Narcissism is on the rise. Our civilization is elevating the self into the highest object of love. This new narcissism is morphing into a religion which threatens to consume not just the narcissist, but everything else around them. Sam Vaknin argues that unless we tame and control our narcissism, the consequences for our culture could be devastating.
To find out more about the ills of celebrity culture and the worshiping of the self, check out our upcoming debate The Fantasy of Fame at our festival HowTheLightGetsIn London 2022.
Growing numbers of people are becoming increasingly more narcissistic. And as our civilization rewards narcissism and veers towards it, the allure of the narcissism religion is growing exponentially. It is beginning to be widely and counterfactually glamorized - even in academe - as a positive adaptation. Counterfactually because narcissism ineluctably and invariably devolves into self-defeat and self-destruction. But how could narcissism be a religion? How could worship of the self stray off into faith?
Pathological narcissism develops as a set of complex defences against childhood abuse and trauma in all its forms, including not only “classical” maltreatment, but also idolizing the child, smothering it, parentifying it, or instrumentalizing it. The child forms a paracosm, a dream world, ruled over by an imaginary friend who is everything the child is not: omniscient, omnipotent, perfect, brilliant, and omnipresent. In short: a godhead or divinity. The child worships this newfound ally and therefore makes a human sacrifice to this Moloch: he offers his true self.
Narcissism is, therefore, a private religion which resembles very much primitive faiths and rites.
We all make this deal as children, how else would a small child be willing to face the world. Though most learn to develop an understanding of other people and our lack of centrality in the world. However, as a child, the narcissist struck a Faustian deal: he is endowed with a grandiose albeit fragile self-image and a fantastic self-perception, but, in return, he ceases to exist.
The narcissist outsources his ego boundary functions to the False Self and regulates his internal environment (for example: his sense of self-worth) via constant feedback from a multitude of interchangeable sources of narcissistic supply. His is a veritable hive mind. Narcissism is the celebration, elevation, and glorification of a superior absence, a howling emptiness, the all-devouring void of a black hole with a galaxy of internal objects swirling around it.
Narcissism is, therefore, a private religion which resembles very much primitive faiths and rites. It's comparable to the activities of pagan or wiccan practices in early European history. It is a fantasy defence writ large and gone awry, having metamorphosized into a delusion. Reality testing is severely impaired and the narcissist mistakes inner representations of people with the external objects that gave rise to them.
In a society of the spectacle, a society of Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and TikTok, everyone is rendered a commodity.
Narcissism is the first distributed or networked faith: every believer and practitioner (i.e., every narcissist) is a worshipper but also the god that he worships (has a godlike False Self). Every node is equipotent and self-sustaining as it seeks to consume narcissistic supply (attention, good or bad).
Like every religion before it, narcissism is fast becoming an organizing and explanatory principle. It imbues existence with meaning and direction. It is both prescriptive and proscriptive. Fuelled by technologies like social media, it is spreading with more alacrity than any previous historical faith. Pathological narcissism is also missionary: the narcissist attempts to convert potential sources of narcissistic supply and intimate partners to participate in his shared fantasy and to worship his grandiose deity, the False Self.
Narcissism in the collective, narcissism as the organising principle of our societies, is indistinguishable from the individual sort. This is where the danger lurks: narcissism is aggressive, intolerant and exploitative. It is a death cult. It elevates objects above people. In a society of the spectacle, a society of Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and TikTok, everyone is rendered a commodity. Materialism and consumerism are manifestations of narcissism as is malignant, ostentatious individualism.
Left unbridled and unconstrained and elevated ideologically, it can bring about Armageddon in more than one way.
Narcissism in collectives is indistinguishable from the individual sort: it is always adversarial and results in dismal self-defeat and self-destruction. Left unbridled and unconstrained and elevated ideologically, it can bring about Armageddon in more than one way. The rise of narcissism is inexorable. It is comparable to climate change and to the shift in gender roles: there is no going back now. If I am right, it calls for major adaptations on multiple levels, individual, institutional, and collective:
(1) To harness the considerable energy of narcissism and channel it in socially acceptable ways (sublimate it). Prosocial and communal narcissism could spell a workable compromise, for example;
(2) To put in place checks, balances, and institutions to prevent the more destructive, insidious, and pernicious outcomes and aspects of narcissism; and
(3) To prepare the general populace to accept narcissism as a part of the landscape and Zeitgeist.
This latter goal is best accomplished via technologies that would provide outlets to conforming, positive healthy narcissism and at the same time isolate users from an increasingly more narcissistic reality as much as possible. Social media and the metaverse as harbingers of these twin tasks. Atomization and self-sufficiency as well as the disintegration of social institutions are mere symptoms of this tectonic shift in what it means to be human.