2017: Is Narcissism the New Normal?

Do you remember the exact moment you stopped believing Santa Claus? Was it a shock to you? Or was it more like a slow gentle waking up to a new understanding, and you were ok with it? Like a realization that holding the belief in Santa had been a lovely experience that served you at a point in your life, and then you just moved on. You probably accepted that other kids had the same experience, so you promised the grown ups to keep the secret and protect the younger ones from illumination until they themselves had caught up.

2017 was the year that the publication of fake news became accepted, not illegal. It is indeed illegal to lie in a closed courtroom, but not on international TV or on social media, where millions of watchers are influenced. This was also the year the most highly respected news networks sourced their first-hand information via 140 character quotes. It remains to be seen whether Twitter’s recently extended quota will be a blessing or a curse…

So has it yet dawned on you to which extent you have been exposed to false information to this point? Sensationalization of news is not a recent phenomenon. Publishers and disseminators alike wouldn’t survive in this day and age being entirely truthful in scope or narrative – they are forced to spin stories to suit their needs for ad revenues, win political support, crush opposition or serve other more or less official agendas. This is clearly not new. And it’s clearly not illegal.

Now the Swedish government is reinstating an anti-propaganda department that has been closed since the end of the Cold War, to prevent Russia from digitally influencing the Swedish population, under the premise is that if Putin wanted to invade Sweden he would publish fake news on RT and through a myriad of social media to justify military action. Such lobbying is clearly not new either. It’s happened in Germany, Rwanda, Bosnia, Nigeria and more countries, and quite bluntly in the United States. And it gets more and more complex with the addition of digital channels and source choices, and algorithms that select what we see and not, to the extent that certain countries will devote enormous resources to censor a search engine or shut down a global video distribution site if inconvenienced by its content.

Is this scanning, censoring and filtering sustainable? It seems the only sustainable response to such threats is not to add filters, but to remove filters. And it begins with regular people discerning the information around them. A good start is asking not “What is being said?” but “With which intent?”

Does an expressed desire to exclude entire populations and referring to their origins as shithole countries come from a racist paradigm? Most likely yes. Does H&M’s recent mistake of dressing a dark skinned boy in a hoodie with the text “coolest monkey in the jungle” come from a racist paradigm? Most probably not. There is no excuse for the marketing mishap, which was both tactless and inappropriate, but it was most probably not a deliberate attempt to discriminate. The strong reactions to both aforementioned incidences triggers me to think we are letting ourselves get wrapped up in effect, instead of focusing our attention on cause. And spot a difference; H&M apologized.

We live in a global society where embellished lifetyles, selfies, self-promotion and self-proclaimed fame is considered normal. We are increasingly prompted to place our attention on ourselves and not on others. And powerful agendas – blunt, subtle and invisible – plotted by consumer goods producers, policy makers, terrorist networks – feed and are fed by this self-absorption. And it has reached a point where we are struggling with finding healthy boundaries between self-empowerment and self-obsession, so much I would argue that narcissism seems to be a new norm.

“What is Narcissism?” you might ask, as very few people actually know the term or the behavioral profile it describes. Here are some views that are normal to a narcissist, defined by Joe Navarro, a former FBI Counterintelligence Agent and the author of “Dangerous Personalities:”

  • I love myself, and I know you do, too. In fact, everyone does.
  • I have few equals in the world. I am the best manager, husband, student, businessman, president etc.
  • I expect you to be interested in what I have achieved and what I have to say. I, on the other hand, am not at all interested in you or what you have achieved.
  • Most people don’t measure up. Without me to lead, others would flounder.
  • Rules are for the average person, and I am far above average.
  • I expect you to be loyal to me at all times, no matter what I do. However, don’t expect me to be loyal to you in any way.
  • I will criticize you, and expect you to accept it, but if you criticize me, especially in public, I will come at you with rage.
  • I have no need to apologize. You, however, must understand, accept, and tolerate me no matter what I do or say.
  • I expect gratitude at all times, for even the smallest things I do. As for you, I expect you to do as I ask.
  • If you would just do what I say, things would be better.

A narcissist is mainly concerned with him or herself, and shows only interest in others when they can get something out of them – status, favors, adoration etc. To a narcissist, being nice is a tool for social survival, a means to get what they want, and not a genuine sentiment. Narcissists believe themselves to be better than others, thereby making those around them less valued. A narcissist feels they have the right to exploit others – emotionally, physically, financially or otherwise – to suit their own needs. While a narcissist takes for granted that others will adapt, conform and go out of their way for the narcissist, the narcissist expects gratitude for every little thing he or she does. Since a narcissist insists on being faultless, he or she would not admit a mistake but be quick to blame others. Narcissists have no concept of self-awareness or introspection, but they are quick to see faults in others and gossip or openly critizise. However, when challenged or critiqued, the narcissist will attack back with rage, blame and accusation. A narcissist does not feel the need to apologize, but demand apologies when allegedly offended. And a significant trait of the narcissist is that they lie without concern for the truth, because lies are useful for controlling and manipulating others.

How does a narcissist get away with this? Let’s get into the experience of their victims. Subjection to narcissism makes you feel like there is something wrong with you. It makes you question yourself. It makes you try harder to comply, make greater efforts to fit in. This causes you to feel anxious, worried and out of control. The narcissist’s lack of empathy leaves you deprived, empty, frustrated and weak, and that makes you even more susceptible to manipulation. There are many ways to manipulate a normal person, and narcissists are masters of gaslighting.

Gaslighting is a tactic in which a person or entity, in order to gain more power, makes a victim question their reality by telling blatant lies and wearing down the core identity of the victim. It is done slowly, so the victim doesn’t realize how much they have been brainwashed. A lie here and a lie there, a offensive comment every now and then, and then increasing the frequency. The best analogy is the “boiling frog.” If a frog is put suddenly into boiling water it will jump out. But if the frog is put in cold water that is slowly brought to a boil, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death. The analogy is used as a metaphor for the inability or unwillingness of people to react to or be aware of threats that arise gradually.

The victim of a narcissist is ever more effectively made to feel guilty, thinking “I have done something wrong,” “it’s my fault,” and “it’s my responsibility to fix, take care of, correct the situation” etc. And the victim is ever more effectively made to feel shame, thinking “I am bad,” “I am wrong,” “I must be crazy” etc.

Narcissists pull you into a lot of drama, when what you really need is to stand back and observe what’s going on. The best psychologists will tell you to walk away and stay away from the narcissist to protect yourself from further exposure and psychological harm. But in many cases we can’t. We may experience narcissists in our family, our workplace, or our government. If we can’t get away, what we can do is stay put and call them on their lies, as U.S. Senator Cory Booker did last week with eloquence. We can hold them accountable for their mistakes and not let them place blame outside of themselves. We can stay sane by focusing our attention on their actions and not the words they want us to believe.

What the narcissist does best is pointing finger. So before we start spotting the narcissists in our life, we all should take a long and hard look at the one narcissist we will never get away from, the one inside ourselves – whether as individuals, groups, organizations or systems – and bust ourselves on these behaviors.

  • Do I put my own needs before others’?
  • Do I find it acceptable to meet my needs at the expense of someone else’s needs?
  • Do I hold myself accountable for my own mistakes, or do I blame others?
  • Do I criticize, judge or gossip about others to make myself look or feel good?
  • Do I need to inform people of my own brilliance, kindness, good looks, genius or mental stability, or do I let them make their own judgments?
  • Do I make promises to others to get something out of them? Do I keep my promises?
  • Do I find it acceptable to lie to advance myself?
  • As an individual, are my relationships based on mutual respect and consideration?
  • As an organization, do we foster a mutually beneficial environment in our stakeholder networks?

The greatest problem with narcissism is that due to the powerful manipulation, both the narcissist and the victim think the dynamic is normal. But no, it is not normal. This pattern has to break, and we are slowly waking up to that. The #metoo movement is one of the first blinks of the eye in the process. The falls of Harvey Winstein and Larry Nassar exemplify that justice prevails. Aly Raisman’s words at Nassar’s sentencing last Friday: “You do realize now that we, this group of women you so heartlessly abused over such a long period of time, are now a force, and you are nothing. The tables have turned, Larry. We are here, we have our voices, and we are not going anywhere.” I believe there is more to come. In coming years, individuals, groups, organizations and entire governments will either fall or start self-reflecting, listen with open ears, have courage, take a stance, and confirm allegations of injustice.

If just a few more people found narcissistic behavior unacceptable, the ultimate narcissist would not be holding the oval office. It is not normal to inform people of your greatness, and certainly not by attacking others. It is not normal to propose trade deals that suggest “We will be better off and you will lose out?” It is not normal to proclaim “My nuclear button is bigger than yours.”

There will be elections in a number of countries this year. But really, what is democracy if you can lie and manipulate your constituents, censor your opposition, and shut down media outlets. Election does not equal democracy, self-promotion does not equal competence, and self-righteousness does not equal morals. A democratic system can only exist when its citizens think on their own. How often does that really occur? And in this day and age, can we really blame anyone but ourselves?

As people are more connected, they don’t have to buy lies anymore. They can seek out more sources. They can take in varied perspectives. There is always a way to get information. The bloggers who fuelled the Arab Spring were continually shut down by their governments but continued to find new ways to publish. And their followers continued to find them. We have a choice to be fed or to feed ourselves. We have the choice whether to let someone filter our views or to remove the filters.

What is the opposite to Narcissistic behavior? To be authentic, conscientious, respectful, tactful, considerate, open, curious, humble, sensible… What is the opposite to a victim? To be discerning, courageous, to honor ones dignity and the dignity of others, to confront abuse and injustice, to never be the bystander but to be the buster.

Now look at all you’re exposed to and remember your previous belief in Santa Claus. It’s worth asking yourself: “Does it serve me to believe in this person?” “Does it serve me to buy this story?” What if 2018 became a slow gentle waking up to a new understanding, a new way of seeing things. It may be an understanding that your previous beliefs have not served you, but you are ok with that because it’s time to move on. And if you see that it hasn’t served others either, would you illuminate them? This year, as perhaps more truths unfold, be the big person. And I mean not the bully, but the awakened one.