Have our narcissistic tendencies gone too far?

We have to address societal narcissism before it destroys our personal relationships, writes Justin Thomas

There is a rising tide of societal narcissism all around us. Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Rome
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Combining medical credibility with pseudo celebrity, a cosmetic surgeon peddles his elixir of eternal youth. “As seen on TV” and “visiting from Paris” run the deal-sealing straplines. This is just one of the many symptoms of a rising tide of societal narcissism.

More weapon than vehicle, a supersized pickup truck hurtles along the motorway flashing its headlights. Its demands are simple and non-negotiable: right of way, immediately, and a disproportionate share of the road. Unnecessarily large, the only heavy load this vehicle will ever carry is the driver’s overinflated sense of entitlement and self-importance. Yet another symptom of a rising tide of societal narcissism.

Psychologists Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell have charted the rise of societal narcissism in the United States. In their book, The Narcissism Epidemic, they report data from 37,000 college students spanning several decades. The data demonstrates a clear rise in narcissistic personality traits, such as vanity, exploitativeness and exhibitionism. Our own data for Emirati college students, reported in the Journal of Personality and Mental Health, tells a similar story. This is a pandemic.

At one level it’s easy to see where this is all coming from. We are constantly being encouraged to “sell ourselves” and “fake it till we make it”. These socially endorsed platitudes have, for some, become mantras to live and die by. We have become the used-car salesmen of our own souls, determined to convince potential customers (employers, spouses, friends) that we are the “real deal”.

The old advertising slogan “image is everything” has been taken to heart, and now everyone from politicians to college girls seeks out the services of appearance-augmentation specialists, be they spin doctors or cosmetic surgeons. Photoshop was once a noun, now it’s a verb.

Some people blame the internet for the rise in societal narcissism (some people blame the internet for everything). I don’t think this is the case though. The internet is just a new medium for the expression of narcissistic tendencies, and it also provides what I call “ego-metrics”: the number of likes, followers and friends we attract.

The internet is simply a great facilitator of attention-grabbing exhibitionism, and attention is something the more narcissistic among us require in large supply. Even negative attention is fine, because this can just be rebranded as jealousy and those critical of us can simply be dismissed as “haters”. All publicity is good publicity, as they say. Something we should keep in mind while bemoaning the latest outrageous comment of publicity hungry politicians, especially those with funny hair.

Advertising, the internet and the excessive promotion of self-esteem in schools (we are all winners here), have all been indicted as driving forces in the rising tide of societal narcissism. But perhaps there are other forces at work too, darker unconscious forces.

There is an old idea within the psychoanalytic tradition of psychology, which goes something like this: narcissism, with all its apparent self-love and grandiosity, is really a defensive mask against deep-seated feelings of inferiority and worthlessness. The narcissist loathes rather than loves himself. Perhaps then our societal narcissism mirrors this idea on a larger collective scale. Maybe the rising levels of societal narcissism are a defensive mask against the idea that we have messed up, failed and even brought our own planet to the brink of environmental catastrophe.

Whatever the cause for the rise in societal narcissism, we need to address it before it slowly destroys our relationships with one another. In the tragic myth of Narcissus, from where we take the term narcissism, the self-obsessed youth dies broken-hearted and alone. Depression and divorce are currently enjoying an all-time high.

Dr Justin Thomas is an associate professor of psychology at Zayed University and author of Psychological Well-Being in the Gulf States

On Twitter: @DrJustinThomas