I’ve spent quite a bit of time lately contemplating the notion of systemic narcissism. I haven’t heard the term before, but I’d like to “coin” it. It may be useful to those of us who are concerned about, victims of, or desirous of change regarding this behavior.
Most of you have heard about systemic racism and all the controversy it gendered recently. I personally, think the term is obvious and if one knows anything about American history, irrefutable.
But what does systemic actually mean? According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, systemic refers to a predominant social, economic, or political practice. It comes from the word “system” and most often describes something that is done according to a system or method. Systemic racism, again according to Webster, is “The oppression of a racial group to the advantage of another as perpetuated by inequality, within interconnected systems (such as political, economic and social systems)”
Narcissism, as described many times on this blog, is characterized by a grandiose sense of self-importance, a lack of personal empathy for others and a belief that one is special and deserving of special attention, and is exempt from normal rules, norms, and mores.
How then, can narcissism be “systemic”? I believe it is becoming systemic withing certain sections of our society and that these segments sometimes overlap. For example, to adhere to systemic racism and support its injustice, one must first be a narcissist. If you can show empathy and concern yourself with the wellbeing of others outside yourself, it’s very difficult to be a racist. Empathy and oppression are in direct opposition to one another. If you are willing to exploit women, be they your employee or partner, then you obviously lack empathy. The exploitation of women has been systemically employed for generations in our nation. It wasn’t until recently, during the “Me Too” movement, that we began to expose it and seriously attempt to eradicate it. If you applaud the holding of children in cages away from their families because they are seeking a better life in American, you lack compassion. This lack of compassion hinders our efforts as a society to try and find better methods of controlling the influx of people coming over our southern borders. Labeling them as criminals, drug dealers and “bad hombres”, does nothing to solve the problem. But it does satisfy the narcissists’ need to feel superior to others.
Donald Trump, the poster child for Sociopathic Narcissism, has unleashed a disease that has been festering in the hearts and minds of many Americans. Millions of people have voted for him over two election cycles. There must be something systemic about that. Certainly, he has systematically informed his followers how to be narcissistic and to relabel it as patriotic and American. He’s done this by lying (a common trait of narcissists), doubling down on his ideas even though they have been proved false (gaslighting, rules don’t apply) and convincing followers that he has the right answers that will “save” them. How many narcissistic mothers, fathers, wives and husbands and bosses employ these same tactics? Now in this new era, what they have been doing in private has moved on to the public platform and is celebrated by millions of people including an entire political party. This is how narcissism is becoming systemic. Once it permeates into the political and economic system and moves out of private lives and social practices, systemization becomes much more possible.
The darker part of our American story reveals that being dependent on the slave trade was inherently narcissistic in the extreme. We can see this as the beginning of systemic racism, but also of systemic narcissism. To run an economic system based on free labor, one had to lie to oneself about what they were doing. Donald Trump wasn’t the first to perpetuate a “Big Lie”. Families were broken apart, cruelty was common, and a sense of American vs. African superiority was the rule of the day. This narcissism became so embedded in the American south that a war was fought, and thousands of lives lost over it. The big landowners were gaslighting the rest of southern society into thinking that to run a country any other way was unthinkable. So too with the colonist’s treatment of the Native Americans. Their lands were taken, their livelihood destroyed, their religions and language forbidden, all for the “big lie” of Manifest Destiny. How many were convinced that they had a special right to do this? How systemic did this belief have to become to allow an entire continent and its people to be ruined? Yes, this was racism, but it was also a lack of empathy, a willingness to think only of oneself and a belief that you and those like you, are special and rules of common decency don’t apply to you.
Then as now, if you weren’t part of the solution, you were part of the problem. WE have a systemic problem of narcissistic behavior in our culture. WE allow it, WE tolerate it, WE, through our silence condone it. This is as true in our personal lives as it is true in our greater society. We must confront narcissism when we meet it; call it out; refuse to cooperate; get assistance when needed. The “small” abuses we tolerate in our marriages, acquaintance groups, and workplaces, contribute to the “Big Lie” that all of this is alright. As a social system, we find ourselves at a juncture. Do we choose democracy or autocracy; compassion or narcissism; truth or the lies we are fed by the narcissists in our lives. Do we take the path of narcissism or one that leads us to confront ourselves honestly?