Are performers raging narcissists?

“Actors and actresses, because that’s their career, can be sort of self-obsessed.”

Kristen BellKristen Bell says that for her film “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” she “just looked into the depths of the most hard-to-admit or vulnerable or bad characteristics of my own personality and what an actress can become if given that kind of self indulgence or that amount of vanity.

“That I think anybody could really become. But actors and actresses especially, because that’s their career, to be sort of self-obsessed. And there’s a lot of comedy in that.”

[From interview by Paul Fischer March 27th 2008.]

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“Narcissism is part of my personality”

Ben Affleck signing autographsWhen asked about narcissism and being an actor, Ben Affleck admitted,

“I’d say it’s the one quality that unites everybody in the film industry, whether you’re an actor, a producer, a director, or a studio executive.

“You want people to look at you and love you and go, Oh, you’re wonderful.”

But, he continued, “It’s a nightmare. Narcissism is the part of my personality that I am the least proud of, and I certainly don’t like to see it highlighted in everybody else I meet.”

[Interview mag., Dec. 1997]

[Photo from]

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Sarah SilvermanSarah Silverman commented in an interview about discovering the writing of psychologist Alice Miller: “There’s a book called ‘Drama of the Gifted Child’ given to me by my sister, and I was thinking, This is unbelievable. It’s all about me. I related to it so much.

“And I asked a friend of mine if she’d read it, and she said that Alice Miller originally titled the book ‘Drama of the Narcissistic Child’ – but she knew that no one who needed to read it would buy it. That was really funny, and a little bit embarrassing.”

[From Making ‘Magic’ (And Trouble) with Sarah Silverman, NPR, Fresh Air audio interview, Oct 3, 2007; photo from “Sarah Silverman: Jesus is Magic.”]

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The psychology of narcissism

But what is narcissism? The basic idea is being obsessively self-absorbed, always putting your own needs first, having poor empathy or appreciation for other people’s needs etc. But what is behind someone operating that way?

Alice Miller writes in The Drama of the Gifted Child about childhood harm leading to compromised emotional life as an adult, including those kinds of behavior.

Miller has been quoted about the word ‘gifted’ in the title: “I had in mind neither children who receive high grades in school nor children talented in a special way. I simply meant all of us who have survived an abusive childhood thanks to an ability to adapt even to unspeakable cruelty by becoming numb… Without this ‘gift’ offered us by nature, we would not have survived.”

She writes in the book, “A little reflection soon shows how inconceivable it is really to love others (not merely to need them), if one cannot love oneself as one really is.

“And how could a person do that if, from the very beginning, he has had no chance to experience his true feelings and to learn to know himself? For the majority of sensitive people, the true self remains deeply and thoroughly hidden. But how can you love something you do not know, something that has never been loved?

DIY Self-Esteem program“So it is that many a gifted person lives without any notion of his or her true self. Such people are enamored of an idealized, conforming, false self.

“They will shun their hidden and lost true self, unless depression makes them aware of its loss or psychosis confronts them harshly with that true self, whom they now have to face and to whom they are delivered up, helplessly, as to a threatening stranger.”

Miller says in looking at the origins of this loss of the self in the book, she chooses not to use the term “narcissism.”

“However, in my clinical descriptions,” she adds, “I shall speak occasionally of a healthy narcissism and depict the ideal case of a person who is genuinely alive, with free access to the true self and his authentic feelings.

“I shall contrast this with narcissistic disorders, with the true self’s ‘solitary confinement’ within the prison of the false self. This I see less as an illness than as tragedy, and it is my aim in this book to break away from judgmental, isolating, and therefore discriminating terminology.”

[From Direct Quotes from The Drama of the Gifted Child.]

See more quotes of Alice Miller in article: Creative People, Trauma and Mental Health.

Photo is from self-guided course: DIY Self-Esteem by Joanna Moore. – See more in article: Programs for Introverts and Highly Sensitive People.

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Celebrities and narcissism

In his article The narcissist, unmasked, Benedict Carey describes qualities that fit many celebrity level performers, as well as other professionals:

“They’ve got the most fabulous personal trainer in town, the best lawyer, the top BMW mechanic, and make sure the world knows it.

“They’re charming enough to attract friends, associates and lovers — only to drop them as soon as better prospects show up. They need the best table in the house, the lion’s share of the conversation and, above all, top billing, whether on the marquee or in the mailroom.

“While familiar at almost any level of society, these peacocks find Southern California an especially comfortable habitat. In the warm bath of sunlight and celebrity, their behavior can be entertaining, even encouraged, and it’s usually relatively harmless.

“Yet some of these seemingly overconfident people are actually in considerable psychological trouble, suffering what psychiatrists call narcissistic personality disorder, one of the most self-destructive and difficult-to-treat conditions in the lexicon of mental illness.

“For contrary to Narcissus of Greek legend, who was enthralled by his own reflection in a pool of water, researchers say that roughly 1 million Americans with this personality disorder act not from self-love but from a kind of self-loathing, a dread of failure and an inability to endure its emotional fallout — shame.

“Millions more are thought to suffer from narcissistic tendencies, due to similar but less extreme fears. Recent research suggests that this anguish develops in early childhood, and that therapists can help put it to rest.” [Los Angeles Times, Oct 14 2002]

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Vera FarmigaActor Vera Farmiga cautions,

“This business [entertainment] is tough, it is so tough.

“But my first and foremost thing is like, ego always gets in the way.

“You gotta keep that in check – you got to.”

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Does fame and power fuel narcissism?

Another perspective is offered by writer Stephen Sherrill in his New York Times article Acquired Situational Narcissism.

“We all know that movie stars, professional athletes, rich people and politicians often act like complete jackasses,” he writes, “but Robert B. Millman, professor of psychiatry at Cornell Medical School and the medical adviser to Major League Baseball, thinks he knows why. The cause, he says, is acquired situational narcissism, a psychological dysfunction that Millman was the first to identify and that he treats in his celebrity patients.”

Sherrill explains, “People who aspire to stardom tend to be more narcissistic than others, but they don’t develop a true narcissistic personality disorder until they begin to achieve success: the first platinum album, the first appearance in Vanity Fair’s ‘Young Hollywood’ issue, the first public fling with Winona Ryder.”

Not necessarily craziness

Having these sort of narcissistic tendencies doesn’t mean you are “crazy” or necessarily need therapy.

But it can be helpful to our emotional growth and power as creative people to be more aware of how we operate, and change what doesn’t serve us well.

Richard Gere once commented, “The more I grow, the less I become this egocentric thing that is prone to anger and hatred and all this other stuff. The trick is to get out of the way of the ego, so that whatever is of value illuminating inside you or me or the waiter or anybody else can be seen. The job of the creative person is to get out of the way.” [LA Times, 1/5/03]

Ego self-esteem

Spiritual writer Eckhart Tolle [Meg Ryan made Oprah aware of his book The Power of Now] distinguishes two kinds of self esteem.

“First there is the ego self-esteem,” he says.

“Even if you have high ego self-esteem, there’s always hidden fear underneath it. It’s always there to compensate for the fear you feel of not being good enough or perhaps failing. So you need to play a role of being big to compensate for fear of failure that’s deep down.

“But the world would say he or she has high self-esteem. People who have big egos. But the world doesn’t realize that that’s not true self-esteem.”

True self-esteem, he explains, “goes much deeper. It’s finding the source of power and aliveness deep inside.”

From article Eckhart Tolle on Shyness, Self-esteem and Ego.

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Related article:

Michael Keaton in Birdman-300

Creativity and Ego“My personal creative process has always been very torturous, because I try to be a perfectionist. That’s the way the ego works.” – ‘Birdman’ director Alejandro González Iñarritu.

“He bought the whole thing of: People will love me, I’ll be famous, I’ll be rich, I’ll have a few big houses, I’ll have women, I’m important, what I say is important…” Michael Keaton on his character.

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Identity and Being Creative – Psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman comments: “Creative expression equals self-expression… So anything we can do to firm up our identity, figure out who we are, separate from others, and what it is we really want to express – that influences our information processing of everything in the world.”

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Alice Miller’s site

Books by Alice Miller:
The Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for the True Self
The Untouched Key: Tracing Childhood Trauma in Creativity and Destructiveness

Another book: Sam Vaknin, Ph.D.  Malignant Self Love: Narcissism Re-Visited

Related article: Ego and Creativity

Related page:  Ego / narcissism


Article publié pour la première fois le 24/10/2014