I've read many claims on the demise of our current narcissistic generation. A large part is how social media is propagating this narcissism. From selfies to being obsessed with likes and shares, it's hard not to argue that there might be a problem.
But before we start using general labels for an entire generation, let's take a look at narcissism in general. Then I will share with you what I've learned about narcissists from a neuroscience standpoint.
Is Axe Cop a Narcissist?
First of all, Axe Cop, created by brothers Malachai and Ethan Nicolle is hilarious. Seriously go check it out. And the truth is, Axe Cop is indeed a narcissist from a neuroscience perspective. Now, although Axe Cop is a good guy and only chops off the heads of bad guys, again, brain science tells us that it all can be boiled down to narcissism. It's a bit more complicated than a comic book, but I will explain more in a moment.
Here is how the television show Axe Cop interpreted the comic above in a trailer for season 2:
Look familiar? Yup, that's because it is a spoof on the movie American Psycho starring Christian Bale before he was Batman. (His name in the movie was Patrick Bateman which is a really weird coincidence.) Take a look at the same intro:
Patrick Bateman was a narcissist for sure. And both Axe Cop and Bateman killed people.
Definition of Narcissism
If you Google "Narcissism" here is the definition you get:
- NOUN: excessive or erotic interest in oneself and one's physical appearance.
- SYNONYMS: vanity, self-love, self-admiration, self-absorption, self-obsession, conceit, self-centeredness, self-regard, egotism, egoism "his emotional development was hindered by his mother's narcissism"
- PSYCHOLOGY: extreme selfishness, with a grandiose view of one's own talents and a craving for admiration, as characterizing a personality type.
- PSYCHOANALYSIS: self-centeredness arising from failure to distinguish the self from external objects, either in very young babies or as a feature of mental disorder.
So, as a society with social media, have we become excessively interested in ourselves and our physical appearances? In general, is our culture more vain, self-loving, self-admiring, self-absorbed. self-obsessed, conceited, etc.? I would say, again generally speaking, it is so. I don't think I have to expound on this one here very much.
But are we falling into the psychology and psychoanalysis levels of narcissism? This moves into territory of personality disorders and I think we have to be careful. Let's break it down a bit.
Brain Science of Narcissism
Let me start by saying that narcissism is a bigger problem than we might realize. Narcissism is happening in our families, companies and leadership. This goes beyond everyday social media.
To cut straight to the point, neuroscience shows us that narcissism is an inability or refusal to feel shame. Those who refuse to feel shame are often described as "stiff necked" and will not "hang their heads." The biggest trait here is a narcissist is always self-justified.
Shame is the feeling of wanting to hide. There is appropriate shame and toxic shame. Appropriate shame is when you do something wrong and recognize the effects. For example, you might have told a mean joke that belittled a coworker. Appropriate shame would cause you to hang your head and take steps to make things right and restore joy and peace to the situation.
A narcissist in this case however, wouldn't feel shame and justify the reason the joke had to be told or reasons people shouldn't be so sensitive. I'm sure you have experienced this to some degree before.
In the extreme case of Axe Cop and American Psycho, neither of them feel shame for chopping people's heads off which they both do a lot.
Toxic Blame and Shame as Weapons
This is where Axe Cop, as a fictional character, for me gets a bit of a pass. Axe Cop kills bad guys and goes about his business in a practical way. But real world narcissists don't use axes. They use toxic blame and shame to chop heads.
The narcissist has an image to protect. So blame and shame are used to deflect all attention away from ever challenging them. Nobody enjoys being blamed and shamed so they stay quiet out of fear which is exactly what the narcissist wants.
It all starts with the narcissist focusing on your weakness. Blame then sounds like "This is all your fault," or "I was forced to react this way because of you." Then shame makes things really toxic. Shame makes you believe you are the problem which justifies the narcissist. It sounds like, "You are worthless," and "I am doing this for your own good."
Social Media and The Solution
This is all where social media can get out of hand. There is plenty of blame and shame to go around online. Most of it is subtle but the trolling can be overt and nasty. The reason social media makes narcissism potent is because we have a fear of looking weak or that our lives are less worthy compared to others. We fear being vulnerable and exposed.
The solution then, is simply to become OK with our weakness. Our identities need to be rooted in something deeper than material and other surface qualities. We need real loving communities and relationships that give us identity and belonging even when we are weak. Then a narcissist can't get under our skins with blame and shame because we are OK with being exposed and vulnerable. We become bigger than the blame and shame through authenticity. The power of the narcissist is neutralized and they can't chop our heads off.
The foundation to all of this is to develop emotional intelligence (EQ):
- Learn self-awareness especially where you feel weak and shame.
- Develop an emotional vocabulary to express that weakness and shame.
- Then you will have empathy for others and respond tenderly to their own weakness and shame.
Emotional intelligence will help avoid the traps of narcissism that are all around us. You are a human being not a human doing. Learn to be OK with just being you versus having to be someone else and do what they do.
Then we can all truly be a heroes and beat bad guys