As published on the Huffington Post
It’s interesting to see how often we relate narcissism to celebrities and how the media very quickly labels those folks narcissists. We have a thing about celebrities and prominent people these days. We tend to assume that someone driven to do something that puts them in the public eye must be a narcissist. Oftentimes the public and media go with the story line that all actors and performers are narcissists, and of course, everyone “knows” that all politicians, especially whoever is in the White House, is definitely a narcissist. But is that really the case?
I frequently get asked “Are there specific professions that attract narcissists?”, and usually the person asking is seeking assurance that their particular line of work is not full of narcissists. But it’s not that simple. There are narcissists in every line of work, in every facet of life. Although it’d be handy, you can’t assume someone is a narcissist because of what they do for a living.
It is commonly presumed that actors are narcissists. This was reinforced by a study in 2006 by Dr. Drew Pinsky which concluded that actors are more narcissistic than the rest of the population. This seemed to buoy up the assumptions we tend to make about actors. Gene Wilder had a theory that all actors are narcissists - he thought that actors are often created out of a troubled home in which they must play different roles to gain the attention of the parents. The child’s attempt to please the parent leads to pleasing others in an attempt to be loved. He’s right that this is considered to be an element that lays the foundation for narcissism in later life. And, he’s probably right that this has been the situation for some actors.
Yet, some actors are highly emotionally aware and bring their power for emotional empathy to their roles - it is BECAUSE of their curiosity about the human experience and BECAUSE of their empathy, their ability to understand what life is like for another human, that they are an actor. Performers who choose their art form from an authentic curiosity and drive to learn, experiment, and share their craft are unlikely to be narcissists. Performers who chose to their art form as an avenue to fame, for the sake of being admired, are probably narcissists.
Now, on to politicians. I’ll admit, this one is harder to argue, but it’s true that not all politicians are narcissists. Our current media images of politicians totally reinforce the idea that all of them are narcissists - think about some of the politicians seen on Scandal, Kevin Spacey’s Francis Underwood on House of Cards, and (to hilarious rather than dire effect) Julia Louis Dreyfus’ Selina Meyer on Veep. Although if one thinks way back to the old history of Martin Sheen’s president Josiah Bartlett on The West Wing, one might recall him as an example of a normal man as president.
What we in the public frequently don’t think about celebrities and prominent people is that we know the person the media presents to us. Our picture is very incomplete and it can be easy to judge based on the little we know. When one prominent person is shown up as self-absorbed to a debilitating level, we turn a jaundiced eye on all of them. As a rule of thumb, it’s easier to conclude that they are all narcissists and therefore all suspect. The truth is that there are emotionally healthy people in all walks of life, and there are narcissists in all walks of life. Understanding something about the difference can allow us to stop condemning perfectly normal people who simply are drawn to particular fields.