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Oct 22, 2004 3:54 pm


Acquired Situational Narcissism



Long-distance, pop psychoanalysis is the mark of a hack. It's also tons of fun. So I'm surprised nobody's mentioned"Acquired Situational Narcissism" in the light of Bush's peevish and immature performance in the debates. ASN first made it into the mainstream in a brief piece in the NYT magazine three years ago. In an age where everything has to have its own syndrome, ASN is psychiatry's answer to the question,"why the hell do celebrities behave like that?"

Because the onset occurs well after childhood, celebrity narcissism isn't covered by the textbook definition of the condition. ''Psychoanalytic literature is filled with jargon about how narcissism happens really early,'' says Millman, ''but I realized that given the right situation, it could happen much later.'' That's the Acquisition.

The Situation is fame, money and, even more, the pheromone-like power of fame and money. ''When a billionaire or a celebrity walks into a room,'' says Millman, ''everyone looks at him. He's a prince. He has the power to change your life, and everyone is very conscious of that. So they're drawn to this person. What happens is that he gets so used to everyone looking at him that he stops looking back at them.''

...the tension in the early-developing narcissist is more self-contained. In the acquired situational narcissist, it is also fed by people who surround him. Even worse, the view of the world the acquired situational narcissist is getting is, when you think about it, quite reasonable. ''They are different,'' says Millman. ''They're not normal. And why would they feel normal when every person in the world who deals with them treats them as if they're not?''

I'm only half-joking here. I don't think much of psychiatry in general, but even a pseudo-science can illuminate certain truths. And I think it's true that living in a social bubble where everyone treats you like a deity is bound to change your personality for the worse.

Most of us don't need anyone whispering in our ear,"you are mortal," to be reminded of our own unimportance. From the deli counter to the office, we're all confronted on a daily basis with people who don't consider us anything special and don't particularly care what we think.

The environment the superfamous live in is radically different. And it's very difficult to encounter anyone who's willing to tell you you're wrong or you're being a jackass or that maybe you ought to study up on that issue before you go telling people what you think about it, because you don't know what you're talking about.

Ron Suskind isn't the first reporter to notice that President Bush has deliberately isolated himself from dissenting opinions and voices. "Free-speech zones" keep protest signs out of his line of sight. And the President's refusal to read a newspaper means he doesn't regularly get a perspective on the news that wasn't prepared for him by his staff.

All of that may help explain why GWB seems visibly furious when called upon to explain himself in a neutral forum.

While this problem seems particularly pronounced in George W. Bush, it has to be a problem with every president. How to deal with it? We've invested an office with more power than any one man should ever be trusted to hold. And the environment that surrounds the man who holds that office virtually ensures that he'll become psychologically unhealthy.

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