Narcissism is an important concept in contemporary culture, especially given the current presidential campaign. We understand it to be present in a person whose love of self transcends their ability to notice another’s point of view. Quite frankly, it is a problem for all of us and exists, to a certain degree, in every person. We all begin life as little blobs of protoplasm—aware only of our own existence.
But at about nine months of age, researchers have found that babies make the discovery that other people—mothers and fathers—also have a point of view. Over time and if our caregivers provide attuned and empathic attention to our needs we begin to realize it’s really okay if other people have thoughts and feelings too. We begin to develop trust in the human world because experience tells us that other humans “have our back.”
If however there are too many failures of empathy and too many disappointments something strange occurs. We begin to experience the world as hostile, unsafe. We shut ourselves up in a human fortress—a man cave or a woman cave—and in that hideaway we focus only on our own and thoughts, feelings and opinions. We protect our self-image as totally good and we define the outside world asbad, bad, bad! We have to remain continually in defense mode to protect that fragile self.
Now I believe that narcissism is part of the human condition. Some might call it selfishness and it is rampant! In my opinion it begins in early life as a function of a whole host of factors including, but not limited to parenting, cultural tropes, inborn temperament and the like. And the cure for it??? In one word—connection–real empathic mindful purposeful human connection. How do we manage that in a time in history when we spend so many precious hours connected to a machine?
If authentic connection is absolutely essential in the universal battle against narcissism, how do we get that from a computer? My concern is that we don’t! That is, we don’t get feedback that tells us we have hurt someone’s feelings. We receive no signal that we have touched another’s soul. Trust me, emoticons don’t do the job. Spiritual and emotional give-and-take is not really possible on the Internet and it leaves us lonely and longing for the human bond that we have sought since life began.
The lack of human connection and the loneliness that accompanies it may account for the research findings that have shown a relationship between symptoms of depression and anxiety, as well as poorer executive functioning, found in students who met diagnostic criteria for Internet addiction. ( 29th European College of Neuropsychopharmacology (ECNP) Congress.) “This leads us to a couple of questions: firstly, are we grossly underestimating the prevalence of internet addiction? And, secondly, are these other mental health issues a cause or consequence of this excessive reliance on the Internet?” said lead researcher Michael Van Ameringen, MD, FRCPC, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences, McMaster University, Hamilton, Canada. ( email@example.com/20/16)
So yes. The jury is still out. Does Internet addiction cause symptoms of mental illness such as anxiety, depression or narcissistic inclinations or does it provide a safe haven for those who are already experiencing its painful consequences? In either case we know that the Digital World is here to stay. Next week we will consider some possibilities for making it more human.
Ellen Toronto is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Spring, Texas and has been practicing since 1980. In 2017, she was elected a Fellow in Psychoanalysis by the American Psychological Association. In 2016, Dr. Toronto's practice was recognized as one of the top Ann Arbor Psychology practices. She received her Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Michigan. Dr. Toronto is married to Robert Toronto, Ph.D., and together they have four sons and eleven grandchildren.