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The Normalization of Narcissistic Personality Traits

March 3, 2017


                                                                      Written By 7 Cups Therapist, Myrna Pledger

I remember learning during the first week of psychology class that a famous psychologist stated that the mental disorder of the millennium will be narcissism.  As an undergraduate student, I was not a psychology major so I envisioned a society of people obsessed with mirrors.  It didn't sound that terrible.  It actually sounded comical to me.  It wasn't until a few years later when I began working with domestic violence group that I learned just how superficial my thoughts about narcissism had been and just how dangerous these people are.

The women I worked with had managed to leave violent relationships and were receiving counseling as part of a jobs training program.  What I noticed about these women was that in some way or other they were all exceptional.  Some were extremely attractive physically.  Some had intellectual gifts.  Some had great social skills.  Some were gifted communicators.  Each and every one had something unique and special to offer the world.  And each one told a story of being subjected to emotional and verbal “put-downs” that preceded the physical abuse and in some ways was far more devastating in that they did not at that time have scars or bruises or injuries to prove the abuse.  It was after this that the physical abuse would start.  

They spoke of the difficulty in leaving the relationship for various reasons.  It was rarely only the “but I love him” that we have come to accept as the reason why they remained in the relationships as long as they did.  Some stated that their religious leaders told them that they were not being submissive enough.  Some stated that they had been isolated from friends and family and did not have anyone to turn to.  Others stated that their abuser had not allowed them to work or when they did the abuser took their pay from them.   They were all eager to talk as they stated that no one would listen without blaming them and they themselves wondered if maybe they had contributed to their own abuse.  These women had been manipulated, isolated and used to bolster another's needs.  They had all been with narcissists or people who exhibit enough narcissistic personality traits to be dangerous to those who unknowingly attempted to become close to them.  And, from what I've seen, narcissists do not abuse just anyone.  Narcissists go for the best in some way that their environment affords.  It seems in way that their life goal is to destroy beauty.

Why did the victims have such a hard time obtaining assistance?

I pondered this question.  It is a large question with many facets.  I'd like to touch on one now that might be one of the major reasons and it is almost obvious in it's simplicity.  One of the reasons victims have difficulty obtaining assistance, even believability, concerning the abuse suffered is because narcissistic traits have been normalized, if not celebrated, in media.  

I remember in my freshman year of high school a good friend and I read Gone With the Wind.  The movie had finally come to TV and we decided to read the book first.  We were thrilled by Scarlett's ability to handle men.  She was vain, selfish, self-absorbed, had a bad temper and men loved her even though she wasn't considered the most beautiful.  She had power.  So, we tried to emulate her to various degrees of success.  And then there was Daisly in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.   I cried when I read of his Gatsby's and then when I saw the movie:  How could you do this to Leonardo DiCaprio?  Why does he die in so many of his movies?  Anyway, sorry I digressed.

In the nineties, Paula Abdul's video, Rush Rush shocked me.  I went to school and asked people didn't they notice that Paula's boyfriend drove over a cliff in the video and then she and Keanu Reeves had sex.  It's a nice song and I once declared Keanu Reeves as a work of art but still no one seemed to notice that Paula Abdul's character's boyfriend drove over a cliff.  And people looked at me like I was too sensitive.  

Then there were soap operas.  We watched All My Children.  There was Erica Kane.  Another vain, selfish, self-absorbed and ill-tempered woman who knew her way around men.  We learned to honor and admire manipulativeness.  We wanted to grow up to be Erica Kane.

More recently and as a male counterpart, we have Charlie from 2 ½ men.  He doesn't set out to hurt anyone.  But he is vain, lazy and immoral. He seems to   think of women as walking vaginal sex toys and yet he was rich and adored.  Generally his character was not censored for his extravagances, but was lauded because he was amusing.  Instead of being encouraged to run away from such a person, the audience is encouraged to laugh at his behavior as though it wouldn't in real life present sexual and mental health dangers to all he romanced.

If you look at The Walking Dead, it seems to show you varieties of narcissism in characters such as Rick's best friend who slept with Rick's wife and then tried to kill him; the governor he robbed other survivors to support his governance of his own camp and currently Negan who punishes dissenters with a heinous bat wielded death by his instrument Lucille.  

And then there's Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory.  Everyone laughs while he treats his friends and colleagues with contempt and snug superiority.  He sexually frustrates his girlfriend and cannot even understand the concept of empathy.  Yet, he is adored by those friends he derides.  

As long as we as a society are encouraged to laugh at or identify or sympathize with the antics of these self-absorbed, manipulative and selfish people, we will trivialize the damage they cause to others.  I think this is at least one of the reasons why narcissism has become so much a part of the norm that we invite them into hour homes each and everyday through our TV's and other trendy devices and we often love them.  It would help if we thought about the victims.  Narcissism is not a victimless crime.  It always leaves victims who have to try somehow to carry on.

 Written By 7 Cups Therapist, Myrna Pledger