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This section was my workspace for philosophy essays between July 2006 and April 2008. I call this "Prehistoric Kilroy" because it gave me practice for more disciplined essays in Kilroy Cafe. Also see my philophical blog and Twitter feed.

Issue #76, 1/27/2007

Escape from Narcissism

By Glenn Campbell
Family Court Philosopher

Perhaps the most powerful motivator of human behavior is an inner force that could loosely be called "ego." We all want to feel important and valuable, at least within our own environment, and we will often go to extreme lengths to prove this value—for example, by training for the Olympics, struggling to do our best in school or dressing to enhance our beauty. Ego can be expressed in both constructive and malignant ways. Dictators are driven to power by it, and serial killers torture their victims for it. If you can't be valuable on your own merits, then at least you can cut down the value of others.

The quest for value is a primitive drive as natural as breathing. It is born into us and is quickly exhibited at an early age. "Look at me, Mommy!" demands the 4-year-old, displaying some theatrical feat of daring-do. Parents, if they are at all sensitive to the child, are going to respond with praise and attention. Bad parents are going to ignore or demean the child, pushing ego underground and possibly leading to serial killing and all the other dysfunctional methods of ego expression.

Good parents know instinctively that the child needs affirmation and an acknowledgement of his specialness, but the rest of the world probably isn't going to respond the same way. The transition from even a healthy childhood to the brutalities of the real world is always going to be traumatic. Mom and Dad praised you as the center of the universe, but the real world sees you only as a peripheral bit player. Somehow, you have to come to grips with this position, finding your own specialness and value in an environment of indifference.

To adapt to the pressures of ego, everyone goes through a period of narcissism, which may last for a few years or an entire lifetime. Narcissism is an emotional theory that the world exists only for your benefit. You can "know" that you aren't the center of the universe, but you react impulsively as though you are. "Watch me, Mommy!" is basically a narcissistic appeal. The child expects the world to revolve around him, and in attentive households, it essentially does.

When they are involved in any socially-connected activity, adult narcissists are motivated more by a desperate need for praise and attention than by any satisfaction from the task itself. They can become great athletes, actors and politicians, but whatever they accomplish in their field is only a means to an end. Their ultimate goal is not the perfection of their craft but the perfect adoration that theoretically awaits at the end of the rainbow.

For examples of narcissism, you only have to look as far as the supermarket checkstand. The movie stars and debutantes who fill our tabloid media are overwhelmingly narcissistic. Paris Hilton? Duh! She's as narcissistic as they come: Even with no recognizable skills, she acts like the center of the universe. Madonna? Certainly narcissistic, but a more interesting case. Look at all the shameless ways she has tried to get attention over the course of her career. (Remember that "virgin" was a risqué word when "Like a Virgin" first came out.) Even when she picks up a new metaphysical philosophy—Kabbalah—supposedly for her own inner enlightenment, she's on the talk shows announcing it. She's like, "Look at me, everybody, I have a new religion!"

The interesting part about Madonna is that her ego has driven her to obvious musical accomplishment. Her main motivator is still attention, but in service of this need, she has often cranked out some pretty good songs.

Arnold Schwarzenegger is another interesting case. There can be nothing more narcissistic than bodybuilding. People with low core self-esteem and limited technical skills tend to respond by pumping up their packaging. Their body itself can become a big neon sign: "Look at me!" Arnold parlayed bodybuilding success into movie mega-stardom in a fairly naked play for attention. He married into the Kennedy clan in an obvious "power" marriage, and when his movie career began to wane, he took advantage of a legal loophole to make himself governor of California.

The funny thing is, he doesn't seem to be a bad governor of California, nor a bad husband or father. For all of his evident attention-seeking narcissism, Arnold comes across as a genuinely nice guy.

Perhaps there are hints here about how narcissism can be transcended. We all start out as narcissists, which may not be a bad thing if pushes us to make something of ourselves. The question is how we are ultimately going to overcome our self-centeredness and become something more.

The trouble with raw narcissism is that it is shallow and ultimately unfulfillable. "Look at me!" is only going to carry you as far as your audience is willing to praise you. Arnold achieved the ultimate narcissistic goal: his face on more billboards and videos screens than any world leader. This is the pinnacle of what a narcissist can be expected to attain: maximum audience adoration. No one is going to accuse Arnold of producing any great ideas or inventions or of changing society for the better, because audience adoration just can't take him there.

The kind of satisfaction that most narcissists seek isn't really possible. You can labor all your life to achieve stardom, but once you have it, is it really going to make you feel better? Without core self-esteem, narcissists are desperately trying to fill up a leaking bucket. Even if the whole world adores you, it probably isn't going to repair any nagging self-doubt you harbor inside. Fame, inevitably, is fake. People are praising an artificial image of you—The Terminator—and you know they aren't really appreciating you as a person.

To find much satisfaction in life and much depth in whatever field you are in, you have to set aside your narcissism and focus instead on the requirements of the task. For example, movie actors tend to be narcissistic, while movie directors tend to be less so. The directors may be no less ego-driven than the actors—that is, seeking personal value—but it's not the same sort of "Look at me!" approach. A director is concerned with building the best product possible based on the rules of movie-making, which requires another dimension of skill beyond acting. When the movie is done, he'll say, "Look at my product!"

The next level of development beyond narcissism could be called "super-narcissism." That's when you recognize your own impulsive ego needs and start compensating for them. You express your ego by deliberately trying not to be egotistical. Your aim is to produce a higher level of product: not just "Look at me!" but "Look at my whole life!"

Adolph and Saddam were narcissists who built pretty substantial power bases for themselves while they were alive. At one time, they had whole societies worshipping them, with hagiographic praise coming from the mouth of every schoolchild and emblazoned on every lamppost. But where are they now? How does history regard them?

This is the risk of shallow "Look at me!" narcissism: It doesn't last. The same is true of any fame you can achieve or any monument you can construct to yourself: It is going to crumble eventually. Sure, the pharaohs built pyramids, and the structures themselves survive, but who really cares about the pharaohs themselves?

Given that fame is fleeting and that all the attention in the world can't really supply inner satisfaction, ones natural narcissism must be shifted to something else—to some higher form of accomplishment that doesn't require adoration in the end. You can still seek personal value, but you should do it by creating actual value rather than the public appearance of it.

If you have taken on any task—be it movie-making, public politics or raising children—there is a certain satisfaction to be gained simply by doing the job well according to its own rules, regardless of any recognition you may eventually receive. If you have chosen to live a life on Earth, then you might as well strive to make it the perfect life, or at least as close as you can get with the tools available.

You can still be a narcissist, but when you become a super-narcissist, people stop noticing. If part of your self-absorption is to obliterate all visible signs of narcissism, then you begin to come across as a genuinely nice guy, attentive to others and concerned about the needs of society. It may be a deliberate act with some calculation behind it, but it is a healthy role you can be proud of.

If you play the role for long enough, then you may start to believe you own act and become the generous, selfless person you pretended to be—with a bit of wise caginess thrown in.

—G.C.




Reader Comments

“Do your bodybuilding friends a favor and ignore them.” — 2/11/08 (rating=3)

“What did it have to do with escaping a Narcissist ? Duh !!!” — 8/23/08 (rating=0)

“Narciissists cannot be good guys, as they lack the empathy... its all pretend” — 10/21/08 (rating=3)

“i didnt get bored. i liked how it was straight forward. wish you would'ev elaborated more on super-narcissism.” —danielle 11/2/08 (rating=3)

“USA” —jkybchw 2/18/11 (rating=2)

Ratings so far: 3 3 3 3 5 3 0 1 3 3 3 1 4 2 1 (Average=2.5)

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