Narcissism has become prevalent in today’s society, specifically in western cultures. Switch on the news or glance at your phones and we are overloaded with the devastation these personality types are causing. Whether you agree or not, with the ethics of recent discussions among Psychologists where they claim Donald Trump has Narcissistic personality Disorder, no one can deny that his behaviour sways heavily towards a Narcissistic Personality. The general public has become more aware of these types and more efficient at identifying Narcissistic type behaviour.
Some specialists claim this awareness is the reason for the “misconception” that Narcissism is on the rise, that what is increasing is people’s awareness and perception of Narcissism. There are however conflicting specialist reports to support that it is in fact on the rise but a very controversial concept difficult to accurately represent with statistics. Most will agree that western societies obsession with materialistic things, gaining wealth and climbing to power has imposed the need to be highly competitive in every aspect of society. Creating a fertile environment for those with strong Narcissistic tendencies to thrive without fear of reprisal.
Before fully delving into the “guts” of the topic it is important to understand Narcissism and the variety of context. A basic dictionary definition defines Narcissism as “excessive interest in or admiration of oneself and one’s physical appearance”. This definition has its roots in ancient civilizations and myths. The Greek poet Homer writes about the seductive powers of the Narcissus Flower that tempted Persephone and plunged her to hell. Later Roman Poet Ovid writes an epic poem called the Metamorphoses, in his fable Narcissus a handsome boy indifferent to those close to him. He attracts the attention of many lovers but their hearts were broken by unrequited love due to Narcissus’s ego. Revenge was sort and Narcissus was cursed to fall in love with his reflection. In this fable Ovid touches on the psychology of a Narcissist, incapable of love and empathising with anyone that does not reflect and feed their own desire and needs.
It was the father of psychology Sigmund Freud who is responsible for the psychological knowledge of Narcissism. He introduced the concept of Healthy Narcissism as a stage of development, where a child is only aware of those around them as an extension of themselves. This leads to the Psychological definition found in the oxford dictionary “selfishness, involving a sense of entitlement, lack of empathy, and need for admiration, as characterizing a personality type”.
It is important to understand that Narcissism is a personality trait and is part of a personality spectrum. Which starts at “healthy” being the reference Freud makes to child development. Later psychologists such as Kali Trzesniewski explain that all 17 to 21 year olds are naturally more self-absorbed therefore exhibit an increase in Narcissistic personality traits. As we gain true independence from our parents and enter a developmental period of self-discovery we become more self-absorbed. Life experience, however, causes a humbling effect as we start to understand our place in the world.
Pathological Narcissism is at the other end of the personality spectrum, in the realms of personality disorders. This is when the Narcissistic personality trait becomes destructive to the individual and those around them. Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is a diagnosable personality disorder in Psychology, more widely used in the US and Europe. In these individuals, the capacity for sadness, guilt and mourning are lacking. Their base emotions are focused mainly on shame, envy and aggression. The NPD criteria psychologists use is as follows; grandiosity, superiority and persistent fantasies of power or success, desire to be admired, a strong sense of entitlement, Manipulation and exploitation, lack of empathy, envy, arrogance and contemptuous behaviour and attitudes.
There are two forms of Narcissism, Grandiose and Vulnerable Narcissism. Grandiose Narcissism is the kind most commonly heard of because they are the ones that pursue attention and power as politicians and powerful business people. The defining characteristics are extroversion, dominance and attention-seeking. Vulnerable Narcissists are often quiet, reserved and easily threatened.
The major controversial issues with Narcissism is first defining the difference between those with increased Narcissistic difficulties or tendencies and those with Pathological Narcissism. The next controversial issue is the difficulty to accurately represent Pathological Narcissism with a statistic. Researchers need to contend with the results from adolescence during their natural Narcissistic stage of development, people with varying degrees of Narcissistic traits and those with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Some US studies show a fast increase in NPD that is comparable to the incline rate of obesity. While others show that the percentage of people who are diagnosed with NPD is very low. Dr Tennyson Lee an NHS consultant specializing in NPD believes that the Narcissistic Personality Disorder is more common than we realise primarily because it is an under-diagnosed and overlooked condition in the medical profession. This could be directly linked to the diagnostic criteria, not including the more vulnerable aspects of pathological narcissism and the very nature of the personality disorder itself.
Patients who are diagnosed with NPD rarely come to care services because of the disorder, but rather symptoms of depression and/or suicide. Their initial reasons are that their life and their relationships are not at the standard they expect, their despair often leads to an original misdiagnosis or partial diagnosis of the problem. Their denial often causes little awareness that their difficulties may be caused by their problematic personality traits instead they project the cause of their problems on those around them. Often those with NPD that enter the care services are those presenting the vulnerable aspects of Pathological Narcissism and take on the persona of the victim. Treating those with NPD even after a therapist realises their client’s condition, is difficult, for the most part, due to the client’s unwillingness to accept the diagnosis and their defensive projection that may cause a therapist to become the victim as well. This is the small percentage that is recognised by the care services. It is impossible to calculate or represent the number of Pathological Narcissists that go undiagnosed because the very nature of the personality traits leads the individual to believe there is nothing wrong with themselves.
There is an abundance of articles, books and specialists on Narcissism and Narcissistic Personality disorder. Psychology Today has a never-ending supply of articles on the topic written by an as endless list of Psychologists and Specialists. In some cases, the word has been overused and misunderstood particularly among the public and social media. There are several areas of studies that specialists have pursued as reasons for the increase in Narcissism. These are Technology and Social Media, shifts in social values such as fame and wealth, the “self-esteem movement” and encouragement of “self-love”, excessive consumerism and the increase of capitalist societies promoting individualism rather than collectivism.
There has been a massive increase in awareness of Domestic Abuse, Child abuse & neglect. We are surrounded by campaigns for awareness by charities, NHS and the government. We hear in the news of multiple large scale investigations into various different large structures in society, from care homes, education, religion and sport. Not to mention the new laws and legislation over the past couple decades that are aimed at solely protecting children, policing children’s rights and monitoring families to ensure parents are not taking advantage of their role and responsibilities. This year the new Coercive and controlling law that came out targeting the most serious of emotional abuse specifically within relationships perhaps emphasises the need of this law and severity of abuse.
Based on one of Psychology Todays many articles on the subject of abuse and abusers we can begin to understand the base characteristics of the typical person that becomes the abuser. The personality profile of an abuser is someone who is insecure, needy with unrealistic expectations of the relationship, distrustful, very often jealous, verbally abusive, always needs to be right and in control, possessive, hypersensitive and reacts aggressively, cruel to animals and/or children, blames others for their behaviour and often has untreated mental health problems including suicidal behaviour. Based on this personality profile, we can see that the cluster of personality traits that define Narcissism is closely connected to the Personality profile of abusers, in fact, it is even closer to the personality traits of Vulnerable Narcissism.
According to news reports 1 in 14 adults were abused as a child, this is based in England & Wales alone. At least half of child abuse survivors experience domestic abuse as adults. Within the first few months of the 'Coercive control Domestic abuse' law being introduced in Scotland over 400 crimes of this nature were reported. Scottish women’s aid figures show that 1 in 4 women will experience domestic abuse and 2 women, a week are murdered.
Abuse is rife in society. Abusers clearly have very strong Narcissistic traits very close to pathological if not pathological. Consider that the definition of “Pathological Narcissism” is when the Narcissistic Personality becomes harmful to the person or those around them. In the case of abusers we can then safely assume their Narcissism has become Pathological. I am by no means suggesting that all persons with Narcissistic traits are or will be abusers, but that all abusers have severe Narcissistic traits or pathological Narcissism.
I believe that the increase in awareness of Narcissism is tied to and directly related to the increase in awareness of abuse, the increase of victims reporting abuse and the increase of media coverage. Victims are becoming empowered, they are educating themselves about the psychology of their abusive situation. They are speaking out, creating peer support online, telling their story through multiple outlets. The word “Narcissism” “Narcissistic abuse” are valid psychological terms allowing survivors to understand what has happened and why. The specialist struggle to put a figure on Narcissism, if we focus on the worst-case “Pathological Narcissism” then we can easily use the figures and statistics of abuse to understand that Narcissism is in fact on the rise in western society.
In Germany, Researchers and specialists found themselves in the unusually fortunate situation that their Socio-Cultural circumstances allowed for a natural study of whether Society and Sociological factors affected the rise of Narcissism in western culture. The division and reunification of Germany allowed researchers to investigate whether individuals exposed to the two different social systems differ in the two types of Narcissism and self-esteem. Since the country as a whole had the same language, common base norms and values yet the county was split by two opposing styles of governing allowed for a natural experiment without contamination of results where different cultures with different languages and social norms existed.
The researchers conclude that Narcissism is increasing in modern Western societies. They quote the reference of a “Narcissism Epidemic” that has been spoken about in, books, media and among specialists. The aim of their research was to find out if there was a difference between Narcissism in East Germany where the German Democratic Republic with a collective ideology existed and in West Germany where the Federal Public of Germany has a capitalist and individualistic culture.
Their hypothesis was that Grandiose Narcissism was more common in people from West Germany who were exposed to individualistic views. The result was that those aged 6-18 during the later end of the cultural divide had a higher score of Grandiose and Vulnerable Narcissism from West Germany where capitalistic individualism was the prevailing cultural influence.
From this, we can see that the shift in society, from commitments to the collective to the focus on the individual has had the adverse effect of this modern-day “Narcissism Epidemic”. Our ever-evolving understanding of human rights such as “freedom of speech” and the “Self-esteem Movement” has not only improved the individual's rights, validation and acknowledgement but has become a tool to be misused by those with personalities on the Narcissism spectrum. Innocent ideas like ‘self-esteem is the key to success’, raising children to feel special to boost their confidence rather than gaining confidence through achievement, encouraging individualism and valuing the individual have been taken advantage of and used as tools for those among us solely focused on their own personal gain even at the expense or destruction of those around us. Leading to the more sinister ideas in capitalism. The shift in social values to fame and wealth. Forcing competition among individuals, encouraging materialistic consumerism and focus on wealth and procession. Corporate companies gaining power such as the Fuel Industry, Fashion Industry and Technology industry.
The collective Narcissism that is growing among society has become staggering. Led by a few Narcissistic people who have successfully climbed to power in this new breeding ground for Narcissism. It would take seconds to browse the U.S. and U.K media to find examples of this collective Narcissism in campaign slogans like Donald Trumps “Make America Great again, or the Brexit campaign “Take back control”. Collective Narcissism was a term that was first used to explain ideology which gave way to Nazi rule in Germany. Modern research suggests that those who agreed with the statements on their “collective narcissism scale” were much more likely to have voted for Donald Trump in the U.S. or voted to leave the E.U in the U.K.
The conclusions that can be drawn based on this abundance of research, investigations and articles on Narcissism, is that there is an Epidemic. Narcissistic Personalities are increasing exponentially due to the freedoms and rights we now take for granted, which is quickly infringing on many peoples freedoms and rights. Modern society is a breeding ground for Narcissism, the competitive and economic nature of capitalism has allowed many of these individuals to climb the ladder of power. We find ourselves in a new age of darkness because Narcissism has reached powers with the ability to govern our lives. Our neighbours and extended family become intermingled with the controlling Narcissistic behaviours. Almost everyone knows someone that has been affected by the abuse produced by Narcissism. Fear to come forward is on the rise again despite the increase in awareness due to media coverage. Conspiracist’s fears and paranoia about corruption in places of power have never been more prevalent or more real. Hopelessness is rife.