Andrew Cohen says narcissism is a culturally conditioned epidemic. How is it harmful and how can we break out of it?
Andrew Cohen: Narcissism is compulsive self-infatuation, so a narcissist is someone who is, metaphorically, always looking at their own image in the mirror of their own mind. And narcissism is a psychological disease which has become a cultural epidemic, especially with the emergence of postmodernism. So I’m a baby boomer. I’m 56. I grew up in the age of the individual. When I grew up, my life was all about me, and my generation and our children’s generations are very different than other generations because we have grown up in the age where life is really about me. We were almost conditioned to become and be very narcissistic.
When I was a young boy, my parents said, “Sweetheart, you should do whatever’s going to make you happy.” And my teachers at school, when we spoke about what are you going to do, it was always, “Well, what do you want?” I was never told that you’re part of a bigger context, a bigger process, that might need something from you, or, I was never told that, you know, kiddo, you’re probably one of the luckiest people that’s ever been born, relatively speaking–upper middle class, you know, good education, et cetera, you know, unparalleled personal and political freedoms, historically. I was never told that maybe you have an obligation to help those who are less fortunate than you.
So narcissism is a culturally conditioned epidemic of literally pathological self-concern. And so the experience of the narcissist, which is very common for many people or most people from my generation and our children, is we think about me all the time. We are always thinking about what we like, what we don’t like, what we want, what we don’t want. And so our own egos and the fears and desires of our own egos become the narrative of our relationship to life. It makes us unknowingly inherently selfish because we’re always thinking about me and we’re always thinking about what’s going to be good for me and what am I going to get out of any particular situation. It cultivates a very materialistic relationship to life, even relationship to people. How’s this going to be good for me? And, when you awaken beyond this extremely narcissistic merry-go-round, when you awaken beyond it, when you see beyond, experience yourself beyond it, it literally is like coming out of a prison.
It’s important to understand this is not a personal problem of any particular individual. It’s a cultural epidemic. And the only way out of it, in my experience, and I’ve been working on this with a lot of people for a long time, is that the individual, you know, you or me as individuals, have to become very interested, very inspired, to transcend this condition; otherwise we’re probably just not going to do it because it becomes an emotional and psychological habit. This self-referencing all the time just becomes habitual. So unless we’re very committed to transcending a compulsively narcissistic and self-centered relationship to experience itself, we probably won’t do it.
Directed / Produced byJonathan Fowler & Elizabeth Rodd