Every few years a psychological diagnosis comes around that popular culture locks onto and eventually permanently misrepresents. You know the culprits: any kid that fidgets probably has ADHD; social awkwardness means Autism; clean and organized is OCD; any fluctuation in mood equals Bipolar. Joining the ranks of late, we have narcissism.
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The global increase in narcissism interest seemed to skyrocket with the release of the book The Mirror Effect (Pinsky & Young, 2009), which highlighted society having taken to emulating celebrities behaving badly and being rewarded for it. The past several years has seen so many books, articles and blogs on the topic one might think all other conditions have been forgotten about. Currently, however, a perusal of relevant research indicates many experts agree narcissism is on the rise, while others aren’t falling for it.
Regardless, we can all agree that narcissistic behavior is certainly more noticeable. A 2019 British Broadcasting Corporation piece even noted that, “narc spotting has become a bit of a sport.”
As social media popularized over the past decade, who hasn’t recognized the spike in obvious self-promotion and the need to be in the limelight, especially by younger folks? Historically, narcissism was believed to stem from parental overindulgence and lack of consequences. Other roots were in a need to bolster oneself in the face of a bullying parent, so eloquently explained by psychologist Joseph Burgos in The Narcissist You Know (2015).
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Today, in a fitting homage to Narcissus, we see droves of people without such backgrounds literally falling prey to their own reflection. They spend hours counting “likes” of their uploads and feeling deflated when there’s not the response they expected. However, does this mean there are more narcissists nowadays, or have social media platforms just provided an ideal outlet for their self-indulgence?
Even so, is social media self-indulgence, especially for teens and young adults, reflective of a budding new etiology for Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), or simply an alternative/handier stage for more traditional school-age popularity contests?
The point is, some narcissistic behavior does not translate to NPD, just like being super-organized doesn’t justify an OCD diagnosis. Remember, the core features of NPD are pathological self-absorption, a profound lack of empathy, and entitlement leading to problems in relating to others; simply enjoying attention doesn’t cut it.
For contrast, if we encounter someone like the (fictional) Morgan, we may reconsider:
“Can you believe Jane didn’t ‘like’ my last picture in that new purple outfit I got? What a jealous bitch!” said Morgan, carefully keeping tabs on who, and how many, approve of her Facebook status. “The next time Jane thinks she’s hot stuff on Facebook, I’m blowing up her page about her being too poor to get real makeup, and that her friend has to give her samples from the Macy’s make-up counter.”
It is as if Morgan is saying, in the common, haughty tones of malignant narcissists with NPD, “I’m so awesome, people must be jealous of me. Nonetheless, does Jane know who I am!? I’m entitled to unrestricted approval from everyone; she disappointed me, and will pay!” No move is too cruel to one-up and save face. Empathy need not apply.
See the difference from someone just being self-congratulatory?
Though it might be on the rise, fortunately, pathological narcissism is still the exception. However, given its popularity as a topic, the term is heard more frequently in society at large and clinical discussion. Unfortunately, the fear is, just as a bouncy, 6-year-old boy has become virtually synonymous with ADHD, that anyone with noticeable self-esteem may be wrongfully labeled as self-absorbed and therefore NPD. Consider a discussion I had with a supervisee, Margaret, about her client, Jake:
So, I’ve met with Jake three times now. He’s been down in the dumps about not finding a girlfriend. This week, he’s turning 40, and really feeling it. It’s been 10 years since his last enduring relationship. I think I’m onto something, though!
At the end of our recent session, he said, “What’s with these ladies? I’ve got a lot to offer. Look at me! I dress nice, I have hobbies, a great job as a nurse practitioner, everyone says ‘you’re such a nice guy,’ but all I get is ‘thanks but no thanks’ after a date or two.”
He seemed really entitled, “What’s with these ladies?!” Then lists off how great he is? I am leaning towards him being a narcissist. There’s a lot in the literature now about narcissism in relationships. That’s what’s getting in the way!
Did you say that to him?
What do you mean?
Define narcissism for me.
Someone who’s into themselves and doesn’t care about others.
He was so nonchalant how he talked about his greatness.
What other evidence is there he’s Mr. Egotistical and could care less about others?
Well, he seems pretty confident. He talks about how he’s sure he’ll get an upcoming promotion, that he’s sure he’s made the right life decisions. It’s not in-your-face, but, like casual narcissism.
You’ve got no other evidence than a couple of comments. Is it possible he’s a guy with healthy self-esteem? What would it be like to be in his shoes? He’s 40, indeed seems to have it together, yet he can’t meet anyone. Perhaps he’s simply sharing the frustration that he feels he has what it takes, but, try as he might, meeting someone still eludes him.
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Margaret’s jump to the conclusion of Jake being a narcissist based on a couple of simple remarks concludes that my fear is becoming real. There is no such thing as casual narcissism; narcissism is a personality component, and personalities are constant.
Don’t let pop culture influence clinical responsibility. Be cautious and understand the condition; knee-jerk applications of NPD are dangerous ground. Personality Disorders are amongst the most stigmatized of mental health conditions, and the damage of a personality disorder misdiagnosis is no casual fiasco.