It has always worried me what some ageing celebs do to their faces. For those of us on the outside of the glitzy, appearance-is-all bubble it is all too easy to see that plastic surgery of any kind never enhances a face, fillers often overfill, Botox robs a face of expression and dermal peels just leave a shininess worthy of sunglasses!
Take the British actor Rupert Everett. Intelligent, urbane and until a few years ago looks to die for if you were a hetero man and swoon over if you were in the rest of humanity. He was even ageing rather well as pictures of him from 2007 can attest. Then inexplicably, as he approached 50, he like many celebs before him, went “under the knife”. His once rugged features were smoothed, his hair and eyebrows went into orbit and fillers smoothed out the chiselled granite of his good looks until they resembled a foam-filled cushion. This was all because, we are told, he couldn’t bear to look at himself ageing in the mirror. For him it was a symbol of loss of power and influence that he couldn’t deal with. And whilst Everett is no narcissist, his reaction to the vicissitudes of ageing are similar to those faced by a narcissist as they age.
Age may bring wisdom, but in Western cultures at least, there are few other positives and we are an ageist society with all but a few notables, we lose power and influence as we age. Our bodies too decline. If you are a woman the menopause is a big hurdle to cross, for a man, loss of muscle mass and an inability to compete with younger males in sporting and other achievements can be a bitter blow. For sure, ageing isn’t good for anyone, but ageing and narcissism is a disaster.
Why is Ageing Bad for Narcissists?
Narcissists need their “supply”. This is the attention and adoration they get from others as well as the powerful pull they can exert over others’. They need attention to stay mentally stable. In business, they have to stay ahead of the competition, in entertainment and sport they have to drive themselves to injury of some kind. It is a truism, but narcissists can’t retire, or leave the stage. It would be unthinkable. Like Everett, looking in the mirror, at the reviews or performance figures shows decline at every step and it is a pain which is impossible to bear.
In their 2006 book on the effects of ageing and personality disorders, Daniel Segal and his colleagues suggest that ageing and narcissism can create a range of problems:
Loneliness – The type of attention which narcissists crave is invariably superficial and fickle. A bit like the media, their sycophantic friends will move on for their next “meal” feasting on the vicarious glory offered by the next narcissist, leaving their former friend lonely.
Loss of accomplishments – Narcissists come to older age with a list of accomplishments but it is impossible to maintain this in older age in almost any sphere. This can lead to bitterness and anger.
Problems with physical decline – It isn’t just looks and prowess, but what about aches and pains and accepting the normal ageing such as pattern baldness.
Difficulties accepting or finding someone to care for them – Like the loneliness above, if all your relationships have been superficial then there may be no one to provide care. Even if there is a person who cares enough to stick around, then the narcissist may rage and become abusive resulting in further negative feedback and blows to their fragile self-esteem.
Is ageing always bad for a narcissist?
And the answer is not always, no. Firstly, it depends on a number of factors including: the professional background of the narcissist, a sportsperson or entertainer will always suffer more than say an academic or a well-regarded politician. Secondly, an intelligent narcissist will change their measure of success or the way they compare themselves to others. So, they will move away from superficial and physical comparators to others which they can control, for example, power or their financial standing. A successful narcissist can gloat and survey the world from the top of their empire or the boardroom.
A clever redefinition of what constitutes success may be to refocus on the achievements of their children:
“look what intelligent and clever children have sprung from my genes? Aren’t I just great?”
In the absence of children, boast can be attached to protégées such as the crossover in the Trump dynasty – Jared Kushner, part family, part protégée.
What is Identity Assimilation?
An alternative strategy is denial which is also known as identity assimilation where a person does not allow reality to impinge on their self-identity.
Even for someone who is mentally “healthy” ageing can be uncomfortable. Knowing that there are fewer years ahead than are behind you or the “empty nest syndrome” can bring on a sense of panic and loss. Even here a narcissist can seem to win. In denial, a narcissist can refuse to see the changes which are afoot so when they look in the mirror, they see no change. When clothes don’t fit they complain about the vagaries of sizing. When they forget something, they claim never to have been told in the first place.
They refuse to allow anything to penetrate their sense of identity. Ageing narcissists might dye their hair an inappropriate colour for their age as someone once said of a famous politician:
“He either dyes his hair or bleaches his face”
Similarly, they may hang out in venues populated by the young or wear clothes which are too revealing or with a youth vibe. The term “mutton dressed as lamb” was coined in England many years ago to describe a woman who dresses too young for her age. Compared with other effects of ageing on narcissists this is definitely the least bad because whilst it might cost them to buy all the latest anti-ageing gadgets, looking after yourself is definitely a better approach than retreating into anger and gloom. One word of warning though, such vainglorious attempts at youthfulness might lead men and women to court much younger partners to bolster their self-esteem. Such relationships are rarely good news for either party!
- Daniel L. Segal, Sara Honn Qualls, Michael A. Smyer: Aging and Mental Health, 2nd Edition. 2011, Wiley-Blackwell