We are living in the age of narcissism – or so the media would like us to believe. People in The West seem to be focussed largely on themselves and the pursuit of happiness – the answer to which for increasing numbers of the populace is to be found in the soundbites of TikTok celebrities or from the wisdom of other social media ‘influencers’.
But are we collectively becoming increasingly narcissistic and what does this mean?
In my last blog I dispelled some of the myths around this condition and explained rather than it being a description for a set of behaviours, it is a personality style and in its more rigid manifestations, a debilitating one from a relational perspective. I shall therefore not be revisiting all that again and you can read my in-depth blog on what narcissism actually is here.
The argument that behaviour tells us anything much about a person’s personality structure – particularly when it comes to narcissism – is naïve and reductive.
Changes in behaviour online
We know that people behave differently in online interactions as compared to when they are face-to-face with another human being. It is the actual, as well as the perceived distance, from the other’s humanness that seems to give many licence to behave in selfish and thoughtless ways.
Whenever we cease to view the other as human and objectify them, we are not acting relationally as the very word ‘relational’ implies a willingness to understand another’s perspective and to be able to tolerate difference, even if we don’t much like their views.
Is modern man (and women) less able to tolerate differences than prior generations? I am not so sure. What I do know is that the internet, and specifically social media, provides platforms to both those who rather like the sound of their own voice (but arguably have little actual wisdom to impart) and it provides a huge scope for attracting an audience.
Where not so long ago an individual may have believed that they held the key to a successful life (whatever that means), they may have attracted a few lost souls in their tribe, village or town. Now, with expert ‘curation’ of their message and image, they can reach the whole world.
On narcissistic personalities
Behaving in a selfish or egocentric way does not mean that someone is a narcissist. Certainly narcissists can be grandiose, self-centred, entitled and enjoy the sound of their own voice, however we can all at times behave in this way.
Narcissism is a personality style, and we all have a mix of personality styles, generally with one or two that dominate a little more than others. If someone has a narcissistic personality then this particular style of personality is dominant and can be viewed on a continuum (of rigidity) from pathological through to personality disordered.
In psychoanalytic theory, clinicians view these personality styles as being primarily laid down by our early infant and childhood experiences (generally up to around the age of two).
Someone who has a narcissistic personality has not been related to as a separate individual but rather has learnt from a very early age to adapt their behaviour to the needs of their caregiver. In essence, they have internalised the message ‘do not exist’. As a result of learning that their role is to meet the needs of others (their primary carers), the child in question develops a ‘false self’ to compensate – they present a front to the world suggesting that they are perfectly fine.
Beneath this front is a vulnerable child who cannot show his or her feelings for fear of abandonment by the parent. For narcissistically structured people, others – relationships – are a major problem. They need others, however, they also profoundly fear being used or ‘taken over’ by others and so to defend themselves by objectifying those around them. Relationships are about doing or being done to, rather than love.
How might this apply to the collective?
My sense is that it is unlikely that there is now a sudden increase in parents who are failing their children and raising narcissistically structured personalities. However, as the old adage goes, ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ – no child is solely influenced by their parents.
The clinical research would suggest that we are not becoming more narcissistic in terms of personality style, however, what has exponentially changed are two major factors: we have lost collective meaning because the world is changing too fast for us to cultivate and uphold meaning, and secondly, technology is playing an all encompassing role in dehumanising us.
The role of meaning
Human beings are meaning making creatures and we live in a symbolic universe which is probably what renders us unique amongst animals. I have previously written a piece on the role of Culture and the need for belonging in enabling us to have healthy self esteem, which you can read here.
Essentially, as traditional values and means of making meaning either fall away or are dismantled, we are left with two problems: higher anxiety and less collective means of gaining self esteem.
This may then cause us to both behave in more individualistic and hedonistic ways to feel alive but without substance – we deny our vulnerability by becoming more narcissistic.
The role of technology
We are at the start of a technological revolution where only our imagination can predict what the world, and by extension, our relationship to it and others in it, will look like.
Technology is not intrinsically good nor bad – it depends on how we use it. And to date how we have used it is in a rather dehumanising fashion. Convenience has trumped connection and this can be seen in the proliferation of parasocial relationships (where we have relationships with influencers or YouTubers and believe they are real and personal, when they are in fact one-way), and the evolution of dating through online apps whereby we have commoditised ourselves.
On the symbiotic relationship between Echo and Narcissus
The origins of narcissism were taken, largely by Freud, from the 2,000 year old myth written by Ovid. This Greek myth – a myth being a story that reflects a collective truth – is entitled ‘When Echo meets Narcissus’ and whilst most people are to some degree familiar with the myth, it is often misconstrued: many believe that Narcissus fell in love with his reflection in a pool of water; And few even know of the role of Echo.
Narcissus is someone who is admired by all and who cannot tolerate intimacy. Echo, meanwhile, is a river nymph whose voice has been taken by Juno, the Goddess, for gossiping. Echo can therefore only repeat the last words she hears.
This is how the stage, and the symbiotic relationship, between Narcissus and Echo is set both on the myth and for all time: Narcissus needs Echo just as much as Echo needs Narcissus but neither can have a relationship with the other – they are in symbiosis.
Returning to the question of whether technology and specifically how online relationships are being shaped is rendering us more narcissistic, if it is it is, it also rendering us more like Echo – willing to sacrifice our voice to be in the shadow of those we admire; we believe that there is a relationship happening but there simply is not.
Narcissistic people need echoists; we are collectively responsible for admiring those who need to be admired rather than having something of substance to offer. Human beings are adaptable to our environment – it is why we have been able to colonise every corner of the globe. Equally, we absolutely need relationships, as we are shaped and formed not only in childhood by relationship, but throughout our lives.
My view is that as a result of a combination of both a loss of meaning and the ease of online interactions, we dehumanise both ourselves and others and thus become more narcissistic, or at least egocentric. However, unlike those with true narcissistic personalities, it is reversible and as a clinician I know only too well the power of change that comes from a therapeutic relationship.
Mark Vahrmeyer, UKCP Registered, BHP Co-founder is an integrative psychotherapist with a wide range of clinical experience from both the public and private sectors. He currently sees both individuals and couples, primarily for ongoing psychotherapy. Mark is available at the Lewes and Brighton & Hove Practices.
Further reading by Mark Vahrmeyer
What is a narcissist?