I Love Me, I Love Me Not: When Self-Love Becomes Narcissism

(3.5 min read)

It seems like there’s been a lot of talk about narcissism lately, what with Donald Trump in the running to become America’s next president, but concern about whether or not he’s fit to be president based on his mental health status isn’t the end of the story. This concern extends out towards the general American (and, largely, western) population, which, as Twenge & Foster (2010) have documented, seems to be growing more and more narcissistic over time.

Narcissism, in case you’re not familiar with it, is generally recognized as an extreme form of self-love, which stems from Greek mythology and the story of Narcissus, who is said to have seen his reflection in a pool of water and subsequently fell in love with his own image.

Of course, some degree of self-love is important to have, and is a critical ingredient when it comes to developing self-acceptance and self-efficacy (the belief that you’re capable of achieving what you set out to achieve). But, like many things in this world, too much of a good thing isn’t necessarily good at all.

How do you know when your self-love runs a little too deep?

There are generally two categories that we refer to when it comes to narcissism:

1) The character trait

2) Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD)

When it comes to narcissism being on the rise in the western world (did you know that 70% of college students score higher on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI) than students did 30 years ago?; Twenge & Foster, 2010), this refers to the character trait, or displaying certain characteristics that generally aren’t severe enough to interfere with daily functioning. In other words, this type of “mild” narcissism might be seen in someone who likes to show off, demands special attention, or exaggerates their accomplishments and abilities (Barlow, Durand & Stewart, 2006). You’ll tend to see a lot of this on social media, which is known to be a breeding ground for some narcissistic behaviors.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder, on the other hand, is a serious diagnosable mental illness that is characterized by more severe symptoms than those seen in your “everyday” narcissist. These individuals have a much harder time functioning in day-to-day life, and often end up isolated and depressed as a result of damaged interpersonal relationships (Barlow, Durand & Stewart, 2006). According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), NPD is characterized by serious self-esteem problems, with the individual turning towards others, rather than towards oneself, for self-definition and life direction. NPD sufferers develop superficial relationships for the sole purpose of feeding their ego, and lack empathy, meaning they fail to recognize that relationships are bidirectional, and that others have feelings and needs as well as themselves (APA, 2012).

When it comes to NPD, symptoms of grandiosity are also to the extreme compared to trait narcissism. For example, those with the personality disorder believe whole-heartedly that they are superior to others, demanding the best table at restaurants, airline upgrades, or illegal parking spots, as if they were some sort of celebrity. And, when it comes to their attention-seeking behaviors, those diagnosed with NPD will go to just about any length to get praise, even if it means putting themselves in harm’s way. They become extremely upset and defensive in the face of criticism, and subsequently get very down on themselves (APA, 2012).

My guess is that if you’re reading this article, you can relate to having feelings of self-importance, or feeling somewhat “better,” or knowing “more” than others in some areas of life – after all, people in the western world have a tendency to rate their cognitive performance as better than it actually is (also known as the overconfidence effect; Pallier et al., 2002) – but this doesn’t necessarily mean that you have Narcissistic Personality Disorder, or even a narcissistic trait problem. If you’d like to see how you stack up, you can take an online version of the Narcissistic Personality Inventory here.

What Can You Do to Keep Your Self-Love in Check?

As mentioned, chances are you don’t have NPD, even if your results on the online test were a bit high, but you may be one of many individuals with traits of narcissism that are a little higher than they were a generation or two ago. With this being said, here are a few suggestions that I have for keeping your self-love in check:

1|  Limit your time on social media. I would recommend this for achieving an overall sense of well-being and good mental health. In 2015, The Happiness Institute in Denmark conducted a study called The Facebook Experiment, which touches upon the problem of social comparisons in our online world (among other problems created by spending a lot of time online). With Facebook users 39% more likely to feel down compared to their friends, it’s no wonder that people try to overcompensate for, and exaggerate their own successes, which sets them up for participation in endless show-off wars. Limit your exposure to this, and you’ll feel more satisfied with yourself as you already are.

2|  Ask yourself: “what’s in it for others?”  Whether it’s bragging to acquaintances at a party, or posting videos online, ask yourself why you’re doing it. Is it because you genuinely want to share something positive or interesting with someone who cares, or is it because you’re trying to inflate your own ego? At the end of the day, what’s in it for whoever you’re sharing this information with?

3|  Remember that not a single human being on this planet is better than any other; rather, we are all different. We all have different backgrounds, have made different decisions, have strengths and weaknesses, and we all have talents and shortcomings, but this doesn’t mean that some of us are better than others. In the end, we all have the same needs, desires, and emotions that make us human. We need to give up the “winners/losers” mindset. As long as we are striving to be “better” than others, we will always find ourselves caught up in an endless battle that makes us feel worse about ourselves. Instead, if we focus on our experiences in the present moment and connect with our values, we will find ourselves much happier.

***


American Psychiatric Association (2012). DSM-IV and DSM-5 Criteria for the Personality Disorders. Obtained from http://www.psi.uba.ar/academica/carrerasdegrado/psicologia/sitios_catedras/practicas_profesionales/820_clinica_tr_personalidad_psicosis/material/dsm.pdf.

Barlow, D. H., Durand, V. M. & Stewart, S. H. (2006). Abnormal psychology: An integrative approach (1st Ed.).  Toronto, ON: Nelson.

The Happiness Research Institute (2015). The Facebook experiment: Does social media affect the quality of our lives? Retrieved from http://www.happinessresearchinstitute.com/publications/4579836749.

Pallier, G., Wilkinson, R., Danthiir, V., Kleitman, S., Knezevic, G., Stankov, L. & Roberts, R. D. (2002). “The Role of Individual Differences in the Accuracy of Confidence Judgments”. The Journal of General Psychology. 129 (3): 257–299.

Twenge, J. M., & Foster, J. D. (2010). Birth cohort increases in narcissistic personality traits among American college students, 1982-2009,” Social Psychological and Personality Science 1, 99-106. // Konrath, S. H., O’Brien, E. H., & Hsing, C. (2011). Changes in dispositional empathy in American college students over time: A meta-analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 15, 180-198.

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