Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Acquired Narcissism

Why are politicians so full of themselves? This is why:

People who aspire to stardom tend to be more narcissistic than others, but they don't develop a true narcissistic personality disorder until they begin to achieve success: the first platinum album, the first appearance in Vanity Fair's ''Young Hollywood'' issue, the first public fling with Winona Ryder.

Because the onset occurs well after childhood, celebrity narcissism isn't covered by the textbook definition of the condition. ''Psychoanalytic literature is filled with jargon about how narcissism happens really early,'' says Millman, ''but I realized that given the right situation, it could happen much later.'' That's the Acquisition.

The Situation is fame, money and, even more, the pheromone-like power of fame and money. ''When a billionaire or a celebrity walks into a room,'' says Millman, ''everyone looks at him. He's a prince. He has the power to change your life, and everyone is very conscious of that. So they're drawn to this person. What happens is that he gets so used to everyone looking at him that he stops looking back at them.''

Before the celebrity knows it, he's having grandiose fantasies, he can't feel empathy, he's full of rage, she's starring in ''Glitter.'' The celebrity has begun to share all the symptoms of severe narcissists.

But there are a few important differences. Both groups suffer from a distorted view of their place in the world, but the tension in the early-developing narcissist is more self-contained. In the acquired situational narcissist, it is also fed by people who surround him. Even worse, the view of the world the acquired situational narcissist is getting is, when you think about it, quite reasonable. ''They are different,'' says Millman. ''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?''

This includes the celebrity's usual planetary system of assistants, publicists, agents, lawyers and groupies. But it also includes us, the public. We're all complicit in acquired situational narcissism. ''We've created it,'' says Millman. ''They're just responding to us.''

In the case of politicians particularly, it is even worse because they are treated like little gods as they make regular pronouncements on how the world will run. Within their own circle, their power as a senator or congressman precludes hearing anything but the most positive of reactions to their every declarative sentence. For them the gap between what they imagine is their status in the world and what it really is widens appreciably while in office.

What is wrong with them? Noonan askes. Like any other two-bit narcissistic personality disorder, they have come to believe that they are at the center of everyone's world. That is why they find it hard to focus on the really important issues. It is also why they are so obsessed with polls, polls, and more polls.

They will do anything to maintain their popularity and their god-like status--even if it means they have to abandon their principles.

But of course, they had very few to begin with.

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