With a new book, a popular syndicated radio gig, and some of television’s most sensational reality programs to his credit, Pasadena-based therapist Dr. Drew Pinsky reaches a huge audience with his advice about mental health and the dangers of addiction. In The Mirror Effect, which he wrote in collaboration with Dr. S. Mark Young, a professor of entertainment business at USC, Dr. Drew examines the impact of celebrity crack-ups on the mindset of the general population and warns us that narcissism is on the rise. Drs. Drew and Young are particularly concerned that this disorder may be amplified—and even transmitted—by the media. When he arrives in Santa Barbara Thursday night, Dr. Drew will be talking about addiction, narcissism, and the celebrity culture that has brought the bizarre behavior of people like Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, and Lindsay Lohan into our homes. I spoke with him last week by phone from his office in Pasadena.
You got started with Loveline. What attracted you to the media, and to radio in particular? I had this naïve notion that by going on the radio, I could somehow seize control of a part of this delivery system for sex and drugs and rock ’n’ roll and do something to counteract that, or at least the unhealthy aspects of it.
Your new book emphasizes the dangers of narcissism, a concept I tend to associate with Sigmund Freud, and to some extent assume is out of date. Can you clarify? Narcissism started out with Freud, but it is a formal category in the current DSM-IV-TR, where it is categorized as a personality disorder and defined as “a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and lack of empathy.” It’s in Cluster B, the “dramatic” cluster within the personality disorders, along with Antisocial, Borderline, and Histrionic. For 150 years, there was a debate in psychiatry about the existence and status of narcissism, but now there is, relatively speaking, anyway, a consensus.
How did you get interested in this topic? I had been working with Mark Young, and we started to ask what it is that’s making this type of disorder so common among celebrities and people in the entertainment industry more generally. As we got into that question, we started to also ask why the behavior of celebrities afflicted with narcissism was of such interest to the public. We weren’t so much worried about why the media was dishing it out as we were wondering why people wanted it so badly. You know, it’s one thing to have shit on our plates, but what makes us eat it? In addition to celebrities who behave as full-blown narcissists, with all the anger and frustration and addictions associated with that condition, there are others involved who spend their days catering to them, as their agents and managers and personal assistants. Then you add in a third group—by far the largest—who are those obsessed with these people and who want to know all the details of their lives and their problems, and they have no real connection to them at all other than through the media.
Do all these people have things in common? There were two motivators that were present across the spectrum. Everyone involved wanted to bask in the glory of fame, either directly through becoming a celebrity, or indirectly, through knowing them or even just knowing about them. But the other motivator that showed up was more disturbing, because what we also saw was a lot of envy, and envy is a really ugly emotion. Essentially what people want when they try to get close to someone they envy is to eventually cut them down to size. Envy is what gets children held over fires; it’s what makes people attack their spouses or stalk strangers. Narcissistic personalities see someone with a talent or quality they envy and they punish that person for it because, deep down, they believe that the positive quality that they envy really belongs to them, and that it’s been stolen or hijacked by this other person who has it now.
Where does all this come from? Intergenerational trauma is ubiquitous. Childish forms of parental love and narcissism are, unfortunately, very often manifested together. It’s like the parent’s narcissism has been foregone, but their envy of the child revives it, and then their overvaluation of the child perpetuates the cycle on into the next generation.
Will rising unemployment in this country make this problem worse? I worry sometimes that it will, but as a therapist, I am trying to look at it from a positive point of view. I hope that the down economy is something that’s going to make people refocus on their real priorities.
How do you handle the pressures and demands of your work? There are five answers. The first four are that I have a great wife who supports me in what I do, and I have three wonderful children who keep me grounded. The fifth is that I went through therapy myself. Without my own therapeutic experience, I could never do what I do with addicts today. It would be too difficult to work around my own issues. I would be at a tremendous disadvantage when coping with my patients and their powerful emotions if I didn’t have some way of understanding and controlling my own.
Your checklist section on “turning the tide” in The Mirror Effect was really well done. Did you put a lot of thought into those suggestions? All of the advice in the book is humbly offered. It seemed important to include some constructive recommendations, especially alongside the extensive criticism.
Can you summarize that advice? There’s a basic triad of actions that I feel works for practically everyone, and it’s the same stuff that makes 12-step programs work. First comes ruthless honesty about yourself and your condition. Then there are those selfless acts of service that bring you back into contact with the social world and develop your network of obligations and responsibilities, which is the backbone of any recovery process. And finally, there’s the acceptance of reality, and the understanding that the world does not revolve around you.
Was there anything that you found out that made you optimistic? Yes, there were some bright spots amid the celebrity gloom as far as narcissism is concerned. We found that people, such as musicians, who become famous because of a specific skill, are on the whole significantly less narcissistic than those who are more on the famous-for-being-famous side of things. And we also found that the everyday activities of reading and writing, practiced on a regular basis, are huge advantages. They seem to give people a much-needed perspective.
Dr. Drew Pinsky speaks at the Arlington Theatre on Thursday, November 4, at 6:30 p.m. The evening is sponsored by the Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse, and is the kick-off event for this year’s New Noise Santa Barbara. For tickets and information, call 963-4408 or visit newnoisesb.com.