“I’ll climb this blinkin’ ladder ‘til I get right to the top”: Narcissism in Academia

FormbyPoor old George Formby. A difficult life, in the end, punctuated with a glimpse of what it might have been to be a National Treasure as the ukulele-stranging buffoon in 1930s and 40s films. His shtick was that he was no leader at all; he was a hapless everyman who accidentally won the girl. The chorus from one of his most famous songs – When I’m Cleaning Windows – caws, “I’ll climb this blinkin’ ladder ‘til I get right to the top”. You didn’t though, George, did you? You fell off it. The song pushed the boundaries of decency too far for the BBC at the time (there were risqué lyrics about ladies’ nighties) and they banned it! Things went downhill after that.

Now, George Formby sang about what he saw when looking through windows, but (metaphorically) in his career he spent too much time focusing on the reflected image, an inflated sense of his own talent. After a series of post war cinematic failures and unrealistic wage demands, he ended up an embittered, end-of-the-pier act in Cleethorpes. I’ve always felt window cleaners are an “at risk group” for narcissism – staring at your face reflected in a flat sheet of glass all day could certainly trigger unhealthy self-obsession. But are there other at-risk professions? Hairdressers? I don’t know, but I reckon we ought to include academics in any list. A long focus on your own ideas, reading and re-reading your own work, lecturing (performing?) to large groups of students writing down everything you say. And many academics have developed an “I am right, the world is wrong” coping mechanism to maintain self-esteem in light of negative reviewer feedback on papers and grant submissions.

You’d be forgiven for thinking we are in the midst of an epidemic of narcissism. Sure, the internet and social media are a potential part of this (more below). And who, honestly, can say there is not at least one borderline narcissist in their department or university?

Narcissists come in two flavours. There are vulnerable narcissists, who seek constant affirmation for themselves, swinging between feelings of inferiority and superiority. They cannot understand, and become emotionally sensitive, when the world does not treat them like royalty. However, there is very definitely no such problem with inferiority for grandiose narcissists. The world is collapsing around them but they don’t know, they don’t care. For the grandiose narcissist, the world will always be just tickety-boo so long as they’re in it (and others, who are to blame for its woes, are out)!Narcissus&Echo

There are a few ways to spot a narcissist: they often need a small clutch of admirers (and they want them physically close by), literally love the sound of their own voice and are preoccupied with power in interaction. Decisions are impulsive and at best inconsistent; dissenters subject to an auto-da-fé. And narcissists really cannot handle rejection or being passed over for a promotion.

One advantage of the rise of social media is that narcissists may be easier to spot. Psychcentral advises how to spot a narcissist on Facebook but the rules probably apply equally well to other social media. Narcissists have a high turnover of friends because anyone critical or failing to support the narcissism is quickly unfriended. Their posts are often grand or even pompous, commenting on some high moral or political matter that is way beyond their sphere of influence, but horribly repetitive and limited to a rather narrow set of issues. These posts are often reactionary and lack detail or a nuanced understanding. And they will twist others’ posts to present them as support for their position.

I have my own theory/approach to diagnosis online, and a little test. Try it yourself. Look at someone’s social media posts on politics, a major national issue or major news story. Do they talk about themselves, how they’re single-handedly leading the charge? Are they doing it a lot? Are they espousing values, ideas or behaviours that seem completely at odds with how they operate on a day-to-day Ievel in the workplace? If so, you’ve got yourself a narcissist!

It’s bad news if a narcissist becomes your boss. Not all are on the Kim Jong Un scale of things, but I’ve heard tales of some who come close in academic life! Whether it’s a PhD supervisor, PI, Head of Department or Dean (I’ve had myself tested, I’m in the clear, by the way) three things will happen. First, everything starts to fall apart – finances go awry and targets are missed, NSS scores down, grant income flat-lining – because narcissists are fixated on themselves, not the job at hand. Then, second, others make their moves: people start to leave, some completely disengage, and others (the toxic ones) will do their best to enable the narcissism… but that can’t last because no one can feed an insatiable beast forever. And third, in the end, the narcissism implodes. This always happens, although the quality of the fireworks show varies. But, by then, the damage has already been done and you find yourself weeping, as the jangled echoes of a ukulele float out to sea from the end of the pier in Cleethorpes.

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