What do Oprah Winfrey, Alec Baldwin, Paris Hilton, Warren Beatty, Madonna, Tom Cruise and Bruce (aka Caitlyn) Jenner have in common?
Well yes, they're all celebrities.
But there's something more. Something that might have even driven them to become famous.
They're all hopelessly self-absorbed. They're all intense mirror-gazers. They're all the center and the ever-present raison d'etre of their own universes.
They are all probably narcissists.
Narcissists are focused on one thing: themselves and how they can stand apart and above others. That's why they often become entertainers, business or corporate leaders or politicians. They will do whatever they have to do to bask in their own reflections, preferably in the spotlight.
When we talk about narcissism, we're talking about something larger and often more menacing than a big ego. We're talking about a big ego on crack.
A narcissist is preoccupied with fantasies of unparalleled success, beauty or brilliance. He or she requires excessive devotion, admiration, even adulation. Narcissists have a strong sense or entitlement. If they don't meet their goals or if something goes wrong, it's always someone else's fault, not theirs. Narcissists lack empathy for others. As entertainers or leaders, they might feign sensitivity or concern, but don't be fooled. When push comes to shove, they simply don't care. They are often arrogant are haughty. They can be cruel or dismissive. They will often use or manipulate others if they have to so they can get what they want.
Yes, there are degrees of narcissism. Mildly narcissistic people often use their narcissism as a defense mechanism. Many of them actually feel insecure and inadequate. High-functioning narcissists are often exhibitionists who break all the rules and get away with it because we are dazzled by their talents, their abilities, their intensity and their success. At its worst extreme, narcissism becomes malignant and is characterized by anger, a constant thirst for power, cruelty and megalomania. Think Castro, Gaddafi, bin Laden, Stalin and Hitler. And to these we might add Ted Bundy and Lee Harvey Oswald.
Most of the narcissists who have brought us into this current media-saturated Age of Narcissism are of the high-functioning type. They specialize in mesmerizing us with their vaulted star-power -- a power that may actually be as cheap and deceiving as the mirror they gaze upon.
There's little doubt at this time that President Obama is a narcissist -- probably a combination of the mild type (one suspects there's a core of insecurity there) and the high-functioning type (he needs to be in charge or at least feel in charge). Obama really gets off on being perceived as cool and he can hardly stop talking about himself. One senses in him a constant quest for superstardom.
Donald Trump is most likely a high-functioning narcissist. Trump has admitted that he never asked God for forgiveness for anything. Apparently, he never felt the need to. Nonetheless, Trump's remarkable success cannot be denied, right? Sure, and he'd be the first to remind you of that. A marketer without equal, Trump truly is his own brand. Who knows, maybe God will have to ask Trump for forgiveness?
Bill Clinton is almost certainly a narcissist. His appetite for praise, attention and devotion cannot be sated. As for Bruce (Caitlyn) Jenner he/she proves a narcissist will go to the extremes, altering his own anatomy and persona to remain front and center. His/her absorption with his/her own appearance, beauty and attractiveness defies all reason. Ideally, one assumes, Bruce would end up marrying Caitlyn -- a match made in narcissistic heaven.
The dazzling Liberace was a narcissist. Though he was a hugely-successful entertainer, he simply could not get beyond himself. He was a user, a sexual predator and, in the end an empty, lonely, sick man.
In many cases, narcissists are running away from their origins and their past. They don't necessarily want to know who they really are or where they came from. In fact, they often quash all that, assuming new names, new identities and even creating new histories for themselves. That certainly seems to have been the case for Clinton, Obama and, to some extent, even Oprah.
Today's social media didn't create narcissism but it does feed it. It's catnip to narcissists because it provides them with an instant fix. It's a quick outlet for attention cravers. That's why you'll find Lady Gaga and Kanye West and all those women whose names begin with "K" there (we wouldn't dare mention them lest we give them more publicity).
Narcissism is the opposite of character. Yes, there are a lot of characters who are narcissistic but you can't possess true character and be a narcissist. That would require you to give up any sense of humility, decency and compassion.
And high-functioning narcissist should not be confused with or mingled with charisma, though this often happens. Charisma requires charm and grace and an inaccessibility that narcissists don't exhibit. Charismatic people naturally know when to hold back -- when to draw the drapes a bit. Narcissists can't do this. They almost always go too far.
JFK, FDR and Reagan were all charismatic. Yes, they had a healthy sense of themselves -- and with good reason. An aristocrat who overcame a disability, a war hero thrust into the political arena and a movie-star who became the leader of the free world, they all overcame odds and achieved remarkable success. Yet, none of them ever succumbed to narcissism. They remained well-grounded. They had a keen sense of who they were and where they came from and, always, they saw a world beyond themselves.
There's something cheap and tinny and hollow about narcissists. They're so in-your-face.
And even the most seemingly talented ones lack dimension. Think about it: Could Warren Beatty or Tom Cruise or Alec Baldwin ever really replace John Wayne or Clark Gable or Cary Grant? Could someone like Madonna or Oprah or Beyoncé ever replace Grace Kelly or Lena Horne or Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis?
There was a time when formerly revered and respected pillars such as religion, the structure of a civil society, a sense of manners and the social order acted as a check on narcissists and narcissism.
But we've lost those now. Religion has abandoned its traditional role. Civility is but a catchphrase. And manners? Truly, no one today even knows what etiquette is.
No, we're on our own now.
We're all connected online (with our infantilized attention spans) but we are truly all alone.
And there's not much we can do about it.
It simply remains for each of us to at least know what a narcissist is and watch out for him or her when we see one.