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21 July 2017Last updated
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Is it time to get help? Narcissism epidemic

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, everybody’s at it. When did such shameless self-exposure become the norm?

Aoife Stuart Madge
1 Oct 2016 | 10:00 am
  • Source:iStock

“Who’s that sexy thing I see over there? That’s me, standin’ in the mirror,” croons bass-hooked popstrel Meghan Trainor. Written seemingly without a hint of irony, her recent track Me Too also features the line, “If I was you, I’d wanna be me too.” With the overtly braggy lyrics, you’d be forgiven for thinking the 22-year-old – famed for her self-empowering debut All About That Bass – has confused self-worth with delusional self-importance. And she’s not alone. From endless duck-faced selfies to reality TV wannabes exposing their lives on camera, the selfie generation has made self-involvement an art form. Owning a tragedy or celebrity death on Instagram, affected political posturing online, constantly talking about ‘working on yourself’ via self-conscious ‘life affirming’ quotes, wearing fashion with your own name emblazoned on it (hello, Gigi Hadid) or just singing about how flipping fantastic you are à la Meghan… in the age of Instagram, it seems we’ve never been so shamelessly self-involved. Just look at Kim Kardashian, whose recent social media contributions include a close-up video of her bare behind bobbing in and out of water (yes, really) and a video of her oiled-up cleavage. Then there’s Justin Bieber, Kylie Jenner and Kanye West who routinely flood the internet with their pathologically self-obsessed posts and flashier-than-thou pics. And it’s not just celebrities who are indulging in digital narcissism. Thanks to social media, showing off has never been easier.

Dr Lavina Ahuja, a personal development consultant at LifeWorks Dubai says social media has opened the floodgates for narcissistic behaviour. “Social media seems to have had a significant impact on encouraging narcissistic behaviour. This is probably because that is what you are meant to do on social media – showcase your life, showcase yourself, both of which are quite self-involved activities. Social media also reduces a sense of empathy and connection with others, as you are not actually engaging with others and, more often than not, people end up envious rather than empathetic on social media, which increases narcissistic thinking and behaviour.”

Be honest: when you posted that RIP message mourning a celebrity death, were you really ‘heartbroken’ or using the opportunity to brag about that time you got to meet them after their concert... Or that life-affirming quote you posted to Instagram... Was it really a lesson in self-growth or were you just hoping everyone would see it and recognise how, like, totally deep you are? It won’t surprise you to learn that #me is now the third most popular online hashtag.

Yep, the #humblebrag of a few years back has gradually metamorphosed into its brasher big sister, the #brag – and the more grandiose the better. And while you can argue that there is nothing wrong with self-promotion, the problem with digital narcissism arises when it threatens to undermine other people or sabotage our relationships.

Thanks to Twitter and Facebook, we have more ways to stay connected to others than ever; but at the same time it could be argued that we care less about other people – unless it’s to find out what they think of our latest selfie. Research from Diego State University psychologist Jean Twenge, author of The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, supports the worrying theory that we are drowning in a tidal wave of self-importance. In a 2012 study, she found that millennials (born after 1981) were more concerned with goals relating to money, image and fame than those relating to self-acceptance, affiliation and community, compared with previous generations. She also noted that high school graduates wanted more money but were less inclined to work for it. This creates what Twenge terms a ‘fantasy gap’ – a by-product of a generational increase in narcissism and entitlement.

A separate study of top career choices among children in the UK aged between five and 11 revealed that sportstar, popstar and actor replaced traditional vocations like teachers, bankers and doctors.

Ahuja says our obsession with fame has spawned a generation of narcissists. “The modern obsession with fame is to blame for the rise of narcissists or narcissistic behaviour.” She compares the competitive quest for fame with the fight to be Queen Bee at high school. “Obsessing about fame is just a grown up version of the popularity contests in high school, where everyone wants to be the smartest, the most talented at something or the most popular. With reality TV and the rise of TV talent shows the opportunities for ‘ordinary’ individuals to be popular and famous have increased, so people are continuing their high school obsession with being popular and famous.”

And as being famous or becoming a celebrity is now accepted as a legitimate career choice, the narcissistic behaviour required to reach the top of the reality TV pile has also become normalised. “Pop culture has made narcissistic behaviour acceptable, or at times, desirable! In previous generations, the idea of aggrandising yourself would have been seen as shameless or egotistical and undesirable, however, now it is seen as a sign of fame, confidence and popularity,” explains Ahuja.

Craig Malkin, clinical psychologist and author of Rethinking Narcissism: The Secret to Recognizing and Coping with Narcissists, adds, “Our obsession with celebrity has a huge impact on narcissistic behaviour. Modelling — copying those around us — is the easiest way to adopt healthy or unhealthy habits. We already know from the research that celebrities are among the most narcissistic groups studied. There’s no surer way to become a narcissist than to fashion yourself after one. We have to be careful who we follow in social media,” he warns.

However, Malkin argues that modern society is no more narcissistic than previous generations, merely that today’s show off has more platforms on which to do it. He says, “Technology is only as healthy as our use of it. Research suggests that people largely express their personalities though social media: extroverts are more extroverted, introverts are more introverted, narcissists are more narcissistic.”

However, research also shows that the ways in which we use social media can make us more or less narcissistic. “Constantly talking about yourself or posting duck selfies — something I call image churning — is linked to being more narcissistic,” explains Malkin. “But using social media to open up to others about difficult moments and form mutually supportive, caring communities, may give us a healthy boost of self-esteem; I call the healthy, communal use of social media SoWe, playing on the abbreviation for social media (SoMe).”

And while the modern obsession with fame can be to blame for the onslaught of reality TV shows currently bombarding the airwaves, it can’t be used to indict an entire generation of millennials as image-obsessed narcissists, says Malkin. “I don’t believe millennials are any more narcissistic than previous generations. The evidence just isn’t convincing.” However, with a slew of famous-for-five-minutes TV shows churning out minor celebrities at a rate of knots, the spotlight is on the narcissists among us like never before.

“People have always wanted to get rich quickly — especially narcissists. Research has demonstrated that reality TV stars are more narcissistic than pretty much any entertainer you can name. And that they started out that way; they’re drawn to the spotlight precisely because they’re already narcissistic. What we are really seeing is that the tools of narcissism have proliferated. Narcissists have grander and grander stages than ever before. Which makes them seem all the louder. They’re certainly the easiest to spot on social media,” adds Malkin.

So while show-off celebs have given us license to wear clothes emblazoned with our own image (see Miley Cyrus, Nicki Minaj and Paris Hilton) and sing about how fabulous we are (we’re looking at you, Meghan Trainor), it doesn’t mean that we’re all necessarily going to follow suit.

“If you want to image churn and call more attention to yourself, we have more ways than ever to do that. Narcissists, no doubt, are eating it up. And while they stand out like sore thumbs because of it, it isn’t clear that average people have become narcissistic,” argues Malkin. That said, if you’re already scoring high on the narcissistic scale, watching the Kardashians pouting Snapchat vids can exacerbate self-involved behaviour.

So where did Kim et al take a wrong turn from self-belief to self-obsession? Malkin says for some, the lines have simply blurred. “As soon as we started celebrating the self — with the focus on discovering ourselves in the 60s and 70s — we also opened the door to elevating the self.

But a focus on the self can be used for good or ill: to open up and expand our experiences and relationships (say, through the best forms of therapy), or to disappear into ourselves, like Narcissus, becoming incapable of loving anyone but ourselves. It all depends on what we do with our self-focus. If, for example, it helps us realise we feel lonely and need support, recognising these feeling in ourselves can push us to reach out to loved ones and friends – and break our isolation.”

So narcissism isn’t always a bad thing. Heck, we can all benefit from a healthy dose of ‘‘I rock!’, right? Malkin and his colleague have devised the Narcissism Spectrum Scale to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy narcissism.

He explains, “We know from more than 30 years of cross cultural research that the vast majority of people, when they’re happy and healthy, don’t feel average; they feel ‘exceptional’ or ‘unique’, to quote University of Washington psychologist Jonathan Brown,” says Malkin. “And when people feel slightly better than they actually are — I call this having rose-coloured glasses for ourselves — they feel more optimistic, happier, they’re better able to give and receive in relationships, they’re better able to persist in the face of failure. The benefits to this slightly unrealistically positive self image, or more concisely, mild self-aggrandisement, are myriad. This is healthy narcissism. It’s a reflection of universal human tendency — the drive to feel special.”

The danger is when that feeling becomes addictive, he says. “When people become addicted to feeling special, and use it to soothe themselves and feel good instead of turning to those they love for mutual caring and support, it becomes destructive. Much in the way substance abusers soothe themselves with alcohol or other drugs and start to lie, steal, cheat – do anything it takes to get their high – narcissists will do anything to get their hand on their drug of choice: feeling special. Any behaviour that turns us away from caring and connection and community (and empathy) is destructive to society. It tears us apart from the inside out. It empties us out, turning us into a performance instead of a person.”

Something to bear in mind the next time you’re thinking of posting that duck-faced selfie online, huh?

Aoife Stuart Madge

Aoife Stuart Madge