Although we toss the term "narcissist" around like grass seed nowadays (often in reference to Wall Street and political hubris), Slate's Emily Yoffe makes the point that in fact narcissism is a bona fide, APA-stamped psychological disorder, likely originating in childhood. Says Yoffe, "This is the cultural moment of the narcissist. "
The same word is used to describe a quality that comes in three gradations: a characteristic that in the right amount is a normal component of healthy ego; a troublesome trait when there is too much; and a pathological state when it overwhelms a personality. Narcissism fuels drive and ambition, a desire to be recognized for one's accomplishments, a sense that one's life has meaning and importance. The problem occurs when narcissism becomes the primary principle of someone's personality. Its most extreme form is narcissistic personality disorder, a psychological condition that impairs a person's ability to form normal relationships and wreaks havoc on those who have close encounters with it.
Although until recently NPD has flown under the psychiatric radar, it seems primed to be the stuff of mass vigilante diagnosis - despite the fact that the APA, controversially, estimates that only 1 percent of the population suffers from it. For one thing, Dr. Drew, who ministers to celebrities full time and so should know, has written a book about it: The Mirror Effect, in which he hypothesizes that celebs like those whom he treats in Celebrity Rehab are predisposed to the disorder, and that their tendencies are exploited by a hungry public, unkind media, and unscrupulous casting directors. As a result, unhealthy behavior is held up as a normal model, particularly to young people who are vulnerable to influence, and in turn these tendencies are further encouraged by networking phenomena like Facebook. Quoth the good Dr., ""Without appropriate monitoring, these social networking platforms are subject to abuse by those who are most vulnerable to the endless feedback loop they create...This is known as an urge/compulsion/reinforcement cycle, and it's very similar to what happens to those who crave drugs or other addictive substances."
In Kleypas' novel, the heroine, Haven Travis, escapes from an abusive marriage with a man who turns out to have NPD, which in turn (without wishing to give anything away) precipitates a crisis when he is thwarted of power and attention. Using the disorder in the novel - and disseminating information about the disorder, as Kleypas does at book's end - is a good thing, as is any popular acknowledgment of mental illness - and, particularly, abusive-prone behaviors. But the sudden ubiquity of the disorder is odd, like it's everyone's latest discovery, cocktail party term, fear. I'd hate to see something stigmatized to the extent that people who need it don't seek help; if it's just going to be shorthand for "villainous asshole," how will that help anyone but a psychological profiler? Similarly, if it becomes the new "sex addiction" - a very specific disorder tossed around as an excuse for bad behavior - Dr. Drew's aims would seem to be thwarted. And if a recession marks the cultural moment of the narcissist, well, let's just hope the economy doesn't get any worse.