The 5 Signs of the Growing Narcissism Epidemic

According to clinicians around only one percent of the population at large have narcissistic personality disorder. In a clinical setting (i.e. those in treatment) the percentage is much higher (around 12-16%). I would argue however, that the broader signs of narcissism are reaching epidemic proportions in our post-industrial / postmodern society. Signs of narcissisms appear to be more wide-spread than we could have even imagined say 10 or 15 years ago.

NPD is characterised by a sense of grandiose self-entitlement beyond what could be reasonably expected given one’s talents and skills. Also cited is a need for attention and an inability to accept criticism or being easily wounded by it. There is also pathological levels of selfishness and an ability to use people. It is a lifelong condition which has its origins in childhood and whilst there may be genetic factors, parenting style based on conditional love or exaggerated praise are considered a prime factor in its aetiology. Young people and men are more vulnerable generally than women.

There is no doubt that the nature of social relationships is changing and many academic sociologists ascribe the changes in society to the fact that we are living in a post-modern age where identity is characterised not so much by accomplishments as what we appear to be; by how we make ourselves rather than how we are shaped by society and others.

Metanarratives, the stories we tell ourselves about society – religion, culture, morality tales and constant values are now only history and what matters is how we create ourselves – we become the story. This age then lends itself to the instant gratification, the boastful selfie and the narcissism which is our life lived through social media.

And there are, I believe five key signs that narcissistic tendencies are becoming endemic in our culture:

Conspicuous consumption

Conspicuous consumption is the ostentatious display of wealth, the human equivalent of the peacock’s tail if you like – of no earthly use except for display purposes. People seem change their phones as often as their underwear, decorate their homes in a frenzy each time the fashion changes, and declare major tragedy if they can’t get the latest fashionable ingredient for their recipe. The lithograph by Barbara Kruger “I shop therefore I am” seems to be a touchstone for the post-modern age and is a deliberate re-interpretation of Descartes’ “I think therefore I am”. Nowadays, where people are admired and lauded for material consumption, the whole of society appears to be caught in a spiral of needing more and more goods to achieve admiration and hence equilibrium in a kind of mass “narcissisathon”.

The relentless rise of the selfie

A friend of mine in her 50’s admitted to me the other day that she had to have lessons in how to take a good selfie from her teenage child! “What is more” she reported, with mock horror, “there are software packages to tart up the image”. So, not only does an average late teen to early 20’s woman feel obliged to “sculpt” her face with elaborate make up rituals before she can take a photo, she then has to tinker with the image afterwards until any resemblance between it and her real person is almost obliterated. Men don’t escape either, with the expectation that they will be “ripped”. In terms of narcissism, comments on selfies could be seen as elements of “narcissistic supply”, the need for attention and praise for mediocre accomplishments. Selfies could also be seen as a representation of a damaged, fragile ego, since almost no one is prepared to post an un retouched selfie, or one without makeup.

Changes in the way we make and keep friends

How many friends do you have? What do you define as a friend? do you use it in the lose sense of the term such as “Facebook Friend” (which can number hundreds) or are your friends those you depend on in a crisis or break bread with? Perhaps you count followers on LinkedIn or Twitter too? The changing nature of friendships too could be interpreted as a signs of a mass narcissistic age. The things we post on Facebook, Twitter, Flicker and the rest are not the chatter between intimate friends but the shout to get noticed. We post selfies, the food we eat, our clever reflections on the world and we want it to be commented on and best of all shared. Friends are no longer friends who could give an honest answer to: “Does my bum look big in this?” for if they do, we “unfriend” them. What is that but the actions of a narcissist who cannot take any form of criticism?

The glorification of children

We live in an age where children are no longer “seen but not heard” but are the very centre of our existence. The suggested cause is that we mostly have fewer children each, with the average birth rate in some European countries less than 2 per family. In contrast, more parents are working so in theory, in possession of higher residual income. Children are often the focus of spending and parents try to “give their children a better start” than they had. So, both in material terms (which 7-year-old doesn’t have a smart phone?) and extracurricular lessons – everything from dance to learning Latin, we put a great deal of on to our children. In many cases childhood achievements become an extension of the parental ego and love becomes conditional. Such approaches to parenting carry the risk of cultivating narcissisms in children, scary!

Style over substance

I will never forget Danny Kaye playing Hans Christian Anderson, singing about the Emperor’s New Clothes:

“The King is in the altogether! The altogether! He’s altogether as naked as the day that he was born!”

The song, a musical retelling of the tale The Emperor’s New Clothes is a morality tale about being taken in by supposed style. A pair of scoundrels convince the king that only the best, cleverest people could see their cloth which was invisible to the stupid. The King, afraid to be thought of a stupid fell in with them. This reminds me of the current fashion for expensive styling in everything from hair, haute couture to nouvelle cuisine where ordering a salad could get you a lettuce leaf with half a tomato, a spring onion and a squiggle of an indeterminate red sauce and, you will have had to book months in advance and empty your bank account for the privilege. But the object is not to eat but to say you had the experience and to boast like the good little compliant narcissist that you are.
If I am correct in my observations, we are on the very brink of a narcissistic epidemic. Be afraid! Be very afraid!