March 22, 2009

Celebrity Narcissism

Vanity by J.W. Waterhouse

Perfect timing! Our family has been discussing the impact of media on our children's lives. We've even discussed the same points Dr. Drew Pinsky brings up in this article: that our kids don't know WHAT'S normal and what isn't. I might add that if we, as parents, don't inform them that celebrities are basically messed-up people and none of us would want the lives they live, our kids will keep mistaking celebrities for role models.


By Sharon Jayson, USA TODAY

The USA's celebrity-obsessed culture is causing us to become more narcissistic, says behavior expert and physician Drew Pinsky, co-author of The Mirror Effect: How Celebrity Narcissism Is Seducing America. It may be especially dangerous for young people, who view celebrities as role models, say co-authors Pinsky (an internist better known on TV and radio as Dr. Drew) and S. Mark Young, a social scientist. Pinsky speaks with USA TODAY:

Q: Let's begin with the title. What do you mean by the "mirror effect," and why do you say it's a problem?

A: I've been working with celebrities many, many years. I've treated many for chemical dependency and the like. They have profound childhood trauma. It's not something to do with their job or the life they lead. They just happen to be people driven to seek celebrity as a way to make themselves feel better. Then the question becomes, why are we preoccupied with this population? This points toward the mirror. We, too, have been increasingly narcissistic. I speculate that that's what drives us toward this phenomenon of elevating people to almost god-like status. It's not so much that it's the glamour we like focusing on — rather it's the dysfunction. We're taking someone who needs to be a god and making them a god. Then we spend all our energy tearing them down.

Q: Is there a difference between a narcissist and someone who has a true disorder?

A: Narcissism is a continuum of traits. There is a point at which it crosses into disorder. The traits are far more common. The disorder is relatively uncommon.

Q: But isn't it healthy to have a strong ego?

A: To feel good about oneself and want to see our reflected glory in another person's eyes is not negative. There's a creative energy that is very positive. But when it gets out of control, such as losing empathy or acting out and not reflecting upon dysfunctional behavior, that's when we have concerns.

Q: Your academic study, published in 2006 in the Journal of Research in Personality, found that celebrities, especially female celebrities, are significantly more narcissistic than the general population. You also suggest celebrities may have narcissistic tendencies prior to becoming stars.

A: Anna Nicole Smith — she's a poster child for this phenomenon, a very severe case. She was a severe trauma survivor, an opiate addict. She left the country to act out her addiction.

Q: Let's go back for a minute to this idea of our culture promoting this focus on celebrities. What's so harmful about focusing on celebrities?

A: We should be concerned. It's anathema to what's healthy for humans — interpersonal experiences and being of service — as opposed to preoccupying oneself with extreme, chaotic, dysfunctional behavior and modeling those behaviors and wishing to be part of that and never experiencing a stable family life and not being able to trust other people or themselves. For those who say "It's just fun," why are you motivated to look at those people? Why gravitate to watching their troubles and their pathology? That's not OK. You feel better about your life with their misery. That's not what I call an admirable impulse.

Q: Why do you say teens and young adults are most vulnerable?

A: They are the sponges of our culture. Their values are now being set. Are they really the values we want our young people to be absorbing? Do we want them to have a revolving-door love life, or stable relationships? It harkens back to the question of how much are young people affected by models of social learning. Humans are the only animals who learn by watching other humans. Why don't we examine human reality here? Why don't we have that conversation and use it as an opportunity to look at the behavior of people and say "What is it really about? What can we learn and avoid that kind of behavior?" If parents don't intervene, that's where kids go.

Q: What can parents do to protect their kids from narcissistic tendencies?

A: Narcissism has eroded into parenting styles. We, as narcissists, try to parent experiencing the child as an emotional extension of ourselves. We can't tolerate pain for the child — allowing them to be frustrated and to fail. We want to give our kids everything. I'm saying parents themselves have become narcissists, along with the rest of the population.

Q: While your book bemoans the state of our society, which can't seem to get enough of celebrities and their outrageous behavior, doesn't your participation on the VH1 reality show Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew actually reinforce that obsession?

A: We unveil all the traumas and reveal what's going on with these people. We pull the curtain back and show you who these human beings are and where there is real suffering. It's a bait and switch. We're using the celebrity draw and trying it on people to show the reality. The celebrities have all been very pleased to be part of it because they want be an inspiration to other people.

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