The following excerpt from Mental Disorders of the New Millennium describes how a narcissistic disposition may be ‘acquired’ by individuals on whom society projects special status: elites, doctors, actors, singers and so on. Acquired situational narcissism (as its called), may help to explain some of our cultural fixation with prioritizing women’s status, esteem, wellbeing, and dignity.
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CAN NARCISSISM BE ACQUIRED?
The question remains as to whether narcissism can be culturally conveyed or whether it is inevitably the result of what Heinz Kohut called “repeated empathic failure” or an emotional developmental disability. Psychiatrist Robert B. Millman defined the concept of acquired situational narcissism, a temporary psychological dysfunction that often accompanies fame. Dr. Millman believes that his celebrity patients may act awful because of the situations in which they find themselves. He argues that they acquire their narcissism by being fed their image by the entourage and media around them.
In an interview with New York Times reporter Stephen Sherrill, Millman notes, “They’re not normal. And why would they feel normal when every person in the world who deals with them treats them as if they’re not? We’re all complicit in acquired situational narcissism. . . . We’ve created it. They’re just responding to us.” Millman also notes, as for all narcissists, “Their marriages fall apart, they make lousy parents, they take copious quantities of drugs, they get into trouble with the law. Because they truly don’t believe the world is real, they begin to think they’re invulnerable. Some even risk their lives, since the world can’t hurt them if it’s not real.”
Sam Vaknin, a prolific writer on this subject, disagrees. He argues that because every human being—regardless of the nature of his society and culture—develops healthy narcissism early in life, it becomes pathological only by abuse. For Vaknin, acquired situational narcissism is merely an amplification of earlier narcissistic conduct, traits, style, and tendencies. Not only are narcissists drawn to celebrity, but once powerful, rich, or famous, they gain immunity from social sanctions for expressing the underlying disorder. Whether or not cultures can create narcissism is an interesting question. What is not in doubt is how cultures support narcissism.
Therapists who believe in the process of Acquired Situational Narcissism or cultural narcissism naturally see positive results with major shifts in the environment. Thus, Jennifer, a woman known even among her most competitive colleagues as a “heartless litigator and shameless self-promoter,” found herself in a crisis when a disaster threatened the lives of her parents and siblings. Although it was with great regret and some anger, she “temporarily” returned to the small town in British Columbia to which they had relocated, to “see to their affairs and protect my inheritance.” Out of the San Francisco legal environs, she experienced a “new world” in which she didn’t have to prove herself at all. In the course of her six-month stay, and the deaths of both parents, she found, for the first time, an ease with herself and a relationship with a man who “should have been beneath me.” She decided to remain in British Columbia, transition to a far less aggressive career, and was reportedly happy for the first time in her 45 years. Ironically, that spring, her name appeared on a magazine touting the toughest ten lawyers in California. For the first time in her life, the accolade was unimportant.
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