People nowadays seek to build and maintain a flamboyant self-image that will “disprove” all the damage caused by shame and thereby alleviate the shame, also known as narcissism. Further, such struggles with shame are often partnered with a “winner-loser dynamic”. This term, introduced by renowned psychotherapist Dr. Joseph Burgo, simply introduces a dynamic that separates everyone into either winners or losers.
Devastating yet prominent examples of the consequences of such extreme narcissism are the mass shootings of Columbine, Sandy Hook, and Roseburg, Oregon. Surprisingly, the profiles of the shooters are very similar: all lonely adolescents who dealt with self-deprecation, unable to build and sustain meaningful social connections with other people, succeed in school or at a career. These troubled individuals, whose state was most likely caused by early trauma, are swimming in shame because they feel insignificant. In line with the winner-loser dynamic because of their self-deprecation the adolescents feel like “total, complete losers.” Thus they attempt to transform themselves into winners, or in the case of the mass shootings, media celebrities in the only way they can envision – through spectacular acts of violence.
This winner-loser dynamic also reflects the prevailing cultural values of our Golden Age of Narcissism. We have entered an era in which image and appearances have become more important than our foundational qualities. Unfortunately, our current society continues to remain submissive because in a culture that worships broadcasted stars, lifestyle changes in technology and social media give us a way to project ourselves as winners and to an ever-larger audience of admiring spectators.
Everyone wants to come across as a “winner”, and so we filter through and Photoshop our selfies to look even more attractive before posting them to Instagram. We selectively tweet about our successes and never mention our disappointments. We let all our “followers”, so to say, know about the fabulous lives we lead, the “amazing” parties and concerts we attend, the “trendy” restaurants where we eat at and the fascinating people we know. Sometimes, it’s almost as if not being a part of this movement will exclude us from the inner circle, as if it will detract from our quality of life.
Frankly, it is rather fascinating how early these tendencies occur. A well known study of middle school students in Rochester, New York shows that the majority would prefer to be the personal assistant to a celebrity than to be the president of Yale or Harvard. In the modern world, celebrities are the ultimate winners, and non-stop images of society’s defined “winners” hammers in anxiety about personal significance.
Does my own life have any meaning when I don’t fit the “winners” profile? How do I make myself appear to be a winner?
These questions have become inevitable thoughts that haunt our generation. And when these questions are left unanswered? Shame creeps into our lives. The infamous young men who accumulated massive arsenals and then massacred people were products of this Golden Age of Narcissism; they struggled with the same anxieties as the rest of us, but even more intensely because of the shame at their core. The shooters in both Sandy Hook and Roseburg apparently did extensive research on the forms of destruction that would garner the most media attention in order to answer the questions themselves.
So yes, potentially better background screening might prevent some of these shootings. A more effective mental health care system could help to reach disaffected and disturbed young men before they break. But until we as a society can wean ourselves from seeking a fleeting image and learn to value authenticity, the beauty of imperfections, flaws, and even treasure them as unique qualities that make you, you. The Golden Age of Narcissism will continue making not only the most disadvantaged and disturbed among us feel like social losers, but all of us who cannot align ourselves with the superficial “winner” status.
Rather than floundering around desperate for some way to achieve such perceived status we need to work to truly disrupt the surprisingly prevalent submission to shame. We are generating narcissists birthed from an inability to properly digest their hurt and pain because much of the struggles are negatively reinforced by our society. By simply ignoring those who are drowning in shame we as a society are being irresponsible and negligent. We need to heal our generation from ill-founded shame by destroying the definition and division of people with the winner loser dynamic. We as a society MUST build a dynamic that accepts the differences in people. We need to stop throwing social media as a rationalization to our superficial tendencies and rather properly harness social media and correctly use the power to broadcast in more beneficial ways.