Recently I went back to a favorite book from therapy school, Psychoanalytic Diagnosis, by Nancy McWilliams, Ph.D (1994). In her chapter about narcissism, McWilliams explains that this personality disorder can be played out in numerous ways, most commonly presented as grandiosity or self loathing. I often find that when the term narcissistic is used to describe someone, it’s often accompanied by an acrid, spiteful tone, intended to dismiss the person to whom it’s directed. Understandably so, I think, considering the emotional injury incurred on others who are involved in relationships with such people. Still, it may be worthwhile to explore this personality makeup a little deeper. As McWilliams points out, narcissistic problems are epidemic in contemporary society where “media exploit our insecurities and pander to our vanity and greed.” And a narcissistic personality often results from being a narcissistic extension oneself; a person who is an object of admiration and/or contempt in order to support another’s fragile ego. Think of the parent who pressures his or her child to study law at Harvard rather than pursue a field of interest elsewhere at a lesser known school. The parent absorbs the prestige factor, though it may be far less meaningful to the child.
In my work with women who experience eating disorders, I’ve inherited a Culture Jamming group that really seems to explore this aspect of narcissism at its worst. Time and again the clients I work with comment on how they feel pressured by society to look like the (at times severely) photoshopped models in magazines. It’s rampant. We see it in elementary schools when children chide one another for not having what is arbitrarily considered the best name brand shoes and clothing. I was dismayed to find out that some elementary schools are now offering photo touch-ups on school pictures. While sure, it may alleviate some of the teasing, and I’m all for protecting the underdog, doesn’t it also simply reinforce the idea that the bully is right? When the media exploit our insecurities, isn’t it fair to say they are acting like bullies? What are we doing to combat this? When will the cycle be broken? Weren’t we all raised this way to some degree? I always think of the interaction between Betty Draper and her husband Don in Mad Men after Betty is in an accident with her young daughter Sally in the car (season 1, episode 2):
BETTY: Did you look at Sally’s face? I think she has a bruise.
DON: I didn’t see it.
BETTY: On her cheekbone, under her eye.
DON: I thought that was ketchup.
BETTY: What if she had gotten a scar? Something permanent?
DON: I don’t want to play ‘what if?’
BETTY: I’m just saying, if it happened to Bobby it would have been okay because a boy with a scar is nothing, but a girl, it’s so much worse.
DON: Nothing happened.
BETTY: I keep… thinking…not that I could have killed the kids but…worse. Sally could have survived, and gone on living with this… horrible scar on her face and… some long, lonely, miserable life.
It’s the superficiality of her last statement that gets me. A scar on her daughter’s face would be worse than death and Sally would instantly be reduced to leading a lonely, miserable life. Why is there no mention of Sally’s character or worth above and beyond her looks? Is Betty Draper a narcissist or is she simply reflecting the narcissism doled out by society? I have to say that this passage offered some insight about the society in which my own mother was raised. In a way I find it oddly comforting to read McWilliams explanation: “What narcissistic people of all appearances have in common is an inner sense of, and/or terror of, insufficiency, shame, weakness and inferiority. Their compensatory behaviors might diverge greatly yet still reveal similar preoccupations.” Insecurities feed insecurities. No, it’s more than that; insecurities generate and create new insecurities in others. If, as some suggest, corporations behave as psychopaths (antisocial personality) then shouldn’t we consider the media narcissistic bullies? Interestingly enough, McWilliams points out the similarity between these two conditions: “Both character types [psychopathic and narcissistic] reflect a subjectively empty world and a dependence on external events to provide self esteem.” I should probably point out here that there is a continuum of crazy; even if you identify with some of these qualities, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you require clinical attention. Though perhaps if Betty had established more self worth, she never would have found herself trapped in a marriage with such an enormously unfaithful husband. Of course the dynamics of Don Draper would take us on another tangent altogether.
Alas, it brings me back to the Charlie Kaufman quote from the movie Adaptation (2002), “You are what you love, not what loves you.” If we run around continuously trying to please others, we lose our sense of self and contribute to the epidemic of narcissism. As a wise person recently suggested: wouldn’t it be great if a sketch artist could draw all of the beautiful and good qualities about us that exist on the inside? Try it now. For yourself and for those you love. Draw or write about what it is that you value in your relationships with yourself and others that go above and beyond superficial appearance.
Copyright 2014 © Rachel Braun, All rights reserved.
Rachel Braun, ATR-BC Art Therapist Philadelphia, PA
Specializing in art therapy groups for women who experience depression, anxiety and eating disorders.