Psychological experts are engaged in a heated debate over a curiously underappreciated issue of our times: Should “narcissistic personality disorder” continue to be viewed as a mental illness? Or should we concede, in my view, that mirror-kissing personalities have become not only the norm but a national passion?
Narcissism is generally defined as an exaggerated sense of one's own wonderfulness. Narcissists constantly seek attention, treasure material wealth, worship good looks and put up with the rest of us only as long as we feed their appetite for praise and appreciation.
And when times get tough, they are left befuddled as to why they don't have any friends.
The narcissist “loves himself more than his analyst,” as psychiatrist Thomas Szasz put it, and successful treatment depends on the patient “learning to love the analyst more and himself less.”
Historian Christopher Lasch's “The Culture of Narcissism” became a surprise best-seller and cult classic in 1979. Today its prophecies of an increasingly self-absorbed society sound almost modest. This is the age of MTV's “My Super Sweet 16,” where you can watch rich kids bling up their birthday parties with, for example, rock stars, an $800 manicure with real diamond inlays, or a featured appearance by Cirque du Soleil.
Or, if you're a less fortunate kid, you can try another narcissistic craze: commit a crime and post videos of your act on YouTube. The certainty that police also watch YouTube amazingly fails to dawn on these young perpetrators.
Each of these slices of modern American life is grounded in a fundamental shift in American culture, a trend that research psychologists Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell describe in the title of their 2009 book as “The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement.”
Campbell sat on one of the committees that decided to drop narcissistic personality disorder, or NPD, from the 2013 edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the diagnostic guide used by psychiatrists. Yet he told me that he opposed the deletion, which caused such a backlash from fellow researchers and clinicians that the condition has since been reinstated with some new technical changes.