Apropos of nothing, I want to tell you about collective narcissism. I’m not really sure where I’m going with this, so bear with me. Or don’t. It’s your time and they’re your eyes you’re reading with this with.
Collective narcissism is defined as an emotional investment in a belief in the unparalleled greatness of an in-group which is dependent on external validation. To quote an expert, “Collective narcissists aren’t personally grandiose – if anything they may feel individually powerless – but can be cult-like in their devotion to a national, religious or ideological identity with which they identify”.
According to the collective narcissism scale, collective narcissists are particularly sensitive to the smallest offence to their group’s image. Unlike individuals with narcissistic personalities, who hold inflated views of themselves, collective narcissists exaggerate offences to their group, and respond to them aggressively. Collective narcissists believe their group’s importance and worth are not sufficiently recognised by others. They feel that their group merits special treatment, and insist it gets the recognition and respect it deserves. In other words, collective narcissism amounts to a belief in the exaggerated greatness of one’s group and demands external validation.
Collective narcissists are not interested in just being members of a valuable group. They don’t invest their time and energy in the group’s betterment. Instead, their activism involves monitoring whether others, particularly out-group members, recognise and acknowledge the enormous value and special worth of their group. To achieve this, collective narcissists demand privileged treatment, not equal rights. The need for continuous external validation, of this inflated group image, is what distinguishes collective narcissists from those who simply hold positive feelings about the group they belong to.
If collective narcissists perceive their group to be offended, they respond with disproportionate punishments towards the offending party. This is true even if the perceived insult is not intended or perceived by others or is of a debatable nature. As their self-worth is invested in the group, collective narcissists cannot disassociate themselves from the group. Their motivation stems from advancing the group, rather than themselves.
Collective narcissism is associated with sensory processing difficulties. Highly sensitive people are more vulnerable to negative stimuli and to negative experiences undermining their psychological wellbeing. This tendency towards negative emotional responses may predispose the collective narcissist’s belief about the lack of recognition for the in-group’s importance. This also suggests collective narcissism may be underlined by a lack of emotional resilience and the inability to self-soothe when faced with adversity.
A recent study found evidence, in fMRI scan results, that narcissists’ experiences of social rejection can be extremely distressing, despite their contrary claims. Another study found people derive emotional pleasure from responding to rejection with aggression. It is likely, as collective narcissists often use aggression to reduce their distress, that they feel similarly distressed when they perceive their group to be rejected or somehow undermined. It has also been suggested that the “perceived threat to the assumed greatness of the in-group may be chronic because, at least partially, it may come from within, rather than outside. The unacknowledged doubts about the in-group’s greatness may motivate collective narcissists constantly to seek signs of criticism or disrespect of the in-group”.
This investment in retaliation to perceived and imaginary insults can make collective narcissists blind to actual threats to themselves and others. It has been proposed that collective narcissists “accept harming individuals for the sake of the group.” It is this that can make collective narcissists particularly dangerous and worrying.
The answer to collective narcissism, unsurprisingly, is not to indulge it, but to deal with the individual issues that make it attractive to people. Working on self-esteem and encouraging people to work for the betterment of their group and to take pride and joy in belonging to the community has been suggested as a solution. It’s well known that increase in self-esteem leads to an increase in tolerance of others. To be clear, this is not about external validation but an increase in self-worth. It is not the responsibility of others to manage the feelings of individuals, although it is our responsibility, as a society, to ensure people are able to develop those skills.
Collective narcissism is not peculiar to one group. It has been found to exist in “national ethnic, religious, football fans and gender groups”. Anyone subscribing to a group identity, ideology or political theory should be wary of it. If your entire self-worth is invested in belonging to a group, and you always need your perception of the group to be externally validated, to the point that your time and energy is solely concentrated on proving it is not, you are probably not working for the betterment of others, or even yourself.