If Narcissus were real, he'd be even more full of himself than usual right now — his disorder is plastered all over the media this week.
We've written about this before, but Raina Kelly's piece in Newsweek this weekend sealed it: we are in a narcissism epidemic article epidemic. Spurred partly by several new books on the subject, and partly by whatever cultural forces conspire to name the human-failing-of-the-month, journalists all over the country are obsessed with narcissism. Despite the fact that scientists disagree about whether narcissism is on the rise, the disorder is the new ADD, or, as Sadie says, the new sex addiction. It's the latest way for writers to wrap all the ills of our society into a neat little package, give it a psychological name, and then diagnose everybody with it.
Most narcissism-epidemic articles have a few features in common. They identify the causes — usually permissive parents, grade inflation, and participation trophies. Because apparently we'd like to go back to the days when all 100 kids in the fifth grade had to try out for choir, and then only three didn't get in, and those three kids not only had to sit out while everyone else sang "Dona Nobis Pacem," but also got little "does not participate" marks on their report cards . . . what? No, that never happened to me. Anyway, the next step is to talk about the symptoms of narcissism. These are quite wide-ranging, from simply being confident (student Sharise Tucker tells Newsweek, "at the end of the day I love me and I don't think that's wrong") to "failed marriages, abusive working environments and billion-dollar Ponzi schemes." Apparently it's a slippery slope — one day you just feel kinda good about yourself, the next you're Bernie Madoff. Usually, these articles end up with a prescription for curing narcissism — usually by reminding the narcissist that he or she is actually not special.
We're willing to believe that for some people (the APA estimates 1% of the population), narcissism is a real problem. What we're not willing to swallow is the idea that our culture is caught up in some sort of narcissism maelstrom, with excessive self-regard causing all the ills of our society, from self-absorbed teens to the economic crisis.
First of all, a little self-absorption is pretty much a hallmark of adolescence. It's certainly possible to spoil your kid, but do we really want to return to a time (if such a time even existed) when kids felt they weren't special, that they couldn't do whatever they set their minds to, that they wouldn't succeed in life? Narcissism-epidemic articles tend to argue that people don't work hard if they think they're great, but actually believing that you can accomplish a task may increase your commitment to it. And while excessive self-regard has its problems, low self-worth can lead to bullying, bad relationships, and even abuse. The Newsweek article focuses on kids who think highly of themselves, but there are plenty of kids who are belittled at home or in school, who grow up full of fear and self-doubt, and whose lives are hobbled by lack of confidence. You might not always be able to tell by talking to them — an inferiority complex can look a lot like narcissism — but plenty of kids might benefit from a little more self-love.
All that aside, to blame social problems on psychological problems is to let society off the hook. If we say the economy crashed because people were greedy or grandiose, then we don't have to improve regulations, create a better safety net, or reform lending practices. We just have to stop feeling so freaking special. Blanket-diagnosing people with a psychological illness not only trivializes the difficulties of people who actually have it — it shifts the burden of reform from the community onto the individual. We'd probably be better people if we practiced "humility, [...] mindfulness and putting others first," but these qualities on their own aren't going to get families back into their houses or provide unemployed people with health insurance. For that, we need a new public policy — and if anyone can come up with one that solves our devastating problems, that person would be pretty special.
Generation Me [Newsweek]
Is Narcissism On the Upswing In The Young? Studies Disagree [USA Today]
Earlier: Narcissistic Personality Disorder: Everyone's Doing It
Hard-hitting Times Piece Tackles Narcissism, Shopaholics, This Thing Called "Hotornot"
Allure's "New Narcissist" Not New, Maybe Not A Narcissist