Peck’s book seem almost tame in comparison.

The book was successful, and soon Vaknin started his own website, and discussion groups, and abuse victims all over the world jumped on the bandwagon. Vaknin, exactly the sort of person they sought to avoid, had become their savior and guiding light out of darkness.

Until the 2000s, Vaknin’s was pretty much the only voice on the Internet about narcissistic abuse. But in the very late 90s, a few books were beginning to be published about this “new” type of abuse that didn’t necessary include physical violence (but could). Parents, particularly mothers, were the focus, and a subset of the narcissistic abuse community–one that focused on narcissistic mothers and the damage they had done to their now-adult children–formed the template for the explosive ACON (Adult Children of Narcissists) movement.

2000s.

bling

For a brief time, after the tragedy of September 11, 2001, it looked like Americans just might start to care about each other again. There was an outpouring of support for the victims of the 9/11 disasters, and solidarity shown among all Americans. For the first time, regional differences and even racial differences didn’t seem to matter, and Americans were united by their flying of the flag. No one seemed all that concerned by the curtailment of certain freedoms and and increase in xenophobia–after all, it was for the protection of the country, right?

But as a result, the economy was suffering, so George W. Bush Jr. (“Dubya”) gave us all permission to “go shopping.” And so we did. It was back to the bread and circuses and the shallow, materialistic culture of the 1980s through pre-2001.

Reality shows rose in popularity and the badder the behavior, the more popular they got. New celebrities were famous only for “being famous,” having a famous parent, or just for acting badly. People aspired to be just like Snooki and The Situation from The Jersey Shore, or Tiffany “New York” Pollard from Flavor of Love. All of these characters were narcissists, or at least acted that way for the benefit of the camera. And people loved them for it.

During the 2000s, Millennials, the rising young adult generation, born in the 1980s and 1990s, started being being accused of being narcissistic, but if they are, you can blame their parents for having taught them these values. In addition, a lot of gaslighting is going on by older generations, who blame the Millennials for their inability to find jobs that pay a living wage and provide benefits, forcing them to live at home and be dependent for longer than earlier generations–and accuse them of being “lazy,” “spoiled,” and “entitled.” But what about their mostly Boomer and Gen-X parents, who modeled this sort of behavior?

old_boomers

Politicians became more blatantly narcissistic and their lack of empathy sank to new lows. One politician said if you weren’t rich, you should blame yourself. Blaming the victim became increasingly popular, and was even seen by some conservative politicians as a “Christian” way to behave–for if you were favored by God, He would bless you with wealth and material comforts. Religion itself became a way for narcissists to rise to positions of great power, and use their “favored status” in God’s eyes as a way to abuse their flock of followers.

Meanwhile, the narcissistic abuse commmunity continued to grow, and blogs written by abuse survivors were beginning to pop up all over the Internet. The abuse community developed their own lingo, some of it borrowed from earlier movements such as 12-step programs (codependent, enabling, people-pleaser are examples), some from pioneers such as Sam Vaknin (narcissistic supply, confabulation), and some from mental health experts going all the way back to Freud. Some terms were taken from popular movies, such as “flying monkeys” (The Wizard of Oz), and “gaslighting” (Gaslight).

2010s.

tea-party
Tea Party protesters.

Now we’re nearly 7 years into the 2010s. While it’s hard to see any patterns yet, it does seem that the problem of narcissism is finally being noticed by the general public. Pundits and media critics write about the narcissism of politicians and celebrities and “cluster B type” reality TV stars.  Now there’s a call by many for more empathy and community spirit over selfishness, self-aggrandizement, and greed.  2011’s Occupy Wall Street movement enjoyed a flurry of popularity, especially among Millennials (though older generations had their fair share of supporters) before it was ultimately silenced.  But at least it was a start.


Occupy protesters. 

On the other hand, the problem is even worse now, with the possible impending presidency of Donald Trump, who has even been remotely diagnosed with NPD by psychiatrists (breaking their own rule never to diagnose anyone who hasn’t been formally evaluated). Sam Vaknin has called him a Malignant Narcissist (and I do believe he is one) and even publications like Psychology Today and news media have picked up on that and written about it. The news is peppered with so many articles about Trump’s malignant narcissism that it’s a wonder he is still a contender. But Trump has a powerful bloc of supporters (mostly “angry white men”), who seem to be in denial about how dangerous this man could be should he become President. I don’t think he will win. But no other presidential candidate in living memory showed the same level of arrogant, entitled, and grandiose behavior that Trump has shown in his campaign–and politicians are by nature a narcissistic bunch! Can you imagine someone like Trump making it this far 30 or 40 years ago? I can’t. Even ten years ago, someone who acted that way would have been booted from the race during the primaries. We as a nation have normalized the type of pathological behavior someone like Trump displays.

Narcissism is a fashionable topic now. Maybe it’s just a fad, but it’s making people pay attention. I’ve noticed a number of Christians–at least online–who are abandoning the fiscally conservative values held by groups such as the Tea Party, who are about as collectively entitled as you can get (they better get their social security, but to hell with that child who needs special medical treatment but can’t get it because his parents are too poor). It’s probably too soon to tell whether the “social gospel” is making a return, but there does seem to be a greater desire for an increase in empathy, kindness, and community spirit instead of just building up the Almighty Self. The enormous popularity of Bernie Sanders, especially among the Millennials, proves this. Of course a Sanders-type figure wouldn’t have solved all our problems (it took decades for us to get to this point and it won’t be changed overnight), but the fact one made it so far and people actually paid attention gives me a little hope that the tides may be turning. It will be interesting to see what the rest of this decade holds.

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For further reading:
1. Are Millennials Really the Most Narcissistic Generation Ever?
2. Why is Narcissism so Hot These Days?
3. Generations Explained

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