The word narcissism gets thrown around a lot these days. Even if you don’t know who Jean Twenge is, you’ve probably heard that Gen Y is more narcissistic than previous generations, or that social media is turning us all—young and old—into narcissists.
Of course in my deep dark heart I’ve always wondered if I’m a narcissist, myself. My evidence is not terribly damning nor compelling, but: I think about myself a lot. I do, like many writers, seek to have my words and ideas read. I court many friendships, and don’t much like people to not like me. I change my Facebook profile picture frequently. I take selfies.
I have also suspected narcissism in friends–the ones who turn conversations toward them always; the ones who need constant affirmation; the ones seeking fame; the ones who annoy me when we’re drunk. And certainly, many friends have suspected themselves, in conversation.
Yesterday, a friend whom I would never think of as narcissistic brought the charge on herself. Her reasoning brings us an alternative manifestation of narcissism: Thinking everyone’s thinking poorly of you all the time. Considering your impact or influence on others to be greater than it likely is, even if that impact is negative—like when you’re sure someone’s tone or distance means they’re mad at you instead of just distracted or busy. Thinking people’s behavior is intended to slight you when it’s not. Assuming oneself to be at fault for everything.
An old roommate used to always be sure someone was mad at her for something. Our other roommate would remind her: No one is thinking about you that much. No one is thinking about what you did or didn’t do as much as you are.
And then of course there is the supposed generational narcissism: Gen Y’s allegedly infinite yearning for Instagram likes, reality TV stardom and having the wittiest Tweet about the Grammy’s. We’re cocky. We say ‘I’ more. Our dopamine circuits are all caught up in some Pavlov-meets-the-Singularity response to the smart phone ding of our Facebook alerts.
Twenge, author of Generation Me and The Narcissism Epidemic, has been charting all of this since 2006. Her data and theses are largely based on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, a test designed to measure an individual’s narcissistic personality traits.
But critics say the test is more a measure of normal ranges of self-esteem and confidence. High scores don’t necessarily reflect pathological narcissism. And much of the increase in certain answers could be accounted for by changing cultural premiums on certain traits.
The point is, a lot of us have may suspected ourselves, our friends or entire generations of being narcissists—and we’re all probably full of shit. Misguided. Or at least missing the point.
Our culture may now be more oriented toward certain narcissistic behaviors or personality traits. It may prize (and hence, we may use) more self-directed language. It may make both the tools of narcissistic expression more readily available and the expression itself (status updates, selfies, video diaries) more acceptable and encouraged.
But that isn’t tremendously related to us being narcissists, overall. In psychiatric terms, a narcissist is someone with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. In the DSM-V, narcissism (which was almost reclassified but ultimately not) is defined as:
A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following:
(1) has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)
(2) is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
(3) believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)
(4) requires excessive admiration
(5) has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations
(6) is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends
(7) lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others
(8) is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her
(9) shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes
That does not describe me. It doesn’t describe the friend I referenced above. It probably doesn’t describe you, your ex-lover or that friend that tells too many stories about themselves. It doesn’t seem all that related to what we fret over on a widespread scale, either.
This distinction between our colloquial use of ‘narcissist’ and the parameters of narcissistic personality disorder is not just hairsplitting. At the least, it’s just not productive for a wide swath of us to go around feeling guilt or shame or worry about our relatively normal levels of narcissism.
The tendency for many of us to identify (at least a little, at least in theory) with narcissistic behavior could also help mask the real and destructive potential of pathological narcissism. Karyl McBride, a psychiatrist and author of a book for/about daughters of narcissistic mothers, writes:
Is the definition of narcissism really so shallow that it is just about “image” and people thinking they are “all that?” No. From my research and clinical experience, I find narcissism to be a deep disorder that causes great harm in relationships and can be found in any generation or age group. Of course being image oriented and “all about me” is a part of it, but the cornerstone of narcissism is lack of empathy. This is what causes harm to children, crimes against others, lack of accountability, and makes the disorder difficult to treat in therapy. It’s also why children raised by narcissists usually have little luck confronting their parents about childhood harm or problems in their upbringing. The true narcissist will not hear it. They can’t be accountable or provide empathy. They instead deny, say they don’t remember, or make you the one who is wrong for approaching the subject.
Really, who cares if some one wants to be image oriented or all about themselves if they have empathy? They might be annoying to be around or grandiose in their thinking, but if they have empathy and can care about others … this is not narcissism.
If you want more assurance, go down the rabbit hole of Wikipedia’s narcissistic personality disorder page. It will clear up the differences between narcissism, egotism, egocentrism, vanity, pride and all sorts of related self-love (or hate) issues.
At any rate: You’re probably not an actual narcissist. [Unless, of course, you are. I don’t know what to tell you then.]