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Are we all narcissists now?

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Have you noticed how many people’s former partners or current bosses are narcissists these days — perhaps yours, too? It’s not that your friend’s relationship had just run its course or that there was any kind of compatibility problem; it’s that your friend’s ex is a narcissist. It’s not that you’re not doing your job very well, or that your boss and you just don’t happen to get along; yes, your boss is a narcissist too.

We appear to be living in an age of narcissism. I can’t seem to open up my Apple Podcasts app without another episode on the subject popping up: “Understanding the narcissists in your life and what to do about them”; “How to leave a narcissist (part 2)”; “13 signs you’re sleeping with a narcissist”. There are entire YouTube channels dedicated to “Surviving Narcissism”.

So what gives? Why do we all seem to be surrounded by so many narcissists these days? Is there something inherently narcissistic about modern culture, or are we all just using the term more for some reason?

The DSM-5 — the American Psychiatric Association’s bible of mental disorders — defines narcissistic personality disorder as “comprising a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behaviour), a constant need for admiration, and a lack of empathy”. Research suggests that somewhere between 0.5 and 5 per cent of the US population have this “disorder” (with between 50 and 75 per cent of those cases occurring among males). So, if we are talking about it in the strictly clinical sense, this is not hugely common.

But there is also the non-clinical definition of narcissism, which the Oxford Dictionary has as “excessive self-love or vanity; self-admiration, self-centredness” — the kind of narcissism, to my mind, that a TikToker might call “main character syndrome”.

This is the kind of narcissism that psychologists Jean Twenge and W Keith Campbell wrote about in their 2009 book The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement. They argued that the shift in focus to individualism since the 1970s led to an explosion of narcissism in the following decades. Using research, they showed that narcissistic personality traits among US college students had risen just as fast as levels of obesity since the 1980s, and were accelerating in the 2000s.

“Not only are there more narcissists than ever, but non-narcissistic people are seduced by the increasing emphasis on material wealth, physical appearance, celebrity worship and attention seeking,” they wrote.

Campbell and Twenge were writing before the first iPhone featuring a front-facing camera had made taking selfies and posting them ubiquitous, before the “like” button was in frequent use and before being an influencer had become a career choice. The modern internet seems designed to play to our own narcissistic tendencies. So, one might think, such traits would have gone through the roof in the past decade.

But the research suggests this isn’t the case. Twenge and Campbell published a more recent study that showed narcissistic traits among college students actually declined after the Great Recession of 2008-2009, back to levels seen in the 1980s and 1990s and did not rise again when the economy bounced back around 2012. And a 2017 study found that recent cohorts of students were no more narcissistic than previous generations.

Twenge tells me that, perhaps counter-intuitively, this might have something to do with the rise of social media and its tendency to “make people feel inadequate”. According to her, the common idea that narcissists are actually insecure is wrong. “Most people high in narcissistic personality traits really are confident,” she tells me. “They score high on measures of self-esteem and they even score high on measures of unconscious self-esteem, suggesting they are confident even underneath.”

The internet has given us all access to vast quantities of “mental health” resources that have turned us into amateur psychologists who can diagnose ourselves and others with any number of disorders.

This can be helpful in making sense of particular struggles we might be having, or showing us that we are not necessarily the problem. But sometimes we end up pathologising perfectly normal issues, and sometimes — dare I say it — we are the problem. I never seem to get offered any podcasts telling me how to be less narcissistic myself. Nor do I know anyone seeking professional help for their own narcissistic tendencies. 

It might be convenient to blame the breakdown of a relationship or a tricky work situation on the fact that the other person is toxic and mentally unsound. But putting everyone we have issues with in the “narcissist” box just means we don’t have to take responsibility for the part we’ve played. There’s something distinctly narcissistic about that. 

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