Why Narcissism Thrives in Modern Culture

250px Michelangelo Caravaggio 065 Why Narcissism Thrives in Modern Culture

Narcissism is said to be the Hysteria of the 20th century. Among other related social illnesses more and more people claim disturbance of self-esteem and a feeling of great emptiness. The “modern” narcissism however, seems not to be originated in the early childhood as once described by Freud, but to be enforced and constructed by society. Economical and technological changes, as well as changes in social values are all contributing factors to increased narcissism in post modernity.

“Mirror mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?

The queen, in the fairy tale Snow white, values her “self” according to the mirror’s opinion. Not being the “fairest” is unacceptable, and she is willing to kill to change that. The mirror is of course a metaphor for the reflection of the self in other people, which is used by the narcissist to value his own “self” feeling. The narcissistic individual is disinterested in others and only acting for its personal advantage. Alice Miller describes the narcissist as constantly striving for grandiosity, which then is reflected in the admiration of others and so confirms superiority and raises the individual’s self-esteem. Through admiration and approval the uncertain self-worthiness is bolstered (Giddens, 1991). If the individual does not experience admiration, it is likely to suffer from depression and a feeling of severe emptiness, emerging from this low self-esteem. However narcissism is not as you should think about self-love but self-hatred (Giddens, 1991). The narcissistic individual has an empty self with no identity in its own. Thus the reflection of the self in other people is a search for self-identity and a way filling of the inner emptiness.

Admiration and approval that support self esteem is often achieved through the external image of the self. Society today is dominated by appearance. The invention of mass media has created new powerful sources for ideals and values and has become the single most powerful cultural influence on young people in western societies. Some of the strongest ideals are the body image, the sexual image and the status image related to economic success (Giddens, 1991).

Growing up today and you are constantly surrounded by mirrors, in form of TV, advertisings and press, telling us what is normal, right and accepted. The ones that do not conform to the ideals, feel uncertain about themselves, and even unaccepted. Self-hatred, a precondition for narcissism, is created. Looking for the self in pictures of the media, striving for acceptance through admiration, is today a socially constructed and almost “pathological” narcissism. In order to conform to the “accepted ideal”, women are often willing to starve themselves in, what they believe is, appropriate shape. It is suggested that anorexia is a culture bound syndrome, which reflects psychosocial pressure. The rise in eating disorders occurred synchronic to the invention of the Television and the increasing presence of mass media. We have a “window” to the world in which we are shown what is expected of us. Although the appearance on TV does not reflect the average appearance of a woman, it is taken as a measurement, and source for “norms”. The increase in severe social disorders like Anorexia thus shows all the characteristics of why post-modern narcissistic behaviour occurs, since it is a disorder emerging from a low self esteem and extreme striving for external admiration. But also other changes than body image has in post modernity influenced and enforced narcissism. Industrialisation introduced mass production and with it came consumer capitalism which plays a major role in deepening society’s narcissism (Giddens, 1991). The circulation of commodities and deep rooted belief in capitalistic logic gives the impression that this world is mostly a world of things. Through consumption the modern narcissist is told that he or she can achieve the desired image by assigning the attributes of goods and services to the self. By possessing these objects the “self” appears to be successful and happy to others. External objects are seen as reflecting internal reality and the self is defined in relation to these things, giving them the power to shape or re-shape their identity with external objects. Modern branding as such is not the business of selling goods as much as the image and life-style associated with them.
The idea that goods reflect social status emerged long before post modernity of course. Around the middle of the 18th century the status and occupation of people could be recognised by their clothes alone (Sennet, 1976). According to Sennet, narcissism as such is a direct long term result of evolutions in human culture (1976). Today however external images of identity is strongly emphasised and accelerated by media. It has become a regular thing to make ones “identity” visible through objects. The force is so strong in modern society that it is almost impossible not to value appearance as a significant factor of identity, because even though one is not seeking the admiration of others, there is an automatic response, giving an evaluation of one’s identity. Even if you do not agree in the current identity image projected by media and society, you have to dress so people can see you don’t.

Obsession about body image and identity symbols might be the most obvious example of how modern society provides an easy narcissistic fix to the problems of self-esteem and self-fulfilment, but it should also be questioned if working fourteen hours a day, six days a week, sacrificing family, physical and social life, reflects a healthy attitude towards ones true self. Success and wealth are often seen as an achievement of personal fulfilment; however, if achieved primarily for the acceptance of the surrounding world, it is rather a fulfilment of internal narcissistic pressures.

Sennet argues, that “In modern social life adults must act narcissistically to act in accordance with society’s norms”. Christopher Lasch further states that narcissism seems to be the best way to cope with modern life in general. Not only obsession with image, but narcissistic interpersonal behaviour is enhanced by modern social conditions. He describes these conditions as threatening for the emotional survival of the individual and disclosing the narcissistic conditions which are present in everyone. Globalisation and the loss of community have left the individual as “one in a million”, fighting for limited job vacancies and success at the workplace. Being self-interested and emotionally detached is of advantage in business environment. Especially in managerial positions the narcissistic character is favoured and often considerably successful.  Tougher competition from a global economy and the social pressure to be successful in monetary terms has created an army of lone warriors seeking an objective acceptance from the world rather than their own subjective one.

Postmodern society is bringing out narcissistic characteristics, enforcing existing “healthy” narcissism. Today’s mostly prevailing narcissism is not a psychological disturbance of early childhood, but an on-going socially constructed characteristic shared by members of most western societies. The empty “self” seems to be a mass symptom of the western society and is medicated with consumption and objective status symbols to fill the inner emptiness. Self-identity has perhaps always been related to appearance and achievement in the reflection of others, but post modernity and modern mass media have greatly increased the burden of the worldly mirror, and by doing so it has taken narcissism to a completely new level.

- Anonymous contribution

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