What does our narcissism mean for connection?

It has been argued that the modern world we are living in, makes social connection difficult, just by the nature of the way it is. And it doesn't help that we might all be turning into narcissists. Cue, horror and shock!

Over the past few decades we may have witnessed a societal shift from a commitment to the collective to a focus on the individual or the self. We witnessed the self-esteem movement – which had much value – but determined that self-esteem was the key to success in life. Educators and parents started telling their children how special and unique they are to make them feel more confident. Parents and educators tried to “confer” self-esteem upon their children, rather than letting them achieve it through hard work.

The rise of individualism (with its focus on the self and inner feelings) and decline in social norms that accompanied the modernisation of society also meant that the community and the family were no longer able to provide the same support for individuals as they once did. And as I’ve repeatedly pointed out (like here and here and here), research has shown that being embedded in social networks – for example, being actively engaged in your community and connected with friends and family – has major health benefits.

As we have watched our social fabric reduce, it's possible that it's just harder now for each of us to meet the basic need for meaningful connection. The question has shifted from what is best for other people and the family to what is best for me. The modernisation of society can be seen to prize fame, wealth, celebrity above all else. All this, combined with the breakdown in social ties has created an individual self, empty of social meaning. 

And then to complicate things further, we have had the rise of technology and the development of social networking, changing the way in which we spend our free time and communicate. Today, there are nearly 936 million active Facebook users each day worldwide. More than 80 million photographs uploaded to Instagram every day, more than 3.5 billion ‘likes’ every day, and some 1.4 billion people - 20% of the world’s population - publishing details of their lives on Facebook. Is social media turning a relatively modest species into a pack of publicity-hungry narcissists? Or were we already inherently self-absorbed? Internet addiction is a new area of study in mental health and recent cross-sectional research shows that addiction to Facebook is strongly linked to narcissistic behaviour and low self-esteem.

So, what exactly is narcissism?

For those of us, who are not totes up with our Greek mythology, let’s go back to where the word descends. Narcissus was a hunter from central Greece, the son of the river god Cephissus and the nymph Liriope. He had long flowing locks, deep blue eyes, unblemished skin and full enchanting lips. One day, as he walked past a quiet pool of water, he caught sight of his own reflection, failed to recognise himself and was entranced with the image. He had never seen anyone quite so enchanting – and could not stop falling profoundly in love with himself, the most admirable and bewitching being he had ever spotted.

Apparently this behaviour was so incredibly bizarre that it’s become both one f the great and tempting insults of our age and a diagnosable personality disorder in the DSM (the psychiatric bible).

Narcissism lies on a continuum from healthy to pathological. Healthy narcissism is part of normal human functioning. It can represent healthy self-love, self-compassion and confidence that is based on real achievement, the ability to overcome setbacks and derive the support needed from social ties.

But narcissism becomes a problem when the individual becomes preoccupied with the self, needing excessive admiration and approval from others, while showing disregard for other people’s sensitivities. If the a person with unhealthy narcissism does not receive the attention desired, then really big problems can develop.

People with unhealthy levels of narcissism often portray an image of grandiosity or overconfidence to the world, but this is only to cover up deep feelings of insecurity and a fragile self-esteem that is easily bruised by the slightest criticism. Because of these traits, they might find themselves in shallow relationships that only serve to satisfy their constant need for attention. When narcissism is unhealthy it means that we can struggle to relate because it inhabits our ability to empathise with others. Uh oh. 

When narcissistic traits become so pronounced that they lead to impairment this can indicate the presence of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).

According to the DSM-5, individuals with NPD have most or all of the following symptoms, typically without commensurate qualities or accomplishments:

  • Grandiosity with expectations of superior treatment from others
  • Fixated on fantasies of power, success, intelligence, attractiveness, etc.
  • Self-perception of being unique, superior and associated with high-status people and institutions
  • Needing constant admiration from others
  • Sense of entitlement to special treatment and to obedience from others
  • Exploitative of others to achieve personal gain
  • Unwilling to empathize with others' feelings, wishes, or needs
  • Intensely envious of others and the belief that others are equally envious of them
  • Pompous and arrogant demeanor

Like all the personality disorders, it would not be that difficult for most of us to meet some of these criteria at some points in our lives. That’s part of being human. It is however, difficult, to meet criteria for this personality disorder over a long period of time. True Narcissistic Personality Disorder symptoms are pervasive, apparent in various situations, and rigid, remaining consistent over time. The symptoms must be severe enough that they significantly impair the individual's ability to develop meaningful relationships with others. Symptoms also generally impair an individual's ability to function at work, school, or in other important settings.

In the clinical setting, about 2% to 16% of people suffer from this disorder, while in the general population, less than 1% of people are affected. And whilst the disorder is much more common in men than women, we don’t know much else about it. Jose Romero-Urcelay, a forensic psychiatrist and the director of therapies at the Dangerous and Severe Personality Disorders unit at Broadmoor, West London Mental Health Trust, says:

“No one knows where it comes from, but it tends to present in the patient’s early twenties. There is no genetic predisposition to the disorder, nor are specific types of people more susceptible than others. It isn’t triggered by illness, injury or substance abuse. Some suspect it may be caused by an excess of love in infancy; others by childhood abuse or emotional trauma. Some point to a breakdown in the infant’s relationship with his or her mother.” 

It is certainly possible that NPD - or traits of narcissism - has the potential to thrive in our modern western societies. Increased materialism, the decline of community life and a fascination with image afford perfect conditions for its growth.

So what can we do about all this and how can we lead a happy and purposeful life? One of the largest studies on happiness was conducted by a group of Harvard researchers who followed a large cohort of people over a period of 75 years. What they discovered – unsurprisingly – was that fame and money were not the secrets to happiness. Rather, the most important thing in life and the greatest predictor of satisfaction was having strong and supportive relationships – that “the journey from immaturity to maturity is a sort of movement from narcissism to connection”.

So maybe it’s time to take a break from that smartphone, shut off your computer and meet up with a friend or two. Maybe, just maybe, you might feel a bit of collective joy, love and excitement. Sometimes it can be nice to experience these things with others. 

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