The Narcissism Myth
How many followers do you have on Instagram? How many likes did your last post get? How many selfies is too many? Do other people think I’m vain? Do I even care? It’s not exactly new to suggest we are experiencing an era of unprecedented self-admiration.
Words RUDI LEWIS
Endlessly self-promoting on social media, spouting our opinions to everyone and no one from our virtual soapboxes. Is it possible the carefully curated representations of our lives reflected back in the ‘black mirror’ of our smartphones are eroding our ability to relate to others? It’s probably one of the defining questions of our time: are we living through an epidemic of narcissism?
A quick web search will convince you we are indeed. Endless blogs, articles and forums confirm it, with handy lists such as ‘Is your boyfriend a narcissist?’ and ‘Millennials: the me, me, me generation’. There’s a wealth of advice and diagnoses out there, in what essayist Kristin Dombek has labelled ‘the narcisphere’, the online echo chamber for those seeking proof that the people they loved but who never loved them back, or cheated on them, are narcissists. You’ll soon discover traits you recognise from the ex-lover or the self-important boss, the celebrities and complete strangers you follow on Twitter, confirming your suspicion that they are actually all just pathologically self-obsessed. Indeed, depending on your political persuasions, you will discover both the current and previous US president can be handily diagnosed as such.
Diagnosis of narcissism is on the rise, we’re told, with many writers using as their basis the 2009 publication The Narcissism Epidemic, by Jean Twenge and W Keith Campbell, which claims millennials are the most self-absorbed generation in history. This conclusion is arrived at using data from various studies of US college students over decades. The subjects (many psychology students) took the Narcissistic Personality Inventory test, a 40-question quiz whose scientific rigour has been hotly disputed, as has the representativeness of the sample groups.
I like to think we have always looked for reflections of ourselves in art, literature and photography. It’s why we are drawn to the human portrait, whether written or visual, realistic or abstract. And why we follow social media looking for our mirror images.
Dig deeper and you’ll find plenty who contest this characterisation of narcissistic millennials. Some claim digital natives may actually care more about others than people of pre-internet generations, that following strangers on social media facilitates better understanding of different social groups. That, perhaps, the polarisation in society today is mostly the product of older generations who haven’t fully evolved the same ability. I must confess, I’d been inclined to agree with this idea of an explosion of narcissism, but the more I read, the less convinced I was.
No one examines this conundrum more brilliantly than Dombek in The Selfishness of Others, a razor-sharp appraisal of the controversies surrounding the subject. She urges us to examine the meaning of ‘narcissism’, and how it has evolved since the original myth of Narcissus. Arrogance, shamelessness, entitlement and grandiosity are just some of the recognised traits, but it is the overarching inability to empathise that Dombek homes in on. If narcissism is indeed an incurable lack of empathy, as the clinical diagnosis suggests, are we not, in condemning others for their self-regard, ourselves exhibiting a lack of empathy? Perhaps it is this culture of diagnosing other people that is at the root of the problem. In his essay “Empathy for the Devil”, the philosopher Adam Morton points out that when we are unable to understand the immoral actions of another, it is our belief in our own decency that most limits our ability to empathise.
So, if fear of narcissism is ultimately a failure to empathise, how do we become more empathetic? Dombek would have us return to the source, Ovid’s myth of Echo and Narcissus. Narcissus was born of the rape of the beautiful water-nymph Liriope by the river-god Cephissus. The boy is so beautiful he is desired by boys and girls alike, but never loves in return. Aged 15, he accompanies his mother to see a prophet, whom she implores to reveal whether her son will live a long life. He will, says the prophet, provided he does not come to ‘know himself’. But Narcissus is cursed by a lovesick boy whose advances he rejects. Nemesis, the god of revenge, hears this curse and answers it. Soon Narcissus, while hunting in the forest, is secretly observed by a girl nymph, Echo, who falls in love with his beautiful voice. She too has been cursed – she can never speak her own words, only repeat those of others. A playful call and response ensues until Echo decides to leap out and embrace Narcissus. The boy, shocked, recoils and flees. In his flight, he stumbles on a pool, still, unlit by the sun, a black mirrored surface, wherein he sees the most beautiful, mesmerising boy. It is, of course, his reflection that he spends hours gazing at.
Here is where the problem of interpretation begins. We understand Narcissus falls in love with himself, hence narcissism means self-love at the expense of all others. But Dombek’s interpretation is that Narcissus, in fact, mistakes his reflection for someone else. He does not know that the qualities he finds so captivating are his own, the “two stars that were his eyes,” the hair “divine as Bacchus’ hair’’. Overcome with perfect love for the beauty before him, he reaches towards the boy in the pool, and disturbs the water. The perfect image vanishes. He is distraught. His grief too terrible to bear, Narcissus withers away, becoming the beautiful but poisonous flower we’ve named after him. Poor Echo sees only Narcissus fall in love with himself. Broken-hearted, she disappears, eternally doomed to wander the mountains and forests repeating the words of
passers-by. It is Echo’s act of turning away that defines what we today call narcissism: the crushing realisation that we have no value to the other person, so we label them the narcissist.
Mirroring is the subconscious replication of another person’s gestures, speech or attitudes, and typically goes unnoticed by both the person doing it and the person being mirrored. It is particularly evident when we mimic those of ‘higher’ status. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Many neuroscientists
believe mirror neurons in the human brain help us understand the motivations of others by imagining ourselves performing the same action. It could be the very foundation of empathy, language or culture. We subconsciously seek clues about our identity in others’ actions.
Anaïs Nin famously said, “We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are.” I like to think we have always looked for reflections of ourselves in art, literature and photography. It’s why we are drawn to the human portrait, whether written or visual, realistic or abstract. And why we follow social media looking for our mirror images.
Perhaps, ultimately, we are all made of tiny observations of each other.