The institutionalization of narcissism in our societyBy Russ Cashin

I was reading the definition of narcissism in one of my psychology textbooks recently when it struck me that while in psychoanalytic terms this condition is generally used to apply to individuals, institutions can also demonstrate many of the same characteristics as those individuals who have been diagnosed with narcissism — or more specifically, narcissistic personality disorder.

While companies aren’t really individuals (well, unless we consider that the U.S. Supreme Court specifies that it sometimes is) we must understand that organizations do have characteristics or behavior patterns that could be described in terms of personality types. In fact, when researching this notion, I discovered that some psychological researchers, in referring to organizations, discuss what is called “arrogant organization disorder” and also mention the term “institutional narcissism.”

A simple definition of narcissism is “a pattern of grandiosity, hypersensitivity to the evaluation (criticism) by others, and a lack of empathy.”

Using this basic definition, I began to reflect upon our political system and the overwhelming feeling that we as citizens and constituents are unheard and even abandoned by our representatives. I then considered the likelihood that political parties and government institutions have for some time exhibited a sickness that could be described in terms of a personality disorder.

It is time we become aware of the fact that most institutions, by the very nature of their hierarchical structure — a top-down approach, if you will — tend to lack empathy. The problem is in the rigidity and tradition of the structure. As the rules of bodies or institutions become codified and inflexible, their interests take almost a complete precedence over the individual. Further, as organizations grow in size, they turn out to be increasingly influenced by profit or the power they begin to wield, or both. Soon, the reputation of the institution becomes paramount, and it may become hypersensitive to criticism. While grandiosity on an organizational level seems a little harder to pin down, think about grandiosity as a “we’re number one” mentality.

As I reflected on various companies I have worked for, I often saw this type of thinking within the sales organization and management of nearly every corporation. This same type of grandiosity occurs when a politician states, “We are the greatest nation on earth!” Unfortunately, these patriotically stylized statements are never true for all. “Greatness” would depend on which sector of the population you are talking about. There are many groups of individuals who have been harmed by U.S. government actions in the history of our country and might not agree with that sentiment.

Now, let’s move from the psychological point of view on this subject of institutional narcissism to a slightly different perspective, perhaps a more “spiritual” one. Some years ago, I read the very popular book by Don Miguel Ruiz, M.D. called “The Four Agreements” and a follow-up book by him, “The Voice of Knowledge.” Both of these books explain how we view the world from our own unique point of view, our own universe if you will, and that we are the “center of our perception,” which we experience through our own senses. We then interpret these sensations from our personal knowledge, which because of the way we are taught (Ruiz calls it the “domestication of the human”) creates our unique individual perspectives.

In “The Voice of Knowledge,” Ruiz retells the story from the book of Genesis in the Old Testament about the Tree of Knowledge and the serpent found in that tree. He describes the process through which human beings by partaking of the fruit of the tree not only receive knowledge but also eat the lies set forth by the serpent.

Using this analogy, the “knowledge” that we consume through early conditioning is contaminated with lies and subsequently creates an entire structure in our minds. This becomes the “thinking” we all experience, which from a cognitive perspective is composed of both rational and irrational beliefs. When humans create organizations, we then replicate this structure of knowledge externally and project it into the framework of those institutions.

If we take Ruiz’s point of view that thinking is the problem and that the information we believe is contaminated with “lies,” why would we expect the institutions and those we elect to lead them be any different? Why would we expect them to not lie to us, especially if these organizations or institutions by the very nature of their structure frequently lack empathy by placing power and/or profit above the individual?

So what can we do to change this? Using one the teachings from the Four Agreements series of books, it’s time for each of us to be skeptical of what we hear (including what that voice in our head is saying to us), but we must also learn to listen. In other words, we need to confirm the information — or check the facts, so to speak. It is from a measure of healthy skepticism that we can learn to discriminate truth from lies.

It is also important to be more mindful and meditative so we can calm the incessant talking in our own heads. This helps create a sense of peace and clarity that can increase our ability to see through the systemic deceptions that are coming at us through the various forms of public communication.

We can also take meaningful action by becoming involved in the process of the system as it exists today. We can vote for individual candidates based upon their actual values and their prior actions. Research them and even call and ask questions about their positions on matters important to you. We can stop voting for candidates based upon party or voting straight party. Remember, parties are often themselves symptoms of institutional narcissism.

Narcissistic tendencies are often typical of many who seek high political offices or executive positions as lawmakers are in a position of unique power that can be used to benefit themselves instead of the public. We can temper this narcissism by imposing term limits on political offices, whether elected or appointed, including judges. If we take the career politicians out of politics, it becomes increasingly difficult for the institutions to become rigid and helps them to become more representative of the people’s interest by the very nature of their limited terms.

Now is the time for each of us to find greater clarity and take action before narcissism is further institutionalized and becomes the norm. With increased awareness, we can truly be the change we wish to see and create a future that benefits us all.

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