If you read the news-especially articles about social media-you know that the Internet is turning us all into narcissists. "New Generation Infected by Narcissism, Says Psychologist," screamed a headline in 2011, just one of thousands of "selfies will be the death of society" warnings to come. "Is Facebook Really a Playground for Narcissists?" blared another. As I write this, a story called "Netflix’s Chelsea Handler Docuseries Is a Narcissistic New Low" is populating my Twitter feed (let’s just pause briefly and consider whether this would ever be a criticism a male comedian would face). Even introverts aren’t out of the narcissism woods, because maybe they’re just undercover narcissists.
"True narcissists do not spend a lot of time wondering whether they are narcissists."
We now live in a world where everyone is wondering whether they spend too much time wondering about themselves. So, with that in mind, how exactly does one identify a narcissist? Has there really been a proliferation of them? Or are we just more aware of their presence, in the same way social media has made us more aware that behavior we used to think of as strange or unlikely is actually totally common?
And are you a narcissist?
Those of you questioning can breathe a sigh of relief, according to Dr. Jude Black, a licensed psychotherapist and director of relationships for the online therapy platform In Your Corner. "If you’re wondering if you’re a narcissist, you’re probably not," she says.
True narcissists, Black says, don’t spend a lot of time wondering whether they’re narcissists. They are likely too busy making sure other people are paying attention to them.
"The only way narcissists are going to feel good about themselves," she says, "is through external validation. In other words, where do you get your self-worth and confidence? Where do you draw your picture of yourself from? Do you have to have paparazzi around you?" Translate "paparazzi" to likes (or hearts, as the case may now be), and it might be an easier question to ask yourself.
Then again, does that mean that all selfies are bad? I personally think selfies are great. And, particularly for women, important. "It’s healthy to love yourself, it’s healthy to have self-worth, and it’s healthy to feel good about yourself," Black says.
It’s also important to remember there are degrees of narcissism. It’s not an either/or proposition. "Narcissism runs on a continuum," Black says. "You can just have some slight narcissistic traits, and you can be on the other side, where no one wants to be around you, and those that are around you are manipulated into being around you because you make them feel wanted."
Katherine Schafler, an NYC-based licensed psychotherapist and the in-house therapist at Google, agrees. "The truth is, we all have narcissistic tendencies. On some level we all want to feel special, be admired and feel important in some way," she says. "And social media definitely strokes our natural egoic needs. While social media is the ideal platform for narcissists, there’s a big difference between posting an eye-roll-worthy number of bathroom selfies and being a true narcissist."
In fact, Schafler notes, narcissism doesn’t even always involve vanity. "Narcissism is used interchangeably with being self-absorbed (and self-absorption is definitely a key feature), but just as prominent is also a complete lack of empathy for others," she says. "They are literally so fixated on themselves that considering others’ feelings doesn’t even cross their minds."
But if that’s the case, where does it all begin? According to Black, narcissism is deeply rooted in very low self-esteem and "insecurity, that for whatever reason, was never addressed." That seems to be the key, and others have hit on it as well. Social media is not creating narcissists-it’s simply "helping strengthen narcissistic traits," Black says.
Thanks to a generation of children raised to a nonstop chorus of "You’re a winner no matter what," narcissistic traits may have been present in some people long before they learned to angle and light their best selfie face or take you out on a date. (Let me tell you, if you live in NYC, you’ve gone on a date with a narcissist.)
Says Dr. Black: "The narcissism usually starts earlier. What I’ve seen is a trend in parenting, when you have parents that tell a kid how gifted they are, how amazing they are, and they don’t focus on the things the child is doing, anything they can personally take ownership over." Parents, take note: To raise a child with fewer narcissistic traits, perhaps you should focus on what your kid does and not the perfect gifted genius you think he is.
Just one more thing to be angry at Mom and Dad about. Except it turns out that, perhaps not unexpectedly, narcissists rather like the way they are. "If you’re a narcissist, you probably don’t want to change. You’re okay with yourself. Everyone else has a problem," Black says.
So how to spot a narcissist in the wild (or in your life)? Schafler says to look for pervasiveness of behavior. "Some people are really arrogant and entitled at work, but get home and are a little more down to earth. Not narcissists," she says. "Across the board and in every context, narcissists demonstrate patterns of grandiosity, the need for admiration, and a lack of empathy."
And if you’re still wondering whether you know one (or, worse, are dating one)? Just ask them. Says Dr. Black: "The number-one test to find out if someone is a narcissist? Ask them. They will tell you. I’ve never had someone who meets the criteria in my mind tell me they weren’t."