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Of Mel Gibson, Narcissus and Stress

mel-gibson-oksanaA sad pattern seems to be emerging: as Mel Gibson becomes distressed, some self-medication ensues, allegedly alcohol. The medication, instead of solving the problem, appears to merely loosen Mel’s inhibitions and he unleashes a now painfully public tirade laced with profanity, discrimination, and sexism. In many quarters, his behavior has been described as the epitome of narcissism. But is this really his problem? Let’s consider the story of Echo and Narcissus.

In the vicinity of Mt. Olympus, about 2,500 years ago, the sylvan nymph Echo fell in love with Narcissus. Narcissus was an uncommonly handsome and incredibly vain man who would live on beyond Greek mythology and become the eponym of self-centeredness. He rejected Echo’s love with such callousness and contempt that she died of a broken heart. Apollo, angered by Narcissus’ vanity and cruelty, cursed him to die without ever knowing human love. Not too long afterwards, as a thirsty Narcissus went to a pool of clear water and knelt beside it to drink, he saw his face reflected on the surface of the water and fell in love with it. Unable to reach the image in the water, Narcissus continued to stare at it forgetting everything else, and eventually died beside the pool.

From ancient tale to modern problem, the term narcissism today describes a mental disorder that is characterized by an excessive positive self-evaluation and near-total lack of consideration for others. As a personality type, a narcissist is prone to a grandiose evaluations of self, a constant preoccupation with success and power, an exaggerated sense of entitlement, and an exploitative approach to others. A narcissistic personality shows an enduring pattern of personal adjustment characterized by grandiosity, need for attention and admiration, and a lack of empathy. Individuals with this disorder believe that they are special and are excessively envious of others while being preoccupied with their own achievement and power.

Freud believed narcissism originated in childhood, making it particularly difficult to treat in adults. There is much controversy as to the core problem in narcissism. Some believe it may be primarily an emotional problem; others view it as a cognitive deficit, i.e. the narcissist’s inability to construct an accurate view of self. A third school of thought theorizes that a narcissist is cursed with an ‘‘empty’’ sense of self; yet another group argues that the narcissist may have a ‘‘disorganized’’ self.

The problem that originates all these theories as to the origin of narcissism is produced by the lack of accurate measurements of its impact and severity. Narcissistic people do not admit their problems when asked. When diagnosed, they are very reluctant to cooperate with the treating therapist. In fact, they are widely considered by clinicians as among the most intractable of mental health patients.

In the most recent large-scale research, Russ, Bradley, Shedler, and Westen (2006) have produced evidence that a clinical distinction may be made between grandiose narcissism, characterized by genuinely inflated views of self and a need-gratifying approach toward other people and relationships, and fragile narcissism, characterized by explicit grandiosity paired with feelings of inadequacy or self-loathing.

So where can we place Mr. Gibson along the continuum from normal self-evaluation to narcissism?  If there is narcissism in his personality, would it be the grandiose, or rather the fragile type? Without falling into the trap of long-distance diagnosis, a few comments can be made on his reported behavior. First, if there is self-medication with alcohol as has been reported, the something that is being medicated hurts, perhaps deeply, at the emotional level. Relationship problems, as they have been reported to exist, invariably cause emotional reactivity and chronic sympathetic arousal, i.e. chronic stress. The combination of stress and the disinhibiting effects of self-medication can produce a state of mind that exacerbates any feelings of entitlement, lack of empathy for others and an exploitative approach to problem-solving (a condition popularly known as an amygdala hijack).

It would seem that there is a match with Mr. Gibson’s recently broadcast telephone rants.