The Desire for Fame and Mental Illness

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One of the most intriguing aspects of our lives is discovering our purpose. Varying from culture to culture, our life’s purpose is ultimately the decider of everything placed before us.

From the decisions we make, to the emotions we feel, to our concept of what a successful life is.

Though not all will come out and say it, many have made their life purpose to become famous. A concept that isn’t necessarily new, but has modern dilemmas we hadn’t seen in prior generations.

Throughout this article, we’re going to take an in-depth look at this phenomenon and the vulnerability it leaves for mental illness.

The Drive for Attention

For most of psychology’s existence, the idea of desiring fame was often ignored. Psychologists had always pinpointed motivation as such to be directly linked to money and power.

And though this is true in many regards, the modern individual sometimes solely seeks fame in and of itself. Not caring whether the fame and power come along with it.

They are seeking, in many regards, social acceptance. To be highly accepted by a large assortment of strangers.

Inevitably, this kind of life motive can lead to very deep convictions. In the words of Orville Gilbert Brim, a psychologist and author of the book, “The Fame Motive”:

“[Desiring fame is] like belief in the afterlife in medieval communities, where people couldn’t wait to die and go on to a better life. That’s how strong it is.”

Elvis Presley signing an autograph for a young Madonna. (C. 1970)

Though this kind of phenomenon may only seem prominent in Western countries, it’s something that can be observed throughout many cultures.

Take rural Hindu villages in India as an example. A widow is expected to be continuously sad during the time of their loved one’s loss. So much so, they are anticipated to dress differently, change their appetites, and even reverse their habits. ¹

These widows are essentially competing to be the most pure and often compare themselves to one another in this regard.

Though this may seem strange from our perspective, it’s extremely similar to someone desiring fame. A person who anticipates a chance to be famous will naturally change their habits, dress differently, and may even only eat certain foods.

These anticipations are generally based off of what’s popular (what’s trending) during that period of time.

“It’s a distinct type, people who expect to get meaning out of fame, who believe the only way to have their lives make sense is to be famous,” claims psychologist at Knox College, Tim Kasser. “We all need to make meaning out of our lives, and this is one way people attempt to do it.”

Screaming Beatles fans hold up a banner showing their support.

The Psychology of Fame

Psychologists have observed that many people who seek out fame tend to have emotionally and physically absent parents. Of course, this isn’t the case for everyone. However, it is one that’s been observed over and over again.

Erik Erikson, a celebrated psychoanalyst, is a prime example of this observation. His daughter, Sue Erikson Bloland, discusses in her memoir, “In the Shadow of Fame,” how his constant pursuit of attention was partly a factor of his feelings of abandonment – he never met his biological father.

Though Erik Erikson had a charisma many desired more of, Sue writes in her memoir:

“His pursuit of reassurance was not simply the charming humility it was generally interpreted to be. It expressed a persistent and tormenting self-doubt.”

However, as mentioned, a sense of parental abandonment is only part of a larger, more complicated phenomenon.

Some psychologists have also observed people’s fixations with mortality. When approached about the idea of their own death, many people will begin to determine how they’ll be remembered.

And many of those who want to be famous consider this concept vital to their overall self-worth.

Fans leaving behind various items to show appreciation for Jim Morrison at his grave.

“Given this awareness of our mortality,” explained Jeffrey Greenberg, a psychologist at the University of Arizona, “to function securely, we need to feel somehow protected from this existential predicament, to feel like we are more than just material animals fated only to obliteration upon death.

“We accomplish that by trying to view ourselves as enduringly valuable contributors to a meaningful world. And the more others validate our value, the more special and therefore secure we feel.”

The Struggle of an Unrealized Ambition

It’s no secret that reaching notoriety is slim to none for the majority of us. Yet, that doesn’t stop people from pursuing fame at all costs.

And this perseverance often leads to a struggle that can be detrimental to one’s psychology.

In a study published in 1996 by Richard M. Ryan of the University of Rochester, 100 adults were asked about their life’s goals and motivations. Those who mentioned anything that had to do with other’s approval (such as fame) had remarkably increased levels of distress in comparison to those solely seeking out self-acceptance and meaningful friendships. ²

Thinking you’re going to make it – aiming with all your energy towards that very goal – and coming out without the fame may be, in many regards, one of the most treacherous things one can do to their psychology.

Consider what happens to a person of this state of mind who reaches their elder years in life. For some, they continue to hold onto those youthful ambitions.

As Dr. Brim, an 83-year-old researcher, suggests, “I concluded that several things could happen, and one of them is to find another source of approval. That might be a great love, if you’re lucky. Or perhaps it is a deepening belief in God. But I think many people suffer with realization that they are not going to be famous and there’s nothing they can do to solve it.”

The Modern Dilemma

One of the biggest issues within today’s society is the fact that fame seems extremely obtainable. No longer does one have to seek out an agency or attend public events to get their name out there.

Now fame can be as simple as uploading a video that happens to go viral.

There is absolutely no doubt that social media is fueling the fire of the psychological damage fame-seeking comes with. People see thousands of “normal people” find their rise on the internet and feel as though there’s no reason they shouldn’t have their chance.

The big issue with this is exactly the same as the issue with, let’s say, Hollywood celebrities. By looking solely at other’s successes, you’re not seeing the thousands of others who have attempted and failed.

You continue to hold up the belief that the projection of fame is something easily obtainable. And the internet is merely a new source for this projection.

Woman taking a selfie. (image source)

So, What Can We Do?

The psychological dilemma of seeking fame is ultimately something that should be regarded on an individual level.

We at Bedlamite Publications don’t want people to get the wrong idea. Feeling motivated to reach your goals is ultimately one of the greatest things that can fill our life’s purpose.

However, if this goal of yours has anything to do with fame, it may be beneficial to consider it in regards to not being famous.

For example, let’s say you’re an extremely talented singer with dreams of one day performing in a stadium filled with thousands. We aren’t saying you shouldn’t pursue singing. Rather, how you can pursue singing in ways that don’t ultimately lead to fame.

Your talent has a purpose. But to solely consider that purpose to be of fame can have detrimental effects.

And these effects leave us vulnerable to mental illnesses.

To discover your purpose beyond the acceptance of others is to discover the true uniqueness of your abilities. It’s to discover what self-acceptance truly is.

Reference Sources

¹ Indian Journal of Psychiatry: Hinduism, marriage and mental illness

² Sage Journals: Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin: Further Examining the American Dream: Differential Correlates of Intrinsic and Extrinsic Goals

Featured image by Pat Perry (official website)

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