How did narcissism get so “popular”? (part two of two)

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Here is the second installment, as I promised–I apologize for the delay. In part one, I covered the way narcissism has increasingly infiltrated our society and become a near-virtue to be emulated, starting in the late 1940s and 1950s in a postwar America now regarded to be a world superpower. The babies born in this mood of can-do optimism, the Baby Boomers, were indulged by their parents, who believed anything was possible and showered their children with all the new toys, space-age technology, and new permissive child-rearing techniques that were suddenly popular.

In Part One of this article, I discussed how the indulged Boomer generation influenced western society at every stage of life, and (as a generation) grew into grandiose, entitled adults who demanded (and got) special treatment every step of the way. I covered the decades from the 1950s through the 1980s, and described how narcissism became increasingly regarded as a desireable quality. By the 1980s, narcissism came out of the closet, with the election of a president (Reagan) who encouraged greed, materialism, and entitlements for the wealthy with his “trickle down economics.” 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, made popular by a 1987 hit movie, “Wall Street,” (which was of course the place to be). Narcissism was no longer something to be hidden; now it was something to aspire to.

In this next installment, I’ll be focusing less on the Boomers and more on the continued growth of narcissism in society, as well as the backlash against it–the narcissistic abuse and ACON community–which began as an Internet phenomenon during the mid 1990s due to one self-professed narcissist named Sam Vaknin. But actually, the seeds of the backlash had been planted as far back as 1983, with M. Scott Peck’s bestselling book, “People of the Lie.”

1990s.

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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 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.

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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?

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.

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Being only 5 years into the 2010s, it’s hard to see any patterns yet, but it does seem that the problem of narcissism is finally being noticed by the general public. One of the Republican presidential candidates, Donald Trump, is well known for his “NPD” and called out for his grandiose antics constantly, even by people outside the narcissistic abuse community. Narcissism is a fashionable topic now–the fascination by it may only be a fad, but it’s making people pay attention. Lately I’ve noticed a number of Christians 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 had 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 call for an increase in empathy and caring for each other and building communities instead of just building up the Almighty Self.

It will be interesting to see what the rest of this decade holds.

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