Hannah Betts: ‘Me, myself and I: Are we living in the age of narcissism?’

By | November 6, 2019

I was reminded of the moment some years ago when I reached the end of the money I could afford to spend on therapy. As we said our farewells, my psychologist handed me a page photocopied from the standard psychiatric manual. “We’re not supposed to do this,” she said shiftily, “but it should help. This is about Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) – aka, your mother. Any time you don’t understand what’s happening in your relationship, read this.” Last week’s findings might explain why I was an emotional cripple, while she strode on resplendent.

My mother is dead now, alas, whether or not this diagnosis in absentia was accurate. Moreover, 15 years on, society at large has caught up and it might now be rather difficult to define someone as having NPD rather than merely being normally narcissistic. For we live in an age in which red-hot self-love has become so routine as to barely raise an airbrushed eyebrow.

Ours is an era of selfies and influencers, shamelessness and oversharing, and of what Elizabeth Hurley would once have termed “civilians” disporting as if they are celebrities. Why, even self-effacing 19th-century recluse Emily Dickinson has been repackaged as an egomaniacal motivational ‘grammer complete with Insta-ready hair for Apple TV’s new streaming service.

Not only is technology a vehicle for pouting self-promotion, it is the means by which our every self-obsessed whim is identified, then satisfied. Within minutes, services such as Deliveroo can whisk our culinary cravings to our doorstep, Net-a-Porter some Instagram-worthy new outfit, while a host of apps are available to summon up sexual partners within cabbing distance, pre-vetted for the acts they are prepared to provide. Even our desire to learn about the past is mediated via genetic analysis services. Think: Me, Me, Me.

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If one wants a symbol of how narcissism became the new normal, one need only look at weddings. A recent survey put the average cost of a wedding at €25,000, given the happy couple’s pressing need for designer togs, caricaturist and croquembouche – plus those all-important dance lessons so their first nuptial number goes viral.

Weddings are no longer public expressions of private emotion, they are vainglorious spectacles replete with couple branding.

Dr Jean Twenge is an American academic and the author of Generation Me, The Narcissism Epidemic and iGen, working from a data set of 11 million members of “GenMe” (millennials and Generation Z). For Dr Twenge, narcissism is no less than our great societal “plague”. The causes identified are legion: helicopter parents raising “royal” snowflakes, the cult of celebrity, the spread of technology, easy credit – adding up to a contagion with catastrophic cultural effects.

Dr Terri Apter, a Cambridge psychologist and author of Passing Judgment: Praise and Blame in Everyday Life, cautions against stereotyping ourselves as the most narcissistic society of all time. “The idea that we are becoming ever more narcissistic predates millennials and Gen Z,” she tells me.

“In 1979, the cultural historian Christopher Lasch wrote a bestseller in which he argued that what would have been called clinical narcissism was now normalised and that the roots reached back to the 19th century, with the growing use of technologies that most people did not understand. To escape these threats to our value, people turned away from the reality of their personal limitations, and sought refuge in the narcissistic mindset: I can do everything, be everything, and take centre stage. Does this sound familiar?”

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It does. Still, narcissism has certainly been democratised, with Google reporting that its Android devices take some 93 million selfies a day. Such passionate self-admiration was once largely confined to a cultural elite who could fill their walls with self-portraits. Now we have gone from the sublime to the ridiculous with some Instagram influencer giving great hairband usurping Henry VIII giving great codpiece. Henry VIII changed the face of Britain and Europe. Ms Prada Headpiece’s ambitions are more social media followers and free gear. Still, perhaps his endeavours to shore up a young dynasty and her attempts to earn a living differ only in scale.

Regarding scale, the most widely used measure of narcissism as a personality trait is the Narcissistic Personality Inventory [NPI], developed by Raskin and Hall in 1979 – readers can assess their own levels at psychcentral.com.

I am (modestly) proud to say that, at 13 out of a possible 40, I emerge as banally average. That said, I do feel rather pleased with myself about scoring no points for vanity. As Dr Apter makes clear: “We all need some narcissism to get by. We need to feel admired and special, and we get that from parental love.”

Besides, more hardcore narcissism isn’t only enjoyable to the monster in question. Narcissus must have his Echo, the Kardashians their viewers.

Whether we watch in adoration or a state of rubber-necking horror, at least narcissists never fail to prove entertaining.

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