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Acquired Situational Narcissism

By: Dr. Sam Vaknin

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Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is a systemic, all-pervasive condition, very much like pregnancy: either you have it or you don't. Once you have it, you have it day and night, it is an inseparable part of the personality, a recurrent set of behavior patterns.

Recent research (1996) by Roningstam and others, however, shows that there is a condition which might be called "Transient or Temporary or Short Term Narcissism" as opposed to the full-fledged version. Even prior to their discovery, "Reactive Narcissistic Regression" was well known: people regress to a transient narcissistic phase in response to a major life crisis which threatens their mental composure.

Reactive or transient narcissism may also be triggered by medical or organic conditions. Brain injuries, for instance, have been known to induce narcissistic and antisocial traits and behaviors.

But can narcissism be acquired or learned? Can it be provoked by certain, well-defined, situations?

Robert B. Millman, professor of psychiatry at New York Hospital - Cornell Medical School thinks it can. He proposes to reverse the accepted chronology. According to him, pathological narcissism can be induced in adulthood by celebrity, wealth, and fame.

The "victims" - billionaire tycoons, movie stars, renowned authors, politicians, and other authority figures - develop grandiose fantasies, lose their erstwhile ability to empathize, react with rage to slights, both real and imagined and, in general, act like textbook narcissists.

But is the occurrence of Acquired Situational Narcissism (ASN) inevitable and universal - or are only certain people prone to it?

It is likely that ASN is merely an amplification of earlier narcissistic conduct, traits, style, and tendencies. Celebrities with ASN already had a narcissistic personality and have acquired it long before it "erupted". Being famous, powerful, or rich only "legitimized" and conferred immunity from social sanction on the unbridled manifestation of a pre-existing disorder. Indeed, narcissists tend to gravitate to professions and settings which guarantee fame, celebrity, power, and wealth.

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As Millman correctly notes, the celebrity's life is abnormal. The adulation is often justified and plentiful, the feedback biased and filtered, the criticism muted and belated, social control either lacking or excessive and vitriolic. Such vicissitudinal existence is not conducive to mental health even in the most balanced person.

The confluence of a person's narcissistic predisposition and his pathological life circumstances gives rise to ASN. Acquired Situational Narcissism borrows elements from both the classic Narcissistic Personality Disorder - ingrained and all-pervasive - and from Transient or Reactive Narcissism.

Celebrities are, therefore, unlikely to "heal" once their fame or wealth or might are gone. Instead, their basic narcissism merely changes form. It continues unabated, as insidious as ever - but modified by life's ups and downs.

In a way, all narcissistic disturbances are acquired. Patients acquire their pathological narcissism from abusive or overbearing parents, from peers, and from role models. Narcissism is a defense mechanism designed to fend off hurt and danger brought on by circumstances - such as celebrity - beyond the person's control.

Social expectations play a role as well. Celebrities try to conform to the stereotype of a creative but spoiled, self-centered, monomaniacal, and emotive individual. A tacit trade takes place. We offer the famous and the powerful all the Narcissistic Supply they crave - and they, in turn, act the consummate, fascinating albeit repulsive, narcissists.

But ASN may occur in a variety of other situations. Codependents, aiming to fend off gnawing abandonment anxiety, can resort to and evolve narcissistic and even psychopathic behaviours and traits in order to cater the whims of their “loved” ones; in anomic societies and depraved cultural or religious settings, people with a conformist bend tend to adopt antisocial modes of conduct and personal style so as to “fit in” and belong.

How can we tell whether one’s narcissism is of the ephemeral, derivative variety - or an integral, immutable, and inalienable feature of his or her personality? By applying the test of “Three Rs”: Remorse, Remediation, and Restoration.

To qualify, remorse has to be expressed repeatedly and must be heartfelt. It should entail a modicum of sacrifice, embarrassment, and inconvenience. Regretting one’s misdeeds in public is more convincing than sending a private missive or whispering “sorry” anonymously. Remediation requires making amends and offering reparations, which are commensurate with the offending acts and bear some symbolic relation to them. Thus, financial abuse can be absolved only with the aid of a monetary compensation that corresponds to the damage done and suffered. Finally, restoration involves affording one’s victims the opportunity for closure, if not forgiveness, so that they can move on with their lives.

True narcissists and psychopaths fail the Three Rs test at every turn: their remorse is feigned and ostentatious; they provide little or no recompense; and they never put themselves at the victim’s disposal to allow her to achieve that she needs most: closure.


Also Read

Telling Them Apart

Facilitating Narcissism

Narcissists - Stable or Unstable?

The Narcissist in the Workplace

The Professions of the Narcissist

Addiction to Fame and Celebrity

Narcissists in Positions of Authority

Celebrities Want to be Alone? (USA Today)

Narcissism, Substance Abuse, and Reckless Behaviours

CNN Cover story: Reality bites after the lights go out


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