It’s all about me

So­cial me­dia, re­al­ity TV, pol­i­tics... has nar­cis­sism be­come the new nor­mal? By Gaby Hinsliff

The Observer Magazine - - The Observer Magazine - Il­lus­tra­tion FRANCESCO CICCOLELLA

How nar­cis­sism could change the way so­ci­ety works

Once upon a time, Love Is­land con­tes­tant Adam Col­lard would sim­ply have been called a player. His knack for pit­ting young women against each other, which pro­vided much of the drama on this year’s se­ries of the dat­ing re­al­ity show, might well have been con­tro­ver­sial; he might con­ceiv­ably have been ac­cused of van­ity, for flash­ing his six-pack. But what was new and strik­ing this sum­mer was the fu­ri­ous de­bate among view­ers over whether he could fairly be called a nar­cis­sist. A cen­tury af­ter Freud wrote his es­say On Nar­cis­sism, iden­ti­fy­ing a form of self-ado­ra­tion prompted by view­ing one­self as an ob­ject of sex­ual de­sire, the term has fil­tered right down from psy­chol­ogy text­books into ca­sual ev­ery­day con­ver­sa­tion. Like “gaslight­ing” – which evolved from a ref­er­ence to a Hitch­cock film, to a form of emo­tional abuse iden­ti­fied by do­mes­tic vi­o­lence spe­cial­ists, to a word flung around with pretty wild aban­don – its mean­ing has stretched some­times to break­ing point along the way. But it clearly fills a con­tem­po­rary need.

“It’s a buzz­word,” says Mar­i­anne Vicelich, au­thor of the self-help book De­struc­tion: Free Your­self From the Nar­cis­sist. “Ev­ery time you have din­ner with a few girl­friends some­one uses the term – their boss is a nar­cis­sist, or their hus­band, or their ex, or their mother.”

The Face­book group Know­ing a Nar­cis­sist has built up a stag­ger­ing 400,000 likes, with fol­low­ers end­lessly post­ing about the strains of deal­ing with a self-ob­sessed par­ent or part­ner. In her au­to­bi­og­ra­phy My Thoughts Ex­actly, Lily Allen de­scribes her co­me­dian father Keith as “cold and nar­cis­sis­tic”, too wrapped up in his own he­do­nis­tic life to spend much time with her.

Vicelich, a pro­lific au­thor of self-help books, thinks that’s where young women are pick­ing up the term. “Women are be­com­ing a lot more ed­u­cated when it comes to re­la­tion­ships,” she says. But it might also have some­thing to do with psy­chol­o­gists openly spec­u­lat­ing that Don­ald Trump might have nar­cis­sis­tic per­son­al­ity dis­or­der, a clin­i­cal con­di­tion in­volv­ing grandiose be­hav­iour, fan­tasies about one’s own power and at­trac­tive­ness, crav­ing for ad­mi­ra­tion, and un­will­ing­ness to em­pathise with oth­ers (other pre­sumed suf­fer­ers in­clude Sad­dam Hus­sein).

The term is also in­creas­ingly be­ing used against young women, ac­cused of overindulging in all kinds of navel-gaz­ing, from the cult of “self-care” (tak­ing time out to cos­set your­self) to com­pul­sive post­ing of self­ies. Ac­cord­ing to the Amer­i­can psy­chol­o­gists Jean Twenge and Keith Camp­bell in their book The Nar­cis­sism Epi­demic: Liv­ing in the Age of En­ti­tle­ment , so­cial me­dia along with other fac­tors, from in­dul­gent par­ent­ing to a highly in­di­vid­u­al­is­tic cul­ture, risks cre­at­ing a gen­er­a­tion ex­ces­sively wrapped up in it­self. But is this re­ally a new phe­nom­e­non, or merely the lat­est ex­pres­sion of a phe­nom­e­non as old as hu­man na­ture?

The orig­i­nal myth of Nar­cis­sus, the beau­ti­ful young man whose pun­ish­ment from the gods was to fall so in love with his own re­flec­tion in a pool of wa­ter that he couldn’t bear to leave it, is on one level a warn­ing against van­ity; but it’s also a cau­tion­ary tale about iso­la­tion, be­cause the cru­elty of Nar­cis­sus’s pun­ish­ment is that it cuts him off com­pletely from other liv­ing hu­man be­ings.

In small doses, nar­cis­sism can be a good thing; or at least, bet­ter than a crip­pling lack of self-es­teem. Re­search at Queen’s Univer­sity Belfast sug­gests nar­cis­sists score bet­ter in ex­ams than other mea­sures of their in­tel­li­gence would sug­gest they should. In ca­reers re­quir­ing con­fi­dent judge­ment un­der pres­sure, such as fi­nance or pol­i­tics, a strong sense of self-be­lief could well be ad­van­ta­geous. But it be­comes counter-pro­duc­tive when not tem­pered by re­spect for the views of oth­ers, and it’s this in­abil­ity to feel com­pas­sion, em­pa­thy, or even much cu­rios­ity about oth­ers that dis­tin­guishes the truly nar­cis­sis­tic from the merely vain.

As Vicelich writes in her book, for nar­cis­sists “ev­ery­thing is about them and be­longs to them”. They don’t recog­nise per­sonal bound­aries, hog con­ver­sa­tions, crave con­stant val­i­da­tion and take crit­i­cism ex­tremely badly. “They ba­si­cally be­have like four-year-olds: it’s all about them,” she says. “They want your at­ten­tion, they need things right now – it’s all about in­stant grat­i­fi­ca­tion – and they re­ally have an un­de­vel­oped sense of self.” They can be charm­ing, flir­ta­tious com­pany. But they typ­i­cally see oth­ers largely as ex­ten­sions of them­selves and can be con­trol­ling, cruel or crit­i­cal of any­one they feel re­flects badly on them. Loved ones will­ing to feed their egos are known in self-help lex­i­con as their “sup­ply” – at­ten­tion is to nar­cis­sists as drugs are to ad­dicts – and that sup­ply needs con­stant re­plen­ish­ing. What’s changed in a decade is the ease of get­ting a fix. Face­book, In­sta­gram, YouTube and Twit­ter all sup­ply at­ten­tion-seek­ers with oo­dles of what they crave, in the sat­is­fy­ingly mea­sur­able form of likes and shares. With its heav­ily fil­tered im­ages of per­fect abs and per­fect lives, In­sta is most of­ten ac­cused of har­bour­ing nar­cis­sists, but it’s strik­ing how many Twit­ter trolls would also fit the def­i­ni­tion of a crav­ing to be no­ticed plus in­dif­fer­ence to pain caused. (Katie Hop­kins once ad­mit­ted that she’d

‘Nar­cis­sists ba­si­cally be­have like four-yearolds. It’s all about them’

con­sid­ered whether she might be a psy­chopath, nar­cis­sist or autis­tic but de­cided none of the la­bels fit­ted.)

In their book, Twenge and Camp­bell use ques­tion­naires filled out by gen­er­a­tions of col­lege stu­dents to show a marked rise in scores on the so-called Nar­cis­sis­tic Per­son­al­ity In­dex since the 1980s, es­pe­cially in women. It’s a con­tested area, with some ques­tion­ing whether nar­cis­sism is even a recog­nis­able con­di­tion given how loosely it’s de­fined, and mid­dle-aged com­plaints about the young be­ing self­ish are cer­tainly not new (back in the 1970s it was baby boomers who were be­ing dis­missed as “Gen­er­a­tion Me”).

But if each of us lies some­where on a spec­trum be­tween hum­ble self-ef­face­ment and mon­strous ego­tism, then we can be shifted slightly towards one end or an­other by changes in what’s con­sid­ered so­cially ac­cept­able be­hav­iour, says Ag­nieszka Golec de Zavala, se­nior lec­turer in psy­chol­ogy at Gold­smiths. “It’s pos­si­ble that we have a norm, a per­mis­sive norm towards nar­cis­sism now, and that’s why this trait is more vis­i­ble. That means so­ci­eties are more nar­cis­sis­tic be­cause peo­ple feel freer [to ex­press it].” So­cial me­dia or re­al­ity TV might, in other words, have sim­ply pro­vided new out­lets for some­thing that was al­ways there, le­git­imis­ing the idea that we’re all spe­cial enough to doc­u­ment our ev­ery wak­ing minute or that the world ur­gently needs our take on the fi­nal episode of The Body­guard . Yet for a sup­pos­edly self-ab­sorbed gen­er­a­tion, it’s strik­ing how am­biva­lent mil­len­ni­als are be­com­ing about so­cial me­dia.

Jamie Je­witt is a for­mer model who was one half of Love Is­land’s run­ner-up cou­ple last year, with his girl­friend Camilla Thur­low. He has more than 831,000 fol­low­ers on In­sta­gram and 128,000 on Twit­ter, and since leav­ing the show has filmed doc­u­men­taries for the BBC and recorded a TED talk. He has all the at­ten­tion any self-re­spect­ing ‹

‹ mil­len­nial could de­sire, yet is about to start giv­ing talks in schools about the per­ils of over­do­ing so­cial me­dia. If to­mor­row he was told that he could no longer use it, how would he feel? “For me, I know it would be a huge re­lief,” he ad­mits. “The an­noy­ing thing is that it’s nec­es­sary at the mo­ment. It’s a huge av­enue to get pub­lic­ity for the work that we are do­ing and it’s al­ways go­ing to be a very handy tool for that, but it’s a bit­ter­sweet thing. It’s a nec­es­sary evil, put it like that.”

Je­witt dates his dis­com­fort back to his mod­el­ling days, when he was ex­pected to up­load a steady flow of un­re­al­is­ti­cally flat­ter­ing pic­tures on In­sta­gram as a show­case for prospec­tive clients. “All of my model friends were do­ing what they were told, post­ing these im­ages, be­com­ing a bit self-ab­sorbed and go­ing down the rab­bit hole. I re­fused to do it and I ended up los­ing out on work, but I had such con­flict­ing feel­ings about it,” he says.

Af­ter Love Is­land, he was de­ter­mined not to go back into that world; in­stead he and Camilla vol­un­teered in a Greek refugee camp (she had been work­ing for a mine-clear­ing char­ity be­fore go­ing on the show), and made a doc­u­men­tary about it. “I didn’t want to come out and end up liv­ing a life that was just a ver­sion of what I’d done be­fore with mod­el­ling. It be­came such a fun­da­men­tal thing, to have In­sta and self-pro­mote, and it was a dis­hon­est way of liv­ing – you had to take pic­tures of your­self look­ing your best, just so the clients would see you as a vi­able tool to use to sell their prod­ucts. It’s not real and it’s not healthy.”

Although 28-year-old Je­witt might not be your av­er­age re­al­ity TV con­tes­tant, his reser­va­tions about so­cial me­dia are fairly typ­i­cal of his gen­er­a­tion. A third of Gen­er­a­tion Z have deleted ac­counts in the past year, with a fifth say­ing they wanted more pri­vacy and couldn’t cope with the pres­sure to get at­ten­tion, ac­cord­ing to re­search by Ori­gin, a Bos­ton-based mar­ket re­search com­pany. Pri­vate mes­sag­ing cir­cles like Snapchat and What­sApp are over­tak­ing pub­lic-fac­ing plat­forms like Face­book and Twit­ter among the young. But if the gen­er­a­tion raised on so­cial me­dia is in­creas­ingly wary of its im­pact on them, the gen­er­a­tion who dis­cov­ered it later in life is a dif­fer­ent mat­ter.

“Make Amer­ica great again.” “Take back con­trol.” “The peo­ple have had enough of ex­perts.” What’s strik­ing about the slo­gans adopted by Trump in the US and the Leave cam­paign in Bri­tain is that they flat­ter the move­ment’s sup­port­ers as much as its lead­ers. They im­ply that the peo­ple are in­vari­ably smarter than any­one dis­agree­ing with them, that they de­serve to be in charge, that their nat­u­ral great­ness is be­ing un­fairly sup­pressed.

And whether de­lib­er­ately or not, it’s a siren call to what’s known as col­lec­tive nar­cis­sism, or an ex­ag­ger­ated love not of one­self but of one’s group. Col­lec­tive nar­cis­sists aren’t per­son­ally grandiose – if any­thing they may feel in­di­vid­u­ally pow­er­less – but can be cult­like in their de­vo­tion to a na­tional, re­li­gious or ide­o­log­i­cal iden­tity with which they iden­tify.

“Col­lec­tive nar­cis­sists feel their group is threat­ened all the time, that oth­ers are af­ter it. They’re prone to con­spir­a­to­rial think­ing,” ex­plains Golec de Zavala, who spe­cialises in re­search­ing the phe­nom­e­non. “When­ever they feel their group sta­tus is threat­ened, if they had it in their power, they would aggress against those who threaten it. Things that other peo­ple would not even no­tice or imag­ine are in­sult­ing, they would be hos­tile towards.”

On so­cial me­dia, de Zavala says, they tend to come across as “zeal­ous” and per­se­vere with ar­gu­ments well af­ter oth­ers have given up. And while her re­search shows they’re dis­pro­por­tion­ately likely to have voted for Trump in the US or Brexit in the UK, “it could be that on the left there are col­lec­tive nar­cis­sists, too.” The cap is cer­tainly

‘If you at­tack them, you wound their frag­ile egos and that’s not good’

a good fit not just for Brex­i­teers hell­bent on crush­ing imag­ined sabo­teurs, or white men fu­ri­ously ob­ject­ing to Black His­tory Month on the grounds that it doesn’t seem to be about them, but also per­haps for the posters of memes com­par­ing Jeremy Cor­byn to a per­se­cuted Je­sus. More dis­turbingly, the col­lec­tive nar­cis­sist’s ex­treme in­tol­er­ance for dis­sent might help ex­plain why politi­cians in all par­ties now rou­tinely face death threats over ide­o­log­i­cal stances taken.

In small doses, col­lec­tive nar­cis­sism can fos­ter a healthy sense of pa­tri­o­tism or pride. But it can turn ugly when sup­port­ers are en­cour­aged to be­lieve that their own group’s in­nate spe­cial­ness isn’t be­ing prop­erly recog­nised and that ri­val groups are get­ting what’s right­fully theirs. What dif­fer­en­ti­ates them from other protest move­ments, says de Zavala, is that they don’t just want equal­ity but “spe­cial priv­i­lege”, or supremacy over ev­ery­one else.

“What I think is hap­pen­ing to us now world­wide is that this col­lec­tive nar­cis­sis­tic con­struc­tion of na­tional iden­tity be­came the norm,” she says. “It’s some­thing that was marginalised and now is be­com­ing main­stream and if you look at our re­search on col­lec­tive nar­cis­sism, that’s a bad sign.”

The con­cept orig­i­nates from the 1930s, when it was used to ex­plain why peo­ple who lost their per­sonal sense of self­worth in the de­pres­sion be­gan in­vest­ing heav­ily in group iden­ti­ties in­stead, and the par­al­lels with the 2008 crash are all too alarm­ing. De Zavala started re­search­ing col­lec­tive nar­cis­sism in part be­cause she won­dered if there was a way of curb­ing it early, bear­ing in mind where it ul­ti­mately led in the 1930s. One op­tion, she thinks, might be chan­nelling col­lec­tive nar­cis­sists’ en­er­gies into con­struc­tive ways of boost­ing their group, such as vol­un­tary work in their com­mu­ni­ties – essen­tially a twist on John F Kennedy’s “Ask not what your coun­try can do for you” ap­proach. But her re­search points towards tack­ling the fact that col­lec­tive nar­cis­sists are gen­er­ally dis­sat­is­fied with their lives. “If you make peo­ple ex­pe­ri­ence self-tran­scen­dent emo­tions – such as grat­i­tude or some­thing that di­min­ishes the im­por­tance of ego – we had ex­per­i­men­tal stud­ies which showed that, es­pe­cially among col­lec­tive nar­cis­sists, it re­duces prej­u­dice.” In other words, the abil­ity to fo­cus on some­thing big­ger than your­self might have more pro­found so­cial ef­fects than we re­alise.

Tam­ing the in­di­vid­ual nar­cis­sist in your life, or in­deed your Oval Of­fice, may be harder given their in­dif­fer­ence to oth­ers’ distress and their in­abil­ity to take crit­i­cism. “If you at­tack them, that’s wound­ing their frag­ile egos, so that’s no good – in a re­la­tion­ship you just have to work around them,” says Mar­i­anne Vicelich. It is hard not to be re­minded of how the White House in­sid­ers are de­scribed in Bob Wood­ward’s new book Fear: Trump in the White House, creep­ing around re­mov­ing pa­pers from Trump’s desk to stop him sign­ing them rather than con­fronting him di­rectly.

And if you can’t avoid deal­ing with a nar­cis­sis­tic par­ent or boss? Stand up for your­self, Vicelich says, re­mem­ber­ing that their bom­bas­tic ex­te­ri­ors are of­ten a de­fence against deep in­se­cu­rity. “They’re not happy peo­ple. Once you re­alise their egos are so frag­ile and that what they’re say­ing is no re­flec­tion on you, you can start set­ting bound­aries.”

The orig­i­nal Nar­cis­sus, it’s worth re­mem­ber­ing, even­tu­ally died of sor­row at his lonely predica­ment. Per­haps the most un­der­rated act of self-care in the mod­ern world is the abil­ity, just oc­ca­sion­ally, to get over your­self. ■

Mir­ror, mir­ror: we now seem to need to doc­u­ment our ev­ery wak­ing minute

Big baby: does Don­ald Trump have a nar­cis­sis­tic per­son­al­ity dis­or­der?

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