Living in the Age of Narcissism

All selfies are objectively narcissistic

The story of Narcissus from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (completed 8 AD) is about a boy who fell in love with his own reflection in a pond in a forest. He was so infatuated with the beauty he saw reflected in the pool, that he could never leave, always experiencing emptiness thanks to unrequited love. He ends up dying right there beside the water, never being able to break free. After he dies, a beautiful flower grows where he was sitting. The scientific name of the flower genus “Narcissus” (commonly known as daffodils) comes from this story. A brief excerpt from an English translation:

“Being consulted as to whether the child would live a long life, to a ripe old age, the seer with prophetic vision replied ‘If he does not discover himself’…
“While he desires to quench his thirst, a different thirst is created. While he drinks he is seized by the vision of his reflected form. He loves a bodiless dream. He thinks that a body, that is only a shadow. He is astonished by himself, and hangs there motionless, with a fixed expression, like a statue carved from Parian marble…
“Unknowingly he desires himself, and the one who praises is himself praised, and, while he courts, is courted, so that, equally, he inflames and burns. How often he gave his lips in vain to the deceptive pool, how often, trying to embrace the neck he could see, he plunged his arms into the water, but could not catch himself within them!
“What he has seen he does not understand, but what he sees he is on fire for, and the same error both seduces and deceives his eyes.”

Narcissus was in love with his own image and paid the ultimate price. Today, we live in the age of narcissism. Except no one is paying the ultimate price; instead, they’re being sheltered and encouraged to feed this loathsome trait. Modern psychology is defining narcissism incorrectly. Narcissism is not actually an “inflated sense of self-importance” nor is it “an all-pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behaviour), need for admiration or adulation.” These definitions are way, way too broad. Instead, it is directly related to the story of Narcissus falling in love with his reflection, his own face. Translated to contemporary times, this is a literal reference to people obsessed with “selfies” and vanity and their own face/body/physical look; not people obsessed with their own brand or success or grandiosity. These are two very different things, and I find it extremely disheartening and frustrating that today’s society encourages narcissism (take selfies! look good!), discourages honest expression (be civil! truth is dangerous!), and often confuses egomaniacs with narcissists.

This mass confusion can be tracked back to the American Psychiatric Association’s redefinition of the term in 1968, basing their updated definition around megalomania. However, megalomania is a completely different psychopathological condition related more to self-esteem and what’s going on with the ego and in the mind, while narcissism’s actual definition can be tracked back even further to the legendary Sigmund Freud — who wrote an entire book on narcissism (first published in Germany in 1914 titled simply On Narcissism). In the introduction, he defines narcissism more accurately as a focus on the physical body before delving further into a theory that it has a place in the regular course of human sexual development.

“The term narcissism is derived from clinical description and was chosen by Paul Näcke in 1899 to denote the attitude of a person who treats his own body in the same way in which the body of a sexual object is ordinarily treated — who looks at it, that is to say, strokes it and fondles it till he obtains complete satisfaction through these activities. Developed to this degree, narcissism has the significance of a perversion that has absorbed the whole of the subject’s sexual life, and it will consequently exhibit the characteristics which we expect to meet with in the study of all perversions.”

It wasn’t until 60 years later that narcissism was redefined incorrectly by the American Psychiatric Association, and nowadays it’s a term many are afraid of using to accurately refer to much of what is commonplace in society. In fact, Freud’s entire theory is that “narcissism in this sense would not be a perversion, but the libidinal complement to the egoism of the instinct of self-preservation, a measure of which may justifiably be attributed to every living creature.” So, essentially, he’s saying: we’re all narcissists. Because if we aren’t narcissistic, we won’t attract a mate and thus won’t ensure the survival of our family for at least another generation. Now we’re starting to get somewhere with this. But again, narcissism in all truth is more specific than egocentrism, it references an obsession with one’s physical beauty.

It makes some sense that narcissism has come to be confused with egomania or arrogance (or megalomania) nowadays because of the prevalence of the internet and social networks like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, as well as TV and cinema. With the explosion of technology over the last 100 years, there has been a massive shift towards building a presence online (known as your “personal brand”). This is not narcissism. There’s nothing wrong with portraits, or taking pictures of yourself or your family/friends somewhere, but there is something seriously troubling with people who are obsessed with selfies. This has actually been documented by modern psychological research (as recent as just a few months ago), but somehow few still seem to make the very obvious direct connection. Are they afraid of saying it? Most likely. It’s a part of our culture now, with billion-dollar industries built around narcissism, selfies, vanity and physical perfection. It would offend entire generations of people who have been taught that it’s fine to obsesses over their bodies and/or communicate by sending photos of your face back and forth. But maybe this is the conversation we really do need to have.

In a 2011 debate on narcissism, the article references a study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry showing that narcissism has increased steadily since the 1970s, with a number of psychiatric professionals attempting to explain just how bad narcissism has become:

“You can look at individual scores of narcissism, you can look at data on lifetime prevalence of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, you can look at related cultural trends, and they all point to one thing,” says W. Keith Campbell, PhD, head of the University of Georgia psychology department. “Narcissism is on the rise.”

What I’m afraid of is how much society continues to perpetuate narcissism en masse. Taking selfies has become a marketing scheme at the Academy Awards, it’s suggested on every phone we own (iPhones now have an automatic “Selfies” folder), at every event you attend. It’s worrying that this is happening, disgusting that it is being encouraged, and troubling that no one is admitting the truth. Perhaps it’s because, ever since I’ve been alive, vanity is an accepted aspect of culture. “Looking good” or being “sexy” is encouraged and perpetuated by stereotypes and societal standards and has become fully accepted as “healthy” to obsess over. It’s apparently now okay for people to spend their entire life worrying about if they look good. We’ve accepted this to such a degree that narcissism is also encouraged as nourishing by suggesting that selfies are a form of expression. This is a lie.

However, this is starting to get further into what Freud was considering — that narcissism is indeed connected to vanity and the idea of beauty through the libido. It’s not necessary to discuss this idea further here, because my concern is not whether it’s ultimately despicable to be narcissistic (that’s up to you/society to decide, especially if Freud was right in that we’re all a bit narcissistic for the sake of survival), it’s that we are not even acknowledging true narcissism in its everyday form. Perhaps because we’re afraid to admit that we are very much living in a society of narcissism.

Selfies are not a form of personal expression, they are a form of narcissistic expression. These people are totally obsessed with their own physical self. Many believe that their body or face is more important than the place/event they are at. People that have become so obsessed with their own reflection that they have nothing else to live for in life — except putting their reflection into as many places and situations as possible and sharing that to as many people as possible (which in truth leads nowhere as was the lesson learned by this Instagram model who finally broke down and became honest). The comparisons to the story in Metamorphoses are uncanny. Many may argue that they want to “look good” in order to attract a mate, or impress others, not themselves. Or perhaps they want to feel good about themselves. However, this is exactly the narcissism Freud refers to and is an extension of the culture of vanity that has grown substantially in the last century. Plastic surgery is another example of acceptable narcissism. Instead of appreciating whatever physical traits you were born with, wanting to look perfect in a mirror is possible, and easily exploitable for profit.

At some point strolling through pretty much any art museum around the world you will find classic “selfies” and vintage portraits. I’ve heard some claims that selfies are not narcissistic because artists for thousands of years have painted themselves. First things first, I would argue that all selfies (even those painted thousands of years ago) are narcissistic simply by objective definition of the word — a person fond of their own reflection. Second, the culture of narcissism prevalent today can’t be compared to these portraits of past. Up until the 1900s, photography was rather rare. Families might only have one or two photos taken (or portraits painted) throughout their entire lives. It was an early way of sharing what people looked like and was more meaningful in a time when electricity didn’t yet exist and it took days to to travel to visit friends or family on the other side of the country (or world). Today’s society is vastly different in every way — there are millions of photos uploaded to Instagram every day; your Facebook gallery is probably organized week by week, year by year, with shots of your smiling face everywhere.

Does anyone ever stop and ask themselves, what is all this for? What am I really expressing besides how selfish/attractive I am? Why can’t we just revel in the experiences we have, why are so many obsessed with taking of photos of themselves in those experiences? I’ve heard every excuse in the book — it’s to show others, it’s to remember the event, it’s to express our feelings at the time. But all of this can still be done without having to put your face in the photo. It’s possible to just enjoy the moment. I won’t condemn all selfies, but all selfies are objectively narcissistic, and it’s worrying if society really, truly thinks this is okay. Instead, we should be encouraging expression and creativity in legitimately healthy ways — if photographing something is important, learn how to take unique photos, and take shots that no one else has thought of yet, shots that do not involve being in the photo. Experiment with different cameras, different styles, not just different facial expressions.

The definition of narcissism in modern society that most people have been taught is actually closer to egocentrism or arrogance. Being obsessed with, for example, the number of likes a photo gets on Instagram is different than being obsessed with physical beauty and always looking perfect in every photo, even though they both have similar goals. Someone who may love architecture may be proud of the photos they are taking, and they may be happy that people are liking them, because their passion for architecture is being acknowledged. This is not narcissism. (It’s closer to egocentrism.) But someone who loves themselves and their own body, and is proud of the fact that their face is in every shot on Instagram, is a narcissist. Expressing a passion for the way you look is objectively narcissistic. Even if society forcefully attempts to define these terms differently, this is the cold hard truth that most don’t want to face. It’s a very hard pill to swallow.

It seems a rather troubling oversight to claim that narcissism refers to any individual that feels they are extraordinary or better than others, or takes advantage of other people, or feels entitled or special because of their abilities or knowledge. These are interesting psychopathological personality traits worthy of being analyzed, but narcissism doesn’t deserve this kind of excessively broad definition (if anything, psychologists should look for other terms to define these kind of mindsets — like megalomania). Narcissism in all truth is a specific reference to an obsession with one’s body, and thus should be used to define the various industries based around beauty and vanity, not just any person with delusions of grandeur/self-worth. This is exactly why there are still discussions in 2015 around “Why Narcissism Is Profoundly Misunderstood”. Why are we rejecting the very obvious connection between Freud’s theories and what we’re seeing today?

Another psychological term that often gets mixed up with narcissism is self-esteem — which is related more to confidence, and the art of being comfortable with who you are. But this extends beyond physical traits to our personality, speaking more to our relationship with our mind than our body. A person can be considered unattractive, yet still be confident, with great self-esteem, and not necessarily be narcissistic. If the term “narcissism” comes from a classic story about falling in love with your face in a reflection, then it’s clear that as a psychological term today it still references falling in love with your face in a reflection. It just so happens that Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, Vine and Snapchat are today’s reflecting pools.

This isn’t saying that taking family photos is bad, or that an occasional selfie once you complete a task (e.g. climb a mountain) is wrong. Instead, we should encourage very honest discussions about our obsession with physical, superficial perfection in society and culture. It shouldn’t be okay that we’re perpetuating narcissism as a form of expression. And there are many people out there who do not care about the way they look, they’re happy the way they are (I’m one of them) and do not feel the need to put themselves into photos all the time. So it cannot be said that we all like to “look good” or see ourselves, when in truth it seems to be society influencing and dictating this belief more than anything. The first step in making things better is to always acknowledge and admit truths. Let’s start here, and see where it takes us. Let’s start actually calling selfies what they objectively are — narcissistic.

Coming full circle, in all truth, there are actually people paying the ultimate price. As of September of 2015, at least 12 people had died in 2015 while in the act of taking selfies - more people than were killed in shark attacks. They are all Narcissus reborn. As sensational as that sounds, it has become such a concern the Russian government responded by launching a public health campaign about selfies – featuring the amusing set of pictographs seen below. This is indeed how bad it has become, proving how much the culture of narcissism has run rampant, and yet society still encourages it. We must change the conversation about selfies or it will get worse. And don’t even get me started on selfie sticks, appropriately known as “Wands of Narcissus.”

When I was younger, I was told: don’t worry about how you look, focus on your work, live honestly, care about others, and great beauty will find you. I naively believed in this for a long time, thinking that maybe they were right, society had advanced past the importance of physical beauty. But boy was I (and they) wrong. Tinder is direct proof of this. Tinder, one of the most popular dating apps of the moment, uses nothing but your face to initiate connections. That’s it. Sheer narcissism bottled as romance (Freud would’ve loved Tinder). It shows that we really are living in the age of narcissism, no matter what everyone claims, no matter what the media says, no matter what your therapist says. The truth always rears its head in time.

“Fool, why try to catch a fleeting image, in vain? What you search for is nowhere: turning away, what you love is lost! What you perceive is the shadow of reflected form: nothing of you is in it. It comes and stays with you, and leaves with you, if you can leave!”
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